Genuine repentance and the Gospel

Yesterday I watched some of the victim impact statements in the sentencing trial for Larry Nasser, who pled guilty to charges he faced as a result of decades of sexually abusing young women and children under the guise of medical treatment. Over a hundred of his victims confronted him in court. One was Rachael Denhollander, who gave one of the most powerful statements about repentance and the gospel that I’ve ever heard:

If you [Larry Nassar] have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way. 

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

That is my prayer for all who have abused me or my friends or loved ones in any way…that they would (or did before they died) experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so that they may experience true repentance and forgiveness from God.

This is not “cheap grace”. It is very costly indeed. Many who claim to have “repented” have little or no idea what that really entails. Genuine repentance isn’t feeling terrible about what you’ve done, or even making heartfelt promises never to do it again. As long as you are still clinging to one shred of justification for your actions, or minimizing them in any way, or blaming others (“Well, that’s not the way I remember it…how was I supposed to know?… I think she’s overreacting…besides, look at what they did!”) you have not yet faced the truth or experienced the “soul crushing weight of guilt” — what the Bible calls the “godly sorrow that leads to repentance”. One dictionary definition of genuine repentance is “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life”. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s ongoing. The real repentance is not telling people how sorry you are; it’s the changed way in which you live for the rest of your life.

So if you find yourself tempted to tell the person you’ve sinned against, “I’ve already repented! What more do you want?” because they just can’t seem to let go of the past…maybe you need to get down on your knees and ask for more of that awful truth, more of that soul crushing grief, and more grace to truly repent. [Preaching to myself here…]


Edited to tweak things a bit, correct the spelling of Rachael Denhollander’s name, and add a few things, including the following…

Later in her impact statement, Rachael said some profoundly frightening words:

…In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.

May God have mercy on all of us. I do not want to be one who minimizes evil, who excuses it, who tries to make it seem less than what it is, especially if it is evil that has touched me — and, even more so, if it is evil that I have perpetuated.

Evil is a strong word, and I am tempted to reserve it for only the most heinous of acts; in other words, the things other people do, not me. But evil is the opposite of good; it is any sin perpetuated against God or against others. My very tendency to make evil someone else’s problem costs me “the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness”. It is too high a price to pay. I would rather suffer the most painful godly sorrow in order that I might truly repent — and walk in the glorious freedom of forgiveness.

I included some more of the impact statement in a separate blog post.

The elephant in the room | Marriage Monday

Almost a year ago, I stumbled across a blog post dealing with the issue of marital rape, and whether a husband is in the wrong for insisting on sex even when it is painful to his wife. Frankly, the post along with a number of comments — and pretty much everything I read on the blog — is so problematic and disturbing that I don’t even want to link to it.

Even though other comments have been approved since then, mine is still awaiting moderation, about eleven months later:

This is what I see as the major issue — the elephant in the room that no one is fully addressing, although a few have hinted at it.

We cannot expect an unbelieving husband to want to love his wife as Christ loves the church. But the real elephant in the room? Most Christians have no idea what love means. They think it means leadership and a skewed, worldly view of authority. We gloss over the part where a husband is to lay down his life sacrificially for his wife, or we romanticize it by saying he should take a bullet for her should armed intruders ever enter their home.

Really? What husband in his right mind would do that if he is unwilling to forego sexual pleasure when his wife is in pain? But it’s nice to pretend he would, nice to pretend he would be a hero — because he knows the likelihood of that scenario is next to zero.

Our culture has made an idol of sexual pleasure, especially male sexual pleasure, and in order to avoid the appearance of bowing to the same idol, we have enshrined this as a need. We have bought into the lie that sex is mostly about meeting this all-consuming NEED on the part of the husband, rather than about unity, intimacy, and procreation.

Men no longer see sex as the physical expression of the sacrificial gift of themselves that they give to their wives in marriage. If they did, they would not avoid true intimacy (emotional and spiritual) in marriage, and they would abhor the very thought of asking the wife they love to give them a blow job while she is recovering from childbirth.

Sometimes the sacrifice men might be called to give to their wives is a foregoing of selfish sexual pleasure. But we don’t want to hear that.

The elephant in the room is that we have no idea what love means. We may sing songs about amazing grace and the love of Jesus, but our hearts remain hard, selfish and idolatrous. That is why our lack of compassion is so painfully obvious to everyone but us, why we can demand wives submit to demeaning and painful sex, and why we criticize women who suffer pain during intercourse for being selfish, childish, and refusing to go to doctors. (An aside: such statements betray woeful ignorance. Sciatica and chronic coccyx pain — just to name two potentially debilitating and devastatingly painful conditions off the top of my head — are not easily fixable.) We teach husbands that their compassion should be limited and fleeting, and should run out if their wives suffer ongoing pain. After all, the idol of sexual pleasure rules our hearts, not love.

