*My friend Samantha Hogan has been gracious enough to share my life story with her followers on Facebook. I thought I’d share it on my own blog as well. A wise woman once told me, “The past is in the past. You don’t have to bring it up or talk about it ever again, unless you choose to, and unless it can help someone else.” 18 years ago, my reality was harshly altered. 18 years later, God has transformed me and refused to let ugly actions permanently alter my beautiful future. Here’s hoping God will do what He says He’ll do for YOU in Isaiah 63–transform ashes into beauty.*
What my life was like before
I was baptized in a creek when I was five years old. I had no clue what I was doing or what it meant. I just wanted to be like my dad. Months before he left our family and became smothered by his drug addiction, he was baptized as part of a semi-charismatic revival or camp meeting. I don’t remember the details. I just remember my dad sitting me down on a big rock before we headed down to the creek, asking me why I wanted to be baptized.
“Because you are, Dad.”
So they let me. It didn’t hurt anything. I barely remember it.
After my parents divorced, my mom was stuck raising four girls, ages seven and under, by herself. She still managed to take us to church. For a while, she dropped us off for Sunday School and picked us up afterwards. Then she started going with us again. In Sunday School, I learned all the books of the Bible and earned a beautiful orange, shiny bookmark, the first of several hundred in my current collection. My Sunday School teacher must have understood the hardships my mom faced because she offered to pay to send me to gymnastics lessons, something I wanted to do but something a single mom on welfare cannot afford. Mrs. Gutshall was one of the first people to show me, not tell me, how to love others and give selflessly, for fun and for free.
When my mom remarried, and we relocated to Arkansas after her graduation from dental hygiene school, we started attending a small Southern Baptist church within walking distance from our house. During a lay renewal that September, my friend Morgan wanted to “get saved” when her grandma, our teacher, asked anyone who wanted to ask Jesus into her heart to say a prayer with her. Morgan grabbed my hand, so I decided I better pray the prayer, too, since Morgan was cool, and she was my BFF.
At that time, I gained a better understanding of what “church things” meant. I knew God was God. I understood basic Christian doctrine. I’m not sure I understood what the future held, and that in only six short years, having basic head knowledge of Christianity would not cut it. I would need more than that. I would need a passionate, desperate, trusting relationship with the Healer.
Growing up, I maintained that head knowledge and fostered it. I grew in understanding, memorized verses, and refused to have sex, drink, or do drugs. I wasn’t perfect, but I liked being the “good girl” in my group of friends. My churchy background taught me that if I did X, Y, and Z, I could basically guarantee an easier, more joyous, and safer life.
That proved to be false.
What happened to change me
When I was 16, I was raped the first time I had sex by a family friend. I didn’t tell my mom, for reasons too confidential and complicated to explain in a few short sentences. I harbored the hurt, PTSD, and anger for years. I wrote in my journals, smoked a lot of marijuana, and engaged in risky behaviors. I didn’t care anything, most of all myself and my own well-being. “True love waits” was a joke. You can wait as long as you want, I thought, but someone can screw everything up for you anyway. So who cares?
I didn’t. Not anymore. A few friends reached out to me and recognized the drastic difference in my attitude, the look in my eyes, my decision-making. But for the most part, I kept up a fairly Stoic façade and did so well enough to fool my parents and most other people in my life.
When I went on a mission trip to help build a church in Oklahoma, something clicked. Maybe it was the feeling I got from helping others. Maybe it was putting some distance between me and the marijuana and friends and negativity back home. Maybe it was the Native American man who took me aside after I sang during a worship service and said, “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something special about you. You keep using that gift. You keep following God. He’s going to do something with you.”
On July 4, 1996, as the sun set and the fireworks began, I slipped away from the group and sat on an old rickety wooden fence and had a candid discussion with the God who I presumed existed but did not care too deeply about me personally.
“Well, I’ve tried everything else. If you can give me peace and change me, please, please, PLEASE do it.”
That was it. No big words. Just a big moment in my soul.
I’d like to say that’s the end of the story, and that I lived happily ever after.
That’s not real life. It’s not my real life, anyway. Afterward, my faith grew exponentially. But my ability to let go of the coping mechanisms and go-to reactions I’d acquired as a result of trusting Bethany rather than trusting God were not easy to part with. My spiritual life was literally a roller coaster. I lived very much like the Israelites in the Old Testament who worshipped God, followed Him for a while, got cocky, did their own destructive things for a while, crashed and burned, repented, and started the cycle all over again. I spent almost two years free from the behaviors I’d engaged in to fill a void in me. Then I reverted right back to 16 year-old Bethany for a while. Then I spent another year clean and clear and growing like a weed spiritually. Then I reverted again.
I did this, with varying lengths of time between relapses, for years. It seemed that I could never fully trust God, although my heart really wanted to. It seemed that my mind wouldn’t let me. My tendency to over analyze, criticize, and cynically rip apart every pure intention only worsened when I became entrenched in the disease of alcoholism after marrying a man who could not stop drinking.
Years went by. I kept going to church. I kept reading my Bible. But I became less trusting, more cynical, and more bitter. Then, thanks to my second husband’s addictive behavior leading me to a point of crisis, I turned to an anonymous recovery program for help. And I got it.
I didn’t just learn how to change my actions and behaviors. I had the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over, just me and God. No churchy religious mess in the way. Nobody telling me what to think and believe. No judgmental, self-righteous “we’re praying for you” whispers—translated as “we’re all talking about you”–around me.
Just me. And God.
What my life is like now
That was six years ago. Since then, I’ve continued to grow closer to God, little by little. I am far from perfect, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The more I lean on God, and the more I let Him have, the less the old Bethany shows up. And the more I like who I am.
Changing is a process, not a moment. It involves a lot of sweat and tears, a lot of falling down and getting up again, and a lot of forgiveness. It took giving up on church for a while and wrestling with God honestly. It took a recovery program, and it still does. It took Christian counseling, too, because some scars are deceitful, just scabs covering festering wounds from the past. Thankfully, God is patient, kind, and tender-hearted, and His kindness led me to repentance, over and over again. It still does, and it always will.
Today I choose to do the next right thing more often because I have a secret, precious, deep relationship with the Man Who Healed My Heart. I know I cannot lose His love, no matter what, and the more I make choices to trust Him, the more I trust Him, because He keeps proving Himself trustworthy.
And I have His Love wrapped around my heart, which is really all that matters.