I first heard the voice of God when I was around four years old. Based on other events I associate with this time period, I believe that was when the sexual abuse at the hands of my great-grandfather began. It’s not a story I share often as I have found it makes others uncomfortable on multiple levels—the nature of the abuse, the incestual element, and the bit about hearing God.* But it is such a central part of my testimony and the genesis of the Lord’s merciful pursuit of me, so I must include it if I am to testify in full.
As a teacher, my mom was always available on weekends and summers to be with my brother and me, so it was only after school, on the rare occasion that one of us was sick, or for date nights that we were placed under the care of my great-grandparents. In truth, as a little kid I loved visiting their house. My great-grandmother was to my memory an expressive, jovial caretaker, forever concerned with your every need and whim, especially if she thought you looked hungry. A hobbit of a woman at only 5’2”, she still managed to just about smother me with hugs and kisses and did not hesitate to let me and others in the family know that I was her current favorite. She unapologetically declared her preference for little girls over boys, who by her estimation, “Just run off and leave home for their wives and never think again of the mother who raised them.” Apparently her two sons, my grandfather and great uncle, really let her down.
My great-grandfather was a sulking, brooding fixture in the home, only looking up from his newspaper or the television long enough to bark orders at Grandma to make him something to eat or bring him a beer. If anything was not to his liking, he would shout out a few “hells” and “damns,” demanding that she fix whatever was vexing him immediately. I knew from a very early age that I did not like him, but he never acknowledged my presence, so it was easy to ignore him and not allow his grumpy demeanor deter me from enjoying the expansive, shady backyard, the outdoor cats my grandma could not control due to her inability to ignore any hungry creature, the doves and finches she kept in a wall of bird cages in the garage, or her ornery parrot, Clyde, who always called out for crackers from the kitchen. I have good memories of a great deal of my time spent there.
That sweet, innocent season of life was interrupted the first time Grandpa called out to me from across the room to come over to him. To my recollection, he had never spoken to me before, and I knew intuitively that his sudden interest in me could not be positive. There’s no need to go into any of the details, but what struck me most about that first instance of abuse was how unashamedly he did what he did, right out in the open of the living room, with my brother just down the hall and my grandma just around the corner in the kitchen. He smelled strongly of beer, and his speech was slurred as he spoke of things I did not understand but knew were not for children.
But his voice was not the only one I could hear, and this other presence brought with it perfect peace and reassurance in the middle of such a frightening and confusing moment. I heard a whisper that I was not alone and that I would be okay. The message was spoken ever so gently, and somehow, the words seemed to enter not into my mind, as most audible language would, but they were spoken to me somewhere deep in my chest, straight into my heart, and I believed them completely. In only a few minutes, my life had been forever changed, but little four-year-old me knew that somehow I was going to be alright.
Over the next several years, the abuse intensified and so did my shame because I recognized that my silence only emboldened my molester. Each time I was ready to share my secret, a parade of objections would hold me back. There was fear over angering my great-grandfather, concern for how such a revelation might affect Grandma, embarrassment over having to say out loud to my parents the things that had been done to me, and sadness over the heartbreak they were bound to feel over it. But throughout, there was that voice to comfort me, the one that never failed to draw near during the abuse and speak peace to my heart.
At some point, I tried to determine who could possibly be addressing me in this way. My parents were (I would later discover) agnostic and had determined early on that they would leave my brother and I to explore the option of religion completely on our own. Not wanting to influence us, talk of God had not been a feature in our house up to this point. The only omnipresent, omniscient being—which the owner of that voice must be since it seemed to understand my predicament—that I was aware of was Santa Clause. It was, after all, right there in the song: “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good…” You all know the rest. Plus, I knew he loved children and considered me a good kid, as evidenced by the spread of gifts awaiting me each Christmas morning. I reasoned that Santa must have magically seen from the North Pole what was happening to me down in Texas and wanted me to know that there was someone out there who saw my pain and shame and was with me in it.
So every night in bed, just before going to sleep, I prayed to Santa. I poured out my heart to him, telling him every detail of my day, every exciting thing that had happened, confessing if I had been unkind to my brother or if I was struggling to be a friend to a kid in my class. I would always conclude by asking him to help me be the person he wanted me to be and to protect me from harm. I often asked him to forgive my grandpa for whatever had gone so terribly wrong in his heart.
When I was seven years old, Grandpa’s lifelong smoking habit caught up to him. He was diagnosed with emphysema and was put on oxygen. I was sure the abuse would stop at that point. It didn’t. However, I did experience a sense of hope (which I felt guilty acknowledging) that I might soon be free. That freedom I longed for, to never have to look again on the face of my tormentor, wouldn’t come until I was nine, when Grandpa finally passed. Grandma was in mourning (a fact I found difficult to understand as a child, since he had always spoken so unkindly to her), so I had to hide the fact that I considered it one of the happiest days of my young life. Thankfully, my belief in Santa wasn’t dismantled until I was well into my 10th year (a story for another time), so I had him to share my relief and joy with as I processed the end to a hard chapter of life.
