As I’ve written elsewhere, obeying the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20)—without loving wounded souls inside the kingdom—is to commit a great omission.
“Be an obedient wife.”
“God hates divorce.”
“Keep praying. Trust God to come through.”
“Your dad is just stressed out. Forgive him.”
These, and other statements like them, have been offered to men and women and boys and girls who sought shelter from the Church when an authority figure abused them. The perpetrators varied: their own mom, dad, or other parental figures. Worship leaders. Bible teachers. Pastors.
Every single one of these sentiments truthfully reflects scriptural mandates. Yes, wives are called to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18). God still hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and Jesus did instruct His people to keep praying (Matthew 7:7-8), and forgiveness is a must in the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-22, Luke 6:37, Luke 17:3-4).
But when Christians and Christian leaders alike quote verses to silence trauma survivors to inaction, something is wickedly wrong.
In the case of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which is under investigation by the Department of Justice regarding multiple abuse allegations, survivors’ complaints about sexual misconduct in the church went nowhere due to the denomination’s church autonomy policy.
Which meant in some cases, convicted molesters were free to continue their so-called ministry. The churchgoers had no clue.
Which is troubling—to say the least—given the sheer number of perpetrators accused of sexual misconduct between 2000 to 2019: over 700.
Which brings me to the bottom line. How did we, the Body of Christ, get it so wrong?
Our impotence to extend the love of Christ to trauma survivors has inflicted lasting damage. Lifeway Research studied the issue and found close to 10% of churchgoers reported they have either stopped attending a church because they felt a sexual misconduct incident wasn’t taken seriously or because they felt sexually targeted.
This isn’t to mention countless Christians who chucked their religious identity altogether because representatives of their church ignored or doubted their abuse story.
Beyond the SBC Scandal
The humongous number of sexual abuse cases within the SBC should jolt us awake. Isn’t it time for Jesus’ earthly representatives to shape up?
Here are three initial ways to get there.
1. Share Scripture Sensitively
God’s Word provides guidance for our conduct (Psalm 119:105). It cleanses us (Psalm 119:9, Ephesians 5:26). It teaches and trains us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16, NASB). In the case of sexual abuse, God’s Word supplies comfort for the survivors. “A bruised reed [God] will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3).
But there’s a time for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1). This means we’re to share Scripture only when the time is right.
If someone confides in you regarding a painful event—including abuse—honor their trust by listening to them. Then, affirm their ache. Refrain from advice-giving or Scripture-quoting as a knee-jerk response. Just listen and consider if there is something else they might need from you.
God created us with a spirit and a soul (1 Thessalonians 5:23). It’s helpful to remember this in general but imperative in the case of abuse. A hurting soul can’t hear the Word very well because their pain demands too much attention. Imagine spraining your ankle while jogging, and while you’re limping back to your room, your roommate tells you to “rejoice! This is the day the Lord has made!” Would you be able to digest this verse, true as it may be?
Answer an ache with a verse only after you’ve opened your heart to a trauma survivor and listened to him or her with compassion and love. Then, pray. Ask God for wisdom and courage to do what needs to be done next.
2. Stop the Cycle of Abuse
Hurt people hurt people. A study in the UK reports that a history of childhood sexual abuse, family history of violence, maternal neglect, and lack of supervision were all associated with an increased risk that a sexually abused victim would turn into a sexual perpetrator.
It’s unclear if the ones in this study ever received the help they needed before they preyed on others. Regardless, most likely, they didn’t grow up with any conscious ambition to spread around their own pain of being abused. The fact that these childhood abuse survivors wound up traumatizing others testifies more to the toxic potential that’s inherent in abuse, particularly when the abuse is sexual in nature.
That’s because being molested or raped is like the proverbial hot potato. That blasted thing is too hot for touch, and because of it, the one who touches it quickly flings it off to another person.
So, how can we stop the destructive, abusive cycle?
By normalizing mental health treatments. This means valuing psychotherapy and psychiatric appointments as equally beneficial as a trip to the cardiologist or pediatrician. Why is it acceptable for a teenage girl to seek medical help for her broken leg, but when it comes to a broken heart—because her youth pastor molested her for years—we snicker and whisper her name like she’s committed the unpardonable sin?
In addition, why don’t we, the Body of Christ, readily refer abuse victims to competent Christian counselors? Let’s take it a step further. Why don’t we make sure these brave individuals see the best therapists possible—professionals trained in helping trauma survivors recover—by pooling our money and paying for their therapy expenses?
Wouldn’t this be one manifestation of the Lord’s command to share others’ grief (Romans 12:15, AMP)?
By stopping our holy war against feelings. The soul consists of the mind, feelings, and will. The Church loves to emphasize the importance of renewing our minds (Romans 12:2). Who are we kidding? The Church loves the mind. An analytical Christian who can dissect original meanings in Hebrew and Greek holds a lot of esteem in churches everywhere.
The Church also accepts free will as God-given, maybe with a few exceptions, like those who strongly believe in predestination.
But emotions face a starkly different attitude.
You might have heard Christian leaders and ministers’ opposition to feelings. From blaring an outright warning that our feelings will lie to us to quoting Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”, the Church seems united in its distaste of emotions.
But a Messianic Jew named Chaim Bentorah begs to differ. He earned multiple academic degrees in Hebrew, Jewish studies, and biblical archeology and has spent decades studying the meanings of Hebrew letters. Studying the Septuagint translation of Jeremiah 17:9 helped him rephrase the verse this way instead:
My experience as a psychologist—from when I was an insecure trainee to owning a private practice to directing a counseling center to supervising graduate students with their own case loads—bears witness to Bentorah’s interpretation.
We should stop citing Jeremiah 17:9 as a reason to warn Christians (or anybody) to wage wars against their own hearts and emotions. Instead, we should take the verse as a somber reminder that the heart is vulnerable and deserves our delicate care.
Besides, if God wants us to treat our feelings as though they’re our enemy, why did He bother stuffing our souls with the capacity to feel to begin with?
3. Reach Out to Ex-Christians
Many have abandoned Jesus because His bride repudiated their abuse stories. If you happen to know folks like these, please reach out to them in kindness. Check any impulse to criticize them for any activity you deem unbiblical. Since love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), please apply a liberal amount of love to your eyes, ears, and lips before interacting with them.
Remember how the Church has let them down. Royally.
And if you identify as an ex-Christian yourself, I am so sorry for the pain we’ve caused you.
Please forgive the callous Christians who slammed the door in the face of your pain.
Please forgive our insensitivity in advising you to stay with your abuser and maintain the charade.
And would you please consider viewing Jesus apart from our ungodly behavior?
If you invite the Man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), the One who has endured unimaginable abuse—both leading up to the cross and on the cross itself—to befriend you, don’t be surprised at the healing that will follow.
That’s because Jesus still heals the brokenhearted (Psalm 147:3). Regardless of your church affiliation.
Lastly, even though I don’t know you by name, I pray that the Lord will restore you wholly—spirit, soul, and body.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Evening-T
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Audrey Davidheiser, PhD is a California licensed psychologist, certified Internal Family Systems therapist, and author of Surviving Difficult People: When Your Faith and Feelings Clash. She founded and directed a counseling center for the Los Angeles Dream Center, supervised graduate students, and has treated close to 2,200 clients. Dr. Audrey devotes her California practice to survivors of psychological trauma. Visit her on www.aimforbreakthrough.com and Instagram @DrAudreyD.