Tag Archives: #realness

Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

I tinkered with lots of clever and pithy titles for this blog, but in the end, I decided to go with the basic rule of advertising – “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. It’s obvious, but it’s clear. The reason for that is that this is something we don’t talk about much except in high profile cases. When it comes to sexual coercion in marriage, it’s something we don’t really talk about it at all. I wanted the title to be clear so people could engage with it straight away. Because sexual coercion is real, it happens in marriage all the time and it’s horrifically damaging. Which means we have work to do.

But here’s the thing. We have work to do together – men and women together. Sexual coercion is generally an issue that is visited upon women, but women can not solve this problem alone. This is not a women’s issue. This is an everybody issue. So please, let’s engage in this together.

Before we get into it, it’s important for us to be on the level. I know that sexual coercion happens. I have spoken to so many women who struggle with this. Most think it’s something they just have to put up with. Others know it’s wrong, but don’t feel they can do anything about it. Some don’t even know it’s wrong and have suffered for years without realising it was not OK.

How can this be? Well, for starters here’s a conundrum. I’ve heard Christian sexologist Patricia Weerakoon speaking once about how women are like slow cookers – you turn them on and they need to warm up. Men are like toasters – generally you turn them on and they pop up almost immediately. This being the case, if a woman isn’t “in the mood” when her husband is, does that mean we are heading for sexual coercion? Not at all, or at least not necessarily. Getting in the mood is part of the intimate experience. How people do that is very individual. The problem arises when “encouragement” becomes coercion.

I think some men may not realise that they’re doing it. And that’s a problem of awareness and communication.

Some men may realise they are adding pressure, but may not realise it’s wrong. This is a problem of awareness and accountability.

Some men, at the more extreme end, know it’s wrong but feel justified, and that’s just a problem.

But because this isn’t talked about, neither men nor women are equipped to communicate about it – with each other, or with other trusted Christians and pastors. Women can’t raise awareness that the behaviour is not OK, which means they can’t communicate how they feel to their husbands. Men can’t keep each other accountable, or talk honestly about what is appropriate behaviour in marriage, and where the line is.

It’s time to address that. So let’s start with being clear about what sexual coercion is.

What is it?

The U.S. Office on Women’s Health says sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after being pressured in nonphysical ways that include:

  • Being worn down by someone who repeatedly asks for sex
  • Being lied to or being promised things that weren’t true to trick you into having sex
  • Having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors about you if you don’t have sex with them
  • Having an authority figure, like a boss, property manager, loan officer, or professor, use their influence or authority to pressure you into having sex.*

The Australian national group 1800Respect includes sexual coercion under sexual assault and violence and describes it as “when someone pressures or tricks you into doing sexual things when you don’t want to. It involves behaviour that may not always be criminal, but is usually abusive in some way. Sexual coercion can include someone:

  • Saying they’ll leave you or have sex with someone else if you don’t have sex with them
  • Trying to get you to drink more than you want to so you’ll agree to sex
  • Making you feel guilty for not having sex when they want
  • Telling you it’s your duty to have sex with them
  • Saying that you owe them
  • Making you feel scared to refuse because of what they might do. This might be a fear of physical violence, but can also include fears of them saying bad things about you to others, sharing private or damaging information about you on the internet, or taking away support, money, children or pets.
  • Saying they will get you out of debt, provide you with drugs, let you stay at their house, or help you with a problem if you have sex with them
  • Holding you down, yelling at you or trying to scare you into having sex**

Some of these seem more overtly “abusive” than others and so the less apparently “abusive” behaviours could be down played.

They shouldn’t be.

Firstly, because individually these behaviours are wrong. Secondly, when taken over many occurrences over weeks, months or even years, the damage this causes to a woman cannot be overstated.

The damage to the relationship can be irrevocable. There is loss of trust and loss of love that can erode a marriage or make it implode.

The damage to the woman can last a lifetime. Once is bad enough. The real problem is if there is a pattern and especially if this becomes the “normal” approach to intimacy in a relationship.

There is trauma. And with trauma comes nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, fear, hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, a deadening of any interest in intimacy (which can then exacerbate the issue), a problem being touched at all….it is akin to having a major car smash where every bone in the body is broken and which then requires intense medical intervention, healing, time and rehabilitation. Untreated, the woman is just such a car smash victim but has never had any medical intervention or healing and the injuries continue to be inflicted. She exists. Broken.

Perhaps this is part of the issue facing men and women. Given that men and women treat and experience sexual intimacy differently (generally speaking, of course), it is next to impossible for a man to understand the effect of broken sexual intimacy on a woman. Again this is highly individual, but there is enough research to show the effect on women as being highly damaging emotionally and psychologically and traumatic.

It hurts women. It breaks women.

