Why So Many of Our Responses to Abuse Victims Fail Miserably

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More than once I’ve heard victims cry out with clenched fists, “Where the hell was God! I was just a little kid! How could he let this happen?” And at this point we all want to step in with our apologetics manuals to address the age-old issue of the sovereignty of God in the midst of a world of evil. That’s our temptation. But don’t do it! In fact, you might find that they have been there and done that already. Their minds have been on hyperdrive trying to figure out this tangled mess. Applying apologetics will help them about as much as mounting the dented car hood and applying Krazy Glue to the glass of a broken windshield. It simply won’t work.

Why? Because the real problem for them is the pain in their right brain, not the questions in the left. The answer for them is not systematic theology but biblical lament. You may be drawing a blank at this point because lament is not a common subject in our version of Christianity, but it is as biblical as our need for forgiveness.

Do you remember the story of Amnon and Tamar? Probably not. When publishers were making out the three-year cycle of Sunday school curriculum, that particular story didn’t make the cut. (Just a little too edgy.) But 2 Samuel 13 provides all of the lurid detail of this story of incest within King David’s family. Egged on by his scoundrel of a cousin Jonadab, Amnon plotted to take advantage of his half sister. After he raped Tamar, he heaped onfurther shame by kicking her out onto the streets. There she began to lament in the customary way, crying out in great emotional turmoil and ripping the sleeves off of her garment. But Absalom, her full-blooded big brother, short-circuited her grieving, telling her, “Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart” (2 Sam. 13:20).

Huh? How do you not take this to heart? And why keep it quiet? Dad wasn’t much help either. When David found out, “he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn” (2 Sam. 13:21).

What messages did that send to Tamar? You are not loved. You are not important. Your pain doesn’t matter. And, perhaps, Amnon’s reputation and future as the next king were more important than her vindication and safety. Can you see how devastating this would be? And note the telling words regarding the victim: “So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house”(2 Sam. 13:20).

Incredibly unjust, right? But that same story in all of its sad detail has been a pattern in our culture. Victims cry out to parents or other caregivers about their violation and immediately they are told a number of things that basically require them to stuff it:

• Don’t take this to heart.
• You shouldn’t have been alone with that person anyway.
• What did you do to bring this on?
• Just don’t go near that person anymore.
• Well, we can’t really do anything about it. What will people say?
• Sure, that was wrong. But think of the damage it will do to our church (family, organization) if we say anything.

These are the very messages which squelch the grieving process, increase their powerlessness, and provide fertile ground for all of the previously mentioned maladies, including their rage toward God.

So if the Krazy Glue of apologetics won’t bring clarity to their view of God, what is the answer? The biggest way to help is found in the smallest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 niv). Think of the context of that verse. In John 11, Jesus had been summoned by Mary and Martha to heal their brother, Lazarus. By the time he entered Bethany, however, Lazarus had been dead for four days and the sisters were well into their grieving. When Jesus met Mary, she and her friends were weeping. Their tears actually triggered his own.

Now he could have taken Absalom’s approach: “Do not take this to heart! Hey, dry those tears and blow your nose because I am going to raise him from the dead! Happy days are coming!” But instead he wept with them. He allowed them to grieve. He welcomed their unanswered questions: “If you had been here, [he] would not have died” (vv. 21, 32).

As they watched him weep, the crowd remarked, “See how he loved [Lazarus]!” (v. 36). The truth of the matter? They were seeing how much he loved Mary, Martha, and the rest of them. Want to know how God reaches out to the broken and desolate ones? Look at Jesus. Want the abused to see God clearly reaching out to them? Let them look at you. Weep with them as Jesus would. As your eyes cloud with tears, their eyes will begin to open to how much God cares.

Whether the abuse took place yesterday, yesteryear, or yesterdecade, allow them to grieve. Of course, abuse victims also need safety, so make sure their abusers are kept at a distance. It might also help them if they see you yourself are angry about what has happened to them. But Absalom provided safety and David showed some anger; what Tamar needed and what closet dwellers need is someone to grieve with them.

I address this topic and more in my book on sexual healing, Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. Get it here.

If you are experiencing/have experienced abuse, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or visit http://www.thehotline.org/help.

If you know someone who is experiencing abuse, talk with them. If they don’t want resources from you, you may be just the person to provide a non-judgmental space to sit and listen to their story so that they don’t feel alone. To learn and identify signs of abuse, visit http://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/.

Dr. Mark Ongley has more than twenty-five years of pastoral ministry experience. He currently serves part-time as pastor of Ashes to Life in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania—a United Methodist congregation reaching out to people in recovery. He has helped many people find healing and greater wholeness in the area of sexuality. Since 2006, he has been part of a team of counselors for the “Come Away with Me” retreats sponsored by HCM International. Through Restored Image Ministries he offers counseling, seminars, and a monthly blog, which can be found at restoredimage.org. His wife, Lauri, and their two daughters bring him joy and remind him not to take himself too seriously.