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What Difference Does Jesus Make?

Cover artwork by Abigail Jeyaraj (@handsxpens)

Written By Paul Wong

Paul is the campus pastor at Singapore Management University’s Christian Fellowship (SMUCF). Prior to that, he was a ministry trainee at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, London, where he spent two years in full-time ministry training, having previously worked as a corporate lawyer in the City of London. In his free time he enjoys photography, reading popular history, and spending time with his family. He is presently thinking about exercising more.

 

Jesus doesn’t really make life better

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8-9, ESV)

The man who penned those words wrote them from a cold, lonely prison cell in about AD 60, chained 24/7 to a Roman guard. As he writes the letter, his reputation and good name are being dragged through the mud by rivals, jealous of his influence over the churches in Asia and Macedonia. Indeed those very same churches he planted, including the one at Philippi to whom he’s presently writing, are under the threat of persecution or apostasy. In short, much of what this man has labored for, and achieved, in the last decades of his life is under attack and at risk of being destroyed.

So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus (c.5–c.64/67)? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. But not in a good way.

When Paul writes that he has suffered the loss of all things, he really means it. Status, security—all of it gone. And all because he has spent much of his adult life in the single-minded proclamation of salvation through faith in Jesus.

So the big, gaping question for us has got to be: How could he consider that “gaining Christ” was of “surpassing worth” when compared to the loss of literally everything? Why does he describe his previous comfortable life as “dung” (as the old King James Version translates it), when he now languishes in jail? Those are extraordinary things to write.

I think Paul would have said that it has all to do with his deep assurance of the love that God has for him, and how that love was ultimately displayed when Jesus showed up. Paul knows something which, for him, changes everything. ‘Tis the Season, so I’ll try and explain it in Christmassy terms.

 

 

Christmas I: Forgiveness and relationship

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea (today’s West Bank) that first Christmas, He came for a reason. The events surrounding His miraculous birth attest this. One eyewitness record of His life tells us that He is named Jesus (meaning “God saves”) “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That means that His singular purpose on earth was to rescue men and women from the punishment that we deserve for our rejection of God.

I wonder what you think of that. Perhaps the concept of a creator is so alien to you that you think this is all hogwash (in which case I’d encourage you to read some of the other articles in this series). Perhaps you think you’re a good person at heart—so this idea of punishment for “sins” is just ridiculous.

But Paul of Tarsus would look you in the eye and ask you to be honest with yourself: are you truly “good”? Who gets to decide anyway? Paul would say to us that in virtually everyone’s books he was a good person—blameless under his understanding of the Jewish laws (Philippians 3:4-6)—and yet a total failure in the eyes of a holy and righteous God.

Here’s why: God doesn’t merely view “sin” as the bad stuff you and I do wrong every day. What he says is far more offensive. He says that we are living in darkness and in rebellion to Him. Humanity is living in His world (trashing it even), using His stuff and breathing His air, all without any reference or deference to Him. And that’s a problem because if God is holy and just and good, and if I’m living as if He’s a nobody, then that kind of behavior deserves judgment—just ask any parent.

But God, in His deep love for His creation and His desire for a relationship with His people, administers the antidote Himself by sending Jesus. God provides forgiveness and a way out from our otherwise inevitable judgment. And the way that happens is by Jesus dying on a Roman cross, taking on our behalf the punishment that we deserve for living in God’s world as if he didn’t exist. Jesus’ sacrifice secures our forgiveness. He stands in our place—condemned as a sinner so that we might be pardoned. Christmas happened for Easter, as my old pastor puts it.

Trusting in that sacrifice means that God now sees us as He sees Jesus. The Bible describes Christians as being “hidden with Christ”. Incredibly, God no longer sees our sin, but the righteous perfection of His Son instead. Crucially, repentance (turning from our rebellion) and faith (trusting Jesus) bring us into relationship with God. As a Christian I can listen to Him speak in His Word, the Bible, and speak back to Him, knowing He hears me because I trust in Jesus.

This is the knowledge that changes everything.

Because he is a Christian, Paul of Tarsus can be sure that he need not fear the judgment of God. He is certain of the forgiveness won on his behalf at the cross. So even as he sits in a dirty jail cell, incredibly, he cannot help but rejoice at the receipt of this free gift. He might die condemned as a criminal, but ultimately he knows that he has been made right with his maker.