In early adulthood, as a student of psychology, I read everything I could on sexual abuse, paying particular attention to how the age of onset affects the psyche of the victim and the research on the long-term effects associated with familial abuse. I clearly recognized myself in some of what I read: distrust for others, especially authority figures; hindrance of normal social development (I remained painfully shy well beyond childhood); acting out inappropriately (that would hit during my teenage years); eating disorders (definitely something I developed at Grandma’s house in direct response to the abuse); and PTSD (this would take several forms, but one I will mention is that the faintest smell of alcohol on someone’s breath could send me into near panic for most of my young adult life) were among the difficulties with which I identified. I also read in detail about the dissociative coping mechanisms the brain will often employ to protect the victim during trauma. No doubt, I realized, that would be the most simple and logical explanation for the voice I heard throughout the years of abuse. My mind simply creating a comforting, reassuring presence so I would not feel alone and afraid.
And I might buy into that theory myself if the story ended there, with a young, isolated little girl finding a friend in the only benevolent fairy tale character with which she was familiar. But this was only the beginning of my interactions with the One who was to become the dearest friend anyone could ever know. Soon, I would hear that voice again, and finally I would understand that it was my Lord speaking to me, watching over me, and keeping me all along. Notably absent for me on the list of common struggles related to childhood sexual abuse: depression, feelings of worthlessness, anxiety (a trait that runs in my family on both sides), and suicidal ideation. I believe that the Spirit of the Lord protected me throughout my childhood by speaking words of peace over me, and in so doing, spared me the more devastating effects of abuse.
“The Lord will keep you from harm; he will watch over your life.”Psalm 121:7
*I learned pretty early on from my experiences in church that the claim, “God spoke to me,” was not considered appropriate or credible by many in the Christian faith. You might be able to get away with the phrase, “I sensed the Lord leading me…”, but it was still risky. This was partially due to the fact that most of the churches I attended were primarily fundamentalist and adhered pretty strictly to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, extending the definition beyond its affirmation of the authority of Scripture to exclude all personal revelation. But I also noticed that the willingness of individual Believers to accept this claim seemed to hinge directly on their own encounters with God. Those whose experiences did not include any form of conversational relationship were immediately made uncomfortable by such statements and would react both defensively and dismissively. Those who had also experienced the Lord in ways that were beyond average understanding and traditional expectations would simply nod and respond, “Yes, go on.” I had to become discerning about with whom I could share and found that keeping silent was more often the preferable course. Even in writing this testimony now, it is difficult not to review the list of those from the past who are sure to shake their heads upon reading and think me rather “off.” But due to the way the Lord has chosen to pursue me and reveal himself to me throughout my life, I could not possibly share my testimony without mention of the many times I have heard his voice, and since “we must obey God rather than men,” I will testify.
Just a few less personal notes on the subject of hearing God. For those curious on the matter or desiring to develop a more conversational relationship with the Lord, Dallas Willard’s Hearing God is a good place to begin. There you will find insight into the varied ways a Believer might experience the Lord communicating and recommendations from the author on spiritual disciplines that can aid one in becoming more aware of the “still small voice.” I once had the privilege of attending a conference with Willard, and any theological differences aside, I can attest to having never witnessed another in whom the peace of the Lord reigned so evidently. Further, because I will be referencing hearing God so often in my testimony, a few quick observations I have made over the years: First, we do not all hear the same, and we should neither expect to do so nor see the absence of hearing as a sign of spiritual failure or a lack of the Lord’s favor. I am a big believer in the sovereignty of God, as my story will demonstrate, and I believe much of hearing God is due to the Lord’s providence, meaning he speaks when the time is right, circumstances call for it, and doing so advances his plan for the individual and “builds up” the Church (see Ephesians 4:11-12). Further, it has been my observation that the way we hear God seems to follow certain giftings of the Spirit. For example, those gifted with wisdom tend to find that the Lord directs their thoughts toward his will, giving them understanding and conviction concerning what is right in any given situation. Those with the gift of teaching often receive insight into the Scriptures, allowing them to direct God’s people toward greater communion with the Lord and obedience to his Word. It has been my experience that those with what some would consider more “charismatic” gifts (all but non-existent in churches that hold cessationist beliefs concerning the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit) such as prophecy, knowledge, and discernment tend to be the ones who report more instances of hearing God in a more direct sense.