ARTICLES ABOUT FINDING HOPE AND HEALING
The world is full of people who love God but are scared to death of the church. Most are former churchgoers.* Some eventually find a fellowship of believers where they feel safe, but others stop attending church altogether. Seldom do we see compassion for the latter. Rather, the emphasis is on the command to “forsake not the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” (Hebrews 10:25 KJV). While we agree it’s important to gain encouragement and strength from worshiping together with other believers, those benefits can be outweighed by hurtful or abusive behavior that leaves wounded people in its wake. Condemnation and a sense of abandonment further isolate them.
Wounded by individuals
Some Christians have been wounded by family, friends, or strangers who mistreated them, and it affects their walk with Christ. They struggle to trust again or even to forgive. They may have physical, emotional, or financial setbacks to overcome as the result of the treatment they received.
Wounded by expectations about God
Still others feel as if they have been wounded by God Himself, either directly by circumstances they believe God sent, or by the lack of the protection they thought God should have provided.
A forum for hope
These three areas do not comprise an exhaustive list of the ways that Christians become wounded, but no matter how the damage occurs, Hope for Wounded Christians seeks to provide a forum where those who are hurting can receive help and encouragement. The articles linked below pose questions and share reflections concerning the experiences that either make us or break us in our Christian journey. More will be added in blog-like fashion as time allows. Be sure to check back frequently.
* According to researcher George Barna, most of the unchurched people surveyed–in fact, three-quarters of them–were formerly churched. See his book Revolution for more information on this phenomenon.
Scroll down to read the following articles:
Unplugged From Church
Where Was God When You Cried Out to Him?
Divine Protection: A Promise or a Pipe Dream?
Seven Keys to Walking a Godly Path Through the Wilderness of Divorce
Resilience in the Face of Life’s Hurricanes
Led into Deception
Watch Those Warning Signs!
Wounded by Loss
Unplugged from Church
According to researcher George Barna, the number of unchurched Americans has jumped from 21 percent of the population in 1991 to 33 percent today. “In fact,” Barna says, “if all the unchurched people in the U.S. were to establish their own country, they would form the 11th most populated nation on the planet.”
Amazingly, three-quarters of these people used to attend church. Why, then, did they quit? In his nationwide research, Barna discovered six insights that help explain this trend. They don’t attend because:
1. They’re too busy.
2. Church wasn’t meeting their needs.
3. They don’t see the benefit of church attendance.
4. They don’t view relationships or a sense of community as necessary.
5. They’re bothered by church-attendees’ hypocritical behavior.
6. They want to see a church’s authenticity before they’ll give it a fair hearing.
Roberta used to think that people who didn’t attend church weren’t very spiritual. She herself was as involved as a lay person could possibly be. Neither snow nor rain nor pregnancy nor colicky toddlers prevented her from attending at least three services a week. When her children grew older, she became a leader in several of the church’s ministries.
Then a family crisis made it necessary for her to step down. Some fellow worshippers continued to express concern and prayerful support during her ordeal, but others glared at her in the hallways and generally treated her like a pariah.
She found refuge in one of the church’s small groups until a man in leadership began making inappropriate advances and wouldn’t be dissuaded. Her appeal to the pastoral staff went unheeded. “As the situation deteriorated, I knew I had to leave for my own safety,” she said.
Roberta visited other fellowships in the area but quickly discovered how difficult trying out new churches could be. “Every one of them had a different starting time,” she said. “Some had multiple services. Some met in mini-malls or school buildings, and I had to Mapquest the addresses for directions.”
One preacher, halfway through a ninety-minute sermon that detailed his pastoral vision for the coming year, glanced at Roberta and announced, “We have a visitor here today, but I’m going to keep sharing my heart with you anyway.” Roberta squirmed as the spotlight of attention publicly excluded her from the tight-knit group.
Another church’s booming sound system hurt her eardrums. In a liturgical chapel, she kept losing her place in the unfamiliar worship bulletin and thought the friendship time was the dismissal. As she gathered her purse and coat to leave, everyone else sat down for the rest of the service. Embarrassed, she had trouble refocusing on worship.
When an accident in her home required cleaning and remodeling, she discovered she could get more done during her scarce free time if she didn’t have to shower, dress in nice clothes, and spend a couple of hours in search of yet another house of worship. More and more often she stayed home in order to make progress on the project.
And that is where the specter of guilt found her.
“Oh God, you know I haven’t turned my back on you,” she would pray. “You know I don’t feel any closer to you while listening to a sermon with strangers than I do talking to you as I work alone.”
Gradually, Roberta recognized the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit reminding her how critical she used to be of others in her present position. With her new experience and insight, she could now empathize with them.
Over her lifetime in church, Roberta heard many sermons on a Christian’s responsibility to stay close to God. A frequent illustration talked about the wife who complains to her husband that they no longer sit next to each other in the car.
