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How the church can love those dealing with abuse, addiction, abandonment, divorce, and dysfunction

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December 13, 2021

Most people look at me and see a cliché soccer mom from the suburbs trying to keep all the plates spinning: raising five kids, looking for that perfect Pinterest Instant Pot recipe that everyone will enjoy, racing to basketball games while practicing spelling words in the car, all while trying to squeeze in a weekly — OK, let’s be honest, monthly — date night with my husband. It’s the daily grind filled with small moments of joy, stress, pain, grief, and celebrations that many American families experience.  

What people would be surprised to learn is that my life didn’t always look so idyllic. I grew up in the 80s, amid the divorce boom. Every parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle I knew was divorced. I didn’t have much of a relationship with my dad, and overall, in addition to divorce, I experienced addiction, abandonment, abuse, and general dysfunction throughout my childhood. These experiences gave me the desire to break the generational cycle of dysfunction in my own life.  

My childhood also gave me great empathy for those who have endured similar struggles. It opened my eyes to ways in which the church supports its flock — like the way Jesus ministered to the woman at the well. Unfortunately, my experience of growing up with great instability and dysfunction has also shown me ways in which the church has room for growth. I have seen the church respond with both empathy and judgment, and it has caused me to pause and ask myself, “In what ways are we doing well, and in what ways can we do better?”

Growing and thriving

There are many ways in which the church is caring well for people who have experienced abuse, addiction, abandonment, divorce, and general dysfunction. In past generations, some in the church perpetuated the notion that Christians must “have it all together.” Believers succumbed to an underlying pressure to look, act, and be perfect. This perfection drove many believers to live secret lives of sin and shame — to hide their addictions to pornography, drugs, sex, food, and alcohol, among others. And struggles with pride, anger, depression, mental illness, and more were pushed below the surface. When they perceived they could not confront their sin in a safe and healthy place, they fed their sins until they were bloated with depravity and buried under a heap of guilt.

Today, I see a shift. The church is actively acknowledging that we — Christians included — are all sinners (Romans 3:23). Preachers used to preach it from the pulpit, but now local churches are putting Scripture into action by providing a welcome place where people can process their sin, pain, and grief through programs like Celebrate Recovery, GriefShare, DivorceCare, and other local, faith-based recovery groups.  

I also see a shedding of the stoic exterior once worn by the baby boomers and Generation X. And I believe we have the millennials and Generation Z to thank for that. While the older generations tend to conceal their emotions, the younger generations revel in vulnerability and authenticity. They view openness and sharing their feelings as a strength, not a weakness. They are creating a culture of open dialogue through life groups, discipleship, and mentors, which is helping everyone within the church feel less ashamed and more apt to confess their emotional struggles, familial baggage, mental health issues, and spiritual doubts and confusion. This mentality of vulnerability — along with the ability to acknowledge one’s sin—cultivates a field ripe for more authentic relationships with Jesus and with each other.

Room for improvement

But there is still so much the church can do to improve how it cares for people who have experienced abuse, addiction, abandonment, divorce, and overall dysfunction.  

First, we must realize that those in church leadership are not above these issues. We must provide safeguards and accountability for our staff, elders, deacons, teachers, and the entire church body (because anyone who steps foot in the church building becomes a leader in some form or fashion). These safety measures can come in the form of accountability partners, prayer partners, and life groups, all of which must be shrouded with truth and grace.

We also need to shake off the attitude of “that would never happen to me.” We think dysfunction occurs in someone else’s family and life until our spouse has an affair, our teenager becomes addicted to drugs, we get addicted to prescription pain killers, our daughter struggles with an eating disorder, or our husband looks at pornography on his work computer. We believe these things only happen to other people until we are sitting on our counselor’s couch asking, “How did I get here? Where did it all go wrong?” The truth is, we are all one bad decision away from living a completely different life.

Next, we need to embrace the sinners among us with truth and grace. Instead of having the Pharisees’ hypocritical attitude of judgment (Luke 6), we should have the attitude of Paul who realized he was the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).  Fred Rogers once said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” Wrong judgment ends when listening begins. When we hear someone’s story, we understand them a little more. When we understand, we empathize. When we empathize, we can offer them the help they need.  

Instead compartmentalizing our faith — consciously or unconsciously — to Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights — we must follow Jesus into the messiness of other people’s lives. We need to listen to the hurting, weep with the broken, hurt with the sick, and cry with the grieving. Due to my family’s circumstances, I lived with a friend’s family during my sophomore year in high school. Later, during my senior year in high school, I lived with a different friend’s family. These families saw a need, and they met it. This is the church — seeing the messy and the broken and putting it back together. Not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s needed. 

So, what can the church do to help those who have experienced abuse, addiction, abandonment, divorce, and general dysfunction?  We can listen and empathize. We can get involved for the long haul. We can point people to Scripture instead of offering pithy, empty clichés. We can be on guard and accept that these traumas can happen to us, even though we live in middle-to-upper class neighborhoods, we have a college education, or sit in the front row at church every Sunday. We can intentionally focus on connection and discipleship, and we can do all of this while offering authenticity and vulnerability along the way. 

Elizabeth Oates

Elizabeth Oates is an author, blogger, and speaker whose family tree was plagued with generations of divorce, dysfunction, and brokenness. Today she advocates for healthy marriages and families and also encourages women to find their identity in Christ and purpose in the mundane. Elizabeth earned her B.A. from Baylor University … Read More