I CAN STILL remember the rain pelting down on Janine’s tiny car while we drove around the streets of Bangor in Northern Ireland. Her windshield wipers whipping back and forth so violently we could barely hear each other talk over the din. These times with Janine are special.
(Our bond was formed when I visited the church she pastors with her husband Glen back in 2014, newly wed and experiencing my first year on the road doing ministry. I sat through the Sunday service numbly, feeling invisible and so alone I could burst into tears at any moment. She came up to me after the service, and said she felt like Jesus prompted her to ask if she could pray for me. I doubled over, put my face in my hands so she couldn’t see my tears and said “I just feel like a black hole! And nothing you or anyone else says will make me feel less like a nothing!” She just put her arms and around me and we prayed. It was then Janine became one of my people.)
But back to that night driving around and talking. I wanted Janine’s advice about how to encourage a girl I’d recently met, a girl who I strongly suspected had been sexually abused.
“I just don’t know what to do,” I confided.
“Gabby… did you know I was sexually abused by someone who used to be a family friend for years growing up?” Janine’s eyes didn’t leave the road.
For a moment the windshield wipers were deafening, the rain felt like it was drilling holes into the roof.
“The thing people who’ve experienced the pain of sexual abuse want to know is that despite everything, they’re known, loved, and seen by God. Affirm the life in the them they forget is good, don’t approach them like a problem to be solved.”
This is why when many of you wrote in asking for me to write about how to process doubt in the midst of pain, I knew I want to ask Janine to share her story.
Gabby: So before we get started let me just say I feel so honoured that you would share your story and wisdom with me and my little Thin Places tribe. Seriously. I think you have so much wisdom from your journey that I need to hear and I’m sure others do too.
Janine: Oh my goodness Gabby what an honour it is for me to be sharing my story here. My journey in this has been long one, full of the good and the bad. My greatest hope is that it would be able to be used to encourage someone else down the path of grace and freedom!
Gabby: If I’m brutally honest, it’s hard for me to imagine ever recovering from the kind of pain and trauma you experienced, and still be a Christian! Could share a little bit about your journey towards healing?
Janine: Well there were quite a few really dark years for me. I went into my teen years as a promiscuous rebel, carrying a lot of shame. Because the abuse had started so early, I assumed I was the type of girl who sexually very loose, because that was the identity spoken over me. I was too ashamed to even consider the fact that maybe I wasn’t because that would mean confronting the issue.
But after I became a Christian, and the abuse was exposed, I knew I needed to process it. I learned very quickly that there are the right people and the wrong people to process things with. I think that goes for most things in life. Some people make bad things worse, and others help you take your rubbish and turn it into something that brings about life.
Gabby: Ahhh! There’s so much truth in that. When you talk about the wrong things with the right people they can become the right things. So good. After you became a Christian did you ever struggle with anger towards God for what happened to you?
Janine: It’s strange, because while sexual abuse is horrific when it’s happening, that isn’t what I struggled with the most. I didn't struggle with knowing God was still God back then when it was all happening, that He allowed this kind of brokenness to happen and be part of my story. It’s actually the after effects that are sometimes almost harder to deal with. When I see the impact one man’s sin not only had on my life, but on the lives of my children and even on my marriage — that’s when I get furious. That’s when I just think “God! Haven’t I suffered enough? Can’t it just all be done?” That’s when I sometimes doubt His goodness in it all.
Gabby: What does the process of wrestling with doubt look like for you during those times?
Janine: Well sometimes it looks like having a glass of wine and watching Netflix!
Janine: But seriously, I think I’ve slowly learned to give myself grace for the process, because Jesus does. When I was a younger Christian experiencing doubt in God’s goodness I’d be torn up with guilt. I’d pour over my Bible, pray, talk to people until I stopped having the feelings of doubt and confusion. But the reality is I’m over ten years into this process and somedays are still a struggle, somedays I still don’t have all the answers I want from Him. The difference is I’ve come to embrace the journey. I’ve realised I don’t need to experience shame or guilt about my feelings towards God in this, and I’m allowed to feel what I’m feeling. He’s big enough to handle it.
Gabby: Do you remember a moment when you realised “Wait! There’s grace for this process! I don’t need to have everything figured out!”?
Janine: Yes! I was reading the Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning and it felt like all the lights came on. I think I always thought I was damaged goods. Like God couldn’t redeem my life, not only because of the abuse that happened to me, but because of the decisions I made with my life after the fact. Those were my horrible decisions, not anyone else’s. Surely God didn’t want me leading His church with a past like mine.
I think sometimes we think “Great, God’s forgiven my past, now I just need to go and sin no more.” But what happens with the sin leaves a long-lasting impact? Or the consequences are forever? Or when it crops back up again and again? Is He still gracious? Does he still work with people who not only have a broken past, but a broken present? Of course the answer is yes, he does. But when I realised our Jesus is God of the journey, that he wrestles, he cries, he knows our hearts and nothing surprises him, that’s when I felt freedom to just be like “God I’m really struggling to believe you’re good, but for now and we just watch Netflix and process it some other time?”
Gabby: This is why I love you! You're so honest. It’s crazy because no matter where I turn in this devotional series, I can’t seem to escape the connection between doubt and shame. Why do you think they’re connected?
Janine: Hhmm… About a week ago I had a woman confide in me that she was also the victim of sexual abuse. As soon as the words left her lips she was like “I wish I’d never told you that! I’m so ashamed!” Of course she has no business being ashamed of someone else’s sin. All victims of sexual abuse— that I know of anyway!— struggle with feeling like it was somehow their fault. Which is of course a lie! But one that our culture tends to perpetuate. There’s this sense that if someone’s been sexually abused or raped, that they must have done something to ask for it. The shame stems from the fact that as a society we don’t stand up for these victims enough, so they’re left with a sense of guilt. It’s a very lonely place.
Though it’s on a different scale, but I think there’s a similar pressure in Christian culture when it comes to experiencing doubt. We don’t stand up for doubters, we don’t embrace the process and walk alongside them. Because we don’t know what to say, we don’t say anything. But that’s not how Jesus treats people. He gets involved with the messiness. Like I said before, he’s the God of the journey. He loves to walk with his people, the church needs to stop being so afraid.
Gabby: So how do you be like Jesus, and practice being a friend on the journey?
Janine: I think it goes back to being one of the right people to talk to. If you’re friend is experiencing doubt in the midst of pain, the best thing to do is be willing to listen and not pass judgement. Don’t confirm what they already believe, that everyone judges them. Instead, surprise them with grace.
If you’re the one experiencing doubt, remember there’s no rush. There’s just taking it day by day with the One who already knows the most secret corners of your heart. You won’t shock him, he already loves and accepts you. It’s tempting to rush out of a season of doubt because you want straight edges and clean black and white lines. Or feel discouraged when it feels like you’re dealing with the same struggle for the tenth time. This is your journey. No one else has lived like you have and will. There’s a beauty in that, and there’s peace in the knowledge that Jesus will never leave or forsake you.