Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Extend Compassion

Now, more than ever, we need your help in showcasing Christ’s compassion to a hurting world. By giving toward our year-end need, you empower our efforts to put love into action.

Donate Now

Dannah Gresh: Pain in her past eventually drove Donna VanLiere to the only One who could really help.

Donna VanLiere: There comes a time and a place where everyone has to open their hands to something and say, “Take this, Lord, take it from me, because it’s not doing me any good.”

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuthl, co-author of You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, for March 31, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: All of us experience unpleasant things in life, but some go through what can only be described as evil. That’s a different kind of suffering. It’s suffering at the hands of someone else. Maybe you understand that on a personal level.

I need to alert parents that today’s program references a traumatic childhood experience of a sexual nature. So if you have younger ears nearby, you may want to get them occupied doing something else for the next minutes here. And remember, you can always listen later on the Revive Our Hearts app or at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Donna VanLiere is a best-selling author, a speaker, a wife, and a mom. She’s also a dear friend of my co-host, Dannah Gresh. Recently, Donna visited Dannah at our Pennsylvania studio to share with us how she has come to trust God with her story. It’s a story that includes some painful chapters. Here’s Dannah.

Dannah: Normally, my guest needs no introduction, but since she’s running low on sleep today . . .

Donna [deep sigh]: Yes!

Dannah: Donnah, I’m so glad to have hosted you in my home last night. 

Donna: Yes, same for me!

Dannah: But it didn’t go very well.

Donna: No, it didn’t! I went to bed; I was so tired after a twelve-hour drive to Pennsylvania, and thought I’d get a really good night’s sleep. At 4:00 a.m., I just kept hearing this weird, almost-like-a wheezing noise. I thought, Is that my husband? What sort of sound is that coming from his nose!?

And I kept listening, and then I saw his head pop up, and I asked, “What is that!?” 

And he said, “It’s either a chicken, a rooster, a goat, or a horse. I’m not quite sure!” (laughter) 

Dannah: Welcome to the Gresh farm! 

Donna: But he was a persistent little fellow, with the saddest “cocka-doodle-doo” I’ve ever heard! 

Dannah: Yes, that is true.

Donna: And Troy finally said, “Well, at least he’s not propped outside our bedroom window,” which he was, by the way. He was outside the window! 

Dannah: Yes, exactly. You found that out the next morning. What time was that?

Donna: That was at 4:00 a.m.

Dannah: Well, that’s a proper time for a rooster to wake up.

Donna: Yes, that’s a great time to wake up after a twelve-hour drive. So if I’m not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, your listeners will know why!

Dannah: Awww. Well, that’s a good light-hearted beginning, because we have some heavy topics to cover today as we delve into the topic of trusting God with your story. Because, sometimes, the way our story turns out isn’t what we hoped and dreamed of.

You faced a couple of really big ones in your life . . . twists that you would not have chosen. And I guess before we go to what those two topics are, what were the dreams you had when you were a little girl? Take us back to little eight-, nine-, ten-year-old Donna . . . living in that house with that shag carpet. What color was that shag carpet?

Donna: It was pink! It was a house built in the ’60s. I woke up like we did back then. We woke up with dreams of a full day of playing! So I would get up and I would get busy outside. That was back in the day when kids spent a lot of time outside.

Dannah: Outside, yes. It’s kind of a novelty these days.

Donna: Right! And so, that’s what I did. I got up, played full-steam. I loved watching black-and-white movies. I grew up in northeast Ohio, and there was a TV station out of Cleveland that would play all the great black-and-white movies: Shirley Temple, the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movies, the Fred Astaire/Ginger Roger movies . . . all these great old movies.

I would watch them on the weekends. I would see these men with their dark hair, and of course, they were ruggedly handsome. I thought, “Boy, when I grow up, I want to marry someone like that! And, I think I want to go into theater. Because I loved what I was watching. It was fun; it was exciting; it was adventurous for a lot of them. That’s what I want to do!

