Michelle’s Story Part 3
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Hello and welcome to the Safe to Hope podcast. My name is Ann Maree and I’m the Executive Director for HelpHer and the host of this podcast. On the Safe to Hope: Hope Renewed in Light of Eternity podcast, we help women tell their story with an eye for God’s redemptive purposes. All suffering is loss, but God leaves nothing unused in His plans. We want to help women see His redemptive thread throughout their circumstances, and then look for opportunities to join with God in His transformational work.

Warning: Michelle’s story is for adult audiences only. This season includes discussions regarding marital, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse. We advise listener and reader discretion.

Hello and welcome to the Safe to Hope podcast. My name is Ann Maree and I’m the executive director for HelpHer and the host of this podcast. On the Safe to Hope: Hope Renewed in Light of Eternity podcast, we help women tell their story with an eye for God’s redemptive purposes. All suffering is loss, but God leaves nothing unused in His plans. We want to help women see His redemptive thread throughout their circumstances and then look for opportunities to join with God in His transformational work.

Ann Maree
Last time on the Safe to Hope podcast we spoke with Brad Hambrick about suffering in domestic abuse, and also how to think about forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation. Brad also spoke to some of Michelle’s questions regarding her school and her Church’s response to an abuser. And how that added multiple levels of hurt to her already painful experience. As I’ve mentioned before, and want to say again, I can’t express enough thanks for survivors like Michelle, who endure reliving their experiences so that we can get better at caring for the victims of this devastating situation. Brad and I interacted with a story from the June 6, Safe to Hope episode told to us by Michelle, a survivor of domestic and specifically sexual abuse in marriage.

Thank you again, Michelle, for joining us.

Michelle
Thank you so much for having me.

Ann Maree
This is the last part in the three episodes of Michelle’s story. Today, we will focus our attention less on her story, and more on how Michelle navigated some significant and hard thoughts and feelings. But we’re also going to look for how God’s redemptive thread flows throughout her circumstances. By way of reminder, on the Safe to Hope podcast names have been changed in order to protect those associated with these stories. The HelpHer ministry exists to help people in crisis and to train people helpers. So integrity is one of our concerns. To the best of our ability, we have sought to honor the privacy and dignity of those who share their precious stories with us. Before we begin, I’d like to share with our audience that there may be some things discussed that can be triggering. If you’re a victim or survivor, we want to just let you know Michelle’s story might be hard to hear. Maybe find a trusted friend to sit with or someone you can talk to and process after you’ve heard her experience. Also, Michelle’s story is for adult audiences only. Just as a heads up this season includes discussions regarding marital, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse. We advise listener and reader discretion.

Michelle, in your last episode, you told the story of your final days in marriage. And also some of the details related as they played out in your church and in your workplace. Many of our listeners, also victims and survivors of various types of abuse, will recognize the layers involved in many of our own stories as well. So the questions I want to ask you today relate to how you navigated, how to think and how to feel within your own situation. The first thing I’d love to hear is, what did you learn about God through your counseling?

Michelle
Now this, this can be a really long section. So you might have to cut me off if I if I talk for too long. Because I was actually just reminiscing yesterday with a friend, just how much I learned through the counseling that I received and in just the daily impact that it still has in my life. One of the really big things that I really started to grasp, I’m not saying I completely understand but began to understand with just the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I had spent years begging the Lord to help me to forgive. I made the assumption that the fear and anxiety that I experienced during those years of dealing with Mike’s addiction was because of my unforgiving heart. I just couldn’t let it go. And that was the kind of the operational assumption that I worked under. And unfortunately this was reinforced by some of the counsel that I received. And so I tried all of the tricks that we talked about in Christian circle, just you know, you keep doing right until your emotions catch up, you’ll hear that that often. And there are times where that’s very appropriate, I think, but each time I felt like I was making progress, then then trust would be broken again. And so we had this cycle where the fear just would not abate and the anxiety was just ever present. And I want to be really clear here, that I do think that whenever possible, reconciliation should be our goal. As believers, we want a whole family of whole marriages or friendships, whole churches, this is what best reflects the gospel, we will inevitably hurt one another in life. And so this is just the difficulty of the reality of the human experience. So I think we want reconciliation to be something that is kept on the table for as long as it is possible or safe to do so. And I think a lot of counseling from the pop culture standpoint, is actually doing damage by not encouraging reconciliation in cases where it really truly might be possible. So relationships are hard, hard work and we have to live in that tension. And I want to acknowledge that. But and this is the part that was new to me, that I learned through counseling, when we’re dealing with someone who has been deeply harmful, as refuse to genuinely repent, has ignored biblical counsel, persisted in sin against us, or people that we love, there is a time and a place to forgive. But reconciliation may not be possible or even safe. And I just remember the freedom in this truth. This was not teaching that I had in my background. But the freedom to understand that I don’t have to choose between bitterness and anger on one side, that unforgiving spirit, or continuing to endure abuse and manipulation on the other side, that that wasn’t the only options that I had, I can choose to forgive, because of the enormous grace of Jesus in the way that he has shown that in my own life and my own story. And then I can also choose to limit that individual’s ability to continue to inflict sin and harm in my life or the lives of my children. And that might look really different for each one of us, depending on our situation. I do remember just one, and it’s kind of a silly example. But for some reason, it just, it helped me understand this concept, just that example of an accountant that had stolen money from you. And as a follower of Jesus forgiveness is not an option, even in that very difficult circumstance. But it’s not necessarily wise to give that account and your new account number or your PIN number, right. And again, that’s a very simplistic example. But it was kind of a lightbulb moment for me that as much as it depends on me live at peace. But there will be times when a human is hell bent on doing harm and reconciliation may not be possible. And I should probably add here, that I think this is where God has shown me that the local counseling can be really helpful, because it’s difficult to sort out the different situations that we find ourselves in, is this a situation that calls for forgiveness and reconciliation? Is this a situation that calls for forgiveness, but reconciliation needs to, you know, be be very far down the road or or not at all? Those are difficult things to think through. And so that was something that was so helpful to me.