What difference does believing in Jesus make? He offers forgiveness for our rejection of God, and a relationship which begins now and lasts forever. And that is everything.

 

Christmas II: A different time frame

For Paul though, that’s not the end of the story (though there is plenty to cherish already!). The rest is all to do with the time frame.

Before Jesus died, He promised to return. There are two Christmases if you like, and the second is still to come.

Jesus promised that when He returns, He does so as judge of the world. And for those who trust in Him, there is a promise of eternal life—but not here on this broken world. In a place where the frustrations of this life will be a distant memory. A perfect heaven without sin, suffering, or pain.

Now here’s the thing. Being a Christian doesn’t make your life better now. In fact in all sorts of ways it makes your life more difficult (just ask Paul!). But what being a Christian does is to radically shift your time frame. It stretches this idea of “life” past our short 70-90 years on earth and into eternity.

Crucially what Jesus promises is a relationship with Him that is satisfying and soul-quenching because it is not temporary. It’s a relationship with the God of the universe which begins now but stretches on beyond your death, which means that Christians are those who will eventually be satisfied forever. That is knowledge which changes everything.

That has been my experience. Living life as a committed Christian in the world today isn’t a walk in the park (I doubt it has ever been for any Christian through the ages). The fight against sin brings me to my knees in prayer.

My work as a campus pastor is often very busy, and sometimes stressful and discouraging. Some of my non-Christian family continue to describe my job as useless. There seem to be challenges and discouragements at every turn. I do sometimes wonder how life could be more stable and secure if I had stayed on as a corporate lawyer. In fact, I have no doubt that it would be, humanly speaking!

But these wobbly moments are steadied in the face of the glorious truth that I am already forgiven, and headed for a better, brighter, eternal future with my savior. If the Bible is true (and I encourage you to test its veracity), then the frankly infrequent difficulties of being a Christian are but a blip on God’s eternal timeline.

The words of Paul are comforting: For I consider that the sufferings (if you could even call them that!) of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18, ESV; parenthesis mine)

So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. And in the best way possible. When Paul writes that knowing Jesus is of surpassing worth, he really means it. Forgiveness assured, relationship with God secured, and an eternal happiness to look forward to. And all because of salvation through trust in Jesus.

Can I ask: will you consider putting your trust in Jesus this Christmas?

 

Editor’s Note: This is the last article in a four-part series on who Jesus is. Read the first article, “Why Do We Even Need A Savior?” here, the second article, “Why Did Jesus Have to Come As A Human?” here, and the third article, “How Was Jesus Both God and Man?” here.

How Do I Get Past My Disappointments and Hurts From Church?

Written By Karen Kwek, Singapore

A lifelong scribbler, Karen enjoys the company of friends, a great cup of tea and seeing the gospel transform hearts and lives. She worked as a book editor until she and her husband traded peace and quiet for parenthood. It seemed a good idea at the time.

My friend came to our breakfast meeting downcast. “I’m having a hard time,” she said. “How long does it take you to forgive someone?”

I stirred my tea and thought about it. “It might depend on the offence…and on my relationship with the person. I could probably forgive a small insult faster than a huge betrayal. And the more I trust the person, the easier it is for me to forgive him or her.”

My friend, frowning, shook her head. “Okay, I can understand the point about how big or small the wrong is, but the more you trust someone, the more it hurts if they fail or disappoint you, right?”

I acknowledged that this could be true. “But if I really trust them, I’d also know they have my welfare at heart and wouldn’t hurt me intentionally.”

“Sometimes that’s not much comfort,” she said candidly. “It’s not that I’m out to blame anyone. I get that Christians aren’t perfect, but when someone you trusted isn’t who you believed them to be, you’re still left to deal with the pain. I’m not sure I want to see the person every week, let alone trust them again.” She suddenly looked like she’d lost her appetite. And I knew how she felt.

 

What the world says

When I thought more about our conversation, I realized my replies had been somewhat superficial. There is something hollow, something like positive self-talk or pop psychology, about merely excusing the fault (“It was only a small thing”), the intention (“I didn’t mean it; don’t take it personally”) or human limitations (“Nobody’s perfect”). Some other common ways of dealing with hurtful situations are reflected in sayings like “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, “Time heals all wounds” or “Manage your expectations”. Perhaps you have come across more.