I realise there are impacts to men too. Facing unwillingness to engage in intimacy can feel like rejection. It can feel hurtful. It can be disappointing, frustrating, and, given the right emotional environment, can feel damaging to a man too. And I am not talking here about withholding sex as a deliberate leverage of power over a man which is totally wrong on so many levels. That can be deeply damaging to a man.

I think the difference we need to focus on though is this:

Men don’t need sex. It might feel like they do, but not having is not going to kill them, like the removal of air or food and water will. Yet the importance placed on it can be disproportionate. However, there are deeply felt and real emotional needs and these need to be brought into the light and taken seriously. But there is an opportunity to communicate about these, and that’s as it should be.

Women, when having sex without wanting to, feel violated. That is not a feeling that goes away. Ever.

Is it really a problem?

Unfortunately, yes.

A recent study of 122,000 women found that over a third had been in abusive relationships. But of those 65% of remaining women who said they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, harsh and potentially abusive treatment from a partner.***

A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands.****

A survey undertaken in 2018 revealed some scary results including:

  • Almost 20 per cent are not aware that non-consensual sex in marriage is illegal (just in case there is any doubt – it is!)
  • 1 in 7 believe non-consensual sex is justified if the woman initiates intimacy (so if a woman tries to get in the mood so her husband can have sex, but then cannot go through with it, 1 in 7 people believe the man would be justified in forcing her to go through it it)
  • 1 in 5 Australians believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to
  • 1 in 8 believe that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible.*****

What this shows is an alarming number of people who do not see or understand that sexual coercion is wrong, damaging and traumatic. This being the case, it is easy for a husband not to know where the line is if culture largely remains silent on this. Equally, it is easy for women to never know they are being abused even though they feel all the feelings and responses of an abused person.

Let me be clear here. I’m not advocating for creating abuse where there is none. What I’m saying is that the abuse is happening already, we just don’t know to speak into it. Just because the abuse is not understood, does not make it not abusive behaviour. It’s still not OK.

A woman can feel traumatised and damaged, experience panic attacks and irrational fears – and think that it’s her own fault. If we speak into this issue, we can free women from this added burden and actually be clearer about what is appropriate behaviour.

We can equip both men and women.

So what do we do?

First, let’s approach this issue together. Remember, this is not a women’s issue, this is an everybody issue.

Second, we need to bring this issue into the light. There is a lot of fear and anger on all sides, anticipating blame and confrontation. So there can be a tendency to want to ignore the issue because perhaps women have just decided to raise it now. We need to be clear that women have never been OK with this, and it has never been acceptable behaviour – we just haven’t been able to talk about it before. It can also be driven by an assumption (coming from a place of hurt) that the woman is withholding, not because she is feeling damaged, but because she is making a power play. These kinds of assumptions are especially dangerous. So all assumptions need to be put to one side.

At the same time, this should not be an excuse for man-bashing. The only way to deal with this is to tackle it together. Many men have no idea that this is not OK and we need to equip men to understand the effect of certain behaviours. In fact, we need men desperately in this endeavour. We need men to be talking about it with each other, exploring it, even weeping over it. We need them to feel empowered to grow in gentleness. Biblically speaking, such gentleness is having enormous power, but using it for the care and protection of others. We need our men to grow in this Christ-likeness. To explore and mature in biblical gentleness is critical to this.

We also need to recognise and acknowledge that this is not a blanket issue. Not being in the mood can most of the time, become being in the mood, as part of the honest, trusting and loving intimate experience. What we are talking about here is the genuine cross over into coercion where one party (usually the woman) has sex without wanting to because they feel pressured into it – once, or as a repeated pattern.

So, men and women, start with reading the definitions of sexual coercion. Understand what it is, and what it isn’t.

Recognise and accept that it is what it is, and there is a chance that you could be experiencing it, or perpetrating it.

Here is where we need our God, and our Christian brothers and sisters. We need humility to recognise there may be some things to repent of. We need the courage to speak with our trusted Christian friends. We need to call each other out, gently and lovingly if we see behaviour or hear words that raise red flags. We need to be able to talk about this issue in the light – understand it, change it.

And we need to support and enable husbands and wives to talk to each other about this. Do a temperature check in your relationship. This may not be an issue for most of you, but talking about it cannot be a bad thing – it is a deeply intimate but profound issue of trust to be discussed. It may help you as a couple to support another couple for whom it might be an issue.

We need to not dismiss each other’s feelings or experience. This is an area that is extremely difficult and what will make it worse is being confrontational. We need to approach this as far as is possible in the most collaborative and positive way possible.

That said, if this is an issue in your marriage, and it is in any way repetitive, seemingly justified or escalating, please seek help. Immediately. It is not OK and you must be safe. At least seek the guidance of a professional and trusted Christian pastor or friend.

Most importantly, we must lean on God. This is where we need him most. Intimacy can be so broken. Experiencing it is traumatic. Recognising it can be equally traumatic. Seeking to rectify it can be challenging. It is us humans at our most vulnerable.

