The story I share below is based on the parable of the unmerciful servant found in Matthew 18:21-35. Though this piece is a bit longer than the usual posts we feature here, I share it in its entirety because it illustrated for me the way in which forgiveness changes and frees us. It is a #MeToo, #ChurchToo story, so if you are sensitive regarding stories of abuse, you may wish to skip this one. This is a true story, though I changed names and some non-essential details.
He took so much from her in just a few minutes time.
Cousin Jim stood at the doorway with 8-year old Kelly and her two older brothers, waving goodbye as both sets of parents went out for dinner that early summer evening. Kelly’s family was staying at Jim’s family’s home while they were in Iowa for the weekend visiting their hometown and church. Jim didn’t have anything going on that evening, so he thoughtfully volunteered to watch Kelly and her brothers.
As well as being thoughtful, Jim was a model of trustworthiness – he was a twenty-something worship leader, a rising star in their denomination. He’d been groomed to take his place in the church since he was a little boy, continuing the family’s multi-generation Christian heritage.
After the parents had left, Jim shooed Kelly’s brothers outside to play before the sun went down. Kelly was sitting on the floor watching T.V., and Jim sat on the couch behind her after he’d locked the screen door. He told Kelly she was his favorite little cousin, so pretty and sweet, and she was going to be his special playmate tonight. He said that if all the other cousins knew she was his favorite, they’d feel left out, so it would be OK this one time if this was their secret.
Then he pulled her onto his lap and stole her faith and her childhood from her.
* * * * *
The next morning, they went to church. They always went to church. It was the glue that held the sprawling extended family together. She sat between her smiling parents, watching them sing along with Jim, and she felt unprotected for the first time in her life. Parents are supposed to protect you, and last night they didn’t.
She mechanically mouthed the words to the songs and watched Jim like she was watching a complete stranger. He’d glanced Kelly’s way just once during the service that first morning after he’d sexually abused her, while he was singing a line about a holy God.
The abuse continued for about 5 more years, happening each time Kelly’s family went to Iowa to visit. It finally stopped when another cousin who lived in the same town as Jim came out with a story that tore the family apart. It seems that she’d been Jim’s favorite, too, and he’d been abusing her regularly.
Then a few others at Jim’s church came forward…more little girls who’d been his favorites. Jim confessed in the face of overwhelming evidence, and ended up in prison.
Kelly saw how the extended family had flown apart like liquid in space when Jim went away, and she knew that she could never, ever tell anyone that Jim had done the same thing to her that he’d done to the others. After all, it had just been a few times…and it was all in the past…and maybe she’d asked for it somehow.
If only she could have stopped feeling so grimy inside.
Her parents stopped going to church. News traveled through the grapevine from Iowa to their Indiana town. In the wake of the pain and confusion that everyone in the family felt, it just seemed easier to stay away for a while. The “for a while” became permanent just as Kelly hit her teen years.
Kelly threw herself into sports and drinking with equal commitment throughout high school. Sports gave her a feeling of complete command of her body. She liked that. On the other hand, when she wasn’t on the playing field, she didn’t want to feel anything. Drinking took care of that for her.
She didn’t consciously spend any time thinking about the abuse that had happened to her when she was a kid. But sometimes, she’d have dreams and she’d wake up and feel dirty and used. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a drinking binge and/or some sex with either herself or with a willing partner. It was like trying to wash herself clean with mud.
By the time she was a high school senior, she was tired of the soiled way she felt. She decided she needed a fresh start so she choose a college in a nearby state where she didn’t know anyone except Tom and Andrea, distant cousins who’d never really been a part of her life. It didn’t take long for Kelly to discover that her old party girl habits were at home in her new digs on the college campus. Her grades weren’t great, but she managed to keep her GPA just over 2.0 so she didn’t lose her place on the college track team.
Tom and Andrea would occasionally invite her to their home for a decent, non-dorm meal. Tom and Andrea were old school Christians, hewn straight from the trunk of the family tree. This meant they were kind, welcoming people who served every dinner with a side dish of Invitation To Come To Church With Us On Sunday Morning. She politely avoided these invitations, but they seemed unfazed by her excuses. She really did like them in spite of their squeaky-clean ways, so one frigid February Sunday during her sophomore year, she rolled out of bed 3 hours earlier than she normally did on a weekend (no hangover that morning, which helped) and went to church with them.
She hadn’t been to church since she was a kid. She wept through the entire service that first day. Tom and Andrea occasionally offered her a gentle hug or a tissue. With amazing self-restraint, they didn’t pry much about the cause of the tears. Even if they had, Kelly didn’t yet have the words to tell them. She hadn’t really cried like that, maybe ever.
