How do you forgive yourself for something you didn’t do? I’m a middle-aged woman now, a grandmother with enough years to look back on so that my perspective has truly changed. It’s a perspective I wish I could take back in time to my much-younger self, a scared nineteen-year-old, the day after she was raped. If I could do that, there’d be a whole lot I’d want to tell her, starting with, “You really are going to be okay”, but since that option is not open to me, I’m grabbing this opportunity to tell someone else instead. Maybe that someone is you.
I have my own story of sexual violence, and it has two rapes in it, one at the age of 19, and one at 29. I’m telling you so that you know I’m speaking from experience, not from imagination. Sadly, all too many people have similar tales, and whether you’ve suffered abuse as a child, been attacked or raped, or anything like this, the effects are much the same. This is something that hurts at a very deep level, at a spiritual level, and that’s why we need to talk about it in a spiritual way. I want to talk about unmerited shame.
Hiding in the Garden – the problem of shame
In the Genesis story, when Adam and Eve become conscious of their sin and their nakedness, they immediately hide from God – futile – and make themselves coverings of leaves, which sounds hilariously futile. Can you imagine trying to sew leaves together?! But there they were, hiding from the One who made them, with whom they were perfectly comfortable – naked – just hours before. As funny as the leaves seem to me, I recognize the feeling that made them do that. That feeling is shame, and I am intimately conversant with it. Shame is the feeling that overcomes us when we see our own sin – but it is also the emotion that overwhelms us when someone else sins and uses our bodies to do it.
And even when we know and love God, and have been comfortable with Him “in our nakedness” previously, sexual violence has a terrible way of pouring shame on us. Normally, when we feel the conviction of sin, we bring that to Jesus, and we ask forgiveness, but how do you ask forgiveness for something you didn’t do? It’s easy to say, “You don’t have to – just forgive the perpetrator”, but anyone who has experienced this knows how very hard that is at the beginning. Instead, faced with an overwhelming burden of shame, our human instinct is to go right back to that old Garden of Eden way of coping… Hide, cover, be silent.
Turn on the light
Unfortunately, it is in the darkness and the silence that shame really thrives. Even when we bury it, refuse to look at it, pretend it isn’t there, it grows under the surface, and one day, sooner or later, it breaks ground bigger than ever. Don’t stay quiet (I would say to my younger self), tell your story to someone you trust, someone you can pray with. Unbury it, let the light in, look that shame in the face and disown it because it is NOT yours.
It took me a decade to tell my mother what had happened to me – don’t wait that long. Healing doesn’t begin until you start bringing this painful thing into the light. Speak up, and speak as often as you need to. Speak to yourself as you would to your best friend. Acknowledge that the feeling of shame is just that – a feeling, and not a fact. Recognize the enemy’s deception for what it is – a way to keep you in the dark and in the silence.
Nothing is wasted in God’s economy
With some things we go through, especially horrific things like rape and sexual abuse, it can be difficult to believe that all things really do “work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes”. But I‘m a living witness to the life-changing, awe-inspiring ability of God to transform everything – yes, EVERYTHING – when we surrender to Him. Who I am, what I am, and where I’m going, can never be again be defined by anything any man has done to me or ever could do to me. I’ve discovered that it’s not my job to forgive and accept myself. That’s God’s job. I just need to bring myself into alignment with what He says is the truth about me… that I am made in His image, that I am His child. That He has my name written on the palm of His hand and that through His Son Jesus, I can live in a place of perfect relationship with Him.
It’s also not up to me to condemn or forgive the men who hurt me. I’d like to forgive them, and I mostly think I have, but when it’s too much for me, I remind myself that ultimately, this is not on me, either. There is no pain, no betrayal, no shame too big, that Jesus cannot shoulder it for you. If you’re struggling with the aftermath of sexual violence, then I encourage you to start talking and ask for prayer. Don’t try to carry this alone. God has a plan for you, and it includes healing and joy and restoration.
If you have experienced the abuse of rape, or are living with shame, and would like to find freedom from that burden through a relationship with Jesus, we would love to chat with you. Please click on the link below.