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Feeling Guilty After Rape

We wanted to use the podcast this week to talk about some of the issues that are on the table in abuse ministry. One of the most painful realities a human being can go through is responding to the aftermath of the brutality and betrayal of a rape. Rape victims experience a number of horrifying and painful realities in the aftermath of a violent, sexual attack. One of those horrible realities is that of “guilt feelings” over the attack. It is a common response for women who have been victimized in a rape to feel guilty that they are somehow responsible for what happened to them. What we want to do is have an introduction into a way to think about that. We always want to say that our podcast is not ever intended to be an exhaustive survey of the topics we’re considering on a week-to-week basis, but is to be an encouragement to you to begin to think through this in ways that are biblical and helpful and to spur you on to get more resources about it.

As we take on this very complicated task of thinking on dealing with guilt in the aftermath of rape, with so many different directions and complexities to dealing with this, I want to talk about a very real story of someone that my wife and I ministered to in the aftermath of her rape. I’m going to call her Emily.

My wife and I met her several years ago after her own attack, and she was struggling. Emily is a married woman, and when we met her, she was newly married. She was in the very early years of her marriage, and her husband had a job that carried him out of town with some regularity. One time when her husband went out of town, she had actually been planning a night out with her lady friends. Now, they meant for that to be the kind of fun that she didn’t think she could engage in as a married woman with any kind of regularity, and so she waited until her husband was out of town. She put on some makeup, and she had bought a very revealing and provocative dress, and she went out with her friends to the home of some people they had known some years earlier.

There was a mixed group of singles there and there was a lot of dancing and a lot of drinking. She did a lot of both of those things, and got connected with a man that she had known just as an acquaintance years earlier. They began spending time together in the evening, and she thought it would be fun to push the limits with him. She never intended to do anything like what she thought would be a violation of her marriage vows, but she did want to flirt and have fun. They began to kiss, and they got alone. Once alone, after they had kissed for a little while, she wanted that to stop, she was ready to quit and go home. Instead of responding to her expressed demand that they go no further, he forced himself on her in a violent attack of rape.

What started out as what was supposed to be a fun evening with the girls that was pushing the limits a little bit, turned into a horrifying encounter that led to her and her husband meeting with me and my wife for help in the months after this had happened. You can begin to imagine the explosion of emotion and confusion that came crashing into this young woman’s life and marriage in the aftermath of a night like that and an attack like that. One of the issues that we were trying to help this couple sort through was that this woman was blaming herself for her attack; that she was blaming herself for the rape that she had experienced, and she was overrun with feelings of guilt for what she had done.

What I want to do is give you a framework to help a woman like this think through something like that. A text that helps us to think about this is Ezekiel 18:19-20. The prophet, in this context, is talking about sin in the context of a family, particularly the sins of a father and the sins of a son, and various kinds of ways that sin might be distributive in that relationship. Ezekiel 18:19-20 says, “Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ when the son has practiced justice and righteousness and observed all my statutes and done them. He shall surely live. The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity. The righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” This is a text that is teaching us about the responsibility for sin. The responsibility for sin according to Ezekiel does not have to do with your proximity to the one who has committed sin, but with whether you are the one who has committed the sin or not.

The prophet says, “The one who sins will die,” not, “The one who is near the one who sinned will die.” Let me tell you what this means. It means that I am responsible for my sin, and you are responsible for your sin. It means that you cannot make me sin, you can’t do anything that will make me responsible for your sin, and I can’t do anything to make you sin or do anything to make you responsible for my sin. This is a text about responsibility for sin. The responsibility for sin in Ezekiel and in the rest of the Bible always rests on the person who commits the sin, because we cannot make one another sin. We can make each other tempted to sin, we can make each other’s lives very complicated, but the responsibility for sin always rests in the heart of the one who committed it.

This is a passage that is not the passage that we necessarily talked about with Emily and her husband, but it is a passage that gives us the biblical framework for responsibility, to think through dealing with the feelings of guilt after rape. What we need to do is help victims of rape, like Emily, think through how to take responsibility for sin that has been committed by the person we’re talking to, and not take responsibility for the sin that they have not committed. A passage like Ezekiel 18 means that it is impossible that Emily is responsible for the sin of her attacker. When he made the decision to force himself on her, when he made the decision to refuse to listen to her appeal that he quit, her demand that he stop, he became guilty of the sin of rape. The sin of rape is not Emily’s responsibility.

Now, to be quite frank, there were sins for which Emily was responsible. When Emily intended to deceive her husband, that is a lie for which she is responsible. When she intended to get drunk, that is a sin for which she is responsible. In any way that she made a foolish and a reckless decision, that is a way that she is responsible. When she made a decision to kiss another man, she became guilty of a certain kind of violation of her marriage vows. Emily needs to take responsibility for those sins and to confess them, but a sin she cannot take responsibility for is the sin of rape, because that is not a sin she committed. That is the responsibility of her attacker, and she cannot take responsibility for that, he must. God is going to hold him accountable for that sin, not her.

This was a reality, we are here dealing with it in a few minutes on a podcast, but that actually took months for us to think through, pray through, read Bible passages about this, and give encouragement and instruction on this, but the categories are the same for someone who is feeling guilty after a rape. We need to remember that the soul that sins shall die. This means that a victim of an attack can never be responsible for the attack, but only the one who perpetrated the attack. That gives us biblical freedom to give the encouragement of Christ to one who has suffered because of the sins of another.