Pursue Justice or Extend Grace in Sexual Harassment?

Several years ago I was in a work situation where men often said sexual, inappropriate things to me and about me. One coworker even went as far as to grab me and then made it a big deal when I asked him not to and pushed him away. It was jolting, and there was no amount of education or discipleship that prepared me to deal with sexual harassment.

I knew it was wrong the whole time it was happening. As a Christian, I felt the tension of how to respond to the sexual harassment: do I pursue justice or extend grace?

Once I finally admitted to myself what was happening, I talked to a few friends. They said I should take the verbal harassment as a compliment and not overreact. “What woman doesn’t want to be seen as attractive?” In a culture driven by sex, if it isn’t sexy, it doesn’t sell. So, according to my friends, I should take what those men were saying as a compliment. But I didn’t, and I couldn’t.

The words of those men were debilitating, because I knew that my fundamental identity had nothing to do with my physical appearance. I knew that the type of beauty I wanted to be recognized for wasn’t fundamentally for my looks or body shape, but with the God who dwells in me. “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a women who fears the Lord shall be praised” (Prv 31:30).

Sadly, my friends and those men didn’t get that.

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After my first experience of sharing with someone, I waited a few months to talk to someone else about it. I had just reported one incident to human resources, but the comments only continued to come from those men. I decided to talk to an older Christian woman in the workplace to get her advice on how to handle it.

She said that I, as a woman, must be doing something to encourage it, because she had never experienced sexual harassment. I left thinking that now I was somehow to blame. I dreaded going to work and would cry almost every night while begging the Lord to remove me from the situation.

By God’s grace, I finally admitted my feelings of shame in enduring sexual harassment. As I shared with my roommate the truth, she graciously stepped into all of the mess with me. She assured me that what was happening was not right. She reminded me that I was not responsible for the men’s comments.

On the really hard days, she listened, cried with me, and reminded me that God is faithful and that he is fighting for me (Ex 14:14). I began to open up more about it with people to let them in and walk through the struggle with me. I continued to seek the Lord on what would be the most honoring way for me to respond to the company, the men, and others. I wanted to stop any other person going through what I did.

“Do I pursue justice or extend grace?” The truth is, I needed to do both. I reported the incidents and the men to the company. Then as I continued to talk openly with my faithful and godly community, by God’s grace I was able to extend grace. I was able to offer forgiveness to them and hold no bitterness against them.

This didn’t happen instantly. It took several months for me to truly forgive them—months of prayer, months of support and counsel from God’s people.

Faulty Definitions

At first I thought if I forgave them, it would be akin to admitting that everything thy did was okay. My definitions of forgiveness and grace were faulty. The ability to even begin to forgive would never happen so long as I was responding to these men in light of their actions or words toward me.

Any possibility that I could forgive came from events that happened long before any of this trouble. Forgiveness for them—and me—began on a cross. It’s there that I am reminded of a great God who offered forgiveness by sacrificing his own Son for me when I didn’t deserve it.

My pride and selfishness are no different before a holy and just God than their harassment. I was only able to forgive because I know and believe that God is a grace-giving God who is in control. In that assurance, I find the freedom to forgive. Extending forgiveness didn’t take away the pain or the reality of what happened, but it was and still is a reminder of my own need and desperation for Christ. I learned more about our God who is not only my protector, but who is also good . . . even in a situation so ugly and wrong as sexual harassment.

  • Sara

    Wow, what a terrible thing! And really shocking that so many people thought it wasn’t a big deal!! I’m glad you clarified that extending grace does NOT mean ignoring abuse and just allowing it to continue (you could even say that ignoring their sin would be UNloving as they heap more and more condemnation on themselves). Instead, extending grace meant taking the right steps to pursue justice (which is totally biblical) but working on your own hearts’ attitude to make sure it’s moving toward forgiveness. Thanks for writing this article!

    • a different Sara

      I echo all of Sara’s statements, and I’m really grateful that this author chose to share her story at TGC.

      I wish that I was shocked by the responses of the majority of people the author confided in, but I’m not. At all. There’s a terrible lack of knowledge around issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault, especially within the Christian community, in my experience. I’m so grateful that this author had one person in her life (roommate) who was willing how to walk with her through these awful experiences.

