Category Archives: Spiritual Growth

Will Abuse in the Church Overshadow Greear’s “Gospel Above All” Agenda?

I live my life in the trenches ministering to victims of domestic abuse. It’s no place for the faint of heart, and because tragic stories like the ones I see daily are played out below the surface, the rest of the world finds them easy to overlook. However, in recent weeks some of what I see regularly has become big news. A few weeks ago, we saw prominent Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader Paige Patterson lose his job over mishandling of abuse cases, and suddenly what has flourished in the darkness was dragged into the light. In response to the Patterson uproar and other scandals involving a significant number of evangelical churches, many in church leadership have made strong statements about abuse. J.D. Greear, recently elected president of the SBC, wrote a poignant apology to victims and abuse advocates. Greear is one of the youngest presidents ever elected and represents a new brand of Southern Baptists that seems more focused on the gospel of grace than the letter of the law.  Our ministry is located in the same area as Greear’s Summit Church and ladies in our support groups who attend there love it. They tell us they find a great amount of support and encouragement at Summit– which is definitely not the case for many of survivors we serve. For this and other reasons, I’m very pleased to see Greear take the lead at the SBC.

However, as a seasoned advocate I’m concerned that in spite of the apologies and promises of change we’ve heard, it will be business as usual once everything calms down. Obviously, one man cannot singlehandedly change an entire denomination, especially one that stresses congregational autonomy. Still, he does have influence. His proposed platform stresses “gospel above all,” which is undeniably a compelling focus. However, when I first heard it I couldn’t help but think how often the gospel has been tarnished by evangelical churches in their handling of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and couldn’t help but think that if nothing changes the gospel will continue to be maligned by the very people who claim its power. In other words, we can’t convey the power of the gospel until the people who are proclaiming it begin to “act justly and show mercy”  to victims of abuse (Mic. 6:8). We must begin to elevate lives above institutions in a way that shows the world we love well or our words are meaningless.

Statistics show that domestic violence is no less common in the church than in the population at large. That means that as many as one in three women in our churches are or have been victims of domestic abuse, and most of them have children who likely have been affected by the abuse in their homes. These statistics refer to physical abuse only, so when you add in the number who have been subject to threats, intimidation and other nonphysical forms of abuse the numbers are likely much higher. Without a doubt, we have a serious problem– one that is largely hidden and misunderstood. For the last few decades advocates have been raising their voices trying to help our churches see, but in general it has been denied or minimized. Even though more and more churches are taking measures to improve their response to abuse, far too many are not.

Years ago, I worked at a local domestic violence shelter. Within weeks I began to meet women who were confused by their churches’ response to the abuse. One lady asked me, “Why does my pastor care more about my marriage than my life?” My non-Christian counterparts simply shook their heads with a look that inferred that if was what Christianity looked like, they wanted nothing to do with it. Over the past 20 years I have worked with hundreds of Christian victims of abuse, and in so many of those cases they came out doubly harmed– first by their abusers and second by their churches.

Many victims faced church discipline for leaving their abusive spouses, many were told they could not file for divorce or legal separation while their spouses used their lack of action to their advantage and depleted their entire savings accounts. Many Christian wives were told to submit to abusive husbands as long as they weren’t asking them to sin, which only heightened their husbands’ sense of entitlement . Again and again I’ve watched counsel like this cause unbelieving friends and advocates to feel justified in their belief that Christianity is not for them. In addition, I have met scores of Christian abuse survivors who refuse to ever set foot in a church again because of the way the abuse was handled. Even worse, I have seen many children from abusive Christian homes reject the gospel altogether, because their fathers used scripture and authoritarian interpretations of male headship, to justify their oppressive ways. Many of these kids have told me that God seemed cruel and unjust, especially in cases where their churches’ advice appeared to sanction their fathers’ claims.

Do I think churches actually intend to harm victims and their children? Absolutely not. At least not in the vast majority of cases. However, I do believe that churches with more authoritarian positions on male headship in marriage provide fertile ground for abuse. I also believe that the complicated nature of domestic violence makes it very difficult for those unfamiliar with the dynamics to handle it. If there ever was a time to refer out to experts, suspicion of domestic abuse is it. Sadly many counselors and pastors miss it because the severity of the problem is never disclosed in counseling, or the abusive spouse is completely charming in public, while the victim is frazzled and anxious. The problem thrives in secrecy so much so that it can be hard to believe when a victim finally speaks up. Without an understanding of the dynamics of abuse these factors can make it very tricky for churches to determine the best course of action. That is one reason our ministry and others offer to come alongside those who want to help in these situations and help navigate. Domestic violence does not respond well to marital counseling, and there are many other factors, including the effects of trauma on victims and their children, that must be considered when attempting to help.

