April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As a survivor of long-term sexual abuse, this is a highly personal topic, and dear to my heart. I have have been fortunate enough to work through my pain through extensive therapy, but many victims have not been so lucky.
Today I’d like to publish the first draft copy of one of the chapters in my upcoming book, Scandalous Grace. This is a very sensitive chapter; it details the day when I was assaulted by my father when I was 12 years old and how over a decade later, I returned to the very spot where it occurred and I asked God the very raw and real question: “why?”. His answer surprised me, to say the least.
I have debated all month whether or not I wanted to publish this now. It’s been 14 years after all, why speak out now you may ask? Because, I didn’t have a voice as a twelve year old and by speaking out now, I am not only exercising my current right to speak, I am finally giving my 12 year old self her voice.
I also what to publish this now as Resurrection Sunday just a few days away, and I thought this was the perfect time to talk about how the cross redeems our pain and how victims of assault can begin to heal.
My journey to healing is my journey; if you are a victim your journey will look different from mine. But I hope by being vulnerable and sharing my story with you, perhaps you’ll find some hope and encouragement for your own path of healing. Please know that, wherever you are right now in your journey, you have my upmost respect and solidarity. You are a warrior. 💗
***Trigger Warning. This chapter contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse. ***
I awake screaming. Heat beat racing. Fists clenched. I had been running, running.
My eyes tear open in the midst of my horror to finally snap me back into the present reality. I’m in my bed. My body is twisted up in suffocating sheets. As I glance around my room and become aware of my surroundings, my heart beat begins to slow. I am safe.
I gingerly unbind myself from the confining chaos of covers and hesitantly arise out of bed. My mind is still spinning. I need some fresh air. I walk out to my front porch.
It was an idyllic spring morning. The weather was positively glorious. The birds sang their sweet choruses to heaven, and the wild wind carried the enchanting smell of lilacs. The blazing orb of sun sent golden rays peeking through cotton candy clouds. Yes, it was the type of day that would normally make hearts soar.
But this morning my heart did not soar. Instead, it was heavily burdened.
The nightmares had been strong lately. It had been over 12 years and yet the memories still haunted me. The scene flashes before my eyes.
His hands. Searching. Groping. Violating. I need to run, to flee. To use my legs to carry me away from the desperate feeling of being trapped!
My breath became heavy once again and sweat beaded on my brow as I recalled the memory once more. The question burned inside of me. “Will this nightmare of a very different spring day 12 years ago haunt me forever?”
I step inside to make my daily cup of tea. My muscles go through the motions on autopilot but my mind is still fixated on the dream, the memory, of that fateful day.
It had happened at the iconic Truman Library. Being that I had lived just a couple of miles away my entire life, I of course, had never actually been inside the library for their famous guided walkthroughs like the many tourists that came to visit the former president’s home town. No, for my family, the Truman Library lawn was simply the best place in town to fly kites. Yes, kites. The vast lawn swept down like a scene from The Sound Of Music and ended with a small grove of trees at the bottom. It was perfect for kite-flying. The wind carried just right on wild Spring days and the endless sky was unmarred by power-lines or light poles.
It was a beautiful place to visit. Yet for me, it had now become another piece of a dark past, the place where one of my worst memories had occurred. In recent years whenever I had to drive by the library, the panic attacks would begin. I instantly became that little girl again. Helpless. Vulnerable. Trapped.
But today, I was no longer a little girl. I was supposed to be free. Then why did I not feel so?
I had endured months of strenuously counseling sessions and I was nearly a year and one half into my Journey to Grace. I had expected the nightmares to stop at this point, but no, they were stronger than ever.
“I’ve got to get some closure to this”, I thought. “I need to make a new memory. To change what that place means to me.”
And so, with a new determination in my step, I made the impulsive decision to go back to that terrifying and dark place. I would face it head on. Yes, I was determined. I would find Jesus there.
I arrive at the library and I find myself shaking, nearly paralyzed from fear. I had tried to give myself a strong pep-talk the entire drive over. But now I just sit in my car gulping in deep breaths.
“Just do it, Emily,” I finally say to myself.
I grab my earbuds and stick my phone in my back pocket. Music will help.
After walking a fair distance through parking lots, I finally arrive at the peak of the vast hill. I stop. The wind whips my hair as I contemplate what I am about to do.
I take off my shoes. I run. Arms outstretched, my feet carry me away, much as I had desired in my dream. Only this time I was running straight into my fear – not away from it.
