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Parents with a Past

Should I tell my teen daughters about the sins of my youth?

I looked into the antique jar full of seashells my family and I had gathered on our vacations, and tried to ignore the nudging I felt from God. I held in my hand pieces of sea glass my children, my husband, and I had collected on our recent visit to Glass Beach. Nearly a century ago, this rocky shore served as the city dump. But today, herds of people comb the sand and rocks for sea glass. After much refinement in the ocean, these broken pieces of old glass garbage have become sought-after stones that sparkle like jewels in the surf.

As I placed this onetime trash into the jar, I felt God speaking to me about the "garbage" of my life—my past sins.

"I can use those transgressions now," he seemed to tell me. "Just as the sea has refined this glass, I've shaped and refined your mistakes into valuable gems for you to share with other people."

Specifically, I felt the Lord prompting me to tell my teenage daughters about the costly blunders I'd made when I was their age.

But the suggestion wasn't appealing to me. I didn't want to confess my past to them.

What I Was Hiding

My adolescence—and my husband's—was dark and dangerous compared to my children's coming-of-age years. My girls planned to be virgins on their wedding nights. They wore purity rings and at their youth groups had signed contracts with God not to have sex before marriage. While I knew my kids might not be able to hold to such ideal aspirations, I prayed they would. And so far, they were untainted by promiscuity, alcohol and drugs, or raunchy movies.

Polished by Christ's love and forgiveness, my past sins had become lessons in redemption.

In contrast, my husband and I had watched every vulgar movie Hollywood made. During our teens we went to parties, got drunk, tried drugs. Because we weren't Christians, we never thought we were doing anything bad.

I'd been somewhat open with our kids about that period of our lives, so they already knew their proper Christian mother had a past. But they didn't know details. They didn't know that I had friends who'd died in drunk-driving accidents. That I'd driven drunk many times myself. My daughters didn't know that I'd taken friends to get abortions. Or that their grandpa had kicked me out of his house when I was 18 because he'd caught me sleeping with my boyfriend—their dad.

The lessons from those years were painful. I'd learned boyfriends love girls less after they put out, not more as the boys promise. That drunken bashes leave the partygoer feeling sick and empty the next morning. That drugs harm the body, but not nearly as much as they harm the soul.

Of course, I didn't want my daughters to suffer the scars of such sinful choices. But since my girls showed no signs of such perilous behavior, why would I need to share my old sins?

Redeeming Revelations

Then a talk I heard at a Christian conference years ago came back to me. The speaker shared that her 12-year-old daughter had been flipping through television channels when she stopped on a talk show about women who'd had abortions. "Those women must be awful," her Christian daughter said scornfully. "How could anyone kill a baby like that?"

At that moment, the speaker said she knew she had to tell her daughter about her own dark past. She offered a silent prayer, then burst into her story.

"Those women aren't necessarily awful," the woman began. "Sometimes they're simply trapped. Not everyone's dad and mom are Christians who love their kids and bring them up as protected as you are. Not everyone has the gift of growing up in a godly home."

Then the woman finally confessed her secret to her daughter: "I had an abortion when I was a teenager. I was young and scared, and I thought abortion was my only option. Eventually I met and married your awesome dad, and God blessed us with you."

"My daughter was crushed," the speaker shared. "She cried like a baby about my past. I felt terrible, but I knew I was right to tell her. I couldn't let her go on being judgmental toward women who've had abortions."

As I thought of this woman's words, suddenly God's point became crystal clear to me: Cleaned and polished by Christ's love and forgiveness, my past sins had become lessons in redemption for other people. "Look at your sins, your wounds," I once heard a pastor preach. "Wherever Jesus has delivered and healed you, the Lord has ordained you to help and comfort other people in those same difficult places."

My past could teach my daughters compassion for people who choose sin over the safety of God's unpolluted path. "Just be honest," Jesus seemed to say to me. "Tell your girls the truth."

With eyes wide and stunned, they listened quietly and didn't ask any questions.

I tried to explain why I'd gone down such a sinful path. "I didn't know the Lord when I was a teenager. My family drank. My friends drank. I thought everyone drank alcohol. I wasn't raised in a church like our family's. Nobody read the Bible to me when I was a kid."

I began to cry.

"It's OK, Mom. You aren't like that now," one of my daughters gently offered.

"We still love you, Mom," said my other daughter. "And Jesus loves and forgives you, too."

 I could tell by my daughters' faces that this conversation was as hard for them as it was for me. But their compassionate replies were encouraging.

"Like me," I said, "many kids grow up in homes where nobody knows the Lord. Where people sin and think bad behavior is normal. These people need our prayers and our love."

Washed Clean

After I told my daughters of my past, I kept thinking about a tiny piece of red sea glass I'd found.

A serious sea glass hunter once told me red glass is the most valuable kind. And it's nearly impossible to find now after years of people picking over the beach.

This little shard looked like a drop of blood. It reminded me of the blood of the babies my friends aborted with my help. But the red glass also reminded me of the blood of my Savior. For when I placed the piece in my antique jar, the red glass disappeared into the white shells. In the same way, Christ's blood, when poured upon my sins, turned me white as those sun-bleached seashells.

And now I can use those old sins, soft and refined like the sea glass, to teach others—and my children—about Christ's amazing love.

Jodi Washington is a pseudonym. Names and details have been changed.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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