This is a story about children, but it is not a children’s story. It is a story about the horrors that we, as a society, too often visit upon the most vulnerable.
When she was three years old, Peggy* was sexually abused by her uncle. At 12, she was abused by another uncle. A few months later, Peggy had “sexual contact” with her older brother’s friends – which she interprets today as abuse, since the boys were much older.
A few years later, she experienced a spiritual conversion and joined a Christian church. Still depressed, she tried to get psychological help, but church members discouraged her from doing so, telling her instead that she should pray more.
A nationwide survey in the 1980s, the Badgley report, revealed that half of all Canadian women and a third of Canadian men were sexually abused, 80 percent of them in their youth. Statistically speaking, our churches contain the same proportion of people who have been abused as a child and oftentimes still carry the hurt associated with those experiences. These statistics also apply to newcomers to our churches.
A redemptive process
How, then, can we avoid re-traumatizing people when they tell their stories of pain? Can it be a redemptive, godly process?
One thing we can do is allow them to tell their stories. Churches often shun this redemptive process of storytelling. When Diane*, who was abused as a child by her father and her half-brothers, went to her pastor with her story of abuse, he discouraged her from talking about her experience because it would “destabilize” the church. But some churches have formed support groups, which provide a good resource for those who don’t have the financial means to seek professional help. In other churches, rituals have been designed by and for victims to symbolically tell and re-enact their stories.
Once the person has been allowed to tell her story, how can we avoid re-traumatizing her? First, accept her story at face value. For example, we may be tempted to doubt that Peggy can remember being abused at age three. Questioning the factuality of her story becomes a means of re-victimization, denying the reality of her pain.
Second, do not blame her; the guilt belongs to the abuser. Some, like Jean*, who was abused by her stepfather, already blame themselves: “It was the way I dressed” or “I must have sent the wrong signals.” If she does blame herself, listen closely and try to help her realize that whatever guilt she feels about her own responsibility does not justify the abuse.
Third, do not burden her with your own theodicy, your explanation of why it happened or why God allowed it to happen. This exercise in “making sense” belongs to the person who suffered the abuse. We must be honest and admit that often, in the face of such horrors, we don’t know why it happened. Trying to rationalize the unacceptable can make God look like a monster, or the victim like someone who deserved what happened to her.
Finally, do not pressure her to forgive and forget. True forgiveness comes only by the grace of God and often after a long process which involves empowerment and vindication of the victim and, ideally, some form of vicarious restitution by the abuser. As Julia* found out when she was pressured to blurt out an “I forgive you” to her aggressor, a forced pardon before she is ready will only lead to a false forgiveness and the illusion that everything is now settled.
Implications for discipleship
What does this mean in terms of discipleship? After what has been said, it should be clear that discipling should not involve pressuring the victim to forgive and forget, explaining why God allowed this terrible event, or saying that it was for her own good.
What, then, would discipleship look like for such a person? We are used to viewing discipleship as obeying or doing something. But for victims of abuse (sexual, physical, psychological, or spiritual), what if the first step in discipleship was simply to enter a healing process? “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus says, “and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29). Ideally, this healing process involves both God and community. Which raises the question of discipleship for the rest of us.
In Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus dramatically illustrates what his disciples should do when a person is hungry or thirsty, naked or sick, a stranger, or a prisoner. In the case of victims of sexual abuse – or anyone who has been deeply hurt, for that matter – maybe Jesus’ advice for us would be: “For I needed to tell my story…and you listened to me.”
In the end, listening in a respectful and loving manner is the best thing we can do. People who have been victims of sexual abuse during their childhood can become survivors by retelling their stories in a way that makes sense and that does not cast them as victims but as people who overcame. In this process, faith and beliefs are important issues. A victim’s story of culpability, guilt, and a God who is an unfeeling, harsh judge can be transformed into a story of being loved by God. When the story is transformed to one of overcoming, she can become a survivor – even a “thriver.”
Today, Peggy is such a thriver. By the grace of God, she sought psychological help and, today, she is a counsellor, helping others to deal with the devastating impact of childhood sexual abuse.
*All names used in this story are pseudonyms. Sexual abuse can also happen to males, but because the majority of cases are females, the feminine pronoun has been used throughout the article.