What is it like to recover from sexual shame and live a full life with your husband? That’s what Joy McMillan is writing about in her book XES:Why Church Girls Tend to Get it Backwards…and How to Get it Right. Yesterday I published an excerpt of her story, and today, for Wifey Wednesday, I’m going to run the ending to that story. There’s so much more to Joy’s book, but I thought you’d really enjoy her lovely testimony, which moved me.
Read Part 1 of Joy’s Story here.
The very same week my world fell apart, Jehovah Sneaky was at work behind the scenes. The women from the Bible study that my mum led on a Thursday morning were taking a trip down to North Carolina for a conference. And I just happened to be desperate enough to go with them. While I don’t recall too much from the weekend, teaching or ministry wise, I distinctly remember the women who carried me through some of the loneliest days of my life. They scooped me up, lifted my chin, and like a flock of mommas, enveloped me with love.
I spent the next couple of years digging into my relationship with God, avoiding boys like the plague, weaning myself off shop-lifting, and trying desperately to avoid the temptation to slip into the sexual habits I had created years before.
Painfully aware of my inability to have healthy relationships, I told God that my heart was His. Fully and completely. I knew I couldn’t be trusted with my heart, as I had flung it at every passing boy over the past several years, so I surrendered that decision to Him, committing to not pursue a relationship again without knowing He was releasing my heart into their care.
I started leading youth group, teaching a Bible study, and even stumbled my way into Christian radio. I had started over, stuffed my past down deep enough that it was hardly even discernible, and was now determined to earn my way back into God’s good grace. I was going to prove to Him that I was worth saving.
After three years of celibacy, while perfecting my new ‘God’s girl’ image, a pastor I worked with at the radio station introduced me to a young man. While I didn’t notice him at first, we kept running into each other at random media events, first at a Michael W. Smith concert, then at a SonicFlood concert, and again at Festival Con Dios. We finally started to connect the dots when the general manager of the station, and our pastor friend, exchanged our emails and got the ball rolling. Because of the hour-long distance between us, we got to know each other via phone and email, and after a month of lengthily conversations, we had our first date.
When I had surrendered my heart to God a couple of years earlier, I had begged him for wisdom. Having run so quickly into physical encounters with boys in the past, rarely connecting emotionally, and never sharing a spiritual bond, I had asked God to reverse that trend when the man He had for me came along. I watched him honor this request in the following months as we connected instantly over our mutual love for Jesus first, developing a sweet friendship after that, and carefully putting boundaries in place for sexual purity. Everything seemed to be going just peachy!
An interesting thing happened on our second date, however, when the topic of sexual purity arose. Sitting in his Ford Escort in the Farmer Jack’s parking lot, I panicked. The conversation had turned to me and I had a choice to make. To tell, or not to tell. Dry heaving out the window, I turned back to him and whispered, “I was date raped when I was 15.” Nothing more. I had decided to share the ‘poor me’ part of my story, and keep the ‘bad me’ portion in hiding, assuming the basic knowledge of me being ‘used goods’ would validate the presence of some junk to work through.
Heaven knows, if he really knew the amount of sexual baggage I came with, he’d head for the hills.
Our relationship progressed and in March of the following year, he proposed in the white sand of a Florida beach at sunset. It was beautiful and glorious, and on that day I was only slightly aware of the farce I had become. I had grown so accustomed to pretending that I had almost managed to convince myself that my ugly past was simply a figment of my imagination. I would go through the mental motions of carving out ground at the bottom of the ocean, dumping all my iniquities into the pit, and then smothering them in cement. I would repeatedly drown out the memories each and every time they threatened to rear their ugly heads and remind me of who I was.
From the outside looking in, I had it all. The perfect job, a wonderful family, an amazing fiancé, and impeccable faith. The only problem was, I knew my life was still a charade, and the fear of exposure — and the subsequent ruin — kept me tightly enslaved.
While everything blossomed on the outside, I was quietly withering on the inside.
Secrets will do that to you.
I have learned over the course of the past decade or two that whenever I keep dirt hidden, it has power over me. These secrets fester and take on a life of their own, devouring my confidence and joy, and driving me further back into the shadows of insecurity. But when brought out into the light, they lose their power, and I gain power over them. As long as we allow the enemy a foothold in the darkest recesses of our heart, in amongst the secrets and cobwebs, he will poison our self-image, smudge our purpose, and chain us down with fear.
