Readings on Acknowledging and Healing from Sexual Abuse

29 April 2014, 06:00



pathBelow 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.

“Moving on.”

“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.

All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.


  1. greg r April 29, 2014 Reply

    I have gone through spiritual abuse at a pretty high level, but never sexual abuse. There has been some of that , though , in my immediate family, so it's not like I'm a stanger to that. The strange part of IBLP/Gothard is that it is a weird mixture of both. There are those who didn't experience the sexual wrong (except for the bizarre teachings, which are damaging , no doubt) and there are those whose lives are scarred forever more through what was taught. And of course those who suffered 'doubly', both physically and spiritually.

    Thank you for RG in helping people find their way to healing. What a long , long road that is. There are MANY who find some comfort here whose abuse, like mine, actually happened in a different neighborhood, but the truths connected to healing are the same.

    • Beverly April 29, 2014 Reply

      Along those same lines, greg r, I have a friend who is a professional sex addictions counselor and he told me that there have been studies which have shown that there is a direct correlation between high-demand, authoritarian religious churches/groups and sexual abuse (where the leadership is either covering for the abuse or perpetrating it). The higher the control level of the group, the more pervasive sexual abuse most likely is. It’s VERY rare to have one without the other. The more I’ve studied this subject on my own and have seen the case studies in current news (Bill Gothard, IFB churches, Sovereign Grace churches, Bob Jones, Pensacola Christian, the Catholic Church, etc), the more I’d agree with his assessment. Whenever I see a leader (or joint leadership) of a group—especially a Christian group—enforcing strict loyalty or control, I will always see that as a red-flag for potential hidden abuse.

      Statistics show that 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 5 men have experienced sexual abuse. Relating this to the average church scenario (which is an easier scenario to comprehend than parachurch), 1/4 of any given congregation on a Sunday has been through sexual abuse. 1/4 of the children in a church’s children’s ministry have either been abused or will be abused in the future (not necessarily on the church premises, but at home, etc). The more closed the church leadership is to acknowledging the deep spiritual, emotional, physical, and psychological damage of sexual abuse, the more sexual offenders will be attracted to their church and thrive in the closed system where those who are abused are not believed or taken seriously. Add a parachurch organization to that same scenario, led by only one leader at the top (Gothard) and some horrific teachings to shame victims into silence, and the numbers of the abused explode exponentially, and most likely the number of protected perpetrators, too.

      It’s my opinion that spiritual and sexual abuse are perhaps the worst combination of abuses possible—precisely because the abuse is nearly impossible to see physically, it’s emotionally/physically devastating to the abused, and incredibly easy for abusers to get away with and not be held accountable.

      • MrsWebfoot April 29, 2014 Reply

        Not disagreeing with you, Beverly, but how does what you say compare to the secular workplace, the university campus, public schools, government, and so forth? Sexual abuse and even intellectual abuse abounds in those places.

        I guess I'm questioning whether abuse is more common in religious settings than in other places. I really doubt it.

        What makes it so horrific in the religious setting is that people aren't really expecting it. There is sometimes a false sense of safety.

        Just wondering. I suppose there are stats somewhere.


        • Beverly April 29, 2014

          Sorry to not make that clear. I wasn't saying that it abounds MORE in religious vs. secular environments (those statistics are exactly the same for sexual abuse!), but that it abounds more in strict authoritarian religious environments vs. average religious environments with checks and balances built into their leadership style.

        • Ariel April 29, 2014

          I don't think Beverly is stating that abuse is more common in a religious setting than the secular arena. Rather, many Christians wrongly believe that these strict authoritarian circles will prevent or be less prone to abuse, when in fact the opposite is true.

        • Beverly April 29, 2014

          Exactly! Thanks!

        • MrsWebfoot May 5, 2014

          Thanks for the clarification, Bev. I am not entirely in agreement with many of your conclusions, but thank you for your response.

          No matter. It is a problem as well in all kinds of church environments. Our church has a compulsory course on identifying and reporting child abuse. All who wish to work with children must take this course, as well as have background checks done every 2 years. These policies have been in place for about 15 years now.

          I hope that all churches will make sure they have such policies if they don't already.

          I know that the specific purpose of this blog is to help people recover from abuse in the specific BG environment and culture.

          Thanks for your kind response.

      • Shane April 29, 2014 Reply


        Being (myself) in a denomination that is certainly on the conservative end of the spectrum and witnessing the dynamics you're taking about, I have come to wonder if the emotional spiritual abuse is more prevalent in those circles compared to the more liberal end of the spectrum where egalitarian views are taught. If I were in the field of scholarship I'd certainly want to do some serious research on the question.