I reach the bottom of the hill and collapse. Knees sharply crash to the ground bringing physical significance to my emotional pain. I look around in stunned silence. What now? My eyes glance over to the spot I had lain on the freshly mown grass those 12 years before. The scene replays for the one thousandth time in my mind.
My kite soared to the tops of the clouds and in my accomplishment I lay down to gaze upon it. Following my lead I see that father decided to lie down as well. We lay there side by side and I begin to daydream. It was just us two on the lawn that day. Not a soul was nearby to interrupt the daydream. I filled my lungs with a deep breath of sweet smelling air. The untamed wind roared in my ears. The world seemed perfect. I tried to imagine what the cloud above me resembled. Was is an elephant? Or a polar bear?
But suddenly the daydream came to a screeching halt as an icy cold fear crept over my body. Wait, what is he doing?! Why is he leaning over me like that? The weight of his body began to crush me. His hot breath hovered over my neck. He kisses me and whispers that he loves me. His rough, stubbly cheeks scratched mine. But this was no kiss of fatherly affection. No, this was a kiss of deceit, of violation. Panic struck me stiff. I was trapped. He pushed his hips deeper into mine. I squirmed, trying to break free. My mind raced. Was this the moment he would finally go too far? His hands. Where are his hands?! I didn’t feel them yet, he wasn’t touching me as far as I could tell, so I must be ok, right? Suddenly, as quickly as the embrace began, it was over.
I snap out of the recollection and come back to today. Shivers run down my spine as I gaze around the very spot on the lawn where the very real nightmare had once happened. Not much has changed. The grass is still perfectly manicured. The view of the sky still unmarred by manmade objects.
Where is Jesus in this moment? I pray. “Help me!” It is all I can muster. But even the smallest cry is heard by our Father.
“Dance.” is all He said.
Yes. Dance. I must dance. I open my worship playlist and press the volume high. Perhaps I can drown out the nightmare with music.
I slowly arise as the first worship song begins to play. Arms outstretched once again I close my eyes.
I move. Dance. Glorify. Time ceases as I am swept away in my act of worship.
The Enemy despises worship. He flees when he sees it. It is stronger than any rebuke. Yet, in this moment I am more focused trying to chase the memories away than the Enemy.
I know not how long I danced. But suddenly I find that my knees have buckled once again. My face connects to the earth and tears begin to flood my eyes. They mix with the dirt smearing my cheeks with mud. I sob. I scream. My body shakes from the deep pain burning inside me and I finally decide to let God know what I really think. I don’t hold back as I spit out my words in an angry flurry.
“Where were you that day?! How could you stand idly by and allow it?! Why didn’t you stop it?!”
My cheek still pressed in the dirt, my eyes wander to the miniature grove of trees. There. The middle tree. Yes, that’s the one.
I leapt up from the ground. Dad was definitely acting worse than usual that day. I had known of my father’s gross immorality for years. I had found the pornography on one more than one occasion myself. I had heard the stories of prostitutes. He had begun to be sexually abusive to me when I turned 10 years old — though at that point it had been just “small” things like inappropriate comments, grabbing of clothes, slapping me, and breaking down the door into my bathroom while I was undressed. Though I wouldn’t discover until I was well into my twenties through counseling that these actions fit the legal definition of sexual abuse, pedophilia, and even incest, I did still know at the time the abuse occurred that I was being violated in some sexual way, and for nearly 10 years I felt like an object for my father to play with — a used piece of my dad’s pornography.
I hated every minute of it. I constantly felt intense shame. Was I causing him to lust? I tried to avoid him. To create space. But somehow his hands always found a way to get close to me and his sexual comments hurled toward me like a poisonous javelin. I had no lock on my bedroom door, no way to escape his predatory behavior. I lived in constant fear and a deep, sick feeling of helplessness harbored in my core and never left.
I walked away from where my father was on the grass and looked around the lawn. I needed some space. Perhaps, I thought, I could hang out by the trees. I’d always wanted to climb a tree. I raced to the grove and picked the one right in the middle. My legs catapulted me to the top. I sat on a horizontal branch as if it was a chair and my legs dangled over the ground far below. The feeling of independence compensated for how powerless I felt. But it lasted for only a moment.
Oh no! I am stuck. I can’t get down! It’s too far to jump. Now what?!!! My heart sank as I saw him approaching to find me. I needed help, but how could I ask for it? I didn’t want to be near him. I had no choice.