May God have mercy.

Rape aftermath: why I didn’t report | Survivor Saturday

Disclaimer/warning to family and friends: I know that some of you read this blog now and then, and so I wanted to warn you that this particular post might be especially sad and painful. Please consider that carefully before you continue reading. And remember that I’m OK now…in fact, much more than OK.

There has been a lot of discussion swirling around the recent verdict in the Stanford rape case. This is written in response to some of that.

In the morning, the older of my two rapists didn’t want me to leave. He mockingly and cruelly pretended as if we had just spent a lovely night together; why wouldn’t I stay for breakfast? He wouldn’t tell me where he had put my clothes, and jokingly insisted that I hadn’t been wearing any when my friend and I had come over for dinner the evening before.

Somehow I managed to find my clothes, put them on, and walk over to my apartment. No one was there. It was my first day at a new job, so I knew I had to hold myself together.

One of the legacies of the bullying and sexual abuse in my past was learning how to dissociate, how to “go away” or “make myself small” in order to separate myself as much as possible from my body. That’s how I could refuse to feel anything as I took that shower that rape survivors know all too well. To this day, I have no idea of the extent of my injuries. I was vaguely aware of upper body bruising that I accidentally caught glimpse of in the mirror. The next day, I dissociated during the exam done by my sweet, gentle, caring doctor — I still get tears of gratitude in my eyes whenever remembering him. In the shower that morning, I recall scrubbing and scrubbing, refusing to look, refusing to know, refusing to feel.

Of course I couldn’t escape every feeling. The sense of shame and filthiness was overwhelming, as was the sense that they had stolen my body. There are no words to describe what that felt like.

Somehow, I made it to work, a shattered little shell of my former self. Looking back, I am in awe of my strength. How did I manage that?

After work, I came back home, and was immediately convinced that I could not live with the knowledge of what happened to me. I came as close to killing myself as possible, saved only by my precious Jesus who presented me with a theological quandary. (Ever carried on an internal debate of Calvinism versus Arminianism with a loaded and cocked .357 magnum in your mouth and your finger on the trigger? I have.) Unable to resolve the issue of eternal security to my satisfaction, I next contemplated murder. All of this was done, believe it or not, with the utmost calm, and without a single tear.

I recognized that I might not be in the best frame of mind to decide on a course of action that would change my life forever, so I went for a drive…for hours upon aimless hours.

There is much more to the story than that, of course, but fast forward about three decades. I had decided that EMDR might be a helpful course of treatment, and my therapist was on board with the idea, even though it was outside of his scope of practice. So I found another temporary therapist, supposedly the local EMDR expert. Unfortunately, within weeks, I began referring to her among some of my friends as Bad Therapist.

Apparently she thought Donny and I had spent the past three years playing tiddlywinks or staring mutely at each other, because she insisted that I was not ready, not strong enough, to tell my story. She also saw nothing wrong with a therapist touching a sexual trauma survivor without permission, and found it weird that I didn’t appreciate this boundary violation. Supposedly all her other clients loved having their knees and thighs touched suddenly and without warning.

Knowing nothing about my rape, she asked me if I had reported it to the police. What? Why not?! Then she took issue with my answer.

Far be it from me to discourage anyone from reporting, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for those who do. They are my heroes. Really and truly. But there has never been a moment in all the years since then that I have ever regretted not attempting to press charges against my rapists.

I was not strong enough.

Back then, I was only 23 years old, and it took more years than that until I was finally ready to tell my story, in as much torturous detail that I could manage, to my therapist. Donny believed me. This was not open court. He did not pick apart my account in an attempt to disprove my allegations, paint me as a liar, and try to convince a jury that I was the worst slut ever while my rapists were kind, upstanding citizens. Yet telling him what happened the night I was raped was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made myself do, even all those years later. He had to cancel his next appointment because I was in no shape to leave his office when I was done with the telling. After that, I drove home somehow and collapsed in bed for the rest of the day, only to be tortured with night after night of flashbacks and nightmares.

Some people, and not just Bad Therapist, take issue with any survivor who doesn’t immediately go to the police. “Oh, yeah? If you were really raped, if it was a legitimate rape, you would have reported and your rapists would be in jail!” “You must not have thought it was that bad if you didn’t want your rapists locked up so they couldn’t rape anyone else.” “Obviously you knew your story wouldn’t hold up in court. Why should we believe you when you claim you were raped?”

