Surviving It: God Wants to Heal You
About the Guest
God cares about your relationships. Christian counselor Leslie Vernick tells how God healed the emotional wounds caused by her mother and tells others how to survive an abusive relationship.
God cares about your relationships. Christian counselor Leslie Vernick tells how God healed the emotional wounds caused by her mother and tells others how to survive an abusive relationship.
Surviving It: God Wants to Heal You
Bob: You tried to patch it up as you grew up, but she did not seem responsive to your efforts to try to heal the relationship.
Leslie: No, I tried to go to her and share with her what she has done to hurt me, and she just put it all on me as I was this awful kid and did everything wrong. So, it was really difficult because—
—in order for me to own my own problem, I had to begin to understand what my part was and not so much my part in her abusing me. I didn’t cause that. That was her problem. But what I was focusing on was trying to get her to change.
I was trying to get her to stop drinking. I was trying to get her to go to the doctor for some medication. I was trying to get her to be a better grandmother to my children. But no matter what I did—whether I talked to her, whether I was nice to her, whether I confronted her, whether I cried in front of her—nothing I did made any impact on her. So, I began to say, “What is my problem here? I can’t change her. That’s her problem. My problem is”—
Dennis: Now, before you move to your problem—is it just that people, at that point, have got a hard heart; and they refuse to hear the truth about themselves?
Because I shared a bit earlier this week about my own relationship with a person where I was being abused by emotionally in a relationship—I kept absorbing it—
—and trying to do what was right by me; but it was like they could never hear that there was anything wrong with them in the way this person is relating to me. Is that because of a hardened heart? Is it because of an evil heart?
Leslie: It can be a number of things: a proud heart, an evil heart, a fearful heart. There can be lots of different reasons why we won’t hear. The Bible calls it blindness—that we have 20/20 vision for the problems in another person, but we cannot be internal or introspective. We cannot see or own our own sins; and because of that, it makes a relationship with someone—a healthy relationship with someone impossible, because we all hurt each other sometimes.
So, that‘s really important for us to be able to look at that; and when someone says I am really hurt by what you did or really offended by what you did, to take some responsibility. And so, this person you try to talk to couldn’t do that—they couldn’t see it.
Dennis: Is there such a person who does not have the competency to establish a relationship? In other words, they just don’t know how.
They don’t know how to have any kind of healthy, meaningful relationship.
Leslie: I imagine that there are people like that who have been so wounded or damaged in their early years that they don’t know how to do that. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to have a relationship with them. It might mean that we do minister to them with a much more tolerant and forbearing and forgiving spirit understanding their limitations.
Dennis: And in your mom’s case?
Leslie: Well, in my mom’s case, I mean she does have a strong history of not having great relationships. She was the sixth child of an overworked mom and dad. Her mother went into the hospital after her birth and had postpartum depression and never came out—never! In growing up, I never knew I had a grandmother. She was raised by her older sister who did not want to raise her.
So, I certainly can understand, now, as an adult some of my mom’s history as to why she wasn’t capable of being a good mother—why she wanted to drink her life away, all those kind of things.
But in that 15 year hiatus when I didn’t see her or speak to her, I had to give up trying to change her—
—and I had to look at myself and what was my problem. My problem was I wanted a mother, and I wasn’t getting the mother I wanted. My problem was I was bitter and resentful that she wasn’t willing to change.
And as I began to heal myself and get healthier with the Lord and let His words define me, then, her words lost their potency over my life, and I wasn’t nearly afraid of her anymore.
Dennis: I want to talk for a moment about the bitterness and the issue of ultimately forgiving them. A number of years ago, I wrote a book about honoring your parents called The Best Gift You Will Ever Give Your Parents.
I talked about three gifts you can give your parents: the gift of understanding, which you just modeled. You talked about the home your mom grew up in and her circumstances that surrounded her life that contributed to the woman she became. So, there is understanding.
Secondly, the gift of compassion—beginning to see them as a real person with hurts and needs and needing mercy—
—and needing someone who cares about them. Then, finally, the gift of forgiveness—realizing you‘ve got to let go of the hurt, the hatred, the bitterness and all the ways they’ve disappointed you and giving up the right of punishment. At that point, your soul can be clean and cleared.
