Forgiving Abuse - Growing up in Pain
Forgiving abuse is often a life-long journey. I was only 3 months old when my father left my mother. My mother was neither physically or emotionally well; a condition that did not improve much over the course of her life. I had a 2 1/2 year old brother and a 10-year-old sister at the time. The four of us lived in a survival mode most of my early childhood. During this chaos, my mom told me she probably would not live more than a year. As a 4 year old, I was devastated. She was the only adult in my life apart from distant relatives. Whatever carefree part of my childhood I still had at that point was now gone. Something in my little heart and mind had changed -- I felt abandoned. I had to be tough now.
Between the ages of 5 to 7, while my mother was away either working or seeing her psychiatrist, I wandered the neighborhood with my older brother. I used to be jealous of neighbor kids who had to ask their mothers if they could go somewhere, because mine didn't seem to care where I was. We used to walk for blocks to a little grocery store where we regularly stole candy. We'd walk to an overpass, climb up inside and sit at the top to eat it while cars sped by below. It seemed like we were street orphans, already taking care of ourselves. I thought it was adventurous at the time and I was proud to not “need” anyone. God must have had countless angels dispatched over us as we grew up. Our older sister seemed to never be around; my brother was my family.
It was at this time that an older neighbor, Leon, took an increased interest in me. He used to give me rides on his lap in his old truck and let me steer. I thought it was great fun. He paid attention to me. As time went on, however, I began going more frequently to his house when my brother didn’t want his little sister tagging along. Leon gave me candy and took a genuine interest in me. His interest became increasingly sexual, however, and he slowly began molesting me. He used pornographic magazines and games, coupled with attention, candy, and the threat of no longer being my friend if I told anyone. Even at this very young age, I began to understand what was happening, and I began feeling shame. At the same time, however, I would end up back at his home. I guess I wanted his company and "fathering" that I’d never had. I didn't like everything he was doing, so I would stop going, but then would be left alone again for weeks, and would find myself wandering back to his door. The shame I developed because of this became entrenched deep inside of me; I was a bad girl.
Forgiving Abuse - The Influence of a Dream
A dream was instrumental in my journey to forgiving abuse. I've only had one dream more than once, and it began at this age. In my dream, I was in a dark room, with an upright lit cage at one end. A woman sat on a chair next to the cage, reading a newspaper. She appeared to be the caretaker of the human skeleton propped inside the cage. She ignored me as I walked carefully up to look more closely at the display. Suddenly the skeleton sprang to life and grabbed me through the bars of the cage. The skeleton tried to drag my little body into the cage while I fought and screamed for help. The woman never even looked up from her paper; she did not care.
It was not until I was an adult and married, that I understood the dream. Realizing my childhood abuse was affecting my adult life and marriage, I confided in a counselor. It was a painful and difficult process. In one session, the counselor asked if I’d had recurrent dreams, and I could only recall this one. When she asked, "Do you think the woman may represent someone?" I realized immediately it was my mom.
The pain this caused me, along with many more "revelations" that came to the surface through these sessions, was often unbearable. I felt I'd made a mistake bringing up all these memories, and I even at times thought my counselor was a terrible, callous person. She was picking at deep wounds I thought were “healed.” Eventually, they did heal, but they likely never would have if I had not gone through that painful journey with her. At times, I wanted to stop going, especially when I started having new dreams.
One was a dream where I went to Leon's back door (which I never used) and knocked. His wife answered. She was a nurse and was rarely home. I told her what her husband had done to me, but she said she didn't believe me. She quietly whispered for me to please leave and shut the door. Even as a small child, we may know things we don't allow ourselves to "know." Now as an adult, I knew both my mother and Leon's wife probably knew something was going on, but they had taken no apparent action to protect me.
Forgiving Abuse - Starting the Process of Forgiveness
I made the decision to start forgiving. At the urging of my counselor, I later told my mother what had happened to me. Sadly, she reacted in anger. I thought she would be teary-eyed, hug me, and tell me she was sorry about what had happened. Instead, she shook her finger at me, demanding: "Why didn't you TELL me!?" I remember just staring at her, speechless. After a moment, she added: "I had a dream one night that I was beating Leon with a hammer! I knew he was bad!" I waited for my mother’s tears to come, but they never did. She just seemed indignant that I had never informed her of these events as a child. Fortunately, I'd already realized my mother carried loads of bitterness that had all but devastated her own life. I was able to forgive her for her harsh reaction, realizing it was one of self-preservation. She could not deal with her own issues, and she couldn’t handle further feelings of failure or guilt.
