Finding God in the Mess

Dan Hitz has been the Executive Director of Reconciliation Ministries since 2003, and is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Michigan. More articles are available in the archives section of the Reconciliation Ministries website at http://www.recmin.org/newsletter-archives/.

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I don’t know who created the meme on the left that made its way around Facebook a while ago, but I wish I knew. I would like to thank them for speaking truth. Truth that sets us free from false condemnation because we simply “can’t do it anymore”, and we were told somewhere along the line that “God will not give us more than we can handle.” There was even a Christian hit song some months back about that concept. Yes, I was one of those people who cringed every time I heard the singer tell me to remember what God said about not giving us more than we can handle. And yes… I am also one of those people who has at various times in my life, experienced more than I could handle. And also…, yes… I have to admit that there were times when I despaired of life itself. I’m going to guess that you’ve also experienced those times when you were overwhelmed and you just couldn’t do “it” anymore. Maybe you’ve even despaired of life itself. Turns out, we’re in good company. Even the Apostle Paul, who wrote those verses in 2 Corinthians about being in “great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure” was a member of this not so exclusive club. Like us, Paul also experienced more than he could endure.

But there’s actually good news in realizing that we weren’t meant to just suck it up and deal with it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 reads, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” If we misapply that verse to mean that we don’t ever experience anything in life that we can’t emotionally deal with, then we’re setting ourselves up for discouragement. To be fair, the Greek word for tempted and temptation can also mean trials and testing, but the entire context of 1 Corinthians 10 is sinful temptations – not trials and hardships that have nothing to do with temptations. So while it is true that God won’t let us be tempted to sin beyond our ability to withstand, God does sometimes allow us to pass through trials that we absolutely cannot make it through on our own. The good news is that 2 Corinthians 1:9 gives us the answer for the times of great darkness in our lives. It is during those times that we must learn that we cannot “rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” It is during those times that we must recognize our utter helplessness and fall on the mercy of Jesus Christ to bring us through the valley. Jesus is the only way we can endure some of the worse pain and suffering that life brings our way.

I’m no stranger to seasons of life that I don’t have the natural capacity to endure. I’m guessing you aren’t either. Years ago my wife and I experienced the loss of many dear friends and the hope of our ministry calling after we left a spiritually abusive church we had been a part of for more than 15 years. We’ve experienced the overwhelming despair of a parent with a prodigal son and daughter. Those seasons were definitely more than we could endure, but nothing prepared us for the overwhelming pain and sorrow we experienced from the death of our 17-year old son. I have to admit… During those seasons. Like the Apostle Paul. I despaired of life itself. Don’t worry. Neither my wife nor I are suicidal. However, I can speak for myself and say that I wouldn’t have minded if Jesus would have come back right then and there. As I heard one preacher say, “Sometimes it is easier to die for Christ than to live for Him.” He was right. [Incidentally, if you are feeling suicidal, or harmful to yourself or others, please get some help. Life is very worth living. It does get better. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 800.273.TALK. Help is available]

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The good news is that I’m still here, and I’m in a pretty decent season of my life right now. I can truly attest that coming to the end of our human ability to endure and falling upon the mercy of God does provide all that we need to pass through the times of overwhelming darkness in our lives. It also equips us with more faith and power on the other side of the trial. If we can keep our hearts open to the Lord during the times of darkness, we’ll learn some pretty phenomenal things about God’s character and His love for us. We can’t learn these things any other way. We learn more about the Father’s incredible heart of love for us, in that He was willing to sacrifice His own Son to save us from our sin and despair. We learn of Jesus’ unconditional love for us and that He willingly suffered far more than we can ever realize to redeem us and carry us through our pain. We’ll also learn of the incredible power and strength of the Holy Spirit as we allow Him to flow through us and carry us in the darkness. These are some of the “treasures of darkness” that the prophet Isaiah talks about in Isaiah 45:3. The New International Version reads, “I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.” Many other versions, including Young’s Literal Translation show us that this verse is even more precious to those of us who are passing – or have passed – through the darkness. Young’s reads, “And have given to thee treasures of darkness, Even treasures of secret places, So that thou knowest that I, Jehovah, Who am calling on thy name -- [am] the God of Israel.” God promises us that if we stick with Him during the dark times… If we keep our hearts open to Him… If we admit that we just can’t do “this” anymore and ask Him to carry us… He will be faithful to carry us through the horrible times. He will be faithful to equip us to endure and keep going for another day… for a better season… We will learn more about God and about ourselves than we could ever imagine. And we will gain spiritual treasures that will shine brightly in our souls long after we’ve passed through the valley.