So that was my dream. Every day I would cross the field, and I would go over to the house next door because they had a house full of kids. The youngest one was my age, and we would play together, or he would cross the field and play at my house all day.

One day I was over there playing, and we decided to play hide-and-go-seek. They had a pretty big farmhouse with lots of places to hide, and I went to hide. My little friend didn’t find me, but his older brother did. I don’t remember crossing the field to get back home, but obviously I did.

When I did get home, I realized, at five years old, that I should never talk about what happened. So I didn’t. I kept that for decades. I just realized, “There are some things you can’t speak of. There are some things you can’t tell people.” Even at five, I realized that was one of them. That was a biggie.

Donna: Isn’t that a sad thing? I’ve heard it over and over as women have sat with me and told me their story of childhood abuse. We are told that lie so quickly in our little spirits: “Nobody needs to know.” And nobody told me that. I never heard that, but it’s what I instinctively knew inside my spirit.

Dannah: How did that impact you for the next decade or two decades? How long was it until you told somebody?

Donna: Well, it was decades. I was grown. I was an adult before I told anyone. I told my husband, but we were already married at the time.

Dannah: So you were maybe in your twenties?

Donna: Yes. I never really pieced it together until I read a quote from Maya Angelou. She was asked at a symposium what she considered to be the most profound evil in society. And she said, “Sexual abuse against a child, one sexual act against a child takes that child from the innocence from knowing nothing to the cynicism of believing nothing.” 

And that put it together for me because that’s exactly what happened.

Because I would wake up every day—“Hey! It’s play time! I get to play all day long!” So I went from that, the innocence of knowing nothing, to the reality of believing nothing. It is a cynicism. You do become a cynic. “Oh, I can’t trust you. I can’t trust this friendship. I can’t trust this man who’s now my boyfriend.”

So you have a tendency to keep—I did, anyway—everything pretty close to the chest.

Dannah: You can’t trust.

Donna: : Right You can’t trust people, and really, can’t trust God, because where was God? Where was He?

Dannah: There’s probably a lot of women listening right now who can identify with your story, and they may be in different places. They maybe have told someone and are in their journey of healing. But maybe they’re in that place where they haven’t ever been able to get the courage to let out those words and that confession, that story.

I want to be careful when I say the word “confession” because, as I have not having known childhood abuse the way that you have, I’ve not known sometimes how to talk with women who’ve come to me for help. So I’ve come to you, and you have said the same thing over and over.

I’ve said, “What do I tell her?” And do you know what sentence I’m going to say?

Donna: It’s not your fault.

Dannah: It’s not your fault. Is that a hard thing to believe?

Donna: Very hard. Really hard to believe. I’ll tell you where the turning point for me was. Like I said, it was decades where I carried this around. I ended up carrying a shame that didn’t belong to me. I carried a guilt that didn’t belong to me. Again, I was an adult before I realized, “Hey! That’s his shame to carry around. That’s his guilt. That’s not mine.”

But my epiphany moment came when I was driving to downtown Nashville. I was going to meet Troy for lunch one day, and I took the wrong turn. I ended up outside a schoolhouse, and there was a playground filled with children. On the playground was this little girl. She was dressed head to toe in pink. She was so cute. She was just jumping up and down, just jump, jump, jumping up and down. And there was absolutely no reason to be jumping. (laughter)

Dannah: Just for the sake of jumping.

Donna: Just for the sheer joy of it all—she was jumping. And her jumping was so contagious that another little girl came up beside her and started jumping alongside of her. So they were little pals jumping together.

And when the light turned green, I pulled away from that traffic light. It was there, driving down Weston Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee, that I finally heard the words of my innocence that God had been speaking to me for decades now. I thought, What if that sweet, hopping, little innocent little girl went home after school, and she trotted over to the next door neighbor’s house, and an older son or the father of that house molested her? And I thought, How could that sweet, hopping, innocent little girl ever think that that was her fault? And I got it. I got it then at that moment.

