Abused but Not Forsaken
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Jennifer Greenberg tells her story of growing up with an abusive father. Hear how Jennifer found hope in Genesis 50:20, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
Abused but Not Forsaken
Bob: It wasn’t until she was a young adult that Jennifer Michelle Greenberg realized that there was something wrong with her family dynamic. Her dad, who was an elder in his local church, also abused her physically when they were home.
Jennifer: He would be one person in public/at church and then a completely different person in private. Growing up, I thought this was normal; and I actually thought that everyone lived like this. They’d be one person at church—you’d put on your Sunday smile—and then you’d go home; and you’d lose your temper; and you’d cuss; and you’d—whatever else people did.
I—part of that was part of the reason I didn’t report for a long time because I did think it was normal. I had no reason to believe that the men at our church weren’t totally different people at home.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 9th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Jennifer Michelle Greenberg’s childhood was the kind of childhood we would want no child to have to experience. She shares her story with us today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. There may be some listeners who want to be careful with today’s program, because it contains some descriptions of abuse/physical violence that may be hard for people to hear.
I was thinking about the verse in Ephesians that says that we are to have nothing to do with the unfruitful works of darkness; but instead, we are to expose them. You think about that, and you ask the question: “So why are we to expose darkness?”
Bob: Because why do you want to bring darkness to light? Why reveal the unpleasantness, especially when it’s been horrible?
Ann: I think that Satan does his best work in the darkness and in hiding. When we bring it into the light, then God can expose the darkness and show us truth.
Bob: Well, and I think, as well, we have a clearer understanding of what is light and darkness—
Bob: —when we can see darkness brought to light.
Bob: And we’re bringing that up because we’ve got a guest joining us today whose life was full of unfruitful works of darkness. Jennifer Michelle Greenberg joining us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Bob: Jennifer is a mom; she’s a wife. She lives in Houston, Texas; mom of three daughters. She and Jason have been married for 13 years. She is also a musician/a vocalist.
Dave: Opera singer. [Laughter]
Bob: So, you—
Dave: Can we get a little?
Jennifer: No. [Laughter]
Ann: I wouldn’t do that either.
Dave: You want to hear us? We can—[feigns singing].
Bob: No; they don’t want—
Ann: They want to continually do this. [Laughter]
Bob: —nobody wants to hear us.
Dave: No; it’s not going to happen.
Bob: You have written a book called Not Forsaken. That is a memoir, and it’s a memoir about the darkness you grew up in.
Bob: I’m sure, as you thought about this book, you thought, “This will be therapeutic for me to write this down”; but to go public and to tell the world what happened in your home—especially when you’ve got parents, and siblings, and others who were a part of this, who are still living—
Bob: —that’s a tough decision to have to wrestle with. Tell us how you wrestled with that.
Jennifer: It was really tough. You know, there are so many parts of the book that were cathartic and therapeutic; but at the same time, they were incredibly painful to write.
Jennifer: You know, I had to go back over old memories that I had already packed away and tucked away in the back of my head, and hadn’t really processed a lot of the grief. A lot of times, I felt like I was kind of on an archaeological dig in my brain—you know?—digging up these old tragedies/these old crimes, and dusting them off, and identifying them and calling them what they were, and exposing them to the light, as you said.
But you know, one of the Bible stories that I really clung to, as I was writing, was the story of Joseph and how his brothers abused him. He was sold into slavery; he was falsely accused, and falsely imprisoned, and just treated so badly by everyone; but God put him in a position, where he was over many people. He was/he had the opportunity to help a lot of people, because of the things that he’d been through.
He says in Genesis 50, verse 20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” That has been my hope—that God would use what He brought me through, and what He healed me from, to save many lives.
Bob: Your book is called Not Forsaken. It’s the story of life after abuse—how faith brought you from being a victim to being a survivor. As our listeners are going to hear, you experienced significant physical abuse at the hands of your father—emotional abuse/verbal abuse from him—and manipulation and abuse from your mom.
Dave: Yes; I don’t think I’ve read a book, where my emotions were so extreme—I mean, I felt hopeless; and then, by the end, hopeful. I mean the fact that you’re sitting here right now—it is Joseph’s story; it’s amazing.
I felt extreme anger.
Ann: Me too.
Dave: I wanted to throw the book against the wall at what happened to you; and yet, forgiveness and compassion. It’s going to be a journey today to take our listeners through your life.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Bob: Are your earliest memories of growing up memories of abuse?
