Many Christians of my fundamentalist and evangelical background are wary of the concept of “religious experience,” at least partly because it has been abused in some circles. After all, “experience” without knowledge can open one to error and evil.
But if we as Jesus followers have only an intellectual knowledge of the Lord with no sense of His presence, then we face the danger of having a hollow faith. Our day-to-day Christianity can be devoid of the life He has promised (as in, for example, Ephesians 3:19-20).
In May I’ll be speaking at the Called to Peace Retreat about Immanuel Prayer Ministry, which is one way of helping people connect with Jesus on more than an intellectual level, to experience His love and healing. In many cases, to allow them to experience emotions that have long been locked up inside.
When I practice this type of spiritual coaching with a person who has suffered childhood sexual abuse and the surrounding trauma (being ignored and disbelieved, etc), we may find that there is a part of herself that feels still “stuck” in the trauma, who needs healing from Jesus.
I recently received an eloquent letter from a friend who experienced years of sadistic sexual abuse as a young child, at the hands of her pastor. She was not believed or helped, though she tried over and over to get help.
My friend has given me glad permission to publish part of this letter in hopes that it will be helpful to someone else. I believe it can, because it expresses the “you must pretend you’re not experiencing trauma” disconnectedness of her childhood up against the healing that our risen Lord Jesus wants to bring.
Here it is.
Knowing that Jesus has called to that part of myself who feels young, I have been journaling a lot about the lies I learned back when I was her age. Trying to remember who I was before all the trauma began. Why did Young Me completely give up and withdraw? I want to understand.
If Jesus can, as you say, speak talitha cumi to her, is there life worth healing left in there?
I learned things about our family system and what was most important to them. Are these the very things that still trip me up?
Can I put what my family most valued into a word or two?
STRENGTH. That is what Young Me learned was MOST IMPORTANT and probably what also made her believe, so young and small, she could never be what she needed to be. Better to quit and hide than to never be able to give what was most demanded.
She tried so very hard . . . but it seemed IMPOSSIBLE under her circumstances.
Be physically strong
Our family was the family of a well-educated and qualified emergency room trauma nurse. Her services were desired by the very best of the doctors who practiced in that hospital. She was esteemed and respected in that medical world.
We were to keep our bodies healthy and nourish them in ways we were told, like it or not. I sometimes fell asleep at the table as a young child, in power struggles and battles over food. I was given painful injections for normal childhood illness (like strep throat) because they were easier on her, when oral medication would have been the standard treatment for children. I was given a horrible green elixir that I now know was laced with phenobarbital, to silence me so she could sleep.
We were to be athletic. We had not one, but two parents who remained athletes even after family and children were established. Our parents participated in sports, and so would we. Much of my time was given to tennis, softball, track, competitive swimming, hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball, even learning how to fence as a young child, pre high school. Mediocre was “less than”; excellence was expected. In this way, I was able to keep up with expectations: thankfully I was athletically talented and enjoyed the pursuit of challenge, so I usually excelled on teams, began to have other adults (coaches) who seemed “good” to me, and I rarely disappointed in this way.
But this was the training ground for performance-based acceptance and the only way I seemed able to please.
Be emotionally strong
I would say that really what I saw modeled was emotional stoicism, not strength. Because any emotion that was expressed as tears was considered weakness and to be despised. I was reminded “Tears are just weakness leaving the body.” Emotional strength meant you had the capacity to suppress any negative emotion and replace the internal feeling with thoughts that would blanket them as “the joy of the Lord.”
I never saw my mother cry (although I think she must have, the way my father treated her and us at times) except for that day when I was 16, when I told her I wanted to die because of the burden the abuse was causing. Just as crying in our family was weakness, acknowledging painful feelings was also weak. She would do all in her power to not succumb. I learned by both words and example.
Be intellectually strong
My mom married a man who could not read, probably because of an undiagnosed learning disability. He was intelligent and covered it well. She was quite bright and learned quickly that in a world that valued the complete submission of women to men, her intellectual superiority gave her tremendous power in the relationship, probably the only power she had.
Academic achievement was absolutely a high priority for both of them. For my mom, to make sure her children left her home with some kind of power to help them survive in the cruel and wicked world. For my dad, because he realized he was at the mercy of others who discovered his lack.
Success at school was mandatory. Getting into trouble or not giving our best was punishable by the removal of any and every privilege. The years I started acting out in elementary school were rough times.
Be spiritually strong
We were known as a family of “faith.” Sadly it was faith in a system of power and authority, where others told us how to be and look close to God.
Both because I think I was hard-wired as an analytical thinker and because of the cognitive dissonance that abounded in my everyday experience with an abusive pastor who was an extremely important person in the life of my family, I questioned this “faith” often and was reprimanded for my questions. “Stop thinking of things you have no business thinking about.”
I was often told my questions and doubt displeased God and demonstrated a lack of true faith, a wayward, deceitful heart (I thought Jeremiah 17:9 must be my life verse). I was the tester, the black sheep, the one prone to rebellion, and the problem child that created so much chaos in my mother’s otherwise perfect-looking world.
So in a world where BEING “STRONG” WAS SO VALUED, I was weak. In those young days, I was small, sickly, lacking power, without voice. And those private interactions with the perpetrator pastor created the way I learned to complicate so many of my own thoughts.
One moment he taught me I was special, beautiful, even chosen by God and that this abuse was ordained by God and pleased Him.
Then the next interaction, I was somehow doing this to him and he could not help himself.
And the next encounter might be a message of being created as a vessel to hold dishonor, hatred, or rejection by a sovereign God who did with mankind only as He wished in order to bring Himself glory and pleasure.
The back and forth was so confusing, always leaving me trying to understand what about me created this spontaneous flip. How was it that I was chosen for this, both by him and by God?
His calculated fear tactics helped isolate, insulate, and ensure the safety of his abusive context. He was able to bring in the other perceived safe-in-my-life people to assist him . . . by reporting to my parents or siblings my resistance and refusal to obey him or show him respect.
How could Young Me ever have stayed “present,” to fight? How could she be “strong”?
I’m now starting to understand.
Young Me, I am so, so sorry. I can’t even tell you who you were supposed to be apart from the abuse, because I don’t know either.
But Jesus is your Creator. And even if I can’t remember or go back and think of what you were like before all the bad stuff came to us . . . Jesus knows. Will you listen to Him if He wants you to know?
Karl Lehman, a man who sometimes helps children experience the love of the real Jesus, told a story of praying with a very small child who needed to know that Jesus was not scary or mean. He tells how, when asked what Jesus’ face looked like, the young child said, “HIM LOOKS LIKE HIM LOVES ME.”
After hearing that, I have always thought of you, Little Me. I know after years of being in that dark place, seeing Him might be too much for you . . . but I hope someday soon, after you have heard His gentle voice, you can say, “HIM SOUNDS LIKE HIM LOVES ME.”
Until then, we will wait . . . with you.
 “Talitha cumi” is Aramaic for “Little girl, arise.” It is found in Jesus’ miracle of raising a child to life, in Mark 5:41.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.