By Nicole Cotter
Emily was 22 when she found herself in yet another empty relationship. It was a recurring pattern in her life. Her current boyfriend was emotionally and mentally abusive, and she knew things weren’t going to change unless she did something about it.
Emily grew up in a Christian family. She gave her life to Jesus and got baptized when she was 16. “I was a Christian, but I still had all of these issues that I didn’t even know how to deal with,” Emily says.
When she was young, she formed her ideas about her identity around relationships with men and her appearance. So when she felt depressed, Emily would either binge eat, or reach out for attention from guys. Her relationships often led to her doing whatever men wanted from her. Doing things she was ashamed of.
“I lost my virginity when I was 19. Since then, it’s been a string of non-important, quick, and unfulfilling relationships,” she says. These types of relationships were a theme throughout Emily’s years in university.
“I didn’t feel comfortable saying no. I wasn’t strong enough in myself to be able to say no,” Emily says. “I really liked the fact that I was wanted for something, so I really kind of craved that. At the same time, I wanted to be wanted for more, but I didn’t know what that looked like, so I would settle for cheap relationships.”
Last year, when Emily noticed the patterns in her life, she knew she needed to end her relationship.
She started working out in an effort to get control of her life and make a change. At the gym one night, Emily realized how much she was growing as a person and she wanted to keep moving forward. After their workout, in the parking lot of the gym, she worked up the strength to break up with her boyfriend.
He tried to explain that he would change for her, but Emily knew the relationship was too dysfunctional. She was crying uncontrollably, but she felt sure about the decision.
The weeks after were tough. And it was tempting to go back to him, to feel secure in a relationship again, but she knew that she wanted so badly to continue growing and that growth would require being uncomfortable.
After she ended her relationship, Emily continued focusing on ways she could change her life; her appearance, her diet, her relationship. But she began to sense that changing this external stuff wasn’t going to fix her. “I knew something was off, and it was something that I couldn’t fix on my own,” Emily says.
A few months after she ended her relationship, Emily was invited to Village Church and started attending with her friend. One particular Sunday, Pastor Mark’s message talked about God reaching out to us, but that we only have so long to actively reach back. That message really resonated with Emily. As she sat there in the service, she broke down.
“I didn’t know who I was in my identity. I was so lost because I was a Christian but I wasn’t living my life as a Christian,” she says.
She went forward to pray with someone from the prayer team. A woman there prayed into Emily’s life and specifically prayed that Emily would find her identity in Christ. When they finished praying, the woman told Emily about Freedom Session and urged her to sign up.
Emily decided to apply just days before the application cutoff. But when she got approved to participate and was asked to confirm that she would be attending Freedom Session she almost backed out. At that moment, she felt like her life was going okay and she questioned whether she really needed it. But deep down she knew there were issues she needed to deal with.
So when she showed up to the first session she was angry that she had forced herself to do it. It felt uncomfortable, and Emily felt like she was the only one with so much to feel guilty about. But by the end of the night, her attitude and perspective had shifted. “It was really uplifting to finally be in an environment where you talked very honestly about the stuff that you had gone through,” Emily says.
Throughout the program, she developed relationships with her group facilitator, her program sponsor, and the women in her small group, and they kept her accountable. These relationships played a big part in how Emily was able to work through all the things she needed to deal with.
At an early age, Emily formed her ideas about herself around her guilt and shame. She had labelled herself a “bad person” and that is how she had seen herself ever since.
So when she came to the point in the program when she was required to forgive herself for everything, she got stuck. “I was a victim, but I had also hurt people. I wouldn’t forgive myself. I was bad and I deserved the condemnation, and I deserved the pain and hatred that I felt in my heart.”
But the women around her led her through the difficult process of forgiving herself until she was literally able to say the words: “You can be forgiven”, and she felt a weight lift off her.
When Emily signed up for Freedom Session, she knew there were issues to work through, but she never imagined how powerful and important it would be to forgive herself. Freedom Session helped Emily see that she is forgiven and made new through Christ, no matter what guilt she holds on to.
Emily graduated from Freedom Session in May. The program was transformative for her but she says she still struggles sometimes. She doesn’t want to be the person she was. “I am consciously trying to put myself in situations where I am held accountable for my actions,” she says.
“One thing that always bothered me growing up, was seeing people who were Christians and seeing myself, a Christian, fall and stumble so often, and not really hold ourselves to an authentic way of living.” So that is her number one goal right now: to hold herself to a higher standard and keep herself accountable. Even though she still makes mistakes, Emily is making it a priority to focus in on those mistakes, figure out why she makes them, and learn from that so she can live a life that glorifies God.
Before, Emily found her identity in being wanted by men and being wanted for sex. Now she finds her identity in doing what God wants for her.
“It’s my way of taking ownership back over my identity, because I tried doing that by sleeping with everyone. I tried to gain control of my life, but it controlled me. Now, my identity is a strong woman in Christ, and I realized that a strong woman in Christ is not someone who is not valued in a relationship,” she says.
“I compare my life pre to post Freedom Session. I honestly probably would have left the church by now, if I didn’t do it. I would have continued to call myself a Christian but not live my life according to anything that would hold me accountable to that. Freedom Session forces you to live authentically, in a really good way,” she says.
“I love the relationship I have with Christ, and it shows in my actions. I want people to see the love and grace that was given to me, and how it’s changed me for the better,” Emily says.
“It’s a great and powerful change…and I can’t just be a mediocre Christian anymore.”