Six Steps to Healing from Sexual Abuse

One-fourth of American women and a growing number of men have experienced some form of sexual abuse, ranging all the way from inappropriate talk to years of repeated physical violation.  Sexual abuse produces emotional, psychological and spiritual damage that devastates some of its victims.

The fallout can last for years, even for a lifetime.  Victims may experience fear of relationships, anxiety, a hatred or distrust of men, an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt, loss of self-worth, difficulty with sex in marriage, a tendency to promiscuity, and inability to relate to God.  Victims often carry the secret of their experiences as a heavy burden, afraid of the effect on family and friends if others knew.  Many miss the happiness of a carefree childhood.

In Christ there is healing for people damaged by sexual abuse.  As with every other kind of sin-damage in this fallen world, God's word gives us steps back to wholeness and his truth sets us free. 

Abuse victims often need professional counseling (caution:  some secular counselors undermine Christian values).  But the ultimate answers are spiritual.  Here are some steps to health based on principles from the scriptures:

1.       Recover a Biblical view of sex.

Abuse victims often have trouble with sex in marriage because they associate it with painful memories.  After sexual trauma, sex often seems dirty and repulsive.  The victim needs to realize that God does not look at sex that way.  Just as we need to get corrective lenses when our eyes are deceiving us, we need to let God's word correct our feelings about sex.

In the creation God "made them male and female" - Genesis 1:27.  It was the holy and good God who thought up human anatomy and sexual attraction.  "God saw all that he had made and it was very good" - Genesis  1:31.  God commanded Adam and Eve to come together.  They did so with his blessing - Genesis 1:28;  2:24. 

God gave us sex as a beautiful gift.  The scriptures celebrate the joy of sexual love within holy marriage - Proverbs 5; Song of Solomon; 1 Corinthians 5:2-5;  Hebrews 13:4.  If we associate sex with shame and abuse, it is only because of what the sinful world has done to it.  God says sex is good. He does not want us to see it as bad.  The abuse victim may see this with the mind; it takes longer to convince his or her emotions.  But this has to happen before there can be healing.

2.       Learn the difference between true and false guilt, and accept God's forgiveness for any guilt that is real.

Often abuse victims carry a huge burden of guilt and condemn themselves because of what has happened.  Though much abuse happens before a child is old enough to know right and wrong, many victims hold themselves unreasonably accountable, as though they should have been thinking like adults when they were small.  God would not expect of them what they demand of themselves.  Abusers are devilishly clever at leading children by gradual steps.  Bribes or threats are often used, things that an adult can handle, but not a child.  Victims of all ages are raped against their will.

People who have suffered abuse often run on an endless treadmill of guilt and never feel clean or forgiven.  "I know God forgives others, but I don't believe God can forgive my sin.  Other people could not forgive or accept me if they knew my secret." 

We need to get a Biblical view of forgiveness.  God has forgiven millions of adulterers and immoral people who were grown up and chose to do what they did; how much more can he accept people who were too young to be responsible, or who were forced into wrong behavior!

King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, and then had Uriah killed to cover things up.  Yet when David came to his senses and cried to God for forgiveness, God forgave him - 2 Kings 11,12;  Psalms 32,51.  Jesus took a lot of time teaching a woman who had been through five divorces and was now living with a man.  He changed her life - John 4.

Jesus forgave the woman who had been caught in adultery and set her on a new path - John 8:1-11. He forgave the prostitute who washed his feet with her tears of repentance - Luke 7:36-50.  The Corinthians had committed all kinds of sexual sin and perversion, yet they had been "washed, made holy, justified" when they came to Christ - 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.

When Christ forgives us we are "born again;" the old person we were is buried with Christ and we begin a new life, clean and free - John 3:3-5;  Romans 6:3-5;  2 Corinthians 5:17.  And when God forgives, he really forgives!  "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool" - Isaiah 1:18.  "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" - Psalm 103:3,8-13.  "You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea" - Micah 7:19.

