Tag Archives: healing memories

The “Who am I to God?” of Abuse—From Pawn to Power through the Path of the Cross

IMG_3865I saw another one today. As I passed by on my morning run, she stood on the side of the road waiting for a bus, freshly groomed and tastefully dressed for going out into public. But the beautiful hair and clothes failed to hide her hideously disfigured face, bearing the characteristic pulverized look of someone whose features have been dissolved by acid. What this woman’s story is and how she has survived such a vicious attack on her womanhood I cannot say, but she bears the scars (quite literally) of her abuse for the whole world to see and never forget.

Somehow the sight of her grotesquely marred beauty reminds me of the high-powered civil rights attorney whom I met over dinner in a neighboring country last week. Her scars may not be visible to the human eye, but the lingering effects of childhood abuse continue to haunt her as she bravely battles for a relationship with the God who didn’t protect her. Beyond the ongoing fear of the same thing (or the next disaster) occurring again, she wrestles with the question of God’s involvement in her torment. Was He absent, uncaring, or simply using her distress to create a better story for her to testify to His grace? Even with the last option, she is left with a god who is little different from her abuser, callously using her for his purposes despite the damage it would cause her.

Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive.
For this is what the LORD says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.”
Isaiah 52:1-3

As I wrestle again with the deep theological angst to which abuse gives rise, I can’t escape the story of Jesus’ abuse and the way Scripture repeatedly weaves it through the stories of other abused individuals (and cities, as the case may be). Isaiah calls out to Jerusalem, referring to her in terms of a woman who has been penetrated, defiled, and held captive in fear and shame. He picks up the refrain of her lament (echoed in Psalm 44:11-12), acknowledging that she was tossed out and sold for nothing but also echoing the promise that her redemption will occur in an equally baffling manner.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
Isaiah 52:7,9

And what is this good news that the evangel’s feet so eagerly carry to the bruised, battered woman sitting abandoned in exile? Your God still reigns. He is neither bound by the helplessness that overwhelms you nor heartless towards the tears you are too numb to shed. He is still in control and His reign is one of both sovereign power and of tender compassion.

But how does that news help the one whom He seemed to abandon?

Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness— so he will sprinkle many nations,and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living…

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,and he will divide the spoils with the strong,because he poured out his life unto death…
Isaiah 52:14-15; 53:3-4, 8, 11-12

Isaiah leaps straight from this hope-inspiring call into a gut-wrenching description of the depths of abuse and abandonment that God’s Righteous One would experience. His face would be pulverized beyond recognition; His body stripped, beaten, flayed, and pierced until it could hardly be compared to a human form, much less the glorious image of the invisible God. The wrongness of what would be done to Him would not be protested by His contemporaries. Rather, He would suffer this abuse in silence, betrayed by His friends, ignored or despised by the public, and ultimately feeling forsaken by God.

And yet Isaiah’s description doesn’t stop there. It points forward to the fruit of this Victim’s suffering, the deeply satisfying vindication and glorification that would come as a result of all that He had endured. Perhaps most amazingly of all, that fruit would involve not just His exaltation to the throne of God and the adoringly bent knees of kings and angels en masse, but it would also include the healing, consolation, and exaltation of the broken woman spoken of in Isaiah’s earlier chapter.

By His stripes she would be healed. His suffering would be God’s reply to her agonized questions of who she was to Him. Far from the insignificant pawn or the castoff slave girl that her experience had led her to believe she was, she was the one for whom He would give Himself. He would personally shoulder her grief and take her abuse on Himself. But he would not stop there, leaving her permanently bowed at the foot of the cross having received forgiveness from her sins but still broken by the sins of others.

“Sing, barren woman… “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes… “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

“Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise,your foundations with lapis lazuli. 12 I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.

…no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1-4, 11, 17

Isaiah casts the spotlight back on the desolate woman, calling her forth to sing, to expand her sphere of influence, and to step up into the powerful position that God is preparing for her, too. Just as He will resurrect the Suffering Servant and exalt Him to a position of power and glory, He will turn the woman’s shame into glory, personally vindicating her before her abusers and rebuilding her to a level of beauty and status greater than she ever knew before.

