I love it when friends of mine find their voices and speak. I love providing them with a safe space to speak about what God has done in their lives. This one is from my friend Ruth.
I’ve not ever been in what is considered formal therapy. Sadly the “biblical counsel” my church leaders and Bible college leaders gave me as a teen almost killed me.
“Never question authority”
I was raised in an environment where authority was absolute. Obedience without question was expected to be given to any “authority” in my life. I learned that they were chosen and ordained by God to communicate God’s plan and design for my life. If any authority figure pointed out anything other than unquestioned obedience on my part, I would be punished.
“Adults do not just sit around making up lies just to create trouble for children.” I heard that time after time.
Even asking questions was wrong, because that might lead to challenge or outright disobedience, and that would be a symptom of a rebellious heart. And of course rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft and must be avoided at all cost. (Rebecca’s blog post on that is here.)
Men were elevated, and women and children were expected to willingly and completely submit. The “umbrella of protective authority” insisted that children, especially female children, were to be under their father’s authority unless and until they married, at which time authority over her would be transferred directly to her new authority, her husband. (Rebecca exposes the problematic issues with this teaching in her blog post here.)
My cognitive dissonance
All these teachings, as you can perhaps imagine, produced traumatizing cognitive dissonance and a sense of “no recourse,” when for several years of my childhood I was sexually, physically, and of course emotionally and spiritually abused by the man who was our family’s pastor—and a good friend of my parents.
I entered my teen years obedient, high functioning, and compliant, a Scripture memorizer, a strong and successful student, an accomplished athlete, a good friend, and a committed and loving daughter. Perhaps this was an attempt to compensate for my trauma and to find the acceptance I so desperately needed.
But I could never find rest in any of those places, because inside I felt “never enough” and always too close to failure. By the age of 20 I had become exhausted from the pursuit of approval. I felt I would never be enough for the people in my life or for God.
Four years earlier when I was 16, I had finally disclosed to my mother the years of childhood abuse that I had endured from our family’s well-loved pastor. This had resulted in an extensive cover-up from our family, our church, and the denominational leaders, along with the predictable shaming and blaming.
Now, at 20 and in what my parents considered an “unapproved college,” I felt ostracized and isolated from both my family and my church, who would have been my only support people.
The compassionate counselor
In desperation, I sought wisdom from a university professor I respected. He was the first “authority” in my life to actually compassionately listen to me rather than simply point out my “sins” of bitterness and unforgiveness. He heard how many times I had asked–even begged–my family, our church, and even child protective service officials for help, but had been denied.
As a result, he agreed to meet with me, hoping at least to be able to help me stabilize my life. He wanted to get me to a counselor trained in PTSD but was graciously willing to help me work through some of my misunderstandings about God, suffering, and life.
God used him to impact my life in ways I do not yet have words to articulate.
So many selfless hours this counselor gave me–sometimes just sitting in quietness or praying with and for me, neither of us knowing where to go next. Over the course of two years, he encouraged me, provided many helpful suggestions, and gave much sound, godly advice that guided my decisions and helped me build an effective tool box of coping skills that eventually helped me in my marriage and the raising of our children.
But, the most often-used emotional strategy I took away from that time came as a result of a question he would regularly ask.
The question…. “SO WHAT?”
At so many crossroads in my life, FEAR had become an incredible obstacle for me. . . .
Fear of sin in my heart that would cause me to be a disappointment to God, my family or my church,
fear of rejection,
fear of rebellion,
fear of fear itself,
fear of authority and power,
fear of giving up on a pursuit of God,
fear that God would give up on me,
fear of the disapproval of those I was subject to.
It had all kept me in a place of bondage (and to be honest, sometimes still does).
This wise counselor (who had been trained in a different kind of grace-filled system) would sometimes suggest that I find some independence; seek emotional, spiritual, and physical safety for my healing; or step away from my parents for a time.
Then he would listen compassionately as I struggled against this advice, explaining to him that this was not an option in my family. My parents had already withdrawn financial support and communication to punish me for enrolling at this university they disapproved of. I couldn’t risk losing relationship altogether.
My counselor would patiently allow me to paint with words my mind’s worst-case scenario, explaining why I could not do what he suggested, or what it would cost me, and how afraid I was to lose my family and be alone.
Then when he was certain I had explained the worst possible outcome, he’d quietly ask, “So what?”
I remember the first few times I heard those words, I thought, “Aren’t you a counselor? Aren’t you supposed to be compassionate and gentle? Aren’t you supposed to be ‘for me’?”
What I came to understand, and what for almost 25 years has stuck with me, was his reminder after I let the “so what” soak in. What he was really asking was, “Even if your worst-case scenario plays all the way out to its worst conceivable outcome, is that where God—who has, by your own admission, faithfully carried you through all that you have already survived—will now stop and say, ‘Well that’s it. You crossed the line. You went too far. I give up on you’?”
The simple “so what” became an opportunity for my mind to run to the end, and it always resulted in pointing me back to God’s promised never-ending mercy and His promise to be with me no matter my circumstance.
“…for He Himself has said I will never leave you or forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5b
“The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23
God’s mercy and grace, both past and present, are evident in my life. My adviser reminded me often that so long as I was pursuing Jesus in truth, my fear of making a big mistake, taking a chance, or just stepping out in effort to make a scary change that others in my life might not approve of, need not be determined by the voices of fear. I might “feel afraid,” but nothing was really stopping me from moving forward even when I was afraid, and God would go with me. I could even make mistakes and survive, without fear of being crushed by God in anger.
Hope in the “so what?”
Perhaps someone reading this feels similarly stuck and needs a gentle “so what” to help make that first little step toward healing. I hope you can honestly speak your burdened heart to the Lord. Look for a safe person who will stand beside you while you take small, difficult steps and dare to trust the true and loving Jesus. Take a risk and share your fear, confusion, hurt, maybe even anger or disappointment, without fearing His punishment. His grace is greater than any place you have been or will go, and after you have envisioned your worst-case scenario, He will still be there waiting.
“So what?” Take a risk. Do as He leads. He will go with you too.
May you find hope in the reality that if Jesus is glad to be with you, even in what seem to be your most hopeless places, you’ll find that it will be enough to carry you through.