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Readings on Acknowledging and Healing from Sexual Abuse
Below are some links to readings that members of our community have found helpful on their paths to healing from physical and sexual abuse, especially abuse suffered at the hands of family members, authority figures, and other trusted individuals.
In A Theology of Sexual Abuse: A Reflection on Creation and Devastation, Dr. Andrew Schmutzer describes an Old Testament framework for understanding sexual abuse and its effects, as well as the need for evangelical congregations to acknowledge, understand, and minister to survivors in their midsts. This article was originally published in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and is excerpted below.
Sexual abuse fractures the unity of personhood. When the LORD speaks to the human beings, he addresses them as persons, not genders (Gen 1:26–28). Only as a whole organism is the term “soul” (nepeš) even appropriate in creation theology (Gen 2:7), since the Old Testament knows no dualism of body and spirit (cf. Ps 103:1–2). By contrast, sexual abuse effectively dismembers its victim, it un-creates because it dissects. Through domination, sexual exploitation of a person is characterized by: a sense of helplessness, loss, vulnerability, shame, humiliation, degradation, and other elements of emotional trauma. Contributing to this distress is the controlled secrecy; abuse occurs on the molester’s terms. Even the victim’s fight or flight response is overridden. Complete powerlessness is an initial isolating result.
Abuse tears apart the nepeš-wholeness of a person. It flays the person’s constitution, and pieces seem to “split off.” As such, sexual abuse de-personalizes not simply because it steals, but because it tears out what is intimately connected to the larger fullness of being. Such abuse dismantles the symphony of human parts. Looted, the victim is abandoned to process the experience—in further seclusion. A terrorizing ritual ensues as the victim helplessly awaits the next encounter. Whether declared or implied, the controlling abuser issues a gag order. For the victim, stillness and silence seems to guarantee survival. This violation deadens life along a spectrum of security and terror, respect and shame, wholeness and brokenness.
In the home, an internalized guilt keeps many victims quiet lest the family disintegrate on their account. However, should the incested child manage to come out and find an advocate, the victim is often punished by the family for “breaking it up” and dishonoring the parents. Re-victimization is a common occurrence in sexual abuse. For the family to acknowledge the victimized member(s), that family must accept the abusing systems in the home that produced it. It is not uncommon for the abusing family to scapegoat the truth-teller, since the victim has stepped out of their dysfunctional role that facilitated their victimization in the first place. Church friends and extended family may struggle to understand why the victim cannot simply return to family fellowship.
Traditional views of sexual abuse as an external and isolated act of sin falls far short of recognizing the embodied milieu between the abuser and the abused—a corporate aspect of sin. For a molester to ask for forgiveness for their “sinful acts” by privately praying through Psalm 51 may be an important component, but it is woefully inadequate to address the embodied harm foisted on the victim’s realms of relationship. “Our ineradicable human dignity lies in the whole human person.” So, to speak of embodiment means that we have foresworn dichotomies and stepped beyond simplistic polarities of self and other, bodies and spirits, brokenness and victory.
…The need to support victims of sexual abuse is ignored to the peril of us all. Both the pain and needs of the abused are complex. Those who understand this must be proactive. But shallow questions, dualistic theology, underground support groups, and simplistic notions of forgiveness and reconciliation show that, by and large, the church is in over its head. Christian organizations have been the most reluctant to accept that a confessing abuser does not heal the abused, anymore than a forgiving victim means the relationship is reconciled.
At its core, the contemporary rush to reconciliation masks an unwillingness to face complex layers of damage to the whole person. Healing requires safe time, spiritual support, and moral affirmation—defined by the needs of the victim. Restitution, even symbolic, may be necessary for reconciliation. “In the end, reconciliation as well as forgiveness is a divine gift of grace that we receive bit by bit and grow into.”
Adult survivors of physical and sexual abuse share resources, and their own stories, at Darlene Ouimet’s recovery blog Emerging From Broken: From Surviving to Thriving on the Journey to Wholeness.
People will tell you that “abusers” don’t really know what they are doing, but if that is the truth, how do they know that they need to make sure you don’t tell? –Darlene Ouimet
Parents who abused their children are likely to demand their adult child forgive them for the past but may never acknowledge any wrong doing or accept any responsibility for their actions. The truth is that they aren’t interested in being forgiven. People who want forgiveness are filled with remorse and though it may hurt to verbally admit to what they’ve done, they will do so because being forgiven by the person they have hurt is important to them.
What many abusers want instead of forgiveness is for the abused person to forget what was done to them, over-look it, and not hold them responsible for it. They also need their victims to remain silent and when that silence is threatened, they demand forgiveness and declare that any relational problems are due to the victim’s unwillingness to forgive. These lies cause confusion and abusive people know that causing confusion in others, works in their favor. There is nothing that confuses a childhood abuse survivor more than the forgiveness ploy. –Pam Witzemann
Therapist Stephanie Adams’s blog Survivor Is A Verb has been a starting point for many just beginning to address sexual abuse in their pasts:
From the time you realized what had happened to you had, in fact, happened, I’d wager your first instinct has been to ignore it. Call it what you like. Maybe it’s denial. But more likely, you have another word or phrase for it.
“Putting it behind me.”
“Not letting it affect me.”
“Keeping it in the past.”
Does any of that sound familiar to you?
It’s common to want to move past bad things. Whether the “bad thing” is abuse or assault, or some other source of shame, you just want to forget it happened and return back to your normal life. There are several reasons why this seems to be the solution when faced with a situation like that.
1. When you’re going through something terrible, the way you get through it is by focusing on “getting back to normal.” Whatever is happening right now, there’s that ray of hope that someday you will be able to separate from it and return to how you felt before. You want to feel happy and free again.
2. You feel like what happened can’t be undone or fixed. So why focus on it? It seems like the better choice to just ignore it.
3. You’ve tried dealing with it before, and haven’t gotten the results you hoped for. You may have even been hurt more than you ever have before, just from facing this one time. Therefore, you “got smart” and decided to never go there again.
Any of these reasons makes perfect sense to me. I can imagine easily making the same choices in any of those scenarios. But that brings me back to the title of this article:
If any of that worked, I’d leave you alone.
If you could erase it from your memory and have it never impact you again, then I’d be thrilled for you. If you really felt relief when you stopped allowing it to come to mind, then I’d shut my mouth.
But that’s the problem. While I’d love it if that happened, I’ve never seen it done successfully before. Ever.
…You may even feel like if you open that door, that you won’t be able to close it again. That if you face your pain, you won’t be able to handle it, and you’ll simply melt into a bottomless depth of misery.
This is a very real fear for many people. It is not manufactured, it is not exaggerated. It’s terrifying to contemplate. Absolutely terrifying.
But it’s a false fear. No matter how strong before, and how painful during, I have never encountered a client who honestly confronted their hurt in therapy and regretted doing so. Instead, most (if not all) of the people I’ve met have expressed their sense of relief at finally releasing the pain. They feel free again. They have hope.
It’s not easy, and it can’t be rushed. But I encourage you today to recognize that in dealing with your past, there is another possibility outside of shame and misery. There is the possibility of peace and healing.