“I’m stuck. Can you help me down?”
I lived to regret those words. I had expected him to simply place him hands on my waist and lift me off to the branch and onto firm ground. But instead he came up close, face to face with me. His arms engulfed my skinny body. It was awkward as I tried to scoot off the branch. But he wasn’t helping me down as I had asked. He held me on the branch with my body facing his. Then suddenly I noticed. His hands! No! They are on me. On areas no father’s hands should be. I must escape! I tried to move, to get away, but I was trapped. His hands don’t need to be there!
They lingered. They groped. I succumbed.
It happened in a moment. My innocence stolen. I felt sick. I felt violated. The thoughts embedded themselves in my mind: I am helpless. cI am a victim. I am now a statistic.
As I come back to the present moment, more tears sting my eyes with the final recollection.
Twelve years ago, I was molested. It happened in a tree.
My sobs at last die to silence. My aching shoulders slowly raise my burdened body from the hard ground. With care I draw my head upward and my eyes look to heaven in desperation.
“Talk to me! Where were you? Why didn’t you stop it?!”
My ears strain for the answer. He remains silent.
“Please! I need a word. Just one word!”
More moments pass. At last I hear it.
Realization crashes into me like a tidal wave. Redeemed? That is all? How can that be enough? As I try to process this eight letter word in my brain I suddenly remember something I once heard on the radio.
“When Jesus suffered He redeemed all our sufferings. He gave them meaning and purpose. To change us. To bring us closer to Him. To remind us that we do not belong to this world, but are made for greater things. He did not die to remove our sufferings. On the contrary, He told us to pick up our crosses and follow Him. In that command He was telling us that we will indeed suffer, but our suffering could lead us back to God – in the same way that His suffering led us all to God”.
He redeemed all our sufferings. I said it over and over. But the burdening question still kept coming back, “Why?!”
Why do we even need to suffer to begin with? What’s the point of agony and sorrow? What purpose can evil have in this world?
We humans are so surrendered by pain, evil, and suffering.
The messy divorce.
The death of a child.
The dream shattered.
The sixth miscarriage.
The painful rejection.
The natural disaster.
But what good could come out of such darkness? Where is the hope?
I believe it lies in one word: Abundance.
Many Christians and pastors frequently preach about the abundant life Jesus promised to bring. If your experience was like mine, you were probably led to believe that abundance was based mostly on material things. All one has to do is watch one of those T.V. evangelists for five minutes to get the picture. “If you’re good enough and/or faithful enough, then God will bless you with immense pleasure and happiness! You will be healed of any illness, you will have great wealth showered upon you, and you will experience great success in all your endeavors!”
Oh, dear friend. Please don’t fall for this trap. I honestly believe if Jesus were here to witness this today, He would be fashioning a few more whips for brandishing these false prophets.
God’s Word is true — Jesus did come so we may have life abundantly! But the abundant life is far different than what so many Christians have been falsely led to believe, hope, and long for.
The abundant life is not about our comfort or the things around us or even the relationships in our lives. Those things are so short lived and so easily lost. They may bring joy for a short time, but they can never bring true fulfillment. They may dull your pain, but they can never really take it away, not to mention, these earthly pleasures are so convenient for the comparison game.
Is your heart heavy because you see other people’s lives that seem so effortless and you wonder why you must try so hard?
Why does that person have a high-paying, steady job practically handed to them, and yet, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t even get the most meager employment?
Why does she get pregnant without even planning to and you’re gong on four years of excruciating infertility?
Why does your non-believing neighbor seem to have a great, close-knit family and meanwhile you’re left with a broken heart over your way-ward child? You gave so much effort and yet, you seem to be the one lacking in so-called success.
Have you wondered if God was disappointed in you and was perhaps even trying to discipline you by means of your loss? I understand. I’ve wondered too.
I can’t count how many times I’ve compared myself and my experience with chronic illness to someone with nearly perfect health, including my own family members. It seems so unfair. Why do they get to experience a life without physical pain and I do not? It doesn’t seem fair that they barely know what a hospital room looks like and for me, those sterile white walls are my second home.
I’ve wondered so many times if this disease was somehow my fault. “Why am I the one to suffer here? What am I doing wrong? Am I not Godly enough? Am I not good enough? Where is my abundance?! Life shouldn’t be this hard!”
