An Open Letter to the Sexual Sufferer

This article is part of the Open Letters series.

Dear friend,

How do you rebuild after sexual victimization? To experience such evil devastates so many aspects of who you are. Your expectations about life are forever darkened. Primal fears of danger awaken. In time they will ebb; they may even go dormant; but they will not go extinct until the day when you have no more reasons to fear.

How do you ever come to terms with betrayal and violation at the hands of an evildoer? There are no easy answers or quick solutions. Other people—who genuinely care, who want to be helpful—often don’t really understand. Pain and woe bring a loneliness—“The heart knows its own bitterness” (Prov. 14:10). Even people who do understand the experience often offer explanations and advice that fall well short of wisdom.

There are no easy answers, but there are fruitful ways to go forward. Where do you begin? Let me say a few things that I hope will serve as landmarks to orient you.

The life-giving Spirit speaks to the heart deeper than the most awful experience.

First, know you are not alone. The person who most matters truly understands your experience. God himself knows. Your true Father knows your vulnerability (Ps. 103:13–14). His love is wise and does you great good. Jesus sheltered within his Father’s care—ponder his experience of grave evil as captured in Psalm 31. You are also invited to shelter within God’s care when you’ve been savaged by human evil. The LORD walks beside his beloved children. He speaks tender, persistent, life-nourishing words. He is full of goodness and wisdom. The life-giving Spirit speaks to the heart deeper than the most awful experience.

Second, other people can help. No one can know and love you with the depth, immediacy, and constancy of God. But in his steady light, we can help each other. A trustworthy person makes a big difference. Let me put myself in your place as the sufferer, and imagine that you seek to be a sympathetic and wise friend to me. If we could take a long walk side by side, and if our conversation would emerge and develop slowly, and if we could allow silences to absorb the weight of unspeakable words, and if we would consider well before we speak, and if we can leave a weighty matter and revisit it later, then there is much that we might say to each other that is life-giving. To find the right kind of person is to receive a gift from God. To be the right kind of person to someone else is to become a gift from God.

Third, practice using the word “abuse” as a verb, not a noun. This may sound like a small thing, but it can be surprisingly helpful. Here’s what I mean. “Abuse” has become a buzzword and a catchall for everything from opioid addiction, to hostile words, to being beaten up, to being sexually assaulted. It often obscures more than it reveals. Its prevalence in our vocabulary impoverishes our perception of evil and limits our ability to find better words to describe the experience of grave evils. Put the word to work as a verb along with other words that tell the story. For example, “He used me sexually, misused me, and abused me,” communicates what happened. It captures the drama of facing terrible evil. Or consider this: “I was manipulated. My trust was betrayed. I was treated like an object, a sexual receptacle for his hostile lust. He mistreated me, violated me, and harmed me. I was molested, groped, and raped.” Active verbs tell the story. “I was done wrong. Someone sinned against me. Someone did terrible evil.” Evil is specific. Evil hurts. Evil destroys.

Can you hear the difference?

Making All Things New

Making All Things New

David Powlison

This book holds out hope in the midst of sexual brokenness: the grace and mercy of Jesus, supplying true, lasting mercy to both the sexually immoral and the sexually victimized.

As a noun, abuse is disconnected from Scripture. But when you can tell the story of being treated wrong, then you find touch points everywhere in Scripture. See, for example, Psalm 10’s chilling description of facing a predator—and notice how candidly that psalm expresses faith’s neediness and a firm awareness of the one who can rescue us. We might even say that Scripture is about encounters with liars, assailants, enemies, rapists, killers, deceivers, and mockers. And Scripture is about how God cares and what he does to deliver us from evil.

Finally, notice how God’s character shines brightest when life is darkest. Dante’s Divine Comedy placed treachery in the deepest pit of hell. Sexual violation is a betrayal of trust and inhabits the deepest darkness. But in the face of betrayal, God is safe. In the face of great suffering, God cares. In the face of despair, God gives true hope. In the experience of being dirtied and humiliated, God washes us clean. In walking the hard road of coming to terms with being sinned against, God is practical and realistic. There is always a next good step to take in the right direction—and he will walk beside you all the way home.

May the Lord make his face shine upon you,

—David



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