By Sloan Milliken
Before the KRC mini-retreat started this past March, I had never heard of Donna Parachin and knew nothing about her. Actually, that’s not quite true—upon my arrival, a couple of people correctly assumed I didn’t know any Mandarin and told me, “You are very lucky. This year the speaker speaks English.” I laughed with them as we rejoiced in my good fortune.
Still, before the sessions began, I had no idea she travels around the world serving others the same way she served us in that workshop. More importantly, I had no idea you only have to be around Donna for two seconds to know that she is full of the life and joy and love of God. Full is an understatement! I also didn’t know that you only have to listen to her for a couple of minutes to know that she carries great wisdom, but is totally transparent, raw, and humble. And I didn’t realize that you only have to sit in a session or two with her to know that you are going to have affection lavished all over you, because she thinks the world of you and God does, too!
To make a long story short, I left that weekend profoundly touched and encouraged, as did everyone there. Naturally, when I decided to focus this issue on becoming emotionally whole, I knew to interview her. Donna and I spoke freely over the phone for about an hour, and our transcript ended up being about two times too long for what we had room to publish. While what follows had to be an edited version of our discussion, we feel it is a true reflection of what was said that day, and we pray that it will be greatly helpful to you on your own journey!
Donna, as you know, our world is grasping for wholeness. That’s okay, for it is right to want to feel happy and healthy and pain-free inside. People in our churches are after the same thing, too, but if we’re honest, most of us have been Christians for years but have found only superficial solutions to many of our real struggles. Why do you think we try to cover up what’s really going on inside us and have a hard time finding deep healing for our pain? And as individual believers and as leaders, what can we do about it?
Those are very loaded questions. I’m going to try to take them in pieces. I think one of the things we have to do is look at Jesus, who was the perfect model of being a leader. He was also the perfect model of being a son. He really knew who he was—his Father’s son. And his mission was to please the Father, so he only did what his Father asked him to do and only spoke what he heard his Father saying. So there was a deep relationship between them.
That is a major, major key when we look at the journey to wholeness. Every person has a story and has walked a journey of life, and challenges have confronted everyone. What has actually been modeled into us during our lifetimes will often determine what we believe deep-down about who we are. As Christians, we can tend to ignore this, even proclaiming the Scriptures as we do. It’s possible to say we are people saved by the blood of Jesus, have become children of God, and walk the walk of faith, but be ignorant of the fact that we can sometimes use the Scripture to dismiss our past hurt and pain.
If you look at the mission of Jesus however, it is actually to come in and heal the brokenhearted, to set captives free (see Isaiah 61 and Luke 4). Jesus declared he is about the restoration of not just honor, but double honor. In the words of John 10:10, he came to help us live abundant lives.
Many people settle for much less than that. We can often see that by how people communicate, how they relate in family, and how they relate within the community of church, or within any relationship. Is the relationship free-flowing or controlling, or even abusive? Are we presenting false images about who we really are?
We settle for less than who we are in Christ largely because the whole idea of looking at the brokenhearted is not something that we understand very well. To learn how to do that effectively, we really need to watch Jesus as he journeyed through his ministry. In virtually every case that the Gospel writers record, more happened in the healings than just physical healings or spiritual deliverance. As he does those things, Jesus is actually valuing people and restoring their belief about their personal identities. A very simple example of that would be the leper who came to Jesus and asked to be healed. Lepers were completely isolated from society, cast out, left to die, and separated from family and community. That creates many major issues inside of someone. And Jesus does the most amazing thing. He actually touches the man, and then he says, “Indeed, I want to heal you.” When would have been the last time that man had been touched and valued for who he really was?
So, as we walk through the Gospels, we see Jesus valuing people. We see Jesus meeting their specific needs, not just physically and spiritually, but emotionally as well. Science today will tell us that a lot of physical problems are a result of what is happening internally. And certainly in my experience, I would definitely agree with that. From a different perspective, when we are struggling with unresolved conflicts, confusion in life, fears, maybe a sense of feeling abandoned or devalued in some way, maybe having to live up to unreasonable expectations, perhaps from ourselves—these things impact how we live our lives and see ourselves. I love the model of Jesus because he came to show us what his Father is like, that he is about family and relationship. He is so sensitive to our life experiences, which we often use to define what we believe about who we are.
