“A bent reed He will not break off and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish…” Isaiah 42:3
In 1988, while in a relationship that eventually left me feeling more worthless, broken, unwanted, and ravaged than I already was, Jesus saved me. I believed I was saved—forgiven, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still somehow only tolerated by a merciful God, rather than loved and cherished by my Heavenly Father.
A few years later, I wound up divorced. As a single mother, Jesus gave me daily reminders of His grace, provision, and tender morning mercies. My understanding of Scripture began to grow, but I was baffled by what I perceived as a lack of connection. Others often talked about “hearing God’s voice,” but I never seemed to hear anything. Still, God continued to prove Himself faithful. And, since I struggled to feel an emotional “attachment,” I focused more on obedience.
I took strange comfort in a quote I read from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, just months after my conversion. In it, Wormwood, a demon, warns his demon-student, regarding a Christian’s obedience to God even when he can’t sense his presence:
“Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
A number of years later, as my current husband and I began having more children, and the pressures of life, homeschooling, multiple pregnancies, debt, and ministry became overwhelming distractions, an old familiar feeling began to creep in.
I can only speak for myself, but for a number of years, I was heavily influenced by certain books, speakers, and pastors. Somewhere along the way, some of their teachings encouraged a hyper-focus (OCD) on everything “wrong” in the world.
Many of the pastors I listened to were harsh, narcissistic, and demeaning to women. Again, it spoke my language—it felt familiar and weirdly “right.” But many of their teachings caused me to experience a ton of overwhelming fear and anxiety.
It all started around 1999, when I first discovered the Internet. My husband helped me set up my first email account and plugged me into a women’s Yahoo group, so that I could connect with other Christian, stay-at-home moms.
(I still remember the literal adrenaline rush when AOL would announce aloud, “You’ve got mail!”)
The women in this group were different than any I had ever known. They seemed so godly and wise, and talked about submission, humility, modesty, homeschooling, and obedience. I devoured what they posted and read their articles to my husband when he’d get home from work.
We also started ordering many of the books and teaching tapes they recommended. I began discussing these topics with the women in my group, and started posting my own thoughts on all that we were learning.
Our family started to attend a local church where all the families homeschooled, the men “led” their wives and children, the women were “submissive” and dressed in long skirts, and the kids all seemed so sweet and respectful. I was star struck. On our first Sunday there, I remember feeling like we were stepping into an old painting or picture-perfect storybook. Ironically, it felt beautiful and “safe.”
Later, we discovered that we were one of two families at the church who were not involved in a strange homeschooling curriculum I had never heard of. Everyone else in the church used it: The Institute in Basic Life Principles (aka ATI) by Bill Gothard. My husband had attended one of his seminars before we had married, but I was shocked I had never heard of someone apparently so well known.
I recall asking one of the wives if I could review her homeschooling curriculum, but it was apparently “secret” until you went through some sort of special “training.” So I never actually saw the curriculum.
We didn’t realize it in the beginning, but we were always considered “outsiders” at this church. Not only were we not ATI, but we also had both been divorced, which was not allowed (even in cases of abuse).
We noticed their obsession with everything “Mr. Gothard” did or taught, and he was even quoted in the sermons. I was extremely bothered by the fact that they claimed to want to protect their children and “guard their hearts,” but then sent their teen-aged daughters off to other states to be trained by “Mr. Gothard.” How was that protecting them?
No way was I sending my children anywhere! We didn’t last long at that church. In fact, we were even shunned by some of the families after we left.
But I had still been so inspired by all the seemingly sweet, respectful children we had witnessed during our short time with those families. And I desperately wanted my children to be safe and untainted by the world, so I kept devouring many of the books and tapes that were circulating around our homeschooling circles at the time.
We joined a Reformed home church that my husband had discovered, which seemed to have more solid doctrine. The families there homeschooled, and our children seemed to fit in. My husband dove into studying Reformed theology.
And we read and listened to a motley collection of authors and pastors who taught about how Christian families should live: Mary Pride, Doug and Nancy Wilson, Mark Driscoll, Doug Phillips, Kevin Swanson, RC Sproul Jr, and others.
(One day, I may share more on why and how some of these teachings were so damaging to me and others, but for now, that’s not my focus.)
I eventually started my own women’s Yahoo group, and developed a platform that allowed me to do something I loved, which was to write. This gave me a creative outlet and a sense of accomplishment and validation.
In 2001, prior to the birth of our ninth child, our family purchased a large homeschooling magazine (which I edited and my husband published and managed). This led to traveling around the country to speak at homeschooling conferences, and the beginning of a very overwhelming life for our family. I was extremely insecure and hated the spotlight, but my husband insisted it was helping families and supporting our business, which gave me a sense of purpose.
Still, as a 35-year-old, brand new homeschooling mom myself, I felt like a total imposter and developed a lot of anxiety during this time. So I just wrote scripts and read to the crowd what I was learning from others. I was not a naturally gifted speaker like my husband, and it showed.
Later, I created a blog, and wrote two books where I shared what I believed about marriage, obedience, motherhood, our roles as Christian women and, most importantly, how to keep our children (especially our daughters) safe from all the sin and evil in the world
Soon after, we started a home church and my husband started pastoring. But that’s another story.
