A Heart Divided
When looks deceive.
by by Donna Swanson
I was on an imaginary “walk in the garden” with six other women. We were told to close our eyes and imagine birds singing and butterflies arcing across the sky. We were told a figure was walking toward us: Jesus, smiling and reaching His hand out in greeting.
Afterward, as each woman gave an account of meeting with Jesus, my stomach began to twist; I tried to think of some way to get out of answering. “I would rather not share what the exercise meant to me,” one woman said. When it came my turn, I said the same.
This had not been an uplifting experience for me. I saw the garden; I even saw Jesus. But I could not reach Him. A glass wall stood between us. Though we walked along together, the wall remained; I could neither hear Jesus’ words nor feel His touch.
For many years I kept that experience to myself. I’d known there was something odd in my relationship with God, though I’d done all the right things: written poetry and songs about Him, led workshops on prayer, and started several prayer and sharing groups for women.
Raised in the church, I knew every pat answer to every question in the groups’ study guide, but I also asked deeper questions. I taught adult Bible school for many years. But God was not a friend, and Jesus was not my brother.
I talked and sang in front of an audience, building rapport between us especially when I spoke before a group of women. At least one woman would stare at me, listening with an almost palpable intensity. At the end of the program she would come to me and share something about her life or thank me for putting into words what she could not say.
I did not know then what drew us together. Now I do: We were reaching for a God we could not touch.
When I was 48 years old the answers began to come. I realized I had no childhood memories. As I wrote a term paper for a creative writing class at a local university, my fictional alter-ego, Molly, stepped to the door of her “familiar” home and was met with total darkness. Vainly I searched my memory for the interior of that childhood home. I was so shocked that I not only could not visualize the interior but also could not remember who lived there or what they looked like, I did not write again for almost seven years.
For five of those years I struggled with the discovery on my own. I asked other people if they could remember the home of their childhood. I asked my sisters and mother careful questions about that time in my life. Finally, an older sister caught on to what I was asking. When we were alone, she said, “P____ molested M____ and me for several years, but I never dreamed he’d gotten to you as well.”
With that statement, life as I thought I had known it changed forever. My childhood “memories” carried for 40 years had been made up of family stories and my own imagination. The life I thought I remembered had been lived among a reputable Christian family. Dad was Bible school superintendent, elder, and Bible school teacher. He never swore in front of us and said grace before every meal. He took care of his widowed mother and orphaned nieces and nephews.
Mother also taught Bible school and was active in the ladies aid and mission society. Evangelists, Bible college students, and missionaries were frequent visitors overnight or for meals. My twin brother and I sang duets in church from an early age. I became a youth leader as a teen and would have attended a Christian college if I hadn’t met and married a wonderful man and started a family.
Searching for a past
Then at age 48, all those memories of a fun-loving, active family were suspect. I went into therapy with a Christian woman counselor named Kathi. For two years we searched for my real childhood. Toward the end of that period I learned that the memories went no further than my sixteenth birthday, when I began dating my future husband. Kathi asked about vacations and special occasions. “What did you eat? Where did you go? How did you celebrate holidays?”
Nothing came to me. Where had sixteen Christmases gone? Sixteen Thanksgivings? Sixteen summers? Whatever trauma had caused my childhood to be erased were too deep to recover.
In talking with my sister, I learned how much incest was suspected in my family: brothers, cousins, uncles. I finally understood the dysfunctional parts of my personal life as footprints left by however many perpetrators there were. Kathi and I worked on those, bringing resolution to many of them. Using the book The Bondage Breaker, by Neil T. Anderson, I was able to forgive all who might have been involved. Though I could not remember the abuse, the act of forgiving brought a great deal of healing.
Still, this wasn’t the answer to my divided heart. Though I could not remember the abuse, my soul had never forgotten. A little girl remained inside me who sat in Bible school and listened to her teachers tell her about God, how God cares and protects those He loves, how He saved Daniel in the lions’ den, David from Goliath, and the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army. She listened and never told them it was a lie, that God did not love her, that He had abandoned her to a brother twelve years older than she.
She didn’t’ tell anyone. Her silence had been guaranteed by the memory of newborn kittens whose feet, legs, and tails had been cut off and whose eyes had been gouged out with a knife.
She’d thought, growing up, the incest was a family story she had heard; but no one else in her adult world knew of it.
So this little girl grew up with a divided heart. She carefully put away the truths no one wanted to hear. She buried them deep in her soul and never thought of them again with her conscious mind. But her soul knew. It built barriers against the lies she thought she had been told. God would not take care of her; no one would. Only she could care for herself. She became so adept at playing the church game that she fooled even herself. She learned all the right answers and all the proper responses.
“Super Christian”: I had hung this tag from my heart. I didn’t have to time to examine my strangely silent soul or wonder why “God is love” rang false or why I could not respond in my heart to the beautiful words I sang and spoke. Sometimes I would break down or become depressed, but I did not know why. I felt empty and alone and ugly. But there came a time when I had to find the answers.
A hard road
Recovery proved hard for me. One of the first hurdles I faced was my relationship to God and the church. Who was I, in His eyes? How much of my religious instruction could I believe? What did it mean to be a Christian?
I felt a rage against God as real as the abuse I had forgotten. How could I erase forty years of rage? How could I cope with the realization that I had hated the Creator all those years? I had to first redirect my rage to the person who scarred my body and soul. Only then did I begin to understand the abuser’s own rage and bitterness toward life and the reasons he might have had for acting out his own hurt. Finally, I came to the place of forgiving.
But even this was not an easy place. Forgiveness is not a quick fix for alienation from God. As I said the words, nothing noticeable happened. I didn’t feel the weight lifting from my shoulders or my soul bursting open with joy. I went home and fixed dinner and continued to attend church each week. I eventually recognize a lie when a voice whispered in my ear, “God could not possibly love you!” It was Satan.
Moving toward wholeness
Having been an abused child, I couldn’t understand faith as an adult. I had thought of it as a warm, fuzzy feeling I could not experience; it is not. Faith is living life according to the truth you know, not the lies you feel. It is hanging on, somehow, when the ground falls out from under your feet. And it is also seeking the God you know is loving and faithful no matter what Satan’s voice whispers in the night.
As a survivor of abuse, I may always feel a divided heart in this world. Scar tissue runs deep, but the vicious sting has been removed. No longer can Satan turn the truths of God into lies believed by that little girl. I can take within my soul all of God I can hold at any one moment. I can wait for the moment when God will stand beside me as I watch the reel of life unfold, when together we see the bad being worked together for my good and for the good of those around me.
God will wipe the tears from my eyes, and my divided heart will be whole.