I think another truth that was really impressed on me, through counseling about how to understand my relationship with God was just the idea of being an image bearer. The institution of marriage is good, it is valuable, it is worth fighting hard, for it should be a powerful reflection of the gospel. But before I was a married person, I was a person. We bear the image of our Creator, and that’s unrelated to any other human relationship that we might have. And so just coming to a greater understanding that there is no greater position that I could possibly have been an image bearer in God’s created order and that when I resigned that image bearing to an abusive and sinful relationship, even including marriage, we just need to be very, very cautious. Jesus does not love me, because I’m a wife. He does not love me more if I tolerate deliberate and repeated sin in my marriage bed without complaint. He loved me, because I’m His daughter, and I was made in His image. Full stop. And I come from the idea, and I still struggle with this at times that my value was was wrapped up in, in my marriage. And I don’t think that is an accurate reflection of the gospel. I belong to the Lord. And that was, that’s one of my favorite verses out of Isaiah.

Another issue that I grew tremendously in was that issue of just his lordship over both my body and my soul. And the book of Psalms, the Gospels, Mark 5 is one of my favorite examples. And we might talk about that again a little bit later, but just in understanding how God designed my body, and my heart to work in tandem, and how He cares so deeply for both of those things.

I was taught, and I was raised with the kind of the notion that really only eternal things matter. And most of us would agree that doctrinally this isn’t, this isn’t quite right, right? We’re not Gnostics, or something like that. But we really struggle to live this out. Because so often, our teaching in Christian circles, schools, colleges, churches is really limited and really narrow in this area. And it’s really drilled into our heads, that if we pay attention to physical things, such as our bodies that can really lead us astray, that we need to do things that matter for eternity, you will hear that repeated a lot in the circles that I’m familiar with. That caring for our bodies is at best a fallow efforts in and at worst, it can actually be harmful. But what I have come to understand is that it all matters to Him, and to live with less than that understanding of both my body and my soul is so limiting to a very limitless God. So, yes, my emotions and my physical responses to events did not necessarily be the driving force of my life. But they are incredibly helpful, incredibly designed, built in system that God made to help us interpret our environment. When am I safe? When am I under threat? And I think that this has much bigger implications than just putting 1 Corinthians 10:31, up on gym walls or on brochures or whatever this this matters deeply. When we talk about bodily harm, diseases, mental health, trauma and panic attacks, the list could just go on and on. And then closely related to that was just that how my emotions are a gift. I had viewed for a very long time, I had viewed my emotions as harmful, as a negative, as something that was constantly trying to trick me or pull me away from God. And coming to that understanding that as part of my experience as a bodily human being with emotions that are their God, given, they’re helpful in aiding us to understand our environment, and what’s happening in our hearts. And again, we don’t want to be ruled by our emotions, and I do understand that, but paying attention to them or thinking about them understanding, why am I anxious? Why am I happy? Why am I joyful right now? Why do I feel so thankful? What is making me so scared? Why do I have this sense of abandonment? That’s so important. Emotion is part of the human experience. And I have come to believe part of the biblical human experience. I know a lot of people in my life right now are really attracted to the the series, The Chosen. And I think a lot of that is because we’re able to see, maybe in a slightly different way, we’re able to see Jesus processing human emotion, and the human experience and understanding that such a powerful part of who He is and why He came into our world. So just really leaning into that truth, allowing Jesus to be Lord over every emotion in my life, not just the good ones and trying to stuff down the bad ones. That’s something that I still have to work on daily. So having the freedom to lament a part of my past, while absolutely being blown away by God’s grace in my presence. That is such a grounding thing. And there I just feel like there’s so much Jesus in that perspective.

Ann Maree
You learned a good deal? I appreciate you sharing every one of those points.

Michelle
Yes. And I’m learning. And that’s another part that I would say is, yeah, there’s so much out there that a lot of these are not things that I’ve conquered their daily, their daily lessons, I’m still trying to work out in my own life.

Ann Maree
And good counsel in many situations. So thank you. What helped you survive?

