Surviving Sexual Assault: How I Learned to Forgive Myself
I was sexually assaulted by a senior member of my church’s staff for four years. I was 21, and was doing an internship at my local church to explore a calling to full-time ministry. She was 42, and a director of the discipleship department.
It was a classic case of sexual grooming (although I didn’t know the term at the time). She’d taken a special interest in my progress. As a young 20-something, uncertain about my capabilities, her attention was gratifying. To have the support of one of the most charismatic and respected leaders in church made me feel confident that I had something worthy to offer God.
When she shared that she was same-sex attracted and admitted that she was attracted to me, she portrayed herself as a victim of God’s cruelty: wired to love someone she could never be with. To her, God was sadistically intent on denying her the things that her heart truly wanted. Doing life with Him had started to feel like a pointless torture of self-denial.
I was never attracted to her, but the way she told her story filled me with deep sympathy. Without realizing it, I responded to her narrative of victimhood by wanting to alleviate her suffering. I wanted to demonstrate that the church could be a safe space for same-sex attracted people and redeem her view of God.
It didn’t go the way I planned. I couldn’t see at the time that she wasn’t just a broken and defeated woman, but also someone desperately trying to make me do what she wanted perhaps to fill the void in her heart. This manifested in so many ways that I just wasn’t astute enough to trace the pattern of her behavior. She’d be jealous when I didn’t join her ministries, or guilt me into going on holidays with her. When I resisted, she accused me of withholding affection and being “just like God”. I knew her logic and the way she was relating to me was hugely problematic, but didn’t have the words to pinpoint why.
I did my best to be firm. But she was much older than I was, in a position of power, and so persistent in pushing against my boundaries. Over the years, I questioned whether I was the unreasonable one for having boundaries in the first place and eventually “chose” to give in. A part of me hoped that if she got her way, she’d be satisfied and not ask for more. But it only encouraged her to push against my boundaries even more.
She was a truly gifted storyteller. Each time after she violated my body, she’d have a variety of ways to justify what she did. Sometimes she played the victim card, saying she couldn’t help herself. Sometimes she made beautiful-sounding promises of not doing it again. Sometimes she’d mock how absolutely devastated I was, as though I was overreacting. Sometimes it was flat out gas-lighting, insinuating that I wanted it too.
I felt so trapped. Influenced by her narrative of victimhood, and afraid of her emotional outbursts if I didn’t comply with her demands, I’d been conditioned to “not want to add to her suffering”. Yet, I felt so much pain and disgust for being involved in this. To add to my confusion, she would revert back effortlessly into being the affirming person that I’d first met. Which version of her was real? Was this woman who was violating my body just a helpless victim of an uncontrollable desire? Was the Christlike thing to do to give her umpteenth chances to change?
I was 25 when I finally cut her off for good. I was too ashamed to tell anyone, and, coupled with other factors, I left the church—and God.
Three years of deep unrest followed after. I’d blamed myself for “allowing sexual sin” to happen. After all, she was the victim; I should have been stronger and more assertive. I assumed that the deep revulsion I felt from her actions was remorse for grieving God with my sin. Not that it mattered now that I’d walked away from Him.
And since I was finally free of her, I thought I could move on with my life. But the persistent nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder triggers during these three years suggested that this framework I’d cobbled together wasn’t sufficient to encompass what had happened.
I finally saw a therapist when the nightmares became intolerable. During those sessions, quite unexpectedly God showed me the ways I’d misunderstood His heart for me in the past. Unlike what I’d previously thought—that He was only giving me what I felt was “second-best”—I discovered that He knew my heart better than I did. What I categorized as “second-best” were in fact things that my heart truly needed to thrive! Tracing this pattern throughout the events of my life moved me immensely, and would become a crucial factor in helping me trust God when I had to wrestle with several difficult faith questions in the coming months.
When I returned to Him, He gave me the courage to tell my story to a few close friends. To my surprise, some of them realized that they’d always felt somewhat uncomfortable about this woman, but had never been able to verbalize why. One of them also said she’d felt manipulated by her as well. Their unanimous rage over what she’d done helped me begin to see that I hadn’t been the one at fault: I had been assaulted.
