I find myself hearing from survivors, with some frequency, that they believe what happened to them was worth it because God was able to use it to bring healing to others.
Now, if that sounds a little like you–I commend you. You’ve come a long way in your healing journey to be able to say that and mean it. And kudos to you for overcoming evil and shame and denial to be able to share your story and use it for good. Wow. You are amazing. I really mean that. And now let me apologize (sort of), because I’m about to chisel into the next layer of denial you’re hiding behind.
See, considering your story worth it only because it could be used to bring help to others is, well, sorta, kinda, another way of shirking around the fact that you are intrinsically valuable. That means valuable simply because…you are. Because you are a masterpiece designed by God. And you are a dearly loved, one-of-a-kind child of His. And more than that, you are part of the Church–His very bride.
Hard to swallow?
If so, then yes, you are hiding behind another layer of denial.
So let me ask you this, is it enough for you if Christ freed you and healed you just so you would be healed and free and made whole? If that was all you ever got. If you never got to use your story for anyone else. If not one other soul ever benefited from the evil that occurred to you. Is it enough that Christ found you valuable? Is it enough that He came for you? Is it enough that He counted you worthy?
Is your wholeness enough?
Today, Precious One, take some time to bask in the love of God. It is scary to consider that you are intrinsically valuable because doing so means facing the reality of the injustice that occurred to you. It means recognizing that whoever assaulted or abused you, regardless of what kind of person they are or were or could be–they could be Mother Teresa for all I care–that they wronged you. It means you should be angry because someone precious to God was grossly harmed, that injustice occurred, that there is a debt owed to you on account of it. And that you may be asked to relinquish that debt.
It also means you must be vulnerable. You must be bare before God to let Him see into the depths of your heart–all that is pleasing and displeasing–and give Him the option to reject you based on what He finds there, to find that He embraces you. It’s scary. It’s probably the scariest thing you’ve ever had to face. Wow.
But until you do, you will never really live. You will never fully be free until you are fully bare before God. You will never fully be healed until you reveal the full extent of the wound to the Great Physician. And you will never be able to bring to others something you have never realized for yourself.
Now is the time, Beloved. Let yourself be loved.
I walked up to the base of the Fortress of God’s Goodness and, through sobs and tears, began to systemically check its base for a sign of weakness. I searched for a crack or a crumble or an imperfection of any kind, but could find no indication of flaw or frailty. The base of the Fortress seemed enormous, extending far to both my left and right in a perfect concrete arc. Above me, the summit of the cylinder stretched into the clouds, beyond my sight. For a moment I was awestruck at its magnitude. I could not fathom its size. The fortress seemed impenetrable. Desperate, I threw my body against it and beat it with my fists, but it didn’t budge. It scarcely could have perceived my wailing, flailing presence; as though a silo could perceive an ant hurling itself against its base.
Nevertheless, I kicked and beat the wall with all my strength. I cursed it and insulted it and hurled my body against it. Knowing somehow that there was nothing to find, I nonetheless walked the entire circumference of the citadel searching for a symptom of its fragility and at last, when I had no more strength to carry on and no more tears to cry, I sat down on the dusty ground, dotted with golden desert flowers to whimper quietly and rub my swollen eyes.
There was no weakness. The Fortress of God’s Goodness was as solid as something could be. It was unyielding to my protests in any way. I found that, despite my suffering, I could make no accusation against it. And I came to the final conclusion that if it would be so completely unyielding to me, I, then, must be yielded to it.
So I admitted it. The Fortress of God’s Goodness was stronger than I. My experiences were not, as I so wanted to believe, indicative of its legitimacy. I had to embrace that God was resolutely and entirely good and that I was made to suffer at the same time. In fact, I was forced to conclude that my suffering did not detract from His goodness in any way.
I got up then, dusted myself off, and walked home. My spirits were higher at this time, believing then that I had passed the test and, since I had passed it and surrendered to His nature, my sufferings would certainly be ended. I was surprised to find then that the storm blazed on. My sufferings neither halted nor subsided in any way, rather—they increased. I cried out for them to be stopped, but they were not. I commanded the storm to be calm, but it was not. And in the middle of the desert tempest of pain and disappointment by which I felt mercilessly scorched and choked, I heard a small voice call to me.
“Testify,” it said. Everything in me wanted again to cry and to kick and to scream and to fight the powerlessness that overcame me, but I remembered again that it was the Fortress of God’s Goodness that would be unyielding to my circumstances, not my circumstances to the Fortress. So I tore out my broken will and surrendered it.
“You are perfectly good,” I said, through sobs. “I can make no accusation against You.”