We need Him. Through and in Him we can seek the best – which is a bringing this issue into the light, talking about it openly and honestly, facing our issues humbly, supporting each other and keeping each other accountable.

Dealing with brokenness. Together. In Him.

* https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/sexual-coercion#7

** https://www.1800respect.org.au/violence-and-abuse/sexual-assault-and-violence/

*** https://www.businessinsider.com.au/two-thirds-of-women-dont-realise-they-experience-abusive-behaviour-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

**** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12477095/ and https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

***** https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/violence-against-women-survey-shows-concerning-attitudes/10568638?smid=Page:%20ABC%20News-Facebook_Organic&WT.tsrc=Facebook_Organic&sf203239950=1

Loved, saved, freed and given a voice (Mark 7:31-37)

One of the things I have struggled with in the past is feeling that I have no voice. In an era where there are so many platforms and outlets to speak your piece and express your opinion, I have felt that my voice was actually stifled and ignored. It’s a horrible feeling when that happens. It means your views, opinions, concerns, fears and emotions become nothing.

And maybe that’s been you too. Maybe you’re in a job where your boss or colleague dismisses your opinion constantly, making you feel invisible. Maybe you’re in a relationship where, if you express your emotions you’re met with an eye roll and a shake of the head and a turned back. Maybe you’re in a friendship group where you fear expressing yourself honestly in case the others turn on you.

Or maybe in your church there are things you want to talk about, or ask questions about, but you worry you are a lone voice and everyone will think you’re crazy.

Or maybe you have things you need to talk about because things are damaging you – and you don’t feel that you can, or don’t feel like you will be cared for or believed, or that there might be repercussions that you just can’t face.

And so that leaves us heart sore, feeling the physical pain of not being able to be honest, not being able to speak the truth. Feeling the frustration, the sadness, the loneliness.

It’s amazing how much of our identity is bound up with our ability to express ourselves – our ability to be heard.

Jesus talks about this a lot. He says several times that hearing is as much a spiritual thing as it is a physical thing (see Mark 4:9 and 4:23). We want to be heard because it is a mark of our personal expression. Jesus wants to be heard because it is a matter of salvation.

But in today’s passage, the two needs are met in one.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Mark 7:31-37

For such a short passage, there’s a lot in here. The man was deaf and so lived in silence. He couldn’t hear his friends or loved ones. He couldn’t hear the sound of lazy insects buzzing on a summer day, or the sound of a baby’s first laugh, or hear the water lapping on the shores, or singing or music. And without hearing, his voice was impaired. Whatever he wanted to say, couldn’t be said. What he felt couldn’t be adequately communicated. And he was stuck like that. Forever. Never hearing, never having a voice. Never being able to express himself. Never being heard.

Jesus takes the man to one side. The privacy makes the moment more intimate. Jesus is not a performing monkey. This is a moment of intense power and compassion between just two people. The compassion we see in Jesus’ physical touch – especially for this man who cannot hear what Jesus is saying.

Why the spit? It’s not like Jesus needs anything to perform his miracles. Spit was often seen in the ancient world as having magical or medicinal powers apparently. In Roman writings we see people relating that the spit of a famous or important person had special powers. I’m not sure that is what Jesus is communicating, but I think it sends a message that it’s something that he did. Jesus didn’t have to do anything but then would people have believed it was him? At least this way, as with other actions we have seen when he healed others, the people see Jesus definitely did something and there was a definite result – the mans’ hearing is returned and his voice is restored.

The words that Mark uses here are reminiscent of Isaiah and there is a deliberate reference to Isaiah 35:5-6 “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” The new age has come. Jesus is God’s own son, come to usher in God’s kingdom. We had been told this in Mark 1:15 “the time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!

This encounter with the living God, is a sign that God’s kingdom is truly here. For the man though, it is an encounter that changed his whole life. Jesus had compassion and healed him, loved him, saved him – restored him before God – and gave him a voice.

Our voice is one of the most significant things we possess. With it, we can proclaim the good news and praise God. We can build people up – and we can tear each other down. Our God is a speaking God, so it should be no surprise that our voices can be disproportionately powerful.

It also means that without our voice, we are diminished disproportionately also. And we feel it. We feel small and irrelevant.

God gave us ears to hear and gave us our voices, just as he did the man in today’s passage. We must use them. And we must allow and empower others to use theirs.

We must never be afraid to speak God’s truth. We must not be afraid to explore how God’s truth is applied in our lives and in our world. That means we listen, we explore, we respect. We must never make others feel as though their voice has no place or no value. In all our interactions, we should be caring and respectful.

And if you are reading this and feel like you are in a position where your voice is stifled or taken from you – know this: God gave you ears to hear and a voice to speak. Please seek out people in God’s community. Seek outlets and platforms that will allow you to express yourself and ask questions and speak and continue to learn and grow in him.

