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4 Ways the Church Has Mishandled Trauma Survivors - And How We Can Change

4 Ways the Church Has Mishandled Trauma Survivors - And How We Can Change

Have you heard about Katherine? A fellow church member raped her.

Or how about Anna Crenshaw? She was groped by a very drunk—and very married—worship leader.

Both women received scant support from their church, Hillsong Australia. (Read their stories here and here.)

I have no intentions to single out or criticize Hillsong. I still sing Shout to the Lord regularly and fondly recall the time Darlene Zschech visited my church to lead worship. What Hillsong has accomplished to further Kingdom work globally invites our respect.

But can we be brutally honest here? These allegations are likely leveled against other churches too—not just Hillsong. Theirs may just command more attention due to their visibility. So, I’d like to highlight these issues as a rallying cry for the body of Christ to amplify our care for the wounded.

My perspective as a clinical psychologist and former counseling center director—with years’ worth of stories straight from trauma survivors—fuels the next four points.

1. The Indecency of Rape

Rape devastates the survivor’s self-worth. It reduces human beings, who are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) in the image of the Almighty God (Genesis 1:27), into mere receptacles for filthy urges. It cheapens God’s gift of sex and pushes problematic possibilities, like unwanted conception—and abortion.

How do survivors go on after enduring such a violent act? How can anyone maintain a cheerful outlook when their will has been beaten into submission?

We see this transformation in Tamar, King David’s daughter. She went from being a confident princess to living desolate and depressed (2 Samuel 13:8-20, GWT). After the rape, Tamar couldn’t even articulate what happened to her, causing her to use generalities instead (2 Samuel 13:16).

Similar consequences trail this abuse in the 21st century. I’ve sat with survivors whose protective mechanisms caused them to develop amnesia around their trauma. Just about all of them had to fight off shame, which was partially why they shied away from detailing the specifics of what happened. When they did speak, it’s to let me know about their loss of trust in the world as a safe place. They expressed anger at God for not protecting them. Some developed an intense hatred for their bodies—not to mention their lives. Many wound up with an addiction and/or mental illness.

But rape ransacks more than just the survivor’s life.

Take Denny, for example. I’ve altered his name and all identifying information, but not his reaction. I first met the muscular twenty-something when the shocking discovery that his girlfriend had been raped drove him to the counseling center.

Growling across my tiny office, Denny sputtered that he’d snap at any teammate who’d gloat, “we totally raped the other team!”

This demeanor marked a departure for the avid soccer player. Prior to the incident, he himself would say rape to mean defeat.

What he said next deserves repeating: “Everything changed after the rape.”

How true. When rape enters the scene, things never stay the same.

2. Improper Responses

Maybe the emotional charge concerning this abuse makes us tongue-tied when trying to offer our support.

Study Tamar’s story as an example. Absalom, her brother, and King David, her father, both heard about the incident. The good news is both men supported this innocent victim. Absalom wasn’t just incensed at his sister’s rape—he immediately plotted to avenge her honor (2 Samuel 13:32). Meanwhile, the Bible records David as becoming “furious” (2 Samuel 13:21).

Ironically, however, neither man expressed emotional support for Tamar. Let’s start with David. Despite having the ability to discipline the perpetrator—Amnon, one of David’s sons—this warrior king did absolutely nothing. As for Absalom? Check out what he told his sister (2 Samuel 13:20):

  • "Has Amnon molested you? Please, sister, don't let it upset you so much. He is your half-brother, so don't tell anyone about it." (GNT)
  • "Has Amnon, that brother of yours, raped you? Then keep quiet about your half-brother for now, my sister. Stop taking this so personally." (ISV)
  •  "Was Amnon your brother with you? Now be quiet, my sister. He is your brother. Don't take it so seriously!" (NET)
  • “How could Amnon have done such a terrible thing to you! But since he's your brother, don't tell anyone what happened. Just try not to think about it." (CEV)

“Don’t let it upset you. Stop taking this so personally. Don't take it so seriously!” Who was Absalom kidding? These consolations sound more appropriate for a beauty pageant runner up than a trauma survivor.

