Life has many important lessons that can affect our relationships, our family life and how we view ourselves. One such lesson for me was learning to forgive the two people in my life that were supposed to be the ones to love and protect me from harm. When a child suffers betrayal and abuse at the hands of her parents it affects the rest of her life and there is only one path to the place of healing, peace and freedom.
By all appearances, I was an average child growing up in a low-income suburban home outside Detroit, Michigan. I tried hard to be a good student in school so I was shocked the day a school counselor came into my high school English class and asked me to come to her office. As I gathered my books, I remember thinking that this woman was not my counselor but my sister’s counselor. Myrtle was a year younger than me and an older brother also attended this school. I had two grown brothers living at home as well. As I quietly walked to the counselor’s office, I assumed that my sister must be in some kind of trouble and needed me.
The office was empty so I was more puzzled than ever. The counselor began to ask me questions about my family, then specifically about my father and one brother. The questions became more personal and I realized that Myrtle must have told her about the abuse I was suffering at home (although Myrtle and I had never spoken of it). As the conversation continued I began to realize for the first time that my father and brother were also abusing Myrtle. I answered every question but it never entered my mind that my father’s actions would finally be confronted and the truth about the abuse be brought out into the open. The reason I had no hope of this happening was because “the secret,” no matter who knew, was always kept a secret.
My father was an alcoholic and my mom an enabler so my view of a “normal” family was twisted early on. My first clear memory of my dad abusing me was at eight years of age. This event was impressed on my heart because while it was happening an aunt (my mom’s sister), came into the room. She said and did nothing. I later told my mom and her response was, “this will be our secret.” For a time I continued to tell my mom about each occurrence regardless of my father’s threats if I told anyone. I couldn’t understand the secrecy he was demanding since he used little or no discretion in regards to where we were or what family member was nearby, unless it was my mom. At one point I confided to my mom that “our secret” now included an older brother. Once again, my mom did nothing so I stopped talking about it with her until age 13 when something alarming forced me to bring the subject up once again.
“What would you say if I told you I might be pregnant?” My point blank question came when she and I were alone in the car. I had missed my monthly cycle and was frightened so I knew I needed to tell someone. As I fought back tears, Mom did not even question if I had had sex with a boy because she knew I had never had a boyfriend. Her only response was, “I will support you with whatever decision you make about it.” It seemed that “the secret” would go on and even the birth of a child would not be reason enough to expose it. By God’s mercy, I was not pregnant. This event motivated my mom to tell the secret to her pastor. However, the pastor never reported it to the authorities. The one good thing that came out of it was that my father must have been informed about the pregnancy scare so the abuse stopped for me, but not for my sister (it would be a few years later until I had knowledge of this fact).
I was taken to church as a child but since I did not see Christianity in my home, I did not have a clear understanding of who Jesus was. Many people who have suffered the same kind of abuse I have ask the question, “where was God while I was being victimized?” That question is not something I struggled with a lot and I think the reason is because I felt God very close to me when the abuse was happening. I felt a peace in the midst of the storm so I knew that He must be real if His presence could be so tangibly evident during such horrible circumstances. I am not talking about a tranquil feeling that most people feel from time to time. I am talking peace that surpasses all understanding; an indescribable peace that I would feel every time the storm came.
As the interview came to a close, the school counselor gave me instructions about what I should expect to happen the next day, but it took a few minutes for me to grasp what she was saying: “tomorrow I want you to come to school as you normally do, however, you will not be going home at the end of the school day. You and your sister will be taken to a safe place. Do not mention this to anyone at home, act like it is a regular weekday evening. At the time you normally arrive home from school tomorrow, police officers will come to your home to question your father.”
Those two days will always be imprinted in my memory. I didn’t know whether to believe the counselor or if this was just one more time that someone knew the secret but nothing would be done. So I went home, ate dinner, went to bed, woke up the next morning and went to school. Towards the end of the school day I was called to go to the counselor’s office again. My sister was waiting there and together, we were escorted out of the school by police officers and taken to a group home. I didn’t like it there and struggled with feelings of anger; I had done nothing wrong and yet it was me and my sister that were being treated like the criminals! Why weren’t we allowed to stay at home and my father and brother taken and put somewhere?
While at the group home a social worker was assigned to us and contacted our relatives to see if any of them would take us. We were placed with my aunt (the one who witnessed the abuse) and her husband. Myrtle and I were not there long before I realized that my aunt and uncle were blaming me for the abuse Myrtle suffered. I was so hurt and angry that they would add guilt to my shame. I was angry at my father and brother and knew I could never forgive them for what they had done to me. I was angry at my mom for keeping the secret all those years and never once protecting me from my abusers. I was angry at the pastor who knew what was happening but never did a thing to help me and Myrtle. I would never forgive any of them!
I was able to remain in the same school I was attending and one day my counselor asked how I liked living with my aunt and uncle. I mentioned the accusations they were making and was told that I would be moved to a new place very soon. I didn’t realized it at the time but God was working in the background in ways that could never have been considered a coincidence.
While living with my aunt, my sister and I had found our way to a church just a block from the house. Around this same time a couple also started attending this church: Glenn and Jessica. He was a pastor that was on a temporary sabbatical while attending graduate school. This couple was also foster parenting and we were drawn to each other right away. I told them about where Myrtle and I were living and that we were waiting for a foster home to open up for us. Strangely, Jessica also worked for a foster care agency at this time. After much prayer, Glenn and Jessica felt Jesus told them to give me and my sister a home with their family. So, very quickly our case was transferred to the agency she worked for and we were placed with our foster parents a week before Christmas. I thought for sure that Myrtle and I were not going to get any gifts for Christmas nor would I get anything for my birthday – which was also on December 25th, but they surprised us with Christmas gifts in the morning and birthday gifts that evening for me. God sent Glenn and Jessica to us just when we needed them and I began to see how much He cared about me and that I could trust Him.
