Esther Fleece: Why God is this happening? Where have You been? Have I lost Your favor? Where’s Your Spirit from me?” I mean, Jesus gave us this example, as well. Like is there any other way? And how many of us have cried, “God, is there any other way? Where is relief?”
End of Teaser
John Fuller: That’s Esther Fleece and she’s sharing about the importance of crying out to God when you’re in the midst of challenging circumstances. She’s our guest on today’s “Focus on the Family” and your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, it’s so true that everyone one of us—I think that’s a fair statement—every one of us at some point will grapple with some really hard questions such as, “God, why is this happening to me?” “Why did this happen to me?” Or “Are You as good as You say You are?” “Lord, if I prayed for this other outcome, why didn’t it come to pass?” Those are the normal difficulties that we have in this life. We don’t always know what’s best for us, but the Lord does, but it’s hard to trust that, especially when we don’t hear the answers or receive the answers we thought we would hear.
And today we want to help you grapple with some of those hard questions by talking with a courageous young woman about how God has worked in her challenging circumstances really since she was a little girl. She worked for a time here at Focus on the Family, so we know her well. We know her story well, but she has now written a wonderful book that I want all of you to get.
John: Yeah, we have the book and a CD or a download of the conversation. The book is called No More Faking Fine: Ending the Pretending. And again, our guest is Esther Fleece. You’ll find details about the book and the download at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Esther, it’s great to have you back at Focus on the Family.
Esther: Oh, it’s really good to be home. Thanks for having me.
Jim: How long has it been since you were here?
Esther: Goodness, a couple years.
Jim: A couple years?
Esther: Yeah, it has been a couple years.
Jim: And in that role, you did so much and it’s part of what the Lord has used you to do with other organizations, that is to link kind of the Millennial generation to organizations, to movements and it’s been exciting for you, hasn’t it?
Esther: It has been and my years here were great. I learned a lot. Really I learned a biblical worldview here at Focus and I really grew to understand why God cares about marriage and family. So, I really cherish my years here and it feels good to be home.
Jim: And you’re a recent “marry-ee.”
Esther: I am. (Laughter) Yeah, I’ve been married two weeks, so if you guys want to do any marriage advice on this podcast. (Laughter)
Jim: Two weeks! We’ll talk to you a little later. You just keep goin’ (Laughter) straight forward and we’ll talk in about five years. (Laughter) But you know, it is good to have you back.
In this book you really are touching a nerve, I mean, when you talk about not faking it and being true to who you are. What motivated you to write something so open and so honest?
Esther: Yeah, I appreciate the question, Jim, because you know, for years I worked in churches and I’d worked in ministry, even like Focus on the Family. And I didn’t have a way to communicate the pain that was happening inside of me. I thought the Christian thing to do was just to pretend that things were okay. I thought I was supposed to be joyful in all things and not be anxious about anything.
And so, I just did the best I could to be the best Christian I could and I was missing this entire portion of intimacy with God that happens in the difficult seasons. And I really silenced that, because I thought that was the Christian thing to do. And God in His grace just didn’t allow me to continue faking it any longer.
Jim: I think it’ll help people to know more of your background story so they can understand, you know, where you came from. And I think every one of us kinda has that season or maybe we’re in and out of the seasons of pretending. But we’ll dig into that in a minute, but talk about your childhood, some of the challenges you faced as a little girl that were unique.
Esther: You know, Jim, every one of us will experience hardship. It’s just guaranteed. We’re warned about it in Scripture. Not everyone will experience prosperity, even though we seek that. But I learned at an early age, both my parents had abandoned me. My father had a mental illness and my mother was just really beat down through difficult divorces and just really had an inability to love me because of her brokenness. And so, I really found myself orphaned spiritually, physically and emotionally at the age of 13, 14, 15.
Jim: Can you give us an example of what that felt like? Give us a story when you were a little girl that stung.
Esther: Yeah, you know, one that comes to mind was [when] my mother was a single parent after another divorce that she had gone through. And you know, I just was doing the best I could to be a good daughter. I wanted to receive her love and I wanted to, you know, even though my world was falling apart, I wanted just affirmation from my mom.
And we were forced to look for another place to live and you know, just moving and middle school years and early high school years are really difficult for a kid. And I was just very insecure and I just remember looking at this new kind of condo that was being built and I thought, this would be so great if we could live in this condo, because it’s gonna be new and it would look like we had everything put together and nobody would see the pain, you know, the broken family that I was living in.
