Rape is an invasive event of traumatic evil. You were victimized, and now you are suffering.
Before we talk about anything else, you need to know that God is extremely tender to victims. Many psalms are the heart cries of those who have suffered at the hands of others. They pour forth words describing the experiences of the afflicted, the poor, the needy, the broken, the innocent, and the helpless. This is your experience. You are afflicted. And the God and Father of Jesus Christ cares.
He cares about your experience of grave stress and evil. His own Son, although he didn’t experience violence in a sexual form, was a victim of violent assault. No matter how awful your attack, no matter how long and slow your recovery, God is your Redeemer. He is able to redeem terrible wrongs and make them right. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). He is able to make broken things whole. He is able to redeem you.
Rape is a crime of power, domination, and control that uses sex. If you haven’t already reported your assault to the police and sought medical help, please do so immediately. This article is written to help you after you have received the legal and medical help you need. Rape is not only a crime in the legal sense, but an evil before the face of God. It is an act of extreme violence and aggression in which the strong overpower the weak.
Rape is a life-changing event. A violent assault awakens some of the most painful, horrifying emotions that humans can experience. Terror, shock, unbearable pain, overwhelming helplessness, and vulnerability are just some of the feelings you may experience. These are powerful feelings that don’t just go away. Instead they affect every area of your life. Here are some ways that rape victims typically suffer and struggle:
Fear. Most likely you are filled with all kinds of fears—of your memories, of people, of being alone, of dating, of intimacy.
Worry. You might have some concrete worries—sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy are two obvious ones.
Anger. This is an entirely appropriate response to the great evil you suffered. But bitterness and hatred can become all-consuming and destructive.
Relationships. Your relationships are probably affected. It’s possible you are having a hard time trusting anyone.
Shame. Even though you were the one who was victimized, it’s common to feel a deep sense of shame and uncleanness.
Regret and Self-Blame. You might be thinking, “If only,” (If only I hadn’t done this. If only I hadn’t been in that place.) and “Why did I?” (Why did I do that? Why didn’t I do this?)
Nightmares and Flashbacks. Specific places and events might trigger a flashback to the rape and/or you might dream about what happened.
Depression. You might experience sadness that just doesn’t go away. Life can seem meaningless after you have suffered terribly.
Escapism. You might try to forget what happened to you by using different forms of escapism—drugs, alcohol, food, TV.
Rape has always been a grievous part of human history. The Bible records a number of rapes, both heterosexual and homosexual (Genesis 19, Genesis 34, Judges 19, 2 Samuel 13). Under Old Testament law, the penalty for rape was death (Deuteronomy 22:25).
Rape statistics vary from country to country. In America:
80-90 percent of rape victims are female.
90-95 percent of the perpetrators are male.
75 percent of victims know their attackers.
The incidence of rape is highest for women under thirty.
You may not fit into these statistics. Rape can happen to men, to women of all ages, and to children. In any case, you are facing the aftermath of a grave evil. How does God meet you in the middle of this horrific experience? How do you recover?
Face what happened. This awful attack is now part of your life. You will be tempted to run from it, to deny it, to bury it, to keep yourself busy, to escape it, or to numb yourself. But it is crucial that you face what happened to you—your recovery depends on it. It’s a part of your history and your life. Your life is an unfolding story, and God doesn’t erase or delete chapters. His redemption will be evident in this painful chapter also. Redemption begins with acknowledging what happened to you. “God is a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Tell God all about this trouble. Say to him: “This is trouble—help!”
Face your reactions to what happened. You must be willing to enter into your reactions—to feel what you feel. Something that is hurtful hurts. A violation makes you feel violated. Something that overpowers you makes you feel weak and overwhelmed. You need to enter into your grief, hurt, confusion, fear, and anger. “My heart is in anguish within me” (Psalm 55:4). Tell God all about your anguish.
Face Jesus. Don’t try to face what happened and your reactions to it by yourself. Invite Jesus into your struggle. Take hold of his promise of good: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). You are walking in deep waters. God will walk with you. You are walking through fire. God will not let the flames consume you. Turn to him every day. Take God’s promises to heart many times each day. Every time you remember, every time you struggle, every time you feel that your heart is breaking under the weight of what happened to you, ask him to help you.
