This is part 2 of a 2 part series: Part 1
When a vulnerable child experiences physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse the hurt and the scars go deep. In this article, experienced counselor David Powlison directly addresses child abuse victims by acknowledging their suffering, giving them concrete ways to express their painful experience to God, and encouraging the healing process through small steps of faith. Listen in as Dr. Powlison brings God’s comfort and hope to those who have been abused.
Pray Out Loud
Take the phrases you underlined and rewrite them, in your words, as a prayer. Now find a place—the woods, your car, your bedroom—where you are comfortable making some noise to God, and say these prayers out loud to him. Remember, you are talking to the Lord who loves you, who hears you, who is going to act to save you, and who will redeem your soul in peace. Praying out loud helps you realize that God is right there, listening to you.
Your prayer brings your real troubles to the one person, the Lord, who is your only hope. Notice how the psalmist repeats himself. He tells God about his troubles in many different ways. He doesn’t mind repeating himself. He is having a living, honest conversation with God. Not a stilted, rote, “saying your prayers” kind of dialogue. When you’re coming out of the darkness of child abuse, it’s important that you keep talking—say it twice, say it ten times, say it every day. Keep crying out to the God you love; the God you need; the God who’s your only hope.
Your Response to Abuse
Pouring your heart out to God in prayer will prepare you to deal with your unproductive responses to your past abuse. If you don’t do this, you will stay stuck. One reason this is so hard to do is that your response to abuse usually seems so much less wrong than what happened to you. Your life was ruined—so you are bitter and unforgiving. You suffered a betrayal of trust at an early age—so you’re afraid of other people and can’t trust anyone. Your memories are horrible—so you drown your sorrows in drink, in drugs, or by acting out sexually. What you’ve done in response seems small compared to the evil that happened to you.
But just because the scale doesn’t balance on a human to human level, doesn’t mean that your responses are right. God has called you to love your neighbor. Bitterness, avoidance, fear, and escapism are not love. Your love for others is meant to be rooted in your love for God (Matthew 22:37–39). When you are living for your own protection, comfort, or desire to escape, you are not loving God or the people around you.
The apostle Paul said this about what we should live for, “the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14–15).
The reason we do “little” wrong things in response to the huge wrong things done to us is that we are living for ourselves, not for Jesus. But the love of God in Christ transforms us. One mark of that transformation is that our eyes are opened to our need for a Savior. We see that Jesus died for our self-centeredness and our unbelief. We see how great our need is for God’s mercy. When you understand and know God’s mercy you will be able to grant mercy and forgiveness. This may not happen overnight. But as you continue to pour out your heart to God and ask him for mercy, he will change you. Your trust in God will grow. Your ability to love others will grow. Your life will no longer be defined by abuse, but by God’s love and mercy to you.
As you learn to daily depend on God for mercy, you will be able to trust him to right the wrongs that were done to you. Listen to what God says about how to deal with evil:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17–21)
Why don’t you have to return evil for evil? Because something bigger is going on. God will make things right. It’s his kingdom you are living in (not yours and not your abusers), and his justice will be served.
Your Response to Your Abuser
What kind of relationship can or should you have with the person who abused you? Your hope for your relationship should be for true reconciliation based on honest repentance from the one who wronged you. Sometimes that happens, but it’s not always possible or wise. Sometimes an abuser is gone—even dead. So reconciliation is not possible, but forgiveness is still possible. In Mark 11:25 and Matthew 6:12 Jesus emphasizes praying with forgiveness. Forgiveness starts with your relationship with God. Because all the alternatives to forgiveness—bitterness, fear, holding a grudge, never trusting anybody—are things God needs to forgive you for. As you experience his forgiveness, you will be able to give forgiveness.
But the Bible also has the goal of moving towards the person who has wronged you. The ideal is to go to that person, seek to raise the issue, and create a resolution. But in cases that involve child abuse, it might not be wise to do that. For example, if the other person might still be abusive, you shouldn’t go. The extreme case is when you are dealing with a criminal, and you’d be in danger if you tried to have a relationship. But you are still called to work it out in your heart before God. You are still called to pray for your enemy.
Sometimes, you get an opportunity to go back, even when you don’t trust that your abuser has changed. I counseled a thirty-year-old Christian woman named Lisa who had been sexually molested by her father as a pre-teen and as a teenager. She became convinced that she needed to go back and try to build a relationship with her father even though she didn’t trust him.
So she called him and said, “I don’t trust you. You’ve never acknowledged what you did or acknowledged it was wrong. But in my heart I have forgiven you and I would like to rebuild a relationship. So we’re going to meet in a public place.” They got together at a coffee shop, and she laid out the ground rules. She said, “If there are any inappropriate words or actions, I will leave. But I do want to love you.”
