Ordinarily, when I tell people that I am a sexual trauma survivor, I am rarely told something to the effect of: “I’m so sorry this has happened to you. You didn’t deserve it. It’s not your fault. You are amazing for getting this far in life. I just want to strangle the person [people] who did this to you.”
That would be very comforting if I were told these things. But instead of comfort, I get challenged to launch into seeing the pain of the offender, to be grateful that it wasn’t worse, to forgive as I have been forgiven. For some actual, real-live comments I have fielded through the years read the following:
- “Well, I sure hope you know that we’re all struggling to make sense of things and that bad things happen to good people.”
- “As long as you’ve forgiven what’s happened, you have a chance of making it through this.”
- “A sin is a sin and it’s not who started it, just who forgives first.”
- “Anger is sin, a waste of energy. It’s so important just to let go.”
- “Forgive as Jesus has forgiven you.”
- “It could have been so much worse so don’t forget to thank God for the ways he protected you from this getting more out of hand.”
- “Look at you now. See how this is meant for good? You wouldn’t be where you are today without this pain.”
- “Don’t be held back by anger. Just let this be used for good, as you see through God’s eyes the hurt the perpetrator is in. We don’t have a right to judge someone. We’re all sinners.”
- And my all-time favorite: “Forgive and forget. You don’t want to be a hardened person, do you?”
I wish I was making this up. All of these sentiments came from Christians who were either family members or old friends.
Here’s the deal:
Asking someone who has been victimized by sexual trauma whether they have forgiven their attacker is on par with saying,
“Don’t you think you could lose a few pounds?”
In other words, forgiveness is a topic only the survivor mentions.
I had a seismic break in my psyche, when, after I gave a talk at a local church about never challenging a survivor on forgiveness, someone said, “The key to getting past [sexual trauma] is to forgive. That is the message people need to hear. Otherwise, you’re just wasting time.”
“But it’s none of your business,” is what I wanted to say. Instead, I just looked past him. This person was an elder in the church at which I JUST gave my presentation! My anxiety grew thinking how much damage he was unwittingly likely to do because he didn’t get the message.
What’s the message? The Message is that you most represent Jesus when you step into Provide Comfort—not Challenges.
I never wanted to be a therapist. I wanted to be a grass root organizer for massive social change. I believe God wisely had me love and respect the role of being a therapist so that I could intimately see the war of countless men and women who have survived sexual trauma. What I know of sexual trauma through my own experiences helps me resonate with the brave souls seeking counsel and comfort.
In light of this professional and personal experience, the magic approach to bringing healing to the survivors is a combination of:
- homicidal rage on behalf of the loved one who was hurt
- a motley of resonating, loving, seeking-to-learn conversation
- comforting overtures of thoughtfulness
- touches of generosity and prayer
- if they ask you directly for guidance, provide it humbly and gently
Perhaps, I am redundant here but I have to add one more thing.
Listening to a sermon a while ago, a young pastor told us [the congregation] that a woman who was being tortured by her ex-husband came to him for guidance on how to heal from the peril and upset. Although there may have been more to their dialogue, he said to us, without drawing breath, “I told her: you have to forgive him.”
Almost instantly, people started looking down at the floor. Others discreetly pulled out their phones to check their social media or to check the time.
I guarantee you that if he had said, “This poor woman needs our comfort. She needs to know that she’s not alone; that we stand with her; that we want to serve her children’s needs. She’s coming off the battlefield of betrayal and desperation. We need to stay close to her like a triage medical unit. We need to see if she needs legal help. She is hurting, and until she is safe and reassured that she’s not alone, she cannot heal.”
Jesus saw the world of sin and pain around him. However, instead of telling people that they “just need to forgive,” he touched their wounds, their blind eyes, and their paralysis. He fed them, and he met them in their state of need. While doing so, he said, “All of the brokenness in you is healed.” He never said, “If you forgive, I will heal you.” Indeed no, he says through his assertiveness and his healing: “You are worthy always, as you are. You are worthy of my attention and healing.”
Our only job as community members encountering the hurting is to offer this.
Once we as wounded and embattled Princess Warriors and Warrior Princes are spoken to with grace, understanding and provided the dignity of being remembered and served into a healing place, forgiveness (our personal choice) can often be like exhaling after inhaling. It’s the natural next step. But it’s ours to choose and to announce. And it’s not anyone’s to command.
If our pain is not welcomed in the name of being too messy, we are likely to hide these wounds under old dirty bandages, because we’re too ashamed to see the wound, since no one else can handle it. And heck, even we can barely handle it. If you can’t handle it, and we’re the ones bleeding and terrified, how are we as survivors supposed to heal?
Where would injured soldiers be if the triage medical team took a look at their wounds, covered them up, looked them square in the eye and told them to forgive their enemies? I think you get my point.
We have got to change our response to this ever-worthy population of sexual trauma survivors. If we did, the world of belief would be turned on its head. The conversion to hope in Jesus would happen like lightning. This is my passion, as your ever-ready advocate.
Thank you for reading and may every good come to you today.
Mary Ellen Mann is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Denver (visit www.manncounselinggroup.com). After attending a Christian college, she did her graduate work at Columbia University. Recently she co-founded Last Battle, LLC and helped develop the first interactive website for survivors of sexual violation, www.lastbattle.org, to help survivors, family and friends of survivors, Christian leaders, and professionals who care about this population. Her book, From Pain to Power will be on the market September 22, 2015. Mary Ellen lives in Denver with her husband and their two sons.