And my mom got really upset with me. I don’t remember what it was about, but she just left me there in this condo development. And I thought she’s gonna come back. She’s just mad for a minute, you know. She’ll come back and get me and it started to be dusk. And then I thought, no, she’s gonna come back. Like I know she was mad, but she’s gonna come back for me.
And then I started getting scared and I thought, oh, my gosh. You know, at this point in life, my father had already left us and his family had left and my stepdad had just abandoned the family. And I thought surely, she’s the last person at home. She’s not going to leave me.
Jim: She’s your mom.
Esther: Yeah. And it became night and I went and I sat in the bathtub and cried. I was just like, what do I do? Where do I go? Who do I out to? I mean, I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t, you know, have Facebook. “Come help me.”
And I didn’t even know that I could cry out to God to say, “God, please rescue me.” And I felt so alone and I was so scared and I didn’t what to do with these emotions inside of me. And so, I think I ended up walking home that night in the dark and my path has several stories of abandonment and shame and humiliation and I really was orphaned.
Jim: In fact, you had this encounter in family court with a judge. Describe that, because when I read that, it really took my breath away that a judge would say this to a child.
Esther: Yeah, well, a lot of children are a part of their parents’ divorce whether they like it or not. And mine kinda went a step further because of my father’s mental illness. And so, he would call me into the courtroom as a character witness in several felony cases that he was involved in. And it was just very emotionally disturbing for a little girl.
Jim: How old were you?
Esther: I mean, really it [was] probably, Jim, when I was in about 2nd grade and went all the way until I was in 8th or 9th grade. But this particular instance, I was 10-years-old and I was having to testify and both of my parents were in the courtroom. And my father pulled out my diary to read in front of everyone. And I fell to the ground and was weeping. I felt so embarrassed. I just felt so humiliated.
And the judge looked over to me and he said, “Suck it up. You need to suck it up. You need to sit on the witness stand. You need to answer the questions with a yes or a no.”
Jim: And you’re 10-years-old.
Esther: I was 10-years-old.
Jim: That’s amazing.
Esther: And really, Jim, that became my grid for grief. I thought, here an adult, I need to respect my elders, my adults. This adult told me to suck it up and I thought that was the adult thing to do.
Jim: Where was God in your life at this point as a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old? How did He begin to make Himself known to you?
Esther: Yeah, well, all Scriptures say that God is such a great pursuer and even of children. He just loves children and He really pursued me at an early age and I really had a sensitivity to God and I would say that I was a Christian just at an early age.
But when it’s not reinforced in the home, it really is difficult to understand the kind nature of God. And certainly when I became a Christian, I really became comfortable with working for God and that’s why I worked for churches and I worked for ministries, but I really didn’t understand how to be daughter of God. So, even though I was a daughter of God at the time, I didn’t know how to relate to Him in a healthy daughter-parent relationship at that time.
Jim: Now let me dig into this idea of that pretending side, because as I was getting ready for the program and talking to you, there is an element where we all strive to, you know, put the best foot forward. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, when our circumstances are negative, to be positive, to be joyful, to trust God even though our circumstances are dark. Differentiate for me “pretend” versus trusting God in dark places.
Esther: Absolutely, Jim. I’m glad you asked the question because I want people to know, I ‘m actually a really happy person.
Jim: Oh, you are.
Esther: I think a lot of people are surprised that I wrote a book on lament, because I really do experience the joy and the love of Christ every day of my life. But you know, I think that there is a reality here in this earth that we will be sorrowful and rejoicing. There is a “both” that happens at the same time when we are Christians.
And I think for whatever reason, in our American culture, we have lost this ability to boast in our weaknesses. I mean, imagine if we were to read Scripture and if people just talked about the good things that they did. Imagine if they didn’t talk about the fears that they went through, the insecurities, the brokenness. What if we never knew about any affairs that happened? And then how God so redeemed them and started to use people.
And so, I’m not saying to, you know, just be this Eeyore, gloomy person. I’m saying there is a sorrow with joy that we will experience and we do not have to despise the hard place and we don’t have to embarrassed of the doubts and the less than pretty emotions that we will experience here on earth.
Jim: So, you’re movin’ along. You’re in Christian work. You’re feeling this disconnect. Was there an event that really broke this free for you? Or was it a string of things that weren’t adding up? Let me explain why I’m asking the question.
When I look generationally at Millennials, oftentimes I admire that authenticity, that drive for what’s real. What’s real? I think the Lord puts that in everybody’s heart, but sometimes maybe more so in a particular generation, I think the Millennials, because He wants to achieve something with that generation, with your generation. So, there’s this thirst and this hunger for that. Let me make it real, Lord. Tell me what’s true and what’s not true. What was that event or the series of events that began to take the mask off of what you felt like was pretending?
