The following is a script I wrote for the ERLC Caring Well Conference, which took place October 3-5, 2019. It was an historic event in the life of the church, and I have written a review here.
What I did not mention in my review was the audience feedback. I spoke with maybe three dozen survivors throughout the event. Some shared their own stories and asked whether I thought they’d been raped or abused. Others simply hugged me and cried. Tears of sorrow, joy, relief, and overwhelm, all blended together with tears of gratitude to God. One man simply said, “I stand behind you, and so does the true church.”
Several women said that after Caring Well, they were determined to report their abusers, because they heard my story, and the stories of others, including Megan Lively, Mary Demuth, Susan Codone, Kay Warren, and Jackie Hill Perry. This is the story I shared:
In the Living Room
I remember playing in the living-room of our home in Austin, Texas. I was about 11 years old. My dad was sitting on the couch reading one of his big thick theology books.
And he said, “Be quiet. I am reading.”
He went back to reading, and I went back to playing. I thought I was being quiet.
Suddenly, he grabbed me from behind. His fingers dug into my arm, and he began to beat me. And he wouldn’t stop. I began to panic and scream. But he wouldn’t stop hitting me.
Finally, my mom came into the room, and yelled, “What are you doing?”
He dropped me. I ran and hid in my bedroom, hoping my mom would come and find me. Put ice on the welts. I could hear them fighting, and then there was silence for a long time.
I huddled on the floor, matching my fingers up to the bruises. Hand-shaped bruises on my arm where he’d gripped me, all down my back, side, and thighs. And I remember thinking, “This is how big my dad’s hands are.”
I Want to Come to Heaven
For many years, I’d thought, “I just need to stick it out until I’m 18. Then I can leave, go to college, get a job, an apartment.” I think I was about 10 years old when I first found pornography saved to the desktop on my computer, and noticing that the girls looked kind of like me, and the men, looked kind of like him.
I remember sitting down to type up a book report, and catching him watching me, and wondering what I would see when I turned my monitor on. I remember being shaken, thrown against walls, having plates and knives thrown at me. Books. An iron. I remember the recurring nightmares of being raped.
When I was about 15, I overheard my dad telling my mom what a beautiful figure he thought I was developing. And something broke inside my heart. Before, I’d understood with a child’s mind. Now I realized, as a teenager, that my dad was a sexual predator, and I, as he put it, I was a “piece of meat.”
But that day, at 15, waiting another three years until I turned 18, felt worse than a death sentence. I decided that death was preferable to life.
I dug through my mom’s art supplies and found a razor blade. He had taught me how to commit suicide when I was 5. And I remember thinking, “10 years later, that advice is finally coming in handy.”
I took it to my bed room, sat down on my bed, and I prayed. And I remember telling God, “I’m afraid. I’ve heard that if I commit suicide, I’ll go to Hell. But I can’t live like this any longer. I need you to give me a sign. I need to know that you’ve got me. That you won’t abandon me. That you’ll take care of me. That you love me.”
And I told God, “I want to come to Heaven to be with you.”
And in that desperate moment, something happened which I personally consider miraculous. It’s very rare that God tears through the veil separating this world from the next. Usually, we pray and hear silence in response.
But if you are an abuse victim, or you struggle with depression or suicidal thoughts, and you are looking to God for a sign that he loves you, I want you to know that these words are for you too, because they’re straight out of Scripture:
In the darkness of my despair, as I was consumed by grief, I heard the voice of God fill my heart, and he said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
And suddenly I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I had a Daddy – a Heavenly Father – who was good, and he loved me. I was not abandoned. I was not unloved. I was not isolated or alone.
The next three years were some of the hardest of my life. But I turned 18, went to college, and met my future husband Jason. But at that time, I was still living at home. So, I was still living with violence, perversion, mind-games, and death threats.
When I was 21, I remember my dad saying, “Did you hear that story on the news today? A man came home from work and caught his wife and kids packing to leave, so he shot them all dead, and then killed himself. You better never try to leave me.”
He had told me that story before. But this time, I decided to do something about it.
The next day when he was at work, I stole his gun and I hid it. That evening, when he got home, he went in his bedroom. And when he came back out, he just glared at me. We didn’t speak. But I knew, he knew. And I stared him down, until he walked away.