Leslie: And freed!
Dennis: Yes, out of the prison! You think your letting your parents out of the prison. In essence, what you do is you let yourself out of the prison by forgiving.
Bob: You spent a season where you stepped back from your relationship with your mom; and in that season, God did some work in your own heart, didn’t He?
Leslie: That’s right. During those 15 years, I just wasn’t passive and just saying, “Oh well, that’s her problem. I am just going to be bitter and resentful.”
Over those 15 years, I did the work that I needed to do to let go of it—to not contact her anymore, to forgive her mistreatment, to show compassion for her history and understanding that had I been in her shoes I might not have done much better. So, I really began to see that I had no right to judge her. It still didn’t make me want—
—to have any time to spend in her presence, but I wasn’t going to be bitter or resentful anymore.
Bob: I don’t want to encourage people to be naïve, but I think you’re on to something.
When we begin to see in someone else the kind of damage that you’ve described—that you’re mom experienced—and we can see that with eyes of compassion instead of eyes of anger, that’s a huge shift in our own heart because our response is less the protective response; and now, it’s the more loving response to say, “I want to help.” And wanting to help, in your case, meant “I need to stay away for awhile until I’m strong enough to help.”
Leslie: Absolutely! I needed to stay away until she didn’t keep pushing my buttons because I couldn’t change her. She was going to push my buttons. She was going to say the things she always said. She was going to do the things she always did. My goal, then, was to not react the same way I use to. And through that process of not reacting to her and not letting her push my buttons, an amazing thing happened to my mother.
She began to soften as well.
So, it was a tremendous lesson to me in life—that as I got healthier I could invite her into healthier change, and she began to get healthier. The last year of her life she was dying, but she was the healthiest most alive she had ever been. It was an amazing thing.
Dennis: You’ve talked about taking a step back and removing yourself from being abused. So, you got some distance there where your head could clear and your emotions could settle down. What are other steps that need to be taken so a person can survive an abusive relationship? I mean we are talking about, probably, some spouses right now who are listening to this broadcast where they’re in relationships that are daily—
Bob: Yes, what do you do if things don’t change? I mean you’re trying to get healthier, but the emotionally destructive patterns are there.
Leslie: Now, let’s be real. There are many people who are in that kind of marriage who cannot leave or don’t choose to for a variety of reasons—some good reasons and some bad reasons. So, they’re with this person, and they see them daily.
It’s not like they can really step back physically.
But I love the story of Abigail in the Old Testament because she is the woman who is in an emotionally and probably physically abusive relationship. Her husband is described as a surly, nasty man. And David was trying to get Nabel and his men to honor him by feeding his men because he had protected Nabel’s sheep and his men during a season. Nabel was just greedy and selfish and arrogant and wouldn’t do it. And he so enraged David that David threatened to massacre all the males in Nabel’s household.
The servants knew that Abigail had a clear head. She was not a woman who was intimidated by this destructive man. The Scriptures describe her as a beautiful and intelligent woman—and I have often pondered her: How did she stay healthy in this unhealthy relationship?
One of the things that was key for Abigail was that she didn’t live in fantasy. I think if we are going to get healthy and live through an emotionally destructive relationship, we have to face reality.
And that may be that our marriage isn’t getting better—that our spouse isn’t going to change.
When she went to David, she said, “My husband is a fool.” She didn’t make excuses for him, but she also said put the blame on me. She was a noble woman and was willing to take responsibility before David.
So, I think that facing reality, grieving your losses, understanding who God says you are is the major component of healing because identity is always formed in a relationship.
I love the verse in Psalm 86:5 where it says, “O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive, and so full of unfailing love to all who ask for your help.” That is who God is. If we can begin to get a picture of Him and of His love for us, that can begin to heal our damaged sense of self.
Dennis: I want to go back to your relationship with your mom. You said you forgave her. Did you tell her that you forgave her, and did you name the way that she had harmed you or had damaged you?
Leslie: No, I never did because when I had tried to tell her—
—that she had harmed and damaged me, she wasn’t healthy enough to hear it back those 15 years before that. And during her siege with lung cancer, I just didn’t think she was any healthier than she had been back then. She had stopped drinking, but I didn’t think that that was a good thing. I just had forgiven her, and it showed in my behavior toward her. She could sense that.
