Relating to Victims
This is Part 2 in a series of posts on a Biblical Response to Sexual Abuse in Anabaptist Communities. Please take time to read Part 1 here.
So now that we have established a biblical response to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, let’s think about how we should be relating to the victims.
Statistics tell us that 20.5%* of the people in our churches are sexual abuse survivors. If you have a church of 200 people, approximately 41 of those people are struggling to heal from sexual abuse.
That is over 1 in 5 church members. Yet, we hear almost nothing about sexual abuse. We don’t talk about “such things.” Often, we don’t even know who the victims are or how to help them. And sometimes, if we do know the victims, we shame them instead of believing them. We betray their trust instead of helping them heal.
And then, we wonder why “some people” suddenly want nothing to do with church or God. We wonder why there is rebellion among youth. We wonder why people leave.
If we understood abuse, these things would suddenly make sense.
That’s why I will continue to speak up. I will not be silent. We need to start digging into this mess, because many lives are at stake.
Victims of sexual abuse are some of “least of these.” They’ve been torn apart by “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Not only have their hearts been ripped apart by “good” church members who’ve abused them, they’ve also been ripped apart by church members who believe the perpetrators.
I believe that the Anabaptist church has the potential to be a good place to heal from sexual abuse. But first, we need admit that we have a problem. We need to understand what sexual abuse does to a victim, and what we should be doing for that victim.
What the church needs to understand about the effects of sexual abuse:
- Sexual abuse affects a person spiritually.
When God created us, He made us sexual beings. God designed the sexual relationship to be a beautiful picture of how He loves us, His bride. He wanted it to be in the context of marriage only. But the enemy loves to distort that beautiful image. His goal is to steal, kill, and destroy.
Sexual abuse does just that – it steals a person’s innocence, kills their spirit, and has the potential to completely destroy a person if not dealt with properly. As a result, the victim’s view of God is severely damaged, particularly if the abuse happened by someone they trusted or someone who claims to be a Christian. Sexual abuse opens the door for all kinds of spiritual bondage. Countless lies and addictions stem from abuse.
Sexual abuse has the potential to turn a Christian into an atheist. I believe that sexual abuse is one of the ways the devil is snatching the souls of our children. Whether we realize it or not, we are in a battle for their souls. And we need to start fighting instead of pretending there isn’t a problem.
- Sexual abuse affects a person emotionally.
When a person becomes a victim of sexual abuse, a part of them “dies” inside. They may laugh a lot or be the class clown but if you were to see inside their heart, you’d be staring at a bloody mess. Some victims “stuff the pain” as a way to survive. It looks good on the outside, but sooner or later, it will come out. They may hardly ever cry or show emotion. Others cry all the time and have trouble functioning in daily life. Either way, the abuse they experienced is affecting them, and they need help.
Anxiety and depression are very common among victims. They fear everything and everyone. They don’t trust anyone, even safe people. They view themselves as dirty, ugly, and worthless. They don’t think they are worth your time or love. They push love away because to them, love hurts.
- Sexual abuse affects a person physically.
It should be no surprise to us that emotional and spiritual problems sometimes affect people in physical ways. This is very true in sexual abuse victims.
The constant fear and anxiety that victims live in sometimes produce unexplainable headaches, back aches, and stomach aches. Bowel and bladder issues and frequent UTIs are common. Nightmares and vivid dreams of entrapment are part of life for many victims.
There is so much more that could be said about the effects of sexual abuse. I only skimmed the surface to help us realize how it wrecks relationships in the lives of its victims – relationships with God, the church, their family and their friends.
So, what should the church’s response be to the victims of sexual abuse?
- Believe them instead of blaming them.
Besides helping a victim find healing in Jesus Christ, this is, hands down, the most important thing we must do for victims.
When a victim discloses sexual abuse, believe them. I am horrified by some of the things that are said about victims in some of our Anabaptist churches. “They are just making that up because they want attention. Besides, abuse doesn’t happen to Christians!” Worse yet, sometimes similar statements are made to the victim’s face.