Esther: Yeah, well, you know, Jim, not a lot of people are gonna know this story, even my colleagues here at Focus on the Family. But my biological father, as I said, was removed at an early age and I lived most of my elementary school years really fearful of him and there [were] numerous times where he tried to kidnap me, but I moved on with life and I went to, you know, university and I worked, like I said for ministries.
Jim: How did you keep these things so separate? It sounds like you compartmentalized.
Esther: I absolutely compartmentalized, but also you just don’t want to live in your brokenness sometimes (Chuckling) Sometimes you just want to move forward with life. And I think that God gives us grace to do that sometimes. He gave me strength to just be separate from my biological family. And I think that’s okay.
But God, in His grace, loves us so much that He will allow us to stop living out of those coping mechanisms. And my unraveling happened when I was working here at Focus. I was speaking on behalf of the organization. I was in these meetings about how do we stop fatherlessness from happening. And at the same time I was experiencing severe stalking from my biological father, 19 years after he had left our family.
I mean, John, I would come to work every day scared for my life and I would sit in these meetings thinking, but I have to help others, but I have to talk about how family’s important to others. And God just kept saying, “Would you be kind to yourself? Like would you let yourself grieve the loss of your father? Like stop trying to help everyone else for a minute.”
And so, the unraveling really happened here when I just couldn’t keep pretending. I couldn’t keep saying, everything’s fine and I’m happy all the time. I lived with extreme fear on a daily basis and I couldn’t take it any longer.
John: Yeah, I can only imagine, Esther, how difficult and how crippling that fear must have been and this is “Focus on the Family.” Esther Fleece is our guest. She’s written a book called No More Faking Fine: Ending the Pretending and it’s full of the kind of transparency that you’ve been hearing today. We have copies and a CD or a download of this conversation at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call us and we can tell you more. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.”
End of Program Note
Jim: You’ve referenced this a couple of times, this idea of lament and your study of it for so long and the fact that in the Christian community today we’ve lost that ability to lament, which of course Lamentations is part of that. Define for us what “lament” is and then, how do we embrace it in a positive way and not run from it?
Esther: Yeah, you know, lament is an expression of grief. It’s an expression of anguish. It’s what really deep down inside of you, the hurt, the pain and it’s letting that come out to God. But you know, Jim, after studying Scripture, I’m defining lament as an expression of grief that God meets you in.
Because when I see the God that we serve, all throughout the Bible, He does not leave a lamenter to themselves. He is actually deeply attracted to people in the midst of their brokenness. It says that He is near to the brokenhearted. I think God’s eyes roam the earth and find[s] the people that are hurting and that are in need of Him and He’s attracted to them and He draws Himself to them. So, I define lament as an expression of grief that God meets you in.
Jim: Esther, describe for us this fear of lament, almost that we want to project that happiness, that joy all the time, even if it’s not real, if we’re faking it like the title of your book. Why do we do that? Why are we so uncomfortable particularly in the Western culture with lamenting before the Lord? Why is that?
Esther: You know, Jim, for me personally, I thought if I let out what I’m feeling, I’m not gonna be put back together again. (Chuckling) Like I just felt like if I give myself a second to think about the abandonment I’ve experienced, I will almost be so overcome with grief, I won’t be able to go to work the next day, you know.
Jim: Sense of failure?
Esther: Sense of failure, but also it just didn’t feel Christian. It just didn’t feel positive. It just didn’t feel like I had faith. And so, I don’t know. I think that also the Christian culture, it’s just become really easy to pretend and we know how to affirm things. You know, we affirm faith, bold moves of faith. We don’t really affirm the widow in distress who’s still praying.
You know, lamenting is still praying. That’s the thing that’s different from complaining. Complaining is lamenting against God. Oh, God’s timing is terrible. Why is God doing this to me? Lamenting is taking your cry directly to God.
Jim: What does that conversation sound like?
Esther: You know, I think it’s, “Why God is this happening? Where have You been? Have I lost Your favor? Where’s Your Spirit from me?” I mean, Jesus gave us this example, as well. Like is there any other way? And how many of us have cried, “God, is there any other way? Where is relief?”
Jim: And God’s okay with that conversation.
Esther: He’s more than okay with it. He demonstrated how to cry out that way through Jesus.
John: Well, as you were describing that kind of unraveling that you experienced while you were here, when did the permission to lament personally happen to you? When did you find yourself freed up to say, oh, I can hit that grief?