God wants to forgive us so much that he gave up his own Son to die a cruel death for us in payment for our sins - Romans 5:8;  1 Peter 3:18;  Isaiah 53:4-6;  John 3:16.  Jesus wanted so much to forgive us that he volunteered to die.  If you are penitent for your sins, what would Jesus say to you about them if you were talking with him today?

Before Paul became Christ's apostle, he mistakenly persecuted Christians and tried to wipe out the gospel of Christ.  He imprisoned Christians and caused some to die.  He forced some to deny Christ in order to save their lives.  Later, as a preacher of Christ, he could remember faces of people he had destroyed and hear their cries.  Yet he knew Christ had forgiven him.  He could not change the past, but he could turn loose of it and use the rest of his life to serve God and other people.  Paul said God chose him as a preacher so he would be an exhibit of how great God's forgiveness is.  Read 1 Timothy 1:12-16.

Some of us, like Paul, would give almost anything to go back and change some things in our past. We can't do that, but we do have a choice about what we will do with our life from today onward.  If you are still reproaching yourself for things for which you were not responsible, stop it and get on with serving God.  If you feel that you reasonably bear some of the responsibility for what happened, confess that to God and accept his forgiveness.  Then, like Paul, "forget what is behind and press on toward what is ahead" in Christ - Philippians 3:12-14. 

It is time to rest from what you have been carrying for so long.  Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" - Matthew 11:28-30.

The bad things that happened to you did not come from God, but he is so great that he can use your experiences to make you a helper of other people who struggle with the same things.

3.       Realize that the hold of the past is blocking God's purpose for your life today.

You life may be controlled by guilt, self-hate, and by resentment toward God and the abuser.  Much of your mind and energy are unavailable to God, to your family, your work.  You may think, “I would give anything to be emotionally free and whole again.”  Yet the painful emotions seem impossible to throw off.  They are ever with you, no matter how hard you try.  Let me encourage you not to give up.  Christ really is greater than any problem we have.  By his help and that of caring Christians, you can gradually gain more freedom.  You can become more and more able to resolve the painful memories of the past, give everything into God's hands, and live the abundant life God planned for you.  You can experience positive blessings.  Over time, these good memories will replace the bad ones at the center of your heart.  God wants you to be free.

4.       You will never be free until you forgive your abuser and turn vengeance over to God.

If you are controlled by continuing bitterness and depression, this allows the abuser to continue to destroy your life.  Your abuser has done enough to you already. By hating the person, you give that person continuing control over you.  By God’s grace you have a choice.

There cannot be a complete transaction of forgiveness and reconciliation unless the abuser repents and asks your forgiveness.  You should work toward that if possible - Matthew 18:15;  Romans 12:18. But even if the person is not penitent, you can decide to stop resenting and leave it to God to deal with the person.  "'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" - Romans 12:17-21.

Even before people apologize, Jesus teaches us to have a spirit of forgiveness.  On the cross Jesus prayed forgiveness for his murderers.  Forgiveness does not mean you approve what the person has done.  If there were no sin there would be nothing to forgive.  Forgiveness just means deciding to cancel the debt.  It is important to realize that forgiveness is more a decision of the will than a feeling.  Ask God for strength to make that decision.

When you are able to honestly pray for the salvation of your abuser, you will have come a long way. God also wants the abuser to come to his or her right mind and be forgiven.  As a child of God, you need to think like God does. Forgiving your abuser and relinquishing everything to God is a big step toward reclaiming your life.

(Note:  If the person who abused you is in a position to harm others in the same way, you have an obligation to protect them by informing someone responsible who can help the abuser stop his behavior, and/or protect others from him).

5.  Measure your self-worth by God's measure.

Sexual abuse victims may hate themselves or feel dirty, damaged and worthless.  They may have no self-esteem left.  They feel that others would reject them if their secret were known.  A lot of lives are ruined because we measure our worth by the world's standards rather than seeing ourselves as God sees us.  God made us and we are every one dear to him.  When bad things happen to us, or even when we mess up our lives, God longs after us just like any good parent does his or her child.  You are so valuable to God that God gave up his own Son to save you.

