You are watching a movie. There she is, right on cue. The archetypal seductress appears. The prostitute of Proverbs (6, 7) comes to mind. Follow this siren to your peril because she is taking you straight to her home in the grave. How easy it is to assess her and her motives. Everything is so blatant.
But the story is not over. Later in the movie, you learn that she was sold into sexual slavery as a child and degraded and beaten too many times to remember. Sex for favors is the best life she can imagine. Now, those Proverbs passages no longer seem relevant. They would only compound the violence done against her.
This is the challenge that we have in ministry—we could call it discernment. Sometimes what is obvious in a person’s life is sin, but the real problem is suffering, and sometimes what is obvious is suffering but the real problem is sin. This requires you to proceed carefully, with humility and patience, as you come to know people. When in any doubt, lead with God’s compassion for those who have suffered.
Let’s say you meet a woman like the one in the movie, someone who is flagrantly and proudly promiscuous. Her pattern is one-night stands, fueled by alcohol. Everything about her lifestyle is contrary to Scripture but also anticipated by Scripture’s various observations of godless descents into debauchery (e.g., Romans 1). How many of us would still be around by the time she said, “After I was raped, I didn’t care what happened to me. I was all used up”? How many of us would even be trusted with this? We must be aware that this kind of violence can lurk beneath blatant and self-destructive sins.
What do you think was “used up”? Her innocence? Her dignity? Her humanity? When you are emptied of everything, nothing matters. The walking dead have no more life to be taken, and a sense of purpose died long ago. The only thing left is to be thrown away. Or, is it? Would God throw her away? What is his response to her suffering?
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:1)
It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:2)
There are times, God says, when the sins of other people cause us to sin. In response, he says that he, himself, will replace the wretched shepherds. He will search for his sheep; he will rescue them from where they were scattered, and he will look after them (Ezekiel 34:11-12).
It usually takes just one more question to hear the full story from someone who has suffered like this, though you might have to be persistent. It could be any of these:
What has been done to you that you would feel so unworthy? I can see the hard exterior, what about the inside? You act like nothing can hurt you, but the only time nothing can hurt us is when we have already lost everything. How did you lose your life?