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Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation

Recovering from child abuse: Help and healing for victims (Part 1)

Author: Date: September 06, 2009

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This is part 1 of a 2 part series: Part 2

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.

You have been victimized by a terrible wrong. During your childhood, the time you were most vulnerable, instead of being protected, helped, and comforted you were abused. Most likely you were abused by someone who should have been trustworthy—a family member, a teacher, a neighbor, a coach, a pastor, a friend. Instead of being protected you were violated. You were treated with malice. Someone used, misused, and took advantage of you. Now you are wondering if recovery is possible.

The simple answer to that question is yes, recovery is possible. But you already know you can’t just snap your fingers and make everything all better. And you know that pat answers won’t help you. But here are two important truths to keep in mind: You are not alone, and there is hope.

Your recovery will be a process of learning and remembering those two truths, not just once, but over and over. Think about how bread gets made. It must be kneaded so that the yeast goes through the whole loaf. These two truths must be kneaded into who you are until they work through every part of you. The working of these truths into the deepest part of you takes time. The damage you suffered may have been done in one or more terrible moments; the healing and the restoration unfolds at a human pace. It unfolds at your pace. It unfolds as part of your story, and it unfolds over time.

There are three broad categories of child abuse: verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. If you were verbally abused, someone whose words should have been helpful and kind instead demeaned you and assaulted you. If you were physically abused, someone (perhaps a parent or another authority figure) attacked you and hurt you. If you were sexually abused, someone used you and violated an intimate part of who you are.

However you were abused, what happened to you was evil—you were sinned against. And now you are suffering. God is mindful of your suffering, and he hears your cries. He heard the cry of a child dying of thirst in the desert (Genesis 21:17–18); he heard the cries of the Israelites suffering as slaves (Exodus 2:23–24); and he hears you. God has much to say to those who have experienced evil at the hands of others. So he has much to say to you.

Your Identity is Bigger Than Your Abuse

Abuse feels like an experience that has stamped you and has the final word on your identity. But the truth is that God gives you a different identity. No matter what terrible atrocities happened to you, they are not your identity. Your identity as God’s child is far deeper than the abuse you suffered.

When you come to God through trusting in Jesus, he gives you a new identity. You become part of the family of God. You are his dearly loved child. Listen to what the apostle John says about your identity, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). You have a perfect Father in heaven who loves you and wants to fill your life with the good gift of himself (Luke 11:13).

Because you are God’s child, you are not alone in a nightmare of pointless suffering. It’s true that “the heart knows its own bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10), and even your dearest friend can’t fully understand the terror, the aloneness, the pain, and the horror you experienced. But Jesus does understand, and he is with you.

Jesus experienced every form of suffering when he was in the world. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He was betrayed and tortured. He is well acquainted with your grief, and he will never leave you (John 14:18).

Your Story is Bigger Than Your Abuse

Experiencing Jesus’ presence and love will give you the courage to see that the story of your life is bigger than your suffering. What happened to you is not the last word on who you are and where your life is going. It’s a significant part of your story, but it’s not the most significant part of your story. It’s only one part of the new story of your life that Jesus is writing.

Think about Joseph in the Bible (Genesis 37; 39–45). Abuse and betrayal were also a big part of his story. When he was a teenager, he was sold into slavery by his brothers and became a slave in Egypt. Then he was falsely accused of rape by his master’s wife and thrown into prison. After several years in prison, he was released and put in charge of all of Egypt. At the end of the story, Joseph meets his brothers again and instead of taking revenge says, “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). God used the terrible betrayal that Joseph suffered to put him into a position where he could save his family from famine.

Joseph did not minimize what happened to him. He acknowledged that his brothers did “evil” to him. But he had a wider perspective. The meaning of his story was bigger than the evil he suffered. God was at work bringing good out of extreme betrayal. God is also at work in your life. Abuse is not the last word on your life story. God has a purpose for you.

Redeeming Your Story

The abuse you suffered is part of the stage upon which your life choices will now take place. It’s out of the choices you are facing right now that great good can come. That doesn’t mean that you will forget the evil done to you. Martin Luther King never forgot the evils of racism. It was the reason he started a movement that changed our country. Candy Lightner did not forget that her thirteen year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Her daughter’s death became the impetus for forming MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), an organization that works to stop drunk driving.

You also can choose how to respond to the evil that was done to you. You can grow in gratitude, joy, purpose, and the ability to help others and live your life with courage and conscious intent. A few years ago I counseled a thirty-five year old woman named Joann. She had suffered terrible physical and sexual abuse at the hands of many male relatives from the age of three to fourteen. She was finally rescued by a social worker and placed in foster care. When I met her she was married, had two children, and had become a social worker herself who counseled abused children.

Joann hadn’t forgotten her suffering and was still working through its effects, but her life story was about more than her abuse. She was creating a loving home for her husband and children and reaching out to others who were suffering as she had. Her suffering wasn’t forgotten, it was redeemed.

The gospel of John closes with this verse, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Your life is one of those books that John was talking about. You’re continuing the story of what “Jesus did.” It’s a story where terrible evils happened to you, but Jesus showed up and did something—he redeemed you and is still redeeming you so that you can love, forgive, and do good to those around you. Your story is not only about the pain of betrayal, it’s about Jesus taking what others meant for evil and redeeming it for a good purpose.