And I just started to cry because I realized that was me decades ago. I was that sweet, hopping, innocent little girl, and it wasn’t my fault. It was his fault, and I carried that shame forever. I just spoke aloud in my car, and I said, “I forgive you. Not because you would want it. Not because you would ever ask me for it. But because I don’t want to be in bondage to you any longer.” I mean, enough was enough.

And for that woman who’s listening, who’s still carrying that bondage . . .

Dannah: Yes. What would you say to her?

Donna: I would say, “It’s not your fault.”

Augustine says that “God gives where He finds empty hands.” There comes a time and a place where everyone has to open their hands to something and say, “Take this, Lord. Take it from me because it’s not doing me any good.”

That’s basically what I did. I was, like, “Take this, Lord. Take it. Take the pain. Take the shame. Take the guilt. Take the suffering, really, the inner turmoil. Take it all and use it for Your glory because it’s not doing me any good.” And it wasn’t.

Dannah: I had a front-row seat to watch some of this healing unfold in your life, and there was a dramatic transformation. It’s like you came out of hiding.

Donna: I did. Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

Dannah: I don’t think I knew at first. It was many months or maybe it was years—I don’t know the timeline until you actually told me—but I remember seeing you change. It’s almost as if . . . The picture in my mind I get is that Satan had crumpled you. You were down on the floor. At some point it was as if you decided, “Well, if I’m down here, I might as well pray. I’m on my knees.”

Donna: Right.

Dannah: You turned to prayer. I saw you become a praying woman. I watched it.

Donna: Yes.

Dannah: It was as if you rose up and said, “Well, if that was going to be painful, I’m going to make it fruitful.”

Donna: Right.

Dannah: You just became, almost overnight, one of the most fruitful women I knew because you forgave.

Donna: Yes. Exactly. It’s forgiveness, because without forgiveness, we are just plodding along, really. We’re getting up, and we’re just kind of slogging through the day.

Dannah: So when someone has abused you like that, they certainly don’t deserve that forgiveness. And it can seem, I don’t know, it’s not very linear. It doesn’t seem to make sense. Why would a woman choose that? What are the practical outcomes? What does God say about it? Help her process through it so she can get that courage.

Donna: The Bible says that Satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy. That’s exactly what he will do if you harbor unforgiveness, if you hold a shame that doesn’t belong to you, a guilt that doesn’t belong to you. If you continue to hold on to these things that really erode our spirit, the Bible says that bitterness dries up the bones. It’s easy to become a bitter person. If you’re an unforgiving person, you’re a bitter person.

And as I said aloud in that car that day, “I forgive you, not because you asked me for it, or that you would ever want it.” That’s really the attitude that we have to take.

A lot of people are still unforgiving. They’re still held in bondage to dead people who are long gone. But you’re still in bondage to them. And it is a matter of just saying, “I choose to forgive you.”

Dannah: Choose is an important word, isn’t it?

Donna: Right.

Dannah: Because forgiveness is not an emotion. It’s not an emotion. You’re not going to feel it. “I feel forgiveness toward you,” right?

Donna: No.

Dannah: You mentioned the word bitterness. That’s been a really difficult word for me to understand. And as I’ve studied it, the thing that really sort of made it make sense to me . . . I always thought, Oh, I’m not bitter. I’ve never been bitter. Yet there were places, as God was working in me to forgive, that I realized, “Oh, I am bitter.”

Here’s where it began to make sense: I heard a pastor once say, “The opposite of bitterness is empathy and compassion.” And it clicked.

Donna: Yes.

Dannah: Because the person I was trying to forgive, I had no compassion for.

Here’s the thing: Most abusers have been abused. They learned that from someone.

Donna: Right.

Dannah: And what they did to you is awful. And, in earthly terms, unforgivable.

Donna: Yes.

Dannah: But with God’s help, with God’s strength, it is a forgivable thing. If you can choose the words forgiveness—don’t expect to feel them—choose it, and ask God for empathy. “God, show me why this person did that to me.”

