From Blind Obedience to Relational Choice

By Janyne McConnaughey

How healing from childhood trauma made faith about relationship and helped me stop blindly obeying God.

Making choices has been problematic for most of my life. The reasons for this began at three when I chose to stay inside and play with the man who would become my abuser. Looking back, I understand how my young mind believed my “choice” caused the abuse. This incorrect belief condemned me to a lifelong fear of making decisions.

Yet God faithfully helped me live.

When I was twelve, I entered a bedroom where three teenage boys raped me and then climbed out the window, leaving me to fend for myself.

Yet God faithfully helped me live.

Another problematic situation arose when I was nineteen. This resulted in a pregnancy, and I found myself under intense, overwhelming pressure to have an abortion. My “decision” to walk in the clinic door cemented my fear of making choices.

Yet God faithfully helped me live.

I sought help for the deep emotional distress that overwhelmed my life. This decision resulted in me being raped. That was the final straw. At twenty-three, I drove my car up a mountain road and tried to die.

Yet God faithfully helped me live.

Remarkably, I held onto a deep desire to follow God. I subconsciously “forgot” most of the traumatic events and began living in blind obedience to God’s leading. I assumed that if I followed God with leaps of courageous faith, it might be possible to avoid making choices that would bring me more pain. It never occurred to me that God wanted me to make decisions, since my choice-making ability seemed to be a complete failure.

During my adult years, I strived to obediently follow God’s leading, and—in many ways—my life overflowed with “good” things. Outwardly, life was wonderful, but my trauma-induced inner turmoil prevented me from experiencing a relational faith with God. I was an obedient child but could not access the relationship God longed to give me. A dark cloud hovered over me and sometimes consumed me.

And yet God loved me every day.

My incorrect perception that I was responsible for my abuse created a deep sense of unworthiness. Sermons often confirmed the feeling, and various religious traditions caused me to believe I had irretrievably messed up God’s “Plan A” for my life. It was now my responsibility to follow God’s “Plan B” and hope for the best. To anyone who was watching, my life appeared to be based on a close relationship with God. No one could know the inner terror involved in my wild leaps of obedience.

But God understood how hard I tried to live the abundant life.

Then at sixty-one, God led me to a therapy office in an old Victorian house where a therapist helped me heal the layers of trauma I had experienced. I slowly understood how entangled my abuse had become with my faith. As the trauma healed, I realized blind obedience was not the same thing as trusting God, and I wondered where God was when the abuse occurred. Suddenly, I didn’t trust God any more than I trusted myself! My world seemed to collapse around me as I struggled to understand God’s role in my suffering.

And yet God continued to help me heal and understand.

During this time, someone suggested Thomas Jay Oord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. As I read, it became clear God never desired, wanted, or planned my abuse. Instead, God wept over me. My little girl and preteen selves didn’t choose the abuse. And my young-adult self, while old enough to choose, became trapped in an impossible situation that led to the abortion. My subsequent choice to seek help should not have resulted in more abuse. The lack of love and the evil choices of those who harmed me were neither God’s fault nor mine.

And then God began to set me free.

I now understood it was possible for me to make my own choices, yet actually making them was so much more difficult than simply obeying blindly. I had planned to publish my story in “obedience to God” but now knew it was my choice. Blind obedience was so much easier than choosing! I asked my therapist, “What should I do?” She told me it was my choice. I asked others what I should do, and they also told me it was my choice. I asked God, knowing the answer would be the same.

Looking over my life experiences, I began to appreciate that God had been consistently working to bring about good for me. Hadn’t God actually brought good—despite all the evil I had encountered? If true, then no matter what I chose, God could (and would) continue to work to bring good into my life. No choice I made would change God’s love for me and commitment to bring good to me.

At last, I knew God loved me unconditionally.

There was no Plan B! God’s Plan A was always a relationship. Choices made within a relationship may look just like blind obedience, but they feel completely different. I thought about how I chose to do what my loving earthly father suggested or asked me to do. I loved and trusted him so much that choice and obedience were a natural part of that relationship. It was always permissible to ask questions and even negotiate a different path or compromise. Blind obedience was not necessary.

There was so much that went wrong in my life, but there was also so much that went right. My therapist pointed out that I had been making good choices all along. She had a valid point. It had simply been impossible to consider the decisions as being my own choice. It was so freeing to trust both God and my choices. This mutual trust changed my life.

Many times, while sitting on my therapist’s couch, I felt God watching in anticipation for the day when we could finally walk through life together in a relationship. On the good days, I sensed the ways my life experiences were preparing me for something God and I would do together. I called it hope. And then one day, I asked God, “What could we do together to help others heal?” And that was when the grand adventure of partnering with God began.

And God took my hand, and we walked together.

The result was a life I could never have imagined. Doors began opening and I could now choose to enter. For those who had known me for years, the choice to publish, BRAVE: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma certainly seemed brave, and perhaps not too different from my lifelong tendency to make wild leaps of faith. But it was quite different; I was choosing to partner with God, and my choices no longer terrified me.

God held the hope for my future as we began to co-create my life together. It has been almost seven years since I walked into that therapist’s office. I can see all the ways my experiences have prepared me for the life I now live. The phrase, “nothing is wasted in God’s economy,” seems trite but feels very true. All the days I cried and felt alone, God could see the hope for my future as we waited for the day when I could access trauma-informed, mental healthcare and heal.

God gave me hope for a future I could not see.

In this new future, I have been amazed as people stepped in to support me, offer resources, network, and provide rooftops for me to share my message of hope. God, me, and all those who came alongside me walked in cooperation to build this future where I can now be a trauma-informed author and advocate. It is a very good life we are co-creating!

I am sure it was not a surprise to God that I chose to share my story in my first book, BRAVE, and then continued to share in the next two books, Jeannie’s BRAVE Childhood: Behavior and Healing through the Lens of Attachment and Trauma, and, A BRAVE Life: Survival, Resilience, Faith and Hope after Childhood Trauma. My choices have brought me unlimited opportunities to help traumatized children and adult survivors like myself. My books have traveled across the planet to bring hope for healing to other survivors. I have shared my story in survivor support groups, on college campuses, at educator and ministry conferences, and internationally through podcasts and webinars.

It isn’t easy to fully explain the difference in this second part of my life. Healing is part of the difference, but it is also my relational walk with God. As humans, we are created to live in relationships—with other humans and with God. We are not complete without both. It has been a long road—one that often felt lonely, but I was never actually alone. God led, and I followed, but now we walk together in a relationship that I always longed for but never seemed possible.

Now I understand, with God, all things are possible.

Question: Why is blindly obeying God not the best spiritual practice?

Janyne McConnaughey, Ph.D., retired educator and trauma-informed author and advocate, currently serves on the Board for the Attachment & Trauma Network (ATN). Through speaking and as an author, she encourages other survivors of childhood trauma to seek healing and helps caregivers, educators, and churches understand trauma-informed practices. (BRAVE Spaces: Janyne and her husband live near Seattle and enjoy spending time with children and grandchildren.


Janyne McConnaughey-Blog: What God Does and Doesn’t Do

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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