Victims of Childhood Sex Abuse Deserve the Church's Attention

"We will remember that God waits while we learn." Diane Langberg, PhD

Those words brought me tremendous joy recently as I prepared for a doctoral course at SEBTS in counseling sexual abuse and addictions. Dr. Diane Langberg wrote them in her book, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse. I doubt she intended them to play a central role in anyone's reading, yet I found them to be very encouraging and insightful.

In Isaiah 30:18, we read God's words to the Old Testament nation of Israel, "Therefore the Lord is waiting to show you mercy, and is rising up to show you compassion, for the Lord is a just God. All who wait patiently for Him are happy" (emphasis mine; HCSB). This verse was central to my conversion to Christianity, because it taught me that despite my years of rebelling against Him, God waited for me.

How has God waited for you?

Patience, as we see throughout the Bible, is an attribute of God, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and therefore something for us as Christians to imitate (Eph. 5:1). Far from a debated theological topic, can you imagine what the Christian life would be like without it? 

Numerous times in the New Testament alone, the Greek word for patience is used in a variety of forms, all in a positive sense, and as a command for the believer (2 Tim. 4:2). Patience, it turns out, is an important component of the Christian life and discipleship. It is no less true for the task of biblical counseling.

A Necessary Component in Counseling the Sexually Abused

In her book, Langberg identifies three core areas that are or can be deeply affected by childhood sexual abuse. These may occur individually, together, and at varying lengths of time and intensity. These "aftereffects" may include but not necessarily be limited to the following:
  1. Emotional: Guilt, shame, powerlessness, body image issues, fear of intimacy or commitment, and trust issues.
  2. Physical: Self-harm, suicidal ideation, addictions, and sexual dysfunctions.
  3. Spiritual: Distorted images of the nature of God (i.e. God as punisher, taskmaster, impotent, irrelevant, or indifferent).
Justin and Lindsey Holcomb wrote in their book, Rid of My Disgrace, that "At least one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime." Many of these will have been childhood victims, and many will carry the scars of abuse with them well into adulthood and marriage, hidden and unredeemed.

If the figures cited by the Holcombs are even remotely true (and I believe they are), the church at large has a powerful, spiritual opponent at work in the lives of many of its people, young and old. To ignore it is to leave a dangerous wolf prowling throughout the sheepfold.

If we isolate this issue alone, how is sexual abuse and its vast aftereffects as mentioned above derailing the discipleship of earnest Christians who are suffering in silence because the church, broadly speaking, is unresponsive? Pastors and ministry leaders: in this we find a legitimate, undeniable "social justice" issue for the church, and a regrettable yet gaping-wide window into the lives of people.

Why are we, the church, choosing to do nothing?

It is my sincerely held belief that the church does not respond well to this issue because it fails to grasp how powerful a role the Gospel and community can play in the healing process of a victim, choosing to believe instead that sexual abuse is a matter that can only be addressed by "mental health professionals" according to a medical model of "mental illness."

It's often said that "God meets us in our valleys," yet when the church fails to act on this, what is communicated is "Just not that valley."

Could it be that when the Apostle Paul wrote that we are to "bear one another's burdens," that he meant nothing less than moving with care and compassion toward those who've been victimized in ways we can barely name in a public worship service (Gal. 6:2)? 

I believe this is the case.

Counseling is a Mission of the Church and Patience is a Guide

Sexual abuse can produce profound, sustained effects in the survivor that require compassionate, patient care rooted in the patient love of God for His people (1 Jn. 4:8; 1 Cor. 13:4). By not involving itself in the counseling process, the church misses out on a tremendous opportunity to love its own and evangelize the lost.

How then should the church and victims of abuse respond?
  1. The church must consider either the establishment of an intentional counseling ministry (see ACBC), or it must vet for biblical faithfulness counselors already in the community with whom it can partner. There are many critical issues to be resolved in either case, but one thing remains clear: unresponsiveness is not a biblical option.
  2. The sexual abuse survivor, especially those who have suffered in silence for many years, must prayerfully entrust this matter to God, and ask Him to provide a Christian counseling resource that can be trusted with this delicate truth. Silence and isolation do not promote healing, but leave the victim enslaved to the past.
The Practical Side of Patience

In this post, I've suggested that patience is a key to counseling the sex abuse victim. While it may feel tertiary, I assure you it isn't. Counseling the survivor will require copious amounts of patience from both counselor and counselee, depending on the individual circumstances. Neither party should expect anything more than incremental steps toward redeeming a portion of life so harmed by such horrific an evil.

But, there is hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways unimagined by secular theories of counseling. Meaning, purpose, and value can all be discovered through a season of biblical counseling (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28). At the intersection of faith and depravity, grace conquers despair.

Even, or especially for, the sexually abused.

Join the Discussion

If we can help you or your church process an issue related to counseling sexual abuse, or any other counseling related topic, please contact us at Baylight. We'd love to hear from you.

Joshua Waulk
Executive Director