Several years ago, I was working as a volunteer with youth and loved it. Then hurtful things happened and I found my voice being silenced and my spiritual gifts being negated. I had a couple of people I trust ask me if maybe God was using those things to redirect me to a different ministry where I could use my voice, experiences, and gifts freely. I wrestled with their words and could not decide if leaving was a redirection or running from a difficult situation God wanted me to work through. One night I went to bed and dreamed I was walking down a busy street and every person I passed had empty eyes and no mouth. I woke up with tears pouring down my cheeks, begging the Lord to please give people their voices. God used the dream to develop a new passion in me--a passion to help people regain their voices, speak their stories and move past pain they have endured. It led me to start writing curriculum and to start a support group ministry in which women find safety and are encouraged to use their voices. In our groups they get to tell their stories, knowing their stories will be treated with respect and they will be heard and treated with compassion. In this ministry we get to walk along side of women as they connect to the Savior so deeply they find hope, healing, and freedom from their pasts.
Well-meaning parents sometimes say things that shame children into silence, causing them to quit using their voices to tell their stories and express their emotional pain. Sadly, that pain actually signals that something is wrong and needs to be corrected, leaving them unprotected. The kinds of words that silence kids are: "Don't feel that way!" "You must have misunderstood what they said (or did)." "Don't be a baby." "Don't let you sister know she hurt you and maybe she won't do it anymore." "Other kids don't feel (or cry) the way you do!" "Hush, we can't talk about that person that way. We will ruin his reputation. (hurt our church’s testimony)." "Tell them sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." "Stop that crying!" "If you keep crying, I will give you something to cry about." "Put a smile on your face right now!" "We don't do anger in this house!" "Grow up!" Sometimes these messages given are silent or subtler. Maybe a child is only acknowledged or given attention when they smile and don’t complain. A lot of kids are never asked why they are sad, scared, or don't want to participate in activities.
Believers' responses to emotional pain and hard stories are not always better. Take the issue of anger. We can forget there is an anger that is righteous. Christ demonstrated it several times. Yet, when I shared about the bullying my kids were experiencing on a daily basis, I was admonished by a believer for not forgiving. I honestly forgave daily, but it didn't stop the bullying or the pain we experienced as a family. Those who are hurting may first try to share anger over their mistreatment. They are often quickly silenced by admonitions to forgive, reminders that believers are supposed to be full of joy, or a Bible verse quoted in a condescending way. These things silence people, leaving them with their pain intensified by the secondary emotion of shame, causing people to deny and to bury both the story and the emotion deeper. What we need in those moments is for someone to acknowledge the pain underneath our anger. Sexual abuse victims' voices are silenced when they are asked what they were wearing, what they were drinking, and what they did to provoke the predator. They are also silenced when they are met with skepticism or told something that indicates they aren’t believed.
Take the issues associated with anxiety provoking events. Several years ago, one of our sons was in an ATV accident and his spleen ruptured. He when into surgery in serious condition and had complications that included fluid building up around his heart. I stayed with him in ICU for 12 days and then another six days in a regular room. During that time there was a lot of talk about another major surgery on a young man that had already had four units of blood given to him, severe pain caused by being cut from chest bone to pubic bone, who just wanted to be home. After we finally came home, I went to church and a woman asked how we were doing and I started telling her about everything we went through. Instead of letting me talk, she quickly put her hand on my arm and said, "Oh, he is fine, now isn't he?" She may have been uncomfortable with my story and emotions and just wanted me to be ok. Though she may have thought she was helping me, what she did was silence my voice, causing me to stuff emotions that were intensified by the shame behind the message that it was not okay to talk about what we had experienced. I am thankful for counselors and friends who let me use my voice to tell that story until I had drained all the emotions.
To be honest, I get frustrated by those who tell people facing anxiety provoking events that they are sinning for feeling what they feel and for sharing their concerns. Can we not just turn to the person and ask them in that moment if we could pray for them or what we could do to help instead of judging them? We could pray God would meet them in the middle of their hard, that He would give them the strength they need to face each day, that He would calm their fears, and give them insight into what He is doing. We could pray His love would overwhelm them as they journey through difficult times and that He would show them things about Him that they would not otherwise see.
We are friends with a family whose little boy had stage four liver cancer. The mom shared posts on Facebook that included their journey and the Bible art she was drawing that helped her get through those long days of hospital stays. Every year she shares the memories that come up on her page about that time. I have never once thought, "Oh, she should be over this by now.!" When she shares I am reminded of what God did with that sick little boy, with his parents, with his extended family, and with his church. I believe every time she shares those posts I am privileged to hear her voice and watch her continue to work through the medical trauma they all experienced. Some want the church to be a place where everyone is happy all the time, but it isn’t. While we pray for healing, God doesn't always choose to heal. Maybe there are lessons for us in how to love and show compassion in the hard-ongoing painful situations God is working in. Can we allow people to grieve when they need to and to express their concerns even if it is uncomfortable for us or makes us realize God doesn’t fit into a nice and neat little box?
Our God is a communicating God. His word contains stories about real people who had real emotions just like you and me and they had a need to share their stories, too. Think about Joseph who was sold into slavery and suffered so many injustices as he did his best to live well. When those brothers who had sold him showed up at his door needing food, he had a lot of emotions to work through. He cried, He wailed, and he tested them. Those tears and the working through the abuse he suffered was what enabled him to fully forgive his brothers and see God's redemptive plan fully unfold before him so that he, in his grace, preserved the nation of Israel.
When we read Paul's letters to the various churches we catch bits and pieces of his story written in them. I don't believe when he wrote and preached about his past history of trying to destroy the church that he didn't feel remnants of grief over the deaths he caused and the families he destroyed. At the same time, I believe he was overjoyed at the grace God showed him and it motivated him to write and preach the powerful things he did. When he talked about the suffering he endured relationally and physically as a missionary, he penned and preached those things with the same feelings we might experience in those situations. His voice has served generations of believers, including us. From him we learn about the depth of God's grace, and the richness that comes in persevering in the hard.
If we aren't willing to hear others' voices and the stories they tell and if we are not willing to walk through the emotions that arise in the telling, we are missing out on powerful redeeming stories that God is actively writing. We also miss out on the opportunity to witness God's lavish grace. As I watched the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar, who sexually abused hundreds of girls, I was infuriated by his predatorial attempts to manipulate the survivors into feeling sorry for him and the judge into silencing their voices in the court room. But the judge did not put up with it. She gave everyone who wanted to speak the chance to use their voice. In doing so, she validated their stories and the pain they suffered at his hands. We need to remember we do not have the right to silence other's voices either--not with platitudes, not with admonitions, not with pats on the arm followed by, "Now, now everything is ok.!" Neither do we have the right to silence others' hard questions about where God was, where God is, or where God will be in their painful stories. We are called to show the same compassion Jesus showed and that includes allowing people to use their voices. Giving importance to another’s voice is giving value to the person and their story.