She started a very low key love offensive. Every month or so she would do something to reach out to him, either drop him a card or call him. And then every three or four months they got together, but always in a public place. And he obeyed the rules. He didn’t admit the abuse, he still tried to deny it and cover it up. But she kept on being very candid about the past and continued to share her faith in Christ with him.
She wrote me about five years after we had interacted and said her dad had come down with cancer and died. But, in God’s wonderful providence, about a month before he died, he confessed everything, sought her forgiveness, and gave his life to Christ. So at the end of that story there was redemption.
She didn’t do the easy thing (writing her father out of her life), but she wasn’t naïvely thinking that you can go back and pretend that everything is going to be fine. She built careful structures that were full of grace. They protected him from doing evil and her from being the recipient of evil. And, in that particular situation, God used her love as a human vehicle that brought salvation to a very evil man.
Recovery Is a Community Project
Notice that Lisa didn’t try to make the decision about how to reach out to her father alone. She asked for counsel and prayer from people she trusted. You are walking a difficult path. But you are not alone as you walk. Your faithful Savior is with you, and he will also send people to walk with you. You will find that not everyone you share your story with will be helpful to you. Some might blame you, some will only feel sorry for you, some will offer you pat answers (“just trust Jesus” or “get a support group” or “take this medication”), and some will treat you like a damaged person for whom recovery is not possible.
Look for people to share your story with who understand that terrible things do happen, and yet we have a wonderful God who invades those things with steadfast love and faithfulness. You need to talk not only about what happened to you, but how you’ve reacted to it, and how the Lord will help you to return good for evil. Look for someone who will take the evil that happened to you seriously, who will be compassionate, and who will have a vision of how God can redeem you and your past.
Thriving One Small Step at a Time
Sometimes Christians make you feel that if you just get the right answer to your problem you can apply it and your problem will be instantly solved! But that’s not God’s way. God is a vinedresser who carefully and slowly prunes his vines through the years. God works in us on a scale of years, over a lifetime.
So look for slow, steady change. What can you expect? You can expect that if you’ve been too fearful to even face your abuse, that cracking open the door and bringing light into the dark vortex is a significant step. When your pain is raw and overwhelming, you can expect that your pain will lessen as you start to bring your pain to God by using Psalms 55, 56, and 57.
Healing and peace will grow, not in an instant, over time. Perhaps there will be parts of what happened that will not leave you until Christ returns. Only at the return of Christ, when he makes all things well, will every tear be wiped away (Revelations 21:4). You are marked by suffering, but that suffering has become your context for knowing God. You’re marked by suffering, but you’ve learned to take small steps of obedience, wise love, and hope. Most amazing you will be able to help other sufferers.
A woman in my church who had been through terrible, worst-case-scenario child abuse came to me for pastoral counsel. She was in her early thirties and had been a Christian for fifteen years. She had already taken many steps in the right direction. She had to come to faith in God. She had seen her own pride, fear of man, and love of comfort, and had asked for mercy from God. She was a teacher and especially reached out to the children who were suffering. Her suffering was slowly being transformed. It wasn’t an accident that she had gotten involved in working with children, especially those who’d been abused, neglected, and abandoned. Her life reflected that she hadn’t “gotten over it.” But facing her abuse and going to God with her suffering led her to a deep relationship with God. She lived as God’s servant, working to redeem evils in the suffering world.
You too can start with small steps of obedience. Perhaps your typical pattern is that when you start to think about what happened, you wallow in despair for two hours and cap that off with wolfing down a whole bag of potato chips and drinking a two-liter Pepsi. A small obedience might be that in a half an hour you realize, “You know, God doesn’t want this. There’s a God who calls me out of myself, who calls me out of the cesspool, to whom I can cry.” So you start to pray Psalm 55 and tell God that you feel like running away—running to self-pity, self-righteousness, and potato chips.
Maybe you decide to say “hello” to someone instead of avoiding them; or you snap out of your self-preoccupation and give your child a hug and ask how their day went. These little things are huge, radical steps of obedience, and the angels in heaven rejoice because the glory of God is being worked out in your life through these little tiny choices.
Aim For More than Recovery
Recovery gets you back from being destroyed to being okay. But God is after bigger things. He is after your redemption. He has a purpose for you that flows out of your life experience, a high and holy calling. Paul says that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
As you learn about how Jesus Christ meets, enters, and transforms your particular affliction in life, you can begin to help others who are facing all kinds of affliction. Your compassion, your wisdom, and your hope for redemption will bring the light of God to a world dying in darkness and suffering. Then you will be able to say along with Joseph, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20 ESV).*
This is part two of a two part series: Part 1
This article is adapted from the mini book, Recovering from Child Abuse: Healing and Hope for Victims copyright © 2008 by Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. Used by permission of New Growth Press and may not be downloaded and/or reproduced without prior written permission of New Growth Press. Recovering from Child Abuse: Healing and Hope for Victims is available for purchase at www.newgrowthpress.com.