“Can you hear me?” asks Sarah, a pastor’s wife in Africa. The pattering of desert rain echoes over the miles, making its way across the ocean to where I sit at my desk in Kansas.
“Yes!” I say louder than I need to.
It’s amazing to me, the gift of technology, connecting me with a soul-sister halfway across the world, where desert heat and gully-washer rains blank out generators, yet somehow, by God’s grace, we persevere.
“So, you asked me to share how my view of God changed over the years?” Sarah pauses, pondering.
“Yes—I think it would be a helpful way to frame your story.”
Sarah breathes deep, “Well, first you have to understand that from a young age Satan began to make me feel a lot of shame. In third grade I was playing ‘doctor’ with a friend who came from a very messed up family, and I realize now that peer molestation occurred. Then my sister took me over to our neighbor’s house and dug out his stack of hidden porn. Because of these third-grade experiences I was highly sexualized from a young age, and my parents only mentioned sex as “bad,” so I didn’t understand my natural curiosity and desire to be touched.
“Without a safe place to process my experiences and feelings, the peer molestation and exposure to porn made me feel dirty and ashamed, which led me to hiding. I hid those third-grade secrets until given the opportunity to act them out. Then I tried to hide that too—always fearful the truth about me would come out and I’d be exposed as the un-loveable, dirty girl I felt I’d become. On top of that, my dad, who claimed to love Jesus and was in a ministry, abused me emotionally and physically. I never felt loved by him and instead felt like a burden or inconvenience. So, I grew up this insecure kid, but you would never have known from the outside. I was voted for student council and invited to all the parties, a leader of my class, considered a pretty girl—I was popular, but so insecure. Because of the molestation and sexual exposure, I had such a fascination with sexual things and by sixth grade, I started messing around with boys, and kept on with that sexual experimentation in middle school and on into high school.
“In the beginning of my Junior year I was drunk at a party and my virginity was taken—he forced himself on me—I said ‘No’ and he did what he wanted anyway. It was painful and abusive but I blamed myself. I was left completely humiliated, covered in shame, and after that it was this spiral into sexual sin. My thought was ‘I’m already impure, I’m already dirty. What does it matter?’ I felt used up. Even then I knew something was off about my thinking, but it was reinforced in youth group at church. The leader would say, ‘Can you imagine handing your husband a rose with no petals? Every time you mess around with a boy and commit sexual sin you lose a petal.’
“I felt like that rose without petals, that God looked at me as being dirty and unlovable, like my value had been lost because of my sin. I had this idea of God that if I was good, he loved me, and if I wasn’t, he stopped loving me, that his love for me could fluctuate based on my performance. So, for a while I worked really hard—tried to pay attention at church, do good in school because I thought being good would make him love me. But I had this nagging feeling, ‘I can’t keep this up!’ The pressure of trying to being good all the time felt unattainable, and the constant feeling of failure eventually overwhelmed me. I felt hopeless, broken beyond repair.
“By my senior year I said screw it all—if he loves me today and not tomorrow, screw it! Who needs that!? So, I began living according to who I believed I was—a rose without any petals, dirty and used up. I ended up in drug addiction and rampant sexuality and totally turned my back on my faith.
“Looking back, I see that I identified myself only by my sin, and because the shame was so overwhelming, I couldn’t look at myself and just wanted to numb my heart to the horrible feeling that I was unredeemable. I knew my choices couldn’t be undone and I thought–who would ever love me now?! I felt like a broken rose that couldn’t be put back together.
“Then, about a year after high school I got in a car accident. I was on my way home from meeting with a friend and ran off the road into a ditch. The paramedics found me medically dead—no pulse or heartbeat and they called ahead to the hospital saying there was no way I’d make it. They airlifted me via a helicopter to the hospital and I remember having about thirty seconds of consciousness lying there on the gurney and thinking before I passed out again, ‘I don’t care if I live or I die, I just want to live for you, Jesus.’ By a miracle, I survived. Jesus rescued me, and I finally surrendered my life to him. The accident and my survival was a turning point where I believed Jesus loved me and I wanted to live for him.