I peered back up at the Fortress, expecting an answer of sorts, expecting the small voice to speak to me again. But for that time, the Fortress of God’s Goodness simply remained and did so silently.
When I went back to church for the first time after coming back from Thailand, I was really confused. We were worshiping Jesus, the Majestic, Glorious, Splendid King. And of course He is all of those things. I knew that, but I wasn’t prepared for it to strike me as odd.
I had just come from watching Jesus be the humble, sweet, gentle servant. The last few worship services I had been to were in safe houses, where I listened to the women wail out praise to Jesus their Savior. They were crying. They were bawling loudly and completely out-of-tune. In one house, the two worship leaders wore shirts that read, “Amarican Style Burger–Eat me” to honor their American guests. I mean, how much sweeter can you get?
In a land so broken, so dark, so wicked, and so oppressive, there was sweet Jesus, content to kneel down, cup the faces of the broken in His own broken hands, and hold their gaze. He was there collecting their tears; He was there welcoming them back when they ran back to “the life” then wanted out again; He was there rocking them through addictions; He was there breathing life into dry bones and raising beauty out of ashes. As one woman said, “The community sees us as worthless, but God sees us as precious.”
At church back home, we got to sing with a whole mass of people to the accompaniment of an awesome worship band, in a building with great acoustics and beautiful architecture. But when the songs died down and the sermon ended, it would be easy to go home and get back to life as we knew it with work and chores and family and stuff. Not necessarily forgetting Jesus, just being distracted. But Jesus is not like us. His faithfulness is not fickle. He is there with those women after the soundtrack has faded out, when it is not convenient, when there is no one watching to give Him praise, and when it is no longer glamorous to serve.
So when I came back and we were worshiping Jesus as the Most High, you can see how it just took me slightly off guard. It’s like working side by side your best friend in the ER wearing bloody scrubs together amidst the chaos and wounds of the night and then the next night hearing a familiar voice on the TV, and, looking over, you see your friend there all polished up giving the State of the Union address. Like, “Wait–you’re the president too? Hold on.” So when we started singing this song, I just lost it a little. Oh, my God.
We visited 4 safe houses total, but heard from partners from all over the world who run similar programs. We learned about the methods of outreach and toured the facilities to see where the women were making jewelry, decorating cakes, running cafes, baking goods, and learning other skills to establish sustainability. We met and got chances to talk with and pray over the women. From some, we heard the stories of their extreme woundedness of being prostituted and abused and how God met them in those places and then brought them out and restored them.
At one of the safe houses, a little girl named Foo latched onto me. I’m guessing she was about 10-12 years old. She took me by the hand and showed me around the building and out onto a balcony, overlooking the garden. We couldn’t talk to each other, so we just stood there gazing out at the yard and smiling at each other. Then she brought me outside and led me down a path shaded by a large arbor delicately laced in vines. “Grape” she said to me and lifted the vine to let me examine it. She wrapped my arm around her and led me through to the backyard, pointing to a fountain, sword-fighting me with a branch, and leading me to her “house”, where she brought out to me the jewelry she was making.
This safe house housed children rescued from trafficking as well as those who would be at-risk of trafficking to give them an education instead. I wondered, as I often do, how people could possibly have it in them to harm, to destroy, a child like sweet Foo. I wonder still how broken one’s view of the world and their self would have to be to embrace that level of evil. At this point, my wonder usually turns into anger. And then I start thinking of what I could do with a Samurai sword to all those men in the red light districts and then I see that the depravity is in me too.
But the Lord has not abandoned me to it. And as angry as I get at the perpetrators and as much as I now see the justice of God’s wrath, I am also reminded that if any of those perpetrators would come to the Lord, turn from the destruction, and ask for forgiveness, He would give it. He would raise them up out of the ashes too, calling them “Son”, and never again holding their past over them. I’m not suggesting they wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of the injustices they practiced, only that He would be willing to redeem them too from the inside out, without question and without guilt.
He did the same for me. He would do the same for you. That is the sweet, humble, glorious One.
Who breaks the power of sin and darkness
Whose love is mighty and so much stronger
The King of Glory, the King above all kings…
I walked into a friend’s house recently and was met with a strong whiff of a very familiar scent, but I couldn’t place it.
“What’s that smell? I know that smell….it smells like Thailand.””It’s incense,” one of the friends offered, gesturing to a little table placed in the corner of the dining room.
Ahhhhhh. Indeed, that was the smell of Thailand. I felt like I could smell it everywhere there, inside and outside. There are shrines set up in every business and home and on almost every single city block, where people offer sacrifices to the images of their gods. I’m guessing it was at these altars that incense or candles were burned and prayers offered and that, due to their great volume throughout Bangkok, if you were paying attention, you could almost always smell incense in some capacity.