If you have uttered these tearful words, I hear you. But take heart, friend! Rest in the truth.
Your abundance is found is Jesus and Jesus alone!
Abundance does not equal easy. Even while Jesus promised the abundant life, He also warned His children to expect heavy sorrow. Even His faithful disciples and followers were not spared from the pain of this world.
Paul was shipwrecked twice, beaten, starved, and thrown into prison.
Stephen was stoned.
John the Baptist was beheaded.
We see it over and over. So many of the New Testament writers experienced great hardship, pain and loss. Most lost everything — including their very lives.
The abundant life does not mean that a life with Jesus equals a life without pain. Rather, it means that Jesus will always be there, even in the midst of the pain.
I think back to the memory of that fateful day. Perhaps Jesus WAS there that day. Perhaps He had not abandoned me. But if He was there, He must have seen. In anguish my voice rose to heaven once again.
“I was crying inside that day, Jesus. I was scared. I was hurting. How could you just stand by and watch as this evil abuse was taking place against me?”
His answer stunned me.
“I right there with you, crying too,” He said.
Jesus, God Almighty was crying for me? As I rolled this image around in my brain I began to understand.
Jesus is not callous to our pain. No tear we ever shed is lost to our Father. For surely, if He counts every hair on our head, then He counts every tear as well. So yes! Almighty God, the creator of the world sees us! He knows where we are! He sees every single tear that falls from our eyes. Not even one is lost as it escapes our swollen tear ducts and streams down our anguished faces. Every single one is captured in the palm His hand.
So yes, it hurts God’s heart to see His children in pain. But you might wonder “Well, if this evil act pained God, why didn’t He stop it?” Because when God created man He gave us a beautiful gift, the gift of choice, and He loves us too much to take that gift away. God was not going to take away my father’s choice to abuse me in that moment, or for years to come, but He did promise He would never leave or forsake me.
Yes, Jesus was grieved and angered by that evil choice, but He stayed there, right beside me, He grieved there with me, and even in that moment, He was promising that even this pain had been redeemed.
So what is this redemption? And how does it equal abundance?
Romans 5:3-4 holds the answer to the burning question.
“. . . but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Paul penned this verse right in the ugly, messy midst of his pain and suffering. Yet, there was hope. For despite the darkness, Paul’s faith, like most of the New Testament writers, grew profoundly through his trials, losses, and grief.
Paul also penned one of the most well known verses in Scripture, Romans 8:28.
“And we know God causes everything to work together for the good of those that love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”
When we first read this verse it’s easy to look at the hard, painful things in life and wonder how in the world they can be considered good. Well-meaning friends or pastors may have cheerily quoted you this verse in difficult times of life, and if you’re like me, instead of helping, their so-called encouragement actually just added more salt to the wound. This doesn’t feel good. Why must I force myself to be happy about it?
There’s another verse that frequently gets misquoted in the name of “encouragement”. I’ve lost count of how many of my Christian friends have happily quoted to me right in the mist of my sorrow, “God will never give you more than you can bear”. It a nice Christian way of saying, “Buck up, Honey, you should be able to withstand this. God won’t let you get overwhelmed.” Ugh.
This picture-frame perfect quote comes from the verse, 1 Corinthians 10:13. But the way Christians frequently quote it is so misguided. Paul was actually speaking about sinful temptations. Because of the Holy Spirit within us, we will always have ultimate power over Satan to say no to sin. Whether we actually use that power or not is a different matter.
The burden Paul was speaking of was certainly not the burden of pain and suffering. For if we are truly strong enough to withstand all things on our own, why would we really need Jesus?
This, my friend, is where the promise of Romans 8:28 lies! All things truly do work together for good for the more suffering we endure, the more cherished things we lose in our life here on earth, the closer we will be forced to draw to Christ and consequently develop a richer relationship with Him!
THIS is what makes our lives exceedingly abundant! The relationship!
He doesn’t want the perfect you. He wants the imperfect you. The broken you. He wants you to come to Him with your sorrows and questions and imperfections and brokenness so He can heal you. Comfort you. Love you.
So yes! There IS purpose for the pain, the loss. That purpose is to bring us to our knees in front of our Fathers feet, the only true, lasting source of comfort in this world. To make us depend on Him, the only true source of security.