        I know the natural reflex in my world is to see abuse through the grid of the physical. We're certain that a man should not beat his wife or kids but we're much more uncomfortable meddling in how husband, fathers, mothers, leaders care for the heart matters. I think it stems from at least a few of the common conservative fears. 1) We're afraid of the world of psychology, so we're skeptical of even the labels "emotional abuse" and "spiritual abuse". 2) We're so committed to the culture war against divorce that we don't know how to apply what the Bible teaches biblically about divorce. 3) We're so afraid of the "slippery slope" (a fallacious argument) that we don't know how to encourage women into full participation not only as followers of Jesus but also as human image-bearers. 4) We operate under the false belief that it's better to be wrong conservatively rather than liberally. Wrong is wrong. Both are harmful. We'll encourage and never think to challenge self-righteousness as long as it avoids premarital sex (the "big" sins).

        Maybe someone's already studying/publishing on these dynamics, but I'd love to see it. Anyways...I appreciate your thoughts. They match my experience.

        • Beverly April 29, 2014

          Excellent thoughts, Shane.

          "I have come to wonder if the emotional spiritual abuse is more prevalent in those circles compared to the more liberal end of the spectrum where egalitarian views are taught."

          Very insightful comment. I'm not sure of the answer to that, because I know spiritual abuse can occur anywhere. But I have noticed that a lot of former ATI students have definitely made a similar connection in their minds, and many have walked out of patriarchal churches straight into egalitarian-friendly churches. To many of them, the idea of complimentarianism is a line that has become too blurred with patriarchy because of how it's lived out (rather--not lived out) in various churches and church leadership. In my own mind, I see a connection between spiritual abuse and patriarchal beliefs for certain, and some of the complimentarian churches on the extreme conservative end of the sliding scale could also fit into that "danger-zone" category. I like what NT Wright says on this subject though--basically that the problem with the American church is that we treat our religious distinctives (he was referring specifically to complimentarianism/egalitarianism) the same way we treat our political distinctives. We want a one-size-fits-all box that we can neatly check to say we believe in a particular viewpoint, instead of seeing these issues as being a continuum, where we have to wrestle out for ourselves and figure out where we fall along that line of thinking. That's difficult for many of us to do coming out of the black and white world of Gothardism, but an excellent goal to work towards as we pursue healing from spiritual abuse.

          "We operate under the false belief that it’s better to be wrong conservatively rather than liberally. Wrong is wrong. Both are harmful. We’ll encourage and never think to challenge self-righteousness as long as it avoids premarital sex (the “big” sins)."

          Well said! That sums up Gothardism in a nutshell very well!

        • greg r April 29, 2014

          @Beverly: this could easily, SHOULD easily become a book , or series of books:

          We want a one-size-fits-all box that we can neatly check to say we believe in a particular viewpoint, instead of seeing these issues as being a continuum, where we have to wrestle out for ourselves and figure out where we fall along that line of thinking. That's difficult for many of us to do coming out of the black and white world of Gothardism, but an excellent goal to work towards as we pursue healing from spiritual abuse.

          this is not only true of 'spiritual abuse', but a goal to be a mature person, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. an ability to see continuum where GOD allows such gives room where room is needed. why should the 'liberal' churches be the only ones who see the wisdom in this ?? although NTW is Anglican...wherever that falls on the cosnervative/liberal scale..

        • Beverly April 29, 2014

          "although NTW is Anglican…wherever that falls on the cosnervative/liberal scale.." I'm sure he'd say he's on the evangelical continuum, greg. ;-)

        • Shane April 29, 2014

          greg r- Beverly actually points out Wright's answer, which I agree, that in America our problem is that we divide up politically. The problem with Wright's assessment may lie in the dynamics of American religion that England has not shared, at least not completely. I'm thinking it's that modernism's influence in England largely won the day on the Liberal side, but not so much on the Fundamentalist side. In the States there has been a much more robust Fundamentalist/Modernist church in clash with the Liberal/Modernist church. This has created the dividing up into teams to beat the other team rather than seeing the continuum.

          This is why I made the point about the "slippery slope" argument. I've heard it all me life that if you allow X that's a slippery slope to liberalism. (BTW- capital L liberalism I'm using as a theological category. Little l liberalism is more the political kind of category which may or may not include Liberalism). "Slippery slope" is not a positive argument it's just a statement of fear of becoming something. It's born out of fear of losing ground to the other side.

          I just don't think the English church experienced the same modernist battles. Probably has something to do with having a national church. Certainly has something to do with the prominence of folk religion, individualizing of Christianity, general lack of ecclesiology, et al in the U.S.

          Wright is certainly no Liberal. Idk if he would self-identify as an Evangelical, but in the best meaning of that label I'd say he is one.

        • greg r April 29, 2014

          @Shane: As an anglican myself, I'll be curious to see how some of these demagraphics play out: i'm thinking in England, most would identify as (in no particular order) 1)church of England 2)Roman Catholic 3)charismatic 4)secular/no religious affiliation and my guess is #1 and #4 lead the pack, but I haven't seen the numbers. NT was in town , BTW two months ago...friendly fella , but I didn't get close enough to get these stats :) his speaking is every bit the equal to his writing...he's a theological brutus

        • Shane April 29, 2014

          Wright is exemplary of the pastor/scholar. Does excellent scholarly work and then turns around and writes very clearly to the layperson.

