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.

Lives Are Being Changed

Dear Friends,

Used under license with www.shutterstock.com

Used under license with www.shutterstock.com

As we look ahead to our next session of Living Waters, we are rejoicing in what the Lord has done through our first Mending the Soul group. It was amazing to see the participants open their hearts week after week and receive deep healing. Some of the participants would like to share how the group has helped them…

I was able to identify pain in my life and found the source or root of it. I can understand now how abuse dictates emotions and mindsets. I have learned how to let go and allow God to heal. – A female survivor.

 I could talk about the abuse I experienced, the addiction I developed, and all the fallout and consequences; without having to be worried about judgement or rejection. – A male survivor.

I can truly say that though I have a ways to go as far as healing, I am not the same person I was when I entered this group. I have regained my voice, set boundaries, gained strength in many ways, and found hope for healing in God. This group has truly been a blessing. A female survivor.


You can change the life of an abuse survivor by becoming a member of the Reconciliation Ministries Support Team. Your prayers and financial support can help those who have been ravaged by sin and abuse. Donations can be made securely online by clicking here. If you’re already a member of our support team, we would like to thank you for making an eternal difference in the lives of others. Your partnership matters.

Registration is now open for our next session of Living Waters. If you or someone you care about is struggling with sexual sin and relationship difficulties, call Reconciliation Ministries at 586.739.5114 and find out how Living Waters can help. Discounts are available for early registration, and we have lowered the tuition rate for new participants by 20%. You can read testimonies from the last session of Living Waters in this newsletter.

Your brother in Christ,

Dan


Lives Are Changed through the Living Waters Program. 

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Living Waters is a Christ-centered discipleship/ministry program for men and women seeking healing in areas of sexual and relational brokenness; including pornography addiction, codependency, sexual addiction, homosexuality, sexual ambivalence, childhood sexual abuse, transgender issues, and difficulty in establishing and sustaining healthy relationships.  Our next program is starting soon.

Here are some powerful testimonies from participants who had their lives changed through the power of Jesus Christ in the Living Waters program. They are used with the permission of the participants.

Living Waters saved my marriage. - A female participant.

I am closer to God as a result of Living Waters. I see Him more clearly in my past, anticipate Him more certainly in my future, and follow Him more peacefully in the now. - A male participant.

Through Living Waters I learned that I am a survivor, not a victim. - A female participant.

When I first came to Living Waters, I was a complete mess. I struggled in my marriage. I felt like a terrible mother. I had major trust issues. I knew that my problems stemmed from being repeatedly molested by my cousin from the ages of three to five. I just could not stop my brokenness from ruining my life. I learned a lot of tools here at Living Waters. And God has used Living Waters to change me into a better wife and mother. I am no longer controlled by my brokenness. Living Waters saved my marriage. - A female participant.

 

Living Waters has helped me to become a more honest person – with God and others. I am less afraid of failure and weakness than I was before Living Waters began. I am more willing to admit my weakness, doubts, and my need for help to God and others. God has begun a much needed work of humility through this program. - A male participant.

 

For most of my life I grew up in an environment of neglect and a lack of responsibility. When my parents were married, there was a clear pattern of physical and verbal abuse. After they divorced, my mother was very controlling and focused on perfection. This led me to be uninterested in doing well in anything. My father didn’t really want to be a father, but he agreed to pick me up every other weekend because it would reduce the child-support he had to pay. He was uninterested in being a dad for the most part.

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 video games mostly, jumping into fantasy worlds where I was the most important person and could have control. I didn’t think about the negative impact porn had on my life until I married my wife in 2013. I expected marriage to take away all the problems. I fully expected that the desire to watch porn would disappear. It got worse. 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. She said I had six months to show a major improvement or she would go through with the divorce. We fought almost every day in the worst possible way. I went to a therapy-based program that gave me some tools to fight my temptations, but something was missing.

I decided to come to Living Waters after my wife heard one of the leaders speak at my church. At first it was challenging, but it became apparent that Living Waters was a place where I could begin to find real healing and connect with God. I began to learn how to surrender and begin to heal. Living Waters 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 and in God’s plan. - A male participant.