And then, to top it all off, we blame them. “Why didn’t you yell?” we ask the victim incredulously. Or “You should’ve tried to fight!” To a victim, these kinds of responses shout one thing: “It’s all your fault.” The problem is, we don’t talk about abuse. Therefore, we don’t teach people what to do in a bad situation. How are they suppose to know what to do if we don’t talk about it?
Be assured of one thing: Responses like the ones I mentioned above do serious damage to an already wounded heart, to the point of suicide in some cases.
“But people sometimes lie about sexual abuse, don’t they?” you ask. Yes, it happens. But it’s actually not as much as we think. Most sources agree that the percentage of false allegations is around 2-8%** of reported abuse. There are people who feel it’s much lower than that in our Anabaptist circles due to two things: (1.) The 2-8% was based on reported abuse; studies indicate that only 40% of rapes and abuse are reported. Thus, the 2-8% is not a very accurate number. (2). Anabaptist people are taught from little up to be honest and tell the truth. Therefore, the true number of false allegations in our churches is probably less than 2%.
Another reason why we struggle to believe victims is because their stories are vague and the details “change.” Instead of writing them off as liars, we need to understand what trauma does to the brain.
All abuse is traumatic. But the younger a child is when abuse happens, and the worse the abuse is, the more a victim will tend to disassociate from the experience. They may not remember what happened to them for years. They may remember a little but not many details. They might know something happened, but have no idea who abused them.
Have you ever been in a traumatic car accident? Do you remember all the details of the accident? Do you remember the car coming toward you and the crashing sound of the metal? In the case of a very bad car accident, a person sometimes doesn’t remember anything for a few hours, days, or weeks surrounding the accident. It is much the same way with abuse. Just because a person can’t tell you exactly where they were at, who abused them, the severity of the abuse, or how many times they were abused, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
There was a rather sickening study where a perpetrator filmed his abuse encounters with children. The authorities confiscated the abuse videos and asked each of the victims to tell them what the perpetrator had done to them. They were amazed at the response of these children. The majority of them downplayed the severity of the abuse.
Often, when abuse allegations surface, the preachers or the child’s parents go to the perpetrator and ask them if they abused the victim. Sometimes, the abuse is confessed. (I admire those people!) But too often, the perpetrator says, “No. I would never do something like that!” And so, the matter is dropped.
Let me ask you this: What else is the perpetrator supposed to say? Folks, if he/she has the ability to somehow defy their conscience and abuse an innocent person, then they definitely can lie about it too.
I say all that to say this: When someone (child or adult) admits that they were abused, believe them. There is a 2% chance or less that the allegations are false. If you do have any qualms about believing a person’s story, seek the face of God and ask Him to bring the truth to light.
- Protect them.
After we believe them, we must do everything we can to protect them. Remember, their world is no longer a safe place. The incident must be reported. (See Romans 13:1-5; Eph. 5:11, 1 Peter 2:13-15).
But protect them in little ways too. People who’ve been victimized once walk around with a “target on their back”. They often are victimized again.
I’ve seen far too many victims leaving the church because the church is not a safe place for them. The perpetrator still sits in the pew, Sunday after Sunday. Maybe he/she even teaches Sunday school. Or maybe the perpetrator is one of the preachers. At any rate, being in the presence of one’s abuser is not a “safe place” to a victim.
I know of no place that is more safe than the lap of Jesus Himself. If we are going to be the hands and feet of Jesus, then church is going to have to be a safe place.
- Grieve with them.
Take time to grieve with the victim. Grieving is hard. No one should have to grieve alone. A sexual abuse victim often grieves alone simply because abuse tends to be such a “hush hush” subject in our circles.
Grieving the loss of innocence is a little like grieving for a loved one who walked away from God. Once it is gone, it’s gone forever.
