Things were not the way they appeared on the outside when I was growing up. My adopted father could be so kind and a soft spoken to others. But what others didn’t see was that he was abusing me.
Many dark hours of my life were spent in an unseen and warped world with my abuser who pretended to be good when he was in front of others.
The Bible tells us that faith is the evidence of things unseen. It also tells us that the hope we cling to is an unseen hope. Jesus promises us that He has gone to prepare a home for us and that one day we will be with Him. He’s promised He’s going to wipe away all of our tears and that one day there will be no more tears, pain, or sorrow.
As an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I have longed for a place free from tears and sorrow, a place of safety that I could call home. But I’ve struggled to trust in an unseen hope that will one day deliver it to me. Because what was unseen to others growing up as a child in my life was far from hope.
How can I know that God is trustworthy and that He keeps His promises when since from my earliest years I learned that one of the most influential people in my life, my father, didn’t mean what he said and wasn’t at all what he appeared to be? The things that were unseen were out of my control, terrifying, and made me feel like a very sick person.
Diane Langberg explains in her book Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores how difficult it is for abuse victims to trust God.
God is viewed through the lens of abuse. Who he is and what he thinks about the survivor is understood based on who daddy was, or mommy, or grandfather, or youth pastor, or whoever. They have learned about love, trust, hope, faith, through the experience of sexual abuse. They have also learned about the unseen through the visible. The ins and outs of ordinary life have taught them many lessons about who God is. That is why a therapist or pastor may have the experience of speaking the truths of Scripture to a survivor, truths desperately needed, and yet finding that they seem to have no impact. They don’t go in. Many times I find that survivors can speak eloquently to me of the truths of Scripture, but on an experiential level their lives are lived out in the context of what the abuse taught them. Intellectually, truth is rooted in the Word of God. Experientially, or personally applied, the truth is rooted in the lessons of abuse.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Langberg. Intellectually I get God must of the time, but on an emotional level it’s been much more difficult to allow the truths to sink into my heart, because so much of the time I’m looking at God through the distorted lens of abuse. And God hasn’t been the only One I’ve looked at that way. My relationships with others have been on an intellectual level where it feels safe, but letting them get into my heart is another thing. Everything I learned about trust, love, hope and faith as a child, those matters of the heart, came about through an abusive relationship with a very sick man, so it’s felt safer to avoid letting my heart get involved.
But there was one relationship that I gave my heart to – the one with my abusive pastor. Early on I believed I’d found the one person whom I could trust. I told him everything about who I was, my deepest desires, my biggest fears, and my sickest secrets. He didn’t reject me. He opened up his arms and hugged me telling me over and over again how much he loved me. I’d never experienced the powerful emotions I had with him before. My heart felt like it came alive when I was with him. I didn’t understand it, but I firmly believed with all my heart that he was answered prayer and was the one person I was going to experience the love of God through. But then the relationship turned a corner. He admitted to me that he not only loved me like a father, but like a lover. He wished he could be married to me. Around six months into my relationship with him he was asking me to keep secrets about our relationship that was unseen by others.
I remember being so confused, but also feeling like what I was experiencing was strangely familiar, and I came to believe that maybe through secrets was the only way I could experience trust, love, faith and hope. It certainly fit what I’d experienced from a very early age. I didn’t realize how desperate my heart had been for an emotional connection with someone who loved and accepted me. I’d kept everyone out for so long. But this pastor really seemed to understand me more than anyone ever did. So I gave him my heart and stayed in a secret relationship with him for almost ten years.
But just as the relationship with my adopted father made me feel deeply ashamed about who I was, this secret relationship with this pastor did the same thing. I was constantly going to him for affirmation that God wasn’t angry with me and that He’d forgiven the sexual sin I’d fallen into with him. He’d reassure me over and over again that it was ok, but somehow I just could not believe it. The shame became an unbearable weight.
