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This resource is about carefully understanding and competently moving forward when helping abuse victims. I’m merely laying the groundwork for serving the victims of abuse; it does not cover all you need to know about helping these souls. Please take advantage of the linked articles throughout this resource for a more in-depth study.
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.
There’s a pain goes on and on.
The opening lines of the Les Miserables Broadway song, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” probably sums up what sexual abuse feels like to the abused more than any other two lines of literature. This crime of body and soul is so profound that the victims do not entirely understand it and cannot articulate the fullest depths of what happened to them. Let me illustrate with a fictional account of abuse, though this story closely approximates many shattered souls.
Mable was nine years old when her cousin first started going into her room. He was twelve. They weren’t particularly close but did hang out on occasion. He lived across the street. Those horrific days were the beginning of many years of sexual abuse, though she would not call it by that label back then. She had no idea about the birds or the bees, and the words sex or abuse were not remotely in her world of thoughts. Her cousin said that he was playing and, “All the kids are doing it, so what’s the big deal?”
Mable vacillated between confusion and disgust. It made no sense, and though she asked him to stop many times, he would not. Like most sexually abused people, she blamed herself, at least partly; her anger had to go somewhere. At some level, she knew it was wrong, which is part of the reason she never told her parents. She stuffed “their secret” down into her “dark place” because her parents did not have much of a relationship with her. While her mother was mainly preoccupied with running the home, her dad was primarily angry and distant. The children’s concerns were not at the forefront of their minds.
Mable knew her dad would not believe her if she told him, and even if he did listen, she figured he would blame her; she was already doing that. Though her cousin threatened her if she said anything, she had no plans of talking to anyone, and stuffing things inside seemed prudent at the time, though she did not know how it would rip her soul apart in the years to come. That was twenty-three years ago. Mable is thirty-two years old today. She’s married with two darling toddlers. They go to a sound church, but her relationship with her husband is rocky, and she feels emotionally numb most of the time. Because of his immaturity, he is not capable of helping her.
The abuse stopped years ago, but the impact of those long-ago assaults on her soul has never left. Even after becoming a Christian in college, the complicatedness of the abuse continually encumbered her mind. She’s never learned how to work through the internal pain. Now, she has come to you for help, and one of the most important things you can do for her is to listen to her story because there will be many levels of confusion, fear, and hurt, collectively fighting for control of her mind (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).
You could liken her soul to a busy intersection in gridlock on a humid day. You will have to carefully listen to what she is describing so you can help unlock what has bound her into this spiritual nightmare of the soul. Your listening must be on two levels. Mable will tell you her story—what happened to her. She won’t be able to articulate well what has happened inside her, a more comprehensive understanding of abuse. Part of the reason she can’t tell you is that she will be afraid of you. “What will you do with this information? Can you help me anyway? Will you hurt me?”
Another reason she will struggle talking to you is that she does not fully understand what this sin-crime has done to her. She understands experiencing abuse, but it is not as clear to her how the abuse has changed her. Mable’s abuser has shaped her into something the Lord wants her to understand and then help restore her to what she can be. Your care for her will help her know how what happened has shaped her and how God desires to walk her through this life-altering, traumatic, shaping influence. Before the abuse, she was a “normal” fallen person. She was born in a mess, like the rest of us—Adamic (Romans 3:10-12, 23, 5:12), and then abuse was piled on top of her.
Your task will be to walk her from where she is to the only perfect person we know—Jesus Christ, working through the fallenness of Adam and the abuse from her cousin. There will be a definite disparity between who she is in Adam, how her abuser has shaped her, and who she needs to be in Christ. You want to help her cross these divides. I cannot overemphasize this point: it will be tremendously important for you to move slowly through this process. There is no hurry to get to the finish line. The truth is that for Mable, there is no finish line. She will carry some “parts” of her abuse until she sees Jesus.
In the beginning, you want to listen more than you instruct (James 1:19). Teaching (or counseling) always has an instructive feel, which can be good, but when counseling an abused person, she may hear what you’re saying but upload it through self-condemning ears. There are several reasons for this. She knows something is broken inside her; to some degree, she will blame herself for her brokenness. The more you try to change her, the more it may affirm what she believes about herself: that she is wrong. Move slowly; you must earn her trust more than anything else.
Abused victims live in compounded condemnation for many years. I’ve described it as trying to put soothing lotion on a person with the worst sunburn. They need what you have, but it is painful, and they fear the process because it hurts. Be careful. A person like Mable interprets the abuse as being her fault. This pattern is typical thinking for victims of sexual abuse. You can repeatedly say, “It was not your fault,” but it will be hard for her to disconnect her mind from the well-entrenched messages that say otherwise.