Until the SBC and other evangelical churches begin to understand the inherent difficulties of working with domestic abuse, their efforts to help families affected by it could very likely continue to do more harm than good. People will continue to “perish for a lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). The message to victims, their children, their friends and other helpers will be that God cares more about marriages than lives, and that will do nothing to draw them to the gospel of grace. My prayer is that God will open the eyes of His people, and that we will begin to show unbelievers the truth of the gospel of grace by loving one another well.

A final note

In recent months, Called to Peace Ministries has been working with several local SBC churches as they navigate cases of abuse in their congregations. We have been so encouraged to see them willing to learn how to help families in crisis. In fact, when these churches have gotten on board the outcome has been so much better than we normally see. They have actually been able to step in and protect victims from further harm. The world cannot provide what the church can! There is power in the community of faith. It’s been amazing to watch sacrificial love at work– love that is willing to be inconvenienced and reach out to hold an abuser accountable or to provide for the physical needs of a survivor. It is a beautiful thing to watch the Body of Christ fulfill its mission to care for God’s sheep. In the few cases we’ve seen, the power of the gospel has been crystal clear to unbelievers. In fact, one of the ladies whose church has risen to the occasion told me that one of her unchurched friends has been so impressed by her church’s support that she is coming to church for the first time ever. That, my friends, is “gospel above all” in action! My prayer is that more and more churches will follow suit so that the power of gospel will not be overshadowed by injustice in our midst.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

How Can I Ever Forgive Myself?

“How can I ever forgive myself?” It’s a question I’ve heard many times in my years of counseling. In fact, I get it! I know very well how it is to be plagued with guilt and remorse over a bad decision. When I finally broke free from a 23 year abusive relationship, I lived with regret on a daily basis. I couldn’t believe I had been stupid enough to believe the lies  that had kept me bound up for so long, and couldn’t believe how I had foolishly disregarded the harmful impact on my children. As much as I tried to tell myself that I did the best I could at the time, I was overwhelmed with remorse. The fact that I was still living with the consequences of my failures seemed to make it even harder to let myself off the hook.

As with the many other struggles I faced as a survivor of abuse, I went to scripture to find the answer to overcoming the guilt and shame I carried. First of all, I found nothing there that spoke to a need to forgive myself. The Bible urges us to forgive one another, and to receive God’s forgiveness, but never once does it tell us to forgive ourselves. Rather, it reminds us that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). It also lets us know that if we confess our sin He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us (1 John 1:9). My study of scripture led me to the conclusion that rather than focusing on myself, I needed to focus on His finished work on the cross. I needed to accept what He had done for me– anything less would be the equivalent of saying His work on the cross was not effective for my sin. It was also choosing to walk in condemnation even though He had set me free from it.

Although I finally realized I had no right to continue to condemn myself, I was still overwhelmed with sorrow about the consequences of my choices earlier in life. For many years after I left the abuse, I continued to watch my children struggle as a result of their tumultuous upbringing– and my failures as a parent. Over time, I finally learned to establish boundaries with them, but it seemed to be too little too late. In the long run, all I could do was surrender them to His loving hands. All my fear-motivated attempts to control them seemed to push them further away. One day as I was crying out to God about it, I sensed in my spirit that He was not done with them yet, and that He was even sovereign over my mistakes and failures. I realized that just as He was using my pain and suffering for His good purposes, He could do the same with my kids. It took many years to see things turn around, but as I surrendered them to His loving hands He worked in amazing ways.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with the weight of guilt from your past, there are two truths that will set you free –if you apply them. First, you must choose to believe God’s proclamation that you have been set free from condemnation by Jesus’ finished work on the cross. He took the penalty for all your failures, and took the shame on Himself. If you have received Him, you are free from sin, guilt and condemnation. Telling yourself otherwise is to believe the lie that His sacrifice was not good enough. Second, you must trust God’s sovereignty. This means that He will somehow use the pain and sorrow you experienced for His good purposes (Rom. 8:28). Believing He is sovereign is worthless if you do not believe He is good, so if you doubt His goodness you must start by remedying that problem. Scripture is filled with proclamations of His lovingkindness, and suffering does not diminish His character!

