How to Cope with Sexual Abuse
- Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
- 2013 15 Jan
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at .firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following are three letters Dr. Roger received on the topic of sexual abuse. His response is below.
From the time I was about 7 until I was a teenager my step dad … sexually abused me. … Even though I grew up abused I felt I was in a normal childhood. My mom was incredible, but I sometimes feel she should have known want was happening. My mom passed away several years ago, and left a note to my sister and I and asked us to be good to our dad because he loved us. How could he? I tried to forgive, I can’t. I know the Bible says we need to forgive, but how?
During my freshman year of college I was raped. I have had this fear inside of me that it's going to happen again. Each day I feel scared and wonder why God would let that happen to me ... I have a strong faith in God but this all makes me wonder "why me?" I know that God loves me and is there for me, but this makes me wonder where He was during those moments
Both my sister and I were sexually abused by a cousin who was a teenager at the time. Several years later something inside me told it was time to tell my parents. This was about two years ago; needless to say, our family has not been the same.
Growing up in church, attending prayer service, Sunday school, serving in different ministries, it was embedded in my mind we must forgive our enemies … I can only recall this abuse happening once to me but I know it happened to my sister several times. My anger isn't toward my cousin, it is towards my aunt because she knew about the abuse. She caught him in a bedroom with my sister, and her answer was to spank him and my sister. This has torn our family apart. We hardly go to church anymore. As for me, I have forgiveness towards my enemy. I wish I could say the same for my sister. I want to help her find peace, I want her to find happiness and success in life. I know God works in mysterious ways and he gives us trial because he knows we're capable of overcoming them. I know coming across this site is more than a coincidence. How do I help my sister?
Dear Anonymous, Unknown and Name Withheld,
Several year ago one of our counselors and I surveyed a women’s Bible class of over one hundred. We were all shocked by the results. Forty-two percent of the women in the room reported some form of sexual abuse before the age of sixteen.
Unfortunately, your experiences are not unusual. Many authorities surmise that 1 in 10 families are involved in incestuous abuse. Researchers estimate that for every case of incest that is reported, at least 25 cases remain hidden. 9% of American men were sexually abused as children. This trend is increasing. 16% of American boys will be sexually misused before high school.
Who can begin to count the buckets of tears shed by children (and adults) who were abused by those who should have loved them the most? Only God knows how many are mired today in emotional distress because of the traumas of their childhoods.
- Many abuse victims utilize different strategies in an attempt to handle the conflicting emotions, mental onslaughts, and pains of sexual abuse.
- Many try to escape reality.
- Some invent imaginary worlds where all is well.
- Many begin to neglect personal looks and hygiene, often subconsciously, to make themselves unattractive to boys (men) because of their fear of ever again trusting a male or having a relationship with one.
- Acting out is common.
- Unfortunately, way too many abused feel guilty and blame themselves for what happened.
- Many try to "wall off" the experience and ignore it or live as if it never happened. Unfortunately, the inner poison usually begins to ooze out about the age of 35 or 40.
Whenever I preach on sexual abuse, the church building is eerily silent. Not only because sexual abuse is such a “heavy” subject; but, also because some fathers and step-fathers (mothers and step-mothers) are seated beside their victims.
Sexual abuse is by far and away the most severe type of abuse. The ramifications slide deep within the psyche. If someone wants to scar a child for life then sexual abuse is the way to do it. A life has been sacrificed on the altar of another’s sinful motives and nasty behaviors.
Fortunately, through Jesus Christ, good counseling, and supportive friends and family, great healing can occur.
Sexual abuse victims struggle in multiple areas:
Many are angry with God: A forty-two-year-old woman came to our church for counseling. She was sexually violated and raped continually by her father and one of his friends when she was fourteen. She had kept her secret until it finally began oozing out almost thirty years later. One of her big issues was with God: “Where was Jesus Christ when I was being raped?" How we answer that question makes all the difference in the world.
Where was God? A counselor named Anne led her to see that she was not alone. Jesus was right there with her and He was weeping.
Of course she understood that we live in a fallen world. Anne led her to see that she was betrayed by the very person Jesus brought into her life to care for and protect her. In a fallen world people do dastardly things. Fortunately, Jesus is in the business of helping us pick up the pieces, get healed, and get on with our lives.
Many victims feel that the abuse was their fault—because they did nothing to try to stop it, or because the abuse was sometimes pleasurable, or because they feel special favors were received; or because they are so bad and sinful that they deserved the abuse. A child who has been sexually abused feels dirty, unworthy and ashamed—like damaged goods.
Most grow up with injured emotions and distorted self-images. They feel worthless, rejected, and insignificant.
Trust in men is eroded way or nonexistent. Either consciously or subconsciously, all men are potential threats. Victims of incest perceive that their parents are not trustworthy. If other adults further abuse them, they may conclude that there are no adults who are trustworthy. If this cycle of abuse continues, the adult victim may become unable to develop trust in anyone.
