This is a story I never wanted to share, that in fact, I always felt I should hide. God has really worked in me to open my life and my past to hopefully encourage others.
I was sexually abused by my neighbor. How did it affect me? I blamed myself. I began to build a mental prison, shutting down emotionally, becoming extremely introverted, hardly speaking to anyone outside my immediate family.
In today’s world I would probably have been diagnosed with severe anxiety and clinical depression. I had stomach problems that were diagnosed as “nervous stomach” because they couldn’t find a physical cause. Teachers expressed their deep concern in my report cards.
This well used quote helped me see it differently: “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. When we own our story, get real with God where we need healing, and share it with someone, we glorify God. Any time I get fearful about sharing my story I remember that the devil hates it when we reach out and tell our story. The devil and shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shameful experience is to hide or bury our story.”
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord. Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message. So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands, so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him” (Jeremiah 18:1-4).
We often question why God allows certain things in our life. I have many happy memories of my childhood, but there is one dark cloud that hangs over my childhood. It began when my family moved from Manhattan to Queens. It seemed perfect: There was a farm behind our house, and I remember hearing roosters crow every morning, believe it or not. Little did my parents know that they were moving into a neighborhood full of pornography, alcohol and domestic violence. My parents were naïve; having grown up in the rural South, there were no strangers to them, only friends they hadn’t yet met. All the kids on my block played together, young and old, spending time at each other’s homes. My parents had no reason to suspect danger was lurking close.
One bright summer day, I went over to play at a neighbor’s house, but I came back changed forever. Sexual abuse of a child is never expected and rarely suspected. My innocence and trust were lost that day. I lived with humiliation, fear, guilt and torment from that day forth. These things weren’t talked about openly like they are now. When my mother realized what was going on, she told me, “Don’t ever talk about this to anyone!” Somehow that communicated to me that I was to blame for what happened. I honestly don’t know what actions my parents took, but the abuse stopped. Charges were never filed, and we all pretended it never happened; but the problem was, it did happen. I was left with a deep, dark secret that I carried for years.
How did it affect me? I blamed myself. I began to build a mental prison, shutting down emotionally, becoming extremely introverted, hardly speaking to anyone outside my immediate family. In today’s world I would probably have been diagnosed with severe anxiety and clinical depression. I had stomach problems that were diagnosed as “nervous stomach” because they couldn’t find a physical cause. Teachers expressed their deep concern in my report cards.
Yet, as bad as it was, it could have been worse. Victims of sexual abuse often develop eating disorders, become suicidal or cut themselves, act out sexually, or turn to drugs and alcohol. Fortunately, by God’s grace, I didn’t succumb to any of these things, but I was a seriously broken, miserable, little girl whose joy and laughter had been stolen. And then, someone reached out to me. My best friend since kindergarten, Doris, invited me to her church youth group when I was 11 or 12 years old. Even though I was shy I went. I was getting tired of my prison.
My life had come to resemble Joseph’s. Remember him? He was beaten, mistreated, sold into slavery by his own brothers, and sent to prison. Remember how God sent a famine? He used that famine to free Joseph. Well, God created a famine in my soul. The trigger was the abuse, but it just revealed the God-shaped hole in my heart, the void that no thing or person can fill. So I went to those youth meetings, and after a few months passed I began to make friends and hear about the Bible and Jesus for the first time. The youth group was going on a special trip that summer to the Billy Graham Crusade. I had no idea who Billy Graham was or what a crusade was, and if I had I probably wouldn’t have gone. But I went because my friends were going. It was my eternal appointment with God that summer afternoon in Shea Stadium. I heard Rev. Graham say, “No matter what you’ve done or what has been done to you, Christ wants to come into your heart, wash your sin away, and make you whole and clean!” That was good news to me, and it still is the best news I’ve ever heard. I couldn’t wait to go forward and pray to accept Jesus Christ as my Savior. I felt forgiven, clean, set free. I knew God loved me just the way I was.
The account of Joseph’s life ends with a stirring statement: “What man meant for evil, God meant for good” (Genesis 50:20). God put people in my life—Sunday school teachers, public school teachers—who cared about me, encouraged me, and helped me. He gave me a love of music, art and literature, which were a solace and a comfort to me, and still are. God gave me a career in higher education, and in the church in Sunday school and vacation Bible school. He gave me a wonderful and loving husband, children and grandchildren. He has blessed me beyond measure.
But I was still having trouble “getting past my past.” I would get flashbacks from over forty years ago. I felt like I was losing my mind. The book of James explains it all: the enemy seeks to destroy and devour us. The battlefield is our mind. I realized that, in many ways, I was like a soldier who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Lord dealt with me at a women’s retreat. We broke into small prayer circles and, as other women shared some of their struggles, He gave me the courage to share about my flashbacks. I wanted to pray for the flashbacks go away. Instead, one of the sisters asked me, “Have you ever forgiven your abuser? Have you ever thanked God for using this in your life?” I was frankly outraged. Feelings bubbled up that I didn’t even know were there. How can you forgive the unforgiveable, the unacceptable? How could I thank God for the pain and fear this person had caused in my life? Yet as her questions burned in my heart and mind, I knew she was right. I could hear God whispering, “Beth, did I forgive you?”
Remember the account of Peter asking, “Lord how many times shall I forgive someone who wrongs me?” The Lord answered, “Seventy times seven.” Basically, forgive as many times as it takes. I hadn’t consciously held bitterness or anger toward my abuser, but there is was. When I prayed and said, “Lord I forgive him,” and “thank You for using this to draw me to You,” the power this had over my life was gone. Little by little the flashbacks went away and truly I was not held in the grip of memories. I realized later, as I did Tammy Brown’s in-depth study on forgiveness, Healed and Set Free, that forgiveness doesn’t mean that something didn’t happen and that it wasn’t wrong. But I learned that forgiveness is a choice not to allow the person or situation to control my present or my future. It is a choice to obey God.
The Bible says, “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). God allows things in our life to refine us, to purify us and to draw us close to Him—to help us become vessels of honor—to do good works for Him. God wants to use me; He wants to use you. Your God story is unique. It is personal, individual, like no one else’s. I have had the privilege of sharing my testimony on three mission trips in Russia and on two Native American reservations in South Dakota. I would never have believed that I would ever tell my “shameful” story to anyone, never mind around the world. But what man meant for evil, God meant for good.