As an act of forgiveness, I went to my dad's grave to lay flowers
The following is Jayne Stewart's testimony to her Elim church in Bangor.
Before I start to tell you about my life, you should know that I was blessed beyond belief from the minute I was born and throughout my whole life for two reasons:
1. Because my mum was a Christian and she taught me about Jesus and planted seeds deep in my heart from I was a little girl;
2. Because God has always been with me my whole life; He never left my side and He never let me go - I am truly, truly blessed.
I was born in Bangor, the youngest of four and was raised under the influence of two incredible women, my mum and my granny, both Christians, both lived out their faith in God.
I didn't realise the influence they had on me until I got saved 18 months ago. My mum and dad met while serving in the RUC, though my mum gave up her career when she married my dad. My dad caused a lot of problems in my life. I grew up in a domestic abuse situation which got progressively worse over the years.
When I was of primary school age, I lived in a very unstable environment, everything depended on my dad's mood. Some days would be normal, others he would just rage.
He didn't make sense to me, so I was very unsure around him. I withdrew from him emotionally from a young age. His temper scared me. Whether he was violent or not there was always a threat of violence, there was the not knowing if he was going to lose it or not, but he was verbally abusive a lot.
He trailed me to the floor with his words and name calling from when I was very young. By the time I was in secondary school the situation had got much worse, there weren't normal days in between anymore, and we lived under a constant barrage of verbal assault and a constant threat of physical assault. But this was the norm. This volatile, hostile, unpredictable atmosphere was all we had ever known. It was just the way it was and always had been.
So as a young child he scared me, but by the time I had got to secondary school, my hatred for him far outweighed my fear and I learned to fight back. Not physically, obviously, but verbally, I could give as good as I got. This created a problem because he liked to control us through fear and intimidation. And he couldn't control me anymore because I hated him more than I feared him. He added a new dimension to the abuse. When I was 14 he sexually assaulted me, totally disempowered me, made me very afraid of him.
Over the next three years he took great pleasure in making me believe that he would rape me. At the age of 16 I decided I needed to leave home for my own safety, so I told mum I was going to leave, but I desperately wanted us all to leave together, so I begged her for the billionth time to leave him too. And this time she agreed. But two days before we were to leave, my dad found out, and he went into a rage and he drove up and met her as she walked home from work and he brought her home. An hour later he shot her dead. An hour after that he turned the gun on himself. I came home that night to find both my parents shot dead, and that was the end of my childhood!
Mum was a devout Christian, so you'll understand when I tell you I felt angry at God. I felt like she had spent her whole life loving and trusting a God that didn't seem to care about her situation. At the same time, though, I knew my mum was in heaven and I was so thankful for that. It's not that I haven't always believed in God, I've always known there is God, it's just that I didn't really like Him very much. So, angry at God, and not knowing what to do with all of this hurt and grief, I started taking a lot of drugs and over the next 18 months entered into a whole new level of brokenness. By the age of 18, because of the abuse, trauma, grief, drugs, I decided to end my life.
I wasn't irrational, or hysterical. It wasn't a decision I made in the heat of the moment nor had I spent weeks planning it. I just knew I couldn't face waking up another morning or face another night fearing sleep because of the nightmares I was having at that time. I sat thinking about what I was about to do and I just couldn't find a way out. Then I started thinking about mum and I remembered her faith and I started thinking about God... And I had this little glimmer of hope! And in that moment God shone light into complete darkness and He gave me hope in what was a completely hopeless situation, and instead of taking my life that night I went up to my bedroom and I got down on my knees and I poured my heart out to Him, I told him that my life was a mess and I didn't know how to fix it.
And I asked Him to help me. And God heard my prayer and He answered it. He sent my Christian sister around that same week and she took me under her wing, and she got me off drugs, back to college, and I started getting my life back. But my prayer was quickly forgotten and I partied harder than I studied, and five years later I'd blown my inheritance, dropped out of college and my life was not where I wanted it to be. I'd blown everything and was left standing with nothing and I remember praying from my heart, 'God, this is not the way I want to live my life, always moving from one mess to another, never having any security and stability in my life. I want a home, I want a family, I want a normal life.' And, again, God answered my prayer.
First God gave me Garry! Now when God went looking for the right guy to bless me with I think he had a checklist - he had to have big shoulders for me to cry on, a big heart and bags and bags of patience because God gave Garry to me as the blessing that would heal me, He didn't give me to Garry already healed. He's been a part of this journey from the start and he deserves a medal.
And then God gave me a home and three beautiful children and I had everything that I'd always wanted. Through these blessings, God brought me healing and now it was time for some serious convicting. Reminding me morning, noon and night of my blessings, that He had blessed me with everything I'd asked for and that I wasn't living my life the way I should be and I wasn't raising my children to know Him.
Before I even walked through the front doors of Bangor Elim, I knew something was different: I knew my life was about to change, that He had already started something in me. Six weeks later I surrendered my life to Him. The first time I met with God was on my knees on my bedroom floor. Twenty-one years later I met with Him again, same place, on my knees on my bedroom floor. This time I was ready to surrender my life to Him - no more empty promises, no more deals. This time God had me on His terms.