They struggle with relationships, especially if a relationship becomes too personal and intimate.It is common for victims to sabotage the relationships they desperately need. Those married to abuse victims often feel that they are “walking on eggshells.” Hopefully, through wise counseling, both partners will come to understand what is really happening and respond properly.
Forgiveness and Healing Tactics
Let's transition for a moment and talk about forgiveness. All three of you, Anonymous, Unknown and Name Withheld, mentioned this as a significant healing issue.
- Forgiveness doesn't mean that what happened was okay.
- Forgiveness doesn't mean that what happened is forgotten.
- Forgiveness doesn't mean that everything returns to the way it was before the perpetration.
- Forgiveness especially doesn't mean that family members should excuse the wrong behavior because they are “family.”
- Forgiveness doesn't mean that we should hide, or not talk about the abuse or shy away from conflict by not talking about the abuse.
- Forgiveness does not mean that if we "truly" forgive, we will "trust" each other implicitly. A sacred trust is broken, it takes time (often years) to rebuild trust with your abuser. Frankly, my experience is that such trust seldom is restored.
- Forgiveness does not mean that we are "letting them off the hook" for the injustice of what they've done. They are still on God's "hook" and vengeance belongs to Him.
InRomans 12 Paul encouraged us, “as much as it is possible, to be at peace with all people.” The implication here is that it is not always right or healthy to have a relationship with some people. Sometimes, relationships cannot be restored and that is OK.
Should your abuser be exposed and held accountable for his or her actions? Most certainly, “Yes!” Research projects confirm that an abuser will continue to repeat until the roots of their problems are uncovered and healed.
If the abuser is the father or the stepfather of the abused, he must be separated from the home until he has been declared "safe" by those who are qualified to discern. However, even if some day the abuser is declared "safe," my experience is that children and teens must never be with, live in the same house, or have any sort of contact with the Perpetrator ever again. The trauma is too intense and damaging.
Sometimes it may be necessary to confront the abuser. Unfortunately, this confrontation often results in more rejection and hurt because 80% of those confronted deny they did anything wrong. If he (or she) denies it, you might say, "You may deny it, but God and I both know you are guilty. I transfer to you all responsibility for what happened." In this case, reconciliation in this life is impossible. On the other hand, if he (or she) admits, repents and confesses the sin to God and finds His forgiveness, then healing and reconciliation can perhaps occur--but never quickly.
Sometimes it is not worth it to confront the abuser. Again, consider whether or not he or she would admit and take responsibility for what had happened? Would he or she stand the emotional pain that would come with a confession? Would he or she admit anything with the possibility of criminal charges and prison? If not, leave them with their guilt, shame, pain and seared conscience. You are not responsible for their healing or forgiveness before God.
I wholeheartedly agree with the advice of many counselors to write a letter to the one who victimized you, and then not send it. Another healing tactic is to pretend that your abuser is seated in an empty chair while you say everything you would like to if he or she were actually present. By the way, if you choose this option, be certain to imagine that the abuser is chained tightly and silenced by a big piece of carpet tape so they no longer are a threat in any form or fashion.
Some of you who are reading my answer are even now being sexually abused. To you I will make the following observations: The truth has to be exposed. We're dealing with a terrible sin and Satan wants to keep it hidden. Stopping the abuse and finding help only comes with exposure. There is no way to make exposing the sin comfortable.
By the way, when a sex abuser is identified, he or she must be reported to the proper authorities. This is a requirement of law. All too often those being abused are in a Love-Hate situation. They “love their dad” and would hate to see him go to jail; but, he is responsible for his actions—and being a dad gives no right to abuse a child and scar them forever.
We have talked long about you as the abused; but, what about your abuser? I know dads who are in prison and others who’ve committed suicide rather than face their own pain and shame. They leave behind a trail of emotionally cut and bleeding people.
Jesus offers forgiveness if your abuser seeks it. If you are reading this letter and are now sexually abusing someone, STOP IT and get help. You are a sick person. Get help now. Don’t ruin their lives anymore. You have already done enough.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the all-time best healer of broken hearts.
He healed the broken heart of the woman at the well who was on her sixth live-relationship in John 4.
He forgave and restored the woman who was caught in the act of adultery in John 8.
He so well restored the prostitute Mary Magdalene that God granted her the privilege of being the first individual to see the open tomb and the resurrected Christ.
Again, in John 8 Jesus teaches that He is forever in the business of picking up the pieces of our broken lives and helping us to start over again.
In Joel 2 God says that He can supernaturally restore again the years the “grasshoppers have eaten away.” None of us need be shacked in bondage any longer.
My final word is to encourage you to find a counselor who specializes in healing sexual abuse. Not every counselor is competent in this area. You need an expert who can lead and love you back to health.
If you can't find or afford the right counselor, then go to the bookstore or on line and read one of the many good books written on this particular subject. They can get you well on your way to healing.
Cultivate friends who can listen to your story and grieve with you. Jesus taught that mourning and receiving comfort is the best way to heal the hurts of our lives.
Again, to you three, I grieve for the pains, injustices and personal hurts that were inflicted upon you. May you find restoration and healing by the grace of the Almighty.
Dr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.