Yet, haven’t we, the Church, spoken similar sentiments? Haven’t we advised those who suffer from emotional maladies, “just try not to think about it”—as though they could stop their mind from assessing how utterly upside down their life now is?

Ignoring a life-shattering trauma won’t deny its existence or vaporize associated symptoms. Trauma can only be released once the survivor faces and processes its gory pain.

3. Incorrect Scriptural Application

Did you notice how Absalom shushed his sister? He offered the following reasoning: her rapist was also her brother (2 Samuel 13:20). Translation—don’t bring shame to the family, sis. Keep this to yourself.

This silencing response is similar to what Anna and Katherine initially experienced when they informed Hillsong about what happened. The church leadership did nothing. According to Christian Headlines, the pastor that Katherine reported the incident to responded nonchalantly. “That’s not for my ears to hear. You go sort that out with him (the perpetrator).”

I can’t imagine why this particular pastor would sound so standoffish, but let’s give this minister the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s the principle in Matthew 18:15 that motivated the pastor’s response. Jesus did instruct us to confront our offender directly, right?

But there is a problem with applying this verse to abusive situations. To advise a survivor to “sort it out” with the perpetrator and focus on repairing that relationship after he raped her is to give an ill-timed intervention. Repairs of any kind can only be made if there is emotional and physical safety. Obviously, survivors feel anything but safe in the presence of their perpetrators.

4. Insensitivity Is Costly

Tamar confided in her brother about the rape, but Absalom hushed her. To top it off, her father did nothing. Can you imagine what Tamar must have felt? Might she have blamed her father, albeit only in her mind, for instructing her to visit Amnon (2 Samuel 13:7)—thereby making it possible for the abuse to happen? Could the following reflect some of her self-talk?

Why is my father, the most powerful man in the land, doing nothing to defend me?

I can’t show my face to anyone. The shame is unbearable.

Don’t think about what Amnon has done or you’ll never stop crying!

Tamar must have felt so alone—left to process shame and other difficult feelings by herself.

More consequences trickled in. Two years later, Absalom murdered Amnon (2 Samuel 13: 23-29) and proceeded to flee the country (2 Samuel 13:37-38). As a result of David’s passivity to this gruesome incident, Tamar remained in isolation, one son lost his life, and another exiled himself.

Indeed, when rape survivors are cheated out of the care they deserve, this callous response compounds the initial hurt and leads to even more terrible outcomes. For instance, it’s common for trauma survivors to attempt suicide. Those outraged by their local church’s lackadaisical attitude have fled Christianity altogether, as the popular hashtag, #exvangelical, reveals.

How huge of an exodus needs to hit the Church first before the body of Christ changes our ways and starts supporting trauma survivors?

What Can We Do?

The Church as a whole has to do more than just winning the lost. Doing the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20)—without loving wounded souls inside the kingdom—is committing a great omission.

All of us have a part to play. If a trauma survivor trusts you with their story, please listen with an open heart. Be spiritual, but remember your humanity. Survivors deserve more than our prayers; they also crave a listening ear and non-judgmental emotional support through the ups and downs of life, particularly when triggers tap on their traumatic memories.

In addition, a professional’s expertise can help trauma survivors reclaim their lives. While psychology presents survivors with many excellent modalities, I recommend clinicians who are trained in the Internal Family Systems therapy. IFS is compatible with Christianity and possesses a powerful healing potential.

Jesus said the world will know that we’re His disciples if we love one another (John 13:35). It’s time for His people to love on the Tamars, Annas, and Katherines of our world.

Photo Credit: Nagesh Badu/Unsplash 

dr. audrey davidheiser bio photoAudrey Davidheiser, PhD is a California licensed psychologist, certified Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist, and IFSI-approved clinical consultant. After founding and directing a counseling center for the Los Angeles Dream Center, she now devotes her practice to survivors of trauma—including spiritual abuse. If you need her advice, visit her on www.aimforbreakthrough.com and Instagram @DrAudreyD.