“I haven’t moved,” is her husband’s response.
The anecdote annoyed Roberta every time she heard it. Although she was old enough to remember when cars had bench seats and no safety belts, and C.O.D. stood for “Come over, Dear,” she took umbrage at comparing a human driver to the Almighty God. She also resented the implication that if you feel disenfranchised in your faith, it must be you who left God.
What if you haven’t moved, yet you still feel as if God were a million miles away? You used to sense His presence in your life, but now you don’t. In fact, you could almost swear He’s avoiding you.
If there’s any good news, it’s that others understand your pain. You may not have met them yet, but understanding Christians do exist. The theme of “the dark night of the soul” surfaces regularly in spiritual writing. So don’t feel as if you must remain silent about this difficult time in your life.
The web site ExploreFaith.org offers an interesting discussion of whether or not going to church is necessary for salvation. The site also discusses the question, Is it necessary to be a part of a religious community in order to fully experience a relationship with God?
We hope you’ll find the discussions helpful. In any event, whether or not you are unplugged from the church, we pray that you are still connected with God.
(Roberta’s name and identifying details have been changed.)
Where Was God When You Cried Out to Him?
Cassandra believed the popular Bible teacher when he promised that if a woman in a dangerous situation simply cried out to God, she would be protected. The teacher told convincing stories to back up the claim.
So when an assailant overtook Cassandra in a parking lot on a December night, she borrowed words from one of the women in the stories: “I’m God’s property. You can’t touch me!” The man just laughed and proceeded to violate her.
Cassandra eventually recovered from the physical trauma, but she still struggles with emotional wounds. Where was God during the attack? Why hadn’t He come to her rescue as the Bible teacher had said He would? Could she even trust God anymore?
She still attends church, but she does so selectively. She has found a pastor who doesn’t illustrate sermons with disturbing details. Guest speakers require more caution. If there’s even a hint that details might be given about a physical attack or sexual abuse, Cassandra stays away. She can’t risk allowing other people’s stories to exhume her own humiliating memories. Especially in a crowd.
Perhaps you are like Cassandra. You wonder where God was when you cried out to Him. We certainly don’t have all the answers here at Hope for Wounded Christians, but we do want you to know that you are not alone. Many others struggle with similar questions. Perhaps these three thoughts may help:
1. God has not abandoned you. When God does not meet our expectations concerning what He could have prevented or should have provided in our lives, it does not mean He hates us or was too busy to notice our desperation. Scripture declares that God’s ways are higher than ours (see Isaiah 55:9). Just because we don’t understand how God works is no reason to assume He does not care. The Bible is full of accounts of people whose painful experiences turned out far different than they ever imagined they would.
2. Remember that bad things often happen to good people on this sin-plagued planet. While testimonies abound about supernatural rescues, the Bible does not promise we will be protected without exception. Yes, Psalm 91, the wonderful Hebrew poem full of comforting promises, is as fully inspired by the Holy Spirit as is the rest of Scripture. But chapter 11 of Hebrews is also God-breathed, and after telling about people who suffered many reverses, the book’s author declares, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (Hebrews 11:39 NIV). Sometimes we won’t know the answers until we reach heaven.
3. While God does not plan the evil things that happen to us, He is expert at bringing good out of bad situations (see Genesis 50:20). Many people who have risked trusting God again by offering Him their hurtful situations have received astonishing treasures in return.
Remember, you are not alone, and God can bring good out of your painful experiences.
Divine Protection: A Promise or a Pipe Dream?
Many people believe that if we live good lives, God will always bless and protect us. A number of Bible verses support this view:
- “Surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12 KJV).
- “Good people obtain favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 12:2 TNIV).
- “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10 NIV).
- Jesus promised, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7).
- “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
- Because Abraham lived a godly life, God protected him, gave him wealth and numerous descendants, and promised the land of Canaan for them all to live in (see Genesis 12-22).
- Centuries later, God promised the nation of Israel that He would show mercy “unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments” (Deuteronomy 5:10 KJV).
- The Law that God gave through Moses instructed, “Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 29:9 NIV).
- Psalm 91 begins, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty,” and ends by saying, “With long life I will satisfy them and show them my salvation” (TNIV). Layered in between are wonderful promises of protection from pestilence, plague, harm, terror, weapons, wild animals, punishment, disaster, and death. Millions of Christians have memorized the entire psalm for comfort and courage in difficult times.
Yet sound principles of biblical interpretation require that we look at what the entire Bible has to say on the subject, even those verses that seem at first to contradict the promises of protection.
- Hebrews 11:35-39 talks about righteous saints who suffered all sorts of horrors. Although they were faithful, “yet none of them received what had been promised” (verse 39 NIV).