Jennifer: The majority of them; yes. I think part of that is because traumatic memories stick with us for so long. For example, I think of a story when my dad threw an iron at my head; and those are the kind of details that just get burned into your mind. It’s very hard to reconcile—especially, now that I have kids—I think, you know, as I look at my own children and I—no matter what they ever do, I can’t imagine treating them that way. I can no longer say of my dad, “Well, maybe, he was just having a bad day,” because I know, as a parent, I would never do that.
Bob: Your dad was reading a book on theology—
Bob: —and you were making too much noise.
Bob: What do you remember?—how old were you at this time?
Jennifer: I had to have been ten or eleven years old, because we had recently moved to our house in Austin. I was playing with my dolls in the living room. It would have been a Saturday or a Sunday, because my dad was home from work. He was sitting on the couch, reading a theology book. I remember him telling me to be quiet, and I don’t know if I was noisy or not; but whatever happened, suddenly, he grabbed me from behind, and he jerked me around, and he just started hitting me.
I remember thinking, as a kid: “It’s going to be okay. This is just a regular spanking. He’ll hit me two or three times; it’ll be over, and I can go back to playing”; but he just kept hitting me, and he wasn’t stopping. I started screaming. Finally, my mom ran in; and she said, “What are you doing?!” He dropped me, and I didn’t even bother getting my toys or anything. I just ran as fast as I could into my bedroom, and I hid. I just kind of huddled by the closet on the floor.
I remember hearing them yelling, and I remember just waiting for someone to come and take care of me. I waited a long time; I just sat there. I remember looking at my arm and seeing bruises already showing up. I remember comparing the size of my hands to those bruise marks and thinking, “This is how big my dad’s hands are,” and just realizing, in that moment, that I was really in a lot of danger.
I think that was the one time that I ever remember my dad apologizing to me. I want to say it was one/two/three days later, but he called me on the phone from work. He basically told me, “I’m sorry that that happened”; but I had overheard them yelling and arguing, and I knew that my mom had threatened to tell our pastor if he didn’t say, “Sorry.”
Ann: So you were going to church as a family.
Ann: And would your parents say they were believers and Christians?
Jennifer: Yes; absolutely. In fact, my dad—he would teach Sunday school. He’s incredibly smart; he has a PhD in biology. He’s just/he’s a very intellectual, academic guy.
Ann: Was that the first time that he had lost his temper with you?
Jennifer: Oh, no; not at—at home, he was a very different person. He would be one person in public/at church—and I assume at work—and then a completely different person in private. Growing up, I thought this was normal. I actually thought that everyone lived like this. They’d be one person at church—you’d put on your Sunday smile—and then you’d go home; and you’d lose your temper; and you’d cuss; and you’d look at porn or whatever else people did.
Part of that was part of the reason I didn’t report for a long time, because I did think it was normal. I had no reason to believe that the men at our church weren’t totally different people at home.
Bob: What you just described in terms of physical abuse—you talked about cussing and porn—this was all a part of your dad’s behavior; right?
Jennifer: Absolutely; yes.
Bob: Again, you thought, “It’s normal.” It’s what you had grown up with. Had you ever feared for your safety, or did you just think you were getting bad spankings as a child?
Jennifer: I constantly feared for my safety. In fact, I would have recurring nightmares about being raped or being murdered; and for a long time, as a child—and I think this is because I thought this was a normal way to live—I didn’t expect to live until I was 21; I expected to die. The reason was because I thought that all men were as violent as my dad. I thought he was normal.
Ann: Did you think he was going to kill you?
Jennifer: I did; I did. I thought if he didn’t kill me, then I would probably get so depressed that I would kill myself; and that if I ever got married, I would marry a man who was violent. I just—again, this was my normal. It was how I thought everyone was. Based on my experiences, I didn’t see how I was going to survive.
Dave: Yes; you opened the book with several stories.
Dave: One of them you just told, but the other one with the razor blade—
Dave: —talk about that. I mean, that’s just—I’ve never read a book, where it started that way; and then we’re introduced to you. It’s like, “Oh my goodness!”
Jennifer: When I was a teenager—15/16—I overheard my dad talking to my mom. He was telling her what a beautiful figure he thought I was developing.
Ann: —and you’re the oldest.
