This is the first article in a new series called Lessons from the Ladder. I get the title of this series from my original article called Ten Steps Out of Relationship Hell in which I write about the red hot ladder rungs we have to climb if we want to get out of the relationship pit we’ve been stuck in for so long.
I’ve already made that horrible climb. Every ladder rung was excruciating, and I was tempted to let go and just drop back down to the bottom of the pit every step of the way, but I made it up and out. Now I’ve joined thousands of other women who have also made the climb, and we are cheering you on.
So I want to share some of the most important lessons I learned on my own journey up and out—lessons that have shaped who I am today as well as who I am becoming for all eternity as one of God’s beloved children.
The first lesson I learned on that ladder from hell is how to advocate for myself—a hard lesson for a woman who spent her entire life believing that self-advocacy was evil. Now I strongly believe it is a necessary adulting skill that we all need to get better at—for our own sake and also for the sake of our children after us. We can’t pass that skill on if we aren’t able to model it ourselves.
We want our children to grow up taking responsibility for themselves, making decisions without fear, and moving forward with hope and purpose in spite of the obstacles and challenges they will face. They can’t do that (and neither can we) if they aren’t able to advocate for themselves.
So what do we need to do to begin advocating for ourselves?
Deprogram from your false core belief that you are a helpless child in need of rescue from someone in authority over you.
Women in conservative Christian circles are taught that to be godly is to be passive. They are not encouraged to learn emotional intelligence skills of self-regard (accepting yourself for who you are – both strengths and weaknesses), self-actualization (pursuing things that lead to a meaningful life), independence (being prepared to adopt a course of action while tolerating the disapproval of others who disagree), assertiveness (the ability to respectfully express yourself and stand up for your beliefs and decisions), and problem solving (the ability to confront problems rather than run from them).
Instead, a premium is put on women who allow others to control their education, their thoughts, their theology, their decisions, their time, their resources, their gifts, their skills, and their future. The others in religious conservative circles are usually men who believe in a power-over theology of male/female relationships (hard-core patriarchy as well as soft-core patriarchy more commonly known as complementarianism.)
Of course, power-over structures like this place women in a vulnerable position where they are easily exploited for wicked purposes. Such is the case in every home where there is any kind of abuse happening. Such is the case whenever a woman tries to advocate for herself in a religiously controlling and abusive church environment that also teaches a power-over theology of male/female relationships. This is why getting help from a church is so often re-abusive and traumatic.
The truth is, you were made in the image of God with the same mandate to go forth and take dominion of God’s creation (Genesis 1:26-28). You were also bought by the blood of Christ and given another mandate to go forth and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). You were given the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) as well as other gifts to fulfill your purpose as His ambassador in this world (I Peter 4:10).
That doesn’t sound like the passive role of a helpless child to me.
The fact is, God not only gave women these honors and privileges along with men, but He also gave women an incredible responsibility in Genesis 2:18. The English words most often used in modern translations are “suitable helper,” but this translation doesn’t do the actual words justice. The original Hebrew words used in this verse are ezer kenegdo. “Ezer,” a word used to describe God as a warrior numerous times in the Old Testament, is translated “to rescue, to save, to be strong,” and “kenegdo” is translated “corresponding to.” So when God said, “I will make a ‘helper suitable’ for him (Adam),” He was saying in essence “I will make a warrior corresponding to him.” (http://temple.splendidsun.com/PDF/equalto.pdf) That’s quite a difference in translation and meaning. Man didn’t need someone to reign over; he needed an equal to reign with.
Here’s how Carolyn Custis James expands on this rich and beautiful truth in her book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women:
“Like the man, she is also God’s creative masterpiece — a work of genius and a marvel to behold — for she is fearfully and wonderful made. The ezer never sheds her image-bearer identity. Not here. Not ever. God defines who she is and how she is to live in His world. That never changes. The image-bearer responsibilities to reflect God to the world and to rule and subdue on His behalf still rest on her shoulders too.
