By David Hegg
Let’s be honest. At some point, we’re all victims. Life is rough, disappointment is common, tragedy is inescapable, and injustices, both large and small, envelope every life. The question isn’t, “When will I be victimized by people, processes, and circumstance,” but, “When, and how many times will I be offended, hurt, abused, and unjustly treated?”
As a pastor, I’ve sat across the room or coffee shop table and cried with those who have been brutalized, oppressed, raped, fired, demeaned, unjustly accused, or damaged in any number of ways we humans have designed to hurt one another. And here’s what I’ve learned. You cannot change the past, but you can change the future your past is heading for. But, to do so, you have to answer two essential questions.
Question No. 1 asks whether you will allow what you have endured to be determinative. That is, will you embrace your victimization and allow it to identify who you are, and become the lens through which you now view all of life? If so, you will dedicate yourself to increasing levels of victimhood, and demand that what you have suffered be the focus of your life, and the lives of those around you.
This first question can be answered differently, but to do so requires that you understand a very important point. Choosing to escape victimhood status as a life identifier does not mean you have not suffered greatly. It does not mean those who have perpetrated evil should get away with it. It only means that you refuse to allow what has happened in the past to continue renting space in your heart and head. It means you intend to change the future the past was heading for by recognizing what happened to you does not define you.
Question No. 2 asks the simple question: How will I go forward, living my life in ways that are righteous, helpful and effective? Once you decide being a lifelong victim will not facilitate human flourishing, you must demand of yourself ways of thinking and living that will. You must continually affirm that, while the hurts of the past are real, they will not be allowed to define your attitudes and behavior going forward. Rather, you determine to focus on ways of thinking and acting that contribute positively to the world around you.
Essentially, those who embrace victimization as a lifestyle are asking the rest of us to order our lives around them, carefully walking on eggs in order not to bruise their selfishly fragile souls. Rather than work to move on from the pain of their past, they expect us all to rehearse it with them, over and over again, demanding that what they have endured releases them from being responsible for their own lives.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many who have been brutalized by the evils of this broken world have overcome their past to live productive, satisfying and honor-filled lives. We call them heroes, and their stories inspire us to jump over our own life hurdles, and run the race set before us, fixing our eyes on the goal of living lives that are worthy of the One who gave us life in the first place.
The Bible’s King David knew a little about life’s disappointments. At the beginning of his reign he was chased around the Judean wilderness by Saul, who wanted only to end his life. And near the end of his reign, his son Absalom rebelled against him and attempted a massive coup. But David refused to allow these circumstances to define him because he knew he wasn’t fighting life’s battles alone. He’d already written a psalm about the Good Shepherd who stayed with him through the valley of the shadow of death, and instead of leaving him to his own designs, always led him in the ways of righteousness.
Times have changed but the realities of pain and injustice are as present today as ever. Yes, life will disappoint you, even hurt you deeply. But, no matter what you have endured, it cannot determine your future unless you let it. Vengeance and anger won’t change what has happened, and even justice and restitution can’t erase pain suffered. You can’t change the past, but you can refuse to live as a victim, and instead, chart your own future in ways that are productive, healthy and satisfying.
And if you get discouraged along the way, just turn around. We’re all cheering for you, and are here to help!
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.