I’m not saying that all positive self-talk is uselessit has probably given me perspective that I lacked at the timebut if we had only the world’s wisdom, our focus would remain on analyzing our disappointments and getting by on our own strength. While we might brush off the “small stuff”, deep and damaging wrongs that happen even in Christian communities might scar us permanently: neglect, bullying, gossip, malicious attacks, jealous competition, racial or class prejudice, emotional abuse, sexual harassment or abuse, adultery…the list goes on.

Sin hurts people, and there really isn’t any excuse for causing pain in that way, especially to the people we’re supposed to love and protect, like our brothers or sisters in Christ.

 

It’s not okay

The most helpful conversation I’ve ever had about a deep hurt was when my wise friend Sarah listened to my experience and then said, “Wow, I’m sorry you had to go through that. It’s not okay for someone to do that.” Sarah knew that I knew the Bible verses about forgiveness and that I would try to let my hurts go. But in caring for me and acknowledging that wrong had been done, she helped reflect to me the fact that we have a God who upholds justice, hates sin, and defends the weak and defenseless.

Why was it so important for me to see these aspects of God’s character clearly? Well, my knee-jerk reaction to feeling hurt is getting defensive, severing the hurtful relationship, retaliating, or taking matters into my own hands despite my limited knowledge and ability. Hurt people, so the saying goes, hurt people. What hurt people need first is a refuge, a safe place.

Although Sarah had no power or authority to “fix things”, her standing up for justice“It’s not okaypointed me to the One who does right wrongs, and does so with perfect knowledge and ability. I remembered then that God, the Creator, whose power and understanding is limitless, “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds”. The wicked will suffer His punishment some day, but as for me, I am safe with God! (Psalm 147:2–6)

 

Where does my hope come from?

Being honest with a trustworthy listener about my hurts and taking refuge and comfort in God’s righteousness were the first steps for me in letting go of disappointment. It is natural, even commendable, to admire Christian brothers and sisters who are role models of faith and love—Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to follow his example, as he follows the example of Christ. But we sometimes forget that our human heroes make mistakes and inevitably let us down. When Sarah helped point me back to God, I was able to ask myself if I was putting my hope in people more than in God.

The church exists to bring God’s love to His people, but the church should never replace God as our sure foundation. In fact, it is God who makes our church relationships more than just social friendships. Jesus died for each of us, making every believer a part of His church. This means that every believer’s worth is in Jesusno less, and no more. Learning to see past even the strengths of our mentors and role models, and see the work of God’s Holy Spirit in them, frees us from idolising them. It also frees us to recognize their weaknesses and forgive them when they fail us.

 

Freedom in Christ

How is it humanly possible to forgive great wrongs? Well, it isn’t! Justice would demand the payment of a suitably great price, such as the penalty of death for our rebellion against God. Yet our Father did the unthinkable:

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (Romans 8:3-4)

Jesus’ death in our place perfectly satisfied the demands of justice, releasing us from condemnation (Romans 8:1-2). But even more than that, this has been done for us so that we can now live according to the Spirit!

Paul goes on to share the awesome truth that our very nature has been changed. We are now God’s children, no longer governed by the need to sin but destined for eternal glory with Jesus. This transformationa self renewed as I know God and become more like Himis what enables us to forgive. We may not always feel enabled, but Christ in us is the reason that Paul can say, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:10, 13).

Our Lord on the cross did the most humanly impossible thing ever: he pleaded the cause of his killers. He was not simply excusing them on grounds of diminished responsibility. In their rejection of him, he did not nurse his own hurts but lifted his eyes to the only One who could grant their greatest needGod’s forgiveness.

 

What about the wrongdoer?

Are there situations in which the wrongdoer should be confronted? Absolutely. Where God’s people sin in a Christian community, Jesus Himself commands that the wrong be addressed, first in private, but if the wrongdoer does not change, before one or more people to witness the confrontation.

Recently, a number of high-profile scandals surfaced, showing that as God’s church we have not done enough to protect the vulnerable and ensure that people are not repeatedly allowed to fall back into sinful ways. Church leaders must be prepared to step in and take action to stop sin (Matthew 18:15-17).

This action could take the form of treating the offender as an unbeliever. In treating him or her “as you would a pagan or a tax collector”, we are not necessarily to cut off all contact with the person. Instead, considering someone an unbeliever is to recognize and keep on offering the person their greatest needthe gospel and a relationship with God through Jesus.