  2. esbee April 29, 2014 Reply

    just a thought that occured while I was watching Cosmos last night (not sure where this comment really belongs but it does have to do with BG teaching to stay away from worldly and even what they call ungodly influences) that certain things that you watch on tv or movies, read in in books could cause you to be influenced away from the cause of Christ, things that have witches, wizards, horror, sex, cursing or story lines that do not line up with the scriptures, etc.

    I grew up watching shows like Bewitched, the original Cosmos, travel shows to Africa where they showed the natives as they really dressed (which convinced ME to wear a bra!) monster movies like Dracula (line from the movie "the life is in the blood") ..

    what I am trying to say is that my theology and Christian walk WERE NOT messed up by the influences of the world (tv shows, movies or books or secular society) but by the legalist rules made up by so-called Christian men that I was told were non-optional to live a Christian life.

    that said, the moviestv of the 50's and 60's are much milder in content and detail than what you can see on prime time today.

  3. P.L. April 29, 2014 Reply

    Such helpful readings...invaluable for other abuse situations (physical, emotional, spiritual) as well. Thanks, RG.

  4. Shane April 29, 2014 Reply

    A couple of books that I've found helpful if someone cares:
    Diane Langberg, "On the Threshold of Hope"
    Justin S. and Lindsey A. Holcomb, "Rid of My Disgrace"

  5. Linda April 29, 2014 Reply

    Here's a helpful and frankly incriminating link on identifying traits of an abuser. Betcha you'll never find this in a certain red notebook. It is frightening how these people infiltrate Christian ministries and IBLP board needs to wake up.
    My heart goes out to all who have found themselves in the role of victim. BRAVO to each of you who have courageously shared your painful stories for the benefit of others. I pray you are further on the road to healing each day.
    BOO HISS to the few on this site who express doubt or disdain for those who were deceived at the hands of those they trusted.

    • Shane April 29, 2014 Reply

      Linda- you make me think it would be kinda fun to bring back Booing and Hissing.

      • Linda April 29, 2014 Reply

        If RC can't finagle a "like" button, maybe we can push for a "Bravo" and "Boo Hiss" option. I so appreciate the godly insight and compassion demonstrated here. And a dash of humor goes a long way amidst this important discussion with so much at stake.

  6. Karin April 29, 2014 Reply

    As a counselor, I HIGHLY recommend The Wounded Heart book and workbook + good real counseling from a licensed therapist.

  7. Patrick April 30, 2014 Reply

    A very good article. Thank you. I was hoping that RG would post some articles to help navigate the pain which so many are going through. Thank you for the past articles on spiritual abuse as well.

    Though I have not been a victim of sexual abuse. I cannot begin to imagine the depth of pain and shattering that occurs. My heart goes out to each person who has shared their story and the readers who are suffering so much.

    The pain I experienced from the emotional and spiritual abuse caused this false teaching and false teacher was very great.

    It was so confusing to me that even though I forgave my abusers I was still in pain. I forgot how many times I heard that I was the one who was to blame and the pain was just the internal evidence I had not really forgiven. What principle had I violated again? There was no comfort or healing or help in the principles. Only more condemnation and continual pain.

    I had forgiven, but the pain and memories kept returning. The abuse never made me 'mighty in spirit'. That is a lie. It made me wounded in spirit and shattered, bruised on the inside.

    I was also told I had to go the abuser(s) and confess to them that I was in pain because of what they did and ask their forgiveness. But that would give the abuser another chance to inflict more pain, shame and blame on me. It was wrong to demand that. When I refused this approach I became an outcast. I concluded that if this is what Jesus is like and what heaven is going to be like who needs it. The bottom was knocked out of everything. I wondered how Jesus saw what happened and if He felt this type of pain.

    It has been many years and it took longer to come out of the prison and pain of Gothard's teaching than I would have liked. There were no groups or places like RG. The Lord graciously helped me and picked up the broken pieces and put them together again.

    I would want to encourage you all to keep moving forward with Jesus. He said, “Come unto Me all who are weary heavy laden.” not to so called principles or steps. A bruised reed He will not crush, a smoldering ember He will not extinguish. He is a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. Surely He has borne our griefs and pain.

    Thank you once RG for these helpful articles.

  8. Elsa April 30, 2014 Reply

    This is sooo good!!! For the first time ever, I have been facing my own past. It is crazy painful at times. Sometimes I wish that I had left the past in the past and had just "gotten over it".
    I am finally allowing myself to hurt from things that I had always before refused to acknowledge. I am experiencing the greatest hurt I have ever felt before, but I am seeing glimpses of hope and joy as well.
    It is well worth the struggle to step out of this nothingness of denial and to begin to feel life through the eyes of reckless abandoned living. Through it all, life is slowly emerging as being truly beautiful.
    This is a wonderful article!!!

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