If you’re in a dark place right now, you’re probably thinking, “Dan, I don’t even know where to start.” I get it. Neither did I when I was in the darkness. I was in a very bad place when I walked into my first Sunday sermon at my home church about 18 years ago. For some reason the pastor had a long rope tied to a chandelier on the top end, and a knot tied on the bottom. He preached out of the book of Nehemiah, the man who was in charge of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Walls that were in heaps after Jerusalem was destroyed. About all I remember from that sermon is the pastor walking over to the knot at the end of the rope and saying something like, “When your life is in a big pile of rubble. Like the walls of Jerusalem. Dig through the rubble. Find the one thing that you still believe about Jesus. Hold onto that with all your might. Then cry out to Jesus for mercy.” Those words broke through the hopelessness in my heart and I sobbed. Loudly. Right in the middle of the sanctuary. Everyone heard me. It didn’t matter that everyone heard me. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the strength to endure. It didn’t matter that I felt hopeless. What did matter was that Jesus was at the end of that rope. I knew that Jesus would carry me through this darkness when I was in way over my head. He did. Jesus met me when I was at the end of my rope and He carried me through the darkness. He will carry you too.

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I have to be real and acknowledge that the darkness didn’t immediately disappear. That season lasted for a few years. But I also have to be honest and acknowledge that Jesus was faithful to carry me through the darkness when I had no clue how to go on. During that time I received many great “treasures of darkness”, riches of God’s presence and character, that still influence my walk to this day. God is faithful. He may allow you to go through more than you can endure. But God will carry you through the worst trials of your life if you cry out to Him for help. And if you don’t have the strength to cry out to Him aloud, He responds to the silent cries of our hearts too. God loves you. God will never leave you or forsake you. He really will carry you.

If you are in the middle of a dark valley right now, reach out to the pastoral care department of your church for help. Reconciliation Ministries is also here for you. Call us at 586.739.5114. We care.

Meme retrieved from www.facebook.com.
Photos of male and female courtesy of www.unsplash.com.
© 2018 Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc.  This article may be reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged and credit is given.

Considering Your Life on the Mat? - Dan Hitz

Dan has been the Executive Director of Reconciliation Ministries since 2003, and is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Michigan. You can read testimonies and helpful articles on recovery on the archives section of the Reconciliation Ministries website by clicking here.

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I knew that growing up with a sexually abusive, paranoid schizophrenic mother would leave me with a lot of deep emotional wounds, but little did I know until years after giving my heart back to Jesus Christ as a 22-year old man how deep those wounds actually were. During the abuse, and my mom’s progressively deeper plunges into mental illness, I became an expert at turning off my emotions. Emotions hurt. Who wants to feel pain?

My excuse for not letting myself deal with the pain after I became a Christian was that I was a new creation in Christ, and the old stuff had supposedly passed away (2 Corinthians 5:17). I used that verse to convince myself that I didn’t have to deal with the issues of the past anymore. The problem is that I was taking that Scripture totally out of context. It wasn’t addressing emotional brokenness. It was addressing the beautiful gift of justification that we are given when we accept Jesus as our Savior. Instantly, we are declared to have His righteousness. That part is a done deal through divine decree. Another one of my “favorite” Scriptures to throw back at the Lord when He was convicting me to deal with my emotional pain was Philippians 3:13. Paul wrote about “forgetting” what was in the past, and “straining” (NIV) toward what is ahead. Never mind that Paul was actually explaining that he didn’t base his personal value on his past accomplishments, I used that verse to give myself a “Scriptural” basis to keep trying to shut off my emotions. God wasn’t buying it. It wasn’t working. I kept trying. Strangely, we who live on a mat like the guy at the pool of Bethesda are good at “straining”.

Anyone who has ever tried stuffing their emotions and then been forced to take an honest look at their own heart, can guess how this went. Stuffing our emotions seems to work for a little while. Maybe even a long while. But then the emotional carnage catches up to us. Not just us, but those around us. Our brokenness seems to spread to those we care about the most. After a few years… a few decades… of stuffing our emotions, we lose the strength to suppress them any longer and we unravel. That’s what happened to me in my late thirties. I unraveled.

I was a lot like the guy at the pool of Bethesda in John, Chapter Five. “5 One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, ‘Would you like to get well?’” My first response to that question is, “Really?!! The poor guy has been lying there handicapped for 38 years and You have the audacity to ask him if he wants to be made well?” Now that I’ve walked this healing journey for many years, I have a better understanding of that question. Jesus was really asking him, “Are you willing to let Me work in your heart however I want to work in your heart to heal your brokenness?” There’s a big difference in those questions. Answering the second question affirmatively also means surrendering one powerful thing – control. Abuse survivors are not particularly good at surrendering control. We didn’t have any for so many years. In our hearts we seem to be thinking, “Now… Jesus… You’re asking me to give up the tiny amount of control that I’ve managed to grab on to?”  Jesus’ response might as well be the words of a popular daytime TV show host, “How’s that working for you?” Sooner, rather than later, I hope all of us take the risk to answer the, “How’s that working for you?” question truthfully. The answer is, “Not very well.”

It would be similar to having a long-term physical disability in the US, and Jesus asking us if we want to be made well. Our minds might start to process the cost. Sure things are tough here on this mat, but I do get a monthly disability check and a Bridge card. My housing is paid for and I do have people taking care of me. If I get better, I’ll lose my public assistance and I’ll have to take care of myself. I’ll have to get a job. I’ll have to start paying my own bills, and cooking my own food. I’m not really sure I can take care of myself. (I want to be sensitive and acknowledge that there are many people who are on public assistance with legitimate needs. I’m not disparaging them in any way. I’m just trying to highlight the vulnerability and risk that Jesus was asking the man to exercise. If you or someone you care about is on public assistance, please be at peace.)

