Bethany by now was restlessly moving in her bed; maybe she could sense that someone was at her door. As her mother and I entered and approached her bedside, she moved suddenly as if to hide something. When we turned on the hall light and its illumination flooded her dark room, we could tell by Bethany’s swollen eyes that she had been crying for some time. Embarrassed, she quickly got up and turned her face, trying to wipe away the evidence of her weakness.

My wife and I simply told our daughter that we felt God had revealed to us in prayer that she had been struggling with a profound and painful secret. We assured her that we wanted to help, but to do that we would need her to be completely honest about whatever was going on in her life. As we gently but firmly asked her to reveal what she was hiding from us, it seemed her entire body shuddered with the impact of our words. Instead of denying her actions, she slowly sat down and began to weep into her hands. This was not the reaction she usually had when we confronted her about inappropriate behavior. This was the response of a broken and devastated soul, weary and hopeless and alone.

I remember the sudden and painful tightening in my gut, the nausea in the back of my throat as I listened to my little girl tell me she had been molested—touched inappropriately by a male student in her middle school, the day of her graduation from eighth grade. How that could be? Why didn’t she tell us? Dozens of thoughts and questions invaded my mind like a tidal wave. I watched helplessly while my wife erupted into tears and smothered my daughter’s little frame with her protective hug.

The nausea inside me quickly grew into numbness. My mind refused to accept what my ears had just heard, and I almost shut down with the emotional shock of her revelation. Not my family! Not my daughter, not in my house! As my fear and shock subsided, my rage surged—rage at whoever had done this, rage at my inability to fix this terrible wound in my Bethany, rage at my own failure to protect her from harm, from violation. I choked as I tried to absorb it all. Why had this happened? What was going on in my own family? And why didn’t I have a clue?

Something much worse and much different from a secret boyfriend or an abuse of freedom had occurred. In my haste to confront and correct, I had missed the other possible explanation for my daughter’s progressive changes in attitude, appearance, and behavior: despair.

The space between defiance and despair is very small. As a parent, I had yet to learn the difference, and given the history of Bethany’s stubborn and persistent personality, I had categorized her in my mind as a “strong-willed child.” Long before this terrible night I had judged her incapable of being forthright, truthful, or respectful, and so at the apex of her young life, I had rushed to a premature judgment of my daughter’s motives long before the facts were revealed. In that moment I had a parental epiphany: Bethany wasn’t acting so strange because of some stereotypical teenage funk; she was acting out of pain. Her world had grown increasingly dark as her heart gave way to despair and shame. She had carefully hidden her pain from us, fearing we would not understand or continue to love her like before.

As a father, that moment broke my heart. I realized in an instant how foolish I had been, how easily I had assumed the worst of my daughter, and how legalistically my own religious nature had intruded upon the most fragile of life moments. If I had continued in the path of correction and confrontation that night with my daughter, I believe I might have lost her forever. Instead, by the amazing grace of God alone, I kept myself from launching into another angry tirade at her deception and intuitively was able to grasp that her actions were being caused by her secret, not in an effort to protect it.