Even if some people around you would rather have a diminished form of you, God wants all of you. Do not see yourself as those people see you. See yourself as God sees you – beautiful, whole, loved.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Ever felt like a nobody? (Mark 7:24-30)

I have. I’ve felt like a nobody. Have you? Many people have, I think. Life is really hard. You work away and you carry this enormous load and your emotions are stretched like a taut piece of elastic – any tiny hit is jarring. You run on fumes. It feels like it’s just you. Only you to carry these terrible burdens. And you run out. You just run out. You’ve got nothing left. Nothing. No capacity to take any more knocks, even small ones. No resilience left.

Nothing.

At those times in my life I have despaired. I feel like I have nothing left. I have felt like I am nothing. I’m nobody. The world goes on and I just slog away alone. And there’s no end in sight. No solutions. No end. Just me.

In Mark 7:24-30 we see a woman who is at the end of her tether. How do we know that? Because of what she does and what she says.

Jesus has headed up to the area of Tyre and Sidon. These areas were synonymous with pagan worship. In fact the notorious Jezebel was a princess of Sidon and daughter of the king of Tyre. She was married to King Ahab (check out 1 Kings 16) and introduced pagan worship to the Israelites and wanted to have the prophet Elijah killed.

Now we have a woman from the same area, but approaching Jesus in faith. Like Rahab in Joshua 2 being the only one who has faith, so the SyroPhoenician woman comes in faith. Her act of faith is driven by desperation. Her daughter in possessed by an unclean spirit. I have two little boys and I would do anything to keep them safe and well. I would endure any punishment and humiliation I had to, to save them.

This woman tracks Jesus down, who has gone there wanting it to be kept secret. But this woman finds him and essentially breaks in to approach him. And she, a Gentile, throws herself at his feet and begs. Desperate, humiliated, hopeful.

And Jesus says something odd. “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

The gospel (the bread) is for the Israelites (the children), not for Gentiles (the dogs).

Children in Jewish culture are the rightful heirs. They are honoured. Dogs are dirty. In fact in Matthew 6:7, Jesus says not to give to dogs what is holy. Jesus is calling this woman a dog? Not so much. This is a teaching moment.

The Israelites have always been God’s chosen people. They are his children. But Jesus had said “first”. Israel first, others later. This continues the trajectory of the narrative arc of the whole Bible that shows that all the nations are God’s plan. Right from the first promises to Abraham when God had said that “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gen. 22:18), to Rahab being the brought into the chosen people, to Ruth the Moabite who is honoured in the line of David and Jesus, to the prophecies of Isaiah where the suffering servant will be “a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” (Isaiah 49:6)

This is that moment.

Jesus is also not as harsh as it might first sound also. The word for “dog” he uses is kunarion which is a pup, or a little dog, or a house dog. Not a wild dog but a more affectionately termed animal. A dog that is around the house, that is familiar.

The woman seizes on the imagery and the hope contained in that word “first”. She says “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Verse 28).

She addresses him as Lord. She identifies herself as the dog. And she asks only for crumbs. She has faith and humility. And Jesus grants her request.

That woman must have felt like a nobody. She throws herself at the feet of the one person left in the world who may be able to help her. She literally begs on her knees. I’m a dog, she says. I’m nothing.

No, says Jesus. There’s a plan. Salvation for all. God’s grace extends to all. And there’s an order. But Jesus himself is the turning point. While later Paul’s mission is to the Gentiles, the promise has been there from the beginning and it is Jesus himself who begins the inclusion of the non-Israelites. We see him with Legion in the Gentile region of the Gerasenes of Mark 5, he heals the Roman centurions servant in Luke 7:1-10, he saves the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. And because of the response of this woman, he casts the demon out of her daughter.

Salvation for all. Mercy for all. We are not nobodys. We are somebody. We are somebody to God. We were outsiders. Just like these other people were. But we are not outsiders any more. That was promised right from Abraham – the very first promise included all of us. And if we are not outsiders, we are now his children.

His children. We are not nobody’s. We are his. Even though life is so hard, and we can feel so alone and burdens can feel impossible. We are his. Hold onto that one truth. We are his.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Inspirational memes I hate: “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”

Memes can be helpful – quick bites and pick me ups as we scroll through social media, reminders of biblical truths particularly can point us to where our attention should be as we rush though the day.

Some memes sound helpful, but are most definitely not.

One of the inspirational memes I hate is this one:

You may even have seen it like this, as though God himself were speaking to you.

It sounds great doesn’t it? So comforting. So loving. We lean on this when times are tough. When we need to believe we’re going to be OK. When we are desperate to know that things are going to get better.

Except God didn’t say this. This is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:12-14:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

What this doesn’t say is that God will not give us anything that we cannot handle. What it does say is that God is present in our temptation. The context of the passage is warnings from the Israelites history and their fall into idolatry, sexual immorality and revelry (ie drunken partying). This is not a passage about God generally making life OK.

