Listening to sexual abuse

Felicity was nine years old when her cousin first starting going into her room. He was twelve. They weren’t particularly close, but did hang out some. He lived across the street. That was the beginning of many years of sexual abuse, though she would not call it that.[1]

She had no idea about the birds or the bees and sexual abuse was not even remotely in her thinking. He said he was just playing and this is what “all the kids were doing.”

She oscillated between being confused and being disgusted. It made no sense to her and asked him to stop many times. At some level of her awareness, she knew it was wrong, which is part of the reason she never told her parents.

The other reason she stuffed her secret down was because her parents did not have much of a relationship. The kid’s concerns were not at the forefront of their minds or care. While mom was mostly preoccupied with running the home, her daddy was mostly angry and distant.

Felicity knew her dad would not believe her if she told him and even if he did believe her, she figured he would blame her. Stuffing things inside seemed to be a better approach. Though Paul, her cousin, threatened her if she told, she had no plans of telling anyway.

That was 23 years ago. Felicity is 32-years old today. She’s married with two darling toddlers. They go to a good church, but her relationship with her husband is rocky and she feels emotionally numb most of the time. He’s not capable of helping her.

Though the abuse stopped years ago, the impact of the abuse on her soul has never left. Even after becoming a Christian in college, her mind was still encumbered with the complicatedness of the abuse. She’s never figured out how to work through the internal pain. Now she has come to you for help.

Listen to her sexual abuse

One of the most important things you can do for her is listen to her. There will be many levels of dysfunction in her mind. Her soul will be like an intersection in gridlock. You will have to carefully listen to what she is describing so you can help her unlock what has been binding her.

You will have to listen on two levels. She will tell you her story, but she will not tell you what all the problems are. She will mostly identify what happened to her, but not be able to walk you through how it twisted her heart.

Your care for her will help her understand how what happened has shaped her and how God desires to walk her through this major, traumatic, shaping influence. Being abused, which she understands, and being changed in spite of the abuse are two different things.

Felicity is not normal. There is double-damage. She has been damaged because of the fall of Adam and she has been damaged by the sin of Paul. Your task will be to walk her from where she is to the only un-damaged person known to man–Jesus Christ.

There will be a clear disparity between who she is in Adam and how she has been shaped by Paul and who she needs to be like–Jesus Christ. This will be hard for her.

Therefore, it will be hugely important you move slow through this process. In the beginning you want to listen more than you instruct. There are several reasons for this:

  1. She knows something is broken inside.
  2. To some degree she will blame herself for her brokenness.
  3. The more you try to change her, the more it can affirm what she believes about herself, that she is wrong.
  4. She needs to earn your trust first.

Teaching (or counseling) always has an instructive feel to it. This is good, but when you are counseling an insecure person, she may hear and upload what you are saying through critical ears.

They have lived in compounded condemnation for many years. I’ve described it like trying to put soothing lotion on a person with the world’s worst sunburn. They need what you have, but are afraid of receiving it because it hurts. Be careful. Go slow.

Typically a person like Felicity has overly interpreted the abuse as being her fault. While she is asking for your help, your help is designed to change her. She can easily misinterpret your desire to help her in order to change her as more affirmation that she is the one at fault.

While empathy and a careful approach is essential, she will also need to change–a fragile juxtaposition of needs. At some point you will need to adjust her heart. Empathy without a call to change will turn her even more inward and make her more awkward.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. – Romans 12:15 (ESV)

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 (ESV)

Christ was the perfect example of a person who could weep with those who wept, but also correct and help a person to change. While Felicity has been abused and thrown in a deep hole, she will have to do some hard things to get out of that hole.

Though it was not her fault, she must change. This is why you must listen carefully and lovingly and at some point in the future you will have to call her to change. It can’t be any other way. Her thinking is outside biblical lines.

In a sense we all have been thrown in a deep dark hole and Christ lovingly comes to us and calls us to change. We are wonderfully aware of His love and soberly aware of His call.

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 (ESV)

Build trust and hope

If you build patiently, she will begin to trust you. As you probably already discerned, this is one of the weaknesses of counseling. Counseling is a short-term solution for people in long-term trouble.

