My friend messaged me to check on me. He knows that I came out of a severely abusive Christian family, but he had gotten a sense from something I had written on-line that I was discouraged. That was true; I was discouraged. The pain of my former abuse had intensified, and I was exhausted. I told him I was struggling with the sheer difficulty of searching for healing, of being told to simply trust that God will eventually heal me if I just keep walking toward God. I told him that it was deeply straining to keep dragging myself toward healing despite deep injuries. Star Wars fans remember the deeply burned Anakin dragging himself upward through agony. That was how I felt. I was discouraged and weary at the “Just keep serving Jesus and rejoicing in him. You will find healing in service and in joy” message of the church. I was still deeply bleeding, but somehow service and rejoicing would bind up my wounds.
My friend had messaged me to check on me. I had acknowledged I was discouraged. There were multiple ways my friend could have responded. He could have validated my emotions. He could have told me it was okay to rest in order to heal. He could have told me how amazed he was at my commitment to Christ and to healing. He could have told me how proud he was of how far I had already come. He could have offered help. Instead, he told me not to give up because “while I appreciate the difficulty, I am encouraging you not to lay down. If you really want healing, you have to get to the Healer. Or be somewhere He can get to you.” He did not know it, but a large part of the burden I was carrying was fear that the emotions I was feeling was keeping God away; after all, one of the fruits of the Spirit is joy. He is a missionary pastor, and his words were a threat of eternal death. I saw myself in that moment as a lamb trapped in brambles who had to find away to rip myself out of the thorns my abuser had pushed me into. The Shepherd in his story would not get to me. I must get to the Shepherd.
Fast forward two years later, I had decided to seek more counseling. The ministry I was part of had experienced four years of intense conflict. I had finally recognized that part of why my trauma pain was so high was that I was in an environment which was not safe, so my old injury was continually being bumped and reopened. I went to my ministry and told them I was going to seek trauma counseling, but I also requested that they address the conflict, because it would never be healthy for me to be in such heavy conflict for such an extended period. I was not the only person who had struggled with the depth of the conflict, but I was the member with CPTSD (complex-PTSD). Instead of helping me, the ministry told me I was imagining the problem. They ordered me to leave my trained trauma counselor and go to a “Biblical counselor” instead. I talked with multiple trauma counselors about the demand. Based on both the ministry’s words and actions and on an examination of the Biblical counselor’s website, all four told me it would be very damaging for me to go and added that it was an unethical situation, so I refused. In response the ministry became very abusive and eventually fired both my husband and myself.
Now, my friend wrote me again to check on me. He agreed that the ministry had treated me unfairly, but he had “to pray about” whether to speak to his good friend who was the head of the ministry. Over and over he messaged me counseling grace and understanding from me toward those who had harmed me. Another of our friends joined him, assuring me that the ministry does good work, so I needed to be quiet and move on and simply find inner peace while my outer world was far from peace. Let us look at it slightly differently. Consider that you have a car. Your neighbor keeps siphoning your gas, so you are constantly needing to refuel. What problem should you address? The lack of fuel or the stealing? Which problem you address has a very different cost. If you continue to simply refuel, you are going to pay a high cost. If you address the neighbor’s illegal theft, the cost will fall on your neighbor. Now, imagine yourself as a mentor of the owner of the car. Do you counsel the owner to just keep refueling, or do you counsel addressing the theft? My friends counseled refueling. The wounds the ministry had inflicted could be ignored. I needed to focus instead on refueling my joy and peace, but I had completely run out of funds to refuel anymore. I couldn’t buy or manufacture any more joy and peace, so they declared me unfaithful to God.
This led me to a crisis. I had been taught and my friends had reinforced the belief that it was worse to feel “negative” emotions than it was to abuse another person. Abuse could be forgiven. We can and should extend grace to the abuser. God can be and still is near the abuser. However, being discouraged, angry, bitter, etc. in response to abuse could not be forgiven because that means the abuse victim is unforgiving. We cannot and should not extend grace to the abuse victim who does not demonstrate forgiveness in the form of joy and peace and silence about the abuse, and because the victim is not “drawing near to God” by exhibiting “godly emotions,’ we must assure her that God cannot be near to her. We do not need to warn abusers of the danger to their eternal souls, but we do need to warn the victim of that threat. In other words, it is a greater sin to bleed when someone knifes you than it is to knife someone. That seemed to me to be incredibly unfair. Surely that could not be what God teaches!