As I zoom out again to the myriad of men and women who have suffered abuse in this world, Isaiah’s powerful prophetic words (many of which have already been so poignantly fulfilled) grip me with a new level of hope and vision. They confront the small-minded comfort to which I have clung, raising my eyes to the vision of empowered enthronement that God has for all of His beleaguered sons and daughters. His goal is not just His glory at our expense. Nor is it a warm blanket tenderly wrapped around trembling survivors. He responds to the pain of our past, the terror of our present, and the despair of our future by personally blazing a path through the same circumstances, but which ends in a radically different destination than human experience would teach us to expect.

IMG_3864 (1)

As we follow in the footsteps of our Lord, sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings even as He entered into ours, this path leads us to the splendor and strength that Isaiah called broken Jerusalem to rise up and embrace. This is who we are to God, and this is the destiny for which He has been preparing His suffering servants all along.

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Lowering the Flags of our Fathers

attachment“This church, along with our whole city, was completely destroyed. The Allies’ bombs wiped it from the face of the earth.”

I shifted uncomfortably as our middle-aged German guide came to this point in our tour of historic Worms this weekend. She had proudly taken us around her beautiful city, pointing out the significant remains of its long, multi-layered history dating back to the Roman Empire and playing a significant role in the Protestant Reformation. But now photographic images of the mass devastation that this civilian population endured at the hands of our grandparents confronted me with a side to the story that I had never really considered before. How could this local citizen so calmly look our group of mostly British and American scholars in the eye and talk about it? Rather than use this opportunity to protest the “terror bombings” carried out against her people at the close of WWII, she shocked me with her humble confession.

“Well, we were the ones who provoked it, after all.”

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits?

This willingness to bear national shame over the Holocaust and the nationalist aggression of their ancestors has impressed me during my brief time here in Germany. This is a country with a long history to be proud of. But nestled among the soaring cathedrals and elegant castles are more recently erected monuments to their shame. A set of pillars in Worms (near the Jewish cemetery) with an inscription memorializing those who were made victims of German nationalist pride. A bombed-out church in Mainz with a series of plaques, describing its proud history but concluding with a humble reminder that any society built on violence and oppression will be judged with a similar end.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Listen! The LORD is calling to the city– and to fear your name is wisdom– “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it. Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures… Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing… Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations. ”
Micah 6:8-16

As I listened to our tour guide’s personal acknowledgement of causes for both national pride and national shame, I couldn’t help but draw mental parallels to how a similar situation has been handled in the USA. We treated two entire races of people as if they were not equally created in the image of God, holding one set under our thumb as slaves and later as “liberated” but unequal citizens, and getting rid of the other set through massacres and round-ups into reservation camps. While these are arguably sins of the past, the question still remains of how we respond to their fallout today.

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits? Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

In teaching my children about the American Civil Rights movement, I was shocked but actually not-so-shocked to discover that our Christian history book had simply skipped it, deigning the injustices suffered and the victories won for oppressed minorities within our country not worth mention. Such refusal to acknowledge and disclose the sins of our past can only lead to further hardheartedness and future recurrences.

And in more recent days, I have been deeply disappointed by the refusal of persecution watchdog organizations like International Christian Concern to report on the terrorist shooting of African-American Christians at worship in their Charleston church, not to mention the strong trend of Black-church burnings that continues across the South. Were such attacks on Christians or churches perpetrated in other lands, ICC would most certainly have reported them. And yet despite multiple emails pleading with this group to cover the persecution of Black Christians in their own country, they remain silent.

“Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job 42:6

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:3-4, 17

Among the many biblical virtues that patriotic Christians love to promote, somehow confession and contrition seem to get lost. And yet these are the hallmarks of true religion. Upright Job went back and set the record straight, lowering himself in repentance when he realized how wrongly he had spoken of God. And integrity-bound David recorded his confession for all posterity to read when he abused his power to take whom he wanted and get rid of whom he didn’t.

The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to [spare] them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends so that you will bless the LORD’s inheritance?”
2 Samuel 21:2-3

Even on a national scale, David recognized the need to accept responsibility for his predecessor’s racist sins. As Israel suffered the ongoing repercussions of Saul’s unethical treatment of the Gibeonites, David humbly took it on himself to do whatever it would take to make things right.

Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

And this is the spirit of contrition and national humility that I see dawning in the American South. The shocking display of racism that left nine worshippers dead is jolting devout Southerners into a public acknowledgment of the stain on our heritage. The Confederate flag may represent much that we are proud of, but it also represents much that we should be deeply ashamed of. Perhaps in its place we would do well to take a lesson from the Germans and erect monuments to those our ancestors have wronged, lest we forget and repeat the mistakes of our past.