Michelle
Yeah, I hope that this doesn’t sound trite because it is not but the Word of God. First and foremost, even in the darkest and most difficult days that I experienced, I found Jesus’ voice in the Word to be such a stronghold for me. If you’ve listened to the other episode, you know that I probably, I did have a lot of misunderstandings theologically about what Christian marriage and submission and spiritual authority should look like. But even in that, the way that Jesus would meet me through His word was, was life-sustaining. It was personal. And it was just bigger than any pain I was facing. He has been everything He said he would be to me, and I love the fact that He wrote me a letter to tell me about that. And I just want to give testimony to the power of the Word of God, even in very, very dark times.

My other survival tactics, were my children. I have four children. And on days, when I just wasn’t sure I could keep going. They made sure I did. Um, sometimes they were not even aware of the fact that they were in that in that role. But they, they made sure that I kept putting one foot in front of the other. And I made a lot of mistakes, that weigh heavily on me that I know impacted them spiritually and emotionally. And through counseling those issues, we’ve been able to talk through a lot of that. I still, as I mentioned, in previous episodes, feel heavily about my failure to advocate for them when I feel like I should have had time. So in many ways, I failed them just trying to project an image of our family that wasn’t necessarily true or accurate. But the grace in the love that they have shown, is so humbling. They have pursued joy, they have pursued Christ, and they are just an enormous gift in my life. And then my extended family as well, particularly my brother and sister-in-law. These people have picked me up off the floor, literally, they’ve answered phone calls over and over at different points of crisis in my life. They have sat with me through panic attacks, read scripture out loud to me, when the fear in my mind was just overwhelmingly loud. They’ve made me take medicine, when I needed it, and even for a time shared their home with me when I was just too crushed, to live on my own. And so I can’t really give enough thanks to the Lord for their role in my life. And probably more than anything, they shared their faith with me. When mine was faltering and weak. They believed Jesus for me, and became His hands and feet in my life. And so how they loved and cared for me, during those times will just always be such a testimony to me, and just a real reflection of Christ’s love for me. And I’m so thankful for that.

Ann Maree
That’s a great description of a godly, biblical caregiver, offering their faith for you to lean on when you can’t find your own. And that’s what I pray, I can do. And I pray that others will aspire to. But I appreciate that you brought in both the Word and the Word, if you will, in the flesh of people acting out their faith, walk in such a way that someone like you could lean on their faith. So very, very helpful thought process for, for people helping others to have, you know, get those two things in place for them. Yes. So let’s, let’s go into the Word a little bit further. Where in God’s Word, do you find his heart for you?

Michelle
Yeah, there’s so many passages that I could have pointed to you But Isaiah 54 was a passage, whenever people ask me this question, they come to mind because I read that over and over, particularly one summer when it was just very, very dark. And it spoke to me so clearly about the shame and rejection that I felt. And I… this is a time after I just… I was just really growing in my understanding that God loved me. I was not being punished for some type of shortcoming or mistake, but that He looked toward me with compassion and love. I wasn’t part of some kind of lesser Christian group, because I had a failed marriage. And so these were new truths for me in many ways. And so these verses, if you don’t mind, I’d love to share them. Verse 4 says, “Do not be afraid, you will not be put to shame. Don’t fear disgrace, you will not be humiliated, you will forget the shame of your youth. And remember no more the reproach of your widowhood, or your maker is your husband. The LORD Almighty is his name. The Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer. He is called the God of all the earth, the LORD will call you back, as if you were a wife deserted and distressed and spirit, a wife who married young only to be rejected, says your God, for a brief moment I abandon you, but with deep compassion, I will bring you back in this surge of anger, I hid My face for a moment, but with everlasting kindness, I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer.”

Ann Maree
I’m having my own emotional response to hearing the Word like that.

Michelle
Yes, I just, I love those verses.

Ann Maree
But even just specificity of how it spoke directly to you, the wife and calling you to be calling you back to be His wife and recognizing Him as the husband and your Redeemer.

Michelle
I just a reminder in those last couple of verses, because when you’re when you’re going through difficult times, it feels eternal. It feels like there is no end in sight. And for God to remind me, for a brief moment, it’s going to feel like I abandoned you or I hid My face, but with deep compassion with everlasting kindness and kindness to see the contrast there between His kindness and His favor and His compassion and the brevity of the pain. Even though, you know, from the human standpoint, 24 years is a long time, right? But that that promise, I guess that at some point, this will feel brief. And My kindness and compassion will be everlasting. That just gave me a hope and a will to keep going, that is really hard to articulate.

Ann Maree
I do believe you articulated it really well. Well, this, that answers this question, too, but maybe some more information you could provide what are some of the small deliverances you experienced along the way? And of course, that was one of them. But what are some of the others?

