It happened during a road trip to church summer camp. I was about 16 years old, and we stopped for the night at the home of a pastor who had a beautiful house in the country. After a lazy afternoon playing in the swimming pool and eating burgers on the patio, everyone went to bed. I was too excited to sleep and got up for a glass of water. On my way to the kitchen, there he was, reading on the couch.
“Oh Jennifer,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
In my mind I thought, “Oh good, a pastor. Perhaps I can tell him about my abusive dad. Perhaps he’ll understand and protect me. Perhaps I can even stay here.”
Those hopes were quickly dashed.
“When you were in the pool,” he said, “I noticed you acting very sexually. Boys your age are just starting to understand body language. When you tread water in the pool—your breasts protruding under your suit, your figure out there for everyone to see—it catches their attention. You make them think about sex.”
I felt that familiar awkwardness set in; the knowing that something was wrong, the confusion over how to make it stop. The pastor chattered on as if everything was normal. He explained that he’d had this conversation with his own daughters, and it was for my good. When we know our vulnerabilities, he said, we can protect ourselves against them.
“So,” he said, “what would it take to get you to spread your legs for a man?”
I was stunned. For a moment which felt very long, I said nothing, and he stared at me, smiling.
“I don’t feel comfortable with this conversation,” I finally said, and excused myself.
A few weeks later, when I returned home, I told my parents what had happened. “If the pastor won’t protect me from my dad,” I thought, “perhaps my dad will protect me from the pastor.”
Again, my hopes were dashed.
My dad invited the pastor to our home. They had a long talk by themselves. Then I was called to sing a song for the pastor. I played a hymn, and they clapped. It was never spoken of again.
Around this same time, I became friends with a good pastor. He was the kind of teacher you could email theology questions and get brilliant replies. He listened to my teenage problems and made me feel heard. “Perhaps,” I thought, “I should tell him about dad.”
I told him I wanted to discuss college and boys, so he suggested we go to lunch. After placing our orders and making small talk, I said, “My dad has anger issues. Last week, he threw an iron at my head.”
He sat there, stunned, over a bowl of Thai soup, apparently unable to register what I'd said. He knew my dad. They were friends. He said we should pray for my dad's temper. So, I didn’t even bother trying to tell him what else was going on at home: The domestic violence, sexual abuse, and harassment. As far as I’m aware, he never questioned my dad or contacted authorities.
Often when I tried to tell people I was being abused, I felt like I was speaking a different language. My family referred to my dad’s violence as “anger issues,” but when I used that phrase to outsiders, they thought I meant something trivial, not something chronic or dangerous. Nobody asked, “What do you mean?” Nobody dug deeper. My family’s coded language protected my dad from exposure.
But more than any pastor, more than any unseeing friend, my dad dealt the most damage to my spiritual state. He taught me that fathers were violent, apathetic, and perverse. He taught me that men were lustful, angry, and domineering. How could I understand what God meant when he called himself my Father? How could I feel comfortable with the fact that God the Son became a man?
A friend of mine who used to be a pastor experienced similar emotional fallout. After being raped by a professor in seminary, he battled alcoholism and depression, never once telling anyone what had been done to him. To this day, he struggles to remain sober, cannot attend college or trust ministers, and has severe anxiety that prevents romantic relationships. He’s stopped attending church, yet clings to threads of faith, knowing Jesus is faithful and able to heal.
As Jesus says in Matthew 18,
If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine and go look for the one that wandered off? And when he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander. In the same way your Father in Heaven is not willing that any of his little ones should perish.
Our Good Shepherd is faithful to rescue his lost lambs, whether they wander off or are frightened away.
What is a Christian anyway?
For years I struggled with my faith. I wrestled with God and found attending church to be anxiety-inducing. Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, I’d grow so apprehensive I’d throw up. Sometimes I’d make myself throw up, so my husband would think I was sick and suggest we stay home. People who should have exemplified Jesus’ love to me had betrayed my trust over and over, until they’d driven a wedge between me and God.
But abusers and false teachers are not representatives of Christ. As Jesus explains in Matthew 7:16-21, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit . . . Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven.”
In other words, not everyone who calls himself “Christian” is a Christian. Not everyone who calls himself a pastor represents the ultimate Pastor. Not everyone who says he loves Jesus is loving. There are many wolves in sheep’s clothing, and there are many wolves in shepherd’s clothes. Understanding this helped me overcome my anger at God and the church.
Because you see, it’s easy to get sick of the house when it’s infested with rats. It’s easy to fear the pasture when it’s haunted by wolves. But understanding that evil people—those who bear bad fruit—are not of God, and do not represent him, helped me see past their sin. Those who leverage his name to prey on his sheep enrage him. Realizing that he is even angrier than I am at those who abuse his children helped me relinquish my rage. I can trust God with vengeance, because he is just.
Every time my faith faded, he rekindled the embers. Every time I gave up hope, he sought me out like a wandering sheep and placed me on his shoulders. Every time I thought, “I can’t do this anymore,” his words held true: “I will never leave you or forsake you,” (Deut. 31:6), “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
While abuse scandals rocking the church are harrowing, and demand action, they are no new thing. Long has Christ’s Bride been persecuted, infiltrated by evil men, corrupted, and slandered. Yet Christ will triumph over evil. He will gather up his children and judge the wicked righteously. There is no statute of limitations in his court. In that courtroom I will not be asked to prove that I was abused, because God was there, and God is my witness. While we strive and hope for justice now, we are assured of justice in the end.
In the mid 1800s, Samuel Stone wrote of the church, “Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed; by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, ‘How long?’ And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”
Whether you are horrified by the revelation of abuses in the church, or are unsurprised because you have fallen victim yourself, you can rest in the knowledge that this present evil age is passing away. Our true home is Heaven. Justice in this world may never come, and will be elusive at best. Healing in this world will never be complete. But there is a day coming when justice will be full and fair, and healing will be total and eternal. My hope is not in the church, though I do still have hope for the church. Ultimately, my hope is in the Jesus who is Lord of the church, and who knows his true church. As Helen Lemmel wrote in 1922, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of Earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”
You can pre-order Jennifer's book "Not Forsaken: A Story of Life After Abuse: How Faith Brought One Woman From Victim to Survivor" here.