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”
St. Christoph Church, Mainz, Germany

Challenging Forgiveness

“How can I forgive her if she hasn’t said she’s sorry?” My son looked at me with his penetrating blue eyes, his sincere question about his sister unwittingly peeling a scab off my past.

How can I answer him when I haven’t yet resolved this issue myself? My mind instantly brings up the faces of people whose actions and words once wounded me so deeply that I still wince at their memory. What continues to hurt is not what they said or did, but the outstanding fact that they have never acknowledged that it was wrong.

Have I forgiven them?

If forgiveness means that I have completely forgotten their mistreatment, that I carry on our relationship as if it never happened, then no. I have not done that. I’m not sure how I could relate freely with those whose words and actions damaged me so deeply, not to mention radically redefined our relationship. The truth is, I don’t entrust myself to them, not if they haven’t expressed remorse or at least evidenced a desire to change.

Is it unforgiving of me to hold back, to maintain a bit of physical and emotional distance between myself and them? What is it that God is asking of me when He tells me to forgive?

Forgiveness has many appropriate manifestations, each determined by our current stage of relational healing.

Not to hold Joseph up as a perfect life model, but I think his story lays out an excellent example of what forgiveness looks like in the different stages of relational healing. His brothers had stolen from him his identity, his dreams, and his whole life as he had known it. Their betrayal cost him everything, including the ability to trust himself to them again.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”
Genesis 41:51

But even in a state of woundedness, Joseph did not harbor a grudge against his brothers. Rather than feed on memories of how horrible they had been, he simply tried to forget them. Though that was not an adequate long-term solution, I think it was an appropriate form of forgiveness for that stage of their relationship.

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them.
Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: …Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth.
Genesis 42:7, 14-16

When God brought his brothers unexpectedly back into his life, Joseph did not seek revenge. Nor did he immediately run into their arms and pick up where they had left off. Joseph kept his distance and his anonymity, allowing himself the time and space to ascertain if they had changed. Instead of shutting himself off from them forever, he demonstrated another layer of forgiveness by creating opportunities for them to prove themselves worthy of his trust.

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:21, 23-24

Joseph may have seemed harsh and unyielding, putting his brothers through the tests that he did. But his goal was true restoration, not revenge. Like God so often does with us, he graciously set them up for a re-match. Another round of jealousy-inducing favoritism, this time towards Benjamin. The recurring offer to throw their little brother under the bus to save their own hides. But when they pleaded for Benjamin’s life, offering themselves in his place, Joseph knew that they had changed. He knew it was finally safe to come out of hiding.

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Genesis 45:1-2

Deep springs of pent up emotion burst forth as Joseph made his startling revelation. That emotion could very well have been anger or bitterness. But Joseph’s tears manifested the forgiveness that had been working its way through the layers of his heart all along. Tears of grief over his freshly-awakened pain. Tears of sorrow over the years of lost relationship. And tears of relief and delight over this wonderfully unanticipated fresh start.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.
To each of them he gave new clothing, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five sets of clothes.
Genesis 45:4-5, 15, 22

Joseph did not wait for an apology or an explanation. He already knew their hearts. He threw himself on his brothers, hugging and weeping over each of them like the prodigal son’s Father. He did the explaining for them, welcoming them back into fellowship and soothing away their fears. And he demonstrated the extent of his forgiveness, bypassing probation and jumping straight into extravagant provision. New clothes. New inheritance. A land for their families to settle in right alongside his. A relationship restored.

…”‘I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”
When their message came to him, Joseph wept. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? … So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
Genesis 50:15-21

But the reconciliation process wasn’t finished yet. Nor was Joseph’s healing. Years later, after the death of their father, fear prompted the brothers to finally apologize for what they had done to him. It had been a long time in the coming, and in many respects Joseph had moved on, not expecting to hear it, but their apology hit the spot. A fresh round of tears. A healing opportunity to verbalize his forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status,
a heart posture than a court verdict.

I look over these layers of development in Joseph’s story and begin to conceptualize forgiveness in a new way. Maybe forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status, a heart posture than a court verdict. Maybe what God is calling me to is to desire and work towards reconciliation, even if it is not a current possibility. Short cuts won’t get me there. Faking it won’t work. But persistently loving those who hurt me opens the door for God to bring about true restoration, one that neither compromises my wholeness nor denies God’s grace.

