Today Cecelia Bernhardt tells us about her upcoming conference talk at the 2015 National Conference and what she is learning in her counseling. As you read, please pray for her teaching and counseling, and consider supporting a day of ministry. We need $2,400 in donations on any given day to support our work.
You will be speaking at the national conference about how the church can become a place of healing for those who are victims of childhood sexual abuse. What do you hope to accomplish in this session?
In my experience as a counselor and church member, pastors and leaders feel that the church can minister to people who face “ordinary struggles,” but they doubt their ability to help those who have suffered significantly from things like childhood sexual abuse. As a result, they refer these sufferers to experts in the mental health field. In some situations it is helpful to seek wise counsel outside of the church, but there is still much that the church can do even in these cases. This is exactly what I want to address in my talk. All those who have experienced significant suffering at the hands of others need to be shown care and compassion from the church family. The more serious the injury, the more the church has the opportunity to bring healing to that person by incarnating the love of Jesus.
At the conference, I plan to outline the experience of a person who was abused as a child and then discuss what resources the church has to offer. My goal is to encourage conference attendees that they can do much to minister to those who have suffered in this way.
In the past ten years, what have you learned in your counseling?
As a counselor, I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of turning to God’s Word as the source of all wisdom. This is an essential component of biblical counseling. I incarnate the love of Jesus to my counselees and it is important that they experience his love in the care that I provide, but modeling this love is not enough. I must also share the story of Scripture—how God shows his love for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing him and experiencing his love is the beginning of the wisdom that we all need to live and make sense of our suffering.
If I want to be an effective biblical counselor, I’ve also learned that knowing and understanding my counselees has to be my first priority. If I am going to walk with them well, I need to be able to hear them, mourn with them, rejoice with them, and seek to understand the depth of their struggles, both the suffering and the sin. When I communicate a clear understanding of the counselee and his or her situation, only then can I effectively communicate how I see the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit working in that particular struggle.
For instance, if a young woman believes that I understand the shame and loneliness that she experiences in sexual temptation, then she will be more open to what I say about seeking help from the Lord in that struggle. Alternatively, if she gets the impression that I do not understand, then she is not likely to trust me or hear what I have to say about God.
How have you seen God at work in the lives of your counselees?
First and foremost, I have seen strugglers exhibit courage and perseverance in addressing deep and persistent obstacles to living their lives the way God intends. Sometimes I get to see a clear reflection of the new creation in my counselee where the old has gone and the new has come. This is always a privilege.
I have also seen my counselees grow in humility and patience when personal or situational change did not take place as they expected. In these instances, people learn to bring their disappointments to the Lord and draw from his care and strength. Grace is not magic, so I have learned to support my counselees in the growth process where change is often slow and subtle.
I have seen several counselees work through a process of admitting abuse, understanding the consequences of that horrific sin on how they see themselves, identifying how it impacts their relationships, and pursuing personal healing of those hurts. Finally after much prayer, some counselees are able to express heartfelt forgiveness of their abuser.Support a day of ministry at CCEF
I am a mother of five and a counselor. I interact with children all the time. Sadly, many of the children I meet with at CCEF experience tough and heart-breaking life circumstances, and some have suffered abuse and mistreatment. Through my work, God has given me a passion to help protect the vulnerable. I am committed to growing in wisdom on this issue and to see the larger Christian community become knowledgeable, competent, and biblically wise when it comes to handling allegations of abuse.
When instances of abuse first become known by a community of people there are intense reactions and a range of emotional responses—from outrage and a demand for justice, to fear, shame, disbelief and distrust. All of these emotions are understandable, but we must work hard not to respond based on intense emotion or personal bias. Instead, we are to act wisely, justly and deliberately. One of the primary ways we can do this is to report the suspected abuse to the authorities. Reporting abuse is not simply a legal mandate—it is a moral and biblical one. Laws are meant to protect the innocent, reveal the guilty, and to define what abuse is and what it is not. In order to live under legal authority, we must realize it is not appropriate for anyone, except the proper agencies, to investigate or dismiss an allegation.
To our shame though, many in the Christian community have been known to not report abuse. Why is that?
Why some don’t report
Every state has mandated reporting laws that outline what must be done when you believe abuse has occurred in your community. Despite these clear mandates, I find that churches and other organizations are sometimes afraid to report abuse when it is brought to their attention. They look for ways to avoid complying with the law for a number of reasons—fear of legal consequences, repercussions within the organization, or harsh reactions from the public may be a few. Looking at all these negative outcomes, some begin to evaluate for themselves whether reporting abuse is “worth the risk,” and some go on to justify not reporting because it “will only make things worse.” But Scripture challenges these fears.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13: 1-2 NKJV)
Sometimes an organization believes they can provide a better outcome than the state would provide. It is easy for church leaders to convince themselves that they will be more thoughtful, careful, and certainly more biblically-sound in their evaluation and response to a report of abuse. In addition to breaking the law, such a decision is unwise. It is not a church or organization’s job to investigate and “figure out the truth,” and they are inadequately prepared to do so. Churches do not possess the deftness, judiciousness, and discretion to interview well. Investigators know what signs to look for and which techniques will wisely and carefully draw out the victim. They are knowledgeable and skilled individuals who are professionally trained to handle these situations. Churches and other ministries are not prepared to do this type of work and should not attempt it.
