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Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

Dena Johnson Martin

Dena Johnson is a former single mom to three amazing kids: Blake, Cole, and Cassie and wife to her high school friend, Roy. She strives to follow Christ each day and to lead her children to do the same. She delights in taking the every day experiences of life and turning them into biblical lessons for her children. Dena's daily prayer is simple: Lord, my life is yours. Live through me. Love through me. Parent through me. Let me decrease that you might increase. Dena is the founder of Dena Johnson Ministries, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people find beauty through the brokenness of this life. Her heart's desire is to use her own pain to point others to the power of God who redeems every hurt, every pain. You can contact Dena at You can also find her blog at Dena Johnson Ministries.


I have been so focused on my Masters Degree (I’m halfway there!!) that I have had very few opportunities just to read for my own pleasure and growth. I am currently on fall break, Roy is out of town on business, and I am taking full advantage of the opportunity to read what I want to read.

I was blessed with incredible parents, and I still have an amazing relationship with them. Sadly, I see and hear way too many stories about people who were not blessed with the same relationship I have. I hear the sad stories of abusive parents almost every day. I see the scars from these relationships even within my own close circle. I have shed many tears over those I love who are trying to find the healing they so desperately need because of the deep wounds left by the abuse of those who should love them the most.

My dear friend Phylis Mantelli had such a troubled relationship with her mom. From alcohol to drugs to strange men to physical abuse to kidnapping…she has walked through it all. Yet, she has emerged a beautiful soul madly in love with Jesus and committed to helping others overcome the pain of their childhood.

In her compelling memoir Unmothered, Phylis tells the story of how she grew up exposed to things most of us would find appalling. With gut-wrenching honesty, she walks you through her childhood to her adolescence to her adulthood with all of its trials and pain and confusion. It’s when she meets Jesus that she is finally able to come to a place of peace with her life…and her mother.

Phylis opens with the compelling story of the day she walked home to find men moving all of their belongings out of her house:

I didn’t know what would happen when I saw my mom, but I was happy, for a change, because I was walking home with a new friend and neighbor. My older brother, Brian, dragged his feet behind us.

As we strolled to my house, I saw a huge semi-truck parked at the curb. Two men carried out our couch and loaded it onto the truck. Fear rose in me. What was going on? Something bad would happen when I stepped through my front door. That was how it was in our home—always something surprising, and mostly scary.

How would you feel if you came home to discover all of your personal items were in a truck and you, your mom, and your brother moved—leaving everything you had ever known behind—with absolutely no warning? It left Phylis in a state of confusion and pain. She was lost without her dad. She didn’t understand what had happened, why her dad had suddenly disappeared from her life.

It was months before Phylis’s dad finally found her, finally re-entered her life. It would be years before she was able to escape the abuse of her mom and reunite with her dad permanently.

As the years passed, Phylis’s mother had another baby…and Phylis became a surrogate mother to little sister Kecia. When mom was out at the bars all night, Phylis was always there with her little sister, being the care-taker. She was never allowed to be a child, to do the normal little girl activities. She couldn’t have friends over or try out for childhood because someone had to watch Kecia. The frustration raged within her.

One of my favorite parts of Phylis’s story is how God was always there, always faithful. Even though her life was spiraling out of control, the pain was overwhelming, there was always the touch of the Father. Throughout the years, Phylis always turned to God, always found Him in the midst of her pain. He was never far from her, always fighting for her.

She would be an adult before she finally surrendered, before God asked her to do the unthinkable. Without ruining the story, let me throw this out there for you.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. John 13:2-5

We’ve all heard the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. But have you contemplated that he knew Judas was about to betray him…and yet He bowed at Judas’ feet and washed them anyway?

Think about it. Who has betrayed you at the deepest, most intimate level? What is the most gut-wrenching pain you have experienced in your life? Who caused it?

Could you bow at their feet, take on the form of a servant, and wash that person’s feet?

It’s a question I’ve contemplated, and I’m not sure I’m enough like Jesus to be that humble, that holy. But that was the very question presented to Phylis as her mom’s mind and body deteriorated. This woman who had heaped all types of emotional and verbal abuse on her. This woman who had never been a real mother to her. This woman who had allowed men to treat her like an object. This woman who had hurt Phylis in unspeakable ways.

Yet Jesus asked her to do the unthinkable, to become a servant to the one who had used and abused her. What would you do?

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Unmothered today to find out how Phylis responded…and how God changed her life in the process.