The man’s doubts start surfacing in the next verse. “‘I can’t sir,’ the man said, ‘for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.’” (5:8) This shows the man was still looking for another human to put him into the pool, rather than looking directly to Jesus to heal him. It also shows that the man on the mat was very much aware that others were experiencing healing miracles. But not him. He’s still on his mat. For 38 years. Other people seem to catch the healing breaks. Somehow we use that as evidence that we’ll never get better. We use that pain to motivate ourselves to not even try. Trying is scary. What if we succeed? No more disability checks. No more Bridge card. We will have to start doing things for ourselves. That is frightening. Sometimes it seems easier not to even try.

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I’ve read these passages many times, but just recently noticed another facet of this account that I hadn’t noticed before. It comes out in verse eight and we see the results in verse nine. “8 Jesus told him, ‘Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!’ 9 Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking!” Obviously, Jesus is the healer and the man would not have walked unless he was supernaturally healed, but the thing that hadn’t registered before was that Jesus gave him specific instructions – commands – to receive his healing, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”

Following those commands takes trust. Trust takes vulnerability. It can be terrifying to trust God. In the back of our minds, we might be thinking, “But where were You back when I was being abused?” or “Why are You just now telling me to get off my mat after all these years?” Those are questions that we can talk to the Lord about in due time. He actually has answers for them. If He told us right now we might not understand – or like – the answer, but as we continue in our healing so many things begin to make sense.

Other stumbling blocks to getting off our mats include the fear that we’re so messed up that God might not be able to work through us, or we’ll screw it up somehow. Sometimes we’re actually afraid that He might heal us and then we’ll crash because He’ll want us to do things that we haven’t been able to do. We don’t actually believe that He’ll continue to equip us for life off the mat. Sometimes we’re afraid to even hope that He might heal us because He might not really come through and we’ll be even more hopeless than before.

Ultimately, Jesus asks all of us, “Do you want to be made well? Are you willing to trust me and be vulnerable to let Me heal you My way?” I pray that all of us answer that question with a yes. It may be a scared, shaky yes; but a scared, shaky yes is all He asks. It is worth it. As we trust Him, He will give us the ability to “Stand up, pick up our mat, and walk.”

As we begin to experience life off the mat, we begin to learn more about God’s heart as a redemptive, loving Father. We did experience a measure of His grace while we were living on our mat, but He has so much more for us as we step off the mat. We begin to understand how deeply He always has loved us – even in the worst moments of our lives – as He continues to restore the broken areas of our hearts. We also begin to experience the strength and abilities that Jesus died on the cross to provide for us. As we open our hearts to Him and roll up our mat, we see that He truly does work out everything – the joys and the sorrows – for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

Photos courtesy of www.unsplash.com. © 2018 Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. This article may be reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged and credit is given.

Afraid of God? Lessons from the Cats...

This article was written by Dan Hitz, Executive Director of Reconciliation Ministries, a member ministry of Restored Hope Network. Dan is a sexual abuse survivor and began his own journey out of homosexuality in 1984. He has served as ministry director since 2003. You can find more articles on sexual abuse recovery in the archives section of our website at www.recmin.org. Special thanks to Dan’s daughter for helping with this article and providing the pictures. Oh, and for bringing the cats to our house too!

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My daughter had a security job guarding a storage lot for one of the big three automakers. Under the rows and rows of shiny new vehicles protected by a security team and a 7000 volt electric fence, there was an entirely different world. Cats. Yes, cats. Their world was nothing like the protective world of the beautiful cars and trucks. Their world was in the gravel. Instead of the protection of the security team, they were threatened by coyotes and huge rats. Cat life was very dangerous. The cars were carefully guarded and accounted for. Great care was used to get them to their destination. The cats were a different story. They were on their own. Them against the world. And that world was deadly.

The Lord showed me a lot of lessons from the cats. Lessons that were good, yet unfortunate, examples of how the cats’ lives were similar to the life of an abuse survivor.

Enter my animal loving daughter. Somehow those mangy cats stole her heart. I remember the night she brought a bag of cat food to work because she noticed that they were skin and bones. The cats noticed the food. They were desperate. A cat’s gotta eat. Initially they didn’t want anything to do with the benevolent being that brought them the food. When they noticed her, they would run. She kept reaching out to them. They kept running. After about a week, the fluffy one decided to stop running. It let this benevolent creature touch it. Unlike the coyotes and rats, this being’s touch was comforting. It was safe at a distance.

The skinny cat thought differently. Its size suggested that life in the same gravel world was somehow more difficult for it than life for fluffy cat. It needed the food that the benevolent creature provided, but it had zero trust that this creature would be any different than the other creatures that tormented it. At one point my daughter tried to reach out to it. It freaked out and ran away. Unfortunately, while it was running from her it caught one of its paws in a fence and got hurt. In skinny cat’s mind, the creature caused the injury. The heart of the benevolent creature had compassion knowing that life would be so much better for skinny cat if he would just stop running and let her help him. There were other cats in the yard, but they stayed even further away than skinny cat.

