(I Samuel 3:13).
Sexual abuse is the use of sexual acts or words or pictures to use, control, manipulate or intimidate another person. In essence, something God calls sacred becomes the path used to violate a human He says is created in His image. When it occurs in Christian institutions and is covered up then God’s sanctuary becomes complicit with evil.
In the United States sexual abuse occurs to one in four women and one in six men before the age of eighteen. In the case of children, abuse usually occurs in the context of a relationship with an adult from whom the child had every reason to expect protection and care. Most sexual abuse (93%) is perpetrated by a family member or someone known to the victim. Sixty percent of assaults are not reported to the police. In all acts of sexual assault power has been abused (power of position, size, age, verbal capacity or knowledge). There are many adult relationships with a power imbalance where vulnerability is exploited and abuse occurs (doctor/patient, pastor/parishioner, or teacher/student).
What does the church need to know so the lambs of our God are not only fed but also protected in His sanctuary?
The first lesson is recognition that sexual abuse is not a problem out there; it is in here. It sits in our pews, it happens in our homes and schools; it occurs in churches, on mission fields and within our organizations. We need to know how to speak about it, how to teach truth about it, and how to protect the vulnerable and care for victims. Scripture is clear that we are defiled by what comes out of us. Abuse is fruit borne by the abuser. It is never caused by the victim. All victims, child or adult, need understanding and protection, not blame. A grown man or woman can be abused. There are countless ways to coerce another human being into something they do not want.
Second, we may fail to report the crime of abuse thinking we are protecting a family or some part of the body of Christ. Family and church are God-ordained institutions worthy of our protection. However, there is nothing sacred about an institution full of hidden sin. When the people of Israel were going to the temple full of sin, God sent their enemies to destroy that God-ordained holy place. Our God does not protect those institutions that He has designed when they are enterprises full of evil. God regards SIN – not loss of reputation, or loss of institution -as the worst thing in the world. He wants those institutions that bear His name to be holy in the secret places. Then they are truly His.
When someone alleges that a serious crime has occurred – in their home, school or Christian institution – we need to immediately call the civil authorities trained to pursue the allegation and determine its truth. To fail to do so is arrogant and inevitably damages the victim and endangers others. Our choices to handle this crime “in house” are never choices on behalf of the victims. It is a choice made to protect the perpetrator and the institution.
Research has repeatedly shown that we cannot tell who is lying. Yet when we are told someone is abusing we think– “I know the character of that person; it cannot be true!” Scripture warns us that our hearts are utterly deceitful. We do not even know our own! Scripture says that Jesus trusted no man because he knew what was in man. We say; “I know him; I trust him!” Scripture says the tares grow right beside the wheat and they look exactly alike until the fruit is born. When we trust the likeness and say the fruit cannot be so, we abandon victims and leave perpetrators in bondage to habituated sin. None of this looks like our God.
Third, we need to acknowledge that victims are not just “out there” but in our midst and most have never told their story. Some have tried and been silenced with the admonition to forgive and move on. We do not do the incarnational work of entering in. Trauma occurs when suffering such as sexual abuse, overwhelms normal human coping. Those who are victims live with recurring memories of atrocities both witnessed and endured. The memories infect their sleep, destroy their relationships and capacity to work, torment their emotions. The wounds of trauma are not visible; their effects are.
Trauma has a profound spiritual impact. Trauma raises questions about who God is; His character; His faithfulness; and His capacity to keep us. It mutilates hope; it shatters faith; it turns the world upside-down. It is important that we understand these struggles and do not silence them or treat them as a failure of faith. When we silence victims of trauma and their questions we do further damage and in fact, become an obstacle in the work that God can and wants to do in a life battered by trauma and evil.
People who are suffering long for help and comfort. It is an open door for the church to bend down, like her Lord bent down for us, and enter in with ongoing care. As we do so, we will begin to see the trauma wilderness in which many dwell, the valley of Trouble, becoming a door of hope (Hosea 2:14, 15). The church of Jesus Christ is called to bring light to dark places, love to damaged souls and truth about who our God is – He who entered in so that we might know him and be like him.
Recovery involves a reversal of the experience of trauma.
- Victims need to tell their story. They may be afraid, slow to speak, uncertain of their words. But as we listen, and bear witness to their trauma we grant them dignity, safety, and comfort.
- They need to grieve. Trauma always includes loss. The victim’s sense of self is altered as is their way of living in this world. Trauma shatters faith and mutilates hope. There is much to grieve so healing includes tears.
- The victim needs time. Both you and the trauma victim will want a quick recovery. Such significant and deep wounds do not recover quickly. The deeper the wound the slower the recovery.
Listen to the words of a genocide survivor in Rwanda. “I saw only evil. I no longer believed God to be good. The church was not a sanctuary for my family; it was a cemetery. But then you came, you listened and you heard my broken heart. And now I think I can believe that God too is listening and hears my pain and will be my sanctuary because I have gotten a taste of Him through you."
The Word made flesh. It is my prayer that God’s people will follow Him into the dark and difficult places, throwing the shadow of His great glory over the suffering of this earth.