So how do I forgive those who haven’t said they are sorry? I pray that, just as He did with Joseph’s alienated brothers, God will write them back into my story. And I wait with open arms.

Editing Childhood

“What’s the point of going back? I don’t want to get stuck in the unpleasant memories of my childhood. I just want to get over it and move on.”

I sat across the picnic table from my friend and witnessed the conflict raging within her. Her mind wanted to be in charge, to determine what she thought about God and how she felt about herself. But her heart just wouldn’t cooperate. It kept sending her mixed messages: “God loves you. How could He? You are valuable to Him. Impossible! I’m unlovable, nothing but a worthless failure.”

As we picked together through the earliest memories of her life story, it became readily apparent to me where those messages were coming from. A terrified little girl, frantically attempting to sweep away the broken leftovers of her step-father’s drunken rage. A deeply impressionable child, consistently failing to prevent his destructive anger, forever falling short of being able to protect her mother from its violent effects. But try as she might, she couldn’t fix the problem. She couldn’t be good enough to pacify her step-father, couldn’t perform well enough to earn her mother’s love.

The scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

Those messages of inadequacy and un-lovability were so deeply lodged in her soul that no amount of mental discipline or right theology had managed to root them out. But God was not content to leave them there. Just as He had done with countless others who came before her, He was taking her through the agonizing process of digging down through the layers of her life, unearthing the painful memories that she had kept carefully locked away and bringing her face-to-face with the damaging experiences that continued to define her.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Genesis 41:51-52

Joseph had been just as resistant to this process as my friend was. He didn’t want to remember his childhood, the constant insults of jealous brothers, the sick family dynamics of competing mothers and treacherous sibling relationships. How could he enjoy the memory of his father’s overt favoritism when it had only made things worse for him with his brothers? How had that love protected him in the end when their jealous rage cost him all but his life?

The one stable relationship that had carried him through his tumultuous childhood and trying adulthood was the one he still shared with the invisible God. God had heard the abusive messages that his brothers assailed him with and had countered them with His own dream-time messages of affirmation. God had seen the indignity of his slavery and had shown up to make him successful in all his work. God had felt the isolation of his imprisonment and had kept him company through his darkest days. And in an unprecedented turn of events, God had raised him up into a completely new life, complete with a new name, a new family, a new community, and a new job.

When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger… Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” …
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:6-9, 21-24

Joseph had no desire to go back. But the one element of his past that he most wanted to avoid, God brought to meet him. Face-to-face with the brothers he had spent years trying to forget, the pent up emotions of his childhood came bursting forth. Under the layers of his power suit and prestigious position, his picture-perfect family and charmed social life, Joseph was still that traumatized little boy, desperate for his brothers’ acceptance, helpless in the face of their betrayal. The most successful man in Egypt broke down and wept.

Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.
Genesis 43:30; 45:1-2; 46:29

But Joseph’s tears were not an unproductive reversion. They were a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of his past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of his present to be made whole. He needed to hear his brothers’ confession, to see their distress over the pain they had caused him. He needed reassurance of his father’s love, evidence that the members of his family had learned to relate to each other in tenderness and compassion. Convinced at last that it was safe, Joseph was able to re-engage those relationships whose proximity had caused deep wounds, but whose absence left a deep hole.

Our tears are not an unproductive reversion. They are a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of our past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of our present to be made whole.

Sadly, not all of our painful memories find such happy resolution. My friend’s relationship with her mother continues to be characterized by criticism and rejection. But pulling back the curtains on her past has allowed her to see herself for who she really is: a child deeply loved by God, even in the midst of being horribly treated by her family. Even more, it has allowed her to experience her truest Father’s unconditional acceptance and adoring love in ways she never could before.

Damaging childhood memories cannot be erased. But revisited under the expert guidance of the Holy Counselor, the scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

Body Interrupted

Mind over matter. Reason regulating emotion. These mantras defined how I approached my life, until it was interrupted by trauma.

I certainly hadn’t anticipated the events that overpowered my body. The fact that they happened to me was a harsh enough reality to deal with. But what I never would have expected was the way they continued to overwhelm my soul.