So this is the first reason I hate this meme – because it says something that the Bible doesn’t say. It gives us a false Bible knowledge. It’s certainly the kind of thing that God might say. God our Father is all-loving and all-merciful. But he didn’t actually say this. If this is something God didn’t say, we can’t extrapolate (poorly) from things he did say.

Throwing this meme around is well-meaning, but it promises things God didn’t promise. It implies God will make everything alright. It implies God will raise us out of our problems. It implies he will never let us break.

And that is demonstrably not true.

So this leads to the second reason I hate this meme. It implies things that aren’t true. Recently, American church pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson took his own life. This article by Ed Stetzer is beautiful and well worth a read. Jarrid Wilson broke. We all know other people who break. It is tragic and terrible – and true.

Our world breaks people. Things happen to people that they cannot handle. If on one hand we are telling each other that God will never give us things we can’t handle and then see people breaking, what does that say about God? Does it say he wasn’t there? Does it say people’s weakness is stronger than God’s power? Does it say God left them?

What does that do to our confidence in him? If our faith is informed by these memes, then our faith is also eroded by these memes. We need to be more discerning than that. Our faith needs to be in the right thing.

This then leads to the third thing I hate. Because if our faith is informed by these memes, and yet we see people breaking, we must believe less of those people – because we cannot think less of God! People around us are dying inside. People we know are crumbling. We cannot be a people who thinks they just aren’t coping like it’s some kind of weakness. If we believe God doesn’t give people anything they can’t handle, and then people aren’t coping, surely it must be their fault. They aren’t strong enough. They don’t have enough faith. There must be something wrong with them.

And that’s how we end up in little huddles in church talking in hushed tones about people.

So then here is the last thing I hate about this meme. We begin to believe these things about ourselves. We believe we must be not strong enough. We believe that our faith is not big enough. We believe that God must have left us. We believe that God is trying to help us but we just aren’t doing things right. We shouldn’t be bending. We shouldn’t be breaking. We shouldn’t be in the jagged pieces that we are.

Here is something that is true – People bend. People break.

In 2 Corinthians 1:8 Paul says “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,  about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.

Paul was crumbling. He nearly broke. And yes, he relied on God, which makes it sound easy, like a self-help moment. But we cannot forget before he got to that, he despaired of life itself. And despair doesn’t just disappear. Even when we resolve to (weakly and brokenly) rely on God, there is healing, there is loneliness, there is fear, there is even trauma to overcome.

In Psalm 34:18 it says God stays close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. This is a promise we can hold in our brokenness. He doesn’t promise to un-break our hearts. He promises to stay close. And he promises save us when we are crushed in spirit. Save us – not make all the bad things disappear, not take away the anxiety or depression or the trauma. He doesn’t even promise to take away the suicidal thoughts or change the abusive husband, or stop the redundancy. He promises he will be with us, and save us.

What we must also notice in this is that God knows when we are broken and crushed. There’s no holy huddle and talk in hushed tones. He knows and he proclaims his promises to us in a voice loud enough for us to hear. This is where we anchor our faith.

We should all pray for wisdom and discernment. Our faith is impacted by these memes so we need to exercise our discernment to know when they are true and helpful and when they are poor paraphrases, when they are not true.

We all know people who are breaking. If we have God’s wisdom, we will have God’s heart for them. We can be a people of true love and compassion, upholding people who are bent so far their backs are breaking. We can hold people’s hands even when they are shattering into jagged pieces. We can walk with them when they are too weak to walk by themselves. We can pray for deliverance and pray for healing and pray for miracles. And we should pray earnestly, hungrily, expectantly. God can do anything. Anything is possible for him. But we don’t know that bit of the plan. All we know is the surety if he promised. That he is there and will save us.

And if you are reading this and you feel you are breaking, hear God’s true promises. He is with you and he will save you. He is with you in the darkness. Don’t believe what the meme tells you. He knows what you are going through and he knows you cannot handle what is happening to you. What is happening to you is real. It is so real it could break you. But he is with you. And he is just as real as the things you are facing. But he is mightier and louder so even though you might not feel like it, he is there.

He is with us. And we must rely on him. Because when we have nothing else, not even our own confidence or mental strength or emotional clarity, he is the only thing we have. When we can’t see anything of hope, when we believe we have no support, when we think we are completely alone, when we can almost feel our spirit cracking under the pressure of our burdens, he is there.

Hear his promises and never let him go.

Why Christians are not immune to loneliness

As Christians, I often feel like we should be immune to loneliness. We have Jesus, right? But this is one of those areas where an inspirational Christian meme doesn’t really cut it. “Only God is enough to satisfy our loneliness” I read. And “You are never left alone when you are alone with God”. These are true, obviously, but not really helpful when you’re feeling the raw reality of loneliness.