I feel that many pastors and preachers may preach the Word well, but oftentimes, we don’t know how to care for one another. We don’t know how to be real with one another. It isn’t because we’re not good people, and it isn’t because we don’t want to, but often it has not been well modeled to us. As a result, I think modeling the heart of the Father is so essential. To use the words of Jesus, it is to shepherd. I love that picture of a shepherd who cares for the sheep, stays with the sheep, loves the sheep, watches if one wanders off, and so on. It’s a great picture of the care element that is needed to build and rebuild a life. So the journey of wholeness really is about coming into a place of understanding deep within about our true identity. It’s a journey of transformation, a journey of change. Do we believe that we are treasures? Do we believe that we are gifts? Do we believe that we are lovable? Do we believe that our lives have a purpose?
Can you share some of your own story and talk about how God transformed your life through people coming alongside you in the midst of your brokenness?
I could say it so simply. From the time I was a small child, my life was wrought with abuse of every sort. I had an incredibly painful childhood. To describe it, I always like to say, “Just imagine every form of abuse, and then let your imagination think about it.” It was horrific.
My experiences growing up taught me that life is not safe and that I needed to find a way to survive. I was a very confused and angry child. And the outworking of that was I became a very promiscuous teenager. It wasn’t because I was a bad kid, though that’s what some would say. It was because I was modeling exactly what had been put into me. As a young child, I learned that sex was love and love was sex. By the time I was sixteen years old, I was out on the streets, experiencing life at its lowest level.
Through a remarkable set of circumstances, I met a couple who were Methodist pastors at the time. They had an incredible heart for broken young people. They had no problem going out on the street just believing that God would lead them to people who really needed to be loved and helped. And that is exactly what happened.
I remember the first time this beautiful man put his arms around me. My body stiffened because my experiences had taught me that a hug was a precursor to a sexual encounter, not a love encounter. But I looked—for the first time looked into the eyes of a man and saw love. I saw that it was real. He really cared.
That couple would become spiritual parents to me and a few others. They ended up taking us into their home for four years. And they loved us into healing. It wasn’t about putting a religious set of rules in front of us. At the age of seventeen, I had had a little girl on the street, and we were very, very broken. But these people loved us. They welcomed us. They were not ashamed of us. As Paul describes, we need spiritual fathers in the body of Christ. We see that model with Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy, and Jesus and the disciples. God sent this couple to be our spiritual parents—for me and for others.
This couple modeled Christianity consistently. They had no problems recognizing when there were oppressive powers. When they did, they had to pray. There was no judgment. They literally became like parents to us. And for four years, they poured everything that they had into us.
It is a wonder to me that God could take such a broken little life from an obscure area way up in northern Canada, and transform me into a healing heart that goes around the world. That is staggering to me. I always like to say that I don’t have to just read about testimonies because my own life is a testimony.
I am who I am today because of two people who didn’t just have a message. They lived the message. They were willing to love what was unlovely. They saw Jesus in the middle of my garbage. My personal belief was that I had no value and I was garbage. My concept of relationship was so, so broken. It was so distorted. So just to hear a message that God is a God of relationship would have meant nothing to me, because my experience of relationship told me relationships could never be trusted.
But two people had a deep understanding of the value of one individual, believed one little lamb was worth going after, and trusted that God could restore a broken life and then use that life. That was thirty years ago, and I am still in awe to this day that someone was willing to show me Jesus in this way. That couple didn’t just preach about Jesus but showed me a life that modeled Jesus. That’s why you will hear me talk a lot about modeling. What is it we are modeling? Are we modeling an institutional church that does very good meetings and preaches very good messages, or are we modeling the heart of Christ that will go after the one and love them into the kingdom?