Since incense is known to accompany prayer, it occurred to me at some point during the trip that Bangkok smelled like the prayers of its people.
It made me think of Psalm 141, where David says “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” And again in Revelation 5 where it says, “And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people…”
But here…here the people, mostly Buddhist, were offering sacrifices and prayers and worship in order to win the favor of their gods. It didn’t appear that this was a casual, random occurrence either. Altars were literally everywhere, many filled with sacrifices of drinks and food and wreaths. It was very common to see someone at one of these altars, lighting a candle and praying or offering some kind of sacrifice. There were small street booths and carts everywhere with workers making flower garlands, symbols of respect, that were frequently bought and offered on the altars as well. Sacrifices and prayer seemed…part of life.
Never have the goodness and kindness and sweetness of Christ seemed quite so evident to me as while spending time in Bangkok. I was so struck by the fact that people devoted so much of their lives to offering sacrifices and prayer, striving to create positive karma and win them favor in this life and the next. Their lives were built around this belief. But my God, my God offered a sacrifice so I could have His favor. My God was the One who made the sacrifice. Not to win my favor, but to give me His. Forever. Who does that?!
My Jesus asks for obedience on account of favor already given, not in order to obtain it.
I wanted to shout out the windows, “You don’t have to do that! Come to the altar of Jesus and drink and eat food and drinks that were sacrificed for you!”
Oh–I just realized…that sounds strikingly like scripture. God already beat me to it, shouting through the prophet Isaiah in chapter 55,”Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price…”
And I wondered…what if the people of Jesus understood this? Could they even begin to grasp how rare and precious and sweet and incredible this idea is–that God turned the tables on mankind and offered the favor they could never have won through striving? And what if they did, and what if they began to see that prayer and worship and sacrifice are offered not to win God’s love, but in response to it so that our streets and cities could begin to smell like the prayers of Immanuel’s people. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a smell you could sense with your nose, but what would it do to the atmosphere of a place, seeing a people rise up and spend their lives rejoicing in and worshiping a glorious, humble God who stepped off His throne, made Himself flesh and dwelled with them.
I wish people could see others love one another with such devotion that they could ask of a place, “What is that smell? I know that smell.”
And the people of God could answer, “Oh, it’s Jesus.”
Bangkok has several red light districts. During our night of outreach, each of our team members was assigned to a certain district where they were to enter as a group, then break into smaller groups and set out with the simple goal of loving the women encountered. Our goal wasn’t to raid and rescue or anything like that, but to establish gateways of relationship that our partners in Bangkok could follow up on later. I’ll leave it vague like that on purpose, since this is a dangerous business.
Anyway, I was assigned to go to Nana, the red-light district known to be the most vicious of those in Bangkok. There were three of us on the team and we were to meet up with a fourth person once we got there, then walk in together. Now, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to make a proposal. Instead of just recounting my experience, I’d like you to place your hand in mine and allow me to lead you into that red-light district with me. I promise I’ll keep you safe, but it’s so easy to think this issue is far off and that it happens to people far different from you…that I need you just to step in and see things from a new perspective.
So imagine that you are there with me in a little sanctuary of a coffee shop, waiting. Waiting for the full team to assemble. Waiting for the night to unfold. Waiting to have your expectations demolished by reality….
Finally, the door is opened and you are beckoned to head out into the night and leave the station at the window from where you had been standing and watching the passersby. Now you join them, heading to your right, down the sidewalk towards the entrance to the Nana cul-de-sac of hell. The crumbled sidewalk causes you to watch your step as you pass vendors of all types of street food and other goods, taxis and streetcars whiz by and the air is full of the sounds of traffic and sizzling food, chatter, and shouting. A proper city street. You breathe in a putrid scent, heavy and drug-like. A strange mixture of incense, fried food, and something rancid and humid, like body odor, but not quite.
All these observations are registered quickly, but you have not gone more than a few paces before noticing the faces. The majority of the buildings along the street are bars with outdoor terraces open to the street and, lining the rows of thin bar-tables flush to the railings, are rows and rows of men. Most of them late middle-aged to elderly. Almost all of them white and appearing as tourists. What strikes you is that they converse very little with one another, as if not one knows any of the others, but there they sit, separate and together, staring out into the night en masse, like jackals waiting to feast on another beasts’ kill. And then you look and see what their eyes have already been consuming, the faces of young women appearing on the terraces too, but across the street. Their dresses are short and their heels high, their faces chock full of make-up and bright lip stick. Vibrant. Glitzy. Sparkly. And dead. The night has only just begun and while some wear a gaudy grin, most stare off into the distance with void eyes. The sun is almost down and they aren’t required to put on their mask just yet.
