“He (Paul)… thought it to be his duty, as it is the duty of all Christians, to provide for things honest, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men; that is, to act so prudently as to prevent, as far as we can, all unjust suspicions concerning us, and all occasions of scandalous imputations.” Matthew Henry Commentary
The last few days have overwhelmed my mind and heart as I have listened to statements by the young women that brought Larry Nasser to justice. The world watched strong women stand up for what is right, just, and good and revealed the evil that had attempted to ruin their lives. Another young woman, Jules Woodson, stepped out from the sidelines and told her story of abuse. Two very different stories and yet they share a similar plot.
I wrote my book, Identity Crisis: Moving From Crisis to Credibility, that tackles the topic of credibility in the midst of crisis.(https://www.amazon.com/Identity-Crisis-Moving-Credibility-Morgan/dp/1614489157/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1518401584&sr=8-1&keywords=Joy+Anisa ) The question is not whether or not you and I will face a crisis or experience an injustice in our lifetime, instead, the question to be asked is what is the depth of my credibility in the midst of a crisis, whether it is my own or someone else. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 8:21, For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.
One of the main things that I find disturbing is when the victim speaks up immediately or years later; why is there hesitation to believe what is being said by the victim. Then I think of my own story. I felt secure among my friends in my youth group. Most of them were either my classmates or my peers at the Christian school where I attended. We were a close-knit group. We went to school together, we went to church together, we played sports together, and we went on trips together. I had never had a reason to think that I could be in danger. Maybe that was the problem; I was too trusting. On this particular Sunday afternoon, everything was as it has always been. Choir practice was in full swing in the main auditorium, there was probably a meeting or two being held, younger kids were playing together, and a group of us had gathered to watch the high school kids practice their puppet ministry. I slipped out and went to the restroom. As I was returning to where the group was I heard my name called from a classroom. I walked into a dark classroom and what happened next changed me. I was suddenly shoved against a wall and felt hands going up my shirt, and lips pressed against mine. I squirmed and pushed back, he spoke to me and I ran out of the room. I knew the voice. I knew who had attacked me. I walked just inside the main auditorium and stared at the choir. There was my mom. I stood there frozen in fear and completely stunned. In seconds, I had convinced myself that no one would believe me. I left the auditorium and went back to the room where the puppet practice was taking place. Sitting there, I tried to process what had just happened to me. I felt like everyone knew. Those next few hours seemed to go by slowly and I went to bed that night convincing myself I could handle it on my own. What I could not have been prepared for was what happened just days later. The boy that had attacked me had an older brother. This older brother began to tease me and saying to me that he heard I didn’t know how to kiss. He would mock me. I wanted desperately to tell someone what was happening, but I believed the lie that no one would believe me or nothing would be done. After all, these brothers were popular and the family was very well liked. I never told anyone until many years later. Unfortunately, I took matters into my own hands and began to try to prove myself to these boys. This led down a dark path full of confusion, torment, and deep regrets. Even now, as I type this blog post, it has taken me days to write this part. I have never publically told my story. The past three years have taught me the importance of speaking up and I do have a voice.
I will admit that I have wanted to avoid this. I have found it easier to talk about Bible truths from a safe distance. Several months ago, the Lord began to lead me to tell my story. I put it off. I wanted to do anything but this. I don’t want to be pitied. I don’t want what happened to me be the focus. However, the Lord is faithful and encouraged my heart at a recent Minister’s Wives Retreat with 2 Corinthians 4: 7-9, But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. These “earthen vessels” are jars of clay. My life as a jar of clay is broken, cracked, and missing a few pieces. Through the last several years, I have come to realize that I can rest in His perfection as He uses my imperfection and brokenness to shine through. Ultimately, this is what I hope to convey through this raw and real post.