I once had a toxic boss. Actually, I’ve had a couple of super toxic bosses, but I’m going to focus on one in particular. Back when I was working as a floor nurse, we had a new clinical director on our floor. She brought a new team manager with her. She actually asked me to lead a unit-based council, but it seemed that she was constantly pushing back the start, asking me to schedule time to discuss it and then postponing. I didn’t completely understand. At least not at first…

This boss came across as super sweet and caring. But, the more I got to know her, the more I recognized her toxicity. The team manager she brought with her had no experience, and her answer to everything was, “Because that’s the way Jane wants it.” (Jane was not her real name.) You see, Jane brought a team manager with her who would follow her without questioning, who had no leadership experience and would do whatever she wanted done. It gave Jane complete control.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not. She wanted everything on the floor her way, all the way down to where the shampoo and conditioner were positioned in the med room. She didn’t like the way it had been, so she moved them and insisted they sit right next to the machine where we pulled medications. The problem was the new location was right where we as nurses prepared our medications to give the patients. What was more important? Having the space to accurately prepare medications or where the shampoo and conditioner set? Oh. And the team leader constantly moved them back where Jane wanted them reminding us, “That’s where Jane wants them.” She was unwittingly a puppet in Jane’s arsenal.

Toxic people have a murderous spirit, are control mongers, and/or love to hate. – Summary of Gary Thomas’s definition of toxic people

One of my fellow nurses was actually fired for insubordination. Want to know what she did? She got called away to check on a patient and accidentally left her drink next to the computer at the nurse’s station. Another one of my fellow nurses actually got in trouble because her shoes squeaked and it was disturbing to the patients. And do you know why the unit-based council never got started? Because Jane quickly realized that I wasn’t a yes-man, that I had a mind of my own and wasn’t afraid to speak up when things were wrong. She pegged my kind exterior to be the type to go along with her…but she didn’t know I had just escaped a toxic marriage and had no plans to ever be in a situation of abuse again.

Within six months of Jane starting as the director of the floor, there had been a 100%--I kid you not, every single staff member—turn-over on the floor. Not one of us remained. Whether it was because they were fired for minor infractions or because we left to escape the toxicity, every one of us left. And I have never regretted it.

Toxic people.

Sadly, they are everywhere and we must interact with them. We find them at work. We find them at church. We find them in our own families. Sometimes, we are even married to them.

Because I take an unpopular stance about divorce in the Christian arena, I often have toxic comments left on my blog or toxic messages sent my way. Sometimes I address them. Sometimes I don’t. The last really toxic person who was constantly criticizing everything I said was finally blocked. Interestingly enough, a new commenter immediately picked up where she left off. I am firmly convinced it was the same woman who just used a different email account.

It seems to me that for every Christian who is bent on seeking first the kingdom of God, there is a corresponding number of Christians bent on telling those seeking first the kingdom of God that they are seeking the kingdom in the wrong way. – Gary Thomas

Toxic people hurt. I don’t know how much time I have wasted crying over toxic people. I don’t know how many times my family has suffered because I was in a toxic environment at work. I’ve actually left two jobs in the last ten years because of toxic bosses (and I am happy to say I have an amazing group of co-workers and boss in my current position!). Sadly, I used to come home from work and my kids would just look at me. They could tell how horrendous the day had been, and they would just give me a hug and say, “We are going to bed. Love you.” They knew the toxicity had a tendency to carry over to our home.

So often, we as Christians (especially Christian women) are taught to be kind and loving and submissive in all situations. We never want to rock the boat. We just deal with it, let it eat at us, and allow ourselves to be walked all over. And when we take this approach, we are told how beautiful it is for us to suffer for the cause of Christ.

That’s a bunch of boloney!

These are the very teachings that keep so many of us in bondage to toxic people…whether it is at work or in a marriage or in church. These are the teachings that take a small segment of Scripture and apply it equally to all situations. These are the false teachings that cause women (and other Christians) to be used and abused.

When a woman forces a godly man into divorce, perhaps even divorcing him herself becase she has a mental illness or is addicted and won’t work on recovery or is cruel or just flat-out falls away from God, and we say that this man can no longer minister in a public way, we’ve exalted the shell over the soul of one of God’s sons. – Gary Thomas

Yes, Scripture teaches us to put on love above all else. But what if going along with a toxic person isn’t the most loving response? What if going along with a toxic person is actually sin? What if going along with a toxic person is actually enabling them to continue in their sinful ways?

I have to ask…how did Jesus deal with toxic people?

As I face toxic people, I’ve found myself asking this very question. Very quickly, a number of scenarios run through my mind. Think about the religious leaders. They were toxic. They were out to control people, to keep them in bondage to their set of rules. It wasn’t about God’s rules; it was about their man-made rules that expanded the Scriptures beyond what God planned. Did Jesus just go along with them? Or did He repeatedly voice what He thought?

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. Matthew 23:2-7

Jesus didn’t just pacify them; He called them out repeatedly. He called them white-washed sepulchers. He defended the woman caught in adultery and reminded all of her accusers of their own sins. He wasn’t a kind, gentle, passive man who allowed others to walk all over Him. He called them out. He overturned their tables. He walked away.