A few months later, Jason and I got married. But it took years after that to completely cut ties with my father, and still more years to finally come to a place where I felt safe telling my story.
Dear Jason …
Recently, I sat down to write a letter to my husband. I wanted to tell him what it was like to survive over two decades of abuse. I wanted to explain why I am the way that I am. Why I’d had to cut so many loved ones out of my life. Why certain Bible verses disturbed me. Why the church often feels like a cold and scary place. Why trust is so difficult.
I decided that writing letters was the best way. Because face-to-face felt very on-the-spot. And this way I could take my time. Edit. Word everything carefully.
After a while, I realized these letters were chapters. And these chapters were a book.
I showed my pastor and he said, “Jenn, this is an important work. If you publish, this could change the way the church responds to abuse.”
After a lot of work, tears, and spiritual growth, my book, Not Forsaken, is now published. In fact, I met my publishers, Carl and Joe from The Good Book, for the first time at the ERLC Conference last year. So, as you can imagine, this event is nostalgic for me.
Since August when we published, I’ve heard from pastors, counselors, and church leaders who said they wished they’d had this book a long time ago. They’ve shared it with elders and staff members to help them identify, understand, and help abuse survivors.
I’ve heard from a young mom who said her husband read it, and has come to understand her better. And their marriage has been strengthened because of that.
I heard from a man who said, it helped him find closure and relinquish his anger, with his late, violent, alcoholic father.
I’ve heard from unbelievers, who said reading my story marked a milestone in their own recovery process.
I’m not telling you all of this to brag, but rather, to show you how God has worked all things – even great evil and pain – together for good. For when I am weak, then he is strong.
And now, like Joseph said, in Genesis 50:20, I can say to my abusers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
And speaking of Joseph, he was an abuse survivor too. He suffered domestic violence at the hands of his brothers who sold him to human traffickers. He was sexually harassed by Potiphar’s Wife, who falsely accused him of rape.
Our Heritage of Caring Well
You know, we tend to think of abuse as a modern-day problem, don’t we? Trending hashtags like #MeToo and #ChurchToo feel very 2019.
But these challenges we face, and this Caring Well conference, isn’t about some new or alien problem. It’s about returning to our roots and denouncing an evil that God has hated since Satan manipulated Eve; since Adam failed to protect her; since Cain murdered Abel.
God has contended with abusers, false teachers, hypocrites, and wolves, since the beginning. We can take comfort, knowing we aren’t doing something new here together today. We are taking up the heritage of God’s people who have gone before us, to stand against injustice.
We don’t have a far-away God who doesn’t get what we’re going through; who doesn’t understand the challenges his church is facing. We have a God who has suffered as we suffer.
Jesus was stricken, smitten, and afflicted. He was lied about, slandered, called crazy, a drunk, a liar, demon possessed.
He was betrayed by those he loved, abandoned by family and friends. Beaten up, tortured, and nailed to a cross. Jesus is the ultimate abuse survivor. He’s a murder survivor. More than that, he is the Conqueror over evil and death.
I am comforted knowing Jesus understands my grief and depression, because Jesus wept. I know Jesus understands my anxiety, because he was so distressed in the Garden of Gethsemane that he sweated blood.
No matter how dark things get, no matter how horrific and powerful the evil around us may seem, God is in control. God is sovereign. He is faithful. We are not alone. We are not unloved. We are not forsaken.
You know, for many years – for nearly three decades – I prayed that God would save my dad, fix my family, heal the relationships torn apart by abuse. For a long time, I feared that God didn’t hear me, or that maybe, he was saying no.
But now, like Jesus, I can ask, “Who are my mother, and brothers, and sisters?” People of God, you are my mother, and brothers and sisters. And our Father is God in Heaven. He is sovereign. He is good. He is faithful. We are not alone. We are not unloved. We are not forsaken.
*After hearing the opening speech of Dr. Russell Moore, I decided to edit the ending of my speech. You’ll have to let me know, in the comments, which you like better. I still can’t decide, but delivered the alternate. In the coming days, The ERLC will be uploading videos of all the Caring Well speeches to their Vimeo channel. I strongly encourage you to give them a view.