Sympathy with a careful approach is essential. Though Mable is reaching out to you because of your desire to help, it will be easy for her to misinterpret your motives as additional affirmation that she is at fault. You are an “authority figure” in her life, and she has a captivating category for what influential people can do to her. There is a fragile juxtaposition of needs: you need to help Mable, and she needs to stop hurting. Sympathy without a call to change will turn her inward and make her more awkward, but your call to change may twist her up even more.
Christ was the perfect example of a person who could weep with those who wept and help a person move beyond the pain—at the same time. Though Mable has been abused and thrown into a bottomless pit of despair, she will have to do courageous things to get out of that hole. You must listen carefully and lovingly to win her trust, with a steady and sensitive eye on the future goal of helping her recover, to change. You will have to lead her to where she does want to go, albeit tentatively.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body (Hebrews 13:3).
He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord (Psalm 40:2-3).
We’ve all experienced the horrific tossing into a deep dark hole, and Christ lovingly came to restore us. We are wonderfully aware of His love and soberly aware of His call to respond. Mable will need to experience both of these things from you, which is, in part, what it means to listen to abuse. If you build in a patient way with her, she will begin to trust you. As you have probably already discerned, this is one of the weaknesses of counseling.
Counseling is a short-term solution for people with long-term problems. Someone like Mable has been in despair for twenty-three years, and you’re called to walk with her. It would be best if you had time to enter into her abuse, listen to the nuance of her pain, and begin building trust with her. At first, she will want to know you are there for her and that you care. Listening by asking a lot of questions will benefit her. As you learn more about her, you can begin giving more instructive care because she will be experiencing biblical hope through you because of your careful consideration of her unique story.
Trust and hope are two of the most significant needs she will want from you. They both relate to how she thinks about God, ultimately speaking. These may be two concepts that she already knows but has not practically experienced from the Lord. You will be building these things into her life as you model the Father to her (1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:9). You will, in a sense, be her representative of God the Father (Ephesians 5:1), which is antithetical to her experience with her abuser. The abuser robbed her of hope and broke all trust.
You probably have discerned how your initial and primary care comes more through modeling Christ than “preaching Christ” at her. Though the Lord did not withhold His instruction or correction, there was a logical order in how He provides care to hurting, tentative, and fearful sheep. Your words, demeanor, inflections, and hope-filled responses will be the means the Lord uses to release her from the captivation that has tormented her for years. Your time with her is a process. As she begins to understand you’re not her enemy, you will be able to bring more transformative care to her life. Here is a simple way to think about the Father’s patient care.
I trust I have built a strong case for going slow, being careful, and modeling the grace and mercy of our Father to Mable. Christian counseling is not Christian if you are doing it without tears. Mable represents two of Paul’s three categories in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. He said to encourage the fainthearted and to help the weak. She is both of those, all wrapped up in one soul. Once hope and trust are built, you want to begin transitioning her heart by helping her to think biblically about herself, God, and others. This process will be the core of what needs to happen to Mable.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
She has a view of the world that her abuser damaged. You will need to filter her worldview through God’s Word while asking the Spirit of God to help her rescript her thinking. The word “reprove” means to knock down, so be careful how you think about this word, practically speaking and communicating the concept to her. Mable will more than likely over-feel your instructive care no matter how cautious you are. Imagine how hard it is for you to hear the truth of God’s Word when you’re called to change. You can multiply that by a thousand times over for Mable. She may curl up inside as you bring any care to her, no matter how patient or tender you are. Because of her abuse, she may interpret your words as disapproving.
You will have to ask the Father to give you insight into the unique person before you. Depending on where she is with the Lord and how she responds to you will determine how quickly and deeply you can go. If she is not ready, she will let you know through any number of means. I think I have experienced most of them when counseling the abused. Sometimes the abused person will intentionally push away from the counseling. She does not want to enter into the pain. Other times she may test you.
She is testing your perseverance. She may desire to reveal her deepest and darkest secrets to you, but will you persevere? Sometimes they choose not to come back. It’s too painful. My point here is that each person and situation is different. There are no cookie-cutter processes. There should not be artificial timelines where you place expectations that speed up the process or manipulate her to respond according to your expectations. You need the illuminating power of God’s Spirit, the insight of His Word, and the support of others as you build your team to care for this broken soul.
Counseling the abused is not something for the inexperienced, untrained individual. The temptation can be to “cliche the victims” of abuse by parroting Bible verses because we don’t know how to customize our care. It’s okay to say you can’t do this. Mable will appreciate your honesty, which is far better than making a bad situation worse. Though God’s Word is effective in restoring broken souls, every messenger of God’s Word is not competent and careful enough to minister it in these situations.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).