The five biggest mistakes pastors make in counseling victims of sexual abuse—and how to avoid repeating these traumatizing errors
It is fairly easy for those of us who are not victims of molestation to discern unwitting error in ministry from intentional opportunistic abuse. But those who are still suffering from sexual violation find it difficult to distinguish the effects of insensitive error from the effects of abuse by prayer ministers. They experience fresh wounding in their unhealed wounds and may wander away in the pain of disillusionment and futility.
For the reader's prayerful consideration we share, from letters and reports given to us in prayer ministry, what we have learned are the most common errors in ministry to the abused:
1. "You've received Jesus. That's all under the blood. Now shape up and act out your new life."
My comment: Yes, when they received Jesus, the past did come under His blood. They have been born anew. They are now babes in the kingdom. They have already been made alive and have been raised to sit with Him in heavenly places (Eph. 2:4-6). Positionally they have already been made perfect (Heb. 10:14, niv: "Because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever . . . "), but progressively their lives are still coming to reflect that reality (v. 14 continued: " . . . those who are being made holy [perfect]"). Experientially they have yet to "work out" their new salvation (Phil. 2:12) and "grow in respect to salvation" (1 Pet. 2:2) in order to "lay hold" (Phil. 3:12) of the inheritance Jesus has made available to them by the finished work of His death and resurrection. They desperately want to experience new life, but they have only a foggy notion of what that new life is all about. What they have learned in pain heretofore, though positionally dead, still speaks loudly to them because they have not yet lived enough life in the Lord Jesus. Their only truly effective points of reference are those that were formed before they received Him.
Sam, who had never been able to hold a steady job or successfully complete any kind of project or responsibility, came to the Lord. He committed himself wholeheartedly to Jesus and for the first time began to feel like there could be some purpose for his life. He had a new heart to work: He no longer called in sick just because he didn't "feel" like showing up. He disciplined himself to be on time. As he began to care about quality of workmanship, his work habits improved. But because of the attitudes he had developed in reaction to a critical and abusive father, he continued to have trouble with his supervisor. It always seemed to him that unfair demands were being placed on him and preferential treatment was given to men whose work was inferior to his. Others who were newer on the job were chosen for advancement, with no explanation as to why he had been bypassed. He struggled with anger and managed to control himself fairly successfully while at work, but he exploded easily and quickly when his authority was challenged at home or when anything was said that sounded even remotely like criticism. Sam's born-again experience was real; he was indeed a new creature in Christ. But he had yet to appropriate Christ's healing and undergo the transformation of his heart at root level in relation to his father and thus other authority figures. As Sam expressed life within the family of God, time, prayer ministry, and patient teaching were necessary to build new structures of attitude and expectation into the new creature Sam had become.
A significant breakthrough occurred for Sam late one afternoon as he played with the church's men's softball team. It was an important game, and the umpire (authority figure) made a decision that Sam rightly thought was unfair. He lost his temper and was unable to respond to the warnings of his team members: "Shut up! You'll get us in trouble!" The umpire ruled that his team forfeited the game because of his continued verbal tirades. The series was lost; the fans sat in dejected silence. Then the captain (authority) called all the team members to gather around Sam. Right there on the field Sam was confronted by authority, prayed with, prayed for, and embraced with unconditional love by every member of the team. By that he gained a new point of reference concerning his relationship with authority. Through that ministry on the ball field, our Lord laid a tangible base on which a new, godly, and enduring structure could be built in Sam.
Before Gloria, a single parent of three, had her born-again experience, she thought nothing of leaving her children alone night after night while she ran to parties. "After all," she thought, "I have to work hard all day long. Nobody is looking out for me. I've had to struggle all of my life, and I deserve to have a little fun!" When Jesus came into her life, her value system changed day by day. She began to enjoy her children and to experience a sense of fulfillment in nurturing them with her presence. She no longer dated men who were just out for a good time. Rather, when she met a new man, she found herself pondering, "What kind of father might he be?" The children responded to their "new" mom with loving gratitude and respect; discipline became easy. Then one day Gloria caught her two little boys discovering masturbation, and she was suddenly overcome with irrational fear and anger! She screamed at them with vitriolic accusations as she frantically grabbed a belt to beat them. The sister cowered behind the couch as her out-of-control mom chased the boys around the house, knocking over tables and lamps as she went.