You keep walking, anger brimming up inside you. You suddenly have a new appreciation for wrath, and some choice words come to mind for the “consumers” lining the bar edges. But then you remember that hatred will only temper your ability to love well so you focus on the faces of the forsaken instead, trying to catch their eyes and communicate in one brief interaction, “I see you and I see your suffering.” You pray that 3 seconds in enough to pass on the taste of hope.
And you continue on, finally turning into Nana, the district known for making sport out of torturing women. You utter the word “Jesus” under your breath over and over and over and over and over, realizing you are far beyond your depth and powerless to intervene in the exploitation taking place on every side of you.
You travel up an escalator to the second story of the district and make your way past snoozing cooks and trash cans out to the balcony that extends around the whole second story. You’ve heard stories of what happens up here and your stomach tightens, wondering what you will have to behold at your final destination and at last, you step into that bar, dark and dirty and take a seat a few feet in front of the dance floor, full of poles and bikini-clad women, each with a pin attached to her bottoms with a number…so you may easily “order” who you’d like.
Above and behind you there are cages that expand to cover all four sides of the large room you now sit in. One larger cage rises up from between two dance floors and sits suspended in the center of the room. You order a coke and quickly realize your best bet is not to look around. You were encouraged to look straight into the eyes of the dancers, the most, and only, dignifying thing you can do, so you do. You look into their eyes and hold their gaze. Some act more seductive at that, thinking you’re a customer. Others look away. Some stand at the back of the dance floor half-hiding, looking beyond frightened. You decide they must be new.
Finally the DJ yells something into the microphone and the women come down from the stage to find customers. One nearly runs up next to you, pointing to one of the team members you’re with, asking if you came with her. Her eyes sparkle when you nod and her stiff posture instantly relaxes. She knows she’s safe. You order her a coke and try to converse, although neither of you speak the other’s language hardly at all. Even so, she speaks to you rapidly, pointing here and there and when the DJ makes another call and the girls remaining on the stage simultaneously lose an article of clothing, she looks at you and scowls. “I hate that,” she says. You keep sipping your coke and teach her tic-tac-toe. She giggles loud and innocently, like a little girl, every time a game ends and gasps at every cat’s game. Between games, she tells you her dream, simply that her daughter will have more opportunity than she has had and not need to be a dancer. The DJ makes yet another call and she sighs and stands hesitantly, frowning. “I have to go dance again…but I’m coming back,” she promises, then disappears into the other side of the bar…
You watch the other faces and you meet other women and your expectations are confirmed–they are not enjoying themselves. The girl next to you giggles flirtatiously as her customer gropes her body, but when she’s unaware that she’s being watched and her mask is down, you see in her eyes a blank, numbing stare. No smile. No sparkle. Just nothing. Her job is to get him to buy as many drinks as possible, so she does what she must to ring up the bill.
On the ride home, you struggle to comprehend your feelings. Heavy is not the right word. Glad, maybe, for the chance to meet the girls behind the masks. Glad to build relationships that can be followed up with. But you feel loss too. Powerlessness. And at the same time, hope. You could do nothing to relieve them from that hellish place and that bar was better than most, but there must be something you can offer. You think real hard and then it occurs to you, you can offer what you do have: a voice. You can share their stories. You can lift them up in prayer. You can help change mindsets. And you can empower others to do the same.
Now it’s your turn. You didn’t go all the way Bangkok to see it firsthand, but you don’t have to. The truth is, the sex industry in America is really not that different from Bangkok. We may not have red light districts you can walk to filled with 40,000 women, but we do have red light districts–in America they are just online. I’m told that 90% of Thai men visit a prostitute with some regularity; it’s ingrained in that culture, but it’s denied that prostitution exists there. And in America, we have learned that 68% of young men and 18% of young women visit porn websites at least once a week. But no one wants to talk about it. Pornography is sex trafficking. It is exploitation in every sense and fuels and catalogs the trafficking that would be considered “more traditional” by nature. And by our silence, we will sacrifice a generation to the neurological, physical, emotional, and relational devastation that are the implications of this consumption. Not to mention that we will victimize millions of adults and children in the process, with horrors that you can scarcely imagine. This is the Siren’s island.
You maybe can’t rescue the sweet girls in Nana, but let your voice be loud on this because one voice is enough to change a life and many voices together can change a culture. Don’t be fooled, people don’t consume pornography. Pornography consumes people. If you want to know what you can do to stop sex trafficking, this is it.