In response to my open letter to ministers as a family violence survivor, one reader encouraged me to reflect on the experience of coming forward in the church.
I recently wrote a letter to ministers, entitled “Things I wish you understood: An open letter to ministers from a family violence survivor.” The response has been humbling. I’m glad it resonated with the experience of many, because it reminds me that I’m not alone, and that nor am I crazy because sometimes I have to fight with my emotions and body to get control again. Thank you to the sisters and brothers who have said “that’s me, too.” May God bless, comfort and heal you also.
I’m also more glad than I can say for the people who said it would help them to love their flock better. That’s what I was praying for. My experience won’t speak to everyone, and won’t be applicable to everyone, but if starts a conversation or raises awareness, then I thank God for that. If it means that I or someone else might have a better chance of hearing and understanding what the Bible says on some of those more difficult passages, so much the better. That was my heart—I want to hear and learn, and sometimes I can’t because of what I’ve been through. I’m not alone in that.
I’ve been encouraged privately to reflect and share on the experience of coming forward in the church. I am profoundly grateful for the godly men and women who walked through it with me. My experiences were generally positive but there were moments that weren’t so positive as well, and moments which might have gone much, much worse but for the grace of God. I am somewhat unusual, from what I can gather, in that I didn’t meet with anyone (outside of my then-husband) who treated me with harshness or ungraciousness. Even those who weren’t helpful still tried to treat me with love. My heart aches for those who have not been met with grace and love.
Here are some things that I’ve been reflecting on about my own experience:
- Listening to me, and believing me were the biggest gifts anyone could give me.
Those who listened and believed will have my everlasting gratitude and love. The first person I shared with was not a minister, but a friend who by the grace of God had walked this journey before. I didn’t realise that at the time because I didn’t actually know what was happening to me. I just knew my life was suddenly spinning out of control, and I was scared. She knew the value of listening and believing. She’d had experience. She knew what to do on every level: emotional, spiritual, practical. She validated what I told her—the first tentative forays into shattering the illusion I had been so carefully maintaining. I didn’t tell her the whole picture, just the part that was upsetting me the most at the time. She treated me with respect, grace and dignity. That lead me to go further, to bring deeper wounds forward to see if perhaps—breathtakingly—they might meet with tenderness too. She believed me, and she told me she believed me.
- It was an incredibly scary thing to bring the leadership of my church into the picture.
I knew them to be men of gentleness and compassion, but I had seen what I thought was gentleness and compassion turn into harshness and anger before. I was terrified of being dismissed. I was petrified of being told that I was in sin, that I needed to go back. I didn’t know what I would do if they did. The weight of that possibility made it difficult to breathe. I thought I was going to have a heart attack from the mere thought of having to choose between going back or defying the leadership of my church. The choice felt like one between my life and sanity, and my very salvation. My salvation was never actually on the line but, battered and broken as I was, that is what it felt like. It was agony.
- Common sense isn’t really enough in these situations.
The norms of relationships don’t apply. The nature of abuse makes all sorts of things impossible. I couldn’t do counselling with my then-husband. Any attempts to discuss the issues led to an escalation of abuse. When my pastor accidentally broke my confidence in discussion with my then-husband, I was placed in harm’s way, and again received a tirade of abuse that left me trembling and sobbing. Thankfully, my pastor learned from that and was very careful not to inadvertently break my confidence again. He was also willing to listen to the advice of those who had more training in abuse than he did. It is an area which requires knowledge and understanding, and I know that his willingness to listen and learn from his mistakes had positive outcomes for me.
- I needed professional help to recover.
I drew near to God, and dug deep into my Bible, but I am indebted to the Christian counsellor I worked with for many years, and still work with today. Romans 12:2 talks of not being conformed any longer to the world, but renewing our minds, so that we can work out what God’s will is. God used my counsellor mightily in that. So much in my thinking had been warped by abuse that I needed to re-evaluate everything I had ever learned or thought I knew about marriage, submission and headship. The process of sorting through what the Bible actually said and what had been twisted was long and arduous. The process still continues, and probably always will.
- I needed, and still need, clear and unambiguous teaching on these points.
In renewing my mind, I didn’t and don’t want secular views to form the basis of my understanding. I don’t want to abandon biblical teachings on headship, respect, submission or divorce. I want my views and understanding to be rooted in the Bible and nothing else. Marriage is God’s good plan, and His intention and design for it are what I want and need to understand. Abuse is not part of His plan, and it has warped my understanding. My last letter was a plea for ministers to understand that they can help immensely in this. I want to hear from preachers who’ve thought, prayed and read deeply about abuse and marriage, and can steer me past the rocks and the pitfalls that abuse created, and for which my often faulty prior understanding laid the groundwork. The best help I have in my recovery is understanding what God actually says about me, about the way I was treated and about marriage in general.