My daughter kept feeding them – reaching out to them – to gain their trust. After two weeks, they trusted the benevolent creature enough to enter her guard shack. The door closed behind them and they were in her domain. It was different from the gravel. There was heat. It was warm. My daughter kept caring for them, feeding them. Reaching out to them. Fluffy cat dared to let her hold him. Skinny cat kept resisting. I kinda wonder if skinny cat was watching to see if fluffy cat’s trust would lead to his demise. Skinny cat learned from sad experience that trust is dangerous.

A new day came along. My daughter heard that management was changing things up at the storage lot. Within a few days they would be taking all the cats to an animal shelter. A kill shelter. The benevolent creature knew that she had to remove the cats from their familiar gravel world and take them to a strange new place, or they would die. Kinda hard to explain that to a cat. In order to take them out of gravel world, she had to place them in a cage. I wonder if they felt betrayed in that cage. After all they trusted her and now they felt trapped. And then she brought them to a strange new world of carpet, colorful walls, lights, and people. It must have been overwhelming. They knew gravel world with the occasional venture into the guard shack. Then the cage. And now this. It must have been sensory overload. Did they exercise a tragic error of judgment when they began to trust the benevolent creature?

There were other cats my daughter was willing to rescue along with them, but they ran. Leaving the familiarity of gravel world with an unfamiliar benevolent creature was too much of a risk for them to take. Their lack of trust would later prove fatal.

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I remember the first night that my daughter brought fluffy cat and skinny cat home. She led my wife and me to our downstairs bathroom where she was keeping them safe from the two dogs and another feral cat we had brought into our home several years ago. I knew the Lord had something to show me, so I just sat in the background of the room and watched my wife and daughter try to interact with the cats. The loss of gravel world and the newness of carpet world seemed to be too much for them. Fluffy cat wouldn’t let my daughter pet him anymore. We put two small bowls of milk out for the cats to drink. The fragile trust they had in the benevolent creature way back in gravel world seemed to be gone. Instead of the bright lights, warmth and milk of carpet world, they preferred to hide in the darkness under some shelves in our bathroom. They knew the parameters of gravel world. Carpet world is another story. And now there’s three benevolent creatures. Trusting one was hard enough. “Why did she bring other people here to mess with me?”

My wife and daughter didn’t want to overwhelm skinny cat and fluffy cat, so they decided to leave them alone for a while. I stayed behind. Hidden in the background. The second the door shut behind them, skinny cat and fluffy cat lunged for the milk. The benevolent creatures may be terrifying, but the truth is the cats needed the care that the benevolent creatures were trying to give them. They drank that milk up pretty fast.

Carpet world was safe, but it was unfamiliar, and trust in the benevolent creature wasn’t restored in a day. Even my daughter had to hold fluffy cat in a coat that first day lest she experience the terror of psycho kitty. My wife picked up skinny cat with another coat. Both cats were hissing at us. The benevolent creatures were patient. They just sat there holding and loving the terrified cats. They wanted the best for those cats. The cats just couldn’t figure that out.

Gradually, fluffy cat calmed down and let my daughter hold him again without a coat. Skinny cat held onto control. The benevolent creature had to continue using a coat to pick him up, but he was willing to sleep on the bed with her. As long as skinny cat was able to maintain some sense of control, he was okay. He just wasn’t fully convinced that the benevolent creature had his best interests in heart. Finally, as the week wore on and the benevolent creature found an adoption shelter, skinny cat stopped hissing and let my daughter hold him without the coat. Benevolent creatures are patient. They understand. They look beyond the hissing and see the wounded heart that needs love and restoration. That is their goal all along.

Another change. Another ride in a cage. Another loss of familiarity and fear of the new. This time carpet world was exchanged for metal cage world. Other loud, nervous animals. And new benevolent creatures. It turns out that one of the new benevolent creatures at the adoption shelter fell in love with fluffy cat and skinny cat and took them to her home. Cage world started off feeling cold and unloving. It turns out that it was actually a place of great love and compassion where the long-term solution was revealed. The new benevolent creature loved the cats as her own.

Sometimes God keeps things the same. Sometimes he changes things. He doesn’t usually ask our permission. Each time it is a new opportunity to learn the difficult task of trusting Him. He’s patient. He will wrap His coat around us and lovingly hold us while we hiss at Him. People that have never lived in gravel world won’t understand how its residents could have a hard time trusting a benevolent creature. Souls leaving gravel world can understand. Sometimes it was those we trusted – those we thought were benevolent creatures – who played the role of the coyotes and rats. Sometimes we’re afraid to leave gravel world. It is terrible. It is painful. But it’s all we understand. We don’t know how to live in carpet world. It’s hard for us to trust that cage world is only temporary and is actually a safe place while we are transitioning into another carpet world.