Think about the things that you wish someone would do for you if you were grieving. Maybe they just need a card or a journal, or a listening ear. Maybe they need a few hours of silence at a coffee shop, or a weekend get-away. There is so much we can do for people who are grieving.
4. Love and affirm them.
Sexual abuse victims need someone to show them what true love looks like. They need to be showered with affirmation.
They need to hear things such as “I believe you.” “What happened to you was not your fault.” “You are loved.” “You are clean and pure.” “I will walk with you.” “I will protect you.” “I will do everything I can to help you heal.” “You are brave and full of courage.”
When someone in church has a bad car accident or has an extensive surgery of some kind, we do very well at caring for their physical needs. We take a meal, babysit their children, help them financially, visit them, etc. We all “pitch in” and help them in their physical affliction.
How much more we should be doing this for sexual abuse victims. Think about it: They may be “fine” physically, but emotionally they are bruised and broken. We need to be doing all we can to make their load easier. We need to care for them and their families. We need to love them well.
5. Help them find healing.
But how? Is there hope?
YES! A thousand times yes!
Jesus is the Master Healer. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Is. 53:5)
In my own journey, I’ve found that forgiveness is the key to healing. (Read more about my journey here.)
Now please, I beg you to keep reading. Please, victims, “don’t write me off” yet. And the rest of you, please don’t “run away” with “forgiveness.” Let me explain what I mean.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is not trust. Forgiveness is not forcing the victim to “forgive” so that there are no legal consequences for the perpetrator. Forgiveness is not “shutting the victim up” to protect a family, church, or business image.
That is not forgiveness.
Forgiveness is making a conscious choice to be okay with the struggles I have today because the of the abuse. Forgiveness is choosing to take responsibility for my reaction to the abuse. Forgiveness is choosing to forgive every time I feel bitterness rising in my heart when I think about the abuse or the person who abused me.
That, brothers and sisters, is forgiveness.
Healing and forgiveness are so intertwined in the healing process that it is hard to separate them. You cannot forgive without some measure of healing. And yet, you cannot heal without forgiveness. They go hand-in-hand.
Though I am of the firm belief that healing comes when we forgive, I believe that every victim needs to make that decision for themselves: “Am I going to continue being a victim or am I going to let God make something beautiful out the ashes?”
God doesn’t force us to do anything. He doesn’t force us forgive. We shouldn’t force anyone else to forgive either.
6. Remember that healing is a journey.
We tend to forget that. Healing from sexual abuse takes time. Years. Sometimes even decades. Some people may never fully recover. This doesn’t mean they didn’t forgive or that they haven’t found true healing.
Some people never fully recover from car accidents either. Does that mean they haven’t healed? No.
If you feel incompetent of leading someone to Jesus and helping them forgive, there are Biblical Christian counselors who lead people to Jesus every day in their offices.***
In conclusion, the consequences of doing little or nothing to help sexual abuse victims are huge. Victims who haven’t dealt with their abuse often end up becoming perpetrators. They sometimes become atheists. They have a much higher chance of becoming prostitutes. They are at risk for committing suicide.
Jesus has some sobering words for us in Mark 9 verse 42: “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.”
I can’t think of a better way to offend a child than to (1) sexually abuse them and (2) to refuse to believe and protect them. It is serious stuff, brothers and sisters. God does not deal kindly with those who hurt the innocent and vulnerable.
The church doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse – both on a perpetrator level and victim level. I shudder when I think of what God must think of the stories I hear nearly every week about the church’s response to victims.
We, as the body of Christ, have a responsibility to help the lambs whose spirits have been murdered by “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” After all, we are His hands and feet.
And if we truly know Jesus, we will reach out to sexual abuse victims. We will believe them. We will love them. We will care for their broken hearts and spirits.
May God give us wisdom and courage to relate to them the way He would.
**Statistics from http://www.nationalreview.com
***Freedom Hills Ministries (Ohio), Grace Haven Ministries (Indiana), LIFE Ministries (Pennsylvania), Door of Hope Ministries (North Carolina).