Recovering from Child Abuse: Healing and Hope for Victims.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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 Repsonse 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 article is reproduced from Recovering from Child Abuse: Healing and Hope for Victims Copyright © 2008 by David Powlison. Used by permission of New Growth Press and may not be downloaded, reproduced, and/or distributed without prior written permission of New Growth Press.