If you google “bible passages for the lonely” you find lots of gems. “Surely I am with you always, till the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Also true. But this is part of Jesus’ great commission to his disciples, not a consolation to a person crumbling under the weight of loneliness.

And yet, there is acknowledgement in scripture that loneliness is real, but not necessarily in the emotional way we might think of it. For example, in Psalm 25:16 “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” The Hebrew word translated as “lonely” denotes more a physical state of being solitary – like a friendless wanderer or exile. Of course there is a psychological state associated potentially with that, but that’s not what the language denotes. Loneliness described and discussed as a psychological state is a relatively recent phenomena. That doesn’t mean it was any less real prior to the last hundred years, just that it wasn’t talked about the same way. In history, to be friendless or cut off from community was a social state and was the epitome of a fate worse than death.

We talk now about loneliness as a psychological and emotional state. It might include feeling cut off from community, but includes fear, despair, hopelessness – and as Christians we are not immune. Even though we have the truth of our salvation in Christ and an eternal relationship with the living God, we will still from time to time feel the awful chill of loneliness.

Loneliness can happen to anyone. Whether you are single or in a relationship, whether you are in a large family or none. It’s not the same as being alone. Personally, I’m quite content on my own. I am an introvert by nature and I enjoy reading, writing, knitting (badly) and so on. But being alone in this way is a choice. Feeling lonely is when we are alone in a way that we don’t feel is our choice – when we want to be with someone, or with family, or with community – and we can’t.

That’s when secondary emotions kick in. Disappointment that things aren’t different, anger at feeling powerless to change things, despair that things will always be this way, fear of a future that is uncertain.

Loneliness can feel cold and brittle. There is a stillness that you feel in the cavernous hollow of a dark mountain cave. You are the only living and breathing thing. There is a silence. There is nobody else and there is the thick rock cave wall between you and the rest of the world. If you screamed in this sound-deadened cavity, nobody would hear, and the only sound would be the echo of your own scream coming back to you. You are the only person who hears your pain.

That’s what loneliness feels like.

Loneliness is both our modern emotional understanding and the historical social understanding. You feel cut off from people. Even though our modern world is less constructed according to familial ties and community, we feel separated. And you feel the associated ragged emotional cuts of isolation physically and psychologically.

What is interesting is that even though the meaning behind the language has changed over time, scripture still acknowledges that anguish.

Psalm 142 gives us important teaching without ever using the word “loneliness”. It is attributed to David when he was hiding in the cave from his enemies. Verse 4 says:

Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

This seems to be a perfect description of loneliness. And what does this psalm tell us?

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.

I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.

Sorry to sound obvious but prayer is the first step when we are feeling pain. What is interesting here is that David says he tells a God of his complaint before he tells him his trouble. For David this might be his complaint about his physical situation (I’m trapped and alone) and then his “trouble” is then his emotional state – which he lays out in the following verses.

When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way. In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.

4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

His spirit grows faint – he is feeling overwhelmed. People have hidden a snare – he is surrounded by enemies. Nobody cares for him. These are all things that resonate with us.

I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.

This whole psalm is a prayer – it is a conversation with God. David has told God his complaint (“I am alone”) and he’s laid out his trouble (“I feel so lonely and overwhelmed and frightened and this is too big for me…”). He continues this conversation, talking to God in real and raw emotional need. There is no prayer-formula here. There is no massaging of words to sound right, he just lets it pour out.

But what comes next is fascinating:

Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.

David doesn’t end with a hope that the loneliness will end at some point. He calls on God to deliver him so that he might praise his name. Then the righteous will gather around David – his loneliness and uncertainty will end. Not because of David, but because of God’s visible goodness.

This might feel confronting to us. Our prayers are requests but largely asking for God to empower us to feel better – as though God is a self help guru. What David does is directly and boldly ask God to change his situation (the circumstances of his complaint) and through God’s action, his trouble will be alleviated.

Sometimes, in our lack of confidence, we minimise God and our knowledge of what he is able to do. David, in the midst of his despair, asks God to essentially perform a powerful work so that in his responding praise, people will see evidence of God’s goodness and gather to him.

These are David’s words to God, but they are laid down as God-breathed scripture, which means they are words that God has given us to acknowledge our pain and provide a means and a language for us to reach him in those times. We must use them.

So, if you are like me and from time to time struggle with loneliness, we can use this approach to God. We can take the burden of self help off our already aching shoulders and ask God for help. We can not just speak words of complaint and trouble, but let them pour out of us. We can ask for deliverance. We can be bold because we are approaching our God who is bigger than any circumstance we have.

We are Christian and we have a relationship with the living God. But we are not immune to loneliness. God knows this and gave us real words to bring to him in our pain. Formula prayers and inspirational memes won’t cut it. In the Psalms he gave us these beautiful words that express how we feel – but he doesn’t leave us there. He gives us the means to move forward.