 

I came into Living Waters with deep pain in my heart, a heart that had hardened towards men and I didn’t want to live in this hurtful, deceitful and sinful world. I wanted to die and take the easy way out. I wanted peace – no more pain and abuse. No tears. No sorrow. No more hurting. Through the deep healing lessons I have to admit that my heart is softening some to men. I don’t immediately label all men as bad. I haven’t thought of wanting to die in a while. I wake up every morning and say, “Good morning, Lord”. I have not gotten to the point that I love living – but I have gotten out of my first thoughts of, “I want to die.” I am on a new journey with peace growing in my heart towards men.

I also started out the first week in Living Waters saying, “I don’t know if this program is for me.” Now, 24 weeks later, I believe everyone needs to take this program for inner healing and to understand where the pain comes from. Ultimately, to get to know the Great Healer, Jesus. I deeply long to be in the arms of my Lord – but I think I’ll stick around this alien world and do the work and calling that God created me to be and to do until He calls me home. - A female participant.

If you or someone you love is struggling with sexual or relational difficulties, there is hope and healing through the power of Jesus Christ.  Call us and ask about attending the next Living Waters program. (586) 739-5114

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

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.

Characteristics of an Abusive Family

This article is primarily a summary of Chapter Four, “Portrait of an Abusive Family”, from Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse by Dr. Steven R. Tracy. This article will highlight the characteristics of abusive families identified by Tracy. Mending the Soul was published by Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2005. This summary 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/.

Just as we learned in the article detailing the characteristics of individual abusers, abusive families tend to look just like other families in our neighborhoods, schools and churches when they are outside of the privacy of their own home. Unfortunately, the similarities can come to a grinding halt when they are behind the closed doors and curtains of their own home. Tracy describes this as the banality of evil – evil people don’t look evil, they look like everybody else” (workbook p. 90). This is the challenge for those of us who grew up in a dysfunctional family. I heard numerous times how nice my mother was from people who knew the healthy side of her.

It is amazing how often I hear from the men and women that I’m counseling how respected their abusive parent(s) were/are in the church and the community. This can leave survivors wondering, “What on earth is wrong with me?” It feeds the denial for those of us who have shut down huge portions of our own hearts and don’t want to believe that our parent really is abusive. One of the most important steps in the healing process is to recognize and admit that our families were abusive. We need to recognize the areas of dysfunction that we were influenced by in order to begin taking the steps of healing in those areas.

No families are perfect. No parents are perfect. In looking at the characteristics of abusive families, we are not talking about the “healthy enough” parent who makes an occasional mistake or handles a situation in a way that causes minor offenses. We’re talking about chronic, severe offenses that leave deep lasting scars in the hearts of those who are impacted by it. Tracy identifies 15 primary characteristics of abusive families in Chapter Four of Mending the Soul. These characteristics can also be found in unhealthy churches, organizations and social groups. We’ll take a brief look at each characteristic here.

The needs of the family members are expendable. God intended the needs of the children to be fulfilled by the parents and the needs of the parents to be fulfilled by other adults. In abusive families, the children are used to fulfill the needs of the parents while the needs of the children go unmet. Where there is favoritism, the needs of the kids seen as “lesser” can go unfulfilled while the “elevated” kids are daunted over.

Reality is difficult to discern. Being at home with our families should be the safest experience we can have. In abusive families, the place which is supposed to be the safest becomes the most dangerous. Children naturally want to believe that whatever their parents do is appropriate. We are taught to ignore our God given discernment and perceptions by abusive parents who tell us that the abuse is a normal “expression of love” or “deserved” because of our own inappropriate behavior.

The victim is made responsible. It is the responsibility of every adult to take care of the children that God has entrusted him or her to parent and provide for. Abusive parents push their own responsibilities onto the children. They may be expected to take care of the younger siblings and perform an unreasonable amount of tasks well beyond their years. Sometimes they are expected to fulfil the sexual desires of evil parents.

The family appearance is deceptive. We have already discussed the banality of evil – the thought that most abusive people and families look very respectable to those on the outside. Abusive people can go to great lengths to maintain a “perfect” outward appearance.