Esther: You know, I had a trusted counselor say to me, “Your homework for tonight is to write out a lament.” I didn’t even know what “lament” meant. And when he explained it to me, I said, “There is no way I’m going to write out my complaint to God.” Like I am not gonna tell God how I’m really feeling, because then He is gonna abandon me, too.
You know, I was kind of abandoned as a child when I was a good kid, so I didn’t understand that parent-daughter relationship that I could actually tell God when I was having a bad day and He was okay with it.
And so, this counselor said to me, “I want you to write out a lament.” And I said, “There’s no way I’m doing that.” And I couldn’t sleep that night and I finally I just broke and I just said, “God, why is this happening to me? Where is Your justice? Why don’t I have peace? Are you mad at me, God? Is there sin unconfessed in my life that bad things keep happening to me?”
And it was incredible, John, because what happened in that moment was, I went to the Bible and in Psalm 77, all of these laments that I had just cried out to God were there. David was crying out. “God, have I lost Your favor? God, where are You?”
And God was showing me that not only was this not the first time He’s heard these laments (Laughing), but He was showing me that I have permission to use this language as I pray.
Jim: You wrote in the book about connecting lamenting with forgiveness. How do those two go together?
Esther: Yeah, for years I tried forgiving my biological parents and I would get a little bit of forgiveness for them, but then there was still anger. Or I’d get like some of the way and then I would have a memory pop back and I would think, okay, I just need to stop thinking about it. And I was almost thinking of forgiveness like a checklist, like I just need to pray this quick prayer. Help me forgive.
What I realized, I never lamented. And so, I minimized the pain I went through to a 3 on the pain scale. And so, I was only able to forgive at a 3. It wasn’t until I realized the depth of pain and suffering that I went through, the loss that I went through that I could say, this was a 10. This hurt! I was in pain. God, where were You? It wasn’t until I felt that, that I could experience forgiveness at a 10. And I think that so many of us are walking around with an inability to forgive because we have not first lamented.
Jim: How do we know the difference between faking forgiveness and real forgiveness?
Esther: Yeah, a great question. I don’t even think I was faking forgiveness. I just didn’t experience it in the fullness. And so, I think that again, God in His grace, you know, He gives us a measure of healing, but you know, He loves us so much that He wants even more freedom for us.
And so, I think it takes believers to be humble to say, “God, there’s still stuff there,” you know. I feel like I brought this to you 10 years ago, like this still shouldn’t keep affecting me, but it is. And then it’s lamenting again and letting God meet us again.
Jim: When you look at and I apologize for the question, but it seems to be the fulcrum for you when you look at your father. Are you able to forgive him?
Esther: You know, Jim, I joyfully just got married two weeks ago. And there were four men that walked me down the aisle, none of them my biological father, but four men gave me away. And I saw the Lord’s provision to me. I saw how He placed me in wonderful families.
And on this honeymoon with the love of my love, experiencing possibly the highest high I’ve ever had in my life and giving thanks to God for providing this godly spouse for me, we got the news that my biological father passed away.
Jim: On your honeymoon.
Esther: On my honeymoon.
Jim: How did you process that?
Esther: Well, you know, Jim, what’s incredible is that, for so many years I lamented alone. And lamenting alone is really hard. And God lets us lament alone, because God cares about our personal relationship with Him.
But there is so much strength and healing when we lament in community. And it was one of the first times that I got to lament with my husband. And I realized I did forgive my dad. I was sad for how our story ended up. I had lamented the loss of him, missing him. You know, he wasn’t at my wedding. He wasn’t invited to my wedding. He wasn’t welcome at my wedding. We could put it that way.
But you know, I was sad. I was sad that he might have not experienced the love of Christ like I had and I was sad for other kids that didn’t get that father-daughter relationship, too. But yet, God and God gave me a wonderful husband to lament with and not every listener is going to have a spouse to lament with. But I will say that God in the Scriptures talks about the family of Christ. And I do believe that He sets us in families, which many times is the church. And He does not want us to lament alone.
John: How do we get to that level of carrying each other’s burdens? It feels like in today’s world, we have a lot of isolated Christianity. And so, you’re calling us to some accountability and some community, it seems.
Esther: Absolutely and you know, I think people would describe me as a person that took care of people. But a lot of that was masking my own pain. See, now I can take care of people because I know how to lament. And so, I know that other people need permission to lament.
So, I’m not so much trying to fix people anymore, because that’s going to be exhausting. There’s a lot of people, a lot of listeners that are probably taking care of elderly parents. They have to learn how to lament to God, to give their parents permission to lament to God themselves.
So, I would say that lamenting in community, the Jewish people gave us that example, that they would lament together. They would cry out to God together and they would also celebrate together. Celebrating is a very Christian thing to do, but it’s not forgetting the hard places and the hard seasons.