He specializes in turning ashes into beauty (Is. 61:3). As you choose to embrace Him in your pain you will experience the reality of this truth. Full surrender to our good God will never disappoint, but holding on shame and self-condemnation will keep you in bondage. Freedom is a choice, and you will find it as you shift your focus from yourself (and your mistakes) to His abundantly sufficient grace.

When God Shows Up

Many years ago, in a small church in Mexico, I interpreted a whole sermon from Spanish to English. That might not seem very remarkable to some of my readers, but to those who know me (and my very limited Spanish skills) it was nothing short of miraculous. We had just spent a week helping two small churches with their missions to the local community, but just before the end of our trip our interpreter had to leave early.  When we arrived at the church that Sunday, I looked at the two young men who had been interning with a local missionary, waiting for them to begin interpreting. However, they just looked at me and said they couldn’t. I tried to tell everyone that I was absolutely not able to interpret a sermon, but seeing that no one else was able or willing I agreed to give it a try.

As I opened my mouth, God showed up. Somehow I found myself understanding words I had never heard before, and in the few spots (at the beginning) where I got stuck the pastor’s gestures were enough to help me get it. By the end of the message I was getting nearly every word. To this day, I find it hard to believe that happened, but really I should’t have been surprised. If I’ve learned anything in the last few decades, it is that God does miraculous things when we step out in faith.

For years I knew he was calling me to begin a domestic violence ministry, and I sat back waiting for him to show me the details. I prayed and waited for him to provide the income, but nothing happened. Eventually the calling became so strong I began to pour all my effort into developing an alternative source of income so that I could do the ministry. But that didn’t work either, nor did any of my efforts to figure it out and make it happen in a way that seemed safe and secure.

One day as I was crying out to God, I clearly sensed his voice in my spirit telling me that his calling was not for me to make it happen, but to be obedient-– even when I couldn’t see how he was going to do it. I had been spending all my efforts trying to do it in a way that made practical sense, but he was calling me to the impossible. He was calling me out of my comfort zone into the miraculous. Often when God calls it makes no sense in the natural realm. Consider the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan. They arrived there when the river was at flood stage, but God told them to walk through the river.

“Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing.” Joshua 3:15-16

Isn’t it interesting that the flow of the river didn’t stop until the priests put their feet in the river? It seemed crazy by human standards, but that’s exactly how God works. He calls us out of our own understanding into his ways (Pr. 3:5-6).  We simply have to be obedient to walk towards his calling. Until we put action to our faith, nothing changes. That does not mean we try to force our idea of how his plan might look. Instead, it means trusting as we walk towards his calling. When we do He shows up mightily.

 

 

Grace for those who Blow It

I get so much encouragement from the story of King David—up till the very end of his life. The fact that God called him a man after his own heart is what I find most encouraging. David blew it again and again. In 1 Kings chapter 1 we find that his parenting left something to be desired, but God still delivered him out of every trouble. This is not to say there were not consequences for his mistakes, but it is to say that God is gracious beyond what we deserve. He even takes delight in his flawed children. David continually turned towards the Lord for help when he messed up. Check out these passages below. David’s son Adonijah had set himself up as king against David’s wishes. He had the backing of Joab the commander of the army, and the priest Zadok. In his weakened state, it may have seemed impossible for David to overcome those odds, but he called on the One who had delivered him from every trouble!

Now Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith, put himself forward and said, “I will be king.” So he got chariots and horses ready, with fifty men to run ahead of him. His father had never rebuked him by asking, “Why do you behave as you do?” …

The king then took an oath: “As surely as the LORD lives, who has delivered me out of every trouble, I will surely carry out this very day what I swore to you by the LORD, the God of Israel…” (1 Ki. 1:5-6, 29-30a)

From David’s life I get the feeling that the Lord would prefer an honest, repentant heart who messes up a lot than a proud, hypocritical and judgmental heart. David is my hero, because I can relate so much to him. He ran from an abuser for years, and learned to cling to God. Perhaps his personality was a lot like mine in that he didn’t like to confront anyone—we do tend to be the ones who are targeted by abusers. We are also the ones who might fail to rebuke our children like we should, or allow fear of what people might do control us occasionally.

Still, our troubles send us to our knees, and we know where our help comes from. If you’ve ever found yourself in a position of complete desperation with no place to turn (except to God) you can understand David. When every human resource fails us, we have an amazing opportunity to prove Him faithful. In his early years, David’s brothers scorned him, his father-in-law the king tried to kill him, and he lost his wife. Yet, in Psalms we get a beautiful picture of how these trials drove him to God. In Psalm 42 he  compared his desire for God to an unquenchable thirst. Once we drink deeply from the goodness of God, we can never doubt him again– not even when we blow it. Hallelujah!

