A problem cannot be substantially resolved until it is honestly faced. The most common error in some Christian groups is to ignore the problem or offer true solutions in a trite way. But people struggling to face their problems honestly make an equally destructive error if they spurn spiritual solutions because they appear simple and irrelevant to the complexity of the problem at hand.
Unfortunately, those who cling to spiritual answers often view with suspicion those who reject shallow truisms. And those who grapple with understanding the effects of living in a fallen world often disdain those who find comfort in simple truths. In either case, the contempt, though understandable, addresses neither the horror of the damage nor the wonder of the good news. Those who desire to honor God and the redemptive work of Christ must embrace both the simplicity and complexity that exists in the problem and the solution.
Words to a Friend
My counsel to you is simple: Don’t back off from the frightening terrain of a wounded heart. You may say the wrong things and even cause more harm, but the worst harm is to turn your back. Accept your limitations, but also acknowledge the fact that you are on the front lines of the battle. You may not like to hear it, but the fact is, you are a foot soldier, an infantryman who is often the first to take the fire of the enemy.
As a therapist, I see your friend once, maybe twice a week. You see her every day. I deal with significant issues in her soul, but you talk about the same issues and even more. I may be necessary to the process, but you are even more so. Let me say it again: You are very important as a friend who will pray, talk, laugh, cry, read, embrace, shout, bake cookies, drive to Little League, and live life in intimate proximity. Don’t allow your inexperience or your own personal past to keep you from loving well.
Words to the Pastor
Your part in the process of change can be life giving. If your work is traditional pastoral preaching and teaching, then your role is more than crucial; it is culture changing. Among other things, the pulpit can serve as a platform for educating the sensibilities and altering the misconceptions of the Christian community. As I, a psychologist, address the issues of abuse, I can be easily written off. But when you admit that the problem exists and causes damage that is not immediately eradicated at conversion, you have allowed light into a dark, shameful room and touched the lives of countless people.
As a teacher-preacher, you can also challenge the inadequate conceptions of forgiveness promulgated among Christians, strengthen the survivor’s resolve to continue dealing with the battle when it gets tough, and encourage the abuser-surrogate to persevere when quitting seems imminent. You may never spend much time in the counseling process, but your support and collaboration with a counselor will lend your faith, trust, and courage to the victim in her dark moments.
Words to the Counselor
If you are attempting to set forth a distinctively Christian approach to counseling, evaluate whether there is room in your model and technique for dealing with both human dignity and human depravity. One of the divisive issues of our day involves our understanding of sin, its role in the structure of human personality, and its psychological symptoms.
Acknowledge the possible need for more training. Most professionals have never received training in dealing with the issues of sexual abuse. I went through two master’s degrees and one APA-approved doctorate and never spent one minute on the unique issues of sexual abuse, let alone post-traumatic stress, multiple personality, and other secondary symptoms that are uniquely part of the personality structure of those who have suffered traumatic abuse. Pursue an understanding of the role of abuse in your own life, style of relating, countertransference, and choice of therapeutic modality.
Also, be aware of your biases. Do you tend to see sexual abuse behind every case of depression or eating disorder that enters your office, even if the client has no memory of the abuse? If so, question your assumptions and reflect on what the Scriptures consider to be the core issue of memory: our proclivity to forget God, not merely our past.
Finally, make sure you are moral and honorable in word and touch. You should use caution and keen judgment in using touch, even through handholding and hugging. The victim may interpret your touch to mean more than you imagine. It is not right to treat the abuse victim as a leper, avoiding all touch, but a conservative orientation is both circumspect and therapeutically wise.
Words to the Victim
You have been damaged. But you have great hope. The mercy of God does not eradicate the damage, at least not in this life, but it soothes the soul and draws it forwards to a hope that purifies and sets free. Allow the pain of the past and the travail of the change process to create fresh new life in you and to serve as a bridge over which another victim may walk from death to life. It is an honor beyond compare to be a part of the birthing process of life and hope, and a joy deeper than words to see evil and its damage destroyed. I await that day and joy with you.
When people—through absolutely no fault of their own—are subjected to terrible crimes against God and against their souls, like sexual abuse, powerful forces are set in motion within them that make it especially frightening to give themselves to others. Exhorting them to “just trust God” tends to generate frustration and provoke angry questions about the reality of Christian truth.
One of the great needs in the church today is to replace a model for simplistic sanctification with an understanding of the gospel that is both simple and penetrating, reaching with power into the realities of sinful, damaged souls. That shift requires pioneer work in thinking hard about tough problems like childhood sexual abuse. Problems that, because they do not yield easily to our current ideas about victory in Christ, tend to be ignored.
If that pioneering effort is to be biblical, it must insist that the image of God is central to developing a solid view of personality; that our sinfulness, not how we’ve been sinned against, is our biggest problem; that forgiveness, not wholeness, is our greatest need; that repentance, not insight, is the dynamic in all real change.
For those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse and those who love and care for them, The Wounded Heart offers a tender, compassionate window into the psychological effects of abuse and the theological foundations for healing.
Thirty years ago, with great courage and vision, Dan Allender brought Christians to the table to acknowledge, understand, and help victims heal from their experience of the evil of sexual abuse. His work continues to help victims and those who love them to honestly acknowledge their abuse, understand the unique challenge of repentance for victims of abuse, and learn to love boldly in defiance of their trauma. Ultimately Dan offers the bold assurance to sexual abuse victims that even they can find their way to joy and hope in the comforting embrace of a good God.
The Wounded Heart has sold over 400,000 copies and has been the first book family, friends, counselors