Years ago, I was employed at a Christian organization that had a large population of people who had a limited view of the gospel’s effects. They took umbrage with me because I believed one way the American church can usher in shalom is by casting Jesus’ life preservers out to our neighbors caught in the deadly seas of our US immigration system, where the culture of death reigns supreme—stealing, killing, and destroying people every day. Drowning them. I am part of a coast guard fleet of Jesus boats patrolling these deadly immigration waters on behalf of the church. But it wasn’t just immigration. The other employees resisted my posture toward alleviating poverty, addressing racism, and caring for creation. And I was resisting American Christians’ participation in the creation of death worlds for all sorts of people. These folks had not stood where I’ve stood or seen what I’ve seen. Erasing the need for abortion and maintaining religious freedom are not at odds with anything I was advocating like immigration reform and a broader safety net for the poor— because most of us as individuals and families do not give enough to sustain God’s children in need.
I did not learn my beliefs from the Democratic party, nor from the Republican party. I learned them from reading the Bible for two to four hours a day as a young girl, from learning Christian history, and from being poor and living and working among the poor. At the organization I was working for at that time, I was careful to answer when asked about these realities, not to shove my opinion down anyone’s throat. Yet I found myself living against the grain.
I just wanted the church to open doors for others— to be a place where God happens for those the church comes into contact with (especially the marginalized)— instead of throwing them overboard into the Mediterranean Sea to be eaten by sharks. Among the marginalized and poor in spirit has often been the place where God happens for me.
Meanwhile, my husband and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were called to that place. Our assurance never wavered. But what a place it was! It could often be sandpaper to my nerves, friction to my soul. Downright excruciating. Jesus and I were sailing rough seas. I am tired of going against the grain, Lord. Why did you put us here? I asked repeatedly. This is an outpost—way out. It would be so much easier if we were assigned to ________. How come other people I know get to be there? They are living the life while we have to put up with this. After some weeks of grumbling, the Lord spoke to me. I remember it as clear as day, though it was late on a Friday night. I had been in our bedroom, about to cross the threshold into the hall when the Lord caught me off guard and said, You know why you are here? Because the people here would never dream of going to ________. So I am bringing what they would learn at ________ to them through you and Shawn.
God also had plans to teach us and grow us while we were there. Some of the most beautiful, grace-filled people I have ever met were there, too, sailing along with us. Teaching us. Being there was crucial for my formation and for the trajectory of my life. I knew our being there was not a mistake. It was for a season. And although it ended up being one of the most painful seasons of our lives (as well as one of the most beautiful), I would not wish it away. I would not be here had I not gone there.
Indeed, God sometimes sends us on journeys to places that are not our first choice. Maybe they are even our last choice. We see no possibilities, no grace. Therefore, it is when we set sail with Jesus to such places that we are to keep watch for the glory of God, for grace, for rescues, for choirs of angels appearing to us in the night sky as we sail these rough and sometimes lonely seas in obedience. We will not be stuck forever in chaos with Jesus in the boat. Still, we have to learn and relearn that it is here, in the places God leads us, that we will experience the glory of God.
There is a difference between difficult and death-dealing. We should feel free to shake the dust off our sandals and bid a place adios, leaving it in the hands of God, when we find ourselves in toxic and abusive situations. There can come a moment when we cannot do and be anymore because we are not received. Shawn, I, and others were forced to leave the place of which I spoke when it went from difficult to poisonous. There are “Christian” environments—churches, organizations, relationships, and workplaces— that are far more destructive to our souls than “secular” environments would be. So we ought to feel free to flee, to sail to a port of refuge, though this will likely take preparation and planning before we set out.
But maybe we feel stuck in such a situation. Maybe it is a work environment, and we are in desperate need of the paycheck it provides. Or maybe we are apprehensive and fearful about ending a relationship because at least its toxicity and abuse are familiar—a familiar sort of death, that is—and we are too scared to set sail into life unknown. This is nothing to take lightly; there could be a real fallout as we flee for our lives—financial, emotional, physical, spiritual, relational, and otherwise. In these situations, healing can only come through leaving. Seldom do toxic environments, systems, or relationships change. If they do, it can take years; meanwhile people will suffer the consequences.
It is not God’s will that you be abused or remain in abuse, whether the abuse is emotional, spiritual, physical, financial, verbal, or sexual. That’s not the place for you. That is not the place of Jesus; it’s the place of demons and the devil, who steal, kill, and destroy (see John 10:10). Do not let false guilt or lies keep you from leaving. God is not a gaslighter. Some people may be, but God is not. You will likely need help getting out. Do not hesitate to ask trustworthy people for help. Sadly, trustworthy souls may not be leaders or people in your Christian community. Find such folks wherever you can, particularly among trained professionals.
Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus did not wait around for King Herod to kill them. They fled to seek refuge in Egypt. In fact, it was an angel of the Lord who told them to get out (Matthew 2:13). Interestingly enough, the angel did not tell them that it was God’s will for them to stay there and take abuse from Herod. If you are reading this and sensing that you need to get out of an abusive relationship, well, then consider me your angel telling you to escape. Paul once escaped in a basket that his friends lowered down from Damascus’ city wall to save his life (Acts 9:23-25). There are many examples in Scripture of people fleeing violence and abuse.
If healing requires leaving, we may need a break from a certain church or Christian community we have known because it has rammed our boat and nearly destroyed us. This kind of place may not be an ark of salvation or a place of recovery. Deep wounds require rehabilitation and time to heal. Some of us need to be rebuilt because we have merely a skeleton of a boat left with which to bear Jesus. And God provides for us in our convalescence. Think about how he sent an angel to feed Elijah in the wilderness when Elijah fled after Jezebel threatened his life (1 Kings 19:1-9) and angels to minister to Jesus after the devil tempted him (Matthew 4:11). This is God’s heart for us, so unlike the ramming of our boats by some “Christian” communities.
Where do we belong? Where we are known and loved. Appreciated. Where we see and are seen. Where our absence is noticed and our presence cherished. Of course we are known, loved, and cherished by God. But much of the time God reveals his love for us through others. We know Jesus prepares a place for us with him at the end of our age. Can we trust that he prepares places for us here just as we ought to prepare a refreshing place for him to rest inside us—in our boat?
Taken from Bearing God: Living a Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters by Marlena Graves © 2023. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Marlena Graves is an author, writer, professor, preacher, and speaker on spiritual formation and justice, especially in areas of racism and immigration in the US.
Her books include The Way Up Is Down, Who’s My Neighbor?, A Beautiful Disaster, and 40 Days on Being a Nine (Enneagram Daily Reflections). Marlena is assistant professor of spiritual formation at Northeastern Seminary on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan University. She is a member of INK: A Creative Collective and lives in the Rochester, New York, area with her husband and three daughters. Marlena's newest book, Bearing God, will release on September 9, 2023 from NavPress. Learn more about Marlena at marlenagraves.com.