Donna: Right. And, you know, Dannah, often it’s not a one-time thing. “Lord, I choose to forgive this person for molesting me. I choose to forgive this person for abusing me.” Okay, I’m done. It doesn’t work that way. Many, many times it is, okay, I get up today, and I say, “Lord, I choose to forgive again.” Until it really clicks.

Dannah: And it gets easier.

Donna: It gets easier.

Dannah: And do your emotions catch up then?

Donna: Your emotions will catch up then.

I was having a conversation with my oldest daughter a few months ago who was having a difficult time seeing someone with empathetic eyes, like you were talking about. I was telling her, “It’s hard to see with our eyes, but when we ask the Lord to see that person through His eyes, that makes a huge difference to be able to say, “Lord, help me to see them through Your eyes.”

Like you said, a lot of abusers have been abused. To look at that and say, “Okay, what kind of home did they grow up in? What kind of dad did they have or a mom did they have? Did they even have a mom or a dad? Where did they come from?”

To be able to process through that, but to begin to see things, see someone as the Lord sees them.

Dannah: As I have had to process through forgiving someone, a verse that I’ve prayed over and over comes out of Ephesians. It says, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.” Because I think sometimes we’re blinded by our pain, and our eyes are shut off by unforgiveness.

Donna: Right.

Dannah: It is not until the Lord opens our eyes to see. He opens the eyes of our heart, which are different from our physical eyes. We can see in the physical realm what that person did to hurt us, but it’s very difficult—only through God’s eyes—can we see with the eyes of our spirit the hurt that’s been done to them that caused them to hurt us.

Donna: Right. And, unforgiveness is a tool of Satan because that’s just the beginning of other things that can manifest in our lives.

The Bible says that our enemy prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may destroy. The interesting, incredible, and fascinating part about lions is when they roar the loudest. Do you want to guess when does the lion roar the loudest?

Dannah: Before he’s about to eat his prey?

Donna: It’s when there’s prey in sight. When there is prey in sight if there is another lion or another animal that’s coming close, he is really going to roar loudly. So the prey is in sight and then that’s when he roars. That’s when everybody gets out of the way.

When you think about harboring unforgiveness, bitterness, keeping things inside of you that should come out before the Lord, you’re just giving the enemy, you’re giving Satan a foothold. And he is going to start roaring because you are his prey. He’s got you in a very vulnerable moment.

Dannah: I see your life, Donna, up until your twenties, Satan was walking about as a roaring lion, roaring at you, silencing you, cowering you in your fear.

Donna: Right.

Dannah: But then you made this choice, this decision, to believe that if Jesus is inside of you, and He’s called in the Word the Lion of the tribe of Judah, that you have a greater Lion in you. You stood up with the Lion of the tribe of Judah within you, and you roared back.

Donna: Right.

Dannah: What I’m hearing is that, if you’re struggling through the pain of healing from childhood sexual trauma, it probably isn’t going to happen in one moment. Your healing isn’t going to become a clear picture for you with one encounter with God. It’s probably going to be multiple encounters with prayer and God’s Spirit and other people who love Him that give you the puzzle pieces to put that full picture together.

Donna: Yes. Exactly. And it’s so important. The Bible tells us to assemble together. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that you will meet those women who have gone on a similar journey with you, and they will be able to comfort you. They will be able to offer words of wisdom and words of knowledge that you, in your crippled moment—because it is kind of crippling—and your crippled thinking that they will be able to help you through that.

Dannah: I think this is a good time just to encourage you to be brave with your story, because so many times I think the common lie that we believe is that nobody needs to know about this. Don’t talk about that. The shame of what someone did to you, the shame of what you have done, or the shame of what you’re walking through causes you to believe you shouldn’t talk about it.

And, Donna, it was about this time in our life that God was bringing me to the point of telling you that I had sexual sin in my past. And that was where the enemy had told me, “Nobody needs to know. Don’t tell anyone.”

You and I were in a small group where we were gathered with women each week in Missouri. I remember many of us in our twenties going through that place of getting courageous with our stories. As I brought my teenage sexual sin to the table, you were bringing your story of abuse to the table. Another women in the group was bringing her story of abortion as a teenager to the table.

