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From Bondage to Freedom: Jennifer Smith's StoryTrying to Escape

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: Hi, this is Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Before Revive Our Hearts begins today, think about a woman you know who needs your help navigating through difficult issues. Do you feel like you know how to help her? We want you to feel equipped to invest in the lives of other women in your church and community.

So I hope that you’ll come to the conference Revive ’13: Women Helping Women. This conference is for women who serve other women in ministry. That includes women’s ministry directors in local churches, pastors’ wives, counselors, teachers, small group leaders—any woman who’s helping or discipling other women.

At Revive ’13 I’ll be speaking, along with Paul David Tripp and Elyse Fitzpatrick. Paul and Elyse both have a lot of wisdom from God’s Word to share, along with a lot of experience in biblical counseling. My friend, songwriter, and worship leader, Shannon Wexelberg, with be with us throughout the conference,and I know she’ll be a great blessing to you as well.

So I hope you’ll join us for Revive ’13 in Schaumburg, Illinois, near Chicago, September 20 and 21. If you register before May 1, you can get a special discount on the event. For all the details, just visit us at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Leslie Basham: By the time she was a teenager, Jennifer Smith wanted to escape her life in Arkansas.

Jennifer Smith: At fifteen I ended up running away from home and going to Albany, Georgia—I have no clue why there. My parents found out where I was. I guess I made a phone call to a friend and she told them, and they came to the town.

It was a bad part of the town. When they came they had to have a police escort to even be there. Here I was, a fifteen-year-old, just running around down there, having no clue where I was, what kind of environment I was in. I got wind that they were on their way there, so I shot out and went up to Tennessee.

The cops showed up a couple days later and they said, “You have a choice. You can either go to jail—to ‘juvie’—or  you can go home.”

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Monday, February 4. Today’s program includes some mature themes, so use your judgment if you have younger children with you. Here’s Nancy to begin today’s conversation.

Nancy: I love seeing the way the Lord is using the message and ministry of Revive Our Hearts and true womanhood to influence women in all kinds of life circumstances, including women who are incarcerated.

In fact, over the years we’ve had a really neat partnership—and many of you have heard of this—with a ministry called Prison to Purpose. It’s headed up by a friend named Stacey Smith, out of Arkansas. You may have heard Stacey’s testimony here on Revive Our Hearts.

She herself was incarcerated for a number of years and God transformed her life in some amazing ways. Now she’s back ministering in women’s prisons and sharing the principles of biblical womanhood and growth in Christ with women behind bars.

Fast-forward—long story, short—a couple of years ago after a Revive Our Hearts conference, Stacey brought a woman to meet me. Her name is Jennifer Smith. I’d heard about Jennifer, who is here with us in the studio today—Jennifer, welcome to Revive Our Hearts.

Jennifer: Thanks, Nancy.

Nancy: I’m thinking back to the first time we met. You had been incarcerated for a number of years and had just gotten out several months before I met you there with Stacey. You were so excited about what God was doing in your life, and Stacey was so excited that I couldn’t help but be excited myself.

This story just started tumbling out of you so fast . . .  I think you talk faster, actually, than I do, which is not easy to do. I stood there thinking, “Our Revive Our Hearts listeners have got to hear this story.” So, finally now, months later, we have the chance of being here in the studio and letting you share what God has done in your life.

Thank you for opening up your heart. I know a lot of our listeners are going to be really encouraged by your story. As we said, you spent a number of years in women’s prisons—not one facility, but a couple of different ones over the years. I want to back up to what led up to all of that. If we go back to your childhood, it would not have looked like God was real present in that situation.

Tell us a little bit about your family and what you remember about your parents as you were a little girl.

Jennifer: I grew up in a home in northwest Arkansas, and I had one older sibling. From the outside, it looked like a normal family. My parents wanted two children and they had a daughter already, and they were told I was supposed to be a boy.

We’ve all heard the statement, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s not true. We know that words will create different emotions in us: anger, bitterness, joy, acceptance. My parents, I believe it wasn’t intentional (they meant as a teasing thing), but they told me from an early age that God had made a mistake.

And of course, my sister jumped on that bandwagon, being the older sister, and she even added that gypsies had left me on the doorstep—and then my uncles and aunts joined in. It was just a tease within the family. I was forced into the tomboy role.

You can go back and look at pictures in the family album. You can see in the pictures where I was in tomboy clothes. I was in boy clothes, had boy’s toys, trucks, while my sister had dolls. I hung out with boyfriends. It created a jealousy within me toward my sister and my mother and a bittterness.

From early age, my view of God—even though I was raised to know about Him, they told me the facts about a God—but at the same time, that was still was in the back of my mind. My heart began to form that He can make mistakes, and He made a mistake with me—and I believed that lie.