Say his promises out loud. Speak them back to the One who is your hope. Having faith in Jesus is not something you do just once. He’s the person towards whom you reach, towards whom you cry, towards whom you bring your pain, confusion, anger, and fear. He’s the direction you face. He’s the direction in which you live. He can bear the weight of your trouble and heartache. He also suffered at the hands of evil people. He knows what a broken heart feels like.
Pour out your heart to him. Say to him, “Help, Lord. Have mercy. I am in such need. You promise good to me. I feel such a weight of evil. Don’t let me fear any evil. Make me know you are with me.”
Those who have been raped frequently feel a sense of shame. They feel unclean, as if they are now damaged goods. It’s easy to let the ugly violation of your attack define you. Contrast that with what God has done for you. Because of Jesus you are cleansed and whole. Nothing that has happened or will happen can change that reality. This is how Isaiah expressed the joy of knowing his God-given identity:
I will rejoice greatly in the LORD; my soul will exult in my God, for he has clothed me with garments of salvation; he has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10 NASB)
Take hold of how this picture contrasts with how you are feeling. You are not dirty and shamed. You are clothed with garments of salvation. You are wrapped in a robe of righteousness. You have been made beautiful with pure white clothes, flowers, and jewels.
Jesus made that picture a reality by giving himself for you on the cross. When you put your trust in Jesus, you are clothed with him—with his mercy, kindness, and goodness.
You might have heard that your identity should be that of a survivor instead of a victim. But “survivor” only means you’ve outlived something. If your ship goes down and you are rescued, you survived the shipwreck. When your identity is that of survivor, you are still defined by what happened to you. What happened to you—the hateful person, the hateful thing that took place—still dominates your identity.
God’s goal for you is far bigger than mere survival. His goal for you is that you become his servant. When you are God’s servant, you are defined by his love for you, and that identity is profoundly liberating.
Your identity is not simply that you survived a dirty evil. You find yourself in serving the beautiful One and being clothed with his beauty and goodness. Paul says that when we trust in God we are “clothed with Christ” (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27). You are defined by his love for you, not by the evil someone else did to you.
Sometimes in the midst of extreme suffering, Jesus doesn’t seem like “a present help.” Instead he seems far away. If this is true for you, turn in his direction by listening to and singing music that will remind you of how God is with you. Saying and singing God’s truths out loud is one way to fill your mind and heart with comfort and hope.
Take the hymn “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners.”
Jesus! What a Friend for sinners! Jesus! Lover of my soul; Friends may fail me, foes assail me, He, my Savior, makes me whole.
Refrain: Hallelujah! What a Savior! Hallelujah! What a Friend! Saving, helping, keeping, loving, He is with me to the end.
Jesus! What a Strength in weakness! Let me hide myself in Him. Tempted, tried, and sometimes failing, He, my Strength, my victory wins.
Jesus! What a Help in sorrow! While the billows o’er me roll, Even when my heart is breaking, He, my Comfort, helps my soul.
Jesus! What a Guide and Keeper! While the tempest still is high, Storms about me, night overtakes me, He, my Pilot, hears my cry.
Jesus! I do now receive you, More than all in you I find. You have granted me forgiveness, I am yours, and you are mine.
Refrain: Hallelujah! What a Savior! Hallelujah! What a Friend! Saving, helping, keeping, loving, You are with me to the end.
Use these words to express to Jesus what happened to you, how you felt, and who he is. This hymn expressed the experience of an intense, overwhelming attack: “foes assail me”. It expresses feeling crushed and helpless: “while the billows over me roll.” It expresses heartbreak: “even when my heart is breaking.” It describes a pain too big to bear alone. Is this how you feel?
Jesus meets you right in the middle of this awful experience. You are “tempted, tried, and sometimes failing.” But Jesus is your strength in weakness. He makes you whole. He helps you. He hears your cry. He is yours, and you are his. Your assault has created great weakness in your life. But as you turn to Jesus, you will find that he comes to you and strengthens you.
It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to be weak. Just make sure you are turning in Jesus’ direction. What will you find as you turn to Jesus? You will find that he is your friend, the lover of your soul, your guide, your keeper. And what does he do? He saves, helps, keeps, and loves. He is with you to the end. He is yours and you are his. These are the truths about Jesus that invite a victim—that invite you—to come in his direction. When you feel crushed by your suffering, fill your mind and heart with this hymn. It is a hymn full of Jesus.
