Laina (not her real name) met with me after hearing a talk I gave about Christ’s hope for those who experience same-sex attraction. Though married to a kind Christian man, her marriage was struggling, and few people knew why. Laina’s female youth-group leader had sexually abused her for three years beginning when she was 16. Almost a decade later, Laina was hurting and overwhelmed with shame, disgust, fear, and confusion. She needed compassionate and wise care.
Over the years, I’ve heard many horrific stories of sexual abuse that stun my heart and mind. Our ministry counsels people seeking help overcoming personal battles with sexual sin, but the majority of them have been sinned against sexually. And in the process of counseling, their stories come out—sometimes for the first time.
Sexual abuse does violence against individuals in profoundly personal, body-affecting, soul-bruising ways. And you don’t have to be in ministry to hear about it. As we develop meaningful relationships, our friends, family members, and coworkers may trust us with their own stories of abuse.
How should we respond when someone tells us about their past abuse? Consider four ideas as starting points to compassionately care for someone who entrusts their story to you.
1. Open Your Heart and Eyes: This Is Real
Roughly 80 percent of the women who come to me for counsel have suffered some form of sexual abuse. As we hear statistics and news stories about abuse, we ought to open our eyes and hearts to the fact that this means there are also people in our own churches and workplaces who are surviving sexual abuse.
Turning away from stories of abuse is to turn away from Christ himself.
Sadly, the abuse scandals that have rocked churches in recent years share a common thread: the abused were not listened to or believed, which resulted not only in retraumatizing those who came forward, but also in allowing additional victims. Turning away from stories of abuse is to turn away from Christ himself, who identifies with the oppressed and weak. Ask God to give you a courageous willingness to learn about this form of suffering and the compassion you’ll need to bear the weight of hearing painful stories. The stories are real, and they show up every Sunday, at every women’s Bible study, at the men’s retreat, in your seminary classes, and in most of your regular activities. People are hurting, and they need to be embraced with compassion.
2. Listen and Learn: Your First Step Is Not to Give Answers
Before you say anything about a person’s pain, it’s important to understand their painful experience. Don’t assume you know what they’re experiencing simply because you’ve read books and articles (like this one!) or even because you’ve also experienced suffering. Sexual abuse inflicts deep wounds that won’t be overcome easily or quickly, and it takes time to understand the specific effect of trauma on a survivor. Your first act of love is to listen—to learn not only what happened to a person but also how it has affected them.
Ask God to help you listen with love as you gently invite someone to be known. Most likely, it will be extremely difficult for them to find words to speak the unspeakable, bringing to light things hidden in the dark for years, perhaps decades. Healing will take time, and there are sorrows, consequences, and scars that won’t be fully undone until the day Jesus returns and heals all things (Rev. 21:1–5). Remember, your first responsibility isn’t to heal or fix, but to engage with listening love.
3. Provide Practical Care: Help Them Find Help
Spiritual help and practical care are two sides of the same coin. When we provide holistic help, we reflect our Savior, who ministered to both souls and also bodies. As you listen to someone’s story, pay attention to clues for how they need help now. Pray and ask God to help you discern the most immediate next step.
Just because you’re the first person they tell doesn’t mean you ought to be the last.
Especially if the abuse is recent, but even if months or years have passed, consider these issues:
- Does the person have immediate medical needs? Should you take them to the hospital?
- Does the person need to file a police report? Could you accompany them to the police station or call 911 for them?
- Is the person scared of being alone? Could you or another friend stay with or host them for days or even months?
- Is there someone else who could also help this person navigate their situation and its effect—a pastor, church leader, counselor, relative, or friend? Could you suggest getting assistance?
For the long-term, an abuse survivor will likely need care from someone with expertise in trauma counseling, and trusted others who can help share the burden of this person’s pain. Just because you’re the first person they tell doesn’t mean you ought to be the last.
4. Lean on Jesus: You Can’t Love Wisely Without His Help
Finally, you must depend on Jesus and on others who are part of his church. Caring for abuse survivors is beyond anyone’s singular ability. Our own feeble reserves of love and good intentions are insufficient to lament with and care for people in pain. We need radical wisdom and strength from outside ourselves: we need our Savior and Redeemer. We also will likely need mature believers and experienced, wise counselors to support us as we support our hurting friend.
“The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Ps. 9:9). May we display Christ, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27), as we come alongside the broken and bruised.