During the months following the attacks, I kept encountering reactions within myself that I just couldn’t control or make sense of. The neckline of my T-shirt brushing against my throat would send me into a cold panic. The slightest body chill would cause me to curl up into a tight ball and shake violently. A hearty laugh with old friends quickly dissolved into body-wracking tears. The adrenaline rush of an adventure park transformed a fun family outing into a personal nightmare, leaving me curled up on the backseat of our car moaning and sobbing uncontrollably.

The nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I control this? This was not the way that I wanted to feel or behave, but no amount of will power could make it stop. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, the nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

Somehow I felt that as a Christian, I should be better equipped to deal with trauma. Shouldn’t the indwelling of God’s Spirit enable me to be more self- controlled than this? How could my train-wreck of emotions and their obvious effect on my physical frame bring Him glory? Messy and desperate, I searched His Word for any sort of precedent for what I was experiencing.

And I found it. Many of God’s servants had faced overwhelming circumstances, ones greater than what their physical and emotional frames could handle. Elijah hid away in a cave and begged God to let him die. Joseph wept uncontrollably. David struggled to find words that could express his anguish. And Daniel took to his bed and stayed there for a season, unable to move or function despite his pressing responsibilities.

“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.
I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.” …
As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. “Son of man,” he said to me, “understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.” While he was speaking to me, I was in a deep sleep, with my face to the ground. Then he touched me and raised me to my feet.
Daniel 7:15,28; 8:17-18

What surprised me most about Daniel’s story was the source of his trauma. Daniel was no physical or emotional wimp! Refusing orders. Confronting executioners. Delivering treacherous messages. Facing down lions. He had repeatedly stared death in the face, unflinching in his resolve to honor God. Yet when faced with visions from God too glorious and terrifying for any mortal to comprehend, Daniel crumpled.

I, Daniel, was exhausted and lay ill for several days. Then I got up and went about the king’s business. I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding.
Daniel 8:27

The limits of his mortal frame had been exceeded. Daniel had seen and experienced things beyond his emotional ability to cope, and that trauma manifested itself in very real physical symptoms. The brave soldier physically incapacitated. The steadfast counselor emotionally undone. Despite the strength of his character, despite the depth of his faith, Daniel was rendered temporarily useless by the force of trauma.

There are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences.

Clearly, Daniel’s post-traumatic symptoms were not evidence of some weakness that he should have been able to overcome. They were a testimony of the enormity of the burden God had entrusted him to carry. But what I could readily see and accept in Daniel’s story took me a bit longer to apply to my own.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:15-16

I had to come to grips with the fact that my mind is not fully my body’s master, that there are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences. I found solace in the company of my spiritual ancestors, reliving their stories with newfound understanding. But even more I found solace in the God who knit us all together.

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:13-14

God knew my frame when I could not make sense of it. He had designed its limits and He had ordained experiences for me in which they had been exceeded. For much longer than Daniel’s “several days,” I continued to be a physical and emotional mess, but at least I was God’s mess. Like a child’s broken toy, I laid myself in my Father’s hands, trusting that He could fix what was broken. And in time He did.

His hands held my body. His love governed my soul.

When My World Fell Apart

I never realized how much I took for granted until so much of it was taken from me. Physical safety. Financial security. A sense of control over what happened to my body, my possessions, my future. The ability to predict how others would act: confidence in my friends’ solidarity with me and certainty in what God would never allow my enemies to do to me.

When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.” O LORD, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.
Psalm 30:6-7

But in one tidal wave of events, the peace of the garden was replaced by the chaos of the flood. My assumptions of how the world worked were overturned, my soul left tumbling and swirling in a sea of helplessness and confusion. The foundational truth of the first Psalm, that the righteous always stand firmly planted by God’s nourishing stream, gave way to experiences that forced me to question everything I had ever known.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea– the LORD on high is mighty
Psalm 93:3-4

That tame, predictable stream had now run over its banks, rising until it threatened to completely engulf me. The world was no longer a safe, nurturing place for me, those who populated it no longer a source of understanding and acceptance. Who could comprehend the atrocities that had been forced on my body, the horrors that would forever be imprinted on my soul? Who could protect me from further attack, both in physical reality and in the ongoing reality of my memories?

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do ?”
Psalm 11:3

As the fallout of those experiences continued to break over me, I felt myself being washed away in a torrent of devastation and confusion. My secure foundations crumbled beneath my feet, failing me just when I had counted on them the most. Tossed about by the chaos of uncertainty and the power of destructive forces, I reached a breaking point within myself.

