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While you don’t want to refrain from helping the abused get to a better place, you must do it patiently and compassionately (Ephesians 4:15). As you progress to this stage of your care, you’re continually saturating your truth-speaking with your affirmation of the person (Romans 8:31). Let’s call her Mable. There is a delicate tension that you will not be able to navigate flawlessly. Prepare yourself for some “tough-delicate” conversations. Not speaking challenging truths intended to restore her soul would not be love, but speaking those truths without compassion will complicate her soul.
One of the things she needs to experience from you is your loving strength. Because your care is so strong, you can’t help but speak the truth to her—a tension for the skilled, not the novice. At some level of her soul, she will respect your careful courage. There is a similarity here between how parents shepherd their children. Kids have more respect for parents who speak the truth in love than those parents who are afraid to show courage in the face of potential rejection. They disrespect the equivocating parent.
While you digest the story of her abuse, you want to discern what she is communicating about her heart. Part of this process requires you to hear what she is not telling you, things she might not know about her inner thought life. This component is a key to Christian discipleship. Christ understood how the stories the people told were clues to how they thought about life and, thus, how they lived. This approach to caring for her is why empathetic listening is not enough. It would be best if you had biblical listening too, which requires courage, among other things.
This kind of courageous listening will lead you from what has happened to her in the external world to how it has affected Mable’s inner world—at the soul level. The way she tells her tragic experiences will reveal her perspectives on God, herself, others, and what happened to her. As you listen for these things, you will discern the true Mable, the person who is unmasking her vulnerable soul to you (Luke 6:45). Are you sensing the responsibility and danger in this process? I hope so. You’re a soul surgeon as you cooperate with the Lord, guided by His Word to care for a broken person.
Mable will not know herself clearly or how to work through her complexities, so she comes to you. If she knew the depth and complexity of her struggle and how to resolve those things, she could fix herself, but she can’t. Mable needs you, so you must filter her story through the grid of God’s Word. She will feel your care as you listen to her telling her story from the upper level, and on the deeper heart level, she will receive your care as you rightly interpret her story as part of God’s story and what His intentions are for her life.
Remembering that Mable is not entirely different from you will aid you as you progress. Her struggles and your struggles have an echo of commonality. Of course, the most apparent difference between you and Mable will be the trauma. By analogy, it is like EMS workers stabilizing the traumatized person. Once the stabilization has happened, the EMS team begins working on the victim as they would work on any person. You have not been traumatized; she has. After you stabilize her and are ready to bring care to her, this is where you’re going to find that she is not a lot different from you—at the level of the heart where all restorative care happens.
This upper, lower-level concept is why you want to work hard on the front end by stabilizing her through love, hope, trust, compassion, and listening. Let her feel your care, patience, and perseverance. As her guard begins to come down and she becomes more receptive to what you have to say, you will have an appropriate influence to do the things you need to do to help her. Before coming to you, she lived in a fortified world with many self-protective barriers. She had learned how to keep people away, making it challenging to stick with her. Erecting relational obstacles is one of the ways she could protect herself because no one else would.
When you see Mable’s abuse through her eyes, those four realities will leave you hopeless while motivated to double down from letting anyone inside your fortified life. Her logical brain operates just like yours; she does not want anyone with power or authority to hurt her again. So when you show up, there will be a force field erected to deter you until she can vet you to see if you’re a friend or foe. As you begin to prove yourself to be different from her abuser, you can address the hidden matters of the heart.
Mable’s problems will be unique to her because nobody has the same story, so you will need the wisdom to listen to her unique narrative and then connect what has happened to her to the lower-level universal struggles where you and she are alike. This point is crucial because many counselors do not understand the dissimilar, similar complex: we’re all different on the outside but very much mirror each other on the inside. Please permit me to give you a few common problems that you will begin to discern as you listen to her story.
Unbelief: Trusting God is at the top of our “common to man” problems list. There is always a functional gap between how we live our lives and how we could live for the Lord—we have yet to reach perfect sanctification. Imagine having someone abuse you and how it shatters trust, even in God. Many abuse victims have asked me not to use the word Father when talking to them. For most of them, it was their fathers abusing them. You want to help Mable re-believe in God again or help her fortify a faith that someone else shattered. I mentioned earlier that you must address the “where was God when this happened to me” question.