When Jesus talked to people, saints or sinners, each person sensed how much he or she was loved and valued by Jesus.  There was no person who was not worth Jesus' time and concern.  Look at how he treated the Samaritan woman at the well, John 4.  The sinners and outcasts of Jesus' day were so valuable to Jesus that he endured harsh criticism in order to spend time with them.  Knowing what you do about Jesus, how do you think he would talk to you if you visited with him today?  Jesus does not feel disgust at you because of what you have experienced.  He only feels sorrow for what you have suffered and a great desire to help you be well.

Your emotions will deny this, but the truth about Jesus in the gospels is more reliable than your traumatized emotions are.  You are really are valuable and you have a wonderful potential if you let Jesus heal and direct your life.

6.       Let Christ heal your painful memories.

Just when you think things are getting better, something triggers the memories again and the pain and loathing return.  This is because the memories have not been resolved as God's word teaches. They are so painful that we often stuff them back down in our subconscious and put the lid on them rather than resolving them scripturally.  We may try to escape the pain through denial, substance or alcohol abuse, workaholism, a series of relationships, or some other temporary fix.  But as long as painful memories are repressed, they are always there ready to return and interfere with our lives.

There is nothing that can happen to a person but what there is wisdom in God's word for handling it constructively.  The Bible gives us steps to take when someone hurts us, when we hurt someone else, when tragedy comes, when we have messed up.  When bad things happen to us, we often start out dealing with it in the world's way, not God's way.  It doesn't work, and the problem keeps surfacing.  But God has a way.  Whether something happened thirty years ago, or three years, or three days ago, we still need to resolve it in God's way and really put it to rest.

This means doing something we are not inclined to do.  We have to bring out the painful memories, relive them mentally, and this time begin dealing with the events the way God teaches us to.  Having begun to see things through God's eyes, we can now respond differently.  If we have been in denial, we have to face the reality of what has happened, but this time knowing that the loving support of God is with us.  We have to admit how angry we really are, and then deal with anger in Biblical ways. We have to let ourselves grieve, and realize that God will not condemn us for grieving.  If we are angry with God, we have to admit that too.  Then we work toward trusting him.

For some people, this process is too difficult without the help of a qualified counselor.  For others, it is enough to spend a series of times alone working through things.  The process is accompanied by Bible reading and honest prayer.  The memories will always be painful, but they become more manageable as the strong emotions are resolved in God's way and the whole need handed over to him - 1 Peter 5:7.

This study has been brief.  There is much more in the Bible which God's Spirit can use to heal the abuse victim.  There is also much help and encouragement to be found in a loving church family.  Although a few people with wrong attitudes can be found in any church, most churches are full of people who love and accept people who are struggling.  Most church members have had their own struggles.  In many churches there are people who have recovered from sexual abuse.  You can too.

Suggested reading:

When You Have Been Abused by Andre Bustanoby

The Healing of Memories by David Seamands

Making Peace with Your Past by H. Norman Wright

The Act of Marriage (Chapter 1) by Tim and Beverly LaHaye

Intended for Pleasure (Chapter 7) by Dr. Ed and Gaye Wheat

Emotions:  Can you Trust Them by Dr. James Dobson

Above, all the Bible and its four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

This study by B. Shelburne is a handout from the Christian Growth Course, South Houston Bible Institute.  This article may also be accessed or downloaded from www.shbi.org

Copyright Notice:  This article is copyrighted by the author.  You may reproduce it for non-profit instructional purposes if this whole copyright notice is included and you do not change document content.  If necessary, contact the author at 14325 Crescent Landing, Houston, TX 77062-2178, USA, tel. 281-990-8899, E-Mail shbi@shbi.org, Web Site www.shbi.org