And though there were differences in our stories, so many of the steps of healing that God needed us to walk through were the same.

Donna: Right.

Dannah: One of the things that was required for us to walk in healing was to tell our stories to each other.

Donna: Right. It is important to find someone who you can trust. Is it your spouse? Is it someone in our small group study? The biggest fear is, “What are they going to think of me because I have my life together? What are they going to think of me?”

I remember when you said that, and we were all just, like, “Oh.” There was no condemnation at all, like, “Oh, how could you do that as a teenager? That’s awful.” There was zero condemnation. I think that is our biggest fear. We think that people are going to condemn us. We think that we’re going to feel even greater shame from telling our story to someone.

Dannah: Yes. And that lie makes us believe that it will separate us from someone when, in fact, James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another and you’ll be healed.”

Donna: Right.

Dannah: So that’s the antithesis of being separated. I remember when I shared my sin in that small group, instead of feeling you guys move further from me, I felt like, “Whew!”

Donna: Yes. We grew closer.

Dannah: We did. I remember you coming across the street, sometime during that time period, to my home. I remember sitting in our house when you told me about what happened to you. I certainly didn’t feel further. I felt trusted, chosen, respected, that you would bring that secret to me.

Donna: Right.

Dannah: And, the love I felt for you that day changed dramatically.

We have a lot of miles and a lot of stories, very few of them are as clear as that day. It’s like the Lord put a stake in the day. I beg you to tell your story to someone.

Donna: Yes. Tell your story.

Dannah: Tell them today.

Donna: We think that our scars and our wounds make us less. We think that the scars and the wounds and the bruises make us ugly and that people don’t want to be around us. And there came a moment in time for me where I realized, when we get to heaven, we’re going to see Jesus’ scars. We’re going to see the holes in His hands and His feet. Do those scars make Him ugly? They make Him so beautiful to us. They make Him awesome.

Our scars don’t make us less than. They make us more for Him because our story is His victory. If we don’t tell our stories, who gets the victory? Satan does.

Dannah: That roaring lion.

Donna: That roaring lion because he has kept you down. He has kept your story stuffed so far inside of you. And Jesus is saying, “I can have this victory. The victory is mine because your scars are beautiful. Your wounds are so beautiful to Me.”

Nancy: Wow! Isn’t it comforting to realize that even Jesus, in His glorified body, still has the scars, scars from wounds caused by the sins of others?

Dannah Gresh has been talking to Donna VanLiere about how to go about trusting God with the pain in your past. In Donna’s case, her pain was brought on by someone else’s sin against her. For Dannah, her shame and guilt came from her own sin. But for both of them, the first step of healing came as they opened up to a godly friend about what had happened even though it had taken place years earlier.

If your story has a painful chapter in it, maybe even a chapter that you have never really told anyone about, can I encourage you to share it with a mentor? It might be an older woman in your church, your pastor and his wife, someone who loves the Lord, loves you, and can help you walk through the process of letting go of bitterness and working toward forgiveness and healing. I can tell you, it’s going to take some work, but it will be so worth it.

You remember how in the Old Testament Joseph was taken advantage of by others. And yet, amazingly, at the end of his life, he was able, not only to forgive, but also to see the hand of God in his experiences.

Joseph is one of the Bible characters that my husband Robert and I wrote about in our book, You Can Trust God to Write Your Story. We’d love to send you a copy. It’s our way of saying, “Thank you for your donation to support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts.

Contact us with your gift, and when you do, ask about the book by Nancy and Robert on trusting God. To do that, just visitReviveOurHearts.com, or call us at 1–800–569–5959.

Now, sometimes God withholds the blessing of children from a couple. Perhaps you or someone you know understands that ache for a child. If so, you’ll want to be sure and listen in tomorrow. Donna VanLiere shares about how she and her husband learned to trust God even through the pain of infertility. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Reminding you that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.