To The Homeschooled Young Woman Who Asked Ted Dekker For Help At Realm Makers

How can we heal if we’re trained to associate God’s gifts with pain?
on Aug 4, 2017 · 7 comments

You may never hear this. But I heard you clearly at the Realm Makers 2017 conference, during keynote speaker Ted Dekker’s question-and-answer session on Saturday, July 29.

In a room of 250-some-odd people, you took courage.

You stood and asked Ted Dekker for any help dealing with your struggles.

As I recall, you said you felt trapped in a particular culture: the culture of evangelical Christian homeschooling. You felt stifled. Maybe you felt spiritually abused. Your family and church didn’t get your desire for adventure found in fantastic worlds and imagination.

I can only guess at what you didn’t want to say. Maybe people have not only been confused by your love of imagination. Maybe they don’t just say you’re weird. Maybe they say worse.

My heart went out to you. (And my wife felt the same!)

Ted Dekker speaking at the 2017 Realm Makers conference in Reno, Nevada.

Ted Dekker speaking at the 2017 Realm Makers conference in Reno, Nevada.

What I wish I could have said

I love Jesus’s church. That’s His bride, and He loves her. And I also love homeschooling!

But. I understand when people associate these good gifts with pain and even evil.

Imagine you’ve heard the most beautiful music in the world. Imagine your favorite voice(s), themes, and genres, all at the top of their art form. Imagine you love to listen.

Now imagine, each time you listen, someone comes up from behind you and slaps you.

Every time. You’re trying to listen to beautiful music. Every time. Someone slaps you.

Before too long, what would happen?

The beauty would turn ugly. The vocalist’s songs would mock you. The musicians would play on. They wouldn’t care that in your world, their good artistry is paired with your pain.

That’s how it feels when we’re trained to associate God’s good gifts with pain and abuse.

Sometimes we train ourselves to do this.

Sometimes other people train us. They may mean well. Or they may be actual bad guys.

Jesus has plenty of warnings for everyone (not just obvious religious hypocrites). But He often warned against leaders who twist God’s good laws (Matthew 23, Mark 7). Jesus said:

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.1

The apostle Paul warned about men who spread particular false teaching among God’s people (1 Timothy 4:1-5). These false teachers don’t want us to be “more like the world.” They aren’t trying to get us to be pagan feminists or atheists. In fact, these false teachers preach against good things in the world God has given us, such as marriage and foods!2

God’s gift of imagination and fantasy

Today, even some well-meaning Christians teach against good things.3 SpecFaith readers know God’s good gifts include the gifts of human culture and human imagination.

In short: God wants us to imitate His creativity. He made an amazing, fantastical world with an epic plot (starring Himself as the Hero versus the villain of human and demonic evil).

So any time we imagine and create, we intentionally honor God as Creator.

When we enjoy good use of our imaginations, we worship our King.

Realm Makers 2017 guests could worship God through play during the conference's Saturday night Nerf war.

Realm Makers 2017 guests could worship God through play during the conference’s Saturday night Nerf war.

That’s a very Christian-y word: worship. I think many Christians misunderstand this word to refer only to music or preaching, family values, and other church-y things. That’s what I used to assume. Then I found a whole body of truth that Christians have taught. Some call it the “doctrine of vocation.” It says that everything good we do, we can do to glorify God.

Even imagination. Even local churches. Even Nerf wars.

Hey, that sounds biblical. Almost like the apostle Paul again:

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.4

Stay in a great local church

I don’t know if people in your family or church are preaching against these good things.

In fact, it would be a mistake for me to assume they are. Everyone’s story is different.

And because I’m a man, I also can’t pretend to understand how you may feel.

But I can tell you this: if you’re struggling now, in Christ, it does get better.

Time doesn’t heal our wounds. But Jesus does. And He heals them by taking us out of our slavery and redeeming those good gifts that people have abused for evil ends.

He gives us food, marriage, family, churches, imagination, and most of all Himself.

Some people can’t enjoy these gifts, listening to God’s “music,” without feeling pain.5

In my case, I literally felt some pain at the word “family.” That’s how bad things became.

But Jesus is a wonderful, redeeming Savior. And He loves every sinner. Including sinners who have suffered under other sinners. “… A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”6

And thanks be to God, Jesus doesn’t stop at redeeming us.

He also helps us redeem good gifts that we have trained to associate with evil and pain. He can help us redeem fantasy, imagination, music, the Bible, family, and even the local church.

So run to Jesus: the Jesus of the Bible, the Hero whom real, Jesus-loving local churches have been sharing and following for centuries. He is true and good and beautiful. And so are the good saints who have loved and obeyed Him all this time. These good saints do exist. They love Jesus’s love, His teaching, and His local churches (flawed though they are!).

A good church needs you. People need your story. And you need them and their stories.

Mostly, you’ll need more of Jesus, whom our good churches love and obey. And you need the good gifts Jesus made available through His brothers and sisters in a good local church: gospel teaching, love from spiritual family, the Lord’s supper, baptism, and worship.

