Article written by Carolyn Bramhall, Director of Heart for Truth.
The Great Physician forgives all our sins and heals all our diseases; He lifts us out of the slimy pit, sets our feet upon a rock; he puts the lonely in families, heals the broken hearted and turns mourning into dancing. (Ps 103:3; 40:2; 68:6; 147:3; 30:11)
These are not just nice words. This is reality. This is truth. If we really believe that, shouldn’t the Church be seeing large numbers of abuse survivors healed?
It is now, unhappily, regarded as inevitable that there will be victims of abuse within most congregations. Can Christians effectively help them to overcome the inevitable emotional baggage which goes with victimisation? Should we always be referring them to specialists to give them effective help? Maybe the local church just provides love and kindness while receiving treatment with trained professionals. Or can we do more?
Often when Churches do help it appears that huge amounts of precious resources are used to tend and mend. As I look at the world around us I see so very many hurting people looking for time and attention. We need to be bracing ourselves for a vast onslaught of needy people entering our congregations, but we must learn how to manage that without becoming solely hospitals for the broken, and getting burned-out in the process.
Perhaps it is time our local churches became adequately equipped to embrace even the most deeply wounded, lead them into freedom swiftly, effectively and joyfully, and then give them the privilege of developing their God given calling and ministry. We need the testimony of the wounded-made-whole if we are to truly speak to our hurting world.
I would like to pose the challenge that the local church, your local church, aims at a much more directive and dynamic approach to abuse victims. I passionately believe that ordinary Christians can and should confidently walk with them from one end of their recovery journey to the other; not just to a place of coping, or managing their emotions, but right into complete healing.
It may appear simplistic, if not naive, to suggest that people with no training or experience can lead an extremely damaged person into freedom. Navigating the complex issues involved, dealing with minds burdened by painful memories, confronting the fears and emotions that make up the aftermath of abuse must surely require some really specialist knowledge? I believe that the “specialist knowledge” could come as much from understanding what God has done for us in Christ, as in psychology textbooks, though I would be quick to say that psychology has a role to play.
Jesus said that He came to give us life in all its fullness; that the truth will set us free; that we would do even greater works than even He did … None of the New Testament writers said anything about really damaged people needing something other than what Jesus has given us in order to be whole. In fact Peter writes that we have everything we need for life and godliness, and James tells us that it really is possible to live in joy in spite of all the horrific things that can and do happen to us. Paul states boldly that we have every spiritual blessing in Christ, and we can know real peace which transcends understanding. (John 10:10; 8:32; 14:12; 2 Peter 1:3; James 1:2; Eph 1:3; Phil 4:7).
People who have been abused have a longing for release from the past, for a sense of belonging, of security, of having a role and a place … and the Bible teaches that God can meet the most damaged individuals and give them all the peace, joy and release that they need. The question is: can churches lead survivors into that place? Did God really intend that the only people who can possibly know His freedom and emotional healing are those fortunate enough to have access to good therapy? Perhaps all the promises we spoke of earlier really aren’t meant to be taken literally?
Understanding what abuse does to us may help to place this in context, because in order to reverse the effects of abuse we have to counteract the negativism that is deeply embedded in a survivor’s mindset.
We know that everything we experience, from birth onwards, is stored somewhere in our brains. Everything we see, feel, hear, smell, touch and taste is logged; nothing is really forgotten – and those experiences and data makes up much of the bank of wisdom that determines our everyday choices – what we think and say, how we act and react.
If we have stored away in our brains a particularly strong and nasty piece of knowledge, perhaps of an event from early childhood, it will have made such an impact that we may have had to hide that information in a separate part of our brain to ensure that it didn’t overwhelm other working parts of our minds or unbalance our thought processes.
That experience data – that trauma – would be locked away all through our growing up years, unconsciously influencing our choices and preferences, though we would not be aware that it was there; feeding our minds with strong inclinations to prevent us from encountering any similar situations. We would have been warned off by these silent forces from walking into any situation that might echo the traumatic ones. Therefore we might say: “I wouldn’t go near a boy with ginger hair” if an abusive uncle had had ginger hair or “I couldn’t live in that house because it has a cupboard under the stairs” if you were shut in one as punishment when you were a child.