It took a long time to come around to this new understanding. It was initially inconceivable that I could have been so deceived by someone’s manipulation. I’d always been told that I was emotionally intelligent and could usually discern people’s motives. And with the dawning realization that something terrible had happened to me, I started to blame myself for a new slew of reasons. Why was I not sharp enough to realize how duplicitous she was? Had I not been so gratified by her attention, or had my heart not been in such need for affirmation, perhaps I could have seen the truth!
A deep anger towards God followed suit. If I was too limited to protect myself, then why didn’t He? I knew He didn’t cause this to happen or put me through it just to teach me a lesson. That’s a kind of sadism that goes against what the Scripture says of His character and nature. But why didn’t He do more to prevent the assault? Was my heart and my body just not worth His energy?
Job didn’t get an answer when he shook his fist at the heavens, and neither did I. Could I admit that what I understood of the situation was but the “outskirts of his ways”, “a whisper” compared to the true “thunder of his power” (Job 26:14)? Could I accept the reality that I was only “[seeing] in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12)?
Like Job, I had a clear choice before me: either I believe that God’s character (He is good, sovereign, and holy) remains constant despite my circumstances, or I let my circumstances interpret God’s character. Given how recently shaken I was by the blindness of my perspective, I couldn’t choose the latter confidently. But how could I believe the former after what I went through?
We often make erroneous conclusions based on incomplete information. The presence of two variables may point to one conclusion, but the inclusion of a third variable can lead us to a different end. For instance, before I could see that I was being emotionally manipulated, I saw only two variables—a) I didn’t want any sexual contact with her, b) I wasn’t able to resist it. I could only logically conclude that it was my fault for not being strong enough to stand up for myself. But the third variable—c) her thorough manipulation robbed me of my authority to assert my boundaries—made me realize that she was at fault instead. What had looked like my choice to “give in” was in fact not at all autonomous consent but the result of carefully masked coercion. It explained why I was so devastated after each assault; consent does not lead to trauma.
So now, with the two pieces of information that I had—a) I was sexually assaulted, b) God allowed it to happen—I could choose to conclude that He is not good. Or…could I admit that there may be more variables here that I simply could not see, and that when all assembled together would give the situation its complete context? A context that could explain the meaning of all of this, one that would still point unequivocally to the fact that God is good? Did I have enough faith to trust His heart and take Him on His word alone, without understanding the situation completely?
I wrestled with this for months. But I chose to accept the finiteness of my human perspective compared to that of an omniscient God, one who had, in so many other areas of my life, consistently demonstrated goodness to me. Perhaps knowing why God allowed it is not what I need to survive.
In what I have needed to know, His insight has been swift and precise. I recognized that my appreciation for her initial support was not consent to the sinful way she related to me. I learned that however much a person is hurting, they have no right to violate another. I realized that relying on God to fill my needs gives me clarity to see people for who they are. I accepted the importance of being open with trusted friends because they may see what I cannot. And when she was finally fired from the church for this assault, I understood that a true Christlike response is not one that condones sin, but one that will enable the other person to be transformed.
I no longer fault my 20-something self for not being smart enough to know these things.
It has been wonderful to discover that God is capable of helping me overcome and heal from the wounds of my past. There are still difficult days, and the occasional nightmare. But learning to forgive myself has freed my heart to receive His healing, and, as the days go by, is helping me learn how to forgive her as well.
This article is the first of a three-part series. Read the second part of the series, Surviving Sexual Assault: How I am Learning to Forgive an Abuser, and the last part, Surviving Sexual Assault: Why It Has Been Difficult to Forgive the Church.
Thank you so much for sharing something so painful, thanks for bringing the shame, the guilt and the condemnation out into the light. I have a friend who also have been sexually assaulted. Is there anything I can do to help?
I don’t think age has anything to do with being coerced. That can happen to anyone at any age for many reasons.We are only humans, after all.
i feel so so sorry for you nelle …
God weeped with you. Really.