Listening To Sexual Abuse, Part One

Sexual abuse is one of the most devastating and complicating sinful crimes that an individual forces on another human being. Though I don’t fully understand the horror of abuse because it has not happened to me, I’ve sat with many victims of this violence and felt and seen, in part, the effect of that sin against them.

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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 entirely understand it and are unable to articulate the fullest depths of what happened to them.

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 abuse.

She had no idea about the birds or the bees, and the words sexual abuse were not remotely in her constellation of thinking or words. Her cousin said that he was just playing and this is what all the kids were doing.

Mable vacillated between confusion and disgust. It made no sense, and though she asked him to stop many times, he would not. At some level of her awareness, she knew it was wrong, which is part of the reason she never told her parents. Like most sexually abused people, she blamed herself, at least partly.

The other reason she stuffed “their secret” down into her “dark place” was that her parents did not have much of a relationship. The children’s concerns were not at the forefront of mom and dad’s minds. While her mother was mostly preoccupied with running the home, her dad was angry primarily and distant.

Mable knew her dad would not believe her if she told him and even if he did agree with her, she figured he would blame her. Stuffing things inside seemed wiser at the time, though she did not know how it would rip her soul apart in the years to come. Though her cousin threatened her if she told, she had no plans of saying anything to anyone.

That was 23 years ago. Mable is 32-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 the assaults on her soul has never left. Even after becoming a Christian in college, the complicatedness of the abuse continually encumbers her mind. She’s never learned how to work through the internal pain. Now, she has come to you for help.

Will You Listen?

One of the most important things you can do for her is listening to her story. There will be many levels of confusion, fear, and hurt, collectively fighting for control of her mind (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).

Her soul will be similar to a busy intersection in gridlock. You will have to carefully listen to what she is describing so you can help her 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 been happening inside of her. Part of the reason she can’t tell you is that she is 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. 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.

Being abused, which she understands, and being changed in spite of the abuse, are two different things. What Mable’s abuser has shaped her into is something the Lord wants to restore.

Before the abuse, she was a “normal” fallen person. Her abuser has doubled the damage. The Adamic hole we’re all born into is worse for her (Psalm 40:2). She was born in a mess (Romans 3:10-12, 23, 5:12), and then the dirt of abuse was thrown on top of her.

Your task will be to walk her from where she is to the only perfect person we know–Jesus Christ. There will be a definite disparity between who she is in Adam, plus how her abuser has shaped her and who she needs to be in Christ. You want to help her cross this mountain.

It will be tremendously important for you to move slowly through this process. I cannot over-emphasize this point. There is no hurry to get to the finish line. The truth is that for Mable, there is no finish line. Some “parts” of her abuse she will carry until she sees Jesus.

Will You Care?

In the beginning, you want to listen more than you instruct (James 1:19). There are several reasons for this. She knows something is broken inside of 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. Let me state what must be apparent: she is a victim. You must earn her trust more than anything else.

Teaching (or counseling) always has an instructive feel to it, which can be good, but when you are counseling an abused person, she may hear what you’re saying, but upload what you are telling her through self-condemning ears.

Abused victims live in compounded condemnation for many years. I’ve described it as trying to put soothing lotion on a person with the world’s worst sunburn. They need what you have, but what you have is painful, and they fear the process because it hurts.

Be careful. Go slow. A person like Mable interprets the abuse as being her fault. This pattern is typical thinking for victims of sexual abuse.

Though you can repeatedly say, “It was not your fault,” it will be hard for her to detach her mind from the well-embedded messages that say otherwise.

Though she 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 the one at fault. You are an “authority figure” in her life, and she has a captivating category for what powerful people can do to her.

Empathy and a careful approach are essential, but so is personal change. There is a fragile juxtaposition of needs: you need to help Mable, and she needs to stop hurting. 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

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

Christ was the perfect example of a person who could weep with those who cried but also help a person move beyond the pain. Though Mable has been abused and thrown into a bottomless pit, she will have to do some hard 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 change. You will have to lead her to where she does want to go, albeit tentatively.

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. Mable will need to experience both of these things from you, which is, in part, what it means to listen to abuse.

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

Start Building

If you build patiently, 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 longterm problems.

Someone like Mable has been in despair for 23 years, and you’re called upon to walk with her. You need more 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.

Trust and hope are two of the most significant problems in her mind. They both relate to how she thinks about God. These may be two concepts that she already knows, but has not functionally experienced from the Lord.

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 will be building these things into her life as you model the Father to her (1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:9).

You probably have discerned how your initial and primary care comes more through modeling than anything else. 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.

This time with her is a process. Though the Lord did not withhold His instruction or correction, there was a logical order in how He provides care.

  1. He loves.
  2. He listens.
  3. He learns.
  4. He instructs.

As she begins to understand you’re not her enemy, you will be able to bring more transformative care to her life.

Start Transitioning

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

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.

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.

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

The word “reprove” means to knock down, so be careful how you communicate God’s truth 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 for Mable.

She may curl up inside as you bring any kind of care to her. Because of her abuse, she may interpret your words as disapproving. If she is stronger in her faith and has worked through some of these things, it will not be as severe, but, again, be careful.

You will have to ask the Father to give you insight into the unique person that is 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.

  1. Sometimes the abused person will intentionally push away from the counseling. She does not want to enter into the pain.
  2. 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?
  3. Sometimes they choose not to come back. It’s too painful.

To Be Continued…

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