We need to give ourselves permission to be raw with God, be bold in asking him to take over our circumstances and deliver us from our loneliness.

Why “Meet Me Where I Am”?

Some of the best pastoral care I’ve had over the years has been within my church small group. I love everything about small groups – a group of women, meeting weekly, digging into the Bible together, praying for each other, eating an inordinate amount of snacks together, crying, laughing, learning and growing. Within a group of women like this, we truly do life together. We get each other. We can sympathise and minister to each other with all the raw honesty that is needed and without any “Sunday church politeness”.

The most troubling pastoral care I’ve had is when people have tried to meet me where they are, not meet me where I am. What do I mean by this? When someone comes to us with a pastoral issue, we can sometimes instinctively do any of the following:

  • Try and solve the problem without listening to the full extent of the issue;
  • Question the viewpoint (Did that really happen? Isn’t that over-reacting? I wouldn’t have taken it like that. That doesn’t seem to me to be that big of a deal. I know the other party and they probably didn’t mean it. Is the problem that your husband is away for work? Is the real problem that you’ve forgotten to take your antidepressants? Aren’t you being overly emotional?);
  • Jump straight to a Bible passage to try and make the person feel better.

All of these, as well meaning or as accidental as they can be, actually meet the person where we are. What do I think about this situation? If I would react in X way, but the person is responding in a Y way, I’m going to pastor as though you should be responding in X way, because that’s the way I understand the correctness of this situation.

This is problematic. And it can contribute to a feeling that churches are disconnected from reality. Great theology, but lacking in understanding and grace. Meeting people where you are inhibits trust (and actively promotes distrust). It makes people feel misunderstood and at worst, not cared for. It can build a picture that there is a disconnect between the pulpit and the pew – which is a sad assumption that the general populace have of the church anyway, without us accidentally contributing to it.

It can also become self-perpetuating. This kind of pastoring creates barriers. It stops open communication. It makes people feel they can’t be honest in revealing themselves. So they hide. They hide behind their polite-Sunday-face. And the issue gets hidden. Down deep. Where it festers and spreads like a cancer in the soul. And all the while, growing a resentment towards the church because you feel like they don’t get you and don’t hear you.

Women need to feel heard. And they need to feel valued. Good pastoral care is not reactive when a crisis has happened. Good pastoral care is walking through life with them on the good days, and sitting with them in the darkness on the bad days.

Great pastoral care is knowing people enough to know what to pray for them – on the good days and the bad.

Jesus didn’t meet people where he was – and if anyone had the right to do that, it was him. Jesus met people where they were. In Mark 5, Jesus went to find the demon possessed man. He didn’t judge the mans situation and how he got there and he didn’t question if things were really that bad. He met him where he was.

When, in Matthew 9, the woman who had been bleeding for years approached him secretly for healing, he didn’t judge her condition even though, in Jewish culture, it should have been personally distasteful to him. He met her where she was.

When in Luke 7 a woman come and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus does not judge her or question her or solve her problem with a vague scriptural platitude. He meets her where she is.

The reason I called this blog “Meet Me Where I Am” is because that’s my plea. And it’s my prayer for every woman. Real women have real problems. We have mental health issues. We struggle with our faith. We struggle with our confidence. Sometimes we snort when we laugh. Many of us have kids and now avoid jumping up and down. We struggle with our weight. We can’t wait to take our bras off at the end of the night. We love Jesus. We love the Bible. Sometimes we cry in the shower for no reason. We want to feel valued. We want to have a voice.

We love our churches. We have wonderful ministers and pastors and Christian sisters. But we want to be met where we are. We don’t want our pain to be questioned or a quick solution presented. We need pastoral care to be as important as the pulpit. We need theology and humanity.

And let’s not forget – women make up over half of our churches. If we support and nourish our women, we support and nourish the whole family. On top of that, women are seed sowers. We talk to everyone. We connect with people far beyond our immediate landscape. If we make our women feel valued, they will feel confident. If they feel confident, who knows how many seeds they will sow?

I have had the benefit of being around some wonderful ministers and I’ve been around some others with a few blind spots – nobody’s perfect. This is a general plea and prayer for all though. Meet me where I am. Meet all of us where we are. Let your growth in Christ-likeness include putting the self to one side when pastoring a woman. Resist the urge to solve or question. Just let us be heard. Be real with us. And let us be our real selves with you. The church will be enormously enriched by it.

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Why aren’t there more divorced people in our churches?

Here’s an interesting thing – based on the 2016 census, there is 12% of our population who are separated or divorced. Based on the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS), 6% of our church population is separated or divorced. Half! Does this mean that churches are amazing at supporting marriages? Or does it mean that people feel that our churches are not welcoming to divorced and separated people?

Is there a stigma attached to divorce? And if there is, does that come from the church congregation, or from the church leadership and culture?

