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Surviving Sexual Assault: How I’m Learning to Forgive My Abuser

It wasn’t just the way her hands crept onto my body, and the sinking dread of knowing it was about to happen again.

It was the way she spun her stories afterwards, to justify what she did. How she’d mock me for being wrecked, or guilt me by claiming I led her on, or paint herself as a victim who had no one else to love. Or how she’d tell me I wasn’t a good Christian if I didn’t give her another chance.

It was also the way her narrative would always win. I didn’t dare report her for ages. She was in her 40s, a respectable senior church staff. I was in my early 20s. Who would believe me over her?

It was how she was still framing herself as the victim of this situation even after she was fired for sexual misconduct, when I finally reported her five years later.

The assaults left no physical scars. My rage and bitterness felt like the only tangible signs I had to demonstrate that something terrible had happened to me. If I just forgave her, was I telling everyone that the injustice didn’t matter?

 

The God Who Sees Me

My refusal to forgive my abuser stemmed from a deep cry to be seen. I needed to know that God grieved when I had been violated to fulfil someone else’s selfish lust. I needed to know that I was worthy enough to have my suffering acknowledged.

I needed to know Him like Hagar did (Genesis 16:1–13). As a servant, sexually exploited, carrying her master’s child, abused by her mistress, and forced to flee to protect herself, she was the definition of an overlooked woman. Yet after her encounter with God, she proclaimed, “You are the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).

In two powerful ways, God showed me that He saw me too. In the first, I was reading Elie Wiesel’s Night one evening, an iconic memoir about how Wiesel survived the Holocaust as a 15-year-old boy. His piercing words had me grieving over how much the Jews had to suffer.

Then, a distinct thought surfaced, if I could feel this pain over an injustice, what more God? Inexplicably, I could now imagine the anguish God must have felt over what had happened to me.

A few weeks later, I was meditating over what it meant that God was a perfect Judge (1 Peter 2:23). I’d started by imagining myself presenting my case before Him, and then paused, unsure of how the scenario would unfold.

To my surprise, the scene continued in my mind’s eye. The omniscient Judge, who saw the situation more clearly than I did, answered immediately, “Yes, it is as you’ve said.” And He continued, “And the penalty of her sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Before I could gasp at the harshness of the sentence, I saw Jesus step up to say, “And I will pay it.”

The whole scene was over in five seconds. But it was enormously liberating to realize that I would never have to plead for a perfect Judge to believe me. Nothing escaped His eye. Suddenly it no longer mattered what narratives my abuser continued to tell. God knew the truth and before Him, every lie would eventually amount to dust.

I no longer wanted to cling to my pain in a bid to be seen. I saw that I already was.

 

Forgiveness Does Not Short-Change Us

But it still troubled me that Jesus took the full brunt of her punishment. I knew that conventional Christian teaching would remind me that I, too, am a sinner forgiven by the finished work of the cross. Having received that grace, I ought to extend the same grace to my abuser.

I simply couldn’t resonate with that. Grace for her didn’t feel like justice for me. I wanted her, not Jesus, to feel every bit of the pain that she’d inflicted so that she’d know what her actions cost me. I feared that if I canceled what she owed, I was never going to be repaid.

But thinking that her suffering would compensate her debt would have been like getting a billion rocks back for the billion dollars she stole. Her suffering wasn’t going to make my life rich again, or add any intrinsic good to my life. Only God could do that.

When Jesus died for our sins, that wasn’t the end of His story. God powerfully resurrected Him and allowed Him to conquer sin and death (Ephesians 1:19–22). That same resurrection power was placed in me when I believed in Him (Romans 8:11).

By being in Christ, the ‘deaths’ that her sin caused in my life (James 1:15) did not have to be permanent. Not the death of my sexual or emotional wholeness. Not the death of my trust or my mental health. Not the death of years of my time from being trapped in a manipulative dynamic. This life after death was only possible because it was Jesus who bore the consequences of sin, and not her.

As psychiatrists Henry Cloud and Stuart Townsend write, “To forgive means acknowledging we will never get from that person what is owed to us. […] Let it go, and go get what you need from God and people who can give.”[1]

By wanting me to accept that Jesus paid her debt, God wasn’t asking me to erase my past. He was asking me to choose a better future. To borrow theologian Miroslav Volf’s words, the resurrection power of the cross meant “that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim.”[2] The assault wouldn’t have to be the last word on my story.

Where I thought forgiving my abuser would end up short-changing me, God showed me that it would enrich my life instead. He paid her debt so that I didn’t need to wait in vain for something she could never give. I could now be free to turn to Him to “bring me back to life” (Romans 8:11).

And He did. He provided me with a therapist who helped me chip away at the PTSD for eight months. He brought me to a new church community, strengthened my healthy friendships, and gave me meaningful work and volunteering opportunities. Most importantly, He rebuilt the foundations of my faith to show me that He is worthy of my trust.

It was slow, and at times arduous, work. It didn’t look like much was changing from day to day. But as I look at my new life just a year on from learning to forgive her, I can see what a good, healthy and peaceful life He has already built for me. Even though I didn’t get anything I wanted from her, I realize that I hadn’t needed any of it to thrive.

 

ForgivenessAn Ongoing Choice

That is not to say I don’t still feel rage from time to time, especially when I’m hit with a PTSD trigger or yet another realization of what the assaults have cost me. But as I keep choosing to forgive, it gets easier to release her from her debt and turn back to God for what I need in the moment. Perhaps there’ll even be a day where I can forgive her purely because I want to extend grace to her, and not because it benefits me.

For now, I know that forgiving her doesn’t mean covering up, forgetting, or rewriting the assaults. God has seen them; He will work through what has happened in His own just way and in His own time. Instead, forgiving her means that I can see more than my pain and brokenness: I can see a life beyond the assault.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 292.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville, Tennessee: Arbington Press, 1996), 124.

 

Editor’s Note: This article is the second of a three-part series on sexual assault. Read the first part, “Surviving Sexual Assault: How I Learned to Forgive Myself” here, and look out for the final part, “Surviving Sexual Assault: How I Learned to Forgive the Church”.

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” here and look out for the last part “Surviving Sexual Assault: How I Learned to Forgive the Church”, coming soon.