Someone like Felicity has been in trouble for 23 years and you’re called upon to walk her through it. This is not how things are supposed to be. You need more time to enter into her abuse, listen to the nuance of her pain, build trust with her, and walk her to the Savior.

The more effectively you listen, the more she will trust you. At first she will want to know you are there for her and that you care. Listening by asking a lot of questions will help. As you learn more about her, you can begin giving more instructive care because she now trusts you and has biblical hope.

Trust and hope are two of the biggest deficiencies in her soul. They both relate to how she thinks about God. These are the things she does not functionally experience from God.

You will be a representative of God the Father to her (Ephesians 5:1). You will be antithetical to her abuser. The abuser robbed her of hope and broke all trust. This is what you want to build into her life as you model the Father to her through your care (1 Corinthians 11:1).

As you may have discerned, your initial and primary care comes more through modeling than anything else. You do this by listening and asking questions. This was how the Savior initially cared for people.

He did not withhold His instruction or correction, but there was a logical order in how He provided care: love, listen, learn, and then instruct. As she begins to understand you’re not the enemy, you will be able to bring corrective care into her life.

Begin transitioning the session

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. – 1 Thessalonians 5:14 (ESV)

I trust I have built a strong case for going slow, being careful, and modeling the grace and mercy of the Father to her. Christian counseling is neither Christian nor counseling if it is done without compassion.[2]

Felicity 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. Then he finished his verse by saying to be patient with all of them.

Once hope and trust is built, you want to begin transitioning her heart by adjusting her thinking about her world. This will be the heart of what needs to happen. She needs to change and she can’t change without hearing the truth from God’s Word.

Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? – Galatians 4:16 (ESV)

As you are being Christ to her, you will need to speak Christ’s Words to her. While Christ was a compassionate listener, He also called people to change.

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 (ESV)

Please read my article on these two verses. It’s called Stand-Fall-Rise-Walk–keys to Christian maturity. This will be hard for her. To reprove means to knock down and she will more than likely over-feel your reproof no matter how careful 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 my 1000 for Felicity.

Fearful people are hard to adjust. She will curl up inside as you bring corrective care to her. Because of her abuse, she will interpret your words as disapproving. If she is more mature in her faith and has worked through some of these things, it will not be as difficult to help her.

I am presenting to you the worst case scenario for an abuse situation and will leave it to you to pray exegetically about the person you’re caring for–to exegete means to carefully unpack her so you can care for her.

Depending on her maturity and how she responds to you will determine how quick and deep you can go into her soul. 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 fearful people:

  • Sometimes the abused will intentionally blow up the counseling session just to stop it. She does not want to enter into the pain.
  • Other times she may test you by her manipulative or angry tactics. She is testing your perseverance. She wants to reveal her deepest and darkest secrets to someone who is going to stick with her. The manipulated, which is what her abuser did to her, only knows manipulation.
  • Some counselees simply do not come back. They sense the depth in which the session may go and choose not to return.

If she is a game-player you will to a degree have to play her games. You will have to put up with her oscillating emotional responses and fear-motivated manipulative tactics. Hang with her, but don’t refrain from speaking the truth in love to her. Once it gets to this stage, I will speak the truth AND make it clear I’m not going anywhere.

It would be unloving to leave. It would be unloving to withhold the truth from her–a delicate tension for sure. She may blame you for leaving and blame you for speaking the truth.

One of the things she needs to see is your loving strength. She needs to know you are strong and you’re there for her. Part of communicating your strength will be to call her out on her sin. If you have built love, trust, and hope into her mind, she will respect your strength.

She will also have a biblical way of interpreting your strength. Though she may call it unkindness, she will know at some level of her heart that you do care for her. It is like children in a way. Children have more respect for parents who speak the truth in love than those parents who are cowards. Felicity will respect you.

Interpret her world for her

Part of your listening means to listen to what she is not saying. While you are digesting her story–the story of her abuse, you will also be listening to the things she does not know she is saying. She won’t hear what you hear.