Though, over twenty years have gone by since that time, I would still agree with plenty of what I wrote back then. It’s not like it was all wrong! But I also see now that so much of what I believed and taught was influenced by and laced with fear and hints of my own hidden trauma, which is why I was sucked in by so many manipulative leaders. I sometimes wonder how many of my readers were abused, and perhaps resonated with my writings because of it. The thought is sobering.
As time went by, my past sins hovered over me, unnamed childhood trauma haunted my thoughts, and my quest for “protection” from the spiritual and moral dangers that seemed to be everywhere became an impossible obsession…almost to the point of isolation.
I tried to make sense of my abuse by taking the blame for it through self-condemnation, and refusing to even call it abuse. This was a distortion of the truth and I worry now that the focus of “dying to self” that was weaved throughout so much of my writings may have caused more confusion and harm to women who read my books while suffering in (or after) abusive relationships.
I regret so much of what I taught over the years, and I realize I wasn’t qualified to be teaching or counseling anyone. I shudder to think that my own self-condemning inner voice may have shown up at times in the way I taught or wrote to other women. It breaks my heart to think that I may passed on my burdens or caused harm to the very women I truly desired to help.
I wasn’t perfect then and I’m not perfect now. But I’m healing, growing, and listening.
Around 2007, a group of online critics took issue with things I had written (some of which they were right about) but, instead of coming to me to try to reason with me about what they felt was in error, they twisted and exaggerated what I said on several blogs. Instead of anything gentle or constructive, they resorted to online bullying and public shaming, which was a painfully familiar feeling.
Eventually, this escalated to outrageous accusations and libel; and an attorney had to make them stop. But, the whole ordeal was extremely triggering. That is when the nightmares and panic attacks started in full force.
A few years ago, after I began therapy, I discovered I had suffered from CPTSD since childhood. This explained my hyper vigilance, panic attacks, OCD, perfectionism, and constant quest for belonging and “safety” —especially for me and my children.
I would never have said it out loud – even to myself, but I often felt on edge, as if God was a critical Father waiting for me to get it wrong—even accidentally. I had put my faith in Jesus many years ago. I recall getting a glimpse of the heart of the Father of Heaven in an 1980’s song by Benny Hester: “When God Ran.” But somewhere along the way, I started picturing myself more as a “sinner in the hand of an angry God” than a son (or daughter).
So yes, I knew and believed that Jesus had died for my many sins. My struggle became all wrapped up in how to be sorry enough for them. Grateful enough for His sacrifice. And vigilant enough in…all the things…to ensure that I hadn’t neglected some small thing, or “gotten something wrong” by accident. What if my own “desperately wicked” heart was just fooling me into believing I belonged? What if I still had to eventually face a scary “father?”
What I desired more than anything was to be able to relax and feel like I really, really was, in fact, a cherished child—His child. And that nothing I could ever do would change that. Ever. My fears of abandonment, shame, and rejection had been weaved into my nervous system since birth, so I always had a feeling of dread looming in the shadows. And just like my recurring back pain, “this body of sin and death,” which includes my nervous system, still needed/needs healing (Romans 7:24-25).
And although symptoms of CPTSD and other trauma related problems can heal, we still likely won’t be 100% healed this side of glory. And I’m learning to have self-compassion until that happens.
Recently, I read a book called Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund, and it was truly a balm to my soul. I would have loved to hand this book to my 20-something-year-old self all those years ago, but maybe I can at least recommend it to someone else who needs this message now:
“Whoever comes to Me, I will never cast out.” (John 6:37)
“As long as you fix your attention on your sin, you will fail to see how you can be safe. …Looking inside ourselves, we can anticipate only harshness from heaven. Looking out to Christ, we can anticipate only gentleness.” – Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund
“All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me, I will in no wise [never EVER] cast out.” (John 6:37)
ALL who come to Him. Not those who prove how sorry they are by checking off a meticulous list of acknowledged offenses. All. Not those who have successfully demonstrated proper restitution to those they offended. All. Not those who are going to the right church or raising their children a certain way. All. Not just the beautiful, the perfect, or those who are somehow “enough,” All.
“Our redemption is not a matter of a gracious son, trying to calm down an uncontrollably, angry father. The Father himself ordains our deliverance. He takes the loving initiative. (note vs. 38-40)” – Gentle and Lowly
Our tender Father looked down from Heaven in compassion, and saw those of us who were poor and needy, broken and lost, suffering and in need of a Savior. Our Heavenly Father is the One who sent His (willing) only Son to sacrifice Himself for us on the cross. It was our Father’s idea. Jesus said it was the whole point:
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:38-40)
I realized I don’t need to spend so much time “warning” Christian women about all the dangers of the world! Instead, I can share about the only safe place there is!
Praise God! I am loving the abundant life under the shadow of His wing (Psalm 36:7). I am spending more time these days continuing to heal and mend relationships, as I focus less on the wrath I was so terrified of and saved from, and more on the Lord’s gentleness and love, basking in the fact that I am securely His!
Come to Jesus…
“We do not come to a set of doctrines. We do not come to a church. We do not even come to the Gospel. All these are vital. But most truly, we come to a person, to Christ Himself.