It had been five years.
She sat in the chair, legs tucked up beneath her shivering body, unable to shake the chill that overwhelmed the room that morning. Her mug of tea cradled between her hands, she related the story of loss and betrayal.
Of course, she did not use those words. Hers were words laden with content, a timeline of sorts of what occurred. Intermittently, she shared the emotion and devastation that consumed her then and still lingers today, five years later.
Is there a more brutal wound than a relational one?
We were born to be with. Our Creator models oneness and withness—Three-in-One, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Male and Female, He created them—in relationship. The Bible is replete with relationships: Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; Esau and Jacob; Ruth and Boaz; Esther and Mordecai; Solomon and his beloved; Martha and Mary; James and John; Jesus and Peter; Paul and Timothy.
There is a piece of ourselves that melds with those with whom we share our soul. Those friendships which have been forged in transparency, trust, and reliance have required an offering. We offer our heart, laid bare and exposed, vulnerable and fragile.
When another has received that offering and has reciprocated, the bond goes deeper. Thus, the betrayal and violation of that withness is that much greater.
For me, it has been seven years—seven years since I suffered the loss of relationship and the bitter wound of abuse and maltreatment.
Of course, no mature Christian relationship ends over one-time harm. We are violated over a period of time, after attempts of reconciliation to no avail, often with the help of intermediaries, counselors, and lots and lots of tears. If we are simultaneously talking of teammates and ministry coworkers, the investment of time for healing and restoration is that much more intense. So when it still fails…
It lives for seven years. Or five.
It could be me in that chair, drawing comfort from my mug of tea, hoping for the person across from me to offer some comfort that the wound will disappear. We do not want scars to last. Is there no remedy to make them fade into oblivion?
Might I suggest three things that happen when we face relational fractures in ministry which rupture our soul, and how to spot the signs of healing?
- Initially, the relational fracture shakes the core of who we are; we fear ever again offering our authentic selves, connecting on a deeper level, or trusting our instincts and the goodness of others. Over time, we learn to trust again, but with better boundaries and different parameters that are wise and protective, not guarding and reluctant. We emerge as wounded, then fragile, then cautious, and finally discerning. As we engage in healthy relationships again, we know that we have begun to heal.
- In the beginning, we might feel guilty and second-guess our every comment and action. We own the harm that was done, rather than name the abuse for the ugly reality it is. The period of wrestling with self-doubt, blame, shame, and contempt varies for each person. Eventually, we name the abuse, recognize our innocence, embrace our victimhood, and emerge as victor. The sign of healing is when we can say we have been bruised, but we have survived.
- As good Christians, we feel the immediate pressure to forgive. We look for excuses, for justification to grant grace. She is mentally unstable. She was stressed and overworked. Her marriage was in turmoil. These may help us forgive the abuser, but they do not necessarily mean we forget. Years later, when we are triggered by something and are suddenly overwhelmed with familiar emotion, we question whether we have indeed forgiven her. We may never forget the intensity of feeling betrayed, or spiritually manipulated, or verbally maligned. Indeed, emotions are not bound by time. The sign of healing is our ability to identify and correctly process those triggered emotions.
Unless we are freed by the naming of our abuse, shame lingers and contempt festers. Dr. Dan Allender, Professor at The Seattle School for Theology and Psychology, explains that shame is often preferred to delight, to honor, to beauty. At times, it is easier to bear our shame than to hold out hope, maintain faith, and offer love, to ourselves and others.
My mug-cradling client had held onto her shame for five years. She owned the betrayal of the friendship and working relationship, blaming herself for not being a better friend, for not protecting her friend from self-harm, and for not forgiving and re-engaging at the same depth after “restoration” had occurred. Facing a reassignment, she wondered about her ability to make friends. Perhaps it was too much to hope for a trusted relationship again. The cloak of shame felt much more comforting.
As women in ministry, we must name evil where we see it. Sin occurs and relationships fracture, but it is at this very point that “evil smells death and harm and abuse and works to join it” (Allender, 2013, Abuse Helpers Training). The enemy uses human failure to plant seeds and then grow the life-stealing beliefs rooted in shame and contempt: stealing, killing, and destroying what remains of faith, hope and love (John 10:10).
My own scars have faded over seven years. While they still remain, I recognize healing in my willingness to engage in healthy relationships, my acceptance of the abusive relationship and my innocence in it, and my ability to name and process the emotions when they are triggered. My hope for my client, and for each of you who has suffered at the hands of a friend and ministry co-worker, is that she would also find healing as she pursues faith, hope, and love.
Question to consider: How have you found healing in the midst of relational wounds?