That sent me on a search through Scripture. I focused on the lament passages for over a year. Slowly, I began to see that Scripture itself shows a different story. One day, I remember googling bitterness and the Bible. I found page after page warning of the dangers of bitterness and how God cannot be near the bitter, but I also found one page which had some of the same themes, but was not as harsh. It was a reflection on Naomi’s bitterness which included Naomi declaring, “Call me Mara [Bitter].” Naomi changed her very name to Bitter because life itself had been bitter to her. It was a responsive emotion that came out of deep pain that seemed to follow her everywhere she went, so she declared that the name Naomi, or Pleasant, no longer reflected her character. Yet in this moment of declaring that her very character was Bitter, Ruth made her famous declaration of faithfulness, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” As I meditated on this scene, I found myself questioning, “Would God be less faithful than Ruth?” The answer to that can be found within the story which followed. Instead of pulling away from Mara, God, in Ruth, refused to leave her side. Then he sent a kinsman-redeemer to set things right for both Mara and Ruth. And in the end Mara declared that she was no longer Mara but was again Naomi because of those who fought alongside her to make things right.
As I reflected on God’s faithfulness to Mara, I began to reflect on two other Biblical women. Mary and Miriam also come from the same Hebrew word. Both were born into a time of deep bitterness for the Israelites, and their parents acknowledged their own bitter-woundedness even as they named their daughters, Bitter. Again I faced the question, “Did God pull away from them?” No! In fact, the exact opposite happened. God sent a savior both times! He came and did the work to set things right for his people who were trapped in bitterly oppressive systems from which they could not escape on their own. Miriam’s people were trapped in slavery in Egypt. Mary’s people were actually being abused by the religious leaders of their own people. Instead of drawing away from those who are bitter and who acknowledge the depth of their own bitterness, God drew closer and said “Let me lead you out of your oppression under these systems.” He did not offer a mere heart joy in the midst of oppression! NO!
I also reflected on Hannah. Hannah was struggling with abuse by her co-wife and with the very real problem of having no child. There were actually socio-economic problems connected to her barrenness, yet her husband, Elkanah, did nothing to keep her safe from the abuse nor the probable socio-economic harm Hannah knew she would face in old age. Instead he tried to lavish her with temporary gifts to distract her from her sorrow, but this increased the abuse from her co-wife. When she continued to weep, Elkanah condemned her. His condemnation of Hannah reverberated with my own story, because the church has told me again and again just to focus on God’s gifts and to ignore the abuse, telling me that my continued weeping is sinful. But again, in Hannah, I found something different. She refused to stop crying! She went to the temple and wept and pled to God for help. There again she was condemned for her tears; this time by the priest, Eli. Yet when she stood up to the priest for herself and for her tears, someone finally heard her and helped her. Eli stopped blaming her and blessed her instead. Only after she was heard, helped, blessed was she able to lay aside her tears.
God declared in Jeremiah 6:14, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” The demand for abuse victims to have inner peace while their outer worlds are completely devoid of outer peace is both unrealistic and unBiblical. When the first Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, withheld from her the provision he owed her, she did not focus on inner peace. She tricked him into granting her the outer peace she needed, and Judah declared that this action proved that she was more righteous than he. Neither Jesus nor his apostles focused on mere heart change and inner peace. They ministered to the needs of the community for outer peace. All throughout the Old Testament and again in the New Testament, God focused on the very real problems his people faced, not just on them being at peace in the middle of the oppression. Even in Heaven, John’s Revelation tells us, John saw souls under the altar crying out for outer peace. In Rev. 6:10 he wrote, “They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” There is a place and a time for sorrow. There is a place and a time for lament. There is a place and a time for anger. There is a place and a time for bitterness. There is a place and a time for the impatient cry, “How long, Oh Lord!” The church needs to become a people who seek outer peace for the abused and oppressed, binding their wounds tightly, rather than a people who bind their wounds lightly by demanding, “Inner peace, inner peace, when there is no outer peace.”