- John the Baptist was unjustly incarcerated, never got out of prison alive, and even in death received no respect. To fulfill the wishes of a dancing girl and her scheming mother, his head was paraded on a platter through Herod’s drunken court.
- While active in missionary service, the apostle Paul was imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and adrift on the open sea. He faced dangers from rivers, bandits, foreigners, enemies, and his own people. He went without sleep, food, warmth, and clothing (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
We at Hope for Wounded Christians believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and that God’s Word does not contradict itself. Yet how can we reconcile God’s promises of protection with all the suffering that people have endured since the beginning of time? We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we can find encouragement in honest, respectful discussion.
Seven Keys to Walking a Godly Path Through the Wilderness of Divorce
by S. P., a Hope for Wounded Christians guest writer
(All names and identifying details have been changed.)
All my life I’d been taught that divorce was a sin, so it never occurred to me that one could navigate through marital separation in a godly way. According to my upbringing, if divorce wasn’t the unpardonable sin, it was close to it. No matter how bad their home lives got, true Christians hung in there until the bitter end.
For some, it was a bitter end, indeed, and they died or were severely injured at the hands of abusive spouses. Others found the courage to flee to safety, even under threat of spiritual discipline or shunning. Still others were prepared to stay, but events forced them to separate against their wills.
My friend Elizabeth led a women’s Bible study group, and her husband was a parachurch leader, but after twenty years of marriage, he abandoned his faith and his wedding vows, moved in with another woman, and filed for divorce. Elizabeth clung to hope as long as she could. She gathered prayer warriors, insisted on joint marriage counseling, and postponed signing legal papers. But the day came when the decree was finalized against her will.
Joanee’s husband, on the other hand, was perfectly content to stay in the house where his attractive stepdaughter lived. Because Joanee had vowed “till death do us part,” and she handled problems by ignoring them until they went away, she didn’t allow herself to see signs that would require her to stand up to her husband. It wasn’t until the daughter mentioned the molestation at school and the case ended up in court that Joanee’s husband was removed from the home.
Both Elizabeth and Joanee found themselves in an unmapped wilderness. Where was God when they needed deliverance and protection? They’d done everything possible to keep their marriages intact, yet separation and divorce still occurred.
Elizabeth, Joanee, and others in similar situations need to know how to proceed in a godly manner. Here are seven keys to staying steady in these confusing times.
1. Give God as much time as you can to heal the situation.
Divorce should not be the first reaction when marriage difficulties arise. In fact, many couples who have successfully weathered matrimonial storms say their success is due to the fact that they vowed the “D” word would never be part of their vocabulary. Sometimes solutions can be found by seeking counseling, attending marriage seminars, and reading excellent self-help books.
Prayer is vital. Pray together as a couple. If your mate won’t pray with you, find a safe prayer partner among your friends. When possible, go on spiritual retreats and let the Holy Spirit reveal imperfections in your own life that need work. Ask your church elders to anoint and pray over you.
In the case of abuse or other serious dangers, you may have to physically separate. Most states recognize legal separation—a solution for those whose religious beliefs prevent filing for divorce. This avenue also offers protection while allowing time to work on the marriage.
Relationship healing is not unlike physical healing. Sometimes God answers with a miracle, sometimes help comes through professionals, but sometimes nothing changes—or the situation worsens. In spite of the lack of guaranteed answers, God can and does heal many marriages when given the chance.
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3 NIV).
2. Identify safe people to confide in.
Don’t try to walk your difficult path alone. Identify compassionate friends to whom you can pour out your heart. Which of your acquaintances often speaks with God’s wisdom? Who can keep secrets and not gossip? Which ones can be trusted not to take up an offense against your spouse but will pray for him or her instead? These individuals may not even know each other, but they can provide a strong support system during your crisis.
“The wise in heart are called discerning, and pleasant words promote instruction” (Proverbs 16:21).
3. Prepare yourself for the legal battle.
Learn all you need to know about your finances before the crisis takes place. Determine who can provide appropriate legal counsel. What are your rights and responsibilities? How can you best protect the children? Plan ahead for contingencies with the aim of being fairly treated and treating fairly.
“The discerning heart seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 15:14).
4. Keep in fellowship with God’s people.
Some separating spouses stay at their own churches; others need to find separate churches. But don’t stop being involved with other believers.
You may need to step down from most or all ministry positions, even if you are considered the innocent party. It might not seem fair, but make sure you don’t wallow in self-pity. Pastors rarely receive Bible college training on how to handle divorcing parishioners. They probably can’t explain why God isn’t sending the answers you’re begging Him for. Some leaders assume that in every marriage breakup, each partner bears 50 percent of the guilt. Others believe that no matter who is at fault, it simply looks bad to allow a person to remain in leadership when his or her marriage isn’t solid—or at least when the news leaks to the congregation that it isn’t solid.