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Brokenness is scary, but sometimes we prefer it to the unknown. The Lord understands this. There are times when He loves us enough to pick us up out of the familiar and carry us to a new place that we can’t comprehend. We might want to hide under a dark shelf, but He feeds us and teaches us how to live in a strange new place. Sometimes those He has placed in our lives move on. One familiar source of strength may transition elsewhere and be replaced by a new compassionate face. We have to learn to trust all over again. It is during those times that we have to look beyond the immediate and see Jesus Christ, the true Benevolent Creator, orchestrating our lives. He can preserve our lives in gravel world. And in time, restores our hearts in carpet world. He understands. He knows what it is like to be abused in gravel world. Jesus Christ conquered the sin and death of gravel world, and rose victoriously to deliver us.

 

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed. - 
Isaiah 53:5 NKJV

© 2018 Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. This article may be reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged and credit is given.

Pornography: The False Escape

This article was written by a member of the Reconciliation Ministries Living Waters leadership team. They are a group of “wounded healers” who have fought their own battle with sexual and relational brokenness, and who have experienced the healing power of Jesus Christ. If you or someone you love is struggling with sexual sin, call Reconciliation Ministries at 586.739.5114 and let us walk with you to Jesus.

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I never thought of porn use as a problem.  It was something that “didn’t hurt anyone” and was “safe”.  In High School it was normal for guys to talk about their favorites, which made it seem like everyone did it, like it was normal and natural.  What I didn’t know: I was using porn like a drug to keep me away from my emotions and distancing me from God.  As time went on it increasingly pushed me to isolation and made me feel more and more depressed, fueling a cycle I didn’t know about or understand.  Because I was so wrapped up in denial and isolation I didn’t think about how it would impact those around me either, and I never thought about my distant relationship with God.  Realizing porn use as a problem and even addiction was like lifting a heavy fog in front of me, dispelling all the lies I accepted as my truth.

For most of my life I grew up in an environment of neglect and a lack of responsibility.  My parents were both responsible adults, but they did not feel responsible for raising their kids well.  My parents were divorced when I was young and both neglected me, and while they were married there was a clear pattern of physical and verbal abuse.  After the divorce, I lived with my mother for most of the time and she had a very co-dependent relationship with me.  I was the man of the house, even though I wasn’t even a teen yet, and she would share whatever was on her mind, unloading her negative emotions on me.  She was very controlling and focused on perfection, which drove me to be uninterested in doing anything.  During High School I remember crying out for help and my mother took me to be tested for Bi-Polar disorder.  I was not diagnosed with any disorders, but through the discussion the therapist found some issues and suggested some books on parenting and some parenting tweaks.  My mother lied and said she already read them and was a great parent.  Any problem I had came across as an attack on her parenting and she would go into denial and shut me out, often crying in an attempt to manipulate me.  My father didn’t really want to be a father. He only agreed to pick me up every other weekend because it would reduce the child-support he had to pay. He continued to complain about the payments, my mother, and the annoyance of having to pick me up until I was a legal adult.  He was uninterested in being a dad for the most part, and years later told me he didn’t have the time to be a dad so he would try to just be a decent friend to get me on his side.  If I had a question, I would be told to ask the other parent. Since I never got any answers, I stopped asking the questions and tried to figure things out on my own.  Once I realized I couldn’t reach perfection I stopped trying in school. I felt unwanted, and even worse, like a burden wherever I was.  I never felt like I had a home, I felt like I was just visiting someone.

Spiritually my mother believed in going to church when she felt guilty enough, and my father created his own religion focused on himself.  Needless to say, my parents didn’t care about my relationship with God and actually instilled a strong sense of skepticism in me. I felt like God was only there to punish me and rid me with guilt, or that God wasn’t real at all.  Despite my confusing outlook on God, there were also times when I felt like God was there for me, even if I didn’t understand it or accept it.  Thankfully he shielded me from drugs and getting into trouble as a youth.  It wasn’t until late in High School that I started to regularly go to church, when my now wife demanded I go to church with her if we were to continue dating.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I could actually call myself a Christian, working through the doubt and skepticism, and God is still working in me.

As time went on I felt more and more alone and turned to escape mechanisms to get away from my negative feelings.  I turned to porn and videogames mostly, jumping into fantasy worlds where I was the most important person and felt I had control.  My father introduced me to videogames as a way to connect, and we had little else to talk about.  I didn’t think about the negative impact porn had in my life until I married my wife.  I expected marriage to take away all the problems in my life.  I wouldn’t have to deal with my parents at all if I didn’t want to, and I’d have real and right intimacy with my wife.  I fully expected the desire to watch porn to disappear, but it got worse.  My wife and I were not connecting as well as I thought; we had more stresses as we were living together for the first time and were both busy figuring out our lives together.  I doubled down and watched more porn, shut out my wife, and reinforced my addiction through that negative cycle. 