Seek the promised land

Does this all sound unbelievable? I’m sure it might.

All I know is that, in my case, when I felt trapped in a strange land, I lived for real accounts and stories of other, better worlds. They helped me find Jesus, and find His good people.

No, those worlds weren’t idyllic. Narnia has nasty Calormenes. Even good local churches have hypocrites. But these worlds were still better anyway. You could join other people like you. You could become stronger and freer to follow heroes and fight enemies.

Realm Makers 2017That’s why I love Realm Makers. It’s not a church! But it’s a “world” of Christians who get both biblical truth and fantastic stories. It’s a foretaste of Jesus’s “promised land,” the New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21). Jesus has promised that someday, after all our hypocrisy, abuse, evil, and temptations, He will make all things new. He will unite God’s world, New Heavens, with a perfect remodel of this planet, New Earth—a world of imagination and love and adventure under King Jesus. (And imagine: Nerf battles galore.)

So it’s not all empty promises.

Jesus put reflections of this perfect world even into this terrible world. In His mercy, He lets us find these places here. He helps us feel joy, not pain, associated with His good gifts.

I hope you found Him at Realm Makers last week.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long, for you and anyone else happening by. That was intentional.

But back when I was hurting, I lived for long stories from people who’d been where I was.

If you want to connect, comment below, or find me on Facebook.

May God bless and keep you.

  1. Matthew 23:4.
  2. Do you want a longer message about this text? Do you need to hear more teaching against false teachers who preach against God’s good gifts? Then you might consider John Piper’s message about this text. He bounces off not only Paul, but C. S. Lewis and Randy Alcorn.
  3. This false teaching seems rarer than it once was. If anything, many Christians don’t struggle with sinfully rejecting good gifts. Most Christians I meet are more prone to sinfully abusing good gifts, such as human culture. But your mileage may vary. Perhaps more of these anti-culture, anti-imagination Christians are out there, and I don’t meet them as often.
  4. Colossians 3:23-24.
  5. By the way, this is why some Christians (who may mean well) forbid some good gifts. They have associated these gifts with pain or temptation. For example, some Christians associate fantastic stories with their own painful or sinful moments. So they lock up these originally good gifts and avoid them, maybe forever. But then they go too far by acting as if these gifts can only hurt any other person, and warning everyone else to avoid this thing they believe is only corrupt. Some Christians do the same by rejecting God’s gift of the local church.
  6. Isaiah 42:3.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Incredible post! My eyes are tearing up at your words.
    I work at church, am a youth leader, have mostly Christian friends, so pretty much in a Christian bubble. But at times I’ve felt “less of a Christian” (for lack of better words) because I’m obsessed with Marvel movies, watch Big Bang Theory, am jazzed working a booth for our friends at Gen-Con, and have San Diego Comic Con #2 on my bucket list (was #1 but now RM is #1). This helps me to remember God created me wired for action, adventure and fantasy AND He called me to write. I need to embrace the weird, even the controversial. God has been opening my eyes to a world that’s messy, HARD, wrecked and needs HIS hope. We NEED Spec authors to write to that world, filling their stories with that hope and mercy and redemption. So, write on all authors of weird! I know I will!

  2. zareena shinn says:

    Thank you, for taking the time to share your thoughts. Loved it.

  3. this really is the sort of article that I would appreciate being printed in Lorehaven. Sign me up for a subscription! As an evangelical and a youth pastor who was once fired for writing fantasy fiction (which is now part of a seven book series) before earning a masters degree and finding success using spec fic to lead lost kids to Christ, we need this sort of content!

  4. Over all a good post, Stephen. I do feel the need to point out, as we’ve discussed before, that the verse in Colossians has the specific context of what slaves were to do in regard to their masters. It’s not an unrestricted statement that says, if you are going to ComicCon, do it for God’s glory. It’s saying God is our master, so we are to please Him instead of worrying about pleasing the people in our lives.

    Apart from that, I think you’ve shared your caring heart and have done so with clarity. I would hope that the person you’re addressing, does find this post.


    • Amen and agreed. And yes, that “whatever you do …” is absolutely in the context of dedicated, intentional, conscious service to God our Master. It’s not a “freedom for freedom’s sake” justification. It absolutely assumes that Jesus is Lord over everything we do.

      Thanks for your encouragement!

  5. notleia says:

    I wasn’t homeschooled, but I felt equally trapped living on 2 miles of dirt road and at least 5 min from the nearest gas station. Also I was one of, like, 6 people between the ages of 15-45 in my church, and half of those were my siblings. Honestly, it didn’t get any better until I had a car and could drive where I wanted to go. Being able to choose your environment makes a lot of difference. You can decide to spend more time with cool people who don’t rag on your hobbies and only so much time with the more difficult people (when they’re actually being nice).

    • Exactly, notleia. And part of that, part of it, relates to the normal struggles of growing up. False belief, bad religious rules, and things like that, may play a factor. But it’s often mixed in with expected growing-up struggles. Either way, Jesus is the answer.

What do you think?