When Lola’s husband stopped supporting her financially and his verbal and mental abuse escalated, she consulted several Christian financial experts. They explained that because she lived in a community property state, her options were limited to filing for divorce or filing for legal separation. She opted for the latter. Although she was still married, gossipers spread the word that she had divorced her husband. Soon she discovered that many fellow worshipers expected her to leave the church and immediately hook up with another man. It was difficult to face these suspicious people in church hallways, but she determined to show by example that marriage difficulties did not automatically mean she had abandoned God. It took two years before she felt wider acceptance again and ministry opportunities returned.
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25).
5. Guard against getting involved with someone else too soon.
Even if your own doctrinal beliefs allow you to remarry, don’t rush into another relationship. Too many people who’ve remarried in haste have repented at leisure, discovering that their own unhealed wounds have caused them to choose unwisely. Instead of finding solace in someone else’s arms right away, focus on your own healing, your circle of safe friends, and God’s unconditional love.
No matter what difficult situations we must endure, we can be confident in the unfailing promise of God: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
6. Guard against bitterness.
If your marriage breaks up, you may be surprised at which of your friends support you and which don’t. Do not let yourself relive the negative reactions of others. Unless they are privy to personal information from both you and your spouse, they don’t have the full picture—nor do they need to. Resist the temptation to defend yourself by running the other person down: “If you only knew what my wife did . . . .” Some people say hurtful things because your circumstances remind them of their own painful pasts. Perhaps others interpret Scripture differently than you do and take a stricter view of your biblical options.
Some believe that only death can break the covenant of matrimony—even if that death comes from domestic violence. They believe this because of Christ’s words, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).
Others are convinced that divorce can be God’s will when He didn’t bless the marriage to begin with. In Ezra 10:3, they read about the men of Israel confessing, “We betrayed our God by marrying foreign wives from the people around here. But all is not lost; there is still hope for Israel. Let’s make a covenant right now with our God, agreeing to get rid of all these wives” (The Message).
Opinions concerning remarriage also run the gamut from “certainly you can” to “you’ll live in eternal adultery if you do.”
The point is, if being in harmony with fellow Christians is not possible where you worship, find another body of believers who will embrace and encourage you as you walk your difficult path.
“See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15).
7. Prepare your heart for a hope-filled future.
Take time to examine your own heart. Sometimes a mate’s behavior is so outrageous, it’s not easy to face your part in the breakup. But in view of the fact that Jesus was the only perfect human who ever lived, perhaps we can acknowledge that a small part of the responsibility might lie at our own feet, and let the Holy Spirit take it from there.
Once we have asked God to forgive our own mistakes, sins, and weaknesses, we must forgive ourselves. Many Christians live in defeat, unable to shake the feeling of condemnation for past errors. But if God “is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) when we confess those sins to Him, who are we to hang on to them?
The only hope for wounded, imperfect people comes from God Himself. Cling to this truth: No matter what you have been through, God wants you to look forward to wonderful days ahead.
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
It’s dangerous to oversimplify serious spiritual and emotional issues
In October 2009, author and mental health professional Deborah Dunn posted the following comment on The Writers View. During the discussion that week about the need to be concise in our writing, Deborah warned of damage that can be inflicted on people when writers are so brief they make sweeping generalizations. She has graciously allowed us to share her thoughts on this forum.
“Brevity in Writing Can Be Dangerous”
by Deborah Dunn, LMFT
I’m certain we all want to be clean, mean, writing machines, delivering a message communicated effectively in a manner that keeps our readers engaged, but do we all have to write spare, choppy sound bytes to be considered good writers? Where is the individuality in that?
That aside; we are now witnessing a cultural phenomenon impacting communication regardless of our unique style of delivery. Brevity, for good or ill, seems to be the order of the day.
Brevity forces us to discipline and that is a good thing. But the trend I see in writing, particularly nonfiction, is to simply cover the bullet points, often sacrificing crucial qualifying information for the sake of that brevity.
As a mental health professional, that makes me uncomfortable, especially when writers oversimplify serious spiritual and emotional issues. They encapsulate complex clinical information into quick pills their readers won’t mind swallowing, often coating the bitter medicine with nice sweet scripture to make it more Christian. The end result is that many are giving pat, easily digestible answers to serious life problems without consideration for those whose lives may be hanging in the balance.
But what if the medicine kills the person emotionally or spiritually because, for the sake of brevity, there was no discussion of the contraindications, exceptions, or side effects? What happens to our readers who make major life decisions based on information that was pared down due to the need to adhere to a prescribed word count?
Then writing becomes a risky, if not downright dangerous, business.