- It was the compassionate and faithful teaching of a pastor which God used to begin open my eyes to the truth of my situation.
I had no idea I was being abused, but I was hurting over what was happening in my marriage, and desperately wondering if the problem really was me. I wondered if I really was being called to submit to this, and what if anything, I could do to make things better. I wondered if this was normal. Over the years and months before I finally left my marriage, this pastor preached through various books of the Bible. Every single time something about marriage or the roles of men and women came up, he took the time to gently and compassionately point out what those passages didn’t mean, as well as what they did. His was the sole voice of hope I heard, and it was powerful because he was an authority figure. Abuse is isolating. I was afraid to discuss my marriage with anyone else and afraid to read or research on the subject. God used the voice of this pastor to remind me that the way I was being treated wasn’t His will, even though I was a long way from leaving or even understanding that it was abuse. His voice called me back to God, back to prayer and reading the Bible, rather than hardening me against God in my pain.
- The people who truly comforted me were okay with the mess and didn’t try to fix it.
My life was in tatters. My mental and physical health was breaking under the strain of what was happening, and the torrent of abuse that leaving unleashed. The people who truly gave me comfort loved me in the midst of that. They sat with me, they looked after me. They let me cry when I needed to, and listened to my doubts and fears and anger. They didn’t see my anxiety and depression as a spiritual failure on my part, but as the direct and natural result of my experience. They encouraged me to seek help. They prayed with me, for strength and courage and reliance on God in the midst of the mess. They never gave me platitudes, and their faith was not rocked by my suffering. When they offered the occasional Bible verse, it was because it was something they had lived, and had helped them. In the manner of 2 Corinthians 1:3—4, they comforted me with the comfort they had been given and continually drew my eyes to the God of all comfort.
- Some people were really uncomfortable with my suffering and wanted to offer quick fixes.
One woman listened sympathetically, and then told me that Romans 8:28 meant that God would put my marriage back together again. She couldn’t conceive that the “good” God was working for was to make me more like Christ, and that didn’t necessarily come with a fairy-tale ending. Another implied that I was giving way to negative thinking and outlined what I needed to do to win the battle of my mind. The hearts of both were in the right place, and I loved them for their intent, but it wasn’t at all helpful. I didn’t need to be offered false promises that were a distortion of God’s Word. I didn’t need to feel blamed for my mental health crumbling under the strain, and feel like it was being attributed to some lack of discipline or sin on my part. The reality was, I was walking with God more closely than I ever had before, and I believed that the “good” Romans 8:28 promised could only be defined my God, not dictated human desires. I was clinging to that verse, but trusting God for what it would look like.
- I equally distrusted those who were willing to rewrite the Bible so that I wouldn’t be hurt, and those who applied it rigidly and legalistically, without compassion.
It was a very long time before I asked my leadership team if I could seek divorce. They never pushed me about it one way or another, but gave me space to ask when and if I was ready. I watched, and listened to everything they said, and every sermon they preached. I’d seen the way that they took care to show compassion while still preaching the truth. I didn’t ask the question until I was certain that their desire for obedience to God was as strong as their compassion for His flock. I needed them to have both qualities in equal measure to feel safe asking. If they had told me I had to remain unmarried, I would have submitted to that, but I needed to know that they would understand what they were actually asking of me, and understood the pain it would cause. I needed to know they would be there if I had to live out that path. When I did ask, they gave me clear, reasoned answers from the Bible; answers that I will not detail here, as to do so would require more detail of my circumstances than is safe to give.
- The decision to walk away from my marriage was the most painful one I have ever made.
I had prayed so hard over the years, and done everything I could do to have the quiet and gentle spirit that 1 Peter 3 talks about. I had wrestled with God over injustices and hurts, begged for change and railed at Him over the circumstances. I was repeatedly brought lovingly to my knees in repentance as He chose to deal with MY heart within the marriage. At the point when it became untenable and I left physically, I had long since learned that in my particular case God was going to deal with MY sinfulness with me, regardless of what my spouse was doing. He was going to make me like Christ, and I would need to trust Him in the journey, because He loved me. He would deal with my spouse in His time, not mine. It was hard, and I struggled with it often. When the crisis point came, I was taken by surprise.
- God is incredibly faithful.
The more I reflect on my journey, the more I see His merciful provision to me, both in practical supports and emotional and spiritual ones. He drew close to me, and when I feared that I would lose absolutely everything I held dear, I learned that He is truly enough, and that His gift of salvation is the one thing that cannot be taken from me. Much in my life looks different than I had hoped, but the deep knowledge of His faithfulness and love is a gift beyond words.