There is still so much we do not know about the aftereffects of sexual abuse, but one thing is certain: This kind of soul-killing assault leads to trauma. And trauma has tentacles that reach into the survivor and persist. Once we understand the aftermath, we can better provide safe havens for those who suffer. This is not a one-and-done recovery: Simply pray this prayer, believe these verses, go to this conference, and all will be well. No, the healing journey stops and starts, and it takes a lifetime to walk. Walking with the wounded rarely fits into a program. During my long-term research about what people and churches face in becoming safe havens, I have unearthed some crucial misunderstandings.
1. Misunderstanding Trauma’s Effect
Sexual trauma is difficult to overcome (though not impossible), no matter how severe it was. As mentioned above, survivors tend to minimize their abuse, comparing it to more extreme acts of predation. But healing takes a long time, whether the survivor has been “superficially” violated or harmed over a period of years. In some ways, we’ve all experienced violation. We are all on a healing journey—which is a truth that should empower any church wanting to come alongside. We’re all in this together.
All told, sexual trauma gives rise to complex issues, which many face in our congregations today. Because we’ve become adept at minimizing our pain or neglecting to bring up our pasts (both distant and immediate), we sit alongside each other, oblivious to the burdens each bears—something some bear on a daily basis.
2. Misunderstanding Women’s Daily Fears
In our violence-filled world, with a 24/7 news cycle that constantly focuses on brutal acts, it’s no wonder people are terrified. But separate the sexes, and you’ll find a chasm between the types of daily fears each faces. I used to chalk up my hypervigilance to my past, but I now understand that a majority of women leave the comfort of stores and go into darkened parking lots with trepidation. Some carry their keys firmly between each finger as a weapon and cross over to the other side of the road when they perceive threatening people coming their way. Others take self-defense classes. Some continually scope out safe places to escape to while walking down the street. Women check their car’s backseat before getting in. Joggers carry mace or pepper spray and text their friends prior to a long run—just in case. Most won’t answer the door if the doorbell rings. Some don’t leave their homes at night, fearing what could happen. The list of precautionary measures is immense. The evangelical church, saturated in male leadership, simply may not understand the fear half of their congregants suffer—daily.
3. Misunderstanding the Nature of Sin
Part of sin is denial. Denying that sin has occurred, denying that it is significant, or brushing it off by saying it happened so long ago empowers perpetrators and demeans survivors. In one evangelical scandal where an older brother sexually assaulted his younger sisters and a babysitter, we see this denial in operation. The girls, according to the parents, were barely victims. The brother hardly touched them under their clothes, his father said—and that happened for only a few seconds. After all, other families had worse situations with “actual” rape, so they painted the crime as less serious. They talked to other families who said this kind of curiosity and sexual exploration was commonplace. Ironically, the brother touched his sisters more salaciously than any courting boy would be allowed (the family adheres to a strict view of courtship). Their dismissive statements ignore, diminish, and sideline the girls who did not choose to be touched.
We minimize sin when we fail to protect the most vulnerable from it. We pervert justice when we value the abuser over the abused. It is time we welcome those who uncover sexual crime in our midst—even in our families and, yes, our churches. It is time to stop dismissing what these sins of predation ushered in, vowing to stop uttering Christian clichés that minimize the supreme harm done.
4. Misunderstanding Forgiveness
Sadly, how survivors respond to trauma has become a pet project of many in the church. There’s an unwritten narrative that survivors must adhere to, and it goes something like this:
- Tell your story, but don’t tell it too much, and be sure to highlight all the places God intervened.
- Admit your own sin—you shouldn’t have worn that; that place you went to was an invitation to abuse; or you thought it was a date, so you trusted too early.
- Offer forgiveness to the predatory person quickly. After all, you wouldn’t want to be guilty of your own sin by failing to forgive.
- Stop talking about the past. It’s in the past. If you do share it, share it as a victorious testimony only, diminishing the effect of the violation.
The actual narrative looks nothing like this. It’s not so simple to get over sexual violation. Recovery takes years of work, and forgiveness is not a one-time, easy decision, particularly if it is demanded or expected right away for the sake of peace and putting something shameful behind you.Easy forgiveness may gloss over the terrible situation in the short term, but it reinforces for everyone the idea that the soul-siphoning sin committed against the victim was trivial and should be easy to get over.Click To Tweet
Easy forgiveness may gloss over the terrible situation in the short term, but it reinforces for everyone the idea that the soul-siphoning sin committed against the victim was trivial and should be easy to get over. God has the most beautiful ability to make beauty from ashes, and we are most like him when we extend forgiveness. But that healing must be allowed to take its course in due time and not be rushed, forced, or prescribed.
5. Misunderstanding What the Church Is
To our detriment, we believe the church to be a building full of self-possessed people who rarely struggle without an accompanying victory story. But the church is simply this: a people called out, who have allowed the redemption of Jesus to wash over them. We all have broken stories, but our wrecked state is not something to retreat from, but the impetus for finding Jesus.
The church, the ones who have been called, the mercifully forgiven—we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus on this earth. We understand that we serve Jesus when we love those who are hurting. We find Jesus in the face of the sexual abuse survivor. We hear his voice trumpeted by the frail. We taste God’s goodness when we say grace over a meal with the humble. We sense him saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” when we serve those whose stories are shattered. The church is not a place of perfection. It is, and should be, a haven of protection.
Taken from We Too. Copyright © 2019 Mary DeMuth. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon. www.harvesthousepublishers.com