I didn’t know what it was creating within my heart throughout the years.

Nancy: Did you wish you had been made a boy, or just so it would please your parents?

Jennifer: Probably, to a degree, just to be accepted. You want that acceptance from your parents, but there were times, too, that I’d have a sorrow. “If I was good enough, then I would be accepted—if He would have made me right.” So that grew into bitterness that just kept forming in my heart.

I didn’t spend a lot of time with my mother because of the fact that she had a night job, and so I spent a lot of time at my grandma’s house. She kind of took that role of raising us. She was older in years, so you’re not going to get a lot of investment . . . she’s done raising her own children.

Early on, I had too much freedom. I spent most of my childhood there. I still have memories of spending time with my parents—it was just down the road, so I was back and forth. But my mom was just absent in my life, in a lot of roles, even being absent physically. She wasn’t there, and that made a big difference in my life.

Nancy: What kind of relationship did you have with your dad?

Jennifer: He was not an educated man. He can’t read or write, so feels inferior in a lot of ways. So I think in a lot of ways, he shut himself off from myself and my sister and my family. Of course my mom, her personality, she’s a dominating woman . . . submission in my family is a “no-no.”

I get the same response now, talking about submission and true womanhood, as in the life that I had before I came to Christ. There’s rejection in that, because they don’t believe in that.

Nancy: And by the way, as your story is unfolding, I want our listeners to know that your parents have heard you share this testimony, and there’s been a lot of growth in that relationship since then. They’ve given you the freedom to share this, so you’re not in any way dishonoring them by sharing this. I appreciate your heart to honor them.

So, your dad is more quiet, more passive . . . what kind of temperament or personality did your mom have?

Jennifer: She’s the one that makes the decisions in the family. She’s very controlling. She has an outgoing personality, she has a really soft heart, she does, but she has a “wall” that’s there that she doesn’t want people to know what’s really in there. To protect that, I think, she has to make it appear that she has this rough exterior and that there are no needs there.

She really does have a good heart, and I’ve seen glimpses of it, so I’m grateful for that. But she’s just lived a hard country life. She had issues even with her own family where she and her parents did not speak for years . . . a bitterness issue. So I was actually older when I met my grandparents on that side.

So that bitterness plays out from generation to generation on my mom’s side of the family, and even with the women on my mom’s side of the family.

Nancy: Was that something you were aware of as a child?

Jennifer: No, I was not aware of that. I can look back now, and I can see how that plays out. I makes you think, “Wow, what we do really does affect the next generation, affects the children and people in our lives.” You think at the moment that it doesn’t affect the decisions we make, or even our personalities.

Nancy: So, those things we don’t take care of do come home to haunt us. Those seeds we sow, we reap as a harvest, even in generations to come. 

So, you’re spending a lot of time with your grandmother. Was church a part of your growing up years?

Jennifer: Yes, I was forced to go to church every Sunday morning and every Sunday night and every Wednesday. Church back then lasted until maybe eleven o’clock at night. You had services that lasted a long time. So I was forced to go to church and, again, my view of God—I wasn’t that interested in Him.

I went to be with my grandparents, for something to do. When you live in the country, getting to go to church and then getting to go to the little McDonald’s afterwards is a treat. So that’s something I did, just to do. I can remember hearing the facts about God, but God was never personal to me, because in my mind He messed up; He made a mistake. Why would I want to serve Him? Why would I ever want anything to do with a God who would do that?

Nancy: And that was all about having been born a girl instead of a boy?

Jennifer: Exactly. I was just told that, that I was a mistake. That’s just an example of how a simple word can create within the human heart . . . how that created all those inferiorities and insecurities in me, bitterness, low self-esteem, these different things it created in me.

Nancy: Then when you were about ten years old, there was another chapter in your life that further skewed your view of God. How did that come about?

Jennifer: There was an older man in the church, older than me—he was nineteen at the time. I’m going to refrain from names, because as a family, we’ve decided to do that. Anyway, there was interest that he took in me. For the first time someone saw me as a girl.

There was molestation that happened from age ten up to age fourteen. It was a mutual thing, at one point, because whenever you get older those desires begin to happen in your body and it becomes a mutual thing. That was a shame within its own self; it was a different kind of dirty.

Nancy: Did you tell anyone?

Jennifer: I told no one. Of course, he would say, “They’re not going to believe you. You just don’t tell them.” It wasn’t any kind of an attack, because he was someone I trusted, and actually the in the perverseness of it, it was acted out as a Bible story.

Nancy: Wow.

Jennifer: Acting out the Adam and Eve story is how it began. We acted that story out in charades, and then I became different role-played characters in the Bible. So again, now, my view of God is . . . There is even more rage and bitterness forming in my heart.