Most likely you are struggling with vivid memories of the attack. Many people experience flashbacks of the attack. What happened to you was so traumatic, and so hurtful that it made a deep impression on your mind. Ugly memories keep replaying over and over—like a video on an endless loop. How can your memories be transformed? The only one way to deal with the video of your rape is to replace it with another video.
You might have been told to replace the video of your attack with mental relaxation techniques, perhaps imagining that you’re on a sunny beach with gentle waves and safe people around you. But it is an uphill battle to fight a terrible reality with a fantasy. Instead, God gives you a true video filled with his hope. He tells you of the invasion of earth by the Redeemer of the world. He will reckon justly with evil. He shows you how Jesus comes to you as a friend in the midst of your suffering.
Think of “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners” as an alternative video. It’s something you can think about, say aloud, and sing. When the video of foes assailing you starts playing, replace that with “Jesus, lover of my soul. Friends may fail me, foes assail me. He, my Savior, makes me whole. Hallelujah. What a Savior. Saving, helping, keeping, loving. He is with me to the end.”
This isn’t a gimmick. There’s no guarantee that you can easily erase the old tape of your attack and replace it with “Jesus What a Friend for Sinners.” But you can learn to eject the traumatic video of your attack and insert the truth of God’s goodness and grace to you. As you do this, your memories of the very terrible thing that happened to you will actually lead you to take hold of how Jesus has met you. He befriends you in one of the worst moments of your life.
Another crucial step in your healing is forgiveness. Going in Jesus’ direction means taking seriously his call to offer forgiveness to your attacker and taking steps, whether large or small, in that direction (Matthew 6:12; Mark 11:25). It’s likely that the attacker will never ask you for forgiveness. So you aren’t forgiving him human to human. But how can you be delivered from the poisons of bitterness, hatred, and fear?
Jesus says you should forgive “when you stand praying” (Mark 11:25). You are forgiving in God’s presence, not face-to-face with the person who betrayed you. Your goal is to have an attitude of forgiveness in your heart before God toward the attacker.
What happened to you was a great evil, so forgiveness won’t come easily or in a moment. It will be a journey of many small steps. The alternative to forgiveness is living in fear, escapism, bitterness, and/or depression. When you live like this, evil still controls you. Forgiveness frees you to live a life of love towards God and others. Forgiveness frees you to be a servant. Often those who have suffered a great evil think that forgiveness means excusing the evil. So before we talk about forgiving your attacker, let’s talk about what forgiveness does NOT mean:
Forgiveness does not mean what happened to you was “okay” or can be excused.
Forgiveness does not mean that what happened to you was a small, unimportant thing.
Forgiveness does not mean you will forget what happened to you.
Forgiveness does not mean you shouldn’t seek to have the rapist punished by the law.
Forgiveness says to your attacker that what happened was wrong, destructive, cruel, and inexcusable, but you are choosing to not take personal vengeance. Why not? Because God says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). And God has shown mercy to you (Romans 12:1).
What happened to you was worthy of hate. Yet if you are consumed with hate and murderous fantasies, you are acting in your heart like a killer. When you repay evil for evil, you are stealing God’s role in the universe and becoming a vengeance-taker. Forgiveness leaves your attacker in God’s hands. It trusts God to make every wrong right. It is grateful for his mercies toward you.
Perhaps you know you should forgive, but you are stuck in bitterness and rage. What can you do? Start by remembering God’s mercy to you. Remember that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. Part of being liberated from the devastating effects of rape is seeing your own need for mercy. Your healing and restoration depend on knowing deep in your soul that God’s love and forgiveness for you, in Christ, is deeper, bigger, and longer lasting than what you have suffered.
True forgiveness for a true evil is only possible because of God’s forgiveness of you. Paul explains it like this, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God, in Christ, has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Here are some truths that will help you remember God’s mercies to you:
Think vertically, not horizontally. Don’t try to line up your sins against the sins against you and see if they are equal. That’s not the scale God uses. God doesn’t ask us to forgive because what happened to us was a small thing. In Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), a servant is forgiven a huge debt by his master (the equivalent of several million dollars). The same servant was owed a large sum of money (the equivalent of 100 days of pay) by a fellow servant. Although the servant was forgiven a huge debt by his master, he was not willing to forgive the smaller debt he was owed. Jesus is not saying that the first servant should forgive the second servant because what they owed each other was equal. Instead he is saying that the first servant should forgive because he had been forgiven so much by his master. Forgiveness for your attacker will not come from meditating on what was done to you. It will come as you remember how much God has forgiven you.