Shortly thereafter, I was able to forgive Leon's wife as well. The real challenge was forgiving Leon, or at least I thought. I was unable to even say his name for many years, and only in later counseling sessions did I mention it.
The process of forgiving Leon took a number of years to complete. I eventually understood that he was likely a victim of abuse himself. By God's grace, I had not continued the cycle. As I struggled to forgive this man, the Lord helped me with a wonderful illustration while I was in an airplane. Flying over a city, we were preparing to land. Gazing down, I noticed that as we flew over tall buildings, some which were only 3 or 4 stories tall looked relatively the same height as the sky scrapers next to them, at least from the airplane. It was then I felt God spoke to me. "Wendy, that is how your sin is to Me. Your 3 stories of sin look similar from My perspective to Leon's 20 stories of sin. You are both separated from Me because of it."
If the Lord had told me this 5 years earlier, I doubt I would have responded well, but He had prepared me and brought me to a place that I could receive it. Something switched in my heart at that moment. I had a very strange sense of compassion for Leon that I never felt before. As the wheels of the plane touched down on the runway, I found myself praying for him. If he was still alive, I asked that God would send someone to share the gospel with him. It didn't seem right that I had the wonderful gift of eternal life, of complete and perfect forgiveness, and he may never have the opportunity to receive the same. I never thought I would pray such a prayer. The sense of freedom and relief this act brought me was incredible.
Forgiving Abuse Meant Forgiving Myself
Forgiving abuse also meant forgiving myself. Forgiving these three people took years, but forgiving myself took much longer. I’ve discovered most victims of abuse share an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. Many will counsel us saying "It's not your fault. You were a child, you didn't know. How could you know?” I worked for many years to incorporate these ideas into my heart, but they never removed the guilt I carried. It was not until I remembered the picture of the city buildings from the airplane -- seeing my own sin and accepting it as that -- then I could confess it. I accepted my own role in the abuse, however small it may have been, and asked the Lord to forgive it. I was then finally free.
Is this making you uncomfortable right now? I hope you will bear with me. If you do not believe a five or six year old can sin, then you’ve never had children! Heaping my own bad decisions and sins on Leon’s "sky scraper" was wrong and did not relieve my guilt. I know this may not be true for everyone, but it was for me. We can’t cling to a victim mentality. God says in His word, if we have sinned to any degree, we must own up to it and confess it so we can be freed from it. This was true for me and I suspect it is also for others.
Once I was able to confess my own sinful role and actions in this whole saga, I was finally on the road to healing. For those who are still struggling with the idea that I “sinned” as a 5 or 6 year old, remember that I decided to continue going to Leon's house. He never came to me, I went to him. Many would say "It's still not your fault!" For some, that may be true, but that reasoning really wasn't helping me. Some of the ongoing results of these events were that I became judgmental of others and defiant towards my mother, which affected me and my family for years to come. If you've been abused, and your own guilt remains, consider accepting any part or responsibility that may have been your own, whether big or small, and confess it to the Lord. He promises to forgive it.
After confessing this to the Lord, I experienced tremendous freedom from bitterness. I still struggled at times with forgiving myself however, since I did not feel I deserved such a great gift as complete forgiveness. Deep down, I clung to a desire to punish myself. God's word says He washes us white as snow, but I didn't deserve white as snow. So I actually held on to some of the pain, to punish myself. I carried this blemish for many years until God revealed to me what I was doing. One day, He showed me I was His bride. I was dressed in a beautiful white wedding dress, but as I stepped into the isle of the church, I reached down into a pile of mud and wiped it down the front of my beautiful white dress! I was shocked by this picture. What groom wanted his bride to do this, to be seen like this, especially on such a wonderful day? I finally understood that although I deserved to wear such a dirty dress the Lord had completely forgiven my sins and cleansed me. He did not see me this way. He did not wantto see me this way; neither did He want others to see me this way.
This is true for you too! God no longer sees His forgiven bride as dirty. If you’ve asked Jesus Christ to forgive your sins, He will, and He will see you cleansed and perfect in Him. He wants you to see yourself that way as well.
Praise God, Jesus has taken our punishment upon Himself! In Isaiah 53, God tells us "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed."
By His grace, God has enabled me to overcome my inability to forgive both others as well as myself. I don't believe it's humanly possible to truly forgive apart from His divine intervention. In fact, forgiveness may be one of God's greatest miracles, and He performs it daily in the lives of His children. His forgiveness can overcome our repulsion, rage, fear, and shame, and exchange it with love, tenderness, and compassion. I hope my story will give you hope for such a miracle in your own life.