“Back then I think I had this idea ‘Ok, I’m saved and forgiven, so let’s just sweep all the brokenness and the past underneath.’ I moved forward in my Christian walk wearing the blanket of ‘Forgiven’ but never really sought healing. I hid and held back that corner of my heart I felt was unlovable. Over time, that hidden part of me began manifesting itself in my ability to love my husband, my children, and, ultimately, God. It terrified me to think of letting God or anyone else into those old wounds. My sexual wounds were a place in my heart that nobody touched. I buried the things that made me feel most vulnerable, and I just wouldn’t go there—I didn’t know what to do with them. So, I struggled secretly with feeling I’d always be that sexually immoral, lust-filled girl who didn’t deserve to be loved.
“There was this little pocket of my heart I wouldn’t touch and it was touching my whole life.
“I lived fifteen years struggling to grow in intimacy with my husband and God until my heart was exposed through pursing an emotional connection outside my marriage. Had God not convicted my heart, that relationship could’ve turned into an affair. Instead, he used it to bring my struggle into the light and open the door to the shame I’d carried all those years saying, ‘We need to deal with this, pull those Band-Aids off because you still believe lies about me. I want to free you from this belief that I see you according to your shame. I want you to know that you are safe with me.
“Through counselling God took me back to some of those places that had been buried for 30 years. I realized that to give love and grace, you first must receive it—We love because He first loved us. While I was physically and sexually affectionate with my husband, I detached emotionally from him. This left me desiring connection while not understanding why I didn’t feel it. I didn’t realize I was still living according to the belief that God only loved me when I was good and that he looked at my sin with disgust. Because I was living according to this old lie, I felt there was no safe place for me to be vulnerable enough to freely give and receive love.
“Through this process of unearthing my shame and the lies I still believed about God, one thing that’s changed is that I went from merely quoting ‘There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’ to really believing it. Intellectually I knew he saw all of my sin, past and present, so whenever I felt guilty, I’d just say ‘Forgive me for my sins,” but I wouldn’t go there in detail with him, especially when it came to my sexual past. It felt too risky, unsafe.
“And . . . I think a big thing that helped me is simply letting Jesus into that little pocket hidden deep in my heart. I learned to trust that his love was greater than all my sin. He wasn’t looking down on me seeing a used up, dirty, rebel but turning towards me with compassion, seeing me as his precious child who sins and suffers.
“I realized that all those years I carried not only the shame over my own sexual sin, but the shame of how others sinned against me—the molestation, being taken advantage of, and early sexualization—I carried it all. Speaking those things to him in intimate detail was one of the hardest, most painful things I’ve ever done, but it took me to another level of trusting that God looks at me with compassion and that I am safe with Him. What he wants from me is honesty and intimacy and I will be met with compassion and power to change.
“I’ve also realized that because I’m safe with him, I can risk being vulnerable with my husband. Rather than withholding emotionally, I can give myself freely and fully to him.
“I’ve also learned it’s ok to get help, that confessing your sins and suffering to one another is part of the healing process. I’d always seen myself as very open, but I realized that real vulnerability has a different level and takes me into the fearful places of my heart. Having someone else listen to those things and respond with grace and compassion helped me to open up the wounds of my sexual past to Jesus and he met me there with love, not judgment.”
Over the last twenty years, as Christ has slowly freed Sarah from the fear of judgment and the shame she carried for so many years, I’ve had the increasing joy of seeing the real Sarah—how her honest humor captivates a whole roomful of people in five minutes; her creative skill in telling through photos and words the laugh-out-loud beauty and terror of parenting and homeschooling; her ability to speak gospel truth with perceptive clarity; her bubbly, infectious joy and, most of all, the power of Jesus to take the broken petals of a woman’s tender heart and, slowly, gently, mend them until she blossoms in his tender care.