Abuse, Shame and Jesus : A discussion on Rachael Denhollander’s ‘What is a girl worth?’ by Karen Soole

This is a guest blog by Karen Soole

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at an event hosted by Passion for Evangelism. For various reasons the actual event was private, but myself and Ellidh Cook, who spoke, have written up our talks in case you’re interested. Ellidh’s can be found here.

‘The darkness is there and we cannot ignore it. But we can let it point us to the light.’ 

Rachael Denhollander

I first heard Rachael’s voice when she spoke at the trial of Larry Nasser. Her voice cut through the courtroom. Her sense of justice, her clarity and strength penetrated the hardest of media hearts. She called for justice but not vengeance. There was no bitterness; instead, she displayed compassion and grace. She pointed to the light and sweetness of the gospel without compromising the need for Larry Nasser to acknowledge his evil acts and for society to punish them. It was an astonishing display. When I heard she was writing a book, I anticipated it eagerly. It does not disappoint.

A voice to the voiceless.

Rachael writes as an abuse survivor (the term she prefers). In the play of the History Boys, Hector describes the joy of reading like this: 

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things that you’d thought special. particular to you. And here it is , set down by someone else – as if a hand has come down and taken yours.’

As Rachael speaks of the painful aftermath of abuse, her hand reaches out to others who also walk that lonely path. The doubts of the survivor: this can’t be happening, this can’t be true, is this ok? The ugly deceit of grooming: everyone speaks so highly of him, it’s a privilege to see him, he seems so kind, her Mum was there! The paralysis of speaking out: am I overdramatic? If I say anything, it will cost me everything; retelling is reliving it. The destruction of relationships: feeling unsafe everywhere, who can I trust? The guilt: when should I have stopped trusting him? I should have stopped it. 

Cutting through all of this, Rachael battled with the most critical question of all: does God care?

Lessons for the church.

Rachael’s book is timely. She faced abuse both within and outside of the church. She came up against institutional denials. People she thought she could trust who were well-intentioned but very wrong. We need to take heed. Organisations such as thirtyoneeight.org are leading the way, but sadly many of us have failed or been failed in our churches. Rachael’s story highlights three essential things:

Listen: do not minimise experiences of hurt, harm or abuse. So many heartbreaking situations have been worsened by the failure to listen and treat the initial complaint seriously. Just imagine the number of girls who would have been spared from Larry Nasser if the original allegation had been investigated rigorously. Churches are tempted to try and deal with things internally; they struggle to believe accusations, deny the evil with platitudes because they fear damage to the gospel. Yet the cover-up destroys lives and perpetuates abuse. We must act, however, daunting it feels to do so. Malcolm Gladwell in Talking to Strangers refers to Nasser’s abuse. He explains how hard it is for us to believe the worse in people, that our default position is ‘default to truth’ that is ‘I believe in you always until I can’t anymore’. We need to understand this instinct. We will need to overcome it. We must report. 

Justice matters. Forgiveness is not about covering things up and forgetting. Forgiveness is a process. No one should be pressurised into letting off those who have wittingly or unwittingly coerced and controlled them. In our desire for unity and grace, we must remember that actions have consequences and punishment matters. Damage is done, and full reconciliation may never be possible or wise. A perpetrator of child sex abuse can be brought in the church family by the grace of God but can never be allowed to have responsibility for children. A pastor who has abused his congregation can be restored to a church family but has forfeited his leadership. We must not be naive. 

Brokenness is not sin. We have a Good Shepherd who binds up the injured. He understands our frailty and weaknesses. He knows the damage we carry. We must not rip off those bandages and expose raw wounds demanding instantaneous healing. We can help bandage those who are bleeding. Rachael journeys through this process. Intellectually she held on to Gods goodness and justice but knew she was not better yet. It was slow and imperceptible, it took years, but finally, she arrived at a place where she felt her fear and guilt had been removed. We must be as patient with others as our Good Shepherd is with us.

Lessons for our evangelism.