So I began to deal with that the only way I knew how. I actually had heard an older teenager say that drinking makes you feel better, makes things go away. I had heard that line, and so that’s how I began to deal with that, by experimenting with alcohol, because then I did not have to feel the shame. I did not have to feel the guilt of that. I was eleven when I started drinking.

Nancy: How did you get the alcohol?

Jennifer: Well, I had an older sister, and she had friends. But it’s not hard to get. I had people in my family that drank, so I had ways to get it. It’s out there to get. The enemy makes it easily accessible; it was back then.

Nancy: Did it make the pain go away?

Jennifer: No, it just added to it. At the time it did. You didn’t have to think about things, or feel, until the alcohol wore off and then you just had to re-do it. But eventually that wasn’t enough, and then at age twelve I began drug use. That just escalated. Things that I never thought I would do, and a person I never thought I would become, I was becoming.

Nancy: How did you get introduced to drugs?

Jennifer: Just through friends. I had a cousin, actually, who introduced me to it. She was the same age, and she had gotten hold of marijuana at school—what it started with—and then it just escalated. Once you get into that society and lifestyle, you know who your go-to people are. You just know where it’s at—it can find you.

Once they hear that, they’re going to come to you. “I hear that you’re down, and you do this,” and of course then you’re going to fall under the pressure. You may not have even tried it yet.

One of the first times I tried meth, I had lied, actually, and said, “Yes, I’ve done that,” just because you want to feel like you’re cool, or you want to fit in. I really had never done it. But then they come back with their friends and they say, “Hey, we hear you’ve done meth.” Now you have the option, “Do I tell them I’m a liar, or do I do it?”

So, it would find you, once you had put yourself out there in that realm.

Nancy: Did your folks have any idea what was going on?

Jennifer: They knew I had been drinking. My sister had had a party, and they caught the party. I think I was in the front yard unconscious, so they knew that I had been drinking. That kind of woke my mom up, where she switched around to work days then. She wanted to be home at night to monitor what was going on.

But my heart was already gone at that point. I became very rebellious, very angry at my parents, very disrespectful toward them, and rejected them. I rejected any effort to reach out to me. They did try to help, they did try to talk. I didn’t want to. I just didn’t have anything in my heart at that point.

They knew what was going on, but they didn’t know really what to do. They were the type, too, that love was shown through buying things. They thought if they could buy me that shoe that I wanted or that game that was out there, it was going to fix things. That’s not what I was needing.

It was like they were rewarding bad behavior.

Nancy: So, you’re drinking, you’re on drugs, you’re involved in this relationship with the older guy, and your relationship with your parents is broken . . . where did that go?

Jennifer: Well, at fifteen I ended up running away from home and going to Albany, Georgia—I have no clue why. I was about to turn sixteen and they had gotten me a car for my birthday, so I just took it and drove, and that’s where I ended up.

Nancy: Did you plan this for weeks or months—“I’ve got to get out of here”—or did you just do this impulsively when you got this car?

Jennifer: Let me just back up here. I had a boyfriend in school right before I ran away. The guy that had been molesting me, when he found out that I had been active with my boyfriend, then it was a cut-off point. I think that was my way of getting out of that; I thought I would run away. I ran away to Albany. I had no intention to go there; I was just going to drive south. I had never even been that far away, a day-and-a-half drive. I may have just gone in circles.

I was also on drugs at this time. I had been on meth; I had been up. I took drugs with me and found a motel and just stayed around hanging out down there, doing drugs, didn’t know anybody. I don’t even know how I was able to get a hotel room. I guess because I had a car and was able to give them a tag number. They didn’t ask for an ID where I was at.

My parents found out where I was. I guess I made a phone call to a friend and she told them. They came to the town. It was a bad part of the town, and when they came they had to have a police escort to even be there. Here I was, a fifteen-year-old, just running around down there, having no clue where I was, what kind of environment I was in.

I got wind that they were in their way there, so I shot out to Tennessee and came back home to Harrison, where I stayed with a friend until the cops showed up a couple of days later. They said, “You have a choice. You can either go to jail . . . to ‘juvie’ . . . or you can go home.”

I said, “Can I think about it?” Of course, they were not going to give me that option, so I ended up going back home, but I gave my parents the option that if they wanted me in their lives, I was at least going to live with my sister.

My sister had a trailer at this point that was on the property—she had her own home. So I gave them that ultimatum that I was at least going to live with my sister. Basically, if they wanted me in their lives, they were going to let me do that. They didn’t know what to do with me anymore.

I had become so rebellious and so bitter and angry, I just ran over them. Bitterness causes you to do that, to “defile many” around you. They agreed to let me live with my sister, and I ended up moving out, and I finished high school. I just went from relationship to relationship after that. That’s when I became the predator.

