Heavenly principles, earthly applications

Biblical counseling is heavenly ministry, but it is still hard work. Examination of the glorious truths of God’s Word and their application to life is enlightening and enriching. But the brutal realities of entering into others’ pain can be overwhelming.

So far, this blog has mostly focused on the glorious principles undergirding biblical counseling. However, the harsh realities can be grimy. Biblical counseling applies the Gospel to painful, confusing messes. Theological truths about the character of God do indeed reveal the answers to the problems of life. But rebellious teens, anxiety, breakups, depression, abuse, fear of commitment, difficult marriages and complex family situations require tough practical application, not just lofty theoretical ideals. Where does truth meet life?

I deal with many varied topics in counseling, but one of the most difficult is sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is an epidemic that is growing exponentially, so cases of sexual abuse and assault make up a significant percentage of my counseling. A later blog will discuss how to help victims of sexual abuse, but for now, I decided to write about the realities of this kind of counseling.

So…what’s it like to be a biblical counselor who specializes in helping people heal from sexual abuse?

Agonizing. I am (usually haltingly) invited into the worst raw trauma a person has ever experienced. I tread gently through the valley at their side, amid grief so intense they sometimes can’t even feel anything at first. The numbness is followed by tears, then rage, then cycles of grief and questions about the character of God. How can He be loving, when He allows this? Where was He? I often weep and rage alongside victims of profound evil. And yes, sometimes the stories keep me awake at night. But I am privileged to kneel alongside people in pain, pointing out evidences that God is still love, and that He never leaves or forsakes them.

Futile. Not for the victim—biblical healing works emotional and spiritual miracles. Our God “heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds.” The Gospel heals sexual trauma now, just as surely as it did when Jesus talked with the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery.

The futility is in working with a system bent on defending the predator until there is literally no other possible explanation than what the victim has described. I don’t just speak of the legal system; although sexual abuse is often a crime that has no witnesses and little to no physical evidence, legal issues are not the most difficult barrier.

Well-meaning Christians bubbling with cheap grace often form the most formidable barrier against a restoration of a victim’s understanding of the character of God, and ability to trust Him. The soft, invincible wall of enablers links arms to form a cushion of silence and positive assumptions around the predator. “Can’t you see how sorry he is? He promised he’ll never do it again, and this was the only time.” “I just can’t imagine he did that.” “He said he didn’t do it. You know the Bible says an accusation against an elder has to have two or three witnesses, right?” “Certainly she is responsible too, even if he was her pastor.” “Don’t you believe in forgiveness?” “I guess grace doesn’t mean much to you, like it does to us.” These well-meaning people come out of the woodwork like cockroaches in a dark kitchen, uniting to crush victims into silence and prevent predators from confessing or repenting. Often their stinging remarks and gross misrepresentation of God’s love send victims spinning back into darkness. On Judgment Day, these people may be the ones who must face the reality that they, not we, are the ones who condemned both predators and victims to iron cages they would never escape. But right now, in our cheap-grace-saturated world, it sounds wonderful, and it leaves everyone congratulating themselves that they “showed Jesus’ love.”

There is also a special kind of futility unique to women in ministry. Research indicates that when men and women express intense emotions such as anger or grief, men are taken more seriously, but women are more often dismissed as irrational. Even women often tend to dismiss other women who show emotion. This means that when I bring abuse situations to church leaders’ attention, if I seem to actually care that this woman or child has been sexually abused, leaders are less likely to act. Emotions are seen as a flag revealing that I must be illogical. I must calmly spout facts and statistics, avoiding any mention of the emotional turmoil of the victim. Leaders often even admit they have close to zero training and experience in dealing with sexual abuse. If I were male, I could educate them, and they would listen. But I am female, and therefore I will often be taken less seriously, especially if I seem to feel anything about the situation. Until men connect emotionally with the situation themselves—when their daughter, their sister, or their wife, is the victim—my work is often futile.

There is an old song called “The Ambulance Down in the Valley,” that tells the story of people who refuse to build a fence at the top of the cliff, preferring instead to cart away victims with an ambulance at the bottom. Any appeals for fence-building are met with scorn and accusations that the fence-builder doesn’t support the ambulance work. This song rings in my head sometimes as I rage meaninglessly against the soft, invincible wall of enablers. Building fences—notifying authorities, banning people from church membership and leadership, and pressing charges—are seen as messy and graceless, a waste of time and resources and a public shame to the predator, church and family. If leaders will not act, sadly, often the fences are not built. This is why predators typically have dozens or hundreds of victims instead of one or two. (Estimates based on prison interviews place the average at 50-150 victims before the predator is first reported.)

But always, in the midst of the frustration of this futility, I must remind myself that the majority of these enablers—these people who build the soft, unyielding wall preventing change and healing for both predators and victims—honestly mean to help. They think their response is loving.

Beautiful. The candle flame glows brightest in the blackest night. Gospel glory blazes most brilliant in contrast with deep darkness. And certainly, sexual abuse causes such darkness. The shame, betrayal and injustice scream a concoction of potent lies about the character of God. If God is my loving Father, why did He stand by and watch this happen? Why did He send this father, or pastor, or teacher into my life? If God is fair, why does He let predators get away with such things—even while their victims pray for Him to intervene? These are questions that must be answered to release victims from the iron grip of trauma.

To believe that God is still good in the face of such powerful evidences that He may not be requires victims to become heroes and heroines of faith. As they reach up to grasp the hand of God, and experience His grip in the midst of their fear, anxiety, depression and despair, life is transformed. Unbelief collapses in cowardice before invincible faith. The dungeon becomes a palace, and those who were once the prisoners of Satan throw off his chains with savage joy. They become emissaries of rare conviction, warriors with the wisdom to blend justice and mercy in a rainbow displaying the character of God in daily life. They have tasted and seen that God is good, and no evidence on earth can convince them otherwise. Lighting such candles—the flames of faith forever vanquishing doubts about whether God can be trusted—is a rare and precious privilege, worth every ounce of heartache. This is the work of the Gospel—the work of binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming deliverance to the captives.

Why do I choose this agonizing, often futile ministry? Because, especially in light of the epidemic of porn and resulting sexual abuse, I have no choice—it is where the gospel must meet life. Because often those who most need missionaries are suffering silently in the pews of our churches, unable to grasp the love of God without answers to hard questions. Because love cannot sit by and watch such suffering without responding in compassion. Because if the Gospel works at all, it must bring light to the darkest corners of our hearts.

For relevant information on how to protect children from sexual abusers, and how to handle sexual abuse reports, I recommend “Seducers Among Our Children” by Patrick Crough.