As children of God, when we are suddenly struck with a painful blow, we have someone to cry to. When we are betrayed by our fellow-man, we have a loyal Friend to turn to. When we find ourselves weighed down by the evil and injustice in this world, we have a Father to pray to. That’s abundance! That’s the priceless relationship.
Bask in this truth, friend. You are not prey to Satan, you are not not left forgotten in the midst of your pain. No, you are a valued child of the King. Your Father is always there for you. He loves you. He cherishes you. He intercedes for you. He protects you. He delights in you. This is peace, as well as hope. This is joy, as well as security.
THIS is what makes our lives exceedingly abundant! As children of God, we have the ability to look beyond the pain in this world and to instead bask in the hope of the goodness and never-ending love of Jesus!
Will there be days where we will struggle with believing in His goodness? Of course! And you know what? That’s okay. I don’t think that God is ever threatened by our unbelief or our questions. Instead He welcomes us to ask them. For it’s in the very moments when we cry out “Why?!”, just as I did on the lawn that day, that Jesus has the opportunity to pull us in closer and give us new assurances of His promises.
My eyes return to the tree. That tree was the emblem of my pain. Dare I face it?
I slowly lift my body from the hard ground. Eyes fixated, step by step, I approach the tree. With fear raging inside, I lift my hand to touch it. My palm slowly collides with the rough bark and with it, my present pain collides with the past. I lean my forehead on the peeling husk and I count my breaths.
My lips somehow form the words. The three most powerful words in existence.
“I forgive you.”
My breath gives way to sobs again as I repeat the words over and over. Each time brings more release.
“I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.”
Release. Yes. The depths of pain that have harbored in me for those 12 years began to emerge – no, tear, from my broken heart.
After a moment I carefully lower myself to sit on the shaded ground. I look up to the top of the tree. I have no thought. No words. It has all escaped me. But just then, a song I had never heard before started playing in my earbuds.
There is a hill I cherish
Where stood a precious tree
The emblem of Salvation
The gift of Calvary
A tree. A precious tree. The emblem of Salvation.
I have a tree. A very different tree. The emblem of my pain. The place where my innocence was stolen. The place where a nightmare was engraved into my heart.
Two trees. One brings death, the other, life.
The word Jesus had spoken to me only minutes before rang loud in my ears once again, Redeemed. And at that moment, I knew. Jesus redeemed the pain that occurred on my tree on His very back that bore His own tree. That 2,000 year old tree, the cross, Jesus’s emblem of pain gives me freedom from my own tree, my own emblem of pain.
What is your tree, dear friend? What burden have you been carrying for too long? What is the emblem of your pain that tears your flesh into raw shreds on your back as you continue to carry it?
Whatever your cross, I want to tell you that Jesus redeemed it on THE cross. He wants to take the weight of that burden, that pain, that fear, that burning heartache away from you. He wants you to give it to Him.
In fact, this giving over is exactly what forgiveness is.
We Christians have been taught a false view of forgiveness for so long, which is one reason why we sometimes struggle with it so. We believe that forgiving someone is somehow “letting them off the hook” and giving them an undeserved pass. We feel as if it’s removing any validation of our pain. But here’s the truth.
Forgiveness is not forgetting the pain someone has caused you. It’s not excusing their sin or letting them off the hook. It’s taking them off of YOUR hook and putting them onto GOD’s hook.
So transfer your burdens onto God, dear friend. He can carry them far better than you can.
Your Father is eager to hear your heart. Tell him your pain.
Tell him about the betrayal you have experienced.
Tell him how the loss of that life-long dream hurts so much you can barely breathe.
Tell him how confused you are that someone so close to you could, in an instant, shatter your world.
Tell Jesus these things. Give Him an account of the wrong done to you. And then trust Jesus for justice. Our Father is a loving, merciful Father, but He is also a God of justice. There will come a day when the unrepentant person who has done evil against you will be forced to give an account of their actions. They will have no more excuses, no ability to lie. And justice will be served. Cling to that hope, dear friend, and let go of your cross.
I rise from the ground one final time. I place my hand on the tree once again and utter two more simple, yet powerful words.
I left Truman Library that day with renewed hope. My restless heart had been satisfied. My open wounds were transformed to scars. Yes, they are scars I will bear for a lifetime, but they do not control me anymore.
That night I slept soundly. The nightmares had vanished — never to return again.
“Don’t be afraid to show your scars; for they do no good when they are hidden. They are there to be a reminder, not how much you were hurt, but of how much you have healed.”