Michelle
I think in keeping with just the understanding that my soul and my body work together, I think a small deliverance that God gave me was running. For many, many years, God has given me the gift of running. Sometimes with friends, but most often alone. I just I love being outside, I don’t use music, I don’t listen to podcasts, I just breathe and move. And it was just a way and still is a way for me to to process a lot of the chronic stress. And so most of this time was long before I really had a good understanding of the impact of my body on my brain and my mind, and, and vice versa. But I just knew that I felt like I could manage things a little bit better after I came back from a run. So the Lord has used those times as I run to be very, very near to me. I always say, Jesus, and I work out a lot of things on the pavement. And so I’m really grateful for that small deliverance that He’s woven into my life.

Ann Maree
That’s cool. I don’t run but you’re inspiring me to at least get out and walk.

Michelle
Yeah, it really I think anything that allows our bodies and brains and soul to work in tandem. So yes, walking and it definitely doesn’t have to be running. I think anything that lets us move can be so helpful.

Ann Maree
I agree. A little bit more specifically, what are some of the comforts that you’ve experienced along the way?

Michelle
Yeah, I hope that this doesn’t sound contradictory to other things that I’ve met because they’re having the blessing of people walking alongside you is, is so powerful. And I talked about my extended family and my children over the years. But there is also something very, very powerful about walking alone with Jesus. There are some levels of pain that really no other human can touch in your life, some places of loneliness and rejection, that that somebody else just really can’t go with you there, they can’t completely understand because each of our stories are so unique and, and they have experiences that I can’t completely understand in their story. And so there have been many times and several very memorable times when Jesus has met me in a place where I just felt completely and totally alone, completely rejected, completely abandoned. In those moments are not fun. But there is something very powerful and faith building about realizing that even if or when no other human can meet you, there, He will be there. In fact, He’s already been there. And he knows the depths of my pain in a way that even the people closest to me can’t know. Again, He has been everything he promised to be to me, and I am thankful to Him for that every day. Yeah, there’s just there’s a little loneness to it. But there’s a sweetness about aloneness with Jesus that that does build our face. And if it wasn’t for those moments, I think it would be hard to press on.

Ann Maree
You were the one that was emotional during the first two sessions. Gonna be the one that’s emotional during the the last one. Thank you for sharing.

Michelle
Our good emotions.

Ann Maree
That’s right. Yes, they are. Yes, we preach that to ourselves, yes, and others. So one of the things that is, I think helpful in helping others is just seeing a bigger picture of God, because of their circumstances. And I know that might sound hard, it is hard. But what what has God revealed to you about Himself in your story?

Michelle
Yeah, that’s, that’s a really big question. And it probably has a lot of different answers. But His faithfulness, I think, is probably a great summary word. I love Exodus 2:24. God heard me, He remembers me, He sees me. And He takes notice of me. This is who He is. This is how He deals with His children, including, and maybe even especially, His broken children. And I will admit that there were years when this felt very hard to believe, to be honest, I felt like I had to really just accept that on faith or by faith. Because it just seemed like there was no answer in sight, no relief in sight. But even looking back on those years, I can say with confidence that He heard, He remembered, He saw he took notice. And that is an incredibly empowering and freeing thing for someone to understand, who has felt so powerless, and so not free. I don’t have to be the one to bring about justice in all cases. And even when I could not see Him or understand He was working on my behalf. Exodus goes on to say the Lord will fight for you. You need only to be still. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that that means we should never take action on our behalf or advocate for ourselves. We’ve talked about that. But there are those things in which we do feel powerless to control and to be able to hand those over to God and know that He hears, He remembered and He takes notice of me. Oh, man, I am so grateful for that part of His character.

Ann Maree
And build on that just a little bit more to in how He actually was shepherding you and using using those words to but also shepherding you through this process. Really?

Michelle
Yeah, I think particularly this summer, one particular summer it was just incredibly dark for me. I had been divorced for about a year. Because of the circumstances that we talked about in previous episodes. I had left both my job and my church and I I just crashed. I mean spiritually, emotionally, physically. The panic attacks returned in full force, I was struggling with them at a level that I had never struggled with before. Overwhelming memories, flashbacks. I was afraid almost all of the time of really just like normal everyday thing. I’ve heard one counselor describe it as a trauma storm. I don’t know honestly, exactly what the best description of it was. But it was just an incredibly dark time. And I started that summer and then spent almost an entire year in the Psalms for my devotion. And it was just such an insightful process as I coupled my Bible reading and what I was learning with also what I was learning in counseling, I obviously was in really intensive counseling at that point, too. But I just learned so much about how they still must express their deep, deep emotions. And some of those emotions were things that I had considered bad or off-limits emotions, like fear, or depression, or anger, lament, abandonment. And just the depth of the human experience that is included in God’s letter to us is so incredibly comforting. I don’t have to pretend that the dark valley is not there. It is there, it was there. It was an ever-present reality in my life at that time. But I can also take enormous comfort in His presence. In that dark valley, a phrase I repeated to myself over and over is the darkness is not dark to Him, you know, and, and so I feel completely overwhelmed by the darkness, He does not. So I don’t have to be brave or stoic, I don’t really have to have great insight. Or know the next step, I can just follow my shepherd, I can just rest in his care, and that ability to rest, to be able to release that hypervigilance that had been such a part of my existence for so long. That is, it’s been a huge part of my healing process that Jesus has shepherded me through.