God didn’t create the woman to bring half of herself to His global commission or to minimize herself when the man is around. The fanfare over her is overblown if God was only planning for her to do for the man things he was perfectly capable of doing for himself or didn’t even need. The man won’t starve without her. In the garden, he really doesn’t need someone to do laundry, pick up after him, or manage his home. If Adam must think, decide, protect, and provide for the woman, she actually becomes a burden on him — not much help when you think about it. The kind of help the man needs demands full deployment of her strength, her gifts, and the best she has to offer. His life will change for the better because of what she contributes to his life.”
In the Old Testament we see examples of God’s ezer kenegdos going into battle for the glory of God: Deborah, Esther, Ruth, Abigail, Rahab, and Hannah, to name a few. And God’s view of women hasn’t changed.
When Jesus came to this earth, He lived in an unapologetically patriarchal culture that viewed women as less than men. He broke all the cultural rules when He talked to women without going through their husbands or fathers, when He gave a Samaritan woman the responsibility to evangelize her home town, when He invited women to follow Him and learn from Him (something only men were allowed to do with a Rabbi), and when He entrusted Mary Magdalene with the very first gospel message.
He surrounded Himself with women and treated them with honor, fully expecting both women and men to spread the gospel when He was gone. You wouldn’t have seen a religious leader doing that back then, but He broke the social norms that divided men and women and established a new kingdom of oneness and unity in Himself.
After He was gone, you see women receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17) and being released into ministry of every kind. Junia was an apostle (Romans 16:7); Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses (Acts 21:9); Euodia and Syntyche were evangelists (Philippians 4:2-3); Phoebe was a deaconess (Romans 16:1-2); and Priscilla was a pastor/teacher (Romans 16:3-5, Acts 18:24-26).
Paul spread this revolutionary message of unity by speaking of men and women together as brothers and sisters. In fact, he refers to both men and women as sons, a position viewed as a place of honor in that patriarchal culture. This would have been as astounding to his audience back then as it is to many extremely conservative Christian churches today who have all but ignored His clear teachings:
“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you . . . have received a spirit of adoption as sons . . . [and are] heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ . . .” (Romans 8:14-17)
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus… there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26, 28)
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy…” (I Corinthians 14:39)
Think of every verse in the New Testament that talks about our new life as followers of Christ. Do they distinguish between male and female followers? The vast majority of them do not.
“‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your youths will see visions, your seniors will dream dreams. Even on my male servants [ministers] and on my female servants [ministers], I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9)
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God people from every tribe and language and people group and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
Deprogram from your false core belief that God will rescue you if you do nothing when you have the opportunity to do something.
The Bible teaches us in many places that God is our rescuer. But how does He rescue us? In the Psalms we see David fleeing from King Saul as he chases David all over the countryside. But is David standing still, hoping God will rescue him? No. He is running! He “runs” to the fortress of God. He “hides” in the shadow of His wings. He “takes refuge.” These are all actions.
When the life of baby Jesus was being threatened, did Joseph and Mary stay put, trusting God to rescue His Son? No – they went into high gear and fled – trusting God even as they did so. They did their part, and they trusted God to do His part according to His will.
Do we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, do nothing while hoping God will do His Thing in the world? No. We take action because we are the hands and feet of Christ in this world. We carry the Holy Spirit within us, and we bring the Kingdom of heaven into the corners of our world through our ACTIONS. Not our in-actions.
When power-over theology teaches that women are godly when they are passive, they are telling a lie about God and about the human race. They are believing and teaching a lie that disempowers 50% of the human race in spreading the kingdom of God on this earth. What a tragedy! This is not God’s plan for us.
I remember begging God to DO SOMETHING about what I was experiencing in my former marriage. I begged Him for years and years to help me. But at the same time, I chose to believe a bunch of lies that kept me from doing what I needed to do. He was more than willing to walk with me, to give me wisdom, to love me through it, but I was unwilling to do what it would take to find hope and healing in my life. I was unwilling first to believe the problem was as bad as it was (a coping mechanism), and I was unwilling to stand up for what was right and true because that would cause me a lot of extra pain, and I didn’t want that.
So God patiently waited. He didn’t cause the pain. The sinful choices of human beings caused the pain. But when the pain of staying stuck became GREATER than the pain of exposing the truth and taking steps to get out, I was finally ready to take action, and I took hold of the first ladder rung out of my pit. With that first action step, God was right there encouraging me that He would never leave me or forsake me. And I began the difficult journey out.