This is a key component to Christian counseling. Christ listened to the stories of people, but He also interpreted their stories biblically. This is why empathetic listening is not enough. You need biblical listening too.

I won’t repeat that article information here, but it may serve you well to read it. Christ was the Master at not getting caught up in the story, but listening to the story and interpreting it through a biblical grid.

Felicity will not know what all her problems are and how to work through them. That is why she is coming to you. If she knew the depth of the problems and how to resolve them, she could fix herself. She needs you.

Therefore, you will have to filter her story through the Bible. On one level she will feel your care as you listen to her story. On another level, she will receive your care as you rightly interpret her story as part of God’s story and what He wants to do in her life.

Don’t be intimidated

Felicity is not much different from you. She struggles with all your sin issues. The big difference is the trauma, but other than that you guys have a lot of similarity. Once the EMS worker stabilizes the traumatized person, they begin working on them just like everyone else.

This 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. Then begin working with the issues that are common to all of us.

Granted, her common issues will be unique to her and that will require wisdom in how you care for her, but they are still common issues. Here are a few common issues you will discern as you listen to her story:

Unbelief – This will be the biggest issue of all. There will be separation between her and God, even if she is a believer. Her trust in God and others has been shattered. I’ve had more than one sexually abuse person ask me not to use the word Father when talking to them.[3]

There will be many gaps in her thinking about God the Father. Where was He? Why didn’t He rescue me? How does He view me? Does He really care? Why doesn’t He change me? …and on and on and on.

You could take each one of those questions and spend a couple of hours walking the abused person through a right understanding of God the Father. And I highly recommend it. She needs God most of all, but there will be hindrances that will impede her desire to run to Him.

Shame – This is also another biggie. The abused person has been defrauded at the deepest level of her soul. This is a double-whammy. She was born as a naked, defiled, sinner and she was sexually abused. It hardly gets much worse than this.

Biblical shame is a crippler and when someone compounds an already complicated problem, you will need much patience and grace to walk them through this. For more on biblical shame, read one of my DE Students articles, A Case Study from a Distance Education Student.

Mark Grant does an exceptional job unpacking biblical shame. You can also read Ed Welch’s book, When People Are Big and God is Small. These resources will serve you well.

Guilt – This is different from shame, though connected to shame. I’m already over my article length, so I’ll recommend my webinar on True Guilt and False Guilt. You can click the Webinar link at the top of the page and watch that one hour video.

Her guilt will be all over the map and it will be true and false guilt. Here are a few examples:

  • She will be guilty in the sense we all are guilty before God, but she will have a hard time separating the violence that was done to her and the normal guilt we all have before God. This will convolute her mind.
  • She may blame herself for what happened to her. Maybe the perp blamed her. As in Felicity’s case her daddy would not believe her–a passive way of blaming her, so it would be easy for her to blame herself.
  • She may have enjoyed the sexual aspects of the abuse because there is an enjoyment aspect to sex. However, what happened to her was violence, abuse, insanity, and defrauding. This will also be convoluting to her, especially if it did feel good.
  • She may receive your correction as more guilt. This is why I talked about the “world’s worst sunburn” earlier. You have to adjust her, but you’re adjusting a person who may be crippled by guilt. This is why you want to be patient with her.
  • She may be sinning in other ways, e.g. anger, as I mentioned earlier by her manipulative tactics to blow up relationships. If she is legitimately sinning, she may have a hard time sorting her sin out from the perp’s sin.
  • She may also respond in anger as a way of protecting herself. It’s all she knows. This has a double-effect. She is sinning, but also feels a sense of justification because she senses the need to protect herself: “It’s wrong, but I have to do this.” This is a “guilt-conundrum.”

Thus far you are working with a person struggling with trusting God, embarrassing shame, and crippling guilt. As noted, you struggle with the same things, just not to the exponential degree that she is struggling.

While you don’t want to be intimidated, as though her problems are different from yours, they are exponential. Think through how you address your unbelief, shame, and guilt? This will help.

If you can counsel yourself, you will be able to help her. If you can’t counsel yourself, you will want to start by learning how to change yourself before trying to help someone else to change.

