Question: "I am a victim of abuse. Why do I feel guilty?"
Answer: The very nature of abuse, especially sexual abuse, leaves its victims feeling dirty and ashamed, as if they have sinned. Abuse, by definition, is simply the misuse of something or someone. That misuse may also involve complications that include some form of victim participation. In ensuing years, when a victim struggles to recover from the abuse, guilt and condemnation about such participation are always waiting. Memories of every word, every decision, and every thought torment a victim, convincing him or her that healing is undeserved. Is it true that past abuse has made victims dirty and sinful? How does God view that abuse?
Abuse is a small word that represents a huge spectrum of possibilities. Most people suffer abuse of some sort during their lives due to the sinful nature of human beings and the fact that we live in a fallen world (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12). We can be mentally abused by a tyrannical boss, emotionally abused by a rebellious teen, or spiritually abused by a legalistic church. However, for the purposes of this article, we will focus on the willful physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon another person by someone intent on doing harm. In every abusive situation, there is an abuser (or abusers) and a victim. A victim is a person who did not choose the actions being perpetrated against him or her. If given a choice, the victim would not participate in such misuse of their personhood.
We need to qualify this definition for childhood sexual abuse. Many victims who were children at the time of the abuse suffer tremendous amounts of guilt because, at some point during the ongoing abuse, they may have in some way participated, found it pleasurable, or even sought to continue it. The self-loathing that follows such a childhood is overwhelming for victims when they reach adulthood. It is critical for such victims of childhood sexual abuse to realize that no child is capable of understanding and consenting to adult decisions regarding sexuality. The child is always the innocent victim, regardless of how he or she remembers the events. The adult or older teen who abused the child bears the entire blame.
In other situations, a victim may experience irrational guilt due to actions leading up to the abuse. For example, a rape victim may scour her memory for something she did wrong. In a misguided search for answers, she might wonder if she wore the wrong dress or acted too flirtatiously. One reason victims try to find a way to blame themselves is our human need to feel in control. It is a form of survivor’s guilt, wherein we relive a tragic situation, trying to find ways we could have made a different choice that may have resulted in a different outcome. Such thinking creates false guilt (2 Corinthians 7:10). False guilt is one way our enemy, Satan, keeps us in bondage. His lie tells us that, if we were in any way to blame, then we do not deserve healing and forgiveness. The truth is that we are all to blame every day for our selfish, foolish choices. None of us deserve healing and forgiveness (Romans 3:10, 23). That’s why we need the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8–9). God’s grace in forgiving us is non-selective. There is no sin too great and no abuse too shameful that the grace and mercy of God cannot cover it (Psalm 103:12).
We should be honest with ourselves and with God when we are ready to pursue recovery and wholeness. If we truly played some part in what happened, we can confess that as sin, just as we confess any sin, and know that God answers (1 John 1:9; 5:15). But we must refrain from heaping upon ourselves the guilt that properly belongs to the abuser. If the abuse occurred in childhood or was inflicted upon us with no participation on our part, then the sin was done to us and not by us. We cannot repent for the sin of someone else. Being abused is not sin; abusing someone is sin. There is a huge difference.
Another reason that abuse victims struggle to feel forgiven is found in this common statement: “I know God forgives me, but I cannot forgive myself.” Such thinking feels like humility, but it is really the flip-side of pride. What we are saying is, “I know God forgives, but my standard is higher than God’s. I know that Jesus’ death was sufficient to cover all sins—except this one. For this sin, I must punish myself. I must help Jesus pay for it until such a time that I decide I can be forgiven.” That is pride, not humility. It takes great humility to accept a pardon we know we don’t deserve, yet that is exactly what God offers us. We cannot be saved, forgiven, and restored unless we are willing to humble ourselves before Him and let go of our rights to determine whether or not His offer is sufficient (1 Peter 5:6; Matthew 23:12; James 4:10).
Those who were abused in childhood can take hold of God’s offer of transformation (2 Corinthians 5:17). They can confess any element of their childhood for which they feel guilty, but they must refuse to take responsibility for the sins of others. The childhood victim of abuse was robbed of innocence by those who should have guarded it. He or she needs to know that God is not mad at him or her. As a child, the victim did not have the strength, the knowledge, or the courage to resist the sin, and there is no guilt in simply being a child.
Abuse grieves the heart of our loving God. Jesus warned that those who abuse others and cause them to sin will face His wrath (Luke 17:2). He offers to draw near to the brokenhearted and comfort those who struggle (Psalm 34:18). He does not condemn us for the wicked things done to us. Jesus suffered horrible abuse, and He is able to comfort us when we are abused (Isaiah 52:14; Hebrews 4:15; John 15:13). He is always interceding for His children and giving grace when we call upon Him (Romans 8:34). God offers healing and restoration, no matter how great the wound. He promises that, when we come to Him through His Son, Jesus Christ, He strips us of the filthy rags we wear and dresses us in perfect righteousness (Isaiah 64:6; Corinthians 5:21).