The situation described in the following letters continues to be entirely fictitious, including persons, names, crimes, sins, relationships, circumstances and all particulars. The kind of situation that is described, however, is all too common and my hope is that biblical principles applied to this fictitious scenario may be of some help to individuals tangled up in a real one.
Your last letter was in equal measures eloquent and heartbreaking. Let me state your dilemma in my own words to make sure that I have understood you. You feel torn between two different versions of “normal,” and it doesn’t take much at all to make you wonder if one of them—the one you have never experienced or really known—is fake, or not a reality to be realized in this world.
You know intellectually that the home you grew up in was abnormal, but in terms of your experience, that home was frighteningly normal. It was all you ever knew. Your experience taught you to expect long stretches of tension and distance between your mother and father, and between your father and you kids. Then there would be an explosion, a fight of huge proportions. After that, within a day or so, your father would show up in your bedroom late at night. It was predictable, like weather patterns are, which meant that the word normal could be applied to it somehow. You could anticipate it, and if you can anticipate it, it must be the way things are.
But the teaching of Scripture, the teaching of the church you grew up in, your own conscience, and the appearance of the families of all your friends testified that what you were going through was abnormal and wrong. But the testimony of the good appearance of other families was the creepiest to you, right? That is because you knew that your father was a consummate actor, and that your family appeared exactly the same way to them. Have I got the problem right?
Since you knew that one of the finest-looking families in the church was a hypocritical sham, why was it not possible that all the other families were just like yours? If it happened once, why could it not happen across the board? Maybe the whole Christian thing is just one enormous hypocritical farce. There were times, particularly in the darkest times, when you felt certain that this kind of predation and molestation was in fact the true “normal.”
The collision between the two kinds of normal is in fact a true collision, and you should not be surprised if it still rises up in your heart, sometimes violently. There is the normal as defined by Scripture, reason, tradition, and society. A father should protect his daughter, and not be what she needs to be protected from. Then there is the normal that was defined by what you grew accustomed to in your home.
If I might, here is just the place where I would point back to something I urged in one of my first letters to you. You know that his abuse constituted one kind of normal, your experienced “normal.” This causes you, when you are tempted to despair, to make you think that the other kind of normal doesn’t exist at all, not even in the heart of God. This feels like a high form of revolt against what happened to you, but in reality it is surrendering to it. If there is no “normal” against which we may compare your father’s treatment of you, and thereby condemning his treatment of you, then why are we blaming him for anything? Why is he in prison? The existence of the prison, and your approval of the existence of the prison, testify that there really is a true normal outside your experience.
That true normal really does exist, whether or not you have tasted it yet. There really are fathers who would die for their daughters. There are fathers who have devoted themselves to one woman for life, and who live sacrificially for the children that God gives to them through their wives. There are tables around which entire families sit happily, contented in their love for one another, delighting in one another’s presence. There are many families characterized by laughter, peace, contentment, goodness and kindness. Scripture paints the original well, and I have seen many faithful reproductions.
So if the twisted is the only real normal, then we have no reason not to abandon ourselves to it. It is just the way things are. But if we refuse to surrender in that way, then instead of this suffocating room of selfishness, there must be a place outside, where you can stand on a bluff facing the ocean, and taste the sea breeze. Across the water is paradise, and heavenly fruit trees grow all along the distant coast. And yet the breezes are redolent with the aroma of that fruit—there for the healing of the nations—and the hints of that fruit are exquisite, exotic, transcendent, and normal.
This is very encouraging, but you still have a practical problem. If you are alone in a room, and a man walks in, even if you know him—perhaps especially if you know him—you have a tendency to flinch inside. This reaction is happening on the basis of what you still think of, on some level, as normal. If you are watching older men at church, watching them sing in the choir, say, and find yourself wondering what they did to their daughters, this is simply how your reflexes have been trained or conditioned to react. Whenever you are around men, you brace yourself inside. You are not wronging anyone. You are not bringing charges, or accusing anyone falsely. You are simply responding the way someone (perversely) taught you to respond. Of course, you want to “unlearn” this kind of reaction, because it will get in the way of some other good things if you don’t, but there is nothing sinful in simply having that reaction. It is a problem to solve, not a sin to repent of.
You might ask what good things might it get in the way of, but I think you have already guessed the answer to that question yourself. How is it possible that this history you have won’t wreck any prospects for marriage you might have? When you are approached by a godly young man who is interested in a romantic relationship with you, and you do respect him highly, but all you want to do is fly to the moon—not so that you can jump over it, but so you can hide behind it—this situation is the ultimate collision of those “normals” I was referring to earlier. You will want to respond to him, which is the “normal kind of normal,” but you also believe that your experience of the “abnormal as normal” has scarred you forever, making it impossible for you to respond to him “normally.”
You are happy with his attention. You love his conversation. You like the way he looks. You admire the way he conducts himself. All of that is wonderful. And yet, because of your traumatic past, you have this constant worry in the background—and not too far in the background either. You know that if you continue to encourage this relationship, at some point it will have to become sexual. Since he is an honorable young man—you wouldn’t like him if he wasn’t—that point will be on your honeymoon. And you just don’t think that you will be able to deal with that. He is a wonderful young man. Why can’t we just keep it there? Why can’t we just chat at church forever? Not do anything more?
At some point, he will become entirely male in his interests, and free enjoyment of that reality is what you believe your father has wrecked for you. Now it is true that your father did a lot of damage there. But it is not true that he did irreparable damage. God is in the business of putting things back together. That is what he does—He is the Savior, after all.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17–18, ESV).
The Spirit of God does dwell within you—and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. God has good plans for you, plans of restoration and renewal.
Your father trained you in one direction through all those negative experiences. You have to answer this, going the other direction, via experiences that directly challenge what he did. In the first place, give yourself to the reading of Scripture, so that you can be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom. 12:1-2). Ask God to wash you with the water of the Word (Eph. 5:26). Devour the Word.
In the second place, make a particular point to study marriage. There are many fine books out that offer a detailed topical treatment of what God intended marriage to be. You should read more of those than an average young woman would, not because you want to be a marriage nerd, but rather because you have want have the alternative fixed firmly in your mind. You want to be absolutely sold on the biblical description of marriage.
And last, watch married people you respect closely—start with your aunt and uncle, who are (as you know) wonderful to each other. Watch what they do, and if you don’t understand what just happened, ask them about it. I have no doubt that the conversations will open up into more than what you asked about.
All for now.
Cordially . . .