My wife and I had pretty bad fights every week for the next seven months, and at one point I just broke and explained what was going on.  She was incredibly hurt and filed for divorce, which I agreed was not ridiculous or undeserved.  She said I had six months to show major improvement or she would continue with the divorce, which was a great show of grace to me.  The next six months we fought almost every day in the worst possible way.  I found a therapy-based program that gave me some tools to fight my temptations.  The program was useful in day-to-day living, but I felt something was missing.  It focused on tools and tricks to get through life and involved prayer, but made it very clear healing was not an option.  Our leader left, a new draconian leader took over with some ideas and outlooks that were not uplifting and I could not agree on, and the group had changed dramatically. I decided to look elsewhere.  My wife had seen someone from Reconciliation Ministries speak in person at a High School ministry event through our church and suggested I give the ministry a call.  I came to Living Waters shortly after and immediately saw the difference.  At first it was challenging, but it became apparent Living Waters was a place where I could begin to find real healing and connect with God.  I began to learn how to surrender to God and begin understanding where the healing would be happening.  Living Waters has changed my life.  It goes beyond a therapy regimen and allows for real healing.  My relationship with God has never been better or more important in my life.  My marriage can finally be described as happy and we have never been closer.  My personal relationships have improved, I feel more motivated in my work, and I have finally have a feeling of contentment in life in God’s plan.  Now I can’t imagine life without Living Waters. 

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The process has not been comfortable.  Coming clean to my wife was not comfortable. Learning about myself was not comfortable. Continually facing my fears and doubts instead of running and hiding is not comfortable. Surrendering to God is not comfortable.  Despite no part of the process being comfortable, it is worth it.  Being able to walk free, without the haze of lies and denial, is something that is better than I could imagine.  No longer feeling like I have a terrible secret makes it so much easier to look people in the eyes and feel my own self-worth.  Knowing I have a God on my side and learning the truth about how God feels about me has given me peace I couldn’t believe before this process.  One of the most surprising gains is when I stopped focusing only on my own needs. I could reach out in community with others and finally feel like I don’t have to be isolated and alone.  I would suggest Living Waters to everyone, since I feel everyone needs to know about themselves more deeply. If you think porn use isn’t a problem like drugs or alcohol, you really need Living Waters.  It’s unlike anything I have done before and helped me better my relationship with my God and understand myself. 

© 2017 Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. This article may be reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged and credit is given.

First image by Gilles Lambert on www.unsplash.com. Second image by Ryan Franco on www.unsplash.com.

Overcoming Isolation

This article contains information included in Chapter Seven, “Isolation”, from Mending the Soul Workbook for Men and Women, Second Edition, by Celestia G. Tracy, published by Mending the Soul Ministries, Inc., Phoenix, Arizona in 2015. The article will explore the root causes of isolation common to abuse survivors, and ways the survivor can learn to overcome isolation and develop healthy relationships. It was written by Dan Hitz, director of Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. More articles on abuse recovery are available at www.recmin.org/newsletter-archives/.

Photo by Mike Wilson on  www.unsplash.com .

Photo by Mike Wilson on www.unsplash.com.

From the very beginning of Scripture we see that “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Even though Adam walked with God in the cool of the day, God still created another human for Adam to share life with. It is interesting to note that God places such an importance on fellowship that He created another human for Adam even though He knew that both humans were imperfect. God knew beforehand that the weight of Adam and Eve’s sin would require the sacrificial death of His own Son. God also knew that His imperfect creation would walk out His plan of salvation together and overcome sin. Although we will all be wounded by humans at some point in our lives, God’s restoration empowers us to receiving healing from humans. Love and fellowship was so important to Jesus that He issued a new commandment to His disciples to love one another, and show the world that they are His disciples through that love (John 13:34-36).

Since living together in unity is so important to God, it is no wonder that the enemy of our souls attacks it with such venom. We who have survived the devastating effects of abuse are well aware of the pain and dangers of living life connected to others. Although we are created for love and fellowship, many of us would rather hide in the darkness of isolation than risk vulnerability in relationship. We may not have consciously decided to build huge walls around our hearts, but many of us have constructed emotional walls so thick they rival medieval castles. We may be forced to interact with others on occasion, but we are secretly bound and determined to “never let anyone get close enough to hurt us again”. Even though our childhood abusers may be long gone, the emotional walls remain and hamper us well into our adulthood.

The effect of these walls was made real to me just a few weeks ago when I attended an extended family reunion. It included first and second cousins and their kids. I was sexually abused by my mother while I was growing up, and this was my mom’s side of the family. She had two sisters who also had their share of emotional challenges, and so did their children. As I stood back and watched their interaction, I noticed two things. First, some actually seemed to have adapted well and were coping better than others. They had good marriages and steady jobs. Many others seemed to struggle with multiple marriages, emotional challenges, and had a hard time making ends meet. Others were absent from the gathering due to family squabbles or emotional distress. The emotional weaknesses on my mother’s side of the family have truly taken their toll on many.

The second thing I noticed is that although many of my relatives present had their share of problems, a good number of them seemed to have the type of relationships that take years and a lot of time to develop. As I stood back watching their interaction, I got the impression that they didn’t just see each other for weddings and funerals. They got together for dinners and family events. I didn’t have the same type of relationship with my relatives – even my siblings – that many of them seemed to have with each other. I gained a clearer realization of my own reaction and the effects of abuse – a new understanding of my own deep retreat into emotional isolation. I was rather struck at the contrast of the “little Danny” who played so freely with his cousins during the family reunions my aunt  would have almost 50 years ago.  He was much different from the guy who stood off to the side in 2017 while the other cousins grouped up for pictures. In my later high school and college years, I became the “lost child” and retreated deep into the background of life. I left the area as soon as college afforded me the ability to do so, and stayed away as much as I could.