First of all, what happened to me was not my fault. But I do wish I had handled it differently. I so wish I had told someone immediately. I do wish I had given the opportunity to know if I would have been protected, believed, and kept safe. I cannot say that those things would not have happened because the opportunity was never provided. My secret fueled my shame. The shame fueled my control and how I presented myself. Being in an extremely legalistic atmosphere at home, school, and the church only grew confusion with how I was to behave on the outside vs how I was feeling on the inside. So, I decided to measure up and have the approval of my teachers and peers and suppress my sadness, anger, and shame. Let me just say, this did not work well for me.
Here I am, 31 years later, telling my story. Why? I hope to encourage others to speak up. We are seeing a movement led by courageous women that are speaking up and standing up for themselves and using their voice. What discourages me is how some within the church is responding. I want to believe the poor response is the minority. the church is not a perfect place because it is made up of imperfect people. The church is only as safe as the people that make up the church and the organizations they support.
Going back to the Matthew Henry Commentary quote, “…it is the duty of all Christians, to provide for things honest, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men; that is, to act so prudently as to prevent, as far as we can, all unjust suspicions concerning us, and all occasions of scandalous imputations.” First of all, it is our duty to not just be honest but to provide a safe place for honesty. I worked for almost ten years as a counselor in the local church and a mandated reporter. I understand the weight of this responsibility. But I also understand that I will not shrug off my responsibility as a believer to help protect someone who is being abused. I think two extremes can take place if the church is not careful: the first is questioning whether we should speak up when we know abuse is taking place. Secondly, the church fears to have its reputation smeared and not working through the proper channels for the allegations to be proven or disproven. Yet. Paul encourages us with 2 Corinthians 8:21, For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.
The credibility of the church is weakened if not altogether destroyed when we are seeking to appear to be heavy on the side of “doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord”. How can the church seek to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord and ignore what is right in the eyes of man? If you are in a church that is handling a questionable situation in-house and refuses to allow for a proper process then you may want to step back and look at the credibility of the institution. I have been reading The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (https://www.amazon.com/Subtle-Power-Spiritual-Abuse-Manipulation/dp/0764201379/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518401685&sr=1-5&keywords=jeff+vanvonderen ) by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen. As I have been reading and reflecting on my own situation years ago, I am realizing that maybe deep down I knew I was in a very unhealthy school/church environment. The authors break down the seven characteristics of shame-based relationships/systems, and I have realized that is what was going on with me, they are as follows: out-loud shaming, focus on performance, manipulation, idolatry, preoccupation with fault and blame, obscured reality, and unbalanced interrelatedness. Of course, when I was 13, I had no idea the legalistic atmosphere I was accustomed to had created such an unhealthy way of relating.
Going back to the original quote by Matthew Henry Commentary, it states, “it is the duty of all Christians, to provide for things honest”. Covering up, looking the other way, manipulating people to keep them quiet, or minimizing is not honest. It is our duty as a believer in Jesus Christ to be honest. After all, it is the TRUTH that will set us FREE. When I was writing Identity Crisis, based on the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, I was struck by an essential element of Nehemiah’s story. “And I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach.” (Nehemiah 2b-3) Is this what we are doing today in our churches? Are we seeing abuse victims who are trying to survive and living in distress and reproach? The messengers went on to tell Nehemiah, “the wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire”. Not only were they trying to survive but they knew they were not safe. Nehemiah’s response is one of grief and compassion. “So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days…” (Nehemiah 1:4) An ordinary person made aware of disturbing circumstances. God help us if we as the church do not weep over the disturbing abuse happening within and outside of our church!