I remember that one Mother’s Day—it was the only Mother’s Day I remember spending with her as an adult, and I was visiting with her, my brother, and my sister. She turned to us and she said, “I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this. This is the best Mother’s Day I have ever had.”
So, she knew, but she could never say it. She could just tell that in our actions toward her it was pure grace. She didn’t deserve our care, she didn’t deserve our love, she didn’t deserve our mercy; but we gave it to her because God had given it to us, and we gave it to her.
And the neatest thing about the story is she soaked it up like a dry sponge—because a lot of people won’t accept that. They’re too proud, or they’re too shamed. So, they’ll reject it because they don’t want to receive someone’s care because they didn’t deserve it.
Dennis: You know, I wonder right now if we are speaking to a person who’s in a relationship—maybe it’s like you and your mom—maybe they haven’t spoken to one another in months, years, a decade or more; and they have lost hope that there will ever be any kind of reasonable reconciliation or a relationship of any kind. What I just heard you say is you never know what God will do in those final moments of a person’s life—if you just hang in there with an authentic love but a love that has its boundaries.
Leslie: Absolutely! That’s why when I am counseling someone I always tell them do what you are supposed to do right now. You can’t control what is going to happen in the future. So, just—you work on you. You get healthy. You get ready because if the person ever comes to a place where they can repent—or they can begin to see their blind spots—you don’t want to be so full of anger and bitterness—
—that you can’t, then, do what God is going to ask you to do.
So, if you get your part ready—you don’t have to worry about God’s part or their part. You just get your part ready. If God ever orchestrates the reunion of an opportunity to talk about those things again—and I remember my mother laying on the hospital bed in my family room—the hospice nurse was on one side giving her a bath—she turned to me, she held my hand, and she said, “I am sorry. I never knew how to love my children.” That was the only apology that I ever got, but it was huge.
Had we not had those good months before that, I don’t think she would have been healthy enough to be able to say that. So, God gave me a wonderful gift at the end which I never expected.
Bob: You had—prior to your time with your mom—you had this storehouse full of painful memories, hurt, shame. It’s not like those memories are now gone. You still know the events. You can still talk about—
—getting pushed down the back stairs or about being swung at by your mom. So, what’s the difference?
Leslie: The difference is there is no emotional charge to it anymore. The emotional charge of shame or hatred or bitterness—that is all gone because I have been able to work through it, and I don’t feel the pain of it anymore. I can say it, as a fact; but it doesn’t hold the emotional charge.
Bob: Where did it go? Where did the pain go?
Leslie: The pain went into the arms of Christ. You know He takes our pain—by His stripes, we’re healed. It says in Psalm 107:20, “By His word, He healed them.”
It’s not just the Word of God—which I really believe in—but it’s the presence of God because the word became flesh. So, as we sit in God’s presence and we allow Him to speak to our hearts and nourish our hearts and minister to our hearts—and there are times when we don’t even know what He is doing we are just being still. “Be still and know that I am God.”
I believe that God does affirm us, heal us, and restore us. He doesn’t just redeem us.
He restores us, so that we might be all that He wants us to be—including the cracks. He doesn’t take them all away. He just heals them so He can use them for His glory.
Bob: So, this isn’t just you painting with a rosy brush the sewage. This isn’t just you denying that there ever was pain there. There’s been a process whereby something redemptive has happened.
Leslie: Yes! I really encourage people—because this is 15 years and I’m a Christian counselor—it took me a long time. I really encourage people with the process because it’s not—and I feel so badly for people who are given the counseling through their church of you just have to forgive and forget and get back together. It just doesn’t happen that fast.
So, we really need to let people sit and work through the things that they need to work through it so that there’s genuine change and real redemptive healing takes place.
Dennis: We talked a bit earlier about Romans, Chapter 12, verse 18. I want to read it again; but then, I want to read to the end of the chapter and make a point here.
It says, “If possible so far as it depends on you”—
—“live peaceably with all.” And just a comment about this—I love this scripture because it’s so reasonable. It recognizes there are going to be relationships where peace doesn’t occur. So, you know what? Do your part but don’t do their part, too. Then, in verse 19, it says “Beloved, never avenge your selves but leave it to the wrath of God. For it is written, vengeance is mine. I will repay says the Lord.”