These “memories” (that sometimes don’t feel like memories) intrude when least expected. They will colour dreams and nightmares, relationships, food, church, leisure – just about everything. An abuse survivor’s life is not “free”; they are unable to move around their world freely because of inner “cant’s” and “dare-nots”. These can be both restrictive and irrational.
In order to lead them into freedom we have to put these hidden, stored-away memories into words and images, look at these in the cold light of day, as an adult with freedom to choose, and “reframe” them in such a way that the issues can be resolved in the light of God’s love and wisdom.
Bringing bad memories to light can often be an extremely fraught and lengthy process, soaking up precious pastoral time – if remembering is all we do. It can take years to unearth all the heavy details of a traumatic childhood, and the survivor is often completely and painfully self-absorbed. But if the survivor is immediately offered a new way of thinking that powerfully engulfs the trauma, smothering it in the love and presence of God, the time spent remembering is vastly reduced, because it no longer becomes necessary for every event to be unearthed.
That is because the real damage from early trauma is not so much the bad event or events, as the message it left behind. Abuse and neglect gives a child the clear message that she is bad and deserves punishment, or useless and of no value; these are such painful pieces of information to carry 24/7. It is those beliefs that drive a person to desperate measures as they look for something that will fill the void, or crowd out the intolerably dark feelings.
Although churches and fellowships may not be able to offer in-depth psychotherapy, we very definitely can help the survivor to replace painful, damaging beliefs with hope-giving, world-expanding, life-transforming truth.
We can provide the environment within which she can feel safe enough to remember, feel, take risks and start the process of “renewing the mind”.
We can offer teaching which will encourage that process of replacing harmful, negative thoughts with the knowledge that she is forever a forgiven, chosen child of God.
Although this takes time, it is best done, not just once a week in a therapist’s room, but as she lives out her daily life, in the small decisions as well as the big ones, amongst those with whom she shares her days. That is where Church really comes into her own – walking together as equal children of a Father who is greater than their bad memories. Being together when things go pear-shaped, but not with a “them and us” attitude, (because although you are hurting today, I may hurt tomorrow and then I will need you).
So if a church friend told me she was abused as a child. What should I do? How would I begin?
Not everyone who has an abusive past wants you or anyone else to actually do anything about it. Just telling you may have been a big enough milestone for her, don’t assume she wants to take it any further at this point. If she does (and you won’t know unless you ask her – guessing is a dangerous game to play) then she will need people with whom she feels safe enough to talk to about such things.
If she does want to go further it would be helpful for you both to find a few people who could surround her with support and friendship. I am not talking about counselling, that is something else which she may or may not want or need. Nor am I talking about her home group or Bible study group. I mean good, old-fashioned, guileless friendship, with no hidden agendas. If a journey of recovery is about to begin she will need companions of all kinds to accompany her on the way: pastors, teachers, encouragers, prophets …. She will need church in microcosm. Here at Heart for Truth we call these Truth Teams, which we can help you to set up.
Then comes the process of both sharing in her life with all its small traumas and delights, but in doing that all the while teaching her who she really is as far as God is concerned. It helps to have some teaching tools, but not essential. It is when a safe environment is coupled with a safe way of thinking, and then offered to God for His in-filling, that lasting healing occurs. I have seen incredible healing taking place as Christians around the country dare to believe that God is big enough to use even them as, in the context of a local congregation, they face the past together. Miracles of courage, of unity, and of faith occur daily as we learn how to walk with the wounded.
I have personal experience of being led, by a group of Christian people from a tiny church who didn’t know me, right into freedom from my abusive past. They were not trained in helping the wounded, they didn’t understand the full implications of my pretty extreme condition (I came out of satanic ritual abuse, and had severe DID), but they did believe that God could heal even the most damaged individual who is prepared to take Him at his word. That confidence rubbed off on me: I watched them stand firm in their belief that because God can do anything He could touch someone as broken me. I had to face my demons myself, they kept reminding me, whether real or imagined. They couldn’t do that for me. But what I faced I did so with my new friends by my side.
At Heart for Truth we have the privilege of seeing ordinary Christians up and down the country, in otherwise unremarkable churches, lead very wounded individuals into freedom from the effects of an abusive past. But to do so they need to be armed with some vital pieces of information; a steady supply of Biblical teaching, and a belief in a God for whom nothing is impossible.
Find out more about how we can help your church to better support those who are hurting or contact us directly.