Mental Health & Counseling

Cities of Refuge

August 21, 2022

In ancient Israel God appointed six cities, three on the east side of the Jordan and three on the west side, where a person could run if he or she had committed unintentional or accidental manslaughter. The roads leading to these cities were well maintained and signposted for easy traverse and travel. Once inside the gates, the fleeing, innocent fugitive was safe from avengers until a trial was held. We don’t know you, we don’t necessarily know the details, we don’t know what truth is exactly; but for now no judgement, no censorship, be assured that you are in a safe place and will receive a fair trial.  

These cities were also a refuge for foreigners. We don’t know from whence you come, your history or your reputation; we know nothing of your genetics or family history, and the color of your skin means nothing. You are safe here for now

We all need a city of refuge. We all need safe places where we are understood in our weakness and loved for who we are. Places where we are safe to share our deepest questions, our worries, our challenges, faults, failures, and sins. Places where we feel heard. We almost never become authentic and vulnerable without being assured at our deepest level that we are safe. Abuse victims, fearing being misunderstood, need a safe place to reveal their secrets, often secrets that have been hidden for years. Battered and emotionally abused women as well as parents dealing with troubled children and teens need a city of refuge where they can run to and be safe. And certainly those in the messy fog of same-sex attraction need a safe place to share their deep and anguished struggle. 


My wife is my main city of refuge, my safe place. The other day I found myself in the slough of despond, burned out, sad, up to my neck in muck, facing the alligators of negative thinking. Depression swirled around me like a murky fog. Fears and anxieties flashed through the clouds like sheet lightening. When I find myself in this position, my nature is to vent. I often don’t feel like praying; I’m too busy being self-consumed and pre-occupied with the slough and the alligators. I run to my wife, poor thing, and she listens to me unload. I never feel judged by her, never feel that she just wants to “fix” my problem and move on. She lets me vent and commiserates with my bad day, that poor decision, or the close call. Often after some time of quiet, she will gently remind me of God’s providential care, His broad shoulders, and the fact that He understands and is waiting for me to trust Him with my burdens.

I have many brethren who are my friends and safe places. They have been my city of refuge, the place I run to for counsel, advice, and direction. They have told me some hard things, corrected me, redirected me. But I trust them because I know they have my back and have my best in mind. The same goes for our congregation: they have been with us through thick and thin and I’ve always felt they supported us and prayed us through. Perhaps they’ve looked at us askance or judged us in quiet—and they’d have reason, too!—but we’ve never felt it. We feel so blessed to have this city of refuge. 


A few weeks ago we were at a meeting where the focus was on developmental trauma, mental and emotional health, and children with special needs. The attendees were told multiple times that they were in a safe place, a place where they could share their hearts freely and with vulnerability. Different ones shared their stories and journeys of abuse, raising children with special needs, and dealing with traumatic brain injuries, to mention only a few topics that came up. 

As I listened with a full heart, tears threatening at times, I hoped that these hurting individuals, these wounded sheep (and who of us haven’t been wounded in some way at some time?), had other cities of refuge in which to share and unload their burdens. From various comments made at this meeting and in the past, through hundreds of contacts made across our church conference, I gather that the hurting among us are not always assured of a nearby city of refuge. 


What are some barriers on the road to a city of refuge? 

Barriers to safe places include biases, conflicts of interest, and a lack of empathy or compassion. Another real barrier is the lack of knowledge or understanding of a situation. This barrier can be overcome by listening to understand but too often our prejudice or judgement precludes this. Peer pressure and the opinions of others also prevent us from becoming an authentic city of refuge. 

The devil loves nothing better than to destroy safe places. He is the accuser of the brethren and accusations, assumptions, and imaginings are his game. 


There were six cities of refuge in Israel. From a global perspective there are six cities for us as well. They are as listed: 

  1. Jesus. “… [that] we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before… even Jesus…” (Hebrews 6:17). 
  2. Personal place of prayer 
  3. Our spouse or parent 
  4. Our leadership/pastor/s 
  5. Close friends 
  6. Our faith community 

Now let’s break this down a little: 

Parents – If there are degrees of safety, are you the safest refuge? Inside the gates of your city, does your child find affirmation, affection, and appreciation? Do you not only address their behaviors but also listen to the cry behind the behavior? Remember that behavior is communication. The waves on the surface are obvious, but do you see, understand, and address the deeper current underneath that controls those waves? Are you providing a place of authentic heart to heart connection? Providing this refuge will result in the success or failure of the home. These values, together with strong boundaries, guidance, and support provide a beautiful city of refuge.

Staff members – Do your people feel safe in confiding in you? Can they come knowing they will be heard and that all attempts will be made to understand? Or do they feel judgment and censorship? As leaders are you able to step into their shoes for a time, sit in their box so to speak, and take their sin, weakness, trial, or trauma on yourself? What happens when a “mess” develops or moves into your congregation—are you willing to get dirty, follow up, and follow through in order to truly be of compassionate service to those suffering? Jesus went out of his way and out of the box in order to speak to the heart, mind, and soul of those in trouble. He went out of his way to provide a city of refuge. 

School teachers – Do your students feel that deep down, behind that stern exterior, lies a heart full of compassion? Do they feel understood when the day is long and getting through language is like walking across a muddy pasture in oversize Muck boots (I was once the student struggling across that pasture)? Do they hear words of affirmation, appreciation, and delight? Are you their safe place when they get hurt in body or soul and need a place to cry? 

Husbands and wives – When either of you are in trouble, can you run to each other and find a safe place, a totally trustworthy city of refuge where you can share your deepest struggle, your failure, your fears? Husbands, can you listen to understand and keep your mouth closed? Wives, can you listen and withhold judgment and criticism? Wives, the walls of your safe city are respect, for the most part. Husbands, the walls of your safe place are comprised of a cherishing love. 


One last thing lest I be misunderstood. 

A safe place contains people who are empathetic, compassionate, and who validate our lived experience. This does not equal permissiveness and/or the support or acceptance of sinful or questionable behavior. Rather it simply says I can’t imagine what this has been like for you. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. Please help me understand this more. Safe places are crossed into by strong bridges, strong enough to hold the weight of whatever advice, counsel, or surrender is to follow.  

Many times there are complex dynamics when people have been hurt and are wounded and sick. Relationships are two-way streets. Hurt people hurt people. Sometimes judgements must be made, advice must be given. Painful debridement of said wounds is often part and parcel. But the point here, the big deal, the crux of the matter, is that we all, every single one of us, need safe places where we can become fully vulnerable and authentic with who we are. If we feel accepted for who we are, understood in our lived experience, and loved unconditionally, there is then a much greater chance we will also accept the counsel and help we need in whatever situation we find ourselves in.


(Readers ask me if they can forward these articles. The answer is yes; you are free to comment, criticize, subscribe and forward). 

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