I’ll just tell you. In this relationship that I’ve shared about that has gone on for 20 years where I feel like I was abused, I finally had to take a step back and then take a friend with me when I re-engaged that relationship. I could tell when I had finally forgiven and had given up the right to punish the other person—was when I would read this passage here, “Beloved, leave room for the wrath of God.”
Now, this person is somebody I still love. I don’t want them to experience the wrath of God because the ultimate wrath is a Christ-less eternity in Hell. I don’t want this person to experience that. I want them to know the God of hope, the God of grace, the God of mercy, and the God of forgiveness that I know Who has worked in my life and given me freedom to be able to relate to that person. I think we can know if we have forgiven by how we pray for that other person.
Then, finally, this passage concludes. It says, “To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he’s thirsty, give him something to drink. For by doing so, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The Scripture is so simple sometimes. I just wish it was easy—
[Laughter]—because I am so human. I get entangled with my own emotions, my own wrong perspective, my own lack of belief in God and His word. And here God lays it out pretty simple.
Leslie: You know, and the Bible tells us—and Peter tells us that Satan’s a roaring lion who seeks to devour us. So, sometimes, he might use another person—that destructive person to try to destroy us.
It’s really important that we understand that our enemy isn’t always the other person. They may feel like the enemy, but our real true enemy spiritually is Satan. He wants us to be overcome by evil. So, when someone is evil toward us—when they are destructive toward us, the most tempting thing and the most natural thing is for us to be overcome by that; and then, we start being evil back—either by retaliating or being bitter or being unforgiving or by letting it crush our spirit.
So, God is saying that we have work to do when we are in the presence of an evil person, and that is to not let it overcome us. We need to—just like if you were going to go in an environment where there is hazardous waste material or there’s—
—nuclear rays going out, you put on a hazmat suit. You do something to guard yourself, to protect yourself.
God says we need to put that spiritual armor on especially when we are in the presence of toxic people or negative people all the time—to protect ourselves so that we are not overcome by evil, but we can overcome evil with good.
Dennis: Well, Leslie you’ve done a great job here of bringing your practical experience, not only as a counselor, but being real and talking about a tough relationship with your mom—and really helping us understand as individuals how we can begin to pay attention to how we’ve been abused; then, release the anger and the resentment by forgiving; and then, finally, survive it by loving in return with boundaries.
I just appreciate you being on the broadcast, and I hope you’ll come back and join us again sometime.
Leslie: I’d love to do that. Thanks for having me.
Bob: I think there are going to be a lot of people who, not only who have benefitted from what we’ve talked about this week, but who are going to benefit as they get a copy of your book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship: Seeing It, Stopping It, Surviving It.
I had the opportunity, a number of months ago, to give a copy of the book to a young person I know who is in a relationship where I was concerned about what was going on; and I thought, “I think you need to read this and just see ‘Are these patterns present in your relationship?’” And this person got back in touch with me and said, “The book really nailed what I’m going through, and it was really helpful.”
So, it may be a relationship you are in or you may know somebody who is in one of these kinds of emotionally challenging relationships—get a copy of Leslie Vernick’s book. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click in the upper left-hand corner where it says, “GO DEEPER.”
You can order the book from us online if you’d like—that’s The Emotionally Destructive Relationship by Leslie Vernick. Order at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order. 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number—1-800-358-6329.
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Well, as we head into the second half of 2014, there is a lot ahead of us here at FamilyLife. We have our I Still Do™, one-day marriage celebrations coming up.
About a month from now, we’ll be in Chicago for I Still Do at the Allstate Arena on August 2nd—Saturday, August 2nd; then, the Moda Center in Portland, August 23rd; and then, we’ll be at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, October 4th. These events are designed to help equip couples to strengthen their core commitment to one another in marriage, to have emotionally healthy relationships.
And along with I Still Do, of course, we have FamilyLife Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways happening this fall. We’re working on new resources will be sharing with you throughout the fall. It’s just a busy season for us here at FamilyLife.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about a new animated video series for children called Iesodo. It’s a series that introduces them to Jesus in a very creative way, and we’ll hear more about it tomorrow. Hope you can join us.
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