“Mama, I never meant to hurt you, I never meant to make you cry, but tonight I’m cleanin’ out my closet.” – Eminem, in Cleanin’ out My Closet
He trusted her. That’s what little brothers do, so when his eight year old sister and her friend called him into a field, four year old Malik (named changed) went. There he entered a world without boundaries. Beginning that afternoon, for the next six or seven years his sister and her friends touched him, made him touch them, violated him.
To whom could he turn? Not mom, who had divorced his father when Malik was one. Whenever he would visit, she would walk around the house naked. More often, she simply ignored him. Dad was one of six ex-husbands, plus lovers. Nor was his physically violent and verbally abusive father a better option.
At a friend’s house, Malik discovered pornography stacked as high as him in a spare room. The images made his experience seem normal. As he grew older, he found his body changing; part of him liked the way it responded to his sister and her friends. The other part felt indescribable shame. He had never experienced non-sexual touch from a woman, and aggressively pursued lust with girls his age. Out of control, his mind had become a sexual playpen.
The summer after his freshman year in college, a friend invited him to church, and during worship Malik was engulfed by God’s love. He attended religiously for two years before transferring to a Christian college to prepare for full-time ministry. But something was wrong. Although he met Christ at church, the congregation forced him to “pretend to ignore” his personal demons, so he feared his sexuality and legalistically avoided women.
Convinced that he was healed, Malik started dating a Christian girl as a senior. But his private anguish continued to torment him. He sought help from the dean of students and a local pastor who counseled him that he needed to read his Bible and to pray more and all would be fine. He memorized half the book of Galatians, but failed to improve. When the dysfunctional relationship ended, Malik wanted more.
Finally in 1998, he woke up to the idea that, “Wounds run deeper than convictions.” With the help of a professional counselor, whose anger at his story “shocked [him] out of numbness,” he began to confront his past. Over the next six years, he moved from denial to awareness, then from anger and pain to grief and bitterness, and lastly to forgiveness and emotional wholeness. Through this process and God’s grace, Malik has even experienced reconciliation with his family.
Now a youth pastor, Malik attributes his healing to the grace of God at work through authentic community. His counselor helped him realize that his childhood abuse had created need deficiencies that could only be satisfied in healthy relationships.
At a recent ministry training event, Malik’s transparency helped open the door for unconventional ministry to occur right there in the classroom. As he and others shared, leaders felt safe to unload pain and struggle that they had confided to no one else before. Through tears and self-disclosure, they experienced emotional breakthroughs that only Spirit and Truth can bring.
In a passage describing the “Good News” mission Jesus embraced at the start of his earthly ministry, Isaiah prophetically writes: “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
Evangelical churches preach this Good News and pray Isaiah’s words over communities. Yet the experience of many ministry leaders – where broken people, beloved of God, feel compelled to pretend everything is fine when, in fact, they grapple in their inmost being with shameful hurts and long for an opportunity to be real – reflects the norm.
Malik’s story is far more common than we care to admit. One in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused in childhood, and twenty percent of women have had at least one incestuous experience before 18. Given these and other realities, what happens when God answers our prayers and His word, sharper than a two-edged sword, cuts deep to expose the cancers of life?
For starters, it gets uncomfortable. Many in our pews and pulpits cannot stomach the gore of the surgeon’s scalpel. Many cannot fathom the prolonged recovery time, or extend grace when the affects of emotional chemo cause ugly side issues to surface.
But as Malik’s story demonstrates, wounds that fester for years do not always heal in response to a single altar call or pat solutions like “more prayer.” The hard work of restoration may require years of intentional treatment. And intentionality requires a willingness to create an environment where masks can be removed without fear of reprisals. Only then will broken hearts be bound, prisoners set free, mourners comforted, and ashes exchanged for beauty.