The other day my husband and I went to the movie theatre for the first time in two years. We wanted to see Redeeming Love, a movie based on a wildly popular book by Francine Rivers, which parallels the story of Hosea. I wondered how the book would play out on film.
More specifically I wondered how the story of sexual trauma would play out on the big screen. Would the Christian community be able to look at the gritty reality of sex trafficking? Could they handle seeing the very predictable fall out of childhood sexual abuse?
I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse for years. Redeeming Love is a realistic picture of the damage sin and trauma do, but it is more than that.
The Damage of Sin and Trauma
Redeeming Love is a story within a story within a story. Set in California in the 1850s during the Gold Rush, the movie is the story of Angel, the beautiful daughter of a single mother forced to live a compromised life in squalor to protect her child from the ugly realities of the world around her. When her mother dies, Angel has no one.
Rejected by her own father, she is alone in a heartless and cruel world, and sold into in a degrading life of prostitution. Over time, Angel becomes hard and cold because she has internalized the story that her value lies in what she can do for others.
Sex is a commodity. Love and connection are a joke. Intimacy can’t be trusted. Angel no longer sees her value because, except for her mother, it was never reflected back to her.
Then one day, a man, a local farmer, Michael Hosea, sees her and is smitten by her. Angel is a stunning beauty, but that is not why Michael loves her. He sees who she is under her hardened shell, who she was meant to be, and he relentlessly pursues her despite her scornful resistance.
The cinematography and music are beautiful. The acting is well done, and many scenes are heartbreaking and poignant. It’s a compelling story, but that isn’t why I think Redeeming Love resonated with so many people when the book was first released. Tucked within the Gold Rush western is a story about the pervasive problem of trauma, which some believe is our #1 public health crisis.
The Pervasive Problem of Trauma
Until I became a therapist, I knew very little about sexual trauma. When I started my practice a strange thing began to happen. After a few sessions, when my clients trusted me enough to share the REAL story, they began to say, “I’ve never told anyone this but…” I was overwhelmed by story after story after story of sexual trauma. The presenting issues, depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, drug abuse, relationship problems were just symptoms of the root issue of unresolved trauma.
I would estimate that one out of every three clients had a sexual trauma history. I felt unprepared to help them, so I went for further training in childhood sexual trauma recovery.
Among the many things I’ve learned is that there is usually a pattern of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, and secrecy. Families, desperate to uphold an image of perfection, just don’t talk about what is happening in the home.
Any attempt to speak about abuse is silenced, minimized, or dismissed. Children who have been abused may not even realize how unhealthy their experiences are until they are much older, but the symptoms are predictable: internalized shame, low self-esteem, inability to trust, disconnection from themselves and others.
Sometimes the only way sexual trauma survivors feel able to connect is sexually, so promiscuity is a frequent symptom of buried abuse. This only scratches the surface of the fall out of trauma and abuse. If you don’t know what you are looking at, survivors may look like they want to sabotage their lives with risky behavior or unhealthy choices.
Trauma changes the brain. The question isn’t, “what’s wrong with you?!” but “what happened to you?” The trajectory of Angel’s life was set by the dysfunctional adults in her world. Who would she have been if she had been raised in a loving, healthy home?
God’s Redeeming Love
Redeeming Love is deeper than a western or a gritty story of sex trafficking and abuse. In addition to these things, it is THE story, the eternal story etched deep in our psyches.
Sin, as presented in Redeeming Love, is ugly and twisted. The Bible is full of shocking stories of sin and moral failure. It’s the world we live in and why Jesus came to live among us.
If we are to be salt and light, we must be willing to look sin in the face, not sweep it under a rug, editing out the unsavory bits, or isolating ourselves from the icky parts of the story.
Redeeming Love is more than a realistic look at sin. It’s the story of being lost, and broken, and being relentlessly pursued by the One who can see beyond our brokenness. It is about being rescued, loved, and healed.
It is what God was trying to say in the story of Hosea and Gomer. We are the lost and broken. We are the ones who struggle to see who we are meant to be. We are the ones who resist God’s offer to rescue and heal us.
I understand if the world doesn’t get it, but for believers, this is THE eternal story, a tale of brokenness and God pursuing us with his relentless, redeeming love.