Words can be so simple, yet so profound. They can breathe life into us but also cause us to be frozen, stuck, or even unable to function (Prov. 16:24). While our words always have an impact on others, for those in a vulnerable state, they can be even more powerful.
That’s why when we interact with women in vulnerable places, it’s vital that we speak and listen with grace. Hearing another person's painful stories can make us uncomfortable, which in turn may propel us to pull away. That’s understandable. But being invited into a woman’s space to hear her story is an honor and a privilege not to be taken lightly (Rom.12:9–10).
Two specific groups of women who are often vulnerable, isolated, and feel very misunderstood are those who have experienced abuse, either physical or sexual. Women who have been abused, whether past or present, have the inclination to struggle with shame and contempt, which can cause them to feel condemnation more readily (Rom. 8:1).
While most of us desire to show loving-kindness toward these women, our words may not always flow well. It’s normal when we come face to face with atrocities such as abuse that we shudder not knowing what to do. We may begin to frantically search our mind for the right thing to say—or worse yet— inadvertently say the "wrong thing." Let me encourage you with a few practical steps you can take.
How to Minister to the Abused
1. Simply be present.
We naturally want to find the "right" words or actions, but sometimes there are no words. Be willing to merely be present, allowing them to share their story (Gal. 6:2). Please be aware that you may be the first person they have ever told. How you react may determine if they will retreat inward or continue to test the waters of being able to trust others again. A tip to help you listen to difficult stories is to realize how much more difficult it was to live the story than it is to hear it. When we adjust our paradigm, it allows us to show a deeper level of compassion and understanding (John 15:12).
2. Don’t run away—literally or mentally.
It can be easy to physically stay present while mentally going somewhere else. Staying fully present is crucial. When listening, try to truly hear their story from their viewpoint without putting your own preconceived ideas into the mix. For example, many women who have suffered the abuse of a spouse/boyfriend are told that they should have just left. Rarely is a story just that simple. Listen to the whole story, showing compassion, and ask the Holy Spirit for clarity (Rom. 5:5).
3. Don’t condemn.
Many times victims of abuse are accused of allowing or asking for the abuse in some fashion. Never directly or indirectly give the impression that the abuse is their fault. Most victims already struggle with questions such as "Why did I allow this?" or "Why didn't I stop him?" These questions can haunt a survivor for days, weeks, or even years afterward. Hearing their story with compassion is vital (Rom. 8:33–34).
4. Don’t minimize.
Abuse is just that—abuse. It is always wrong. Abuse always brings hurt. Many times a survivor of abuse already struggles with whether the abuse was real, or they may wonder if they are making it bigger than it really is. When an outsider hears their story and minimizes their experience, it confirms their abuse as being invalid. Remember you are more than likely only hearing a portion of their experience. It’s likely they are still withholding much of the story.
5. Do acknowledge their pain (Gal. 6:2).
You may not be able to understand, but you can acknowledge the hurt. Ask them how they are coping now. Many times, women who have experienced abuse struggle with depression and sometimes post-traumatic stress (PTS or PTSD). To women who struggle from the ramifications of abuse, some days may seem insurmountable and others may come a little easier. The influx of emotions and pain that come from abuse can vary from person to person as well as day to day.
6. Do pray with and for them (Eph. 3:14–21).
Ask them if there are any specific areas for you to cover in prayer. Pray immediately with them. Continue to ask God to heal, lead, and provide wisdom on the journey toward turning their ashes to beauty (Isa. 61:3). If they are married, pray for their spouse. The ramifications of abuse can make relationships difficult, many times leaving the husband uncertain of what to do. Pray for their friendships, as many struggle with making deep connections. If they struggle with depression, anxiety, or even PTS, pray for them as they walk through these areas.
7. Do help them find support.
Each person recovering from abuse will require different levels of care. Don’t assume it is a one-size-fits-all cure. It may take time to find an appropriate support system. Encourage them to seek counsel from someone trained in areas of abuse. Keep in mind not all programs or services are alike. Just because someone has a title of pastor, counselor, mentor, coach, or a ministry leader does not mean they are equipped to handle every scenario. Encourage them to do their homework seeking to find a good, biblical, Christ-centered, hope-focused professional trained in areas of crisis, trauma, or abuse.
Walking with women who struggle with the ramifications of abuse isn’t an easy task, but as a church, we are called to minister to the hurting. The church should be known as a place to run for comfort. After all, we are to be the hands and feet of Christ (1 Cor. 12). Give them space to share, and don’t require them to tell more or less than they are willing.
For most women, sharing our stories takes a level of trust, but for those coming from abuse, it takes a giant leap of courage. Be a safe place for the courage to be tested.