Several years ago I was in a work situation where men often said sexual, inappropriate things to me and about me. One coworker even went as far as to grab me and then made it a big deal when I asked him not to and pushed him away. It was jolting, and there was no amount of education or discipleship that prepared me to deal with sexual harassment.
I knew it was wrong the whole time it was happening. As a Christian, I felt the tension of how to respond to the sexual harassment: do I pursue justice or extend grace?
Once I finally admitted to myself what was happening, I talked to a few friends. They said I should take the verbal harassment as a compliment and not overreact. “What woman doesn’t want to be seen as attractive?” In a culture driven by sex, if it isn’t sexy, it doesn’t sell. So, according to my friends, I should take what those men were saying as a compliment. But I didn’t, and I couldn’t.
The words of those men were debilitating, because I knew that my fundamental identity had nothing to do with my physical appearance. I knew that the type of beauty I wanted to be recognized for wasn’t fundamentally for my looks or body shape, but with the God who dwells in me. “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a women who fears the Lord shall be praised” (Prv 31:30).
Sadly, my friends and those men didn’t get that.
After my first experience of sharing with someone, I waited a few months to talk to someone else about it. I had just reported one incident to human resources, but the comments only continued to come from those men. I decided to talk to an older Christian woman in the workplace to get her advice on how to handle it.
She said that I, as a woman, must be doing something to encourage it, because she had never experienced sexual harassment. I left thinking that now I was somehow to blame. I dreaded going to work and would cry almost every night while begging the Lord to remove me from the situation.
By God’s grace, I finally admitted my feelings of shame in enduring sexual harassment. As I shared with my roommate the truth, she graciously stepped into all of the mess with me. She assured me that what was happening was not right. She reminded me that I was not responsible for the men’s comments.
On the really hard days, she listened, cried with me, and reminded me that God is faithful and that he is fighting for me (Ex 14:14). I began to open up more about it with people to let them in and walk through the struggle with me. I continued to seek the Lord on what would be the most honoring way for me to respond to the company, the men, and others. I wanted to stop any other person going through what I did.
“Do I pursue justice or extend grace?” The truth is, I needed to do both. I reported the incidents and the men to the company. Then as I continued to talk openly with my faithful and godly community, by God’s grace I was able to extend grace. I was able to offer forgiveness to them and hold no bitterness against them.
This didn’t happen instantly. It took several months for me to truly forgive them—months of prayer, months of support and counsel from God’s people.
At first I thought if I forgave them, it would be akin to admitting that everything thy did was okay. My definitions of forgiveness and grace were faulty. The ability to even begin to forgive would never happen so long as I was responding to these men in light of their actions or words toward me.
Any possibility that I could forgive came from events that happened long before any of this trouble. Forgiveness for them—and me—began on a cross. It’s there that I am reminded of a great God who offered forgiveness by sacrificing his own Son for me when I didn’t deserve it.
My pride and selfishness are no different before a holy and just God than their harassment. I was only able to forgive because I know and believe that God is a grace-giving God who is in control. In that assurance, I find the freedom to forgive. Extending forgiveness didn’t take away the pain or the reality of what happened, but it was and still is a reminder of my own need and desperation for Christ. I learned more about our God who is not only my protector, but who is also good . . . even in a situation so ugly and wrong as sexual harassment.