Jim: You know, so often we can speak to one another in the Christian community, but difficult things happen to every human being. It’s part of life. I think for the most part, it’s a way that God draws us toward Him in the valleys of life, ’cause He wants us to cry out to Him. Speak to the person who doesn’t know the Lord and is struggling with why life is so hard. What advice would you have for them?
Esther: I would say, I wrote this book for you, because God wants to meet you in this struggle. And every single person is going to face struggle and difficulty. And instead of despising that place, maybe, just maybe realize that your cry for help might be the beginning of the most beautiful relationship you will ever have.
Jim: Yeah, I mean, that is terrific. You might know somebody. It might be your neighbor or a family member who is struggling. They may or may not know God. This would be a great resource for you to share with them, especially if they’re down. They’re lamenting, but they may not even know the definition of the word.
Esther: Absolutely, I think we have to introduce people to a God who listens to their cries, who doesn’t try to fix them or polish them up before they come to Him.
Jim: Esther, when you have these discussions with the Lord, when you’re being honest with Him, it sounds like you’ve learned this over time, where you used to be fearful that if you were that honest, God would in some way deliver retribution like your earthly parents.
So, you get through that learning. Now you talk to God very openly. How much time did that take? I mean, how many years? And is that comfortable to do now?
Esther: Oh, no, I need the book. (Laughing) I’m still very much learning this process and you know, the thing is, this isn’t a formula. A lot of times we want to put a formula on our prayers. This is a relationship. This is just giving people permission to be fully themselves before God and that God is not going to be surprised and He’s not gonna turn away.
And so, I’m just still growing in this and I would say, every lament is different, Jim. Sometimes I lament and I don’t really hear an answer from God, but I know it’s okay. Sometimes there is a lament and somehow in the mystery of lament, I’m able to give thanks at the end of my prayer. I’m able to say, “You know, God, I really am sad for the biological family that I was born into, yet thank You for providing these families for me.”
Sometimes I come out of that prayer time with a thankfulness. Sometimes there’s a joy. And sometimes there’s just a quiet, stillness in the waiting, because so much of the Christian life is not always hearing and it’s having faith that God has still not abandoned us.
Jim: Well, now is the time for us to move in that direction as the body of Christ, because this world needs depth so desperately and to get deeper with the Lord and your new resource, your new tool, your book, No More Faking Fine is a great place to start. It is terrific to have you here.
Let me turn to you, the listener. If you have heard this and you’re in a place of desperation, first of all, it’s okay. This is part of the human story. If you’re in a dark place, we want to be here for you and we have caring Christian counselors who can help you. We have resources and tools to help you in that spot you’re in right now, whether it’s difficulty in your marriage or you have a prodigal child, whatever it might be. We want to be here for you, so call us and let us stand with you. Let us pray with you. Let us help you and I think a great place to start is to get a copy of Esther’s book, No More Faking Fine.
John: And you’ll find that and the resources and the counseling tool, a reference tool to help you find a counselor in your area at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: And I think it’d be a great idea just for a gift of any amount, cover the postage and we will send you a copy of the book today as our way of saying thank you for helping support the ministry here at Focus on the Family.
Esther, speak to the person where this feels like a lot of work. I mean, you have gone through a lot of tears, a lot of pillow talk, just tryin’ to grapple with the Lord. Some people are exhausted in their despair. Speak to that person about hanging on and persevering.
Esther: Yeah, I just for so many years didn’t think I was gonna make it, but I did. So, if you’re listening and you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, just hang in there and God will meet with you. God has not abandoned you. He has not forsaken you.
Good people go long periods of time without hearing from God. It’s okay and He is still there. His nearness is there and I would just say, keep persevering. And ask people to help. Tell people. Tell your neighbor. Tell somebody, would you pray for me? Would you help me? Would you have faith when mine is low?
John: Well, I hope you’ll take Esther’s suggestions to heart and that encouragement and again, if we can be a part of your journey, we’re a phone call away, 800-A-FAMILY.
On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I’m John Fuller, thanking you for listening and inviting you back next time as we hear from Jonathan McKee. He talks about the importance of finding a good balance between bonding and boundaries.
Mr. Jonathan McKee: As we bond with our kids and hang out with our kids and they get to know us, they’re gonna glean so much from us. They’re gonna glean so many values that sometimes that rule of “go to bed at this time” or you know, “can’t download this app,” well that isn’t gonna teach them.
End of Clip
John: Well, some great perspective from Jonathan McKee on the next “Focus on the Family,” as we once again, help you and your family thrive.