The truth is ignored. Members of a dysfunctional family may be so focused on maintaining their own sense of “peace and calm” that they ignore obvious signs that abuse is occurring. I’ve worked with abuse survivors whose history of abuse was so obvious that it is impossible for me to believe that that other parent had no clue that the abuse was occurring.

Family abusers use force. In some situations, abusive family members may use manipulation and grooming to gain the trust of their victims; however, the “tenderness” of the grooming process gives way to threats and force to ensure that the victim maintains the secrecy of the abuse. Other times the perpetrators begin the abuse with aggression. Because the victims feel helpless to stop the abuse, the amount of aggression may decrease over time and may fall away altogether. Learned helplessness is when a victim is actually strong enough to stop the abuse, but is convinced that the situation is hopeless and continues to comply. This explains why many victims fail to walk away from the abuse, or reach out for help, even when help is readily available.

There is no straightforward, healthy communication. Much of the communication in abusive families is intentionally confusing and manipulative. Abusers may hide behind words that have double meaning so they can quickly deny their ill intent. If they spoke clearly, the destructive motives of their heart would be evident to all.

The victim’s rational response is often futile. Abusers don’t respond to reason. Abusers aren’t interested in the truth. They are champions of denial (refusing to admit or acknowledge the truth), projection (attributing their own negative actions and motivations to others), and blame shifting (claiming their own negative behavior was the result of the victim’s actions). Abusers “twist realty” to match their world.

Power is used to exploit. In healthy families, power is used to protect and empower the vulnerable to reach their full potential. In abusive families, power is used to control and ensure that the weaker remain under the control of the dominant.

Abusive families are emotionally unstable. Victims often feel like they are “walking on eggshells”. An action that was perfectly acceptable yesterday may trigger a violent reaction today; therefore, life is unpredictable and one can never let down one’s guard. They may also find themselves having a wide range of feelings about their abuser who may be beating them one moment, and pretending to love them by sexually abusing them the next. Victims may recognize that abusive behavior is wrong, but find themselves liking the perceived favorable attention they are receiving.

The victim is shamed, blamed and demeaned. I’ve heard from many survivors that their abusers manipulated them with kindness before the sexual abuse, and then verbally assaulted them unmercifully after the abuse. Some are blamed for the assaults by the perpetrators and others who claim that the abuse wouldn’t have happened if they had better character, or that they specifically behaved in a way to provoke the abuse.

Family members are isolated and lack intimacy. Healthy families have nothing to hide. Dysfunctional families are afraid of being found out. It is common for perpetrators and those who enable them to pull their victims away from those who can identify unhealthy behavior. Since abusers are proficient at using the victim’s inner hopes and dreams against them, victims quickly learn to shut off their desires. Ironically, the perpetrators paint a picture where the world is unsafe and dangerous, and that they are the only ones the victims can trust.

 A strict code of silence is enacted. Abusive families follow a strict No Talk Rule. The perpetrators don’t want to be found out and clearly communicate that there will be dire consequences to anyone who tells others about the abuse.

Abusive families deny and distort healthy emotions. Children want the world to make sense. Most abuse victims believe that the abuse was their fault. Many were told so by their abusers. In order for an abusive world to make sense, survivors learn to embrace the idea that the abuse was their fault. This also gives victims a strange, false sense of control. Other victims were told that they were overreacting and/or scolded for having negative feelings about the abuse. Unfortunately, the deeper message is that they learn to distrust their healthy emotions. They either embrace dysfunctional emotions, or shut them off altogether.

The wrong ones are protected. Perpetrators want to prop up their abusive system and maintain a false, outward appearance. They use manipulation, intimidation and violence to achieve that goal. Those who accuse the victims are often shamed and blamed – even within the church. It is important to listen to the hearts of the survivors and pray for discernment to understand the truth of the situation.

Perhaps it was very difficult for you to read this article. If you can identify many of the traits listed above in your own family, don’t lose hope. Remember, the first step in fixing a problem is identifying that a problem actually exists. You can overcome the effects of childhood abuse. Start by reaching out for help to the pastoral care department of your local church. Reconciliation Ministries is also here to help. We offer individual counseling and support groups. If you or a loved one needs help, call us at 586.739.5114.

 © 2017 Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. This article may be reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged and credit is given. Images used under license with www.shutterstock.com.