I don’t think my story is much different from many of you who have grown up with chronic abuse. No matter what type of abuse we suffer – sexual, physical, emotional, neglect, or spiritual – the effects are pretty much the same. In the past few months we looked at some of these effects; false guilt and shame, lack of initiative, dysfunctional family dynamics, and a wide variety of sexual brokenness. This month we’ll look at the issue of isolation, and the importance of overcoming it as we walk towards becoming the person that Jesus created us to be.

In the Mending the Soul Workbook for Men and Women, Celestia Tracy identifies three primary root issues as the foundation for isolation – the belief that I am shameful, the belief that I am shattered beyond repair, and the belief that we can trust no one and no one can trust me. Replacing each of these broken beliefs with the truth, is critical to learning to walk out of the emotional hiding place of isolation and developing healthy relationships in the Body of Christ. If you find yourself simultaneously craving healthy relationships and fearing them, you are not alone. You are experiencing what many abuse survivors live with every day. This is where we learn to trust the Lord to teach us how to walk past the fear and develop healthy friendships.

Image used under license from  www.shutterstock.com .

Image used under license from www.shutterstock.com.

I am shameful. – Toxic shame stems from believe that what we’ve done, or what’s been done to us, was so disgusting that no one could ever love us. It is a belief that we – not only our actions – are more than bad; we are inherently despicable. Abused children often take on the false responsibility for the abuse as a means of trying to make sense of it all. “If I’m such a horrible little boy, it makes sense for my father to beat me.” – or – “I’m such a creepy little pervert, it makes sense for my mother to do these things to me.” The sense of helplessness that comes when we admit that we didn’t cause the abuse is far too much for most victims to bear. Assuming that we have caused our abuse also gives us the false hope that we can be perfect enough to stop the abuse. This thinking is futile. Children don’t have the resources to stop the abuse. In order to overcome toxic shame, we must place the responsibility for the abuse squarely on the shoulders of our abuser to whom it belongs. Survivors need to reckon with the realty that the abuse was beyond their control and that they were actually helpless back in the day to stop the abuse. The good news is that you are not helpless anymore. You don’t have to be isolated anymore. You can reach out to safe people for help.

I am shattered beyond repair. – Tracy points out that God intended our needs to be met by safe, loving parents and other caregivers. Abuse shatters our sense of safety and trust. No longer is the world a safe place where my needs are taken care of and adults will teach me how to navigate through life. The world becomes a scary place of hopelessness and despair. This can cause us to emotionally short circuit and fall into helplessness, or to develop an “it’s me against the world” mentality. Either extreme is unhealthy and causes us to continue living out of our shattered heart. Broken hearts, with broken motivations, produce broken results that only seem to confirm our brokenness. Healing begins when we admit and accept the terrible things that have happened to us, reach out for help, and learn to grow beyond the devastation. You can learn to live life beyond the borders of your brokenness.

I can’t trust anyone and no one can trust me. – Abuse not only shatters our hearts, but it often leads us to draw the conclusion that NO ONE CAN BE TRUSTED! A boy abused by his mother may reach the conclusion that all women are dangerous. A young girl unprotected by her mother who willing allowed her step-father to abuse her may conclude that both genders are bad. No one is safe.

It’s easy to understand why abuse survivors may have a tough time trusting others, but why would they have a tough time trusting themselves? There’s actually some very simple reasons why abuse survivors have a hard time trusting themselves. Remember, we often blame ourselves for the abuse. Perpetrators are experts at manipulation and the grooming process. It’s common for survivors to ask, “How could I have been so stupid as to trust…” We’ve also assumed the false guilt for the abuse in order to force it to make sense; so therefore, we have a hard time trusting ourselves not to do something again that lets others abuse us.

Image used under license with  www.shutterstock.com .

Image used under license with www.shutterstock.com.

A more devastating reason that survivors have a hard time trusting themselves is that hurt people, hurt people. Many survivors have responded to the sinful abuse perpetrated against them by sinning against others. A young child sexually abused by a step-parent, may act out the same actions against a younger, more vulnerable cousin. A boy beaten by his father may take out his anger on a younger boy in the neighborhood. This “confirms” that we are just as much an insidious beast as the person who abused us. Yes, a survivor who has acted out on others must take personal responsibility for his own sinful actions, but he can also give himself the grace to realize that he was acting out of his own pain. If a survivor hasn’t acted out sinfully against another person, he has usually acted out sinfully with another person or on his own. Sexual promiscuity, pornography addiction, and substance abuse are common ways survivors try to numb the pain of their own abuse.

The answer for our shattered lives – whether shattered by the sins against us, or by the sins we’ve committed – is the cross of Jesus Christ. Not only did Jesus pay the penalty for the sins we’ve committed, He provided for the healing of the wounds inflicted upon us by the sins of others. Isaiah 53 is a beautiful picture of the forgiveness and healing that Jesus provided for us through His death on the cross. He knew what it was like to suffer and be in pain emotionally and physically (53:3). He took our pain and suffering on Himself (53:4). He took the guilt of our sin on Himself (53:6). And He made a way for our own healing by the wounds that He personally suffered (53:5). Truly, Jesus can healing the brokenhearted and free those who are in an emotional prison (Luke 4:18).