Fear – Then there will be fear. She is afraid. Everything I said thus far has a fear-component to it. It could be she is afraid of nearly everything.

  • She is afraid of God.
  • She is afraid of herself.
  • She is afraid of you.
  • She is afraid of the church.
  • She is afraid of relationships.
  • She is afraid of commitment.
  • She is afraid to make decisions.
  • She is afraid of new things.
  • She is afraid of being afraid.

You get the idea. Depending on how well she was discipled before she was abused and how well she has been discipled after her abuse, will determine the breadth, depth, height, and width of her fear. You will have to discern this.

Ancillary sins - Because of everything listed above, there will also be ancillary or complementary sin issues and patterns in her life. Most of these will be there as a way to cope with what has happened to her.

For example, I mentioned anger and manipulation. This was Felicity’s way of testing you to see if you would stick with her. It can also be a protective act, as she is insulating herself from perceived hurt. She will lash out.

If you’re not aware of this, you could misunderstand what she is doing. Let’s say she lashes out in anger and you respond in anger and/or stop persevering with her and end the counseling. She will go away, blame you, while affirming her mind that she is right AND worthless.

She won’t admit the truth–that it really was her fault. She can’t because she has to live in a hermetically sealed bubble of self-deception in order to cope. This is one of the most remarkable things about the Savior. He endured a lot of nonsense from people in order to help them.

She may pull your chain and if you respond wrongly, you’ll be the meanie, she will be justified, and she ultimately won’t be helped. And, at times, some people cannot be helped because they choose to live in their self-deception.

They will choose their current pain over the pain of coming out–the lesser of two evils. Sometimes, for some people, their pain is their idol AND their identity. It becomes who they are and if you try to dismantle her idol, you’ll be crushed by it.[4]

Give her community

You may be reading this and thinking there is no way you can do this. You’re partially right. You can’t do this alone. This job is for you, God, and His community. Felicity needs full-body help.

She needs God. She needs a local church. She needs a female friend. She needs a small group. She needs regular spiritual disciplines. She needs accountability from close friends.

And she needs time. I will probably say this to my dying day, but “counseling is not the best option for progressive sanctification.” The local church is the best option.

Counseling can be a wonderful means of grace in any person’s life, but it was not meant to be the only means of grace. I have seen the best results when a person comes to counseling and they are also actively engaging their local church.

Sanctification is progressive–unending. Counseling is temporary, with a start date and an end date. Build a vision in Felicity’s life to find and engage a solid local church.

Caveat – I do realize finding a solid local church that actively engages you in a biblical way can be hard to find, even in the United States. This is one reason I started this Membership Site–to serve folks who are looking for help.

If this site can be a help or resource to anyone, please let them know about it. While this is NOT the local church, it can, like my counseling efforts, be a partner with the local church.

There are thousands of people like Felicity out there. My hearts desire is to help them in any way I can. But I’m no different from you. I’m one man and the need is too large. We need community. We need each other.

Be her friend. Address her issues. Direct her to the family of God. Pray the Father will fix what was broken. Ultimately, it is His work. We’re partnering with Him.

  • Also watch my webinar Unbelief–How to overcome it. It is vital teaching for someone like Felicity.
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  1. [1] This article was written in response to a one of our Members, who also is one of our Distance Education Students. He is counseling someone who has been abused. A core component of our DE Program is to develop students to care for others, by walking them through situations they are dealing with now.
  2. [2] I first heard my professor, Wayne Mack, say this in one of our classes.
  3. [3] This typically happens if the person was abused by her father.
  4. [4] As noted earlier, I’m giving you the worst case scenario for sexual abuse or, in this case, anyone who finds their identity in pain.
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About Rick Thomas

Rick is an author, speaker, consultant, and podcaster. He has been training in the Upstate of South Carolina since 1997. After several years as a counselor and pastor he founded and launched his own training organization in order to encourage and equip people for more effective living. In the early ’90’s he earned a BA in Theology. He then earned a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry and in 2000 he graduated with a MA in Counseling. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow with ACBC. Today his organization reaches people around the world through consulting, training, writing, and speaking.
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