The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me… In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help.
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
Psalm 18:4-5, 16-18

I could no longer cope with the overwhelming circumstances without and the rising terror within. Without immediate intervention, I would be overcome. I cried out to God in panic, a drowning soul with nothing else to grab on to. And He showed up with an ark.

The ark of His love saved me from the overwhelming flood of my trauma.

Safe in His hold. Secure in His love. His ark held me through the gale that continued to swirl all around me. This ark of our relationship was one that He had called me to build long before I could have comprehended the life preserver it would turn out to be. Year after year I had worked on it, dutifully laying plank after plank of prayer and Bible study, faith-building choices and love-driven obedience. Little did I know that what I thought I had been constructing for His sake, He was planning for mine.

O LORD God Almighty, who is like you? You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.
Psalm 89:9-10

As my life as I had known it continued to be washed away by trauma’s flood, I found rest in the sweet security of my relationship with God. His unfailing love for me became my anchor in the storm, my safe place in the midst of danger, my true north through waves of disorientation. He became my defining circumstance. More than the storms of traumatic events, more than the messy wasteland of their aftershocks, His unshakeable love formed the foundation in which I could root myself.

God became my defining circumstance.

The storm did eventually subside. The waters slowly receded, revealing the radically altered terrain of my world. Relationships redefined. Circumstances changed. I held back, afraid to emerge from the safety of the ark, reticent to leave the comfort of the cocoon. But His dove-like Spirit nudged me forward, assuring me with the rainbow-sealed promise of His ongoing presence.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall…
Psalm 46:1-5

Together we have done a lot of rebuilding, not according to the blueprints of my former life, but from scratch, making something new. For a long time I looked back and mourned all that I had lost; I now rejoice in what I have gained. New roles. Different abilities. New communities. Old relationships, deeper for having withstood the storm. But most of all, I rejoice in the new identity He has given me, one so firmly rooted and established in His love that I no longer fear the future. Now more than ever, I am that tree flourishing in the garden, roots sunk deep into the stream of Living Water.

Remember.

What does Holy Week have to do with abuse? Everything. Meditating on Jesus’ experience of abuse illumines the path of healing from our own experiences of abuse. It also invites us to enter into a deeper, more significant relationship with Him.

Painful memories. Violent memories. Memories that won’t go away and leave me alone.

Voices that reverberate through my mind. Undermining questions. Devastating accusations.
“How dare you go against us! Who do you think you are? ”
“You son of a devil. You are nothing.”
“Liar! No one cares about you. Where is your daddy now?”
“Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?”

He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. Lamentations 3:13-16

Sensations that travel through my body. A gentle kiss on my cheek. The harsh blow that followed. Cold chains on my wrists. Hot welts on my back. Wet spit hitting my face. Dry thorns piercing my scalp. Blows and more blows. Split lip. Pierced hands. Gasping for breath. Struggling to survive.

I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.” I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Lamentations 3:17-20

Experiences that stay with me. Betrayal. He was one of my trusted friends. Denial. He was my best friend. Mockery. No one came to my defense. Violation. They took off all my clothes, molested me, and strung me out naked for everyone to see. They stripped away my glory, leaving me defiled, degraded, and desolate.

My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the LORD looks down from heaven and sees. Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Lamentations 3:49-50; 5:1

Look on my pain, oh God! Remember all that I have been through. I won’t stop bringing it up until you acknowledge the wrong that was done to me. My body was broken. My spirit was crushed. My scars continue to bear witness.

But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you… You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry … in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more. Psalm 10:14, 17-18

But even in the midst of my unresolved pain, I have hope. I look to you, because I know you will make it right. You saw all that they did to me. You heard all that they said about me. And you will vindicate me. Into your hands I commit my spirit.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death. Mark 14:61-64

I cling to the truth that you will you will give back all that has been taken from me. You will rectify my wounds. You will heal my memories. You will give me the spot right beside you, with even greater dignity and honor than I had before. And you will show off my glory for all to see, both to shame those who degraded it and to delight those who revel in it.

“… do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19 “…and you will be my witnesses…” Acts 1:8

But even as I wait on you, I want friends who will be part of the process. When they remember my suffering, they validate my experience. When they speak the truth about me before those who doubt or question, they restore my honor. When they praise me with their lips, they bless my heart.

In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
Revelation 5:12-13