Overcoming emotional isolation is a process. It involves some healthy risk taking. And… It involves clinging onto God for help while we learn to recognize who in our lives is safe, and who in our lives is not. Here are some practical steps to help you learn to walk out of your hiding place and learn to develop some healthy relationships. The steps don’t necessarily go in sequential order, nor do they follow a linear progression. You may find yourself revisiting some of these steps from time to time as God brings a deeper understanding of how abuse has affected you.

First and foremost, we need to ask God for help. This step is so basic that we often miss it. The Lord recognizes that He is asking you to do something that is way out of your comfort zone. He is willing to be the parent that you never had, and teach you how to develop healthy relationships. I have a recovery friend who says, “We are learning to do at 50 what we should have learned when we were twelve.” The good news is that God is happy to teach us.

Pray for the Lord to give you a godly mentor. As much as trusting another human to help you overcome isolation may feel like climbing to the top of the Empire State Building to help you overcome the fear of heights, you need the help of safe others in the Body of Christ. A good mentor will understand the challenges you face, and can help guide you through the process. Remember, you are dealing with human mentors here, and even the best Christian mentor will make mistakes from time to time. Don’t panic. This is your chance to ask the Lord to help you talk to that other person about the misunderstandings. Unlike your abuser, a mature mentor will listen to your feelings and help work through any challenges that may come. If you’re not sure where to find a mentor, start with the pastoral care department of your local church, or contact the leaders of a Christian recovery program.

Walking out of isolation is a process. It’s okay to take it slow. Healthy relationships take a long time to develop. Unhealthy connections can happen fast. Ask the Lord to help you grow into healthy relationships at a pace that you can handle. Rather than sharing your whole life story with someone you just met, learn to talk about the basics of life or even the church project that you happen to be working on together. As you share little parts of your heart, watch how the other person handles them. If he or she is faithful with your information, you can share a few more details. Not everyone will develop into a close, personal friend. That’s alright. It’s good to have close friends that you can share deeply with, and it’s good to have friends that you just go get ice cream with. The best friends can do both.

Examine your heart to see if there are any areas where you’ve isolated yourself from God. If we keep people at arm’s length, odds are there are areas of our hearts where we’re keeping God at arm’s length. We may trust Him for our salvation and ask him for provision, but are we willing to let Him into the areas of our hearts where we have deep wounds? That isn’t as easy to do when those we’ve trusted in the past have betrayed us. We need frequent reminders that God is not like our abuser. He is safe.

Examine your heart and identify issues that you need to repent of. Have you made inner vows like, “I’ll NEVER let anyone close enough to hurt me again!” – or – “I’ll NEVER be like my abusive mother!” Those vows may have been a reaction to the intense pain that we’ve endured, but they keep us trapped in the futility of human effort. Inner vows are often made for the right reasons; we need protection, or we don’t want to be like those who have hurt us. The problem with inner vows is that they are usually made out of the wrong motivation. They’re a kneejerk reaction to our pain. Instead of living bound by an inner vow, it is far better to acknowledge the pain and the offense against us. We can then ask the Lord to keep us safe and to help us live through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Observe the character of the people we are learning to interact with. This may be a bit tricky, because survivors can be hypersensitive to the frailties of others. Everyone carries around a bucket of good and a bucket of bad. As hard as we try to only pour our bucket of good on others, sometimes the bucket of bad splashes out. The important thing is how someone responds when their bucket of bad splashes on others. Do they admit their frailties and apologize, or do they blame others for their mistakes? Safe people acknowledge their errors, apologize, and make corrections.

Learn to trust your discernment. This is another tricky thing for survivors to do. We likely grew up sensing something was amiss in our families but were told that everything was okay. Maybe you were told that you were the problem and that the abuser was the good guy. This teaches us to detach from our discernment and allow others to trample our personal boundaries. It’s easy to become hypersensitive when we start learning to pay attention to our discernment, and we’ll likely make some mistakes. This is where a good mentor can help.

Image used under license with  www.shutterstock.com .

Image used under license with www.shutterstock.com.

You’re going to make mistakes. Don’t give up. Everyone makes mistakes as they learn new skills and take some appropriate risks to step out of their comfort zones. When you mess up; pray, talk to your mentor, and reset. The process gets easier over time. The great thing is that the process even gets more enjoyable over time, and you can develop some great friendships.

I’m still working on this process after many years of recovery. Although the family reunion reminded me that I still have a lot of work to do, I can honestly say that I’ve met some beautiful people along the way. These friends have blessed my heart in ways that words cannot express. They are dear friends who share a common vision of living for Jesus. These relationships are worth all of the struggles, awkwardness, and goof-ups I’ve faced through the years. If the Lord can empower me to walk out of isolation, He can do the same for you. There is a beautiful Body of Christ out there, and you are a wonderful part of it.

© 2017 Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. This article may be reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged and credit is given.