Ann Maree
Well, I think what I hear you saying, too, is how important it is to just try fight to stay in the Word and stay in God’s presence in our devotional life, our inner life, even in like you’re saying, the physical difficulty of having panic attacks and depression and such. And it is a fight to stay close to the Lord in those times for sure. Let’s turn a little dit and just, I want to ask you, has God done any reframing of your story? And if so, how?

Michelle
I do think He has helped me understand kind of the idea or the notion of a wounded healer that has an interesting background. But for me, at least for a long time, I thought that I had to have all the answers, be in full-time ministry have a really strong family, even what we were just talking about, you know, being in the Word, you know, very, in a devotional setting, it didn’t really occur to me that, you know, sometimes being on your closet floor, on your face and saying, ‘Jesus be near’ right. That’s, that’s staying close to the Lord too. So I just had this really kind of limited vision of, of what it meant to to walk with, with Christ. And I don’t think that that idea that we have to have all the answers that we have to necessarily be in a strong place in our faith, in order to help other people is necessarily true, I still struggled so much. Some days, you know, more than others. And yet, there are times when I can really connect with someone who is also in pain because of that. I understand triggers, and anger and depression, and powerlessness that comes with trauma. And those weren’t things that I really understood before. And and in fact, some days, I’m right there alongside that person. And Jesus always shows up, always, when I am literally at my weakest. That’s when He can take my story and use it in some way. And so that reframing, that I am not the hero of the story, I don’t need to be that’s a load that none of us as humans were designed to carry. And so there’s just so much relief in that. There’s such a burden of like self preservation that is lifted when I approach my story as as someone who has been deeply wounded, who has struggled tremendously, and sometimes still is, in all those things, not not everything in my story is past tense. But that doesn’t mean that God can’t use it. And as I walk alongside, you know, my sisters in Christ, or my brothers in Christ, who are also struggling. So that’s been a real change in perspective for me, of how God wants to use my life and my story.

Ann Maree
Excellent. Thank you for articulating that so well. And also, I would like to just reiterate, sometimes for our listeners, they hear our storytellers and think, why am I not fixed? Or why am I not progressing? Quite so long… quite so far. And I want to just emphasize what you’re saying here, it’s not a once and done, it’s ongoing. We are not perfectionists of thinking that we will be perfect in this world. However, I think that promise can guide us towards living in this world while waiting to be with the Lord. So yeah, not not a goal to fix ourselves. It’s a process and it’s going to be and it’s a walk. So how did this experience impact how you relate to God?

Michelle
I do think how I view spiritual authority is, is very different. I sought for many years for God’s approval. I was so fearful of His judgment on me. His disappointment in me. And probably disappointment is honestly a little bit better word than judgment. I knew enough doctrinally that like, I technically wasn’t under judgment, right. But I still had this deep sense that God was just disappointed in me, particularly because my life wasn’t turning out, like I had planned. And so I just felt like, I don’t know, I was letting I was letting God down. And so in turn, I struggle to be honest about the pain that I was in, I over spiritualized a lot of my experiences. So instead of, you know, just my body is really experiencing a lot of anxiety, I would try to over spiritualize that into an issue of like forgiveness or something like that. I downplayed the physical and emotional toll that it was taking on me. And again, a lot of that ties into kind of that, you know, that negative view of the body and emotions. So I think now I am better able to understand how God values and redeems all of me. There’s not a part of me, that’s not important to Him, and I can turn to Him and my Father and Friend, and know that I’m protected and loved, in addition to just marveling at His holiness and otherness. And so there were just some really big missing pieces in my understanding of who He is that I think I have a better understanding of now and has really changed how I how I relate to Him.

Ann Maree
And that had to impact also how you relate to others. So how did this experience impact that?

Michelle
Yeah, and again, I mentioned it a little bit with a wounded healer. But I just have a much better understanding of, of trauma, of emotional exhaustion, how our body responds to chronic stress. So there would have been a time in my life and even the first time my counselor used the word trauma in relation to my experience, I really recoiled from that. Because I thought, ‘yeah, yeah, that’s no, no, no, no, that’s, that’s not me’. There would have been a time in my life where I would have like, questioned emotional abuse, like what is that? There are people just making up fancy words for hard things. And, you know, these are, are not issues reflecting a lack of faith, as many Christians, including myself, sometimes think, or used to think. And so to be able to walk alongside other people that are struggling and, and to truly be able to say, ‘Look, I know, I understand. I remember some days, it’s even, yes, I’m still there too’, or just ‘yesterday was a hard day for me’. It’s not necessarily a club that you really seek out, or you want to be a part of, but it is something that I have come to value and I hope that God can continue to use. I want the church to be known as a place of healing, a place of rest. And so ultimately, that comes through the gospel, but it is lived out by communities of faith that know how to respond to trauma that can recognize abuse, and can truly help people heal through the power of what Jesus did for us. And so that’s been a tremendous privilege to be able to speak into people’s lives and relate to others in that manner.