Later, a horrified and penitent Gloria tearfully cried to her pastor, "What have I done? How could I have overreacted so?" The pastor tried to be kind but did no more than reiterate the "Shape up-you know Jesus" message she had heard from the pulpit so many times before. The pressure to "be Christian" without benefit of ministry to get at the roots of why it was so difficult fueled her anxiety and drove her to repeated abuse of her children. She felt her reputation was at stake with every naughty thing they did, and her abusive discipline drove them to excesses.
Finally Gloria came to us in desperation, and the Lord very quickly revealed what her boys' sexual activity had triggered in her. As a little girl she had been fondled by a teenage boy in the neighborhood. When her parents discovered what had happened, she was blamed for the incident, shamed, whipped, and threatened with the wrath of an angry God. After we had prayed that she be enabled to forgive, we asked the Lord to heal her wounded spirit and nailed that old fearful and condemning point of reference to the cross of Christ, and she was set free.
To demand that people immediately perform because they have been born again is as ridiculous as yelling over the crib of a newborn baby, "Get out of that bed! There's work to do here!" Spiritual babes must have love, nurture, prayer, and patient teaching, especially those who have experienced trauma. Only then are they enabled to grow into the fullness of who they are. Insensitive religious demands put them under condemnation and drive them to hopelessness.
2. "That's in the past. Forget it!"
My comment: It is in the past in the sense that Jesus has been crucified for it on His cross. It no longer has a claim on a person's life. There are two aspects to crucifixion. "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me . . . " (Gal. 2:20, emphasis added). And Galatians 5:24, "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (emphasis added). Galatians 2:20 expresses the passive voice; Galatians 5:24 expresses the active voice. In the first we only receive what has been done for us. In the second we act to effectively and specifically call to death what Jesus has slain.
Some quote Philippians 3:13, claiming that it tells Christians to forget what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead. However, this verse is not talking about our personal past. Paul is saying that he is choosing to forget about that which he used to take pride in (circumcised on the eighth day . . . a Hebrew of Hebrews, and so on [v. 5]). But even if the verse did refer to our past, nothing is ever forgotten either by ignoring or suppressing it. If that is all we do, it will remain in the "treasure of [our] heart" (Luke 6:45) to drive us from deep inside and possibly to spring up someday as a "root of bitterness" to cause trouble and defile others (Heb. 12:15). Thus, we only look to the past to find the starting points of what is still happening in the present. The Lord would have us recognize that ongoing pattern of sin, confess it, crucify it in prayer in His power, renounce it, reckon it as dead, and give it to Him. Then it can truly be forgotten, no longer carried as hidden baggage.
If the demands of points 1 and 2 above have been presented without ministry to enable a person to fulfill them, the one who made those demands would do well to apply to himself the words of Jesus: "Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers" (Luke 11:46).
"You can do it if you try hard enough." Such demands set people into fleshly striving. The probability is that the wounded are already exhausted from striving. They need healing by the applied blood and the cross of Jesus. Insensitive demands are likely only to cause them to conclude, "Christianity doesn't work-at least not for me."
3. "You have a demon of lust . . . "
And the prayer minister proceeds to exorcise what might never have been demonic! My comment: I do not mean to say that the presence of demonic influence is never to be considered. I do say emphatically that Christians must be careful not to approach every problem as though it were first a case necessitating deliverance. Such things as lust, fear, anger, hatred, and so on are emotions that, when repeatedly acted upon, become character traits, habitual structures within a person's flesh. If he/she stubbornly practices fleshly habits, those structures may indeed provide housing for some demonic entity.
We appreciate the insight our son Mark has shared with us on this subject. He says that if a person has not known or chosen to put on the full armor of God (Eph. 6:13-17), he will wear some other kind of armor. Either we wear God's armor consciously, through prayer and relationship with Him, or we wear our own fleshly armor. It is not possible to wear no armor at all. Since nature abhors a vacuum, to the degree that trust in human authority and God's power and faithfulness have been shattered, a person who is hurt or threatened will build his own defense mechanisms, which are self-made armor. A demon may then be attracted and will mold itself in the shape of those defense mechanisms to "help" the person practice them. A person, for instance, has said, "I'll never forgive, so that I will never be vulnerable enough to be hurt again."
That determination becomes armor instead of the breastplate of righteousness. A demon then molds itself to that and expands on it, and may even tempt the person to actually take vengeance on the unforgiven one. If more and more access is given through stubborn vengeance on the unforgiven one, a demon may enter the person to inhabit his/her house of character. Before that time, the demon is only attached to part of his armor. A person's fleshly armor separates him/her from others and from God, especially if a demonic entity has become molded to it. John and I have been called countless times over the years to minister in areas of deliverance. But we do not cast out flesh. Fleshly attributes must go to the cross. Demons are to be cast out.
If a demon has been inhabiting a house of flesh, and the house is dismantled through prayer, the demon will have to leave. Sometimes eviction happens as an automatic outcome of bringing an old structure to death on the cross and filling the person's inner being with the light and love of Jesus. To bring an old structure to death, the person must repent of practices in his flesh and disavow the armor in which he trusted. When this has been done, the demon no longer has a place to live or armor to mold itself to.
Sometimes we are called upon to express our authority in the name of Jesus to cast out a demon directly. More often it is appropriate to pray for cleansing from the defilement of a demonic spirit that has been "hanging around the door" as it were, creating an oppressive, threatening, or accusing atmosphere. In Jesus's authority we command it to leave the premises.
How can we know the difference between actual inhabitation and merely being oppressed by something "hanging around"? By receiving and exercising the Holy Spirit's gift of discernment in each case.
Too often when discernment has accurately indicated the presence of a demon, the exorcist has cast it away without knowing that the house of character must be dealt with as well. What then happens is described by Jesus:
When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, "I will return to my house from which I came." And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.
When we hear excited testimony, "We cast out 265 demons!" and there has been no testimony that structures of habit patterns in the house of flesh have been dealt with, we know that Satan probably has been given a playfield. He will willingly lose battle after battle if it means he will be granted center stage and, later, a house to return to.
If the one who ministers falsely assumes that a demon of lust is present and prays to cast it out, the person receiving ministry will be no freer than before. Consequently he/she may feel accused, misunderstood, and abused, or hopelessly in bondage to the devil.
Often what the prayer minister identifies as lust in the sexual abuse victim is not that at all. Dr. David Peters explains a dynamic that frequently expresses in what he calls the "latency-age group" (children between six years of age and adolescence).
Sexualized behavior and extensive knowledge of sexual facts and terminology are important indicators of abuse. . . . But added to these important factors is the appearance of seductive behavior on the part of the victim during this stage. Since these children have learned at home that the only sure way to gain attention and affection is to relate sexually, it is very common for them to behave seductively toward both peers and adults.
Such behavior may also serve the function of providing these children with a measure of control over their lives. It allows them, at least in one area, to be the aggressor rather than the passive victim. For whatever reason such behavior is adopted, it seems to be a common phenomenon among female victims in this age division and is often carried over into the adult victim's life.
These remarks by Dr. Peters caused my spirit to leap in recognition of truth. I had observed such behavior in children and adults and had puzzled about what in sexually abused young teenage girls seemed to be inordinate preoccupation with sexual themes and compulsive flirtation. I had identified it primarily as a need for love and sometimes with self-destructive tendencies related to a lack of esteem and self-loathing. But this insight provided a new dimension of understanding. I had known with certainty that we were most often not dealing with lust, and that to treat it as such, especially as a demon of lust, could be extremely harmful to very fragile, needy people.
I once observed a gifted prayer minister as he responded in a very sensitive and constructive way to the seductive behavior of one young teenage girl who had come to him for ministry. She was extremely attractive and tended to relate flirtatiously to males of all ages. He had won her confidence, and she expressed her appreciation with enthusiastic affection, throwing her arms around him in a hug, pressing herself against him. He immediately responded with kindness and firmness. He told her he cared about her. He was tremendously glad that she was coming to life. But he respected her too much to allow her to express her feelings of gratitude and friendship in an inappropriate physical way that could arouse sexual responses. His gentle loving rebuke was at the same time affirming. By it he drew clear wholesome boundaries for her without communicating rejection and gave her a safe resting place in his trustworthiness.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And He will delight in the fear of the Lord, and He will not judge by what His eyes see, nor make a decision by what His ears hear; but with righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth.
-Isaiah 11:2-4, emphasis added
4. The prayer minister reads a number of scriptures to the person receiving ministry, preaches a sermon at her/him, and thinks he/she ought to change his/her behavior accordingly.
My comment: There is a time and place to quote Scripture and to give teaching about it. "The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). But the Word of God is never to be used as a club. Bludgeoning can cause "spiritual brain damage" and postpone forever the subject's ability to understand clearly. Indiscriminate piercing by the two-edged sword of truth may cut the heart to pieces. Even proper sharing of the Word is not enough if that is all the minister shares. "We were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives" (1 Thess. 2:8, emphasis added). Preaching and teaching involve the prayer minister only minimally. Praying with and for-yearning for and weeping with-shares "our own lives."
5. The prayer minister does do some inner healing but too soon or insensitively-and then is bemused or offended when the person is not immediately healed.
My comment: Sometimes prayer ministers rely so much upon right knowledge concerning principles and laws that they unconsciously use them like magic to guarantee results. Our first concern must be to tune ourselves to the heart of God as best we can so that we respond obediently within His timetable for His purposes. If we attempt to restore a person to ability to function too quickly, the Lord may not be given opportunity to write on the heart of the person what He wants to write there. God performs some instant miracles, but as I see it, a miracle usually occurs for one of two reasons: first, to attract someone's attention so the Lord can start a process of deeper healing and transformation. Or, He grants a "sudden" miracle as the outcome of a great deal of undercover struggle and transformation that has made the person ripe to receive. In either case, we who minister are the Lord's servants and need to move only with His patience and sensitivity, however great a miracle He may want to work. Though Jesus knew before He came to Bethany that He would raise Lazarus from more than four days of death, He waited patiently at the edge of the village for both Martha and Mary to arrive and then took time to weep with them before He acted (John 11:30-44).
It may take longer than we would like for our prayed-for miracle to arrive. The Lord said to John and me a long time ago, "I didn't ask you to succeed. I called you to be obedient." What sometimes appears to be failure may only seem so because of our anxiety to see fruit from our labors. We want to look good. Some crops take longer than others to mature. If we overwater and overfertilize to hurry growth-if in our frustration and impatience we pull a tender plant out of the ground to see how it is doing, we will likely injure and possibly kill it. "One sows, and another reaps" (John 4:37).
For a more extensive discussion on ministering to sex-abuse victims, check out Healing Victims of Sexual Abuse, from which this article was adapted.
Paula Sandford is cofounder of Elijah House Ministries. Throughout the past 50 years, she has ministered to countless people in the areas of inner healing and transformation. The restoration of family relationships became the focus of much of her writing, teaching, prayer ministry, and intercession. Paula is the author of two books and has co-authored five with her husband, John. Paula and John have been married for over 50 years. They have six children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.