A while back I had the privilege to talk to an ABC reporter about family secrets, following up on Oprah’s “secret” sister. It surprised me that for most of her life the talk show host hadn’t known about her half-sister. It shows the power of secrets, the shame in hiding. It makes me wonder what secrets swirl around me.
My first memoir, Thin Places, uncovers many pieces of secret shame. Sexual abuse at age five, a mother thrice divorced, the death of my father, an unsafe home, drug abuse surrounding me as a child—many of these traumas I kept quiet. For years. I lived under that unwritten, unspoken mandate that to tell was to betray my family.
It wasn’t until I met Jesus at fifteen that the secrets started to spill. Knowing Jesus and His extravagant love for me helped me know that no matter what I shared, I was still wildly adored by Him. He gave me the courage to tell my story and an insatiable desire to be whole. Throughout college, where friends dared to pray me toward healing, I learned that healing erupts in the light of truth. Simply put, if we hide things, we fester. We stagnate. We stop growing.
But there is hope for any who suffer under the weight of a family secret. Jesus not only bore your sin; He helps you heal from the sins of others. I love how John explains it in 1 John 1:7: “But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.”
I’d venture to say that this verse not only applies to the sin we do, but also to the sin enacted against us. Once we share our pain openly with those who love Jesus, the shame melts away. Consider Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” See the beautiful juxtaposition there? Jesus’ death and sacrifice means he not only bears our sin, but that His outrageous act also heals our wounds, the wounds we received from others.
I am living testimony that it’s possible to heal from the past. It’s possible to be so completely healed from what went on back then that others would never know you walked that path of pain. That’s the beauty of Jesus and His ability to heal. My life verse affirms this kind of personal transformation. I was nothing—a neglected girl who wasn’t wanted—yet God chose me to show how well He can transform a life.
Paul says God chooses people like me to shame those who are strong. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-29).
You may be thinking, Yeah Mary, but you don’t know what I’ve endured. You don’t see the aftermath of my pain.
You’re right. I don’t. But I’d like to invite you to think differently for a moment. Instead of seeing your family secret or your secret shame as a detriment, begin to see it as a stage for God to display His power to transform you.
You’re actually at an advantage in your lack. Why? Because you know your need for Jesus. You know you can’t heal on your own. Your weakness is the very starting place for Jesus to set you free.
That’s the beauty of weakness. That’s why I can thank God for the humiliation, pain, and shame of my childhood. Because all those things helped me see my extreme need for Jesus.
As I’ve healed, though, I’ve learned something vital about the past. You may not know everything. You may have blocked memories. But whether you know the truth or not, you have the capability to make a choice. You can either move forward or wallow in the past.
Oswald Chambers writes this: “Let the past sleep, but let it sleep on the bosom of Christ, and go out into the irresistible future with Him.” We have an irresistible future ahead of us. After we’ve told the truth about the past and experienced God’s healing, it’s time to cultivate a holy anticipation for what God will unfold.
Isaiah’s words are instructive: “But forget all that—it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
The question for me as unearth the past is: where will I dwell? Will not knowing keep me tethered to the pain? Or will I concede that I may never know the secrets and be able to move on? Tough questions, to be sure.
That’s the central story question of my novel, The Muir House—a novel set in my local community, Rockwall, Texas. Willa Muir, the twenty-something protagonist, wrestles with the question: Will the truth set you free? Must you know all the truth to be able to move on?
Willa can’t say yes to a marriage proposal until she returns to Rockwall. When Hale Landon places a ring on her finger, Willa panics, feeling she can’t possibly say yes when so much in her past is a mystery. But the old place holds Willa’s empty memory close to itself. Her mother utters unintelligible clues from her deathbed, and the caretaker of the house keeps coveted answers carefully protected. Throw in an old flame, and Willa careens farther away from ever knowing the truth. The Muir House explores trauma, healing, love—new and old—and the life-changing choices people make to keep their reputations intact.
I hope that you’ll be brave like Willa, exploring your past, but choosing to move forward anyway. May your family secrets not tether you to your past, but be a springboard to embrace your irresistible future.