Ann Maree
And that’s sorting your circumstances, so well and comforting others. So thank you for what you’re doing in the body. So talk about how, how is He revealing more to you about yourself? And then how that impacts your empathy, your care, your concern and compassion, like we’re talking about for other victims or survivors.

Michelle
Yeah, when one of the interesting things that has become a reality to me is that church is not a place of comfort for everyone. So I grew up loving church. It was the center of my life, really, we went a lot, all my friends were there. And so when I was first introduced to this idea that the church is hard for some people, that was that felt a little foreign to me, again, until I went through really deep valleys and a lot of pain. And so for many years there when we were in ministry, either vocationally or lay ministry church was just, it was one of the most difficult places for me. I remember sitting in the pew, with a heart that was so raw and so broken, that you could have just looked at me cross-eyed, and I would have completely broken down. So much fear. And yet, I truly wanted to honor God, I knew I should be in church. But it was just incredibly painful. And even to this day, this is one of those things that’s not all past, and I find a lot of memories and emotions, when I’m in church. I have to work very hard to focus. I have to work hard to kind of keep memories at bay and remind myself that I am part by God’s grace of a healthy church family now. It’s hard. It’s worth it. Because Jesus said it was worth it. And that’s something I think we want to continue to push back against that, church isn’t worth it. It is it’s a discouraging time in many ways, to see what is happening in the church, but it has to be worth it. And so by faith, I’m going to believe what Jesus said about his Church. But it is hard and honestly, part of why I wanted to participate in this this project with you Ann Maree, is because I believe in the value of the Church. And so when you say, ‘Hey, I want to help churches get better at helping victims of abuse’. That’s, that is a very motivating factor for me in sharing my story. So we need to walk really gently with people who find church a hard place to be. We need to listen and walk us alongside them with love and a lot of patience. As you mentioned, everybody moves through their story at a different pace. And I’m not sure that there’s a pace that is necessarily right or wrong. And so just understanding and have empathy for for people who find church to be hard, I think is something that is really important to me.

Ann Maree
I’m in awe of everything you’re sharing, and I’m just thinking outside the box right now, but thinking about how excited I am to see how God is going to continue to use your story but to use you. He has imparted so much wisdom to you. So speak to our audience, what would you say to other victims and survivors about the process of moving through your story?

Michelle
I think the first thing I want to say is I am just so sorry for your hurt, your pain. I am so sorry for the choices that someone else made that has so deeply impacted your life. I’m sorry if you’ve received counsel at some point that did more damage than good or somehow moved you further away from Jesus. I am sorry for the way that many of our churches don’t know how to help you when you desperately needed help. I am sorry for the broken world that we live in and that you have known on a very personal level that I’m just so sorry. But I also want you to know that you’re loved and that there are hope… that there is hope. There are people who have both the heart and the skills to walk alongside you. And when you are in a very dark place, especially so often happens to abuse victims, that darkness is coming in multiple ways, right? It might be coming personally it might be coming from a Christian organization they were associated with it might be coming from their church, it’s hard to believe that there are people out there that understand that know, and I just want to be a voice that reminds you that there are there are people out there who have the heart and the skill to help walk with you, and you are not alone. And you don’t have to be alone. And so hopefully, this podcast can be part of connecting you to, to the people that can help you walk through the pain and the hard time that you are in.

Ann Maree
And I hear that you are one one of those with that heart. Would you encourage them to share their story?

Michelle
Yeah, we talked about this question. This is a funny question because I honestly don’t know… Ay, ay, ay, I think, for some of us, sharing our story is and can be very helpful. But maybe for others of us, it’s not helpful, at least not helpful at this time. And so one of my counselors that I respect a lot, so suffering is not a competitive sport. And so sometimes I think we need to release the expectation that, ‘Oh, if so-in-so shared their story and it was helpful for them, then that’s what I need to do’. So, you know, sometimes you, you still need to keep it very close to you, a very small circle, really focus on your own healing journey. And, and then again, sometimes sharing can be part of that journey. So I think it really just depends on that person, what they’ve experienced or where they are in their healing process. And really what they feel like the Lord is leading them to do.

Ann Maree
Yeah, build on that a little bit more what what cautions would you add?

Michelle
It’s been helpful for me to think about my story as as a tithe, part of the treasure, that that I have been asked by God to steward well, and so that that might mean that sharing in every situation, every venue with every person, or every small group, is it’s just not the best stewardship of of your story. So I think it’s really important to ask, ‘How can God use the tithe of my story in this situation?’ And again, that that might look a little different for each person based on so many different factors. But just just make sure that you are comfortable with how your story tithe is going to be used. And that’s been a helpful framework for me to think about as I think about sharing my story.

Ann Maree
It’s a great illustration to use. Yeah. So looking forward, kind of the tagline for our our show. God tells us in Revelation 21:5 that he’s making all things new – that’s not the tagline – but anyway, just focusing on that verse. How does your confidence in that promise help you find hope here and now?

