CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.
By Wende Benner, HA Editorial Team
My lightbulb moment began at the age of sixteen. My family was a part of Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program. This was the year my father received the call inviting me to live and work at a training center and to also be a part of a brand new training program especially for girls, EXCEL (Excellence in Character, Education, and Leadership). Every ATI teenager knew that receiving a personal invitation to work and participate in an Institute event meant that someone important had seen the light in your eyes and recognized your devotion to God. I was thrilled to be thought worthy to help prepare the newly acquired Ambassador Hotel in Dallas, TX for the first class of EXCEL girls and to also be able to participate in this groundbreaking program.
Once I arrived at the beautiful, historic Ambassador Hotel I worked long, hard hours with little sleep preparing for hundreds of girls to arrive. We were to spend eight weeks learning how to be godly women. Since this was a brand new program, I was unsure of what subjects we would be covering until I received my giant, white binder. Some of the things we were going to learn were the womanly arts of sewing, dressing, hospitality, courtship, and submission. But the most exciting thing to me was the discovery that Elisabeth Elliot would be coming to speak with us. Mrs. Elliot was a bit of a hero of mine. She was a woman who God used through writing and speaking to reach others. And she would be talking to us about how to write, something I dreamed of doing one day. Her sessions with us were scheduled for the second week of EXCEL, and I couldn’t wait.
Our sessions began with learning about God’s design for us as women. God created us to be wives and mothers that raised the next generation for God. Then we moved to all the ways that we could mess up God’s plan for us.
There were so many sins women were prone to falling into it seemed, and just one of them could not only destroy our lives but the lives of our husband and children.
Things such as having expectations from life or loved ones only led us to be contentious and ungrateful. This of course could destroy a family or lead to something even worse- bitterness. Bitterness would give Satan a piece of our soul and was even known to be the cause of certain illnesses (like arthritis) and depression. We finished the week of sessions by concentrating on how wrong priorities could destroy our lives. But first we needed to understand God’s priorities for women were a relationship with him first, then to put the needs of our husband’s second, and the needs of our children came next.
These sessions made it clear to us God’s only purpose for women was marriage and children (as many children as possible).
If we had any other desires or dreams we were sinning.
Of course these weren’t exactly new ideas for someone who had been in ATI for a while, but hearing these things everyday with verses to back them up started to take a toll. From the time we got up at 5:30 in the morning till we went to bed at 9:30 we only studied verses instructing women on how to be godly wives and mothers. That with the added knowledge that my parents had never once disagreed with anything said through Gothard or ATI began to make me feel as if my future was already decided for me, and it was a future that had never really been a part of my dreams or even what I felt had been God’s calling for my life. It was a future where my desires and thoughts were never to be considered, a future where subservience not partnership was required.
I felt trapped.
And then I felt shame and guilt. I felt I was so selfish to have other dreams and to not want what God’s design and purpose for me.
The point of this first week of sessions was to help us understand the purpose of EXCEL and what we were there to learn. Now, we were going to begin “practical” training to help us meet these goals. And we were all excited that Elisabeth Elliot would be the one to start this part of our training. Learning about writing and ministry from one of the most respected Christian women of our time was something I knew would be useful. It was something that could even help me reach the goals and dreams I felt God had given me.
Mrs. Elliot first informed us that she only taught under the authority of the Institute leaders and of her husband, Lars. In fact, Lars stood to the side or in the back of the room every session to show her submission to authority. Then she spoke about loneliness and suffering. She told us that just as Jesus had suffered and died, we were called to suffering and to die “little deaths” by sacrificing ourselves for others. This was especially true in marriage she told us; we are “married but alone”. “It is the mercy of God that gives us the chance to die”, and for women this chance comes through marriage.
The picture of marriage Mrs. Elliot painted was one of loneliness and loss-a place where women were created “gloriously unequal” to men.
In fact, she informed us that equality was a political construct, but women were created to be “lesser than” men in order to symbolize the mystery of Christ and the church. The only way to be “truly womanly” was to “surrender” to Christ and our husbands. With that final pronouncement Mrs. Elliot handed out a page of helpful hints on writing and asked if we had any questions about her talks.
A few girls asked questions about specific situations in their homes. How does submission look when parents are quite possibly being abusive or even asking one to do something wrong? With each question Mrs. Elliot seemed to become more and more impatient. She reiterated the fact that God called us to submit and surrender. There were no exceptions. I became increasingly uneasy. Then, a very brave girl raised her hand and asked a question that is burned into my memory. In an almost challenging tone she said, “Mrs. Elliot, are you saying that God made women to be doormats?”
There was silence for a few moments. You could tell everyone was waiting to hear how she would respond to the confrontation.
Mrs. Elliot then replied, “Well, I have always said since God made me to be a doormat, I will be the best doormat I can be.”
I didn’t hear anything else that happened that night. I was too stunned. Never had I heard my role in life put that plainly. This world I was growing up in believed women were created to be doormats. Something within me rose up in protest.
I was not created to be a doormat, to be walked over, ignored, abused, and used.
My life was meant for much more than this. I knew in that moment their whole paradigm of how the world interacted and related was fundamentally flawed. Everything from now on must be questioned for truth.
It has been a long journey of unraveling the lies and truth since that moment. In many ways I have needed to tear everything down and rebuild my beliefs and views of life over again. But, every moment of hard work has been worth the freedom of knowing it is acceptable for me to be my own person, to have my own thoughts and desires, and to know I do not have to sacrifice my whole self in order to love my family.
“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” ~John Steinbeck, East of Eden
We’ve called these stories, “light-bulb moments”. They are stories of awakening….spiritual, emotional, and deeply personal. We were, every one of us, to some extent or another, asleep, in the dark, and complacent. Then, something happened to wake us up, turn on the light, stir our souls. Some incongruency that didn’t fit our boxes. We discovered a world far bigger and better than we’d imagined. People that were multi-dimensional and complex. Thoughts and feelings within us we didn’t know were there before or maybe we did and they scared us. We got angry, we grieved, we ranted to each other about how we were lied to, how we were sometimes complicit in our own darkness, choosing what was safe over what was true. Some of us walked a harder road than others, but we all walked them. We all, in one way or another, realized the world was open to us, in full color, and that, contrary to what we had been told, it was very good. And there are now no limits to anything. These are our stories. Glimpses into our awakenings. I’m sure we’ll have many more before we walk our last path.- Darcy Anne, HA Editorial Team