Don’t avoid the God questions because they will have the most significant impact on her restoration. She needs the real and true God most of all, and, as you probably know, there will be hindrances that will impede her desire to run to Him.
Shame: Another significant anchor point will be her engagement with shame. She has experienced the deepest defrauding of the soul. In the last chapter, I called this the double damage effect. She was born in Adam, making her defiled and broken like you and me. Doctrinally, this is called total depravity. No need to say this to her; she already has a high awareness that something is wrong with her. She does not need your reminder. Mable has an acute experience of this double whammy. She has been spiritually pummeled by Adam and by her abuser. Biblical shame is a crippler, and when someone compounds an already complicated problem, you will need much patience and grace to walk them through it.
Guilt: Shame and guilt are not the same, though they connect. Mable’s guilty feelings will be all over the map, and there will be genuine and false guilt. When I say “false,” I don’t mean she cannot sense it; I’m saying that God is not the one initiating a sense of guilt. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean.
When she’s ready, you will need to correct any wrong thinking but recognize that you might lay down more guilt, which is why I have used the analogy of the person with the world’s worst sunburn. You have to help her while recognizing she may be in bondage to the complexity of true and false guilt. You’re discerning the entangling of the complexities, so you want to tread carefully as you keep compassion and courage at the forefront of your thinking. Let me illustrate.
Mable might be legitimately sinning in specific ways, e.g., anger. If she is transgressing, she may have difficulty sorting out her sin from what does not belong to her. She may also respond in anger to protect herself from what sounds like an authoritative accusation. Do you see the double effect? She is sinning and feels a sense of justification because she perceives the need to protect herself: “I may be sinning, and it may be wrong, but I have to do this because I have to protect myself,” a guilt conundrum.
You don’t want to be intimidated because—on one level—her problems are not different from yours, though her difficulties are exponentially more acute than yours. If you know how to counsel yourself through unbelief, shame, and guilt, you will be able to bring help to her. If you do not know how to counsel yourself through these patterns, you will not be able to bring adequate care to her. If this is the case, I appeal to you to find help for yourself as a matter of first importance.
Fear: The fourth component when considering our universal assumption is that Mable is afraid. Everything I have said thus far has a fear component to it. Think through some of her fears. What do you think she might be afraid of as a victim of abuse? Here are a few thoughts, and as you consider them, please factor in the level of her Christian maturity before the abuse happened. Who she was before the abuse will affect the breadth and depth of her fears at this point in her life.
Because of everything I have listed—unbelief, shame, guilt, and fear, there will also be other tensions and struggles in her life. Most of these will be coping mechanisms. For example, I mentioned anger, which is typical for most of us. When we are not getting our way or feel bound, restricted, or confused, we vent as a natural way of working out what is bothering us.
Let’s say that Mable lashes out in anger, and you respond with frustration. She will blame you because she cannot admit that she was wrong to get angry. She’s resisting any form of self-criticism or condemnation. All of the blame will be on you, and while some of it may be yours if you have sinned against her, the temptation with abuse victims is to take on a role of moral superiority. The temptation is to ascend to a delusional moral high ground where you can’t say anything critical about them.
They rarely recognize what is happening to them. They can’t do this because of the strong desire to live in a hermetically sealed bubble of self-deception and self-protection; it’s a coping method. In such cases, the victim of abuse will choose their current pain rather than the pain of trying to change. In the worst cases, the victim’s pain becomes their identity. Being a victim of abuse is who they are, and if you attempt to dismantle the only life they have known, they may resist while maintaining a victim’s role.
You may be reading this thinking there is no way to help these victims. You’re partially correct; you can’t do this alone. This job is for you, God, and a caring community of Christlike disciple-makers. Discipleship should be a full-body experience where the church comes together, participating according to each one’s ability. Here are a few things that Mable needs to build the right kind of community.
I will probably say this to my dying day, but “counseling is not the best option for progressive sanctification.” A God-centered local church is the best option for you, Mable, and me. Counseling can be an excellent “means of grace” in any person’s life, like temporary triage, but it is not the only means of grace. I have seen the best “sanctification results” in a person’s life when they come to counseling and actively engage their local church.
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).