The minute I got saved, God opened my eyes. He lifted a fog that I hadn't even known was there! And then I looked back on my life and I saw God in every moment and I realised that He had been with us through everything. God gave me a whole new perspective, so when I looked back I saw past mum's hurt and brokenness and I saw her strength and her peace and her faith. Then God challenged my unforgiveness towards my dad.
For six weeks I wrestled with God over this. He wouldn't let it go... He put dad on my heart, in my thoughts and even my dreams, He spoke to me through scripture, through people, and I knew that He wanted me to forgive. God spoke to me on the very first night at Alpha when the first topic of discussion was forgiveness, and that night I stopped fighting God and I started on, what I call, my 'journey to forgiveness' where I spent the next 10 weeks confronting my past and every hurt and choosing to forgive.
I spent a LOT of time in prayer every day, just allowing the Holy Spirit to lead me through what was a very difficult and painful process. Ten weeks later I believed that God had finished what He had started in me many years ago. As an act of forgiveness, I went to my dad's grave to lay flowers. I didn't really know what to expect but I thought I'd probably feel sad for me that he hadn't been the dad I'd have liked him to be. But I didn't!
I felt an overwhelming sadness for him. I felt sad that he would never know God's mercy; I wanted to tell him about our kind and loving, merciful and forgiving God who wants all of us, even dad, to turn to Him. That's when I realised that I'd truly forgiven, not because of anything that I had done, but because of what God had been doing to me on the inside. I had acted in obedience in choosing to forgive, but God did the real work, on the inside, that only God can do. And having forgiven dad, I remembered all the things that I said and did and the hatred I felt for him and I felt like God was telling me that I needed to be forgiven too.
My attitude before was that he deserved it. I hated him and he deserved it. And he did deserve it, but that doesn't make it right. In God's eyes we were both in dire need of repentance and forgiveness. Before God opened my eyes I'd have been saying, 'Come on, he abused us and he murdered mum' but the truth is, I murdered my dad 1,000 times before he died. With every look, with every obscenity I screamed at him. I wished him dead every minute of every day and I made sure he knew it. The last words I said to him, was when I threw an extension lead at him and told him to do us all a favour and hang himself with it. And I really meant it! I needed to be forgiven too. It is not ok to justify our words and our actions, our hatred and resentment towards others by saying they deserve it. That is not God's way.
God never promised us we wouldn't suffer in this world, but He did promise us that He would be with us when we do. And I know he is faithful to that promise because I look back and I see my mum's strength through the brokenness, I see the joy even in her despair, and the peace she had in the midst of all this chaos and hurt and I know that only comes from knowing Jesus.
Another amazing woman in my life with this same strength of faith is my granny. On the first anniversary she wrote me a letter: "at times my heart is very full with sorrow and I just ask God to help me cope and, it's true, he's only a prayer away. I choose to sit quietly in my room with my thoughts and at peace with God and I know He is beside me....I know he is at the helm and I feel safe."
"I know he is at the helm and I feel safe," - I just love that! This was written one year after her daughter was murdered.
Now you see why I say I am blessed. My mum and my granny knew God and they understood something that I'm only starting to understand now.
God promises us that He will bring good out of everything and He did. My mum is rejoicing in heaven because her four kids, against all the odds, are going to be joining her there one day... and that's all because of Jesus. God never fails. Sometimes we just need God to open our eyes to see that.
You can carry your hurt under the radar where no one will know about it but you. But it's still there and it's a burden of hurt. God wants you to bring it out in the open and he wants to deal with it, so that he can heal you and strengthen you and give you the life He has for you. You can survive burying your hurt and getting on with life, putting it behind you as best you can.
But God doesn't want us to just survive. He has got a much bigger plan for us. God wants us to be victorious. God calls us to be 'more than conquerors' and when God calls you to be something he equips you for that role. All it requires is putting your trust in Him. For me, the first step in putting my trust in God was allowing myself to become vulnerable as a part of the healing process. I had an almighty defence barrier built up that all dad's words and actions just ricochetted off.
God was just telling me to stop fighting him. I really struggled with that. I had to acknowledge the hurt before I could forgive, and that was hard. It went against everything I'd learned to survive. But I did it, and because I was obedient to God, he was able to lead me through that process of healing and forgiveness and he did something better than just put my past behind me, He took it and gave it to me as part of my future. I believe that God has called me to tell people 'the same healing power that healed me will heal you too'. God didn't just heal me for me, He healed me for you. So that I can stand up here and say this is what happened to me and God healed me. And I know that what God has done for me He wants to do for you too.
I have this little vision of an incredible army of people, who were once the walking wounded, being led into victory. This amazing army of conquerors, not survivors, who have defeated the devil and all he has thrown at them. An army that just keeps growing. And all you have to do to get into it, is to surrender your hurt to God and just put your trust in him.