The privilege of being given access to the story of a victim of sexual abuse is holy. It is a gift few on this earth are honored to receive. It is difficult terrain to enter, but healing requires the submission of one’s story to the heart and mind of a guide and a community of pilgrims whose passion is set on the kingdom of God. The harm of sexual abuse was done in relationship, and it is only through relationship that victims regain the vision to live in freedom.
An abuse story told, no matter how difficult it is for the one telling it, is merely an announcement that a crime has taken place in their mansion. The story acknowledges, to some degree, why the mansion is in such disrepair, while making it clear that there are many locked rooms, barricaded wings, and trashed hallways that in due season will need to be engaged, but only when and if the person is ready.
An abuse story must be heard not as the telling of an event but as an entry into a journey. The telling must be received with one’s shoes off and hands open to take in all that is said. It is as though the listener is being given a tour of a large, aristocratic mansion that has fallen into disarray over decades. A trusted hearer is given access to the rooms most lived in, but there are many locked doors entered only by the owner, and vast wings of the mansion are off-limits to everyone, including the teller of the story.
Whether the listener is a therapist, minister, spouse or friend, the announcement of abuse can’t be presumed to be an offer to enter the home. One must ask for permission. To care well for the victim of sexual abuse, there can’t be a rudeness or demand to enter stories of heartache and shame. One can’t command, will, or teach shame away. It must be entered and inhabited. It must be accepted as the terrain we are called to walk. We may wish the road were paved, but it is not. We may wish we didn’t have to pass through briars and thick underbrush, but we do. Those who want prepackaged tours with wild animals viewed through a two-inch-thick pane of glass and gourmet meals promptly and professionally served at 9, 12, and 6 ought to remain home.
Entering the domain of abuse sounds scary—and it is. No wonder many view this terrain as too dangerous to walk unless they are an experienced therapist. The fear of doing harm is legitimate. But if the person who is sharing trusts the listener enough to offer their story, the caring friend will do more harm by trying to defer.
There are many ways to become a better caregiver for abuse stories, but only two things are required to begin: humility and courage. Skill will eventually follow.
Resist Superficial Cures
Sexual abuse is so deeply disturbing that most good-hearted people ache to help and resolve the suffering. Who in their right mind would choose to go swimming in the sordid waters of sexual darkness, violence, betrayal, rage, confusion, suspicion, and a legion of other toxic harm? Most caring people stand on the bank of these waters that seem to be diseased and dangerous, far enough away from the melee to not get polluted. Who can blame them for wanting to offer sincere, albeit superﬁcial, cures?
Most often the story is ﬁrst told to a trusted friend or therapist. It is told not to engage and explore the story but to see how the telling will be received. Abused persons fear that their anger will be condemned. For that reason, many are reluctant to be angry or allow their anger to be seen. How will the hearer respond? How will I bear having the story heard by someone else? Will I believe the story I told if the hearer denounces my story or my feelings? These questions are far more at the surface than the story itself.
The majority of the sexual abuse clients I work with profess to be Christians. It is my opinion that Christians have more resources than most to engage trauma past and present, but sadly, many abused men and women have been told, overtly or subtly, that if they are stuck with symptoms, memories, and heartache, it is proof that they are failing to believe.
A healing community desperately needs to be courageous enough to enter the realm of shame and arousal without spiritualizing or cutting off the engagement through a cheap trick of quick healing. This process is not going to be ﬁnished by one prayer, confession or renewal of the Spirit. It comes when the war is truly faced and fought. When the enemy is clearer and the bondage is named with appropriate grief and desire for liberation, the Spirit of the Holy God can take broken and courageous survivors of sexual abuse on the journey of their lives.
Few stories are engaged well in the ﬁrst hearing. The normal stance of a listener is to wait until the full story has been told and then interact. Because an abuse story is full of so much heartache, most listeners feel overwhelmed and offer little but sympathy. “I am so sorry for all that you have endured. I don’t know how you have lived with this harm for so long alone. Thank you for sharing.”
Imagine what this offers to the victim who has ﬁnished and now looks at the listener. The burden is back on the victim to speak, and likely any sense of relief is mixed with shame, fear, gratitude, numbness, and intense body sensations. In most occasions the story ends, the conversation shifts, and tragically the hearer succumbs to offering advice: “Have you thought of seeing a therapist?” “Have you forgiven the abuser?” Or the hearer lauds the teller and remarks, “You are so brave. I could never share what you just did.”
These kinds of responses, though tempting in their avoidance of another’s overwhelming grief and anger, will only enable both hearer and teller to maintain a thirty-thousand-foot view of the debris. Mere empathy is sweet but simply validates the story without opening the door to deeper exploration. Greater healing requires greater entry into the story of harm.
Every human being is desperate to be known, to be heard; every human being is also terriﬁed, and often contemptuous, of being pursued and indwelled. We are ambivalent. Or, more concretely stated, we have one hand up, saying, “Keep your distance,” and the other hand gesturing, saying, “Come, come, please don’t leave me alone.” It is this universal bind that keeps most conversations, even in marriage and close friendships, pleasant and distant. We sacriﬁce the depth of indwelling for the comfortable distance of pleasantness. We glide against the surface of the other and refuse to do harm by creating offense, confusion, or more pain. The desire to do no harm, honorable as it is, precludes the ability to step into the dark, cold, and fast waters of shame.
For many, the cost of entering the story of harm feels overwhelming. There are so many ways to fail and fall. It seems like the listener will likely do more harm than good. But the greater harm is always to refuse to enter the burnt ground.
Excerpted from Healing the Wounded Heart: The Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope of Transformation by Dan B. Allender, published by Baker Books (2016).
Dan B. Allender, PhD is professor of counseling psychology and former president of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, home to The Allender Center. He travels and speaks extensively on sexual-abuse recovery, love and forgiveness, worship, and other related topics. Allender is the author of fifteen books, including Healing the Wounded Heart.