Identify the destructive ways you are responding to the attack. Are you responding with escapist behavior (using alcohol, drugs, food, sleep, shopping, etc.)? With denial? With bitterness? Your reactions come from inside you, and they reveal what’s inside you. What are your reactions revealing about you? Are you being ruled by fear? Hatred? Bitterness? Unbelief? These reactions to what you have suffered are understandable—but they are not meant to rule your life. You are living in God’s world, and he is meant to be the ruler of your heart. So when you notice that you are being ruled by your reactions to your attack, it’s your opportunity to remember how much you need mercy and to ask God for forgiveness.
Identify false guilt. Your mind is probably filled with an avalanche of “if only,” “it’s all my fault,” and “why did I do this?” Probably 95 percent of these will be false or distorted assessments. You do not need forgiveness for these things. The attacker’s actions were not your fault. They were his fault. Bring all of your confusion and hurt to God and cast it all on him. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV). Often it’s helpful to talk with someone who will reassure you that guilty feelings are not always true.
Ask God to forgive you for any wrong choices. If you made bad choices leading up to your assault, it is very freeing to ask God for forgiveness. Please hear me rightly on this point. What happened to you was criminal. If you are feeling guilty about something, please remember that no matter what you did, you are not responsible for someone else’s sin against you. God makes it very clear in the Bible that each person is responsible for his or her own actions (James 1:14-15). But if there are things troubling your conscience, bring these to God. Perhaps a previous relationship with your attacker crossed lines. Perhaps you placed yourself in a compromising position. God promises forgiveness to everyone who asks (1 John 1:7-9). If you are having trouble sorting out true guilt from false, ask a wise friend or pastor for help.
God does not intend you to face your heartbreak alone. One way he helps you is through other people. You cannot solve this deep problem privately and alone. Find someone (or a group of people) you trust, and talk and pray with them.
This might not be easy. Some of your friends won’t know how to handle the aftermath of your attack. They might avoid you. Or, even worse, they might say things that make you feel even worse. Ask God to help you forgive your friends if they say foolish things or act in ways that are uncaring or hurtful. Offer them the same forgiveness and mercy you have received from God.
But wise friends will love you well, hang in there with you, point you to Jesus, and talk to you candidly and caringly. If you don’t have friends like this, ask God to provide them for you. And then look for a church community where you can get connected.
Sometimes people talk about “recovery” from a terrible experience. But “recovery” means getting back to what was. It’s better to think about the process you are in as “renewal.” Having faced terrible evil, you grow through it into a person with deeper, wiser faith. You grow through it into a person with a deeper love and a greater ability to enter into the hurts that others have experienced.
This terrible, traumatic evil happened in a moment, but dealing with the consequences and finding the ways that God will meet you and grow you will take time. And there are tears that will not be wiped away until the last day (Revelation 21:1-5). Some aspects of your pain may not be fully healed until Jesus comes again and heals all things. But there is a genuine healing process, a genuine growing process, a genuine transforming process in which something that is a terrible evil can be changed into something that brings about good in your life and in the lives of other people. But that process takes time.
When your identity is that of a servant, you are able to move towards others with love, even in the midst of your suffering. As you live out your identity of God’s servant, you will find that there are others who need your help. This is one way in which God works good out of what was intended for evil (Genesis 50:20). There are other men, women, and children who have gone through similar experiences or other sorts of painful trouble. It’s no accident that people who come to terms with an evil like this often become useful in the lives of others. You are able to combine compassion for the terrible trouble they’re going through with a clear-mindedness about the way forward. Just living your life will bring hope to others who are suffering that there is a way forward. You can share that this process can come out good, even though it’s dark and overwhelming right now.
When you do this, you are passing on the comfort you received from God to others. As Paul puts it, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
I have counseled many people who have suffered through extreme hardship. After going through the process of facing their hardship and facing Jesus, they invariably say something like this: “I would never want to go through that again—it was evil and dark. But I would never trade what I’ve learned about how the love of Jesus and his grace in the midst of my suffering.” As you walk through this hard time—struggling in Jesus’ direction—God will give you that same perspective.
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D., is a faculty member at Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation Faculty and a counselor with over thirty years of experience. He has written many counseling articles, booklets, and books including Speaking Truth in Love; Seeing With New Eyes; Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare; and Competent to Counsel?: The History of a Conservative Protestant Biblical Counseling Movement.