Michelle
Just thinking about new, whole, right, complete, those words are so powerful, right? I just I cannot wait for that day. For that reality. Knowing that is my reality is so empowering now, as we plow through the brokenness, the damage the trauma, that are just part of our daily experience. And so I can’t wait to rest in the presence of Jesus and know that the struggle is done. And at some level, knowing that and clinging to that fact, no matter how deep the pain is today, it is temporary. And those verses in Isaiah, right, for just a moment, it will feel as if you’ve been abandoned, but it will be made right someday, but for everlasting, my kindness and compassion will be shown to you. And that’s something that I think we have to cling to on the days when the darkness feels so overwhelming.

Ann Maree
Yeah. Such a good word. I pray for those who are hearing it are feeling that kind of washing over of their soul of God’s promise. We like to ask our storytellers this question since we are speaking to an audience, hopefully, of pastors and church leaders seeking to learn more about caring for for women like you. So what do you wish pastors and church leaders knew about sexual abuse in marriage, and the victims and the survivors? And then how God met you, in your circumstances? So big question, but go.

Michelle
For it is a big, big question. And again, if I don’t to go over time, you just waved the white flag here. One of the things that I would love for pastors and Christian leaders to know is that while I unapologetically believe in the infallible and inherent and all sufficient nature of the Word of God, that with the deepest respect I can muster, that belief doesn’t necessarily extend to them as as human beings as as leaders, so they are not infallible or inherent or all sufficient. And that’s, that’s not at all to diminish their role in the church or the Christian institution. It’s simply a fact of human… humaneness. They’re not experts in everything. And in fact, they don’t, they don’t need to be experts in everything. And that should actually come, I would hope, as a great relief to a pastor or a Christian leader. God has uniquely gifted men and women in His church, with expertise and experience in abuse, in trauma, and sexual addictions. He’s given them tools to rightly apply that all sufficient Word in those situations. And so it’s not only appropriate, but it is often necessary and right for them as a pastor or a Christian leader, or school administrator to ask for help as they try to shepherd victims and abusers, to refer their flock to biblical counselors that can speak into that darkness with the experience and the expertise that comes particularly in these really complicated situations of long standing sexual addiction or mental health or abuse. So I would just beg them to have the humility to recognize that when you refuse to do that, when you insist on being an expert in things that you really aren’t an expert in, you are often doing so much damage, not only to individual soul, but also to the gospel that we so much want to protect and value. And so to be willing to reach out to men and women in the church that have experience in these issues, I think is just something that I would beg them to consider.

Secondly, the church is a place for sinners. And that is true for every one of us, right. Thank God, it is in place for sinners. It is only because of God’s mercy on each one of us that it allows us to be counted as His people. However, in cases of abuse, it is sometimes unsafe or impossible for both an abuser and the victim to worship, to heal, and to be restored in the same church family. So that is just one again, of the limitations of the human experience. And so, I would love for pastors to consider or Christian leaders if, if the abuse victims, are the party in these situations that regularly have to leave your fellowship, if they’re the ones that are typically having to pack up and move on in order to find that healing, would you just be willing to consider why that might be the case? How can you better support victims? Is Is there even an unintentional bent toward considering them collateral damage? Sorry, this is rough, not much we can do, those kinds of attitudes. Would you be willing to evaluate? Is there a difference in who you support when that abuser was in a place of leadership? When that abuser had a following or some level of power? I guess you would say in Christian circles. What if the abuser is an individual with an outgoing personality and really good communication skills, does that change how we move forward with them and the victim in our in our local church fellowship? So as a pastor, as a Christian leader, would you just be willing to ask these really hard questions around the situations that you’re aware of, and then be committed to grow from the answers?

And then finally, on this point, if you do assure victims of their safety within their fellowship, if you go ahead and take that step, and say, ‘you know, we’re going to make sure that you’re protected here, that you’re safe here, that this is a place of healing’, I cannot emphasize to you enough, how incredibly crucial it is, to their faith journey, that you follow through on that, that you do not allow those words to be just hollow promises of support and safety. It’s so essential for leaders to understand that most victims have been lied to repeatedly. And and so if that is is told to them, and then that doesn’t happen. That is just an extra layer of pain that they’re trying to process. So take the time, if you make that promise to help those abuse victims understand exactly what that’s going to look like in that church context, and then ensure that it happens. I think I would like them to consider if they are hiring a pastor or even someone in lay ministry, who is returning to ministry after a spiritual or moral failing, which we know is so common in our churches right now, that is just seems to be almost on the daily. If it first of all, in the biggest center, they would just be very, very careful in that situation. But in part of that process, would they consider talking to the wife before bringing that individual, that man back into public ministry, asking thoughtful questions about his behavior in the home, with her own comfort level with public ministry, how she’s processing the personal pain, that accompanying his sin, would you be willing to count her voice as a key component in the restoration process. And finally, because I have seen the damage, so often, of including our return to ministry, as part of the reconciliation process, right, for some reason, we just have kind of made that the highest goal in reconciliation. Because of the work of Jesus, we have believers are in the business of repentance and restoration. But full-time or public ministry is not a mandate, in order for those things to happen. It may in fact, not even be of God even for someone who has the gift of teaching or communication. So the goal of repentance is obedience to Jesus. The goal of reconciliation is reconciliation, I would say first to Christ, and then to our families. Return to ministry is optional. It may not even be a possibility, and that’s okay. So to just take seriously, the idea that not every leader who falls for ministry has to be returned to public ministry in order for restoration and reconciliation to take place. And in fact, there may be times where that’s the worst possible thing we could do in order to facilitate true repentance and true reconciliation. And I would just, I would love to see more Christian leaders, Christian pastors, thinking deeply about the impact on individuals and the Gospel. When when we return someone to public ministry who who has struggled, particularly in my lense in these areas of sexual addiction, trauma, abuse, and so forth.