I developed such a warped sense of reality that I — to this day — have chunks of memory completely blotted out. I remember several times waking up in a cold sweat from a dream that left me gasping for breath, heart pounding out of my chest. Vivid scenes of my involvement in a murder, and the messy attempt to cover it up. I spent many days searching through my fractured memories, desperate to know whether this was something I had actually been a part of, or whether the devil was simply capitalizing on my inability to separate fact from fiction.
In the months leading up to our wedding, we did everything we knew to do in preparation — we took every marriage class, read every book, and spent time with older, wiser couples who invested in our relationship. While at times I felt like a fraud in talking about past experiences, simply leaving out massive chunks of my history, I had finally managed to convince myself that as long as I could keep up the performance, no one would ever be the wiser. But the alternative was no longer an option.
It was mind over matter, and I was determined to protect this beautiful new life I was living.
Two months before our wedding, in August of 2003, I ended up driving to New York with a close friend for a media event. I assumed it would just be a fun-filled few days at Six Flags, hobnobbing with artists and brushing shoulders with the big wigs of the music industry. But God had other plans.
On the final evening of the event, I found myself sitting front and center in the stadium, media pass hanging proudly around my neck. After Michael W. Smith’s set, TobyMac rocked the stage, followed by the delightful presence of Kirk Cameron. I was loving my front row seat, until she came out. Pam Stenzel1, purity advocate extraordinaire. She talked about abstinence and purity and virginity and boundaries, all the things I assumed I didn’t really need to hear at that point. After all, I was gettin’ hitched in 2 months. She went on to share how important it is to live with full disclosure in marriage, to dialog with honesty and transparency. And I wanted to die. I hoped the earth would just open up and swallow me whole. This was not what I wanted to hear. After all, I had quietly dragged these secrets around for the past several years, and with my wedding just around the corner, it made no sense for me to go rummaging through the trash now. Let bygones be bygones. Don’t stir up this hornet’s nest, woman.
But the pit in my stomach deepened as she drove home the need for relationships to be built on foundations of trust. “Fine, God. Just fine. I get it” I whimpered. Paralyzed in my seat I watched as people flooded the prayer tent. I was so very aware of an urgency in my spirit, a sense that God was saying, “Joy, I’m giving you the opportunity of a lifetime…but you have got to act within the lifetime of this opportunity.” I knew that window would close quickly, as making it to our wedding day without telling him the truth, would mean taking my secrets to the grave. I couldn’t possibly burden him with that after he was tied to me.
It was now, or never.
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives”
The thought of allowing my fiancé into those dark, dirty places of my life seemed impossible, so I thought I’d outsmart God at His own game. “Okay, God. Let’s make a deal,” I started, “if I speak to Pam and she tells me I should tell him everything, I’ll do it.” Looking at the growing mass of sniffling bodies in and around the prayer tent, I was certain this was my ticket out. I wandered over, sheepishly standing off at a distance, trying to plan my next move, when I turned to go. Standing directly behind me was Pam Stenzel. How He did that, I will never know, but there she was in all her purity-advocating glory, and I couldn’t escape. 7 years of running came to a screeching halt and I fell apart in her arms. She cried with me, prayed with me, and confirmed what I felt God was prompting me to do; it was time to take out the trash.
I am so thankful for the precious friend who accompanied me on this trip, a dear friend of my fiancé’s long before she became my own. She quietly listened as I processed through my raw emotions, ranging from terror to anger and back again, and then helped me prepare my heart for what was about to take place in my relationship. She, too, prayed with me, encouraging me and speaking hope into my heart, and was the first person to hear snippets of the life I had kept secret.
Once home in Michigan, I went to the apartment we were renting, where my fiancé was currently staying, and waited for him to return home from work. Apart from the day I spent staring at my newborn son through cold ICU glass, being intubated and cardioverted, as medical staff fought to save his life, this was the longest day I’d ever known.
After avoiding eye-contact and dancing around the subject for as long as possible, he pried, and I cracked. I don’t recall how the words emerged from my lips, but through snot and tears, he heard snippets of a life very different from the one I had painted. Certain the filth of my true identity had manifested on my face, my chin remained planted on my chest as I dredged the secrets up from hiding.
Lies upon lies. Relationship after relationship. Sin cloaked in more sin.