Back in March, you were speaking about how healing is about learning to agree with God. Can you talk about that?
When it comes right down to it, God’s heart is that our lives would be followed by blessing. And if we go back to the Jewish understanding of blessing, it generally happens in very specific moments of life. From the time in the womb, time of birth, to the time of development, youth, marriage, and so on, right through to death. The Jewish tradition called them the seven places of blessing in life. Many people have not encountered unconditional blessing and affirmation in those key times, so they’ve had to try to find out where they fit in life.
In our lives, we form agreements inside ourselves that we ultimately live life by. We do this in response to our experiences and our family backgrounds. For example, if a little girl experiences affirmation only when she achieves a hundred percent, then a belief is being built within her that basically says, “If I get anything less than a hundred percent, I have no value.”
We place a lot of agreement to those experiences throughout life, subconsciously or even consciously, because life has told us that that’s our truth. And often those truths are quite contrary to what God’s words say about who we are. And this is where the challenge comes in. Life, whether family life, the education process, cultural input, relationships, or traumas—these things all define what we believe. And this is where the issue of agreement becomes very, very powerful. We don’t think about it, but we simply respond to that which has been repeatedly modeled in front of us from the time we were born. Oftentimes, that agreement is not something that we’re fully aware of.
The scripture teaches us that the truth will set us free. For many people, they know the word of God is truth, and they may even believe it as information. But they may not necessarily have encountered it personally. For example, if people believe that their value comes from what they do, we could look at them and say, “Well, that’s not true. You are valued simply because you are part of the family” or something like that. You can tell them it’s a lie a million times. They might even intellectually agree that it’s not true. However, inside of them, that’s a truth.
Because these things take great hold inside and often define how we choose to live our life, we often are limited in encountering God for who he really is, a Father who wants to love, who wants us to have the freedom to be able to live life, who wants us to live transparent lives. And for many people, that would be a completely dangerous thing to do, a completely unsafe thing to do, because it’s very much human nature to hide the things we do not like about ourselves. It’s so easy to present what we want people to see. We come into agreement with those kinds of things not by using words of agreement but simply by how we live our lives.
So the journey of wellness and wholeness is about getting to those points within us and finding out what we actually believe about who we are. At those times we can ask, “What is my perception?
What has formed what I believe, and does that actually line up with what God’s Word says about who I am?” Very often, we find what we really believe and what God’s Word says are opposing views. And the journey of wellness is to unpack that a little bit so that we are able to get to the real truth. And if that truth is contrary to God’s Word, we need to recognize that we’ve actually agreed with that, not because we’re bad people, but simply because life has taught us that. And so along the journey, it’s important to understand what beliefs about life and even beliefs about God that we’ve agreed to. Belief about family, relationship, and our significance and value in life become very big issues when we’re looking at agreement, when we’re looking at wholeness and healing and being transformed into the same image as Jesus. That’s a very simple answer to a very big process.
Would you say that the biggest key to that process is just being willing to be honest and open-hearted relationally, both with God and then other people?
The simple answer to what you’re asking is, “Yes, of course.” If you were to ask most people that, they would say the same thing. The challenge of that is, for many of us, relationship has been poorly modeled. So that’s why I like to talk about the relationship between Jesus and God. God is a God of love, but love is one of the most misunderstood words. Jesus, however, showed us the heart of love. The Scriptures reveal that Jesus really cares and shows the heart of the Father in the relationships that he was involved with. As he does, he is showing us that this is what relationship can look like. The model of family relationship is also seen in the relationship of the Trinity.
Relationship really is the greatest gift that we could have, but for many of us it becomes the greatest challenge. We don’t often know how to relate to one another. It isn’t that we don’t care for one another, but that we don’t know how to be real to one another. We don’t know how to model living a transparent life to others because we ourselves are afraid that if people really understood who we are, we could be rejected. Many, many Christians live like that. They want to belong because God has made us to belong. We want to be with other Christians because we’re meant to be. It’s called a family. We’re called the household of faith. And all of that is relationship.
