How to Make the Church a Safe Place for the Abused

Last week on the True Woman blog, we heard from Dr. Diane Langberg on what Scripture says about abuse and mistakes that are easily made when we try to help victims of sexual abuse. You can read those posts here and here. Today, in the wake of recent news headlines on sexual and spiritual abuse in the church, pastor’s wife (and our long-time friend) Kimberly Wagner is sharing some practical ways that we can apply these principles in our own lives. And if you are someone who is personally healing from the scars of abuse, check out these two posts from our archives by folks who understand. I’m praying for you—that you will find encouragement and comfort as you walk with our faithful Healer, Jesus, in the midst of your suffering. —Hayley Mullins, True Woman Blog Content Manager

Still the nightmares come. She knows the Word better than most. She’s committed to Christ—wants to live as a faithful woman of God—but her heart is weary and doubts assail her as the onslaught of horrific memories and pain continues . . . for years. For decades. And I want to be more than just a praying friend. I want to “fix it,” but I don’t have that power. Only One does.

That’s the problem we face when dealing with women who’ve experienced horrific trauma. And now that the cover has been lifted . . . and the long silence broken on much abuse in our churches, women (and men) in your church might finally come forward and have the courage to share their stories. They’ve hoped for a safe place and an opportunity for freedom, but so many until now have silently stuffed their pain and hid—believing the lies of the enemy: It was all their fault. They are worthless. They deserved the abuse. No one would believe them. They should hide in shame. The Church would punish them and make them a public display rather than offering help (which has happened in so many cases, only confirming their fears).

So, they have suffered in silence.

Of all places, the Church needs to be the place where they can find help—where women and men can step into the light without fear.

My friend has suffered abuse and horrors that she was fearful of sharing with anyone. Every story of trauma is unique, but there is a theme that runs through all of them—fear of stepping into the light. And fear of not being believed if they do.

The traumatized need safety and encouragement. They need real help and assistance with recovery. And the Church should be where they can find it.

Let’s not add to their trauma by belittling their pain and suffering, demeaning them when they don’t suddenly have an instantaneous healing of their emotions or when they still struggle with depression or doubt or when they ask us to pray in the night hours because the nightmares just won’t stop. Let’s not add to their trauma with an attitude of indifference to their pain and expectation that they should be “over it.”

Enduring a past traumatic event doesn’t end when the abuse ends—the abused go on enduring the trauma.

My friend that I mentioned earlier carries a picture from the Gospel of Luke in her head. She sees a man who suffered in pain, without hope, and without the ability to reach Jesus on his own for years . . . and so he languished on his sickbed—alone and in need.

And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:18–20).

Several friends came together to help the paralytic. It took a group working together. And did you notice that Jesus saw “their” faith? It wasn’t the man on the mat who had faith. His faith isn’t even mentioned. Instead, his friends had faith for what Jesus could do for him, and they were willing to do for their suffering friend what he couldn’t do alone: Get him to Jesus.

My friend hopes for the day when the Church will take up the mat of those who suffer from trauma and abuse and carry them to Christ—because the traumatized are often too weary to make it alone. Or maybe they’ve completely shut down and no longer feel anything. Perhaps they are paralyzed by fear and abuse and don’t know what to believe.

My friend has suffered long years, and I know that I can’t fix it, but perhaps I can be one of the friends that takes the long hard slog, hauling her on a mat to the roof and prying back the baked-mud tiles to open a hole to let her down to Jesus. Maybe I can be a friend who has faith for what Jesus can do, on days when she’s struggling to have faith.

Maybe I can’t fix it, but I can help to carry her.

All of that hauling, carrying, lifting, peeling back roofing, and doing the hard labor and balancing act of lowering a friend from roof to floor . . . all of it takes time, patience, rolling-up-the-sleeves-kind of hard work, and it can be grueling. But Church, we’ve got to carry these friends to Jesus! We’ve got to be there for them. We’ve got to be patient with them and realize they need more than an “I’ll pray for you” memo. They need the grit and determination of friends who will go the long haul with them to get them to Jesus for healing and recovery.

