Recently, my friend Dee attended a women’s retreat. During the last session the leader asked for prayer requests. Reluctantly, Dee stood up and confided in a small voice, that her husband (who was an elder in the church) was having an affair. She had confronted him and he admitted it. Then she began crying when she disclosed that he was more than likely going to leave her for this woman. She sat back down, slumping in her chair like a limp, well-worn, rag doll, embarrassed that she had revealed this secret.
When Dee got home from the retreat, her husband had moved out. But what hurt Dee even more was that none of these women followed up with her or offered to pray with her. No one expressed understanding or support. In fact some women expressed the opposite--they avoided her. She wondered why the church was treating her like a piranha. Dee’s value as a person was under attack because the very place she looked for acceptance wasn’t radiating with love or forgiveness. Why did this happen to her?
Dee met with her pastor to discuss this dreadful event and had hoped for some answers, but after their discussion she realized he didn’t understand the type of pain she was in. His advice was to participate in a women’s Bible study. How could she? She had fallen into depression and couldn’t concentrate long enough to make a grocery list. A week later she ran into her pastor and asked him, “Will this church ever become a place where people will understand pain like mine, and can love people like me?” I wish I heard his answer.
We’ve all heard similar stories. Often counselors will ask a new client if they’ve discussed their problem with a pastor. Not my pastor! My seminary professor said her classroom is often the first place a woman feels safe enough to tell her story, talk about her pain, and finally feel accepted and understood. Can’t we do better?
I think what happens in painful situations is the body of Christ offers preventative advice, like in Dee’s case. A woman is told to memorize Scripture, read a daily devotion or pray more. That’s valuable and important to daily living, but it’s not timely when the woman is bleeding emotionally. Many women are told, “It’s time to get past this—move on,” “It could have been worse,” “Everything happens for a reason.” When we say things like these we deny her burden and actually add to her pain.
But let’s not point our finger too quickly at the church. Most of us are reluctant to ask for help. Don’t we tend to do the opposite—send people away when we need them the most? We don’t want to “burden” or inconvenience anyone.
Paul exhorts us to carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). I believe Paul’s definition is the temporary over-burden that a sister may be carrying, which is distinct from the everyday load (Gal. 6:5). When we are temporarily overburdened due to the strain of divorce, death, illness, abuse, we need the support of our sisters. We need that person(s) to come alongside and help shoulder the pain, the burden.
Once we find a safe place and begin to open up and tell our story, express our pain; the healing and restoration process begins because we have brought our story into the light. King Solomon tells us there is a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecc. 3:7).
I know because I was silent for decades. For sixteen years I battled a monstrous eating disorder called bulimia. I abused alcohol for twenty years. These were merely symptoms masking depression, masking the fear and rejection I had build up.
Addiction was a monster, and it took control. I became overwhelmed with feelings of remorse, self-hatred, fear and worthlessness. I’d swear, This is the last time. But it never was.
I was too ashamed to ask for help so I tried to heal myself by reading self-help books until I my head was about to explode. They suggested I look within myself. I worked in healthcare and carefully followed medical advice given other patients. Nothing worked. My life waslies, secrecy, isolation, guilt, fear and shame--a picture of bondage. Help me!
Then God slowly began pulling me out of the battlefield, the bathroom. I discovered He was calling me into a relationship with Him that required giving Him control over my life. That was hard for me; I was used to being in control. But I wasn’t really, my life was flat unmanageable.
God had a purpose for my life and I told Him I wanted to follow that purpose. I admitted defeat, and the journey to clean up the emotional began. It was a process. Like an onion, my heart and soul were wrapped with layers of stuff—years of rejection, hurts and deception. I had to allow God to peel away each layer to do His work in me.
The healing began when I connected to women in my church and we shared each other’s burdens and brought our stories into the light. We became Jesus in shoe leather to one another—we shared with care. God slowly put us back together again.
When I brought my issues into the light, the enemy (darkness) was defeated and the healing began. A couple years later God urged me to bring another issue from the dark to the light. Seventeen years earlier I had an abortion, an event I chose to bury away, in the dark. Virtually no one knew—another secret.
Once again, God walked me through a healing process when I brought my story to the light. Within a small circle of post-abortal women, I worked through denial, then grief, then anger, and thenforgiveness. And then God did something miraculous—He gave me a small glimpse of my son, the son that was aborted--the son who is waiting for me in heaven right now. The final result was that I was forgiven and set free! This is something only our awesome, merciful, loving God can do.
Sometimes it hurts to see the truth about ourselves, and I think that’s why God puts other people in our lives. Through them He shows us the truth, and continues the work He has begun. These people, shepherds, are not there by accident—they are instruments of our Redeemer.
These stories are all around us. They’re sitting next to us every Sunday. They’re in our Sunday school classrooms and Bible study groups. They’re ministry leaders, co-workers and neighbors. Today there is an epidemic of broken hearts hiding in the dark. I talk to women everyday, who because I risked sharing my story, feel that I’m a safe person to talk to, and they risk sharing their story with me. It is such an honor—a privilege.
It is an honor because it’s hard for women to find other women to trust and be real with. So often we’ve been betrayed, gossiped about and stabbed in the back. Some of us have carried wounds so long we don’t even see them anymore; they are part of who we are. Maybe some of us looked for a shepherd but were misunderstood, so we retreated back into the dark. We need to take that chance and yell, Help me! There are godly, trustworthy women out there who will walk with us.
How do we begin to shepherd a woman’s soul? By creating an atmosphere of transparency and vulnerability. I was given a tremendous opportunity to address our congregation on this subject. My message was two-fold: one, to say to women in pain, we know you are out there and we want to help you, and two, to be transparent. By vulnerably telling my story I said, “I am a safe person and this is a safe place.”
We encourage her first to take her problems to God because God is the only one who can touch the hurting place in our heart, and no one can speak to us as the Holy Spirit does. Then we encourage her to approach the church family because they can help carry her burdens and if need be, orchestrate outside help. We say, It’s okay to ask for prayer and support—that’s not a selfish act. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told Peter, James and John that He needed their support and prayer because “His soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death (Mark 14:34).” Lastly, we should stay alongside of her until we see restoration.
Many have said the suffering are the soul of the church—“the weak get the greater honor.” What a better way to offer healing and grace than to have women available—shepherds who understand pain and can offer pastoral care. My goal as a woman is ministry is to shepherd a woman’s soul and lead her to the Healer—Jesus, so that she can become a godly, healthy, reproducing disciple.