I began a new life in the middle of my junior year of high school. I had known about Jesus for many years but now I was getting to know Jesus. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but I came to the place to trust Jesus as my Savior and surrender my life to Him. I finally understood He was not a religion, but He wanted a relationship with me. My faith grew as I learned to pray, study the Bible and became active in the church and youth group.
Life seemed to pass quickly and before I knew it I was soon to graduate and had to make some decisions about my future. My foster parents were moving to Wisconsin to pastor a church there and offered to let me go with them. I did not want to go! My plan was to stay in Michigan but I knew moving was God’s will for me. He reminded me that I had surrendered my will to Him and needed to obey. I graduated high school on June 10th and we moved June 12th. What a culture shock going from a city to the country, but I met the youth group at church, made new friends and quickly felt at home.
In October I was invited to a singles Bible study and met a young farmer, Glen and his 3 yr. old son. To make a long story short, Glen and I were soon dating and within a few months we set a wedding date for March 1 of the following year. However, Jesus knew I needed to have old wounds opened that had not truly healed before I was to be married. In January, God made a way for me to go into a restoration program in Oregon for three months. Glen and I talked about it, decided I should go, and we postponed the wedding until May 3. I experienced three months of intense healing and while in this program God began to speak to me about forgiveness. How could I ever forgive my abusers? Yet He was asking me to surrender to Him those feelings of bitterness and anger. The process of forgiving them began at this time but it was just the start of a very long journey.
Forgiveness was a daily exercise for me over the next several years; sometimes hourly. So many things would remind me of how I was victimized and each time I would feel anger and bitterness trying to control me. I learned that I had to surrender these feelings to Jesus as soon as they would come to mind. I realized that not forgiving my abusers would keep me from healing and in some ways it would give them power to continue the abuse in a different way. To forgive others never means that we excuse their behavior it just means we let God be their judge and our comforter. My father and brother both served prison time. I have not seen my father since the last time I saw him in court, but I have forgiven him and my brother. Although I have seen my brother, I do not trust him with my children or any child. Another lesson God taught me was that to forgive someone does not mean we must ever trust them again. In situations such as incest, it is wise to not trust again and the Bible does not command us to.
I wish I could say that the worst of my battles with forgiveness and anger was over at this point but a dreadful situation caused another unexpected revelation. Glen and I have five wonderful children together which I homeschool and protect from anyone who would attempt to make them victims. Glen had split custody of his son so he spent summers, holidays and several weekends with our family each year as a dearly loved member.
When my oldest was eight she came to me one day to tell me that her 13 year old stepbrother had been doing shameful things to her and two of my other children while he was in our home for visits. I immediately talked to the children about what had happened assuring them that we would take immediate action. The police became involved due to the age difference between my stepson and the children. It was a very hard time in our marriage due to Glen’s desire to treat his son correctly through this ordeal and my fierce determination to show my children that I believed them; that I would bring it all out in the open and help them find healing. I would make sure my stepson never had an opportunity to hurt the children again.
The next few months were filled with talking to police and counselors and working through this horrible time with my husband. In the midst of all this, my mother, who came occasionally from Michigan to visit wanted to visit more often. At first I thought it was just the stress that made me dread her visits until one day God opened my eyes; I had never forgiven my mother. How could a mother knowingly allow her daughter to be abused? I had just passed through a situation in which my children were victimized and the mother-love in me rose up to conquer any obstacle or defy any person in the way of rescuing my children. Why did my mother not do the same for me?
God used a Bible verse to speak to me during this time from Matthew 18. The verse is a statement made by Jesus when asked how many times we are to forgive someone. He said we are to forgive not seven times, as this disciple was hoping, but 77 times or as some translate it; 490 times! As I prayed about this verse I felt like Jesus showed me that He does not expect His people to allow abuse in their lives on a continual basis and keep forgiving the abuser for his terrible deeds. But instead, He expects us to practice forgiveness each time an angry or bitter thought comes to mind about what was done to us.
I had to go back to the place of complete dependence on Jesus. If He did not help me to forgive and release the anger to Him, it would turn my heart to stone. It will sound strange to many, but forgiving my mom was harder than forgiving my father because I was now a mother and knew what mothers should do when their children are abused. She should have been my rescuer but instead she added to the pain by swearing me to secrecy.
Fortunately, Jesus was enough. Victory came through understanding how much Jesus had forgiven me; not just before becoming a Christian but the many times I’ve hurt Him as a Christian. My sin was so great that He had to give His life in exchange for mine by dying on the cross. If He could love me like this, then He could give me His love for my mom and grant me the power to forgive her.
God made good come from something terrible. My children had counseling and we worked through the pain together as a family. I have forgiven my stepson and as an adult he has come back into our lives but, of course, the trust can never be fully restored. My mother and I still have some struggles in our relationship but God has helped me to see how weak she has always been. I pray for her to one day confess her need for forgiveness and find healing in her own life.
Jesus is the answer to the most horrendous sorrows of life. He can take a broken life and make it new. He can heal the deepest wounds and cause our lives to be “oaks of righteousness for the display of His splendor!” I will always be grateful to Him for forgiving me so that I may forgive.