And then finally, one of the things that I would really encourage pastors to think about I am so deeply concerned for a younger generation and young people who are, you know, if you want to use the term deconstructing, and I most often hear that blamed on secular forces, public school, you know, public universities, you know, just stay secular media, you can take your pick. But I am more and more concerned that at least in part, some of this deconstruction, you know, is it is it possible? Should we at least be asking the question if some of this is driven by the deep, deep hypocrisy in the church, particularly again around issues of integrity and leadership, sexual purity and protection for the vulnerable. And so we really quickly renounced the secular influences from our pulpits and our stages that we believe are is driving this deconstruction in so many of our young people. But at least from my perspective, we seem incredibly hesitant to take a stand on those latter issues, lack of integrity and leadership in the church, lack of sexual purity, protection for the vulnerable. So, again, for pastors and Christian leaders, I think our unwillingness to at least entertain the question that we have responsibility, in, in the struggle that we see so many young people having in terms of their faith, I think that’s doing incredible harm to the Gospel. And I would love to see us engage that issue with more intellectual honesty.

Ann Maree
These are really helpful things to hear from a victim, but also from someone who is just so incredibly wise. I’m learning so much from you, I’m being ministered to, just so much from you as well. I’m praying for the ears that will receive those words and that encouragement, not just from you, but directly from God, from His Word from His story. And how you so just now beautifully connected your story in in His I’m reminded of a song from the faithful project, which is where we get our theme song for the podcast. The name of the song is called A Woman and the lyrics Amy Grant and Ellie Holcomb sing in the chorus are, “I have seen the Lord, I will speak of Him, and nobody could talk me out of it. I have seen the Lord and the Lord seen me, oh, He said my name and told me, ‘Go and speak of what you’ve seen’.” Michelle, you’ve done that for us over these past episode, episodes. And I want to say to you, the Lord sees you. Know that He sees and He will use your words to comfort others. Many blessings, Friend.

Michelle
Thank you so much for having me. It is really been an incredible privilege. And I am so deeply grateful for the work that you and people like to do. Thank you.

Ann Maree
Thank you and I can’t say it enough. I’m looking forward to how God is going to continue to use even through these episodes.

That’s all for today. And again, thank you for joining us. In our next episode Darby Strickland will be back on the Safe to Hope podcast to discuss hope and care-filled biblical counsel for women devastated by sexual abuse in marriage. Darby, I am sure, will have an abundance of wealth to share with us on these and other topics. Make sure to join us again on July 25 with Darby on the Safe to Hope podcast.

If you want to know more about domestic abuse go to ‘Called to Peace.org’. I also recommend again Darby Strickland’s book, Is It Abuse?. It is excellent as a resource for both victims and church leaders for identifying patterns of abuse. She also has that incredibly helpful chapter on sexual abuse in marriage. In addition specifically for church leaders, for everyone but Dr. Jeremy Pierre and Dr. Greg Wilson’s book, When Home Hurts is particularly helpful.

[closing]

Safe to Hope is a production of HelpHer. Our Executive Producer is Ann Maree Goudzwaard. Safe to Hope is written and mixed by Ann Maree and edited by Ann Maree and Helen Weigt. Music is Waterfall and is licensed by Pixabay. We hope you enjoyed this episode in the Safe To Hope podcast series.

Safe To Hope is one of the resources offered through the ministry of HelpHer, a 501C3 that provides training, resources, and the people necessary in order for the church to shepherd women well. Your donations make it possible for HelpHer to serve women and churches as they navigate crises. All donations are tax-deductible. If you’d be interested in partnering with this ministry, go to help her resources.com and click the donate link in the menu. If you’d like more information or would like to speak to someone about ministry goals, or advocacy needs, go to ‘help her resources.com’ That’s ‘help her resources.com

 

Brad Hambrick mentioned include the Church Cares program, and Making Sense of Forgiveness: Moving from Hurt toward Hope. and God’s Attributes: Rest For Life’s Struggles

To learn more about domestic abuse, go to Called to Peace.org.

Darby Strickland’s book, Is It Abuse? which is an excellent resource for both victims and church leaders for identifying patterns of abuse. And specifically, Darby speaks in one chapter regarding sexual abuse in marriage.

Dr. Jeremy Pierre and Dr. Greg Wilson’s book When Home Hurts is particularly helpful for church leaders.

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