brown leaves

Sifting Tears: On Surviving Child Abuse in the Church

The following is an essay I wrote over a year ago for Christianity Today. It was declined, but as I was going through some old files today, I came across it again. I’ve healed a lot since writing this, but I feel it captures a window into the grief resultant from abuse in the church. I hope you find it comforting.

I was small. Maybe 6-years-old. As I brushed the dirt off my scraped knee, my dad gave me some advice:

“Leave it open to the air,” he said. “If you cover it up, you’ll seal in bacteria, and it will get infected.”

I’ve come to live by those words. I wonder if he remembers saying them. I wonder if he ever dreamed that his advice would one day help me heal from him. Because it was my dad who drove us to church every Sunday. It was my dad who exposed me to Reformed theology and the Gospel. It was my dad who beat me black and blue. But I can’t cover up his sins. These wounds need oxygen. When we cover up the works of evil, evil festers, and evil grows.

I’ve seen others talk about “deconstruction.” The “exvangelical” group has grown so large it’s almost like its own denomination. But I don’t fit in there. I don’t think I fit anywhere. I’m not angry. I’m not lost. I’m not really even wandering. I didn’t belong in my childhood home, and I don’t belong in the hashtags now. But, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, maybe if we feel we don’t fit into this world, it’s because we were made for another world. Perhaps this feeling of unbelonging is a symptom of our intrinsic belonging in Heaven; a yearning for Jesus woven into our souls.

In a heartbeat, my dad could go from reading Geerhardus Vos to beating his own daughter. I remember being around 11 and lining my fingers up with hand-shaped bruises, thinking, “This is how big my dad’s hands are.”

The hands that prayed with me. The hands that turned Bible pages. The hands that tucked me in at night. These were the hands I feared. He made sure we went to church. He insisted on Reformed theology. I suspect he wanted to appear godly and academic. I think he viewed Christianity as camouflage.

He sure underestimated Jesus, though, didn’t he? Talk about a plan backfiring. My abuser set out to create a victim, but God created a warrior.

I was about 13 when our church pianist slipped his arm around my waist. I was around 16 when a pastor and Regional Home Missionary propositioned me. I felt like they could smell damage on me. I was raw. I was wounded. And they were circling sharks. It was as if God had said, “Have you considered my servant, Jennifer?” (Job 1:8), and then reached down to pull me out of the churning waves (Matthew 14:31).

Some people knew my dad was an abuser, but they didn’t intervene or report him. They claimed to be Christians, but they didn’t protect me. In my child’s mind, this greatly confused me. “Surely,” I thought, “if my dad were sinning, they’d do something about it. But they’re not. Maybe it’s because this is my fault. Perhaps I am causing my dad to sin. Or maybe this is all in my head and nothing is wrong. Or maybe this is normal, and everyone lives like this.”

Because of their failure and neglect, my siblings and I endured decades of additional suffering. I’m not angry at them. To be honest, it scares me that I’m not. I want to be angry. I want to at least feel surprised. But I feel nothing. There’s a gaping void where hate should be; a hollow wound where outrage belongs. The nothing frightens me, because the nothing should not exist.

To me, “they are like chaff that the wind drives away.” (Psalm 1:4) They are dry leaves on a winter day; dust on the floor of a spiritual wasteland.

The blast radius of abuse devastated my family. I don’t talk to either of my parents anymore, and most of my siblings are no longer Christians. Sometimes I wonder why God saved me and not them. I am not better. I am not stronger or wiser. I love them. I miss them. And it was the church’s mishandling of my dad’s abuse that hacked away the last threads of their faith. To watch church after church give him teaching positions. To watch my mom excommunicated for refusing to live with him. We watched the church become complicit in our abuse. In a spiritual sense, I fear I’m the only one who survived.

My abuser was allowed to slip into new and unsuspecting churches, to make new unsuspecting friends. The leadership knew, but as far as I could tell, their congregations were kept in the dark. I began to sense deceit behind many pastor’s pretenses at sympathy and promises to pray. But they’ll be held accountable for every one of their sins. God does not forget what he does not forgive.

And so, rather than “deconstructing,” I find myself separating. I’m sorting, sifting, reordering, deep cleaning. Just as Jesus broke the bread before he was crucified, I’m breaking apart which of my beliefs are based on the warped teachings and biased assumptions of sinful men, and which are rooted in the Word of God. I’ve watched pastors and elders call me crazy and a liar in an apparent attempt to defend my dad, or at least, to justify their own failure to intervene when they should have. Such men cannot truly be saved. Surely, a lack of repentance signals a lack of God’s forgiveness.

No one who allows lambs to be ripped apart by wolves is truly a shepherd. No one who conceals and defends the deeds of darkness is of the light. These supposed Christians who bludgeon victims while protecting abusers are not of God. They weaponize Scripture. They abuse pastoral authority. They hide behind the Light of the World, and somehow imagine he can’t see them.

And so, there’s a sifting process underway in my mind. An unraveling. A refining. A weeding out. A dividing of the wheat from the chaff, like a micro-chasm of the Second Coming in my heart. I’m tapping the walls for hollow spots. Feeling my fingers along the dusty edges of my Cornerstone. Rediscovering my Rock and sweeping away the sand which liars have built their heresies upon.

I wish I could trust anyone to tell me the truth. I wish I could believe in the Christlikeness of those who call themselves by the name of Christ. But trust is like water in a well, and my well is dried up. It’s not that I don’t want to trust. It’s not that I don’t know any trustworthy people. It’s that I don’t have any more trust to give. I am hollowed out. I am emptied. I am bled dry.

The dust lies thick the floor of this spiritual wasteland we call the church. I pray that one day soon, God will send the rain again.

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