Lord, we are so grateful for your amazing grace that could even call someone who messed up a lot a man after your own heart. We pray that regardless of our flaws and mistakes we will be people after your heart. We pray for grace and mercy to cover the mistakes we have made. Father, redeem it all, so at the end of our lives we can say you “delivered [us] from all [our] troubles.” We love you Lord. Amen. 

When Praying Makes Things… Worse?

Have you ever prayed fervently for a situation to change, only to find matters getting worse? I know I have. I have seen it many times in my years of working with victims of domestic violence. In these situations, things often escalate to unbearable in spite of ardent prayers and abundant effort. It sometimes seems as if God doesn’t see or care about our struggles. After all, if He was on our side, wouldn’t circumstances improve? However, if scripture is to be our guide, we need to look at how He worked with His people there to see if that expectation is valid.

This morning as I was reading in Exodus, I found the story of the Israelites’ plight after Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh to let the people go and worship. According this passage, God had heard the cries of the Israelites, and sent Moses to plead on their behalf. However, instead of helping the situation, it hurt! Pharaoh severely cut the supplies needed for their work. The situation seemed hopeless all around, and even Moses became discouraged.

The Israelite overseers realized they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, “May the LORD look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (Ex. 5:19-23-emphasis added.)

The story could’ve have ended right there, but Moses took his confusion and complaints to the Lord. Even more significant, he continued to obey God in spite of negative circumstances. Moses was full of doubt about his own abilities, and he was discouraged about the Israelites anger towards him, but he still continued to follow God’s path. We all know the outcome. God used his obedience to bring about a miraculous deliverance—just when things seemed impossible. In the end, terrible oppression made liberation seem even more incredible.

When I think of my own story of escaping abuse, I can see His hand in every painful experience. All I knew to do was cling to Him, because everything else had failed me— from the courts to the church. Even people who loved me and wanted to help had no clue how to do it. In the long run, the overwhelmingly impossible nature of the situation made me desperate for Him. I spent long hours in prayer and scripture, and even came up with a database of passages that were particularly helpful.[1] I made a decision to believe His promises, because nothing else was working. All I could do was hold on to Him for dear life, and He was faithful. Circumstances did not improve in the beginning. In fact, they became worse, but in the end my faith in Him became stronger than it had ever been and He delivered me. I often tell people that even though I would have never chosen to suffer like I did, I am grateful for it, because it drove me to Him. My relationship with Him became my anchor, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

If you think that circumstances are a measure of God’s care, or lack thereof, you are missing a beautiful opportunity to allow Him to redeem your story. God is not a magic genie who snaps His fingers and makes everything suddenly all right. He also will not force anyone to follow His ways, but He will use your pain for good. Please understand, I am not saying you should stay in a harmful situation. Scripture is filled with examples of God’s people fleeing danger. Instead, I am saying, cling to the One who loves you most, and you will not be disappointed. He will use your trials to grow you and your faith. I’ve worked with survivors of domestic abuse for over 20 years, and those who have held onto Him have simply amazed me. I have never met more amazing people than those who have proven Him faithful in the midst of great suffering.

If you think you don’t have what it takes to become an amazing example of His redemption, I encourage you to go to scripture. God specializes in using reluctant and under qualified people for His purposes. He not only wants to redeem your situation, but if you let Him, He will use you to help others who will face the same battles you’ve faced (2 Cor. 1:4). Take your doubts and struggles to Him, and determine to hold on to His promises. Just keep walking in His direction, and don’t let people or circumstances warp your view of Him. He will deliver you in due time, and in the process you will develop faith that is unshakeable.

[1] If you’d like a copy of this scriptural database, please email me at info@calledtopeace.org.

Lies Victims Believe

How Things Our Abusers Told Us Keep Us from Answering God’s Call

Working with people who have suffered domestic abuse can be the most rewarding and frustrating job in the world. It’s rewarding, because many of the survivors I work with develop a depth of faith that most Christians can’t even imagine. They face impossible situations and tremendous loss. Many lose nearly all their worldly possessions and face sudden financial ruin. They are often stalked and in imminent danger. Some even lose custody of their children, because their abusers are able to afford expensive attorneys, and they have no choice but to go to court without representation.