When we talk about a relationship with God, though, we bring all of our understanding of relationship with us. If we have learned in our life that we are valued by what we do or don’t do, it teaches us about relationship. And if somehow we believe that we have to earn our place and earn favor by what we do, then when we come into relationship with God, we often approach God from the same perspective. It’s not because we’re bad people, not at all. It’s not because we’re thinking about where we put our agreement. We are simply living what’s been put into us. And so, we get very, very good servants working in the church, because oftentimes we feel we need to do something in order to get the favor of God.
But real relationship with God and others does not operate that way. We were made for giving and receiving affectionate love. When we are experiencing love, it’s very easy to love back. It’s very easy to be real when love is real. Many relationships, however, are very strained by fear, control, domination, manipulation, and anger. All of those things push relationship away.
Many people tend to think, “God must be angry with me because maybe I’m not doing enough.” And so we feel like we have to do more. In reality, though, God says to us, “I simply love you because I made you in my own image. You’re my son, you’re my daughter.” There isn’t anything that we could ever possibly do to earn the favor of God. It’s not possible. There’s nothing we could possibly ever do to earn the love of the immensity of who God is. I like to say it this way: “Almighty God just happens to be my Father.”
Last, what are some things we can do to develop atmospheres of healing and freedom in our relationships and our churches? Can you recommend some resources or share some of your thoughts on that?
Of course there are a lot of good reading material and audio teachings out there. They are wonderful and great tools. There are many I’d recommend. But more than that, I think two things will most contribute to the environment you’re asking about. First, we owe it to the people around us to teach them about what a real relationship is like with God. Second, we need spiritual fathers and mothers.
To tackle the first point—I love helping people learn to relate with God on a day-to-day basis. The key is remembering it is a relationship. Take prayer, for example. It’s not designed to be a monologue. We can actually dialogue back and forth with God and learn how to relate with him. That, in my opinion, is one of the most key areas of our Christian walk.
In that, it’s so important to learn to receive his love. I often encourage people to ask the question every day, “How does the Father love me today?” Or, “How does he affirm me today?” Then, take the time to listen. Sometimes we make mistakes, and we’re pretty hard on ourselves. The wonder about God is that he is so kind, and when that kind of love touches us, it’s very easy to say, “Oh God, please forgive me.” That’s just one example of why it’s so important to learn to hear his voice and receive his heart.
We can also take this approach to the Bible and learn to be affirmed by God’s Word from the heart of relationship. In order to do that, we first need to understand the character of God. He is always loving and kind and gentle and caring. Knowing this, when something strikes us in the Scriptures, we can just stop and ask him about it. For example, when we read 1 John 4:19, we can ask, “What’s that like? What is it like to be loved by God?” Don’t exegete the passage or memorize it. Just stop and let God speak to you in that moment and let him touch you by the power of the words. I’ve seen doing that alone grow people in a profound way.
As for spiritual parenting, Paul says there are many good teachers but very few fathers. We have settled so frequently for very good teachers and good exegetical teaching in the church. But the model of spiritual parenting has been rare.
All of us have issues that we have encountered in our lives. It could be things that we have done or we feel shame over, it could be bad choices, or it could have been very poor family modeling. There are many things. However, at the end of the day, when those things have happened, trust breaks down on the inside, and you cannot have real relationship without trust. So, in the journey of wholeness, the modeling element of real love becomes paramount. It builds trust and looks like someone living an authentic life modeling Jesus.
Early on in my life, somebody could have said to me a million times, “Don’t you know God loves you?” and I would have heard the words, but my experience told me that nobody loved me because love and relationship had been so poorly modeled to me. Creating a healing environment is about finding those natural caregivers within the church and giving them tools. It is about showing people that relationship is the valued key that develops identities secure in God. Real, loving relationship frees people to open their hearts and bare the issues of life without feeling that they’re exposed or unsafe. Only creating an environment of incredible safety and trust, which is a process that happens over time, will produce lasting healing.