In Eugene Peterson’s rendition of verse 17, “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love”. That is, grace is not the covering up of wrongdoing but the revealing of sin, so that the sinner might one day repent and be reconciled to God.  

But it may be that most of our disappointments in the church are not as clear-cut as to require the discipline of authorities. Maybe someone brushed aside your opinion, or a clique made you feel unwelcome, or a cutting remark showed snobbery. As we deal with strained or broken relationships, seeing Christ brings freedom from knee-jerk reactions.

In practice, this freedom could take a variety of paths. For example, getting together to explain your position (gently!) and restore friendship; maintaining different opinions on matters of style and preference but working together for the gospel’s sake; finding godly support (para-church or in the same church); and so on. These are not mutually exclusive paths; all are humanly difficultwe may never hear a longed-for apology or get complete closure, but we depend on the Spirit of God to keep on relating to and serving others.

What or who in the church has hurt or disappointed you? As followers of Jesus, we will certainly experience some of His suffering, perhaps even the pain of being betrayed or attacked by someone trusted. But we are those who have known God’s forgiveness and continue to experience it on a daily basis. Because we are being renewed as we know God and become more like Him, we can ask God to free us from bitterness, grudge-bearing and score-keeping, to love Him and His people as He has loved us.

 

To answer my friend’s question again, in a different way, how long I take to forgive someone depends on how long it takes me to see Him clearly. Sometimes it is a long journey. If you are struggling, may you be assured of your safety and worth, demonstrated to you on the cross. May you be strengthened by God’s Spirit, to show previously unthinkable love for your brothers and sisters in Christ. As His people we can do much to helpfully point one another back to the God who deals with our hurts with righteousness as well as tender compassion, and who will one day right all wrongs.

I Was Abused: My Journey Towards Forgiveness

Written By Madeline Twooney, Germany

For as long as I lived with my parents, they abused me physically and mentally. They decided where l went, what l did, and with whom l spoke to. Depending on their whims, they would either lavish me with generosity or violently beat me in the name of discipline. Any achievements l gained were accredited to them. My failures and weaknesses were scorned.

l learned at an early age to fear my parents. l felt helpless and unprotected at their harsh treatment of me, painfully aware that l didn’t have another adult or a sibling to turn to for comfort.

Even the neighbors, who must have been privy to the fighting and acts of violence, refused to intervene. I remember my father hitting me on one occasion, when l was about nine years old. I fled the house in panic and bolted across the road to the neighbor’s house, screaming all the while. As I desperately thumped on the neighbor’s front door, l saw the front curtain twitch, but no one opened the door.

It was another reminder that l was alone. Trapped in a mental and physical prison of despair, fear, and depression, I mentally retreated into myself for years, as a means of survival.

Despite their volatile inclinations, l still sought affection from my parents, hoping that deep inside they loved me. Sometimes I attempted to hug my mother, but she kept her arms to her side and held herself stiffly.

And when I made cards for my father on birthdays or Father’s Day, he would throw them away without even glancing at them. My heart plummeting to my feet, l would turn away from my father, vowing to myself that l wouldn’t allow him to disappoint me again.

I dated my first serious boyfriend when I was 17. We dated in secret, as my mother was against our relationship. With my friends’ help, Nathan and I went to the annual school dance together.

But my mother suspected something. She found me at the school dance and dragged me home. After that, she went to the homes of each of my friends and gave them a severe scolding. My parents even called up Nathan’s family—whom they had never met—and yelled at them with curses and profanities.

After this, school authorities requested to meet my parents, since Nathan’s family had contacted them out of concern for me. Although my parents refused to seek counseling, at least my father acknowledged that they had mistreated me.

Needless to say, Nathan and I broke up within a few months. My heart was broken. My friends forgave me, but there remained a division between us, and we ended up drifting apart.

l finished my final university exams just after turning 22, and informed my parents that l was leaving home. I wanted to start fresh in a place that was far away from my parents and the painful memories of my childhood. Since I spoke German fluently and was familiar with the country and its culture, l decided to move to Cologne, Germany.

My mother was offended by my decision to leave, so much so that she walked out of the house without bidding me farewell on my last evening in Australia. My father blamed himself and let me go. Since leaving Australia 19 years ago, l have not seen them in person again.

