If you watch the news or frequent the internet at all, you know that sexual abuse seems to be an epidemic in some circles. For several years, we’ve seen major church groups caught in sex-abuse scandals.
In addition, shows like Law and Order: SVU have brought discussions about sex crimes into the mainstream. And while it seems more common, most people by and large seem to think they’re unaffected by sexual abuse—unless they themselves have been victims of physical sex abuse.
But widely respected counselor, author and theologian Dan Allender says sexual abuse is far more wide spread—perhaps even affecting every one of us.
Dr. Allender is the author of a new book, Healing the Wounded Heart: The Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope of Transformation, which is a follow up to his bestselling, The Wounded Heart. We talked with Dr. Allender about this new work and why sexual abuse is such an important topic for all of us.
People reading to this may go, “Well, I have no intersection with abuse.” Yet the statistics that we know don’t hold that to be true. Can you define the word abuse?
Whenever you have encountered a sexual experience that you did not choose, you’ve got the domain of sexual abuse. So that includes physical touch, but also can include inappropriate interactions. An uncle walking in on you while you’re showering as a 13-year-old girl—clearly not a mistake but ogling your young body. Or the experience of how pornography was first introduced into your life. Those situations where we often just write off as normal or weird are indeed where evil is working to create a context of feeling betrayed, powerless—and mostly feeling a sense of arousal and yet hating what you’re experiencing.
From that social standpoint, I’m not sure there’s a human being on this earth who has not felt something of the violation of sexuality.
Can you explain what this new book is about?
The book is to help people who have acknowledged that there is sexual harm in their life to ask themselves what real, profound transformation and redemption looks like. I wrote a book called The Wounded Heart 25 years ago and the publisher didn’t expect any more than about 3,000 books to sell. As an author I’m thrilled, but as a human being I’m heartbroken that the book sold over half a million copies.
At that time there was a high level of denial that abuse could happen as often as it does. But over the last 25 years we have gotten much more clarity about the role of evil in the context of abuse. But we’ve also understood so much more about the body and the brain as it is affected by trauma and stress. So I didn’t want to just update The Wounded Heart, but actually engage the new material that I’ve learned over the last 25 years.
How are we doing generally as a Western church in engaging abuse which those in our congregations has had some intersection with?
I don’t think we’re doing well. We’re doing better than we did. The level of paranoia and fear about addressing the topic 25 years ago was incredible, and now not so much—frankly, due to Oprah and many others who have spoken about their own abuse. It’s a more common topic. You’re not as shocked that someone was sexually abused. So we’re in a far more open culture.
But again the by-product of that is we’re more indifferent and I think as a consequence, we don’t take seriously what it actually means to live in a fallen world.
So to bring it into a Bible study, to bring it into talking about prayer, to talk about living with trauma as part of a fallen world, may help it become a more generalized topic where we don’t have to be ashamed to name that we’re broken and that we struggle. And the more we can do that, the more we’ll make progress and understand how the Gospel really intersects the deepest levels of our heartache.
Our readers may be reading this and feeling their hearts racing and something is being awakened in them that they may not have a name for. Can you give them next steps and help in this moment?
We see a reaction from Millennials of, “OK yeah, so what I had some pretty sketchy sexual experiences? And they were pretty ugly, but I’m over it. Why make a big deal about something that doesn’t linger on?” But we’ve come to understand that it stays in the body. It particularly stays within our limbic system, our brain and so to pretend that it doesn’t have an effect on your life, that it’s not affecting your spirituality, your relationships, your own self-identity, your ability to enjoy your body is false.
What we know about redemption is you cannot change what you don’t name. Other research we have says that just entering the story is not enough. It’s entering the story with a level of kindness and care that’s required for the grace of God to indeed begin to permeate those parts that are so full of shame.
We’re kind of walking through this process of a fictional person. So there’s the process of engaging their story. I don’t know how to else to ask this, but does it get better? Can they heal?
That’s a lovely question, because there’s so much despair and almost that sense of “It’s just not worth it.” It’s like if you had a broken arm that didn’t get fixed properly but it’s still functional. Why go back and have it broken again? Part of the answer is because your arm may be functional—your life may be functional—but you are not experiencing the fullness of what life is meant to be. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul says “and when the Spirit comes there is freedom.” Freedom is meant to have the rich taste of joy.
We’ll never escape, in a fallen world, heartache and struggle. But we can have worlds more freedom, if we allow our hearts to enter something of the realm of the death and resurrection. In one sense you’re right, at first it will not get better and in fact it will be much harder. But in the difficulty there will be a new level of hope that says, “My body is suffering. I’m suffering. But I know that this progress will take me to a new level of life.”
As people are discovering this and walking through this process, I imagine one of the questions that must surface as they are thinking back to the moment or moments or seasons maybe even of abuse is, “Where was God in this?” I would love to hear what you say.
Part of the difficulty is, yes, He was there. It isn’t that God has lost His omnipresence as a result of abuse. So it becomes even more confusing to think that He was with you and did nothing to stop the abuse and nothing to soothe the heart in the aftermath. So the questions that come with regarding God and goodness—if He’s good He can’t be strong, and vice versa, those core questions—just don’t get answered in the Scriptures. It’s better put, He is good and His goodness can’t be denied by your harm.
In other words, the Psalms are made of up praise, lament, complaint and thanksgiving. There are more psalms of lament and complaint than there are of either praise or thanksgiving. And you just have to say, What kind of God invites us to take Him on at the level of our heartache of questions and confusion and then offers us not an answer but indeed the sacrifice of His own son.
We know Jesus was physically and emotionally abused. But do you think as Roman soldiers are stripping and beating this prisoner that they’re not sexually humiliating Him as well? So indeed Jesus has endured all that we have endured, and He is faithful to have covered the reality of our own sins. So as we engage Him, God doesn’t answer as much as he gives us the person of Jesus to engage. And our hearts come to be able to say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” That paradox of being able to know what was done to me is evil and yet somehow in that evil there is a redemptive process that has taken me from death to life.