My personal experience is to have felt as though I was morally tainted in some contexts, and welcomed and supported in others. In the former, I think this was brought into sharper relief by my own feeling of failure. A divorced person is highly sensitized to any sense of rejection, moral failing and stigma. It’s hard to walk into a church as a single-again. If it’s your own church, then it’s a very public declaration that you are now on your own. Everybody knows (or at least can see the evidence of) your business.

If its a new church you’re going to, one of the first questions is always about your family situation. What do you say? Will they judge me? You become acutely aware of being a lone parent checking your kids in at kids church. You become super paranoid that people can see the paler band of skin on your finger where your wedding ring used to be.

In addition, churches are largely set up for families. 65% of the church population is married (NCLS) compared to 48% in the general population. So what is “normal” in the world, is “abnormal” in the church. You stick out.

So, if people are even remotely cold or seeming to lack in grace, the separated person will go running for the hills.

In some ways, its understandable. Throughout all cultural changes and world movements, the church has remained steadfast. With no-fault divorce and the explosion of divorce rates subsequently, the church remained focused on the centrality of the family and marriage as the bedrock of a Christian community. That’s a good thing. Our churches cannot move with the times just “because”. We have to stay true to what we believe.

But one of the things we believe is grace.

If churches are havens of the broken, why are there not more single-agains in them? Churches should feel like a safe space for the lost. And yet they are not – or at least, not seen as being so.

There is a biblical phrase that has been bandied around very unhelpfully. “God hates divorce.”  This comes from Malachi 2:16 which is translated either as ““The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”” or as ““I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence”” The context of this passage is covenant breaking on the part of the priests that Malachi is rebuking. Notwithstanding, it provides a clear indication of what God appears to think of divorce.

But here’s a thing everyone should know – all divorced people understand completely why God hates divorce. Because its terrible. It’s painful and torturous. It hurts whole families. It is horrible for the children. It tears up families, friends and can even split communities. We know intricately and agonisingly why God hates divorce. We know better than anyone.

When Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce, he relates his answer to Genesis and comments “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:6). When asked about this unequivocal stance when Moses allowed divorce, he says “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8) Divorce was never the plan. Perfect harmonious relationships are the plan – but we are human. So divorce is not a gift, but it is a gracious provision in the face of our human rubbish-ness.

Now that doesn’t mean we should be like the world and dash about marrying and divorcing with impunity. It does mean that we need to treat each other with grace because we are imperfect.

Unfortunately, church history and tradition have over-layed the “God hates divorce” thing. For the Romans, divorce was terribly functional. Like the dissolving of a business partnership that no longer worked, divorce had no moral taint attached to it. In the early church, there was a speedy move to the indissolubility of marriage except in certain circumstances (on the basis of Jesus’ teaching), but they didn’t really get involved unless one of the parties wanted to re-marry. As the church gradually took over jurisdiction of marriage, by the early Middle Ages, divorce became far more regulated and commented on. Divorce was even deemed to be criminal. That attitude pervaded until at least the 19th century and we still have hangovers of it today.

Divorce is a very public “sin”. If you are divorced, you must have done something wrong. There is a presumption of sin and sinful behavior. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you let it happen. You failed.

Here’s what Kevin deYoung said of divorce: “Is every divorce the product of sin?  Yes.  Is every divorce therefore sinful?  No.”

Its a helpful reminder. We can never assume what the story is. Undoubtedly there has been sin somewhere but we do not know what and by who. We cannot and ought not, to assume guilt. Assuming guilt throws shame on the broken. If there is sin, then surely we must walk with people to help them repent? People don’t repent because they’ve been judged by other humans. They repent because their hearts have been moved by God. If there is no sin, then we must envelope them with the love and warmth of Christ.

Above all, we must help people to know that they have a place in our church, that they are welcome there, that they belong.

I would gently challenge churches to consider how a single-again would feel if they turned up to your church for the first time. What is the culture? Would they feel welcomed as though they had a place there? What about if one of your parishioners marriages imploded? What support mechanisms are there? Would they feel they can talk freely and honestly?

The main thing here is to be aware of how over-sensitive single-agains can feel, and that perception may be out-weighing the reality. In which case you may have to over-compensate to change pervading attitudes and assumptions as to what the church thinks.

Also, lets think about how the world sees us. We know that we are havens for the broken. But the world often sees us as oases of homogeneity. We are either nice white middle class community centers for families with small kids, or we are stern ivory towers of judgement on anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. That’s how we are seen. How do we change the perception, so that at the worst possible time in someones life, they know they can turn to the church for support and love?

I don’t have all the answers, but it seems to me that we need to think about this if we are to help the lost to feel as though church is a safe space for them to come and find belonging in the arms of Jesus and find his love in action in his community.


NOTE: Many churches are starting to offer Divorce Care. This is an excellent course and you can find a group here or even find more information on how to set up a group in your church.