Deborah Dunn, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, lives in North Carolina. In addition to writing and counseling, she teaches workshops and seminars on health, wellness, and relationships and is a sought-after motivational speaker. Learn more at http://www.deborahdunn.com.
©2011 Deborah Dunn, LMFT
Resilience in the Face of Life’s Hurricanes
Being wounded in life is inevitable, but how we respond is completely up to us. We can polish up hurts like badges or we can use them as stepping stones to victory. At Hope for Wounded Christians, we know the value of making the latter choice. Read on for insights by one wounded Christian whose positive attitude as given her resilience in the face of life’s hurricanes.
When Janet Perez was twelve years old, she and her family left La Paz, Bolivia, to come to the United States. She now lives in Florida with her husband Gene Eckles. Two sons live nearby, and one son “lives in the glory of heaven,” as she phrases it. In her thirties Janet lost her vision due to retinitis pigmentosa. “I’ve found that life is not about what you cannot do because of circumstances out of your control,” she says. “Success comes when you recognize what you can do with what God has given you. The deepest desire of my heart is to serve Christ and to be an inspiration to others. I apply this principle as I begin each day. Some might think that because I’m blind, I wake up each morning and sink my feet into a cold bucket of self-pity. It’s quite the opposite. Being aware of all the blessings around me warms my heart with gratitude.”
Janet shares with us her perspective on facing “hurricanes that shake the foundations of our world.”
“Gems of Wisdom from the Hurricanes of Life”
by Janet Perez Eckles
Life’s events can take us through rough waters, sudden storms, or periods of calm seas. I’ve experienced them all. And when rating the intensity of storms, my blindness wasn’t the worst. But really, do emotional storms have ratings? They all hurt, they all jolt us, and they all cause us to rethink our lives. In my case, these storms propelled me to a higher place. Actually, it’s a good place–where the view is clear enough to see God, the Captain in control.
When hurricanes shook the foundation of my world, I threw my arms around the pillar of God’s Word. And while fierce winds blasted my face and thunder roared above, nothing could pry me away from holding on to His promises. Then when dark clouds parted and winds died down, I dusted off emotional debris. To my delight, gems of wisdom shone through–gems that had fallen in the midst of the pouring rain. Here are some I collected in the pocket of my heart:
- Trust in feelings and emotions, and your path will not be sound; trust in God and God alone, and you’ll walk on solid ground.
- We know defeat when our feet refuse to step out of the puddle of discouragement.
- Pain is like a bucket of water. The longer we hold onto it, the heavier it gets.
- More effective than sleeping pills is slipping gratitude into our thoughts.
- Forgiveness opens the door to freedom.
- Turmoil can boil only when fueled by worry.
- Focus not on the real estate you hold but on the One who holds the real state of your destiny.
- The green of envy highlights our worst features.
- Life tastes better when seasoned with kind words.
- Constant work may bring results; but work blended with commitment to God’s Word results in sweet peace.
- Patience is the muscle that strengthens the soul.
- We know compassion only when love is our passion.
- Anger visits places where fear dwells.
- We miss the beauty ahead when gazing into the rearview mirror of life.
- Broken plans are often God’s divine detours.
- Resentment clogs the pipeline of peace.
- A positive attitude is the passport to places where others don’t get to travel.
No matter what conditions, circumstances, or cares blow your way; no matter how vehemently you may deny it, God, the Captain of your destiny, has each moment planned, each day designed, and each moment orchestrated by His skillful hand.
© 2011 by Janet Perez Eckles, “Faith and Love with Latin Flair.” Reprinted with permission.
For more about Janet, to read her delightful writing, or to sign up for her free newsletter, visit http://www.janetperezeckles.com.
Led into Deception
“It Can’t Happen to Us!”
by Agnes Lawless Elkins
April 19, 1993. The eyes of the world watched the terrifying spectacle on their television screens. As though spewed from the mouth of a fiery dragon, thick, black smoke and orange flames devoured the wooden fortress.
Inside this inferno, leader David Koresh, some sixty-seven adults, and seventeen children perished. The Branch Davidians’ Day of Armageddon had arrived on the plains of Waco, Texas.
Amazingly, Koresh started out in a mainline Seventh-Day Adventist Church before joining this splinter group in 1981. Together they drifted into outright heresy.
But, you say, that can’t happen to us. We’re too smart.
That’s what we thought.
We both accepted Christ as our Savior when we were children. Reared in Christian homes, we attended evangelical churches. We graduated from well-known Bible colleges and universities and did graduate work. We had devotions every day, for we knew the importance of Bible reading and prayers. After marrying, we spent seven years overseas with a reputable mission organization.
Surely, we would never drift into deception.
But we did.
However, you ask, doesn’t one have to be in a cult to be deceived? Deception is not a problem in evangelical, Bible-believing churches, is it? And what in the world is an aberrant Christian group?