And then he asked me what I feared most he might ask. “How many were there?” The number slipped from my lips, and then I was gone.
Convinced this sealed the fate of our relationship, I left my engagement ring on the couch and ran for the bathroom. Curled up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor, I ached for God to just take me home. I was an undone, incoherent and utterly destroyed by my own failed masquerade. Surely death would feel better than this mess I had made.
What felt like hours later, but I’m sure was closer to 30 minutes, I heard him in the doorway. He bent down, scooped me up and, hands firmly holding my face, forced me to look at him. I will never forget the pain I saw in his eyes. A pain I had caused. But mingled with the hurt, was a compassion I didn’t understand.
He took my hand, got down on his knee, and asked me — once again — to marry him.
Oh, friend. This moment will forever be sealed in my memory. Heaven kissed earth in the wee hours of the morning in that little apartment on Potter Street, and through this extravagant expression of grace and forgiveness, that boy changed my life. For the first time, truly, in my life, I understood — tangibly — the radical love of Jesus. The love that says, “even though I know you completely — with all the ugliness and brokenness you carry — I still want you!”
I was utterly wrecked in the most beautiful of ways.
The next morning, puffy-eyed and surprisingly courageous, I sat on my momma’s lap and told her what had happened back on the night of September 15th, 1996, and how it had impacted the choices I’d made over the next few years. We wept together as she wrestled to understand how they’d missed the warning signs that I was so deeply in trouble. She asked to share it with my dad, and shortly afterwards asked that I share my story with our women’s group at church.
Faster than I ever thought possible, this terrible tale that had held me captive all these years lost its power and become a powerful weapon against the very one who had tried to destroy me.
The following year, as we navigated the unchartered territory of life as newlyweds, we spoke at a purity conference. Sharing honestly and transparently from our personal journey, we were able to reflect on some of the struggles we were working through as a couple as a result of our poor choices, while celebrating God’s extraordinary faithfulness.
And while I’d love to tell you that our life has been sunshine and roses since the truth emerged, we’ve had a whole heck of a lot to work through.
My husband wisely sought counsel from a Godly mentor. He reminded him how hard it must have been for me to bring this to him, and how important it was that he work through it, forgive me, and then let it go. “Never bring it up again,” he added. And I am so incredibly thankful and blessed to say, he never has.
While I’m still uprooting lies I believed and associations I made during sexual encounters as a teenager, we’ve come a mighty long way! Despite the years of junk we’ve had to wade through, the many soul ties we’ve had to sever, and the deep insecurities I continue to wrestle with, the sweetness and freedom of our intimacy has grown exponentially over the past several years.
To add to the sexual baggage, I dragged a boatload of emotional wounding into our marriage. I had so cemented into my mind the notion that ‘conflict destroys relationships’ that it took me years to not shy away from it. Past experience had proven this theory time and time again, so when something was bothering me, I stuffed it. And when my hubby picked up that something wasn’t right, and brought it up…I hid.
Fear of disappointing him fueled my drive for perfection and gave voice to my inner critic. The lingering sense that I was never good enough, in the kitchen, bedroom or laundry room, bubbled close to the surface, rearing its head in hyper-sensitivity and defensiveness.
This poor guy had NO idea what he had gotten himself into.
I cannot imagine what life would be like for us today, had I tried to keep everything locked up inside.
I wonder whether we would have even survived. Secrets tend to breed more secrets, which destroy the trust and safety of a marriage, and eventually unravel the very fabric of your relationship.
While those tools we’d placed in our marital tool belt came in handy when dealing with love and respect issues, or gender roles, and finances, nothing could quite prepare us for the daily walking out of married life. Especially one that required much healing and reprogramming for our interludes between the sheets. Our sex life, once settled into, was lack luster at best, as I struggled to stay emotionally present, while shying away from anything creative that might recall the experiences I’d had years earlier. Honest, open discussion, coupled with prayer, really helped us overcome many of these issues, and continues to act as our go-to when, from time to time, unexpected things emerge.
It’s been amazing watching God use our journey and our struggles to encourage other couples wrestling with the same stuff. We’ve had the opportunity to mentor several couples, and lead many different marriage courses, simply because we’ve made our imperfect selves available to Him, and because we truly love watching our resourceful God redeem our brokenness and use it for His glory.