Rachael’s story is the book of Romans in action. We can use it to point to the light, to show others that God’s business is about justice. As one of her friends said: “Justice is God’s work, Rachael. And I am going pray with you that you see it- as completely as we can reach it here on earth.” We have such good news to share with people. The gospel does not deny the reality of evil (Romans 1:28-32, 3:9-20). The gospel understands that authorities need to punish the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4). God knows evil cannot simply be erased (Romans 2:5-16). God has provided a way to both punish sin and rescue those who are God’s enemies (Romans 3:21-26, 5:6-8).

Justice is Gods work. We can declare this with confidence. God hates evil. He will punish it. If the authorities fail to bring justice in this life, there will be a day when everyone will be brought before the throne of Jesus. If we have to live with injustice now, we can know evil will be dealt with one day (Romans 12:19). As Rachael said in a public courtroom to Larry Nasser: 

‘The bible you carry speaks of a final judgement where all of God’s wrath , inits eternal terror, is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing’.

Justice does not cancel love. This justice is not about us unleashing all of our furious uncontrolled anger. God’s justice is good, and without favouritism (Romans 2:5-16). God leaves opportunity for rescue now (Romans 2:3-4,). Repentance is possible. God poured out his wrath on Christ so that we can be saved (Romans 3:25). The most abhorrent acts were punished as Christ became sin for us. The horror of what Jesus experienced on the cross cannot be imagined. His justice and love meet in a staggering act of grace. It was the power of this truth that enabled Rachael to say: 

“Larry if you have read the bible you carry, you know that the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God Himself loving so sacrificially that He gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin He did not commit. By His grace, I, too, choose to love this way.” 

She was able to pray that Larry would:

“experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so that someday you may experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me, though I extend that to you as well”.

Justice is a gift. Rachael spent years living with the knowledge that her account of abuse had not been taken seriously. That is hard to bear. She carried her pain silently until one day she saw the opportunity – ‘This is it. Now. This is it’. Her fight for justice began again when she read that newspaper article. It was a tough fight. Then one day in court she heard Larry admit that he did act against medical protocol. Her response surprised her: 

‘I was not prepared for the flood of relief that washed over me in that moment. I remembered every night I had pounded my pillow wanting nothing more than answers. I remembered when I realised my healing couldn’t be dependent on courtroom justice or an admission from Larry. You will never get that, I thought. And for sixteen years, Had believed that. I hadn’t even hoped for it. Now I had received what I never thought I would. I was overwhelmed with the gift that it really was- a gift few survivors ever receive.’


We often find talking about judgement difficult. The doctrine of hell is set against that of Gods love, but one day we too will understand that it is a good gift. One day we will see Jesus expose evil and deal with it. That day will bring relief to millions.  It is the promise of the gospel. It is good news. We can boldly declare this – God will judge the world. We can rejoice that in Gods grace and mercy, because of the cross, it is a day we need not fear. So let us like Paul proclaim:

‘ I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.’ Romans 1:16

Karen Soole

Image may contain: text that says 'karen is the women's worker at trinity church, lancaster and the chair of the northern women's convention. she is the author of unleash the word' a book on how to do small group bible studies. her passion is to get people into reading the bible and spends as much time is possible doingjust that. karen is married to martin who leads the amie church plant in lancaster and mother to four now grown children. Karen Soole'

This event was part of a series of events on the theme of Worth. If you’d like to listen to our latest events, watch here…

Published by Nay Dawson

Hello and thank you for reading my blog. I'm married to Jon and live in Southampton with our two girls. I work with IFES Europe as their Regional Training Co-ordinator, training staff and students across Europe. In 2019 I set up Passion for Evangelism a network of creative, public female speakers. I'm a Trustee for the Cowrie Scholarship Foundation raising essential funds for disadvantaged Black British Students. I'm also a Trustee for Friends International helping welcome International students to the UK. In response to the war in Ukraine I helped set up Ukraine Connect matching refugees and hosts across Europe

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