If you are still sitting at the very bottom of the pit, hoping against hope that a miracle will happen, and someone will reach down and pull you up so you don’t have to make the horrible climb, you will be waiting a long time. Here’s why. Think about a butterfly trying to emerge from the chrysalis. It’s during that struggle that the blood gets pumping through her wings, giving her the wing-health and power she will need to actually fly. If you “rescue” her by cutting open the chrysalis to let her out prematurely, she will die. That’s right. She will miss her opportunity to access the power she needs to do what she was created to do. Her inability to fly will cause her to be easy prey for predators, and she will not survive very long.
So instead of thinking God is unloving not to just pluck you out of hell and set your feet on a wide place, you can instead recognize His infinite wisdom in promising to be right by your side every step of the way. Loving you. Accepting you when you mess up and when you succeed. Cheering you on no matter what. And then rejoicing over your first flight of freedom when the day comes.
God WILL rescue you. Just not the easy, pain-free way we’d all wish for!
Understand what it means to advocate for yourself.
Now that we see our need to be active participants in our own lives and in the world as God’s ambassadors, we need to see how self-advocacy is part of that initiative. If we cannot or are unwilling to advocate for ourselves, we will not be able to effectively advocate for others. To be an advocate is to be strong and responsible. If we are in a compromised position ourselves, that will make it difficult to initiate advocacy for others, part of which is teaching THEM how to self-advocate in healthy ways.
Advocating for yourself means aligning yourself with God’s agenda for you. Not man’s.
Women get their mail from God, not people. The foundation of everything we believe and do must be grounded in the image of Jesus Christ. His agenda is our agenda! His mission is our mission! He was not afraid of people and their opinions. He wasn’t afraid to speak the truth even when it got Him into trouble. Even when He was called the son of Satan and gossiped about and lied about and hated. He didn’t surrender Himself to human beings. He surrendered Himself to God. He stood in the truth about who He was even though it made arrogant, power-hungry, religious men gnash their teeth.
Those of us who are daughters of the Living God can also stand in the truth of who we are even though it makes arrogant, power-hungry, religious men gnash their teeth. We are in good company. The best company.
Advocating for yourself means making friends with yourself.
It means not only accepting your humanity but also embracing it as God’s design. To strive for perfection as our abusers and religious communities demand for their own pleasure is the original sin. It’s the desire to be God-like. That wasn’t God’s intention for us. He created us human for a reason – and He calls our humanity GOOD (Genesis 1:31).
This is good news! It means we are free to relax and enjoy our status as God’s beloved human daughters. We don’t have to be perfect to win His favor, love, and acceptance. We are beloved just as we are. What peace and rest that truth offers us!
If God calls us His friends (John 15:15), can we not also make friends with ourselves? Can we not also treat ourselves with respect and love? The degree to which we accept ourselves in our humanity is the degree to which we will accept others in theirs. So this is a pretty important key to loving others!
And we show our love and respect for our Creator when we accept His creation of ourselves. This is not evil. This is the opposite of evil. This is one of the ways we bring honor to our Creator. Satan, on the other hand, hates everything God created, but in particular, human beings. So when we hate on ourselves and make ourselves our number one enemy, we are playing right into the devil’s hand. And that, my friends, IS evil and brings about a host of evil.
Remember that the enemy always flips everything upside down. Opposites. It’s fascinating to find them as you deconstruct your theology and let God renovate it from the ground up.
Advocating for yourself means forgiving yourself.
How can we forgive others if we cannot forgive ourselves? And how are we reveling in God’s forgiveness when we cling to our shame and wallow in our regrets? We have all made mistakes. Bad decisions. Hasty conclusions. Foolish moves. We’ve experienced the consequences of those choices, and we’ve watched those we love also bear the brunt of the ripple effects of our faulty movements in this world.
But this does not surprise God or hold Him back in any way from telling His redeeming story in our lives. He is a whole lot bigger than that. He has anticipated every wise and every foolish thing we’ve ever done, and He is able to paint a beautiful picture not only in SPITE of the blotches we make on the canvas, but BECAUSE of them. I don’t get it. Who can? It’s incredible, and it inspires me to worship Him.