Today, I’m asking you to intentionally cultivate an environment in your church that will come alongside and help carry those who are suffering from sexual trauma, assault, and abuse.

You may want to run from the graphic horror of what is being revealed. But don’t. You may want to argue against the need to reveal stories of abuse. But as believers who carry the gospel before a watching world, we can’t.

As hard as it is for us to look in the mirror and see ourselves, we need to look. We need to see what we’ve missed or what we’ve hidden. We need to wake up to the fact that the Church is easily invaded by predators—and many times those predators stand behind a pulpit or sit in the Sunday school teacher’s seat. We need to operate in humility and grace—not with reckless accusation or paranoia—and we need to be watchful over our little ones, the vulnerable, our teens, and those who’ve already been ravaged by this evil of abuse.

What Can We Do?

Here’s some suggestions:

  • If you know someone who has suffered from this type of abuse, meet with them and gently ask how you might come alongside them, and ask them for suggestions in how the Church can improve in helping the abused.
  • Be aware that if you ask how you can help, the victimized may not be able to give you an answer. As one person told me, “You don’t expect a drowning person to manage their own rescue.” Be sensitive to that fact. Don’t demean someone if they can’t give you an answer in the moment. Remember with compassion that they are drowning.
  • Be prepared for, and committed to, the long haul. Finding healing from abuse is not a “quick fix.” Walking with a survivor of abuse will not be easy. It requires time and patience—and much grace. He or she will probably need good counseling from a Christian health professional that is trained and experienced in helping trauma victims. Be willing to go with them to those sessions if that will be helpful for them.
  • Realize that your abused friend will likely have a skewed perspective of God and may be angry with Him. This is where you can be the most help. Don’t preach to her, but in creative ways introduce her to the wonder and goodness of God. Love her as He loves her. God’s heart is for the broken and oppressed.
  • Invite your abused friend to experience “normal” with you. Fun outings with no pressure of heavy conversation. A quiet meal with meaningful and affirming conversation. If she’s the mother of young ones, offer to relieve her of caregiving duties for a few hours. That alone could be a huge help.
  • Demonstrate respect and compassion to the victimized, not debilitating pity that demeans them further.
  • Don't ever use them for your own means as a “victory mission project.” They’ve been used and should never be used again—especially in Christ’s name.
  • Be careful to walk the fine line of assisting them in their recovery without encouraging an unhealthy dependence on you. Be on guard that you do not function as a little “savior” rather than continually pointing them to the Source where they will truly find their needs met—in Christ Jesus alone.
  • Cultivate an environment within your church that communicates to those who are hiding that it is safe to come out in the open and share and that the church will not shame them.
  • Don’t be entertained by sexual abuse. As believers, when we gorge on movies or other forms of entertainment that presents graphic images of the victimization of others, it desensitizes the Church to the horror. It further dehumanizes the abused. Eating popcorn while watching rape is barbaric behavior.
  • Educate yourself about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and watch for symptoms of it within your church family. The rate of PTSD in sexual assault survivors is second only to war veterans. Learn how to care for those who experience it, and put what you learn into practice.
  • Be public about your willingness to serve those who’ve been sexually assaulted, abused, or are aware of abuse that is going unreported.
  • If you’re aware of ongoing abuse that hasn’t been reported to authorities, report it. Now. And get the abused to a safe location. Today.

Will you join me in praying for the Church? How I grieve for those who’ve been harmed by wolves who hold positions where they are supposed to represent our holy Lord Jesus. How angry I am for that misrepresentation and for the horrors and atrocities these predators have brought. Let us move ahead in wisdom and watchfulness for those in need. Let us care for the broken and injured—and not remain silent.

Let us be true representatives of our kind Shepherd.

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28–29).

Will you join me in encouraging your church to be a safe place for the broken and abused?

Did you discover God’s Truth today?

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About the Author

Kimberly Wagner

Kimberly Wagner

Kimberly Wagner’s passion is Christ, and she desires to ignite women's pursuit of God's glory. She's the author of Fierce Women, and is a frequent guest on the Revive Our Hearts radio program, as well as a regular contributor to the True Woman blog. She enjoys sharing with women and hearing from them about what God is doing in their lives.

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