Though we were on opposite ends of the globe, tensions between my parents and me continued. I tried to phone them regularly. However, their resentment, anger, and open hostility left me emotionally depleted, and l dreaded having to contact them. After a particularly heated discussion, which concluded with my mother cursing me, the depths of my gaping emotional wounds were too evident to ignore any longer. l resolved to seek professional help with a psychotherapist.

With the help of therapy, l realized that l suffered from severe depression as a result of childhood trauma. Despite making progress in therapy, the situation with my parents escalated to such an extreme, that l broke off all contact with them for 10 years. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but l just couldn’t cope with them anymore.

I continued with my life: I became a teacher, moved into my first flat and acquired two cats, whom l loved dearly. However, l was constantly depressed and developed an eating disorder in a desperate attempt to exert some control over my life. l started taking anti-depressants, yet l remained unhappy: l was either too fat or too thin, too overworked and too poor. I formed unhealthy friendships out of an inferiority complex and an innate fear of rejection. I hated myself.

I am deeply grateful for the day that Jesus pulled me out of the darkness and gave me new life. I was born again as a new creation, where l discovered the mercy and loving kindness of God, as well as His grace and peace which transcends all understanding. l began to believe that l was worthy, because God said l was. The aching wounds in my mind and my spirit began to heal.

When l became engaged to my husband four years ago, l knew l had to try and reconcile with my parents. Colossians 3:13 spoke to me: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” l wanted to enter my marriage in right standing with God by forgiving my parents for their transgressions, as God had forgiven me for mine. It wasn’t easy talking to my parents after many years of silence, but l knew l had made the right decision in calling them.

I would like to say that since resuming communications, my parents and l have sorted out our differences. The truth is, things are just as bad as ever.

The last time we spoke was in September last year. My parents, who are not believers, had sought the advice of a psychic to predict my future, and had shared their misinformation with my husband and l during a Skype call. Since the Bible warns against seeking the advice of mediums (such as in Leviticus 19:31), my husband and l conveyed our discomfort to my parents.

My father reacted aggressively, and suddenly announced that he didn’t want to talk to me ever again: l should leave him and my mother alone. Then he hung up the phone.

I have not known how to move forward since then. There are times when l am sorely tempted to just let the entire matter with my parents rest. And yet, l find myself in a dichotomy between the woman who strives to honor God, by forgiving and putting the past behind her, and the daughter who struggles to lay aside the grievances she has towards her childhood abusers.

My love for my Savior wins. As a result, I try to practice forgiveness and acceptance. I pray for peace in my family and hope that one day, my parents will come to a knowledge of Christ.

Despite my efforts, l arrive all too soon at the boundary of my capabilities. My inability to let go of memories of my parents’ abuse leaves my emotional equilibrium imbalanced. Instead of putting up with their weaknesses, I condemn myself for my impatience at my parent’s pride. Rather than being peaceful, l speak to my mother and father in anger.

I can’t forgive my parents with my own strength.

Maybe confronting this impasse is exactly what l need to do. For it is only when l experience the outer limits of myself, that l can best encounter God.

When my strength wanes, His power surges me forward.

When l lose my patience, His peace revives me.

When my heart is afflicted, His Truth sets me free.

Whereas in the past, l believed that I was unable to make peace in my family, now l have come to realize that when l am weak, God is strong. l confess my limitations to God and give the situation over into His hands.

Hebrews 4:15-16 has provided me with great comfort in the knowledge that we have a High Priest in Jesus, who empathizes with our frailties and understands our temptations. It reassures me that l have the right to confidently approach the throne and receive Jesus’ mercy and grace during this family crisis.

Though I have never experienced unconditional love and delight from my parents, that’s okay. I have a great Dad, who adopted me as His own when my parents rejected me (Psalm 27:10). My husband is my greatest supporter and his family have embraced me with open arms into their fold. I have loyal friends and a counsellor with whom l can talk to about the gritty stuff. I am truly blessed.

Still, my hope is that my parents and l will one day heal, and that our relationship will evolve at least into one of mutual understanding and respect. I know for my part, that l will keep on trying to make that a reality by continuing to trust God.

And when, during my journey towards forgiveness, l reach the brink of my own abilities, l know that my Father will be there at the edge, ready to catch me.

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. Forthcoming—“Surviving Sexual Assault: How I am Learning to Forgive an Abuser”, and “Surviving Sexual Assault: How I Learned to Forgive the Church”.