It also enables me to let go and forgive myself so I can move forward in abandon—choosing to LIVE instead of hold back in fear.
If He forgives us (and He does), we are free to forgive ourselves.
Advocating for yourself means respecting yourself.
We respect those we admire. Those who do what we wish we could do if we only had the strength, the courage, the resources, and the power. But for us to grow in self-respect, we need to actually take a step in the direction of putting ourselves out there! We need to stop sitting on the sidelines of life and get into the arena and ENGAGE in this life God gave to us. With each brave step we take, however small, we grow in self-respect.
It might be as simple as choosing the color of a new quilt for your bed instead of letting someone else choose it for you.
In my upcoming book, Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage, I say this about respect:
“Respect is being courteous, actively engaging with the other person’s hopes and dreams, listening well, caring about the feedback of the other person, paying attention, compromising, asking their opinion, accepting their differences, working toward non-judgment, asking instead of demanding, and basically just treating the other person like they are special and worthy of your regard. You cannot demand respect. It must be freely given for it to be real, because respect is born of love, and love is given, not taken.
To disrespect someone is to ignore their voice, blame and shame them, take power over them, treat them rudely, look down on them, avoid them, give them the silent treatment when they don’t do what you want them to do, call them names, demand obedience, threaten them, and refuse to tolerate their differences.”
Applying this to yourself, are you courteous to yourself? Or is the committee inside your head always tearing you apart? Do you pay attention to your own gut and give it credibility? Do you believe you are worthy of regard? Do you shame and blame yourself, look down on yourself, call yourself names, and refuse to tolerate how you are different from everyone else?
For you to truly love and respect others, you must begin by loving and respecting yourself. It’s the difference between being a child who needs the approval of others to know she is enough—and an adult who has an intrinsic understanding of her worth just as she is as well as the worth of other human beings just as they are.
When people are disrespecting you and trying to manipulate and control and micro-manage your life, it is because they lack a true sense of their own value and worth just as they are. They have to demean and dehumanize and take power over others in order to feel better about themselves. This is childish behavior at best, and wicked in its worst form.
Respect yourself, and you will naturally gain the respect of other healthy human beings.
Advocating for yourself means making decisions that are healthy for you.
When we have lived life going along with the decisions everyone around us is making for our lives, it’s easy to believe this is just how it’s supposed to be, and we think we have no choices. But the fact is, we do. They may not all be great choices. They may be hard choices with sticker bushes and pouring rain either way we go, but they are choices, and they are OUR choices. Sometimes the only choices at first are really hard, but as time goes by, and we gain strength and momentum, our choices open up a bit more. And a bit more yet. Until we find we are no longer moving in a cramped room that is 2′ by 2′, but instead we are moving in a wide open space, and it’s actually a sunny day with a light breeze blowing.
Change isn’t about huge leaps off cliffs, although once in a while it may feel like that. Change is more about tiny shifts in the way we think and what we do in our daily lives that add up over time. Never underestimate your power of choice.
Advocating for yourself means using your voice.
You knew it was coming. This is what we usually think of when we think of advocating for ourselves. We think of defending ourselves. Sticking up for ourselves. Speaking our truth. But using your voice doesn’t have to be super invasive or obnoxious at all. Most of the time it’s just quietly saying what you know to be true and leaving it at that. No need to defend your stand. In fact, it’s usually better not to. There is far more power in stating your experience or your belief about something and refusing to engage in a futile argument that will go nowhere.
Our job isn’t to convince others of what we know to be true. Jesus didn’t do that. He never defended Himself to fools. He just did what He came to do. Quietly. Truthfully. In personal strength and power. And some believed, and some didn’t. Some killed Him, and some followed Him into Paradise.
His super-power is your super-power. The super-power of knowing who you are in Christ and trusting that as you advocate for yourself in these ways, you will grow up into the full stature of your womanhood, thereby fulfilling the destiny you were created for on this earth. To fly free yourself and to model that for the generations after you.
“Then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;” Isaiah 58:14