Nehemiah did not stop with his tears and praying. He took action. Not only are we compelled to preach the Gospel, we should be just as compelled to be honest and credible. Just as Nehemiah did and would not ignore the obvious, he knew that with the right tools and help there was the possibility for the people living in disgrace and reproach to thrive and live with honor and high esteem. With all of his hopes for the people that he loved who lived in his homeland, he did not underestimate the damage that would need to be repaired. Once Nehemiah arrived at Jerusalem he assessed the damage, “And I went out by night through the Valley Gate to the Serpent Well and the Refuse Gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire. Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal under me to pass. So I went up in the night by the valley, and viewed the wall…” (Nehemiah 2:13-15)
As the church begins the restoration process we must assess the damage and seek to understand the damage. How do we assess the damage? It begins with calling it what it is. Just as the messengers did not sugar coat or minimize the reality of the people of Jerusalem: disgrace and reproach; we also should call abuse what it is: abuse. It is easy to applaud Nehemiah and his tenacity to take on such an overwhelming process. Herein lies a great application for us today, in light of all that is coming forward of abuse within the church: First, Nehemiah did not dismiss the negative news he was told, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach”. Secondly, Nehemiah did not question whether he should take action, he did. Third, he went through the correct channels. He did not take matters into his own hands, he included the authority (the king). Nehemiah was honest with the king.
“…to act so prudently as to prevent, as far as we can, all unjust suspicions concerning us, and all occasions of scandalous imputations.” When our sensible actions are rooted in honesty they will not lead to or tolerate actions and attitudes that are disgraceful. Did you catch that? DISGRACEFUL. It was the disgrace of Nehemiah’s homeland that devastated him and drove him to action. “We are to act so prudently (wise or judicious) as to prevent…all occasions of scandalous (disgraceful) imputations (crime or accusation)” The people within the church are to be rooted in integrity (Proverbs 11:3, Job 31:6) This is not a suggestion to us. Integrity should be in the DNA of all believers, even when it leads us to have those tough conversations and make extremely difficult phone calls which could include reporting abusive situations.
Can unfounded accusations be made? Yes. But it is not up to church leaders to decide what is true and what is false. There is a process that must be followed and respected. Church leaders are not judge and jury. In the last month, two stories have been on the front pages and forefront of news outlets: Rachael Denhollander with USA Gymnastics victims and Jules Woodson. You can read more about these brave women:
Why have these two stories gripped me? What is it about these women? Maybe I can relate to the trust they had in the people and the institutions they belonged to. Like them, I never had one reason to believe that I could be unsafe in my own church and school. A typical Sunday afternoon and a walk down a hallway changed my life and how I began to view people and the church. A secret that I have only shared with very few people. This secret grew me to believe I was powerless. This secret fueled shame and poor choices that led to acting out. This secret deceived me to believe that I could handle it. This secret controlled me for years and when I found myself in an abusive marriage, I used my extremely poor coping skills and lived trying to survive, all the while, wrestling the “reproach and disgrace”.
The amount of courage it takes to tell the truth of what has happened to you at the hands of an abuser will exhaust you. It has taken me five days to write this blog post. Why? I have never publibcally told my story. I do get anxious at what the responses could be. I only hope that anything I say will give others the courage to break free of the shame, the deceit and the powerlessness that secrets can hold on you. You are stronger than your secrets. You do have what it takes to shatter the shame with boldness. The moment you speak the truth, the deception you have wrestled with will dissipate. But this process that will take every ounce of courage you have and will begin with you calling it was it is. Abuse. You will need to tell your story to a trusted and capable counselor. You will need to invite safe people into the process. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. The moment you call it what it is and decide to take action you are on your way to living free, unashamed, and rebuilding your life.