But in all good faith, we got caught in one and drifted with the rest of its members towards the shoals of deception. We learned that aberrant Christian groups are a growing menace and use cult-like methods to draw and control adherents.
Imagine a crowd climbing aboard a sightseeing steamer for a cruise on Lake Erie and around Grand Island on the Niagara River in upper New York State. It’s a beautiful day with sunny skies. People throng the decks to play games, to watch the scenery, or to doze on lounge chairs. A small band plays romantic melodies. The ship enters the river past the city of Buffalo and the eastern side of Grand Island. But instead of turning south at the northern tip, the steamer continues on towards Niagara Falls.
The captain tries to turn the ship around. Nothing happens. The wheel is useless. The rudder must be malfunctioning. The captain shouts instructions to his crew to cut back the power, and the steamer slows. Now it’s drifting. The helpless captain and crew are frantic. But they mustn’t let the passengers know the seriousness of the situation . . . not yet.
Soon a small boat pulls alongside. A man on deck shouts through a megaphone toward the wheelhouse, “Danger ahead! Turn around! You’re drifting towards Niagara Falls!”
Passengers line the rails. What’s happening? they ask one another. Is something wrong? Surely not. The man in the little boat must be crazy.
The captain comes on deck. “Don’t worry!” he shouts to the passengers. “Everything’s okay! No need to panic.”
The crowd settles back on their deck chairs, and the band plays on.
Caught in the rushing flow of the river, the steamer picks up speed as it drifts toward the falls.
Faster and faster.
Over it goes through the spraying water. Down it plunges 190 feet into the boiling cauldron and breaks to pieces on the rocks below.
All are lost.
Today we Christians are just as blind to impending danger. Hoping for exciting spiritual experiences, we join the crowd climbing aboard the ‘”cruise ships” of evangelical superstars. As the band plays, we sing rousing choruses. We listen breathlessly as famous leaders, dressed in designer suits, promise us health, wealth, and self-fulfillment. All for a price, of course.
Occasionally, a small boat pulls alongside. A person with a megaphone yells, “Danger ahead! Turn around!”
But our leaders come on deck. “Don’t listen to him,” they say. “He’s crazy. Nothing’s wrong.”
And then we hear the roar. We see rising spray from the falls of destruction. Only then do we realize that our ship is doctrinally rudderless. We’re drifting toward the Niagara of deception.
And the band plays on.
Because of our experience, we learned that we can all drift into deception if we loosen our moorings and ignore the winds of false doctrines. We’re all vulnerable.
©2011 Agnes Lawless Elkins. Adapted from The Drift into Deception: The Eight Characteristics of Abusive Christianity
by Agnes C. Lawless with John W. Lawless (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Resources, 1995), 9-11.
Watch Those Warning Signs!
by Agnes Lawless Elkins
Christ warned us that in the last days, a proliferation of false teachers will, if possible, “deceive even the elect” (Matthew 24:24 NIV). Deceived by Satan themselves, they in turn deceive others.
How is it possible for even the elect to be deceived? It usually happens gradually and as the result of following a persuasive but untrustworthy leader.
The lure of Shiloh
Our family is no stranger to the enticement of such leaders. My husband’s grandparents, T. Albert “Bert” and Carrie Field, with two young children, joined an exciting new spiritual community in 1899. When they arrived with their loaded horse-drawn wagon at the rural setting near Durham, Maine, what they saw reminded them of a medieval castle ruling a hill. Colorful flags whipped in the breeze. Two magnificent “gates of praise” topped a long staircase, and wide verandas wrapped around the main building. A gold-leaf crown capped a seven-storied tower.
The Holy-Ghost-and-Us Bible School, later known simply as “Shiloh,” was the largest institution of its kind in the U.S. at the turn of the last century. It covered 1,500 acres and included forty-four buildings and farms.
Frank W. Sandford, a former Baptist preacher and evangelist, founded the school in 1896 to give his new converts additional teaching. Fueled by his paper Tongues of Fire with news of healings and miracles, flames of this new movement swept across North America and the British Isles. Sandford, a dynamic person with oratorical gifts, drew followers like candy draws children. He soon attracted families from as far away as Washington State, western Canada, and England.
Shiloh grew into a commune of six hundred men and women, plus children. All were earnest Christians, eager to win the world for Christ in their generation. They sold all they had, gave the money to the leader, and moved into wooden, unheated dormitories.
Bert and Carrie were excited to be part of this new movement. Bert had sold their home, furniture, and jewelry store in nearby Brunswick and then turned the money over to Sandford, along with their horses and wagon. However, he had given his parents some money to keep for them, just in case.
Bert soon established himself as an important member of the community. As one of the few businessmen, he not only served as postmaster but also as water commissioner and the appraiser of jewelry, silverware, and other valuable items donated to the group.