The one thing that did help me, however was listening to the gospel being taught online through people like Steve Brown, Tullian Tchividjian, and Zach Van Dyke. I heard the same message over and over again that God loved me and wanted to remove the burden of shame I was carrying around. There was one memory that hearing these messages continued to bring to my mind. The memory of a day in my early twenties a year after my adopted father died when the weight of shame and confusion was so great that I cried out to God and He spoke to my heart letting me know I wasn’t alone and had never been.
For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:24-27 NKJV
These verses made a profound impact in my life because for the first time ever I trusted in the unseen hope that God cared about my pain, so much so that He prayed for me when I didn’t know how to pray. I experienced for the first time that God really did love me.
Many years had passed since this day, but I never forgot it. God had gotten to a place in my heart no one else ever had. I realize now that He’d planted a seed that began to grow as the truth of who He really was began to water it. And I came to grasp the truth He wasn’t at all like my abusive father, nor was He like the pastor I’d come to idolize. This Father is all about love and truth and living in the light. And my heart yearned to be free from the burden of sin and shame that years of keeping secrets had weighed me down with. So I trusted God once again with my heart and told the truth.
If you’ve read anymore of my story you know telling the truth resulted in a lot of consequences I wasn’t at all prepared for. You can read more about it in My Story Part II.
But that’s not what I want to focus on today. I want to focus on how God has been changing the way I’ve been seeing life and relationships through the lens of His love rather than abuse. On how He’s been gently leading me to the truth of who He is and away from the lies ingrained in my being.
First of all, He’s been leading me through His word. It’s been a difficult task at times for me to understand the Bible. As a matter of fact, I’ve struggled to even read it most of the time. I still do, but it’s getting easier. I didn’t grow up in church and the little exposure I had to the truth of who He was was through legalistic belief systems. I believed if I did right that God was happy with me and things in my life would go right. But if I messed up the crap was gonna hit the fan and I’d suffer dearly. It was in many ways similar to my relationship with my adopted Dad. But when a doctor who’d shown me grace that I worked for encouraged me to read certain passages from the book of Romans my view of who God was began to change. Ironically, even through the abusive relationship with my former pastor I experienced over and over through God’s forgiveness and how He never let go of me. Even through all the secrets and shame deep down in my heart I knew He wanted better for me and was praying for me. It’s the one constant truth that never left my heart. This truth gave me the desire to read, to listen, and to seek the truth of Who He really is. I’ve needed to hear these truths over and over again to cancel out the lies of abuse and He’s been continually faithful to provide ways for me to hear them…even when going to church has been too hard – and it still is.
This past year of counseling has also had a profound impact in my life. My counselor, Sharon Hersh, has been a constant reminder of the love and grace of God in my life. Not once as she asked me to keep a secret, rather she’s encouraged me to live in the light of the truth and seek God continually for my relief. Also, I’m forever grateful to Key Life Ministries who are a bright and shining light of true faith, hope, love. I’ve come to trust over time that though the people involved in this ministry aren’t perfect, they have been faithful to teach the truth over and over again of who God really is and how much He loves us. And that’s been exactly what I’ve needed. I’m also very thankful for the faithful ministers of the love of Christ like Diane Langberg, Boz Tchividjian, who are a part of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment). They’ve taught me so much about how God cares about those who’ve been hurt and abused and how He hears our cries and will do justly on behalf of His hurting children. I know I still have a long way to go, but because of these and other resources God has provided me, I’ve come a long way, too. If you can give to these ministries please do. They are making a difference!
I know a lot of what I’m saying here I’ve said before, but even this is part of my healing process of God’s truth growing in my heart and setting me free from the lies.
If you are a victim of abuse, I know it’s hard to trust in an unseen hope when so much of what you’ve experienced is the pain of betrayal. God understands your sorrow, your fears, and your yearning for real hope. Jesus experienced those same things and He knows how hard it is. He’s praying for you. Don’t give up on yourself, because He never will.
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Ephesians 3:14-21 NKJV