Sometimes I get up early in the morning to read the Bible because I know it makes for a peaceful start to my day, or I listen to it while I drive. Generally, it’s good stuff. There’s a reason why the Bible is a bestseller.
But sometimes, it just makes me mad.
I had one of those days this week, listening to Jeremiah. I got to chapter 4 and couldn’t go any further. As a person affected by sexual abuse, sometimes I am overwhelmed by the negative images of women’s sexuality in the Bible. (And if you are in a tender place with abuse that you’ve experienced, please take care of yourself and skip or skim this. I don’t intend to goad your pain.)
Certainly there are some courageous and compelling women that give us a glimpse of how we might interact with God and others in the aftermath of abuse. Hagar, for starters. Emotionally and sexually abused by Sarah and Abraham, impregnated against her will, and then abandoned when their crazy plan didn’t quite work out like they expected.
How many people ask themselves, after being abused, “Did God even notice what happened to me?” Well, Hagar gives us the answer to that one: God saw it. God sees it. God noticed. The fact of God seeing still doesn’t answer the question of why God doesn’t stop these abuses, but all of you survivors out there be assured that God saw it all. When we cry out to God in the midst of this pain, at least we don’t need to waste our breath telling God what happened: because God saw us.
And the Tamars, both of them. Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar knew that she was not in the wrong, that her problems were the responsibility of the men in her family. And King David’s daughter Tamar knew the same: she put ashes on her head and tore her clothes over the losses she experienced when Amnon raped her. She went public with her abuses, because she knew the injustices were not her fault. Brave woman! Samuel doesn’t mention her father doing anything about it, but at least he believed her.
And Mary Magdalene. I don’t know what demons followed her around until she met Jesus. But I can only imagine what might have happened to her before Jesus set her free from it all. I wonder if Mary was the one who went to Jesus and said “Help!” Or did someone else bring her to him out of exasperation? And why oh why won’t Jesus step into our plane of existence today and bring that kind of miraculous healing, instead of offering the hours of therapy needed to recover from PTSD? But regardless of what Jesus does or doesn’t do for us today, I want to be like Mary and know that I can go to Jesus for healing.
So those are some of the good examples. But sexuality is mentioned in many other passages, and sometimes it’s difficult to get past the abrasion of the words hitting my ears or eyes and hear the message of grace behind them. (Because I’ve got to believe that with God, there’s always a message of grace in there somewhere.)
First, Jeremiah. As I said, I was listening to that lovely prophet this week in the car. Jeremiah was calling us to a more faithful relationship with our ever faithful God who is determined to rescue us. Jeremiah 2:13 sums it up:
“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
After Jeremiah uses the image of people who chose a broken cistern over living water, he goes on to compare us to a bride who forgets her husband, or a prostitute with a brazen look in her eyes. Why in the world do these prophets, and the God that is speaking through them, need to use women’s sexuality as such a negative image to depict the faithlessness of humanity? The image of the broken well worked fine, if you ask me!
The same goes for Hosea, that prophet who was told to marry a prostitute. Couldn’t God make that point that we foolish people prefer raisin cakes to covenantal faithfulness without including this tale of a woman’s unfaithful sexual relationship going on and on, chapter after chapter?
But God doesn’t do that. God seems to have high expectations for us that we’ll be able to see past the pain of the initial story and see the grace. However, for those of us who have experienced an abusive story (and the world is full of us, let me tell you), we might need a bit more help seeing through the mess to the grace.
The psychologists among us could explain why survivors of abuse often blame themselves. It’s easier. It’s just easier to tell yourself “It was my fault,” than ask “Why did my brother dehumanize me for years?” Or “Why didn’t my parents listen to me?” Or “Why did he hate me so much?” Suffering is difficult to understand, it just is. The same idea comes up in philosophy or religion: it’s easier to blame ourselves than ask hard questions about God’s role in a cosmos that seems so random and uncontrollable. So when we read scripture passages that reference abusive situations, or have complex stories about sexuality and suffering, some of us would easily read those stories into our own lives with an application of self-blame.
For those of you who are pastors or teachers, when these lurid passages come up in the lectionary or Bible curriculum, try to de-trigger these stories a bit and put them into a context of grace and mercy instead of the blame or anger that we might default to.
I stopped listening to Jeremiah this week, I just hit pause and went to the Psalms. But I need Jeremiah’s story in my life. I really do need a well of living water in my life instead of the broken cisterns that I make for myself. So if you can, when the opportunity comes, remember that someone like me is in your church or Bible study (statistics will tell you that we are everywhere), and help us see the grace in these stories. Because if it is a story from God, then it is a story of grace.
If I get triggered listening to Jeremiah again, maybe you can finish the story for me and tell me how it ends. And I don’t need a spoiler alert: I already know that God promises a good ending. I just need help getting there.
Editor’s Note: For obvious reasons, we are publishing this piece anonymously. The author says of herself, “I am a wife, mom, and Reformed Christian. My hobbies include listening to podcasts about hope and faith, and looking for signs of hope in the world around us. I work with youth, talking with them about the difficult things in their lives and helping them see grace and hope in the world around them. I love being outdoors. I count the seedlings in my garden every morning.”
Header photo by Vickie Intili on Pexels