Jennifer: I’m the oldest; yes. I had been inundated with his perverse comments and his sexual abuse for so long; and I think just as a teenager, I was starting to look at my situation with less of a childish perspective and more of an adult perspective. There was just—there’s a maturity going on; there’s a hormonal development. I was starting to understand more what sexuality was; and suddenly, I realized that my dad was a sexual predator and that I was his prey. I wanted to die.
[Emotion in voice] For a long time, I had kind of thought: “Well, I just need to make it until I’m 18. I can leave. I can get out of here. I can go to college. I can start my own life. I’ll get a little apartment by myself”; but at that point in my life, I just didn’t think I could make it another three years. I went and got a razor blade out of my mom’s art supplies, and I took it up to my bedroom. I just sat on my bed, and I prayed. I told God, “I can’t stand this anymore, so I really need a sign from You that You love me and that You’re not going to abandon me.”
I was just weeping and praying for I don’t know how long. Suddenly, for lack of a better word, I think I really just had something of a vision. I heard a voice say, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” I knew that it was God, and I can’t tell you how I knew that. Part of it is because I knew those words from the Bible; and I saw [in my mind] my mom find my body, and I saw my little sisters huddled by the bedroom door. I remember thinking: “What is this going to do to my mom?” and “What is this going to do to my little sisters if I leave like this?”
I dropped the razor blade, and I kind of came back to this reality. In that moment, I decided to live. I was still grief-stricken; I was still terrified, but I knew that I had a Father who loves me, and who is faithful, and merciful, and just. There’s no statute of limitations in His court room. He doesn’t need DNA evidence, and He doesn’t need police reports. He doesn’t even need my testimony, because He was there.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t report to the police, but just knowing that He had me at that moment—
Ann: —which is this beautiful miracle—
Jennifer: It is.
Ann: —because your view of a father was so opposite—
Ann: —and horrific. Yet, you saw God as this loving Father, who would care for you.
Jennifer: It really is a miracle. You know, I’ve been asked by people—it’s really funny—one my pastors, actually, when we were joining a new church, because we had just moved—I told him my story. He just looked at me, point blank, and he said, “How are you so normal?!” [Laughter] I was like, “I don’t know! [Laughter] It was just God!”
Bob: —or “How are you still a Christian?”—
Jennifer: Yes, yes.
Bob: —because a lot of people, growing up in what you grew up in,—
Bob: —would say, “If this is what it means to be a follower of Christ—my dad’s reading theology books one minute and beating me”—that’s not where you’re going to turn—
Bob: —for hope or help.
Jennifer: No, that’s uber-hypocrisy.
Bob: So for you to cling to faith in the midst of that, that’s not been the path all your siblings have been on. It’s the grace of God that kept you held in a relationship with Him in the midst of all of this.
Jennifer: Absolutely; yes.
Bob: You started sharing that story by talking about the dad that you loved and believed was a Christian.
Bob: At 15, with a long history of abuse and hypocrisy, you still loved your dad.
Jennifer: Yes; and you know, I think in some sense, I still do. It’s very hard—I mean, a person is always going to be your parent no matter how evil they are. As a child, I think in particular, we look at our parents as superheroes. I think part of this is just being a loving person; we try to see the best in people.
I remember growing up and just seeing the amazing potential he had and the potential he had to be a godly teacher. I remember just praying that God would put godly men in his life, who would influence him.
Ann: Jennifer, like that is remarkable that you’re not just filled with hatred; because of the things like that. It such a purity of heart, which is beautiful, but also shows the need of a child—
Ann: —to be loved; but you’re extending grace and love to him.
Jennifer: I think, also, though, it needs to be balanced with there is anger. In fact, I think that, you know, for a long time, I did struggle with anger and hate; but there is such a thing as righteous anger. We are called to be angry at the wicked. In the one sense, I love my dad in the sense that I dearly wish that God would work in his heart; I wish God would soften his heart and change him; but at the same time, I’m angry at my dad, because of all the terrible things that he has done.
Dave: Did you ever express that to your dad?
Jennifer: Oh, absolutely; it was after all the abuse had kind of hit the fan. The church knew about it; he’d been excommunicated. My parents were going through a divorce, and I was still/it was like I was mad at him on the one hand, but I dearly wanted him to repent on the other.