But, if your rapist was caught in the act, and the case goes to court, and your rapist gets a slap on the wrist, some people will cry that this promising youth has suffered enough for his “20 minutes of action”, that being a registered sex offender is almost too overwhelming a punishment for any man to bear, and that the poor lad deserves our sympathy for all the trauma he has had to endure and will endure for the rest of his life. Besides, if young women didn’t drink and hang out with participants in the hook-up culture, rapists would have to figure out another tactic, and some might become so discouraged by the effort involved that they might even rape a few less women. At least that seems to be the logic.

We expect a lot from rape survivors. From birth onward, they need to be above reproach, living virtuous and cautious lives, avoiding any possibility of danger. Without being paranoid or anything but kind and gracious, they must not let down their guard for a moment. They must neither date nor should they reject men wishing to date them — lest their rejcted suitors feel compelled to rape them — but they must not date the wrong man either. They must be mind readers and self-defense experts who can predict the future. They must be tough, fierce, and fearless, incapable of being intimidated by any threat or the brandishing of any weapon. If, through no fault of their own, they manage to get themselves raped anyway, they must conduct themselves perfectly afterwards, showing whatever it is that we believe to be the appropriate emotional response and actions. They must immediately demonstrate expert knowledge of proper post-rape behavior, along with such clarity of thinking, impeccable instincts, wisdom, and a perfect memory for details, that it is as if their mental abilities and quick reactions were not just untouched by trauma, but enhanced by it. They must never make what we consider as a single mistake, not before the rape, not during, and not after.

I was 23. It seems awfully young to me now, but I was old enough to have learned these cultural lessons well. And, much to my sorrow, they are driven home to me again…and again…and again…whenever a rape case is discussed and dissected in the public sphere.

We need to change. We need to be different.

For husbands of survivors| Trauma Tuesday

This short video is an excellent resource for Christian husbands of survivors, although I would urge caution about one of the recommendations made by the speaker.

My reaction to this video was almost entirely positive. I especially liked what the speaker said about husbands pursuing their own healing and growing in sexual purity. The husband who takes this video to heart would truly end up being a tremendous blessing to his wife as well as receiving much blessing in return.

However, I do want to voice a few serious cautions to husbands about seeking support from other men:

  1. Only disclose your wife’s sexual trauma to someone with her full knowledge and consent. Do not pressure her — not all women are ready to go public with the most traumatic events of their lives, especially trauma of a sexual nature, and the thought of a man knowing can be especially frightening, shameful, and humiliating. Your wife’s ability to trust you and feel safe should trump your need or desire to tell “the guys”. A therapist might be a far better source for support, since not many men are equipped to offer the wisdom, insight, and confidentiality you need.
  2. Choose your confidante carefully. We like to pretend that men don’t gossip, but this is sadly not the case. Furthermore, the last thing you should want is to confide in a man who believes in rape myths, insists that your wife made the whole thing up, tells you to “make her submit!” or even angrily confronts your wife about “crying rape just because she regrets her slutty behavior, and is making up a lame excuse to withhold sex”. (One woman had to deal with more than one such angry confrontation after her husband confided in his men’s group at church.)
  3. Choose as a confidante only a respectful, godly, tender-hearted, safe, loving, compassionate man who is a friend of your marriage. Such a man should not press you for details about what happened to your wife or about any of her current sexual struggles. (Those issues should probably be dealt with in therapy anyway.) Instead, he should encourage you to be more Christ-like. One husband was shocked, and later convicted, that the man he confided in was moved to tears — in marked contrast to the husband’s own lack of tenderness and compassion. The best confidante will challenge you to grow in sacrificial love, rather than further enable you in selfish indifference or impatience.
  4. Be prepared that telling people may make your wife the target of gossip, false accusations, harassment, intimidation, and even worse. One wife was continually harassed by a man who accused her of lying about her sexual assault because, as he insisted to her, “you are too ugly to rape”. Some survivors have had to endure “rape jokes” or “incest jokes” supposedly in order to get us to lighten up and not take ourselves so seriously. Men have attempted to intimidate rape survivors with, “I hope someone rapes you again.” Even more frightening, a woman was confronted in her own home by a “friend” of her husband who threatened, “I could rape you too, you know, and this time no one would believe you.” The worst case I know about personally is the woman who was assaulted by her “pastor” after he learned of her past sexual trauma. Predators and abusers don’t usually identify themselves as such in advance, and are all too often the last person we would suspect.

Obviously I am not suggesting rape survivors hide in silence. After all, I’ve gone public. But it should be our own choice, and we should not be outed as survivors without our consent — especially not by the very men who have vowed to love, honor, and cherish us.

The comfort of victim-blaming

When people find a need to blame, even if only slightly and indirectly, the victims of sexual trauma, it can be for a variety of reasons. One motive in particular stood out to me recently: we engage in victim-blaming because doing so provides us with comfort.