For the first few years, Bert and Carrie were happy in the glow of their “honeymoon” experience at Shiloh. They enjoyed meeting new people and talking about things of the Lord. The daily services and prayer meetings were stimulating.
As time passed, the Fields noticed gradual changes. Bible classes turned into lengthy harangues on Sandford’s often revolutionary doctrines. They also observed that members considered his words as important as God’s. Flushed with success and the adulation of his people, Sandford called himself first a prophet, then an apostle, and finally the restored “Elijah” who would prepare the earth for Christ’s reign. The young couple became uncomfortable but didn’t dare say a word to anyone else.
They found Sandford’s abusive actions disturbing–his angry confrontations with those who disagreed or questioned his authority. Bert and Carrie’s Yankee thrift and sense of justice were bothered by his blithe spending of large amounts of money on everything from golden harps to boats instead of food for his hungry followers–especially the children.
Deeply disillusioned, Bert, Carrie, and their growing family left Shiloh in 1904 under a cloud of rejection from their friends and Sandford’s warnings of judgment. In fact, these warnings were so dire that the Fields had a family portrait taken soon after they left. With tongue-in-cheek, Bert told family and friends, “We want you to have something to remember us by–in case Sandford’s judgments come true.”
With his parents’ aid and the money he had left with them, Bert built another home and reestablished his jewelry business in Brunswick. He and Carrie helped others who fled Shiloh and hid them in their house, barn, or woods to protect fanatical members from hunting them down. They gave the escapees money to return to their homes and wrote letters of recommendation for those needing jobs.
Sandford’s visions of glory soon ended in tragedy. With two sailing vessels–a large yacht called The Coronet and a brigantine called The Kingdom–he and some followers made “missionary” trips to the Holy Land and other countries to spread his teaching. On a fateful voyage in 1910-11, the brigantine ran aground, and waves pounded it to pieces. Its passengers boarded the yacht and resumed their journey. Although the ship was badly overcrowded and short of supplies, Sandford refused to put into port for food or to return to the U.S. to face a lawsuit. They sailed on to Greenland where storms battered the ship. Seven crewmen died from sickness and starvation, and the rest demanded to go home.
When the boat finally returned to Portland, Maine, authorities arrested Sandford, convicted him of negligent homicide, and sentenced him to seven years in a federal prison. By 1920, most of the group scattered, disillusioned and penniless.
Meanwhile, the Fields joined an evangelical church in Brunswick where Bert served as Sunday-school superintendent for many years. He often led people in singing, ” ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” and his eyes would fill with tears. He and Carrie had learned by hard experience to trust in Jesus, not a leader.
Author George Santayana wisely said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can avoid repeating the past by heeding…
Nine warning signs of false teaching and practices
1. Dynamic leaders venerated by their people. Charismatic leaders can attract followers with persuasive speech, an air of authority, and idealistic goals. Their people often idolize them. Yet God says we should worship him alone: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Matthew 4:10). “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah 42:8).
2. An authoritarian structure shaped like a pyramid. This type of organization is characterized by one leader at the top with a few immediately under him, exercising excessive control over the personal lives of the followers. Such leaders demand honor, unquestioning obedience, and submission. Fear of public reprimand or excommunication is used as a weapon to prevent complaints and defection.
Jesus, however, denounced such misuse of authority when he told his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. No so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26).
3. An emphasis on horizontal rather than vertical relationships. People in these groups are urged to form “covenant” relationships with others in the movement. Much teaching from the pulpit revolves around this. Yet personal fellowship with God is not emphasized in the same way.
The Lord said, however, that we should keep our eyes on him rather than on other people. They may disappoint us; God will never fail. The Bible says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
4. A lack of emphasis on Bible study and prayer. Authoritarian leaders often warn their people of the danger of biblical head knowledge. They put little emphasis on a personal time with the Lord. Thus, new Christians often neglect both Bible study and prayer.
Just as prisoners of war are kept docile through starvation, these believers become weak from spiritual malnutrition and are easy prey to false teaching. They go along with whatever the leaders say, scriptural or not. Remember that the Dark Ages were brought about in part by a state church discouraging Bible reading by the laity. Leaders insisted that their people accept the church’s teaching.
We become spiritually strong not only by listening to biblical preaching but even more by personal Bible study. The apostle Paul told the Ephesian believers, “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up” (Acts 20:32). The Berean Christians compared Paul’s teaching with Scripture: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
5. “New” revelation. Often unwilling to accept traditional interpretation of scriptural truth, leaders may call their teaching a “new revelation” from God or “the now word for today.” Such leaders thus train their people to depend on their counsel or personal prophecy rather than Scripture.