We had the opportunity to fly home to South Africa and Namibia in 2006, in celebration of our third anniversary, and to connect my hubby with the family of mine he’d not yet met. Many of our fondest memories together were created during the 5 glorious weeks we spent gallivanting across the countryside.
On our last evening in South Africa, before heading over to Namibia for our final week of vacation, I had another of those ‘God opportunities’. One of those, “I’m giving you the opportunity of a lifetime…but you have to act within the lifetime of the opportunity” moments.
We had spent a week with my parents’ best friends in Johannesburg and I had been sharing how I was still wrestling with some severe insecurity. In fact, my people-pleaser streak was threatening to become a fully-blown way of life. I was terrified of disappointing people and in my effort to never rock the proverbial boat, I had become relatively passive-aggressive in the way I dealt with things.
My mom’s longtime best friend, who had headed up their area’s Theophostic Ministry2 (and inner healing ministry; ”Theo” meaning God, “Phos” meaning light), had asked whether I’d wanted to set aside some time to really pray about these things and ask God what the root issue was. Initially I’d been eager, but as the clock ticked down and our final hours with them became fewer, I felt a mild panic. “I don’t really feel like being an emotional, snotty mess,” I reasoned. “Don’t worry about it…I’m good.” But there, in the pit of my stomach, was that bubbling sense of urgency.
Don’t miss it, Joy. Don’t miss what I have for you.
Just before we were scheduled to be picked up by my dad’s sister, who was going to take us to their place, and then drive us to the airport in the morning, I dove in headfirst.
Wait. I want in. I want everything God has for me…bring it on!
So we called and asked her to come 2 hours later, then jumped in with both feet. As I sat cross-legged on her bed, begging God to uproot this life-sucking burden from me, we waited. Allowing God to take me back to the beginning, where lies took root and truths got twisted, the tears and snot began to flow. From the forgotten parts of my heart, God brought to mind snippets of scenes that had taken place when my older sister and I were 4 and 6. He took me, in my mind’s eye, to the white garage door of our favorite worker’s apartment on the grounds of the hostel we’d lived in. As vice-principle of the high school, my dad also had the position of superintendent of the girls’ hostel attached to the school, and it’s the place we called home for 4 years after our arrival from Cape Town.
What took place in that small bedroom had been all but erased from my memory. Only fragments had remained, but slowly things shifted into place. Suddenly it all made sense.
All those years I’d wrestled with shame and guilt because something about our childhood had felt mysteriously dirty, but without remembering what had actually happened, I simply stuffed the feeling, owned the shame, and believed that something must just be wrong with me. I was broken. And dirty. And disturbed.
All those years my sister and I dabbled in things we had no place dabbling in. And now it made sense.
This was the missing piece of the puzzle I’d been desperately trying to assemble, and God — in His sweetness — had revealed it at the perfect time. The very next day we landed in Namibia, and as we walked the grounds a few days later, hand-in-hand, processing through and releasing the wound of innocence stolen, God brought closure to an incredibly confusing chapter of my life. We stood outside that white door, cried, and let it go.
Upon arriving home in the States, just before Thanksgiving, we discovered we were pregnant with our first child. We did the math and discovered our little lady was conceived in Namibia. How like our God to bring new life out of a chapter of my life that had reeked of decay.
We named our daughter ‘Alathea Grace’, Alathea being Greek for “truth.”
For she, our precious gift, was the new life birthed out of a season saturated in truth, and seasoned heavily with grace.
If you’ve enjoyed these excerpts from Joy’s book, XES: Why Church Girls Tend to Get it Backwards…And How to Get It Right, pick it up now! She shares not just her own story but also what she’s learned along the way about how to nurture a fulfilling sexual relationship with her husband, too–despite sexual baggage, exhaustion from kids, or shame.
Joy McMillan is a freelance graphic designer, writer, conference speaker, and tea drinker extraordinaire. She is the founder of Simply Bloom Productions LLC, a creative little company with a big heart and an even bigger dream.
Joy & Joe have been involved in leadership & marriage ministry for as long as they’ve been married (2003), and with one foot planted firmly in the law enforcement world, they feel a tremendous burden to champion and celebrate God’s passion & purpose for marriage.
Originally hailing from Southern Africa, Joy lives with her scrumptious husband and two beautiful loin-fruit in Michigan.