Practical Strategies for Change

Perhaps when you think about your new identity as God’s child and read about Joann, you desire to move forward too. But you feel stuck. Here are some ways that those who have been abused as children sometimes struggle as adults:

  • Trusting others: It can feel impossible to trust anyone after your trust has been shattered by your childhood experiences.
  • Having a healthy sexual relationship with your spouse: If you were sexually abused, sex for you has been maimed and twisted by darkness.
  • Being filled with bitterness: How do you avoid being filled with bitterness when terrible evils have occurred? How can you learn to forgive such a great wrong?
  • Disciplining your own children: How do you learn to discipline your children in love when you were attacked by your own parents?
  • Dealing with any conflict or confrontation: How do you confront a problem with family, friends, or co-workers when anger and confrontation was brutally distorted in your life?

You might have even more things to add to this list. Is God able to work in these areas in your life and change your automatic responses to people and situations? Yes he is. God can and will change you, not all at once, but gradually over your lifetime. I have seen God do this many times in those I’ve counseled. Change begins as you face what happened to you with God in view.

Facing Your Abuse

Facing your abuse might be the last thing you want to do. Many who have suffered through child abuse are terrified of their memories. They have only two ways to deal with their past—either they cover it over with denial and busyness or they get stuck in memories that are a black hole of terror and fear.

Perhaps you are working hard to stay in denial and keep your memories locked away. Doing this is a little like having a lion in your bedroom closet. You can try to keep the lion of your past abuse caged in all different ways, some positive (working hard, exercising, achieving, keeping busy, etc.) and some not so positive (you might use sex, food, alcohol, or drugs to numb yourself). But, in the end the lion is too strong for whatever doors you have erected, and your mind is flooded with memories. You relive your abuse and are again filled with the fear, rage, and anguish you experienced as a young child. But there is a third way. You can learn to hear God’s promises and to pour out your heart to God about your troubles in a purposeful way. The Psalms, the prayer book of God’s people for thousands of years, will help you do this. There is no Psalm that portrays the explicit experience of being sinned against through child abuse, but there are many that capture the experience of being abused, misused, used, and betrayed by others. Start with Psalms 55, 56, and 57 and make them into your own personal liturgy. You can rewrite these Psalms and turn them into prayers that will express your heart to God and God’s heart to you.

Use Psalms 55, 56 and 57 to Express Your Experience

Read through these three psalms and notice how they express the experience of what abuse is like. Psalm 55 was written out of the fire and darkness of being betrayed by someone close, someone who should have been trustworthy. In the middle of the Psalm, David says that he wasn’t attacked by an overt enemy, it was “my companion and my familiar friend” (Psalm 55:13). That closeness made the betrayal even worse. Perhaps you felt that way also.

Psalm 56 is about someone who feels imprisoned by people who hate him. He’s trapped. He’s tied down. He’s feels like he is locked in a closet. People want to kill him, hurt him, and torture him. And they have all the power; he has none. Does this describe some of your experience?

Psalm 57 is about having a predator after you. David wrote it when he was hiding from his enemy in a cave. Those who wanted to kill him were waiting outside with an army. You might remember feeling the same way.

As you read, notice that these psalms are about more than the experience of betrayal, powerlessness, and fear. In the middle of the darkness of molestation, the darkness of violence, and the darkness of hurt is the cry of faith. David is turning to his living, all powerful God and expecting help and deliverance. He has hope. He has someone good and powerful to talk to. The same is true for you. The reality that your God hears you, helps you, and defends you will let you open the closet door of your abuse, come out of the silence, the aloneness, and the stuck-ness, and start to talk it out with God.

You are not alone. David wrote these psalms, and he went through an experience similar to yours. You are not alone. Jesus made the psalms the voice of his own experience. Jesus said these words. Jesus felt these things. He’s been there with you. You are not alone.

To make these Psalms into your own prayer, start by getting four different colored markers. You are going to follow four strands through each psalm; strands that will help you express and redefine your experience.

  1. What happened to you? Take the first marker, and underline all the phrases in each psalm that express the sort of thing that happened to you as a child. You will find phrases like “the stares of the wicked…they bring down suffering upon me…my companion attacks his friends” (Psalm 55:3, 20), “men hotly pursue me; all day long they press their attack…many are attacking me…they conspire, they lurk; they watch my steps’ (Psalm 56:1, 2, 6), “they spread a net for my feet…they dug a pit in my path” (Psalm 57:6).
  2. What does it feel like? Now take the second marker and underline all the phrases that express how you felt—your anguish, your fear, your terror. Look at phrases like these, “I am distraught…my heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me; fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, ‘Oh that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest…’ (Psalm 55:2, 4–6), “When I am afraid…my lament…my tears” (Psalm 56:3, 8), “I am in the midst of lions…I was bowed down in my distress” (Psalm 57:4, 6).
  3. What is said about God? Use the third marker to underline what the psalms say about God and what he is doing. Start with some of these phrases, “the Lord saves me…he hears my voice…He ransoms me unharmed…he will sustain you” (Psalm 55:16–18, 22), “For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from stumbling,” (Psalm 56:13), “He sends from heaven and saves me; rebuking those who hotly pursue me…for great is your love reaching to the heavens, your faithfulness reaches to the skies” (Psalm 57:3, 10).
  4. What does faith say? Use the fourth marker to underline all the phrases that are cries of faith. “Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me…but I call to God and the Lord saves me…but as for me, I trust in you” (Psalm 55:1, 2, 16, 23), “Be merciful to me, O God…when I am afraid, I will trust in you…in God I trust: I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me…Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll…God is for me” (Psalm 56:1, 3, 4, 8, 9), “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed…I cry out to God Most High…My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast;” (Psalm 57:1– 2, 7).

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This is part one of a two part series: Part 2

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.