Regarding this practice, Jesus said, “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matthew 15:9). Paul also warned about such teachers: “Evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). He urged Timothy to continue in what he had learned because “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures” (v. 15).
6. Exclusivism. Fringe groups cut themselves off from Christians who disagree with their doctrinal stances, so they do not fellowship with others in the evangelical community. Sometimes they form communes so they can further separate themselves from “corrupting” influences.
Jesus’ prayer for all his people, however, was for unity: “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name–the name you gave me–so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).
7. Greed for money. Authoritarian leaders often insist that their followers give liberally to them and the movement. Those who do not are confronted about it. Giving to other organizations may be forbidden. Leaders of communes may demand that their followers turn over all possessions and money when they join.
Such leaders do not use money for God’s glory. They make sure they themselves are well taken care of, and they usually live on a higher level than their people. The Bible warns against such greed: “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain, prophets and priests alike” (Jeremiah 6:13).
8. Confrontation with those who disagree. Authoritarian leaders often become angry with those who question their teaching, even when such questions are honest. They may hurl verbal abuse or use physical violence when crossed. The offended persons either submit or leave the group, hurt and disillusioned. Regarding anger, God said, “A quick-tempered man does foolish things” (Proverbs 14:17). “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger” (Ephesians 4:31).
9. Ties broken with defectors. When people leave authoritarian groups, the leaders usually cut them off completely. In Shiloh, the organization my husband’s grandparents joined, Sandford told members to have nothing to do with defectors, even if they were members of their own families. He said that terrible judgments would befall any who dared to depart from his “true” church.
Truly, we see the proliferation of false teachers that Christ warned us about. It pays to heed God’s warning signs. None of us is exempt from being deceived.
©2011 Agnes Lawless Elkins. This article is adapted from The Drift into Deception: The Eight Characteristics of Abusive Christianity by Agnes C. Lawless with John W. Lawless (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Resources, 1995).
Wounded by Loss
Christmas can be a time of strong emotions — often revolving around family. But sometimes the family is broken; by separation, divorce, death, or circumstance. In 2007, Dr. Richard Mabry wrote about this issue for his local newspaper and then posted the article on his blog. He generously gives us permission to reprint it here with the hope that it will minister to those whose hearts are heavy at holiday time.
“The First Christmas Without Them”
by guest writer Richard L. Mabry, MD
After the death of a loved one, every holiday that follows carries its own load of renewed grief, but there’s little doubt that Christmas — especially that first Christmas without him or her — is the loneliest time of the year.
After the death of my wife, Cynthia, I was determined to keep things as “normal” as possible for that first Christmas. Since this was an impossible goal, the stress and depression I felt were simply multiplied by my efforts. My initial attempt to prepare the Christmas meal for my family was a disaster, yet I found myself terribly saddened by the sight of my daughter and daughters-in-law in the kitchen doing what Cynthia used to do. Putting the angel on the top of the tree, a job that had always been hers, brought more tears. It just wasn’t right — and it wasn’t ever going to be again.
Looking back now, I know that the sooner the grieving family can establish a “new normal,” the better things will be. Change the menu of the traditional meal. Get together at a different home. Introduce variety. Don’t strive for the impossible task of recreating Christmases past, but instead take comfort in the eternal meaning of the season.
The first Christmas will involve tears, but that’s an important part of recovery. Don’t avoid mentioning the loved one you’ve lost. Instead, talk about them freely. Share the good memories. And if you find yourself laughing, consider those smiles a cherished legacy of the person whom you miss so very much.
For most of us, grieving turns our focus inward. We grieve for ourselves, for what might have been, for what we once had that has been taken from us. The Christmas season offers an opportunity to direct our efforts outward. During this season for giving, do something for others. Make a memorial gift in memory of your loved one—in our area, options include the North Texas Food Bank, the Salvation Army, and numerous charities. Involve yourself in a project through your church. Take a name from an Angel Tree at one of the malls and shop for a child whose smile you may not see but which will warm your heart nevertheless.
When you’re grieving, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by Christmas, especially the modern version. The echoes of angel voices are drowned out by music from iPods. The story of Jesus’ birth gives way to reruns of “Frosty, The Snowman.” Gift cards from Best Buy and Wal-Mart replace the offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If you find the season getting you down, the burden of your loss too great to bear, read once more the Christmas story in Luke, chapter 2. Even when you celebrate it alone, this is the true meaning of Christmas.
Richard Mabry, M.D., is a retired physician, now writing Christian fiction and non-fiction, and working fruitlessly on improving his golf game. His book, The Tender Scar: Life After the Death of a Spouse, was published by Kregel Publications. His work has also appeared in Upper Room, In Touch Magazine, and Christian Communicator. His first novel was published by Abingdon Press in 2010. Learn more about Dr. Mabry at www.rmabry.com and www.rmabry.blogspot.com.