I shared about being molested and going through that, so I determined that another man would never stir that desire in me first. I determined that I’d be the one that would stir that in them. I became the predator. It didn’t matter whether it was a married man, if it was a one-night stand, I’d be the one that would stir that desire in them first.

At seventeen I became engaged to an older man who was twenty-five. That didn’t turn out good at all. A month before our wedding it just fell through—which I’m grateful for today, looking back.

Nancy: So during all this time, were you ever stopping to think, “What’s happened in my life?” or “I wish it was different.” Or to be sad, or hopeful? What’s going on in your heart during this time?

Jennifer: I had moments of reflection of, “This is not the life I wanted for myself. This is not how I was raised.” I wanted to be a basketball coach—I wanted this out of my life. This was not where I intended to go. Then the thought would come, “Well, you’re stuck. This is your life.”

I couldn’t get out of it—I didn’t know how. I was “in prison” before I ever went to prison. I was in prison to the anger and the bitterness and the drug life, and to those addictions and the relationships that went with that. It had captured my soul to the degree that everything I did flowed out of that.

Nancy: Was there anyone in your life who reached out, who had any sense of connection to the Lord or who pointed you in that direction at all, or was that totally not a part of your life?

Jennifer: I did have some people that reached out. There was a lady that had a kid that was in school with me, and she began to recognize things in my life. During that time I had become a cutter. I would cut myself with a blade, with a razor, just to feel pain, because I had numbed myself with the drugs and the alcohol.

I played basketball, and we wore uniforms, so I would try not to do it on my arms so it would be shown. It would be on my stomach or my back or my upper legs, but a girl had caught me changing. I would always wait for them to go out, but she came back in and saw all the cuts and said, “What is that?!”

She told on me, and that became known. When that woman found that out, she tried to reach out to me. Through the years she would make it a point to see how I was doing and to see if I needed any help. I had a friend who came to the Lord during those years. She got saved, actually.

She tried to reach out to me as well, and she ended up going on to be a basketball coach. We both wanted to do that same thing. She and I are good friends today.

Nancy: We have to stop at this point in the story—we’re going to pick it up on the next program. But as I listen to you talk, Jennifer, I just think how many young women there are in all of our towns around us who are in similar desperate places  . . . trapped by bitterness, by rebellion, by anger, by disappointment with God . . . and then acting out in a variety of ways.

For some it’s drugs and sex and cutting, for others it may not be so obvious. But it’s still those inward areas of addiction and bondage. So many women are trapped in that kind of heart and lifestyle, and at this point it doesn’t seem there is much hope. It didn’t seem like you would be sitting here today talking on Revive Our Hearts. That probably seemed like the furthest thing from possibility.

But all this time God was watching, He was caring, He was loving, He was creating circumstances that ultimately would draw you to Himself. We’re going to get to that, but I just want to say that even in those dark, dark places, the light of God’s truth, the light of God’s love and the light of the gospel is able to penetrate and to rescue and redeem.

I know there are moms listening today—and grandmoms—who are caring about, and for, daughters and granddaughters who are trapped in those kinds of lifestyles. I want to say to you, “There is hope for God to intervene.” Don’t stop praying, don’t stop caring, don’t stop loving, and don’t stop believing that God really can capture the heart of that young woman.

We’re going to pick up with this story. It’s a story of God’s grace and His power and His transforming love. You want to be sure and join us as we continue talking with Jennifer Smith on the next Revive Our Hearts.

Leslie: If you missed any of that conversation between Jennifer Smith and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, you can hear it at ReviveOurHearts.com. Jennifer will be part of the Revive Our Hearts listener blog today. To interact with her and other listeners, visit ReviveOurHearts.com and click on today’s program.

You’ll see a transcript and find a place to leave your question or comment. Jennifer will be checking in and interacting throughout the day.

Can a person go through the type of tragic things Jennifer went through without being bitter and angry? As you listen to Jennifer’s story this week, you’ll hear her answer to that question. Nancy Leigh DeMoss also thoroughly covers it in her book Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom. She’ll show you how to escape the bondage of past hurts and how to be free.

We’d like to send you a copy of Choosing Forgiveness. It’s our way of saying thanks when you support Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any size. Ask for Choosing Forgiveness when you make your gift by phone. The number is 1-800-569-5959, or visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

Jennifer Smith remembers the time when she looked in her rearview mirror and saw six police cars. She had just robbed her cousin, robbed a store, and was on her way to buy a big shipment of drugs.

Find out what happened next, tomorrow, on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

Offers available only during the broadcast of the radio series.

Topics: Forgiveness

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