He would do this thing, where he would go back and forth. Sometimes, he would apologize; and he’d be like, “I’m so sorry; anything I can do to help you heal, I will do.” Then, a week or a month later, he’d deny that any of that had ever happened. He didn’t remember apologizing. He didn’t understand why I was mad at him. Eventually, it was really a mind game—you know?—because he’s—
Ann: —or like multiple personalities.
Jennifer: —that’s what it felt like. I told him over the phone—I said, “Look, Dad, I can either believe that you are crazy—and you didn’t understand what you were doing, and you still don’t understand it; you’re out of your mind—or I can believe that you are evil, and you know exactly what you are doing.” He said, “Well, I am not crazy; so you’re just going to have to accept that I am evil.”
Jennifer: At that point, I was just stunned. It was the most honest thing he’d ever said. I think the gravity of that hit me; but also, just the gravity of his sin/the depth of what he was saying and that it was true. I just said: “I can’t do this anymore. I need you to get out of my life.”
Bob: What you’re sharing today is causing some listeners to relive—
Bob: —moments from their own childhood.
Bob: There is pain, and there is grief; there’s despair, and there is anger.
Jennifer: Yes; absolutely.
Bob: What do they do with that?
Jennifer: I would say take great comfort in knowing that God is angry with you [about the wrong done to you] and Jesus weeps with us. [Emotion in voice] The shortest verse in the Bible is that Jesus weeps. You know, there is this idea that Jesus—even now, in the throne room of heaven, He is not sitting around having a party, relaxing with His friends—He is interceding for us; He’s praying for us; He is concerned for us; He’s praying for us by name; He is weeping for me; and He is weeping for you. God is angry with the wicked. It’s okay to grieve; we can weep with Christ.
I came to a place in my life where, even though I knew that my anger was justified, I also knew that I needed to feel joy again, and I needed to rest and focus on my kids and my marriage, and not be so torn apart all the time about what my dad had done. I told God—I was like: “Look, Jesus, You took my sins to the cross; You carried them to the cross; so I know that you can carry my anger, too, even though my anger isn’t necessarily sinful—You know I may express it in sinful ways sometimes—but being angry with evil is not sinful. But at the same time, I know that You can feel this for me.”
I said, “Jesus, I need You to carry this burden for me because it’s ruining my life.” It was amazing because, after praying that, I was able to rest in God and to kind of just give that to Him.
Dave: I’ve always loved Psalm 34:18; it says “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted—
Dave: —“and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Dave: As I hear your story, I’m like, “Boy, oh, boy; you talk about a broken-hearted Christian spirit.”
Dave: Yet, you sit here today, and I hope a listener goes: “There’s hope.
Jennifer: Yes; absolutely.
Dave: “My story is as dark as hers, and here she is renewed in Christ.” There’s hope for anyone.
Ann: Also, Psalm 56:8: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in Your bottle. You have recorded each one in Your book.”
Jennifer: —each one/each tear.
Ann: —each tear.
Jennifer: It’s not just every crying episode—
Jennifer: —every tear.
Bob: I would think those who can relate to your story would find some level of healing in reading your book.
Jennifer: I hope so.
Ann: Oh, yes.
Bob: We have the book available. You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to order the book, Not Forsaken: A Story of Life After Abuse: How Faith Brought One Woman from Victim to Survivor, by Jennifer Michelle Greenberg. Again, order it from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy. The website, again, is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can order Jennifer’s book by calling 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” I know this is going to be a hard book for some people to read; but again, we hope it will be a healing book for folks as well.
I know you guys [Dave and Ann] are aware; because we see the prayer requests that come in regularly, here, at FamilyLife® from listeners, who get in touch with us, asking us to pray for very difficult marriage and family situations/for relationships that are strained—issues related to substance abuse to domestic violence like we’ve talked about—all kinds of issues that are fracturing families.
Here, at FamilyLife, our goal/our mission is to try to effectively develop godly marriages and families. We believe—when marriages and families are anchored in what God’s Word teaches, when people are surrendered to Jesus/living for Him and living humbly with one another—God does a transforming work in our lives and in those relationships, and we reflect His goodness and His glory to a watching world. That’s our goal here, at FamilyLife, to provide you with practical biblical help and hope for the issues you are facing in your marriage.
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Now, tomorrow, Jennifer joins us again to share about how she has processed, as an adult/as a wife and a mom now, her experience of childhood abuse and how God is bringing healing in her life. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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