A couple of weeks later, after a couple of weeks of solid partying and occasional class attendance, she agreed to go to church with them again. Tears again, slower this time, like a soaking rain. Was this God? Couldn’t be. She’d dumped God from her life long ago. It was like she’d placed her idea of who God was in bagful of kitchen trash and hauled it out to the curb so the garbage guys could haul Him away.
After church this time, she decided that she wanted to tell Tom and Andrea about the darker side of her life at college. She felt weighed down somehow, and thought if she unburdened herself, she could wriggle free from the pressure inside of her. Maybe if she told them what kind of a person she really was…maybe they’d been thinking she was a good Christian girl all this time. Maybe if they knew she wasn’t…
They listened without flinching. Their listening felt like love. She felt safe, and for a moment, she felt almost clean.
Throughout the spring semester, she mostly continued her same old ways, but managed to start attending church with Tom and Andrea many Sunday mornings. No matter how she tried to talk herself out of crying before she got there, the tears always worked themselves loose from her soul at some point during the service.
The week after Easter, sitting around the kitchen table after lunch, Cousin Jim’s name and crime came up in their conversation. This had happened a couple of times before, and Kelly had always refrained from commenting. But that Sunday afternoon, she spoke the words that had been bottled up inside of her for years, the words she’d never been able to say out loud before.
“He did it to me, too.”
Tom and Andrea cried with her that afternoon. Their reaction reflected Jesus to her. She’d always suspected that He’d somehow been responsible for what she’d experienced. But their genuine sorrow over what had happened to her communicated more powerfully than all the compassionate words they spoke to her and prayed over her that afternoon.
After that day, she found herself starting to read the Bible that Tom and Andrea had given her for her birthday earlier that year. She discovered Someone very different than the image she’d had of God as either powerful abuser or impotent caretaker. She discovered that Jesus liked hanging around with people just like her. Instead of abandoning them or abusing them, He grabbed on to people and let them grab onto Him, transforming hookers, sick people, crooks, thugs and people trapped in the grip of Satan with powerful love. And He got in the faces of people who put on a front while they abused their power.
People like Cousin Jim.
Tom and Andrea kept speaking the truth to her about what had happened to her – Jim was sin-sick and perverted, that none of it was her fault, but that good could come out of this bad. “Why did this happen to me?” bubbled up in Kelly, free to surface after so many years of being submerged inside of her. Tom and Andrea had no glib answers, but continued to speak of their trust in the power and character of God. But mostly, they listened.
Because of their prayerful listening, Kelly slowly became aware that God had given her the same choices He’d given to Jim. What had she done with her choices except choose to layer a lot of out of control behavior on top of Jim’s abuse? She was responsible for the years of sex and drinking. Not Jim. Not God.
One Sunday night just before finals, she was driving from Tom and Andrea’s to the library to study. Radio off, in the silence, she pulled over in the darkness and told God that she was tired of living the way she’d been living, feeling suffocated by the layers of grimy filth she understood now was sin. Cleansing tears spilled down her face as she asked God for the first time for the forgiveness Jesus offered from the cross.
There was a song that they sang at Tom and Andrea’s church that welled up from a place inside of her that she didn’t know existed until she prayed that prayer.
“I don’t want you going there, Kelly. What’s it gonna change?” Kelly’s mom chewed nervously on a loose cuticle. “Please, honey. Just forget about the whole thing.”
Kelly couldn’t blame her for feeling nervous. When Kelly had finally told her parents about Jim’s abuse over Christmas break, they were devastated. Her dad had charged around like a bull in a red room, threatening to go over to Jim’s house and beat him to a pulp. Her mom cried, fluttering moth-like around the house, treating Kelly just like she’d announced she had a terminal illness.
Over the next days, Kelly had talked them both down from their respective emotional ledges, explaining over and over again that God had been healing the damage done to her and the damage she’d done to herself since she’d prayed that prayer in her car the previous spring. She was learning to live as a survivor.
As if that bombshell wasn’t enough, Kelly had gone and dropped this latest and biggest one on her parents when she came home for summer break a few months later: “I need to go and talk to Jim,” she told them. “I want to tell him that I have forgiven him.”
Kelly’s mom’s voice shook as she repeated the question, as if Kelly didn’t hear it. “What’s it gonna change?”
Kelly looked at her steadily, one determined tear tracing the side of her nose. (Would the tears ever stop?) “What’s it gonna change? It’s going to change me, mom.”
* * * * *
A final note from Michelle: Please note that I am not sharing this as a prescriptive (something I commend every person who has been sexually abused should do) but to describe Kelly’s journey toward wholeness. Not all can or should think about confronting their abusers. If you have experienced abuse, please seek good counsel and lots of prayer if you are considering doing what Kelly did. And if you are in need of help in your journey toward healing, I commend to you either GRACE or SNAP as places with trustworthy resources.