As a professional writer, I have shared hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people’s stories over the past four decades. But now it’s time to share my story.

By the time I was 7 and my sister was 11 years old, we had been in guardianship three times. We had moved about nine times. We had experienced the fallout from addiction, instability, and violence. But then came the day that changed everything.

As an 8-year-old, I walked home from school thinking about the bad choices I saw people around me making. I stopped next to a church at the corner of my street in Lakewood, Ohio, and committed in my heart: “I will not grow up to be like them.”

It would be decades before I understood what that thought meant or from whom that calling had come. Only later would I see God’s fingerprints throughout my life. And only later would I hear Him tell me, “I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1 NLT).

As a child and even as a young adult, I was desperate for love and acceptance. I tried everything I could to win over the people I loved. School became my haven. It was as if I lived two lives. But even my school activities and success didn’t fill the void in my heart.

I felt more than unloved. I felt unlovable. I felt worthless. Yet I still tried to find and prove my own worth.

When I was in high school, a fellow band member invited me to attend a Bible study based on the Gospel of John. I had gone to church briefly during my mom’s second marriage, but I knew nothing about the Bible. At the Bible study, we did things totally foreign to me. We read the Bible. We sang songs about God, some of which were scripture put to music. As a musician, I will remember those songs for the rest of my life. Everything was new to me, and I learned that Jesus was the Son of God who died on my behalf and that someday He was coming again to set the world right. I understood He alone could deliver me.

It was during that time that I first called upon the Lord. Tensions in my home had grown to a new high, and I was truly afraid. As I lay in bed one scary night, I whispered, “God, when You come for Your children, please take me with You!” It was all I could think to say. God protected me that night, but other life experiences prevented me from fully trusting His heart and believing the depth of His love for me.

Before long, I was forbidden to go to church, and I lost contact with my new friends from the Bible study. Alone, I wavered in my commitment to the Lord. I did not understand basic concepts such as how to read the Bible and apply it to my life.

But I still hungered for God. That God-shaped hole in my heart led me to look for a church within the first week of my freshman year of college. I remained desperate for love and a sense of worth, all the while still feeling I needed to earn God’s love and favor. I had committed to not repeating the mistakes of those around me, yes, but I found myself drawn to unhealthy relationships, a trap into which people from dysfunctional homes often fall. I graduated early and immediately got married, still believing I was worthless and unlovable.

My husband and I soon left Ohio for Orlando, Florida, where I hoped to start a new life. A year later, in January 1986, I got a call while on deadline as an editor at The Orlando Sentinel. My sister had taken her life. Over the next few months, I would miscarry twice at work, and my first marriage would come crashing to an end. And then, a week and a half after my marriage ended—six months to the day of my sister’s suicide—my mother took her life.

However difficult, this loss of everything familiar did eventually set me on a path back to God. Halfway across the country from friends and family, I felt alone. But I recognized God had given me a unique opportunity to reinvent myself and forge a new path. I made a second vow: I wouldn’t allow myself to be victimized again. As my heart began to heal, I let Jesus in. I would no longer believe Satan’s lies. I would find the love and value I had sought for so long in Christ.

God continued to shower me with His grace as He demonstrated His patience toward me. Remarried to a kind, loving man and now the mother of a toddler, I wanted more of God for myself and my family. So one night I prayed, “Lord, help me find a good church with good teaching.” I had only briefly experienced good teaching as a teenager, and I was hungry for truth.

The next morning, as I went through Yellow Pages listings, I felt led to call a church near our neighborhood. As the pastor and I talked—first by phone, then in person—he told me about God’s grace, which is greater than my sin. I realized that although people in my life had sinned greatly against me, it was my sin alone that had separated me from God. But I also learned that, despite my sin, God loved me unconditionally.

My mind was blown. How could God love me when I had wandered so far for so long? I was overcome by His love for me. I was transformed by His grace. For perhaps the first time, I felt real peace and purpose. My life’s purpose was no longer to impress people so they would love me. I finally understood that my purpose was to know Him and to make Him known.

One day as I read my Bible, I came across 2 Corinthians 1:3–4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (NIV).

I realized God wanted me to use what I had experienced to help others. I could encourage people who had gone through childhood trauma, experienced dysfunctional relationships or miscarriage, and comfort those whose loved ones had committed suicide. I could point them toward a good, gracious God who is our healer, our help, our refuge, and our only true hope. And I began investing in the lives of children and young women so they could know the victory God offers us in Jesus.

While I would love to end my story by saying, “and she lived happily ever after,” that’s not how life in Christ works. God doesn’t spare us trials, but He does see us through them. And it is our privilege to share in His sufferings (1 Peter 4:13). In our trials, we lean closer to God. We grow in our reliance upon Him and in our faith as we let Him work through our lives. And we gain more experiences we can use to show others His faithfulness.

Despite major health challenges and painful loss, I have fixed my eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith (Hebrews 12:2). I’ve learned I can’t control my circumstances, but I can control my responses by surrendering to the One who is perfect in all His ways. I can choose to walk by faith and not by sight.

Though happiness may sometimes elude me, I find I can always choose joy. It becomes easier to choose joy—to trust God’s hand and heart—as I look into the rearview mirror upon my life. Even in the dark times, He has been there, sustaining and protecting me.

I find comfort in knowing God will never leave or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5), in knowing nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8:38–39), and in knowing these present sufferings cannot compare with the glory that will be revealed in me (Romans 8:18).

Each day, I pray I will hear, recognize, and obey the leading of the Holy Spirit. I don’t do it perfectly, and no one gets more frustrated with me than I do when I mess up. But I am a work in progress, and I’m determined to press on toward the goal that is in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). He will complete the good work He has begun in me (Philippians 1:6), just as He will ​complete it in you if you place your trust in Him.

Maybe you are like me: You struggle with trusting God’s heart or believing that anyone, including Him, could love you so completely and so perfectly. Maybe you are looking for a lifeline to grab hold of. God has given us that lifeline. His name is Jesus.

God is love; God is good; God is near. Receive His grace. Walk in His truth. He alone can break every chain and set every captive free. I am proof.

You can be too.