And if we are to follow His example, maybe we need to learn how to do the same.

This, my friends, is the foundation of Gary Thomas’s new book, When to Walk Away. It is a powerful and eye-opening book that looks at toxic people from a clearly Biblical perspective, understanding how Jesus himself handled toxic people. It’s not about any one area of life; it’s about all areas of life. He starts by defining toxic people so we have a clear understanding that toxicity goes well beyond being difficult occasionally. He talks about a number of arenas in which we might face toxic people: work, church, ministry, marriage, family, and even being toxic to ourselves. The book is packed with powerful reminders that God values individuals and our ability to be on mission for Him way more than He values any institution.

It is a horrific thing for a man or woman to finally admit that they married an evil, toxic person. Think about if for just a second, and you can imagine how much of a nightmare that must be. What they’ve been living through may begin to make some sense when they finally apply the correct label, but the admission alone demands some sever remedies almost too awful to contemplate. Such brothers or sisters in Christ need the church’s support more than ever, yet they often feel this support pulling away, as if evil doesn’t exist or matter. “Try harder and pray more, and your marriage will get better.” – Gary Thomas

I’ve pulled out just a few snippets of the powerful truths presented in this book. Thomas’s other book, Sacred Marriage, has been used as a tool against so many of us who have decided to walk away from toxic marriages. We’ve heard the line, God designed marriage to make us holy more than happy so many times that we’d love to punch the person who says it. Just being totally honest here.

In When to Walk Away, Thomas makes it clear that Sacred Marriage was never intended for toxic marriages; it was intended for difficult marriages where both parties are willing to look inside and surrender to Christ.

If you are struggling with toxicity, please do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of When to Walk Away. You won’t regret it.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/PKpix

I have been a faithful user of a Bible app on my phone for nearly ten years now, but I’ve recently been craving a return to a physical Bible. Don’t get me wrong: I love having my phone in the palm of my hand any time, any place. I love waking up in the morning and conveniently using my phone without having to turn on lights to read my Bible.

But there’s something about being able to turn the physical pages, take notes in the margins, hold my Bible close that I simply miss when using my phone.

I am a member of the Biblegateway Blogger Grid. If you haven’t used, I encourage you to take a close look. When I write my blogs, I always use BIblegateway to copy my scriptures. I use it frequently to study different concepts, cross-reference, and do a variety of research. It is my best friend when it comes to using scripture in my writing.

Recently, Biblegateway sent an email offering members of the Blogger Grid an opportunity to receive a free Life Application Study Bible…and I jumped all over the offer! The Life Application Study Bible has always been a favorite, and it is known as one of the absolute best study Bibles on the market. To be honest, I expected to receive a cheap, paperback copy of the Bible. That’s what I usually receive when I take these opportunities to review a book.

But I received a free, leather-bound study Bible in the mail!

I was so excited!

I’ve been flipping through the pages of this beautiful Bible, and I am so incredibly impressed. Have you ever read a portion of Scripture—maybe over a number of days—and then wondered how it all fit together? For example, in the book of Job, you have these friends who come to visit Job. They give him a variety of different stories, but by the time I’ve read through all of the poetic features, I forget who said what. This study Bible gives this amazing table that summarizes what each friend said, how they helped Job, Job’s response…and how God responded to each of them! It’s a beautiful and beneficial table that puts the entire book at your fingertips with a high-level overview.

As I flipped through this Bible, I had to go to Malachi 2.

Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty.

So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. Malachi 2:15-16

I have to start with pointing this out: do you notice how the New International Version now translates the phrase always attributed to God as “God hates divorce…?” There has been debate for years over whether the Hebrew actually attributes those words to God or to man. The experts appear to be moving away from attributing the words to God and focusing on the man who is unfaithful and hurts his wife. This translation is more in line with the context of the verses.

Which brings me back to the Life Application Bible. Each book has a thorough introduction that points out key themes, verses, people, places. It tells the author, the date it was written, and provides some information on the setting. Scripture cannot be separated from the context and culture in which it was written, or we will miss the true meaning behind the words. We will misinterpret and use Scripture to hurt people, to judge improperly. We will fail miserably in following God’s true plans for His word.

Honestly, the more I flip through the pages of this Bible, the more excited I get. It is rich, full of incredible information to make the words of Scripture come alive, make more sense than ever before. My only complaint might be that as I get older, the words seem to be getting smaller. I suppose turning on a bright lamp and wearing my glasses might help, but I’m a little too stubborn to admit my eyesight might be getting worse as I get older.

If, like me, you miss the feel and smell of a physical book, I must highly recommend the new Life Application Study Bible. It is rich, filled with incredible features and tables that complement the texts. It will give you a better, deeper, more complete understanding of this precious gift God has given us in the form of His word.

I hope you will join me in digging deeper into this treasure!