Frequently I get asked about how to respond when someone tells you about sexual abuse that they’ve gone through. The severity of the situation certainly makes it clear that you can’t toss out the usual Christian catch phrases. A situation that requires delicacy, yet bold action, and yet precision can be tough to navigate, so let’s look at some simple principles to operate by.
First, develop a plan of action. If this person is in an abusive home, authorities will need to be notified. We need to develop a plan for how to do that. Who do we tell, how do we tell them, work it out together step by step, we need to act boldly and decisively to cut off this abuse, but we don’t want to further traumatize someone by rushing them through something they feel unsure about.
A lot of victims of sexual abuse stay in those situations because they can’t imagine a way out, so the key is working a strategy that not only will work, but looks like it’ll work. Either way, from day one, you’ll want to explain to them, staying in these situations and getting pity is not an option. You’re leaving this abusive boyfriend and you’re living a life of recovery that you can be proud of, period. The End.
People have a way of only moving forward when they can see how they’d survive in that forward world.
Next, you want to help your friend to see the reality beyond the emotions. That doesn’t mean that we ignore the emotions by any means, it just means that the emotions of this situation will lead people to blame themselves, and take on an eternal victim mentality. At that point, you’ve got a downward spiral. So, just before we set off on that emotional journey, let’s get a few things straight.
First, rape is something that very deeply disturbed people do (that’s from someone who has been working with rapists for 20 years). It’s part of a pattern of behavior that often builds up over years and years, it isn’t a function of how you acted, or talked, or dressed a certain day. Second, rape is about power, not sex. Therefore, having this event effect your sex life is, in the long run, a dysfunction that doesn’t fit the original situation. Finally, and most important, the rape itself only lasted a few moments, it’s the emotional impact that’s been doing the damage ever since.
Thus, taking that last element as an example, we need to look at, are we, in a way, inflicting ourselves with this abuse over and over as we relive it, and thus almost abusing ourselves. The attacker may be long gone, and yet the injury goes on. So in this case one would have to look at low self-esteem. That is to say, if you have a friend who is recovering from sexual abuse, and she hears about someone else who went through the same thing, she wouldn’t say to that other person what she’s currently saying to herself, “it’s probably all your fault, you brought this on yourself, you could have acted different and avoided this whole thing.”
This is where we want to help people who have been through abuse see themselves the way God sees them. We want them to know how much love and comfort God has to offer. That God is more angry about this than they are, and that He understands their every negative emotion, and doesn’t reject them for any of it. Your body was violated, but it’s up to you to decide, for today, whether your heart and mind will will be punished as well.
And finally, we deal with forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the first thing you bring up, no matter how Christian it seems. Forgiveness, as you’ve often heard me say, is a process, and in this case, it’s bound to be a fairly lengthy process. And it’s not one that needs to be rushed, either. Venting, yelling, crying, and and ice cream all come before forgiveness. So make sure you don’t put the cart before the horse.
In all these things, don’t feel like you have to have all the answers, I take calls all day from pastors that start off with, “I’ve got this counseling situation, and I have no idea what to say”. Ask for help, that’s what the professionals do. Beyond that, showing love, talking it out, and mourning with those who mourn, is 90% of what I’d do in your shoes, so don’t for a second feel like you’re falling short.
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