Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s book What Is a Girl Worth: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. Denhollander will be a featured guest at Karam Forum 2020, taking place in Atlanta on Jan. 3-4; register here to join us.
The reality of living with abuse was more frustrating than I could express. I wrestled with my faith over and over again. I remember my questions coming to a head one day in the spring of 2007.
I was sitting on our couch, sunlight pouring in through the picture window that graced our living room. Does God care? If he does, why didn’t he do something?
If abuse and injustice were as bad as I felt like they were, why did Christians get this so wrong? Or was I wrong? Maybe I didn’t need to heal. Maybe I just needed to get my act together.
I methodically thought through everything I believed. I knew myself well enough to know I’d done plenty that needed forgiveness. Even though I wasn’t anything like Larry, I still believed that my forgiveness had to be found in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Logically, anything good that I did wouldn’t change the bad, any more than Larry’s charity work could nullify one ounce of the damage he’d caused me. I couldn’t “work” my way out of mistakes I’d made. If God was really perfect – which I believed him to be – he’d be wrong to act as if bad things weren’t really bad or could be erased by doing nice things.
But I noticed that fellow Christians pretty much talked only about our need to understand the wrong things we’d done. No one talked about God’s supposed hatred for the wrongs done against us. Whenever anyone at church talked about injustice in the world, it was almost always to emphasize how wrong it was to be angry, bitter, or unforgiving, as if not being those things was the cure for pain – that they mattered more than what any abuser might have done.
I rested my forehead in my hands. But not being bitter isn’t fixing the nightmares. For my own well-being, I did want to forgive Larry. But I didn’t want my forgiveness to be used as an excuse to act as if something terrible wasn’t really that bad.
I closed my eyes. The war that raged continually inside me was exhausting. I wanted it to end. I wanted answers, but they never seemed to come.
What are my alternatives? My eyes flew open. What if God were removed from the picture?
Something from C. S. Lewis’s writings rang in my mind: “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” Removing God didn’t fix the problem of evil. It actually made it worse. A weak God who couldn’t stop evil was of no use either. What hope is there in a moral lawgiver who is impotent to ensure that the law is followed or justice done? I sighed in frustration. The alternatives – removing or changing the idea of God – didn’t help resolve my questions. Not really. Not if I was intellectually honest.
Over the past few years I’d explored every other option. Removing God from the picture, changing how Scripture defined him, considering other faith traditions – none of them fixed my problems or answered my questions. No matter where I looked, I was confronted with things I couldn’t explain without God. And specifically, without the gospel. Every other faith tradition relied on some form of good works to absolve people from guilt or reach “heaven” or some higher order. But justice didn’t work that way. Doing good didn’t erase the bad. Not for Larry. Not for me.
I grabbed my notebook and drew two circles. What do I know is true and real? I asked myself. I filled in the first circle with the answers I had so far – what I knew to be true.
There is right and wrong.
I believed those two things existed – not just in people’s minds, but really and truly existed. People could look at evil, like the Holocaust, murder, or sexual assault, and know it was wrong. We didn’t have to question it or base our conclusions on what someone else thought. Then I wrote down the next conclusion that naturally flowed from that.
There is a God who defines good and evil.
There was no way around that. Either truth was, in some form, dependent on human ideas, which meant that good and evil were subject to opinion, or the definition of good and evil came from someone higher than human beings. Yes, people often disagreed about where those lines were drawn and how we knew them, and there had to be room for those discussions. Even so, we all knew that certain things were good, and others were evil, no matter what anyone said. Behind all the infighting, there was still some absolute standard that didn’t come from human opinion – which meant it came from something higher. There had to be a God.
I picked up my pen again.
This God is the God of the Bible.
I didn’t have room to write all the reasons I was confident that if a god did exist, it was in fact the God of Scripture.
Next I wrote, God is just.
In Christianity, there is no mitigating anything wrong we do. There is no way to do enough good things to cancel out the bad. There are no magic words, attitudes, or life changes that can erase all the things we do wrong. That’s how life really works.
It had been six years since I had last seen Larry. I didn’t know what he’d done in that time, or what he would do in the future, but I did know that hearing him say “I’m sorry” wouldn’t return me to the way I was before I was abused. I knew Larry had helped create an autism foundation, which was great, but that good deed didn’t stop my nightmares. The evil he did was there. The damage was done. Nothing could make that wrong disappear.
I picked up my pen again. God is love.
Justice, all by itself, felt hopeless because there is nothing we can do to escape it. But I had to admit that God also loves, and he showed it when Christ chose to take on himself the justice we deserved – not erasing what we’ve done, but paying for it. That’s a pretty crucial difference, I thought.
I could still feel the war within me. There was so much I didn’t understand about how God’s love meshed with so much abuse in the world. I looked back at my simple circles. These truths I’d written – they applied to everything. If they were real, they were real. Period. That meant that whatever I didn’t understand, whatever answers I hadn’t yet found couldn’t contradict what I did know.
There is good and evil.
There is a God who defines it.
He is just.
He is loving.
I leaned my head back. I felt exhausted. But I also felt the tiniest bit of certainty. There was nowhere else to go, but there was somewhere. I didn’t have all the answers, but I had something. I could say what happened to me was evil. I knew justice and love existed. It wasn’t everything. But it was something. And I could hold on to that much.
Excerpted from What Is a Girl Worth: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics by Rachael Denhollander, Tyndale House Publishers September 10, 2019.