I could go on and on telling stories of injustice and intense suffering, but the point is that in extremely trying times, my dear friends learn to hold on to God in a way that is simply incredible. They probably don’t know it, but as I sit and listen to their stories in counseling sessions and support groups, I am in awe. I’m in awe of God’s faithfulness and their ability to rise above the pain, even when everything, and everyone on earth, has failed them. It is simply incredible to watch God turn ashes into beauty, and that’s what helps me maintain motivation to continue doing a work that can be exceptionally difficult.

I wish I could say that all the folks I work with “get it”—that they suddenly have an epiphany and learn to cling to God and prove Him faithful, but that’s simply not the case. Many let their pain become their identity, and they stay emotionally crippled for life. It’s so hard to watch these precious souls struggle. Sadly, they are alienated from the very One who can bring healing, because their image of Him has been warped by abusive people who portrayed Him as harsh and demanding rather than gracious and merciful. All we can do is show them His love, and pray that someday they will come to realize the truth. However, many remain victims and never move on.

Believing lies about God can keep folks in the victim mode, but there are other lies that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Even some of my friends with extraordinary faith in God never seem to get past believing destructive lies about themselves. So many times when I reach out to survivors to help with our ministry I see an all-too-familiar hesitation to help. It’s not that they don’t want to, or that they don’t have the heart for it. It’s because they don’t think they’re worthy. They seem to think they’re too broken, and they need to get their own lives together before they can possibly think of helping others.

There’s a familiar pain in their expressions that tells me they’re still believing the lies their abusers told them. “There’s no way you could ever do this.” “Do you really think anyone cares to hear anything you have to say?” “You’ll make a fool of yourself when they find out who you really are.” Almost every time I see it, I want to shake them and say, “Don’t you realize how incredible you are?! You’ve beaten all the odds, and come out shining like gold. You’re an amazing woman of faith! The world needs your voice.” But for these folks, it’s easier to believe truths about God than about themselves. Until they do they’re missing His best for their lives, and opportunities to bring Him glory.

Have you ever been told you have nothing to offer? Has someone made you doubt the incredible gifts God has given you? Is buried shame still controlling your decisions? If so, I implore you to reject the lies. Perhaps a flawed and insecure person has caused you to doubt your calling and your identity as His child, but the Perfect One is still calling. He still wants to use you, and He sees you as worthy (1 John 3:1, Eph. 2:4-7). He doesn’t want you to wait until you think you’ve got it all together, because if you do, you may never find His purpose for your life. He delights in using broken people for His purposes, but you have to choose to believe Him above the lies of a deceiver. The Truth will set you free, and when you receive it, you will be His instrument to help others find that same freedom.

Could God Ever Use Me?

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” Judges 6:13-15

I love that scripture is filled with weak and reluctant heroes of the faith. I love it, because I know how feeble and hesitant I am. People often tell me they think I am so strong for all I’ve endured, but without Him there’s no way I could even stand. He has been my strength when mine was depleted. Gideon’s story could have turned out much differently if he hadn’t expressed his doubts and weakness to God. He had seen God work miraculously when he consumed the meat and bread Gideon prepared with fire (Jdgs. 6:21), but that was not enough to overcome his doubts. Next he laid fleeces before the Lord to test him, although the second time he apologized for doing it.

Finally, Gideon became convinced that God would keep him promise to defeat the Midianites, but in an interesting turn of events, God turned the tables on Gideon and tested him. He reduced the number of troops to fight Midian from 32,000 to 300. The amazing thing is that this previously trembling man did not hesitate to obey God. God did give him another sign that he would bring victory, but somewhere in the process Gideon had changed.

Not many of us start out strong in faith. We all come to God with brokenness and doubts. Life experiences and hurts have shaped our thinking, and warped our faith. The biggest difference between those who become heroes for the kingdom, and those who continue to wallow in doubt is that the heroes come honestly before God and confess their doubts. Then, they choose to act on the little faith they do have. Gideon’s story would not have made it into scripture if he had failed to act.

In my years as a Christian, I have let fear and doubt paralyze me, and the result was catastrophic. Even after I broke free of years of abuse, anxiety continued to rule my heart until it almost destroyed me. One day in the midst of a crisis, it dawned on me that I was living by fear rather than faith, and I knew that was so wrong for a Believer. I made a decision that day to choose faith over fear, and since then when doubts come, I refuse to allow them to control my actions. Instead I act on His promises, and the outcome is usually amazing. He never ceases to amaze when I choose to act in faith (in spite of my doubts)! I don’t always get it right, but I’m learning and I know that the God who could use Gideon and 300 men, with cracked pots, to defeat and entire army can use even me. And he can use even YOU.

For the entire story of Gideon, see Judges 6-7.