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.