There are two different areas in which we comfort ourselves by insisting on finding some fault with the victim’s behavior or attitude:

1. Finding fault with the victim gives us an excuse for withholding our compassion. Weeping with those who weep is uncomfortable. So is bearing one another’s burdens. Compassion does not sit well with us and, if we are Americans, we are impatient with grief, whether our own or others’. So, even if we cannot blame the victim for what we perceive to be problematic conduct before or during her sexual assault, we can surely withdraw our sympathies if she doesn’t handle her victimhood according to our standards, or if she doesn’t “snap out of it” quickly enough. Pointing out her failings and sins enables us to hold her at arm’s length, thus carefully shielding ourselves from having our hearts broken by truly loving her.

2. Finding fault with the victim helps us maintain our illusions and wishful thinking that sexual trauma will never visit us or our loved ones. Sometimes people will even admit this is behind their “Monday morning quarterbacking” of someone else’s rape, when they announce almost triumphantly, “That’s why that would never happen to me or my daughter! We don’t dress immodestly / talk to strangers / threaten that easily / get intimidated by armed men / let anyone overpower us / have male friends / go on dates / trust any man besides our husbands / go anywhere alone / smile in public / laugh at a man’s jokes / sleep without a gun beside us / marry child molesters / have rapists as fathers / attend a church like that / know any pedophiles / allow women and girls to have jobs / etc.”

Even survivors can do this. I know this all too well because I did it to myself for years, until pain and desperation drove me into therapy. There, despite my best attempts to convince my therapist that I was an “accomplice in my own rape”, despite my pointing out every sinful act and every foolish thing I had done leading up to my rape and afterward, he steadfastly refused to buy into my self-blame. It seems that the only difference between the night of my rape and other nights in which I may have been equally — or far more — sinful and foolish is that, on that fateful night there were two rapists nearby with evil plans.

It was a struggle to accept my therapist’s “theory” because I preferred to think that a frumpy wardrobe, a bunch of legalistic rules, an untrusting attitude, and my martial arts skills and/or arsenal of weapons would guarantee my safety, now that I was no longer that “stupid” young, reckless, trusting, taken-for-a-sucker, woman who “put herself in that position”. Therefore, I tried to tell myself, it could never happen to me again. For years before entering therapy, I had so desperately needed to cling to my “never again” comfort that, when I read other women’s accounts of rape, I found myself accusing silently, “Obviously married a creep…what a fool, trusting her pastor like that…why didn’t she fight harder?…where was her cell phone?…she should have run away from home…only idiots go to frat parties…why did she rent that crummy apartment?…she should have gotten a different job…” My self-directed anger, and the shame I heaped on myself, spilled over onto how I viewed other survivors. Thankfully, I avoided them like the plague during this time, or who knows what harm my toxic attitude may have caused.

The problem is that any comfort built on lies only serves to perpetuates more lies, and cannot protect us. Whatever false sense of safety or control it gives us is a sham, a vapor. The truth is that no woman is so powerful that  — simply by her attire, behavior, and location — she can turn good, decent men into rapists. Nor is any woman so wise, so all-knowing, and so powerful that she can discern the hearts and motives of men, avoid all the bad guys, and fight off the ones she can’t avoid.

Even worse than offering false comfort, these lies harm survivors by interfering with their healing. Blame is toxic. So is shame. It holds us prisoner. It is so corrosive that it eats away at our very soul.

I know this all too well.

At the risk of oversimplifying a long, painful, arduous process, my healing journey can be summed up as the task of replacing lies with truth. As a Christian, I already knew of the gospel and had availed myself of its truth, but I discovered a greater depth of personal meaning, a wonderfully healing theological reality, in the Cross. To me, this is the most precious and significant part of any true gospel for victims: Jesus bore our shame. Whether the shame was put there by our own sin or slimed onto us by the sins of others against us, whether the shame was deservedly ours or not, whether we could sort out the difference or not, Jesus bore our shame on the Cross. He took it all away. It was no longer mine to carry. Wow. That is news so good, so marvelous, so life-transforming, that my puny words are woefully inadequate.

The gospel saved my life. Literally.

There were other healing truths as well: No rape victim ever “asked for it”, or it would have been consensual sex and not rape. No one deserves to be raped, no matter who claims otherwise. It wasn’t my fault. God despised what these men did to me even more than I did. He cared. He loved me — real love, not some fake “tough love” substitute. Christ didn’t just take my shame on Himself, but He carried my grief. He understood, truly understood, and He identified with my suffering. I could go on and on…truth after freeing truth.

It was not until I stopped believing the lies of blame and condemnation that I was able to embrace the truths that brought healing and freedom — and real comfort, rather than its deceptive and damaging counterfeit.