Do You Know What Your Church is Hiding from You?
- Sylvia Peterson Author
- 2015 1 Apr
Every church has them. A few members seem to always bring unnecessary and urgent drama to services, Bible studies, even picnics and potlucks. Although their moods are frequently mercurial, their commitment to the church is unquestionable. But the time and attention they demand is exhausting, and they cannot be ignored.
Your leadership team is likely to periodically throw their hands up in frustration. “What’s wrong with these people?”
Did you know that statistically 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men are harboring a secret they don’t want anyone to know, especially in their church? They were sexually abused as children. When you add members who suffered other kinds of abuse in their childhoods (physical, verbal, emotional, and neglect), the numbers are staggering.
Why Your Members Don’t Talk About Their Abuse
Adult survivors don’t tell you their secret for several reasons:
If they talk about what happened to them, denial is momentarily shattered and the feelings are overwhelming. Instead, they develop a kind of “self-talk brainwashing” that discredits what they remember. “My memories are vague and confusing. It was decades ago. Maybe it didn’t even happen. I can’t talk about something that might not even be true.” Their perception of safety depends on maintaining silent denial.
Adults who were sexually abused often carry the shame that rightfully belongs to the perpetrator. At the time they were probably told it was their fault. “I provoked him (or her). I didn’t tell anyone, and I should have tried harder to make it stop.” Their undeserved shame feeds the silence.
- They are afraid of your response. “My pastor isn’t comfortable with things like this. He (or she) might think I’m a bad person if I talk about what happened to me.” They are certain your judgment of them will be negative and swift, if you are willing to hear them at all.
When children are sexually abused they grow up feeling broken on the inside. If you knew their secret would you treat them differently? Could you still respect them? Trust them? In their minds the risk is just too high.
Abuse Recovery Specific to Christian Adults
There are two additional reasons for the silence that is specific to Christian adults with abusive histories, sexual or otherwise:
First, they’ve listened intently to everything you teach and preach about healing. They are there Sunday after Sunday. They believe Jesus could heal them; they don’t know why he chooses not to.
- Second, are their uncertain feelings about God. “Where was he when this happened to me? How could he stand by and not do anything to protect me?” They are angry. God didn’t rescue them, and they don’t think Christians are supposed to be mad at God. They anticipate disapproval if they give that anger a voice.
Both issues create a disconnect between church doctrine and their experience, even though scripture is rich with encouraging examples.
In Luke’s gospel he writes about the woman with an infirmity (Luke 13:10 – 13). For eighteen years she had been crippled by a spirit that kept her bent over. We are told she could not straighten up at all. On the Sabbath she was at the synagogue. If she’d attended faithfully throughout her infirmity, this woman had been there over 900 times.
It isn’t difficult to imagine her dialogue with God. “Please. You can heal me. I know you can. Even though you haven’t, I refuse to give up.”
Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse keep their histories secret while they struggle to figure out why they have not experienced the touch that would allow them to stand up straight again. “Maybe I’m just not good enough yet. It must be my fault.” And yet they are there week after week waiting for a miracle.
The Church’s Response
What is the church’s responsibility to the estimated 25% who attend services and activities, even though they are bent over and cannot straighten up at all? Is it even our job to take on a problem of this magnitude? How should we respond?
An effective response is considerably less draining than most pastors expect. No additional resources—money or time—are necessary. However, an awareness of the problem is required.
The best place to begin is with church leadership who are willing to be consistently authentic and transparent. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse need to know the church is led by people who are not perfect, make mistakes, don’t know absolutely everything, and who from time to time struggle with their own sense of brokenness. They need to be led to healing by pastoral example, not solely by scriptural theory.
Second, the church must be prepared to answer the tough questions, beginning with a realistic understanding of the variety of ways in which healing occurs. Jesus can heal them. He chooses wholeness for their lives, but it probably looks different than what survivors envision. For an adult who was abused as a child, their confusion is because healing doesn’t automatically change the feelings that are attached to their memories.
Scripture documents many miraculous healings, including the woman Jesus encountered in the synagogue. “Then he put his hands on her and immediately she straightened up and praised God” (Luke 13:13).
Most of the time healing is far less demonstrably dramatic than those reported in the gospels. Because of the deep scars sexual abuse carves in the lives of children, healing is a process. It requires a commitment to learning new ways of communicating, relating, and living. While the healing may be immediate, learning to walk in it takes time and encouragement.
And third, we need to be prepared to defend God’s goodness despite the existence of evil in the world. “Where was God when this happened?” is a legitimate question that the church cannot ignore.
God wasn’t on vacation when our survivor members were terrified children. Neither is he malignant nor indifferent. He isn’t powerless either. There is a third possibility. God knows what occurred. He chose to refrain from intervening. And he loves them more than they will ever know.
That kind of love doesn’t instantly make sense to someone who is living with the secret horror of child abuse. However, the church can speak to it with an authority found nowhere else. It is what Jesus modeled for us at the cross. God the Father stood by and watched his only son die an agonizing death. Could God have intervened? Of course. How many of the people who loved Jesus were begging and even expecting that to happen? But God chose no discernible intervention because there was a purpose they could not see.
Likewise, God still has purposes that we cannot see. His actions and inactions don’t always make sense to us. It is important to know that God can heal people even if they don’t understand how or why he allowed their wounds to occur.
And finally, the church’s love and acceptance will do much to bring healing into the lives of our members who were sexually abused as children. Their numbers are too large to ignore. However, we can be encouraged by the knowledge that Jesus understands their pain like no other, and his touch makes all the difference.
Sylvia Peterson has over 30 years of experience as a volunteer in Washington State prisons. She and her husband have written two offender re-entry programs that are currently being used by the WA State Department of Corrections: “Preparing for Release” and “Staying Free.” They co-pastor the Bald Hill Community Church. Sylvia retired early from a 35-year career as a registered nurse so that she could write this book. She attends Covenant Bible Seminary in Lakewood, WA where she has earned a Bachelor Degree in Theology, a Masters Degree in Biblical Studies, and a Master of Divinity. Her weekly religious newspaper column also appears online at www.pastorsylvia.com.
Peterson’s visits with Laura took place at Washington State’s Special Commitment Center for Sexual Predators, which is located on McNeil Island, the last island-bound prison in the United States. Laura also contributed her autobiography, personal letters, and legal paperwork for this book. Because of Sylvia’s personal access to those documents and to Laura, she was uniquely equipped to write this story.
Publication date: April 1, 2015