I think what has also baffled me with these two stories is the response by some to protect and support the abuser and throw stones at the victims. Again, I go back to my Christian School days, and a couple of things come to mind. I would often find myself confused by the actions of the president of the school at that time. He would often do things that went against dress code. In other words, it was a “Do as I say, not as I do” example. He would take off alone with twin girls in the high school that were star athletes. There were so many times I wondered if others were as bothered as I was. However, it seemed based on the fact that these things continued that no one did have a problem with it. What do my examples have to do with the extremes of abuse? I am in no way saying that the president of my school was abusive, but I do think his actions were foolish. I think the tendency if we are not careful is not to hold those in authority accountable. Why was the head of my Christian school not held accountable to follow the dress code at times? Why was he able to spend time alone with two sisters without accountability? As a teenager, these things deeply troubled me. It seemed he was above the rules and treated as such. Pastors and leaders are not above the rules and they are not above the law. We see this clearly in the Old Testament story of Nathan and King David. Second Samuel 12 walks us through the story of Nathan confronting David of his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. David’s response was one of surprise when he realizes that he had been found out and then David admitted his sin and confessed. Even as the King, hand picked by God, David was not above God’s law or any other law. Nathan did not minimize what David had done and did not give excuses for David’s actions. God did forgive David but it did not come without heavy consequences. “Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.’” So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.” Then Nathan departed to his house. (2 Samuel 12:7-15)
What happens too often, especially with what we are seeing with the story of Jules Woodson and Andy Savage, is confusing confession with the removal of consequences. Please tell me why a church would give a standing ovation to a pastor who has admitted that he sexually abused a girl in his youth group 20 year ago! (https://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/4-problems-andy-savages-apology) What is it in us that we would and could continue to paint a picture of credibility over our leaders when we know it might not be the case? What is it in us that we don’t want to believe that our leaders or others within the church are capable of heinous acts? Why would we rather protect an image than protect a person? The very thing that angered the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, Jesus refused to protect their image.
As the body of Christ, we have got to stop sending confusing messages. Beth Moore said it so well, “There is a difference between sexual immorality and sexual criminality”. Does this mean that the perpetrator cannot experience the grace and mercy of the Savior and be saved? No. Jesus death on the cross covers all sin, even the ones we consider most heinous. However, accountability and the legal process is not removed. Let us not equate the grace and mercy of the Savior by intentionally removing the necessary consequences that the legal system has in place. It is just as much a crime to the spirit of the victim when people within the church will not validate the experiences that have held her/him captive. When sexual crimes are minimized and/or not handled appropriately and legally then the message sent to the victim is the most unChristlike attitude and action. I truly believe this angers God! Rick Warren stated, “We cheapen what Jesus Christ did on the cross – all the suffering, all the pain, all the shame – we cheapen it when we imply that it’s only about forgiveness and about the grace of God. Of course, it’s about the grace and forgiveness of God, because Jesus is dying for your sins so you don’t have to die for them and pay for them. But the cross also shows how much God hates evil and how much He hates sin. Why? because sin damages the people He created. It damages both the offender and the offended. It warps both the perpetrator and the victim.”
Each believer should be intentional and live a life that is set “to act so prudently as to prevent, as far as we can, all unjust suspicions concerning us, and all occasions of scandalous imputations.” Our lives are to be lived credible and filled with integrity. I hope there will come a day that there will be no more sexual crimes against men, women, boys, and girls. As long as we are on this side of Heaven, unfortunately, this will not be the case. We live in a sin-sick world. While we cannot remove the sin that infiltrates this fallen world, I do believe the church can take steps to be the safe place. How can we preach of a safe God who is just and a compassionate Savior who heals when we are not willing to confront and possibly remove unsafe people from within the church?
When I look back on my own abuse, I realize that I too could have spoken up. I had a voice. For whatever reason, I chose to keep silent. The silence held me hostage and the two brothers took advantage of my silence. I had no boundaries and I had a lot of shame. This followed me for years and affected relationships and ultimately led me into an abusive marriage where I played by the rules: remain silent, wear a mask, and do as you are told to keep others happy and no one will suspect anything. Abuse damages the very core of a person. I am so grateful years later to experience safe people within the church that gave me the assurance that I could speak up and my voice would be heard. I am grateful to my Heavenly Father who heard my cry, Psalm 118:5 In my distress I prayed to the Lord, and the Lord answered me and set me free. (NLT) I wasn’t looking for a sweet, syrupy Jesus to rescue me. I needed a mighty warrior that could grip me when I had no grip left. Whatever it is you have never told or maybe you have told yet you still need to work through the trauma to begin the healing process; fix your eyes on the Healer, trusting His healing process. Find a safe person, a qualified counselor, and invite a few other safe people into your healing journey. There is hope.
I encourage you to watch Rick Warren with Saddleback Church address these very issues: https://youtu.be/jtijkPpJ_s0