      My hope is that more people begin to understand the pervasive nature of sexual trauma and how to help victims navigate the painful processes of acknowledgement, justice and forgiveness. These things often happen, slowly, over time. Not always, but often. In my experience, forgiveness is most healing when it’s been struggled through, wrestled with, and prayed about, like this author chose to do.

  • Danae

    Thank you SO much for sharing your heart about this. I, too, was in a situation very similar a little over a year ago, with my boss, who owned the company. I was the only one in the company besides his partner, who didn’t care, and his wife. Such a hard place to be in – I am so thankful for your willingness to share these things. I am very encouraged at how you saw Christ through it all.

  • John

    The way I played it was this: I apologized to the girl for encouraging flirting, told her that it was unacceptable, and reminded her that I was married. She continued flirting, so I told our supervisor. The supervisor warned her. She flirted yet again. The supervisor fired her because I was not the first to complain. I forgave her, I repented for my part, my wife forgave me, and perhaps my wife has forgiven her. Either way, my wife doesn’t like women in the workplace, especially after our time in the military.

  • JohnM

    If truly “One coworker even went as far as to grab me” then one coworker committed an act of physical assault, not harrasment, and that should have been dealt with as such.

    Maybe the key is to worry less about how one feels about a particular act and consider what it actually amounts to, if it poses a danger, violates the law, violates a policy etc. Sometimes (but not always) the answer is “yes” it does those things. Realizing that might help the victim figure out the appropriate and effective response to put an end to it, if truly need be.

    • Lou G.

      Good words. I was thinking something along those lines. I feel for the victims, but considering what these acts amount to is key. They are illegal acts that violate human beings created in the image of God. There is no need to feel bad about calling it what it is. Thanks JohnM.

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  • Anon

    Thank you for sharing on this matter, I am sure many will be helped to better cope with and deal with the problem of sexual harassment because of your testimony and the Biblical counsel offered. I do believe something needs to be said on how we present ourselves to the world. This will require some honest reflection and heart searching. I agree, we should not want to be recognized “for our looks or body shape, but with the God who dwells in me”, the question we need to honestly address is, which do we pay more attention to? Does our make-up and clothing accentuate and enhance our looks and body shape more than what our genuine and discernable “fear of the Lord” does to bring praise to God? A simple test we can apply to determine where we are at on this matter is to ask ourselves, on what do we spend most time in the morning as we ready ourselves to go to work, is it on our outward appearance or is it on our heart?

    • Ali

      There is no doubt a place to examine our own motives in the way we present ourselves but it is vital to recognise that sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention. All the women I know who have been harassed including myself were utterly professional in the way in which they dressed and behaved. Sexual harassment is wrong and a form of bullying – just being a woman can be enough for some men. Just being an attractive man can be enough for some women. Let’s make sure we apportion blame where it firmly belongs instead of making the victims feel responsible for someone else’s sin.

      • Anon

        You are 100% correct Ali, and again you have done a great job of reemphasizing the vital point that all sexual harassment is wrong and that many, if not most, victims should not be made to feel responsible for someone else’s sin. However, there are some “victims” (surely you will agree that you don’t know the motives and behavior of all the people who have ever been sexually harassed) who do need to be cautioned and challenged to take a closer look at how they present themselves in the work place. Some blame can be legitimately apportioned to some folk who still need to learn what it means to be modest in their behavior and in their dress. Thank you again for a caring attitude and a Biblical article.

        • Lou G.

          Anon, maybe within the context of a friendship would could help someone see the truth about modesty, but every time you or someone else has this compulsive urge to through out the “yeah but remember modesty” deflection when sexual harassment comes up, you drive sufferers further into silence.

          Sexual harassment is illegal. Period.
          Leaders need to lead and call it out. Period.
          Sexual harassment is illegal and immoral and if you are a man — you need to man up to the fact, rather than deflecting blame to the victim. Peace, out.

          • a different Sara

            Lou G: Thank you for expressing so articulately what I felt/thought when I read the modesty comment. I wasn’t sure how to explain what you’ve explained so well. Thank you.

        • Ali

          @Anon – I am referring to the people I know who were harassed – clearly I can’t speak for all. But Lou G is correct – there are is a no ‘but..’ excuse for sexual harassers and it is important to make sure victims do know that they are not at fault. If they encouraged the sexual harassment then it ceases to be harassment by definition.
          Also, it’s important to remember that what is one person’s idea of modest dressing and behaviour can differ from another’s idea depending on background, circumstance, age and culture. It can be an art not a science discerning what is and is not appropriate. Victims are victims and they should not be made to feel that they are to blame when they are not – it’s heaping further shame on the victim and encouraging harassers to excuse their behaviour which they will do with very little encouragement.

    • Laura Velasco

      Hi Anon,
      Thank you for sharing your opinion but I must firmly disagree with the premise that physical appearance invites harassment and assault. Even women in burquas are victimized in this manner. Sexual harassment and assault are about power, not sex. The behavior is used to exert control over another person’s body, mind, and emotions. It’s bullying — not responding to how someone is dressed. When we blame the victim, we tacitly agree that somehow the victim was “asking for it.”

      The author of this piece was so generous to share a painful experience from her past and how God’s forgiveness spurred her to likewise forgive those who wronged her. I pray that reading about her pain will help you to show compassion to others in her situation. Until we create a loving place for victims to turn, they will continue to feel too ashamed to come forward.

      • JohnM


        I’m glad to see your reference to “harassment and assault” as these are two different things, and where neither are good the latter is the more serious. Being specfic about issues matters. As for sexual harassment being about power and not being about sex, that might be partly true (yet we do call it SEXUAL harassment) and how true probably depends partly upon what you mean by harassment, as the term can refer to so many things.

      • Anon

        Hi Laura,

        That the author of this article (and many others like her) is an innocent victim of sinful sexual harassment is a given. I have already acknowledged that she is to be commended for what she has shared and that what she has said will help many other victims like her. I am merely adding something (not detracting from) to what she has said which needs to be verbalized NOT FOR HER AND OTHER INNOCENT VICTIMS LIKE HER (surely by now that point has been made) but for those who may read her article and take comfort from it and yet THEY DO NOT DRESS MODESTLY AND BEHAVE IN A MODEST MANNER. So often there are those who are too quick to let themselves off the hook and do not pause to consider whether they may be dressing and behaving in a manner that is unbecoming of a child of God. Just because some perverts sexually harass people irrespective of how they may be dressed or behave does not then mean that we do not need to pay attention to, and sound a warning about, the way we all conduct ourselves in this fallen world. Yes, there are men and women in our world today who dress and behave modestly and yet they are sexually harassed. Humanity is fallen, mankind is sinful and burquas or no burquas fallen humanity will perform their dastardly deeds! That being said, it is also necessary for Christians (and this is not my opinion, for the opinion of men and women is not important here) to believe in and abide by God’s word, and where the Scriptures sound a warning so must we “…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire…” 1Ti 2:9 God’s word does instruct us to examine ourselves.

        Once again, for all those brothers and sisters who are the victims of sinful sexual harassment, may you find encouragement from the author’s article and may you receive grace and comfort from the God of all comfort. To the rest of us, may we also be able to say, as and when we become the victims of any wrongful treatment, that we too are innocent, because we know that we have taken God’s word to heart and have “…set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” 1Tim_4:12

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  • Scott

    In the not very distant past this would have been handled by a visit from a husband/father/brother but I guess we’ve delegated that to the HR dept now. Also some workplaces just have a toxic atmosphere and it could be for many reasons. In that case you might be “unequally yoked” and may want to find another place to work.

  • Amy

    I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you were brave enough to write this. I, too, went through a similar situation a couple years ago. Although I dressed modestly and did my best to ignore/discourage comments, there were regularly obscene gestures, graphic anonymous notes, sexual comments, and in general things so terrible that were I to write them here, this comment would likely not be approved in the moderation process. Even HR was not particularly helpful. While I didn’t pursue legal action (although I definitely could have), I did resign from my position. I still wonder if I did the right thing, or if I could have done more, for the sake of women who work there in the future.

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