What churches can do, however, is wisely respond. Here are two crucial components that make up a wise response:
Consider this complex scenario
A teenager at a church molests a child at a small group gathering. The families of both children are members of the church. These two families are deeply impacted by the actions and sin of one person. The church is required and mandated to report. The church is also biblically called to minister and walk alongside all those involved.
Unfortunately, I have seen this situation mishandled. Perhaps the family of the teenager is shunned and pushed out of the church. Or maybe the pastor reaches out to the offender but fails to minister to and protect the child (and family) who was victimized. Another tragic response might be that the pastor reports the alleged crime to the local authorities, but then withdraws from shepherding those involved. In any of these instances, all parties are left hurt, fractured, and unsure of who to turn to for support and direction.
So how should you handle this scenario? How do you report suspected abuse and wisely walk alongside those who have been impacted? There is much biblical wisdom needed to discern what that looks like. Wisdom is evaluating the situation at hand and what ministry looks like in any given scenario. Here are just a few considerations:
I am sure you can feel the weight of this responsibility and can imagine the difficulty of navigating it all. As trying as it will be, consider the impact of not responding at all—leaving the families reeling, hurting, and left to figure it out on their own—navigating a legal system and attempting to worship together as if nothing ever happened.
The need for ongoing pastoral care
Mandated reporting and pastoral care are not at odds with one another. When an accusation is reported to the authorities, pastoral care doesn’t stop there, it has just begun! A ministry should have a continuing role in the situation. A church or organization can’t “wash their hands” of the matter. There will be a need for care and follow-up as the investigation unfolds, and for some time afterwards.
Pastoral care will walk alongside the abused with care and compassion. For families, it is a gift to have people in the church who understand the devastating effects of what has happened. For an adult or child to feel valued, cared for, and defended against any type of abuse should be the norm from a congregation.
Care also requires engaging with trained professionals and the legal system. It is a commitment to persevere regardless of the amount of time and difficulty you encounter. Good pastoral leadership can provide guidance, support, nurture and hope. People need to see and experience the comfort of a loving God at a time when some will think he has somehow left them in their suffering.
The legal mandate to report abuse—whether it is on behalf of children, the elderly, the disabled, or anyone abused by an authority—is a call we as believers have to protect the vulnerable. Mandated reporting is pastoral care. It allows the authorities to do the hard work of investigation. It complies with the laws of the land. It means walking alongside those who have been impacted with a sage affection.
This article recently appeared in the latest issue of CCEF Now.Download Issue
The question posed by the title of this article might seem to be a rhetorical one. The answer of course is a resounding No, women should not suffer abuse and violence. But many women have been told to stay in abusive marriages and the Bible has been used to justify the advice. The Holcombs debunk this line of thought, unpacking biblical examples of proactive strategy and self-protective escape. They then offer concrete advice on how to minister to women in hostile marital situations.
I am a mother of five and, as a counselor, I work with children almost every day. Sadly, many of the children I meet experience tough, heart-breaking problems and some have suffered abuse and mistreatment. I am committed to educating myself and others on the importance of protecting the vulnerable. It is a personal passion for me. It is the way I have built my family and live my life. My goal for myself, and for the larger Christian community, is that we are knowledgeable, competent, and biblically wise when it comes to handling allegations of abuse.
The legal and biblical mandate to report
It is very challenging to respond well to accusations of abuse. These situations generate a wide range of emotions from—outrage and a demand for justice—to fear, shame, disbelief and distrust. But when abuse is brought to our attention, we must work hard to not respond based on emotion or personal bias, but instead be willing to act wisely, justly and deliberately. Reporting abuse is not simply a legal mandate, it is a moral and biblical one as well. The laws are meant to protect the innocent and reveal the guilty, to define what is abuse and what is not. I’m sure we would all agree that protecting the vulnerable is a good goal, but to do that we must also accept that it is not appropriate for anyone, except the proper agencies, to investigate an allegation or to dismiss one.
Why some don’t report
Yet, despite these clear mandates, I find that churches and other Christian organizations are sometimes leery of reporting abuse when it comes to their attention. They look for ways to avoid complying with the law due to any number of reasons: fear of legal consequences, repercussions within the organization, or harsh reactions from the public. These concerns are further validated by horror stories where the authorities mishandle an accusation, and the situation explodes. Looking at all these possible negative outcomes, some begin to evaluate whether it is “worth the risk,” and some go on to justify not reporting because it “will only make things worse.”
The flip side of this is the implicit belief in an organization’s own ability to evaluate and respond well to abuse. It is easy for a ministry to become convinced that they will be more thoughtful, careful, and certainly more biblically-sound in their response. But in addition to violating the law, such a decision is unwise. It is not the organization’s job to investigate and “figure out the truth,” and they are inadequately prepared to do so. No church or any other organization possesses the deftness, judiciousness, and discretion to interview well. The investigators know the signs of what to look for and the techniques to draw out a victim in a safe, illuminating manner. They are knowledgeable, skilled individuals who commit themselves to understanding and responding well to such issues. Churches and other ministries are not prepared to do this type of work and should not attempt it.
The need for ongoing pastoral care
But there are many things a ministry can and should do when an allegation of abuse arises. Mandated reporting and pastoral care are not at odds with one another. If an accusation is reported to the authorities, pastoral care doesn’t stop there; it has just begun! The ministry needs to have a continuing role in the situation. It must not “wash their hands” of the matter. Situations like these leave people reeling. Many will need care and follow-up as the investigation unfolds and for some time afterwards.
Pastoral care should seek to walk alongside the abused with care and compassion. It should also consider how to care for the offender, and assess the rippling effects on family members of both the victim and the accused, as well as everyone else involved. Good pastoral leadership can provide guidance, support, nurture and hope. People need to see and experience the comfort of a loving God at a time when some will think he has somehow left them in their suffering.
Pastoral care and mandated reporting of abuse go hand in hand; both are necessary and valuable.
Mandated reporting is pastoral wisdom
The legal mandate to report abuse—whether it is on behalf of children, the elderly, the disabled, or those abused by authority/power—is our call as believers to protect the vulnerable. It is allowing the authorities to investigate and do their job. It is complying with the laws of the land, and it is walking along-side those who have been impacted with a sage affection. There is so much more to be said about ministering well to those who have been victimized, but it is essential that we understand that mandated reporting is pastoral care and wisdom.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You are watching a movie. There she is, right on cue. The archetypal seductress appears. The prostitute of Proverbs (6, 7) comes to mind. Follow this siren to your peril because she is taking you straight to her home in the grave. How easy it is to assess her and her motives. Everything is so blatant.
But the story is not over. Later in the movie, you learn that she was sold into sexual slavery as a child and degraded and beaten too many times to remember. Sex for favors is the best life she can imagine. Now, those Proverbs passages no longer seem relevant. They would only compound the violence done against her.
This is the challenge that we have in ministry—we could call it discernment. Sometimes what is obvious in a person’s life is sin, but the real problem is suffering, and sometimes what is obvious is suffering but the real problem is sin. This requires you to proceed carefully, with humility and patience, as you come to know people. When in any doubt, lead with God’s compassion for those who have suffered.
Let’s say you meet a woman like the one in the movie, someone who is flagrantly and proudly promiscuous. Her pattern is one-night stands, fueled by alcohol. Everything about her lifestyle is contrary to Scripture but also anticipated by Scripture’s various observations of godless descents into debauchery (e.g., Romans 1). How many of us would still be around by the time she said, “After I was raped, I didn’t care what happened to me. I was all used up”? How many of us would even be trusted with this? We must be aware that this kind of violence can lurk beneath blatant and self-destructive sins.
What do you think was “used up”? Her innocence? Her dignity? Her humanity? When you are emptied of everything, nothing matters. The walking dead have no more life to be taken, and a sense of purpose died long ago. The only thing left is to be thrown away. Or, is it? Would God throw her away? What is his response to her suffering?
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:1)
It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:2)
There are times, God says, when the sins of other people cause us to sin. In response, he says that he, himself, will replace the wretched shepherds. He will search for his sheep; he will rescue them from where they were scattered, and he will look after them (Ezekiel 34:11-12).
It usually takes just one more question to hear the full story from someone who has suffered like this, though you might have to be persistent. It could be any of these:
What has been done to you that you would feel so unworthy? I can see the hard exterior, what about the inside? You act like nothing can hurt you, but the only time nothing can hurt us is when we have already lost everything. How did you lose your life?
Julie Lowe reviews a book on how to identify sex offenders and set up effective barriers against predatory behavior. The subject matter is daunting. But the need for understanding and action is real. Sexual predation frequently occurs in churches and other ‘safe’ places, as this book discusses and as current events make plain.
Dr. Tim Lane and Aaron Sironi lead an hour-long workshop on how church leaders can help members of their congregations through this most difficult and painful of issues.
This week’s podcast is an excerpt from a CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling course. Taken from CCEF faculty member Ed Welch’s Counseling Problems & Procedures class, this excerpt is from a lecture focusing on suffering, particularly the suffering that results from sexual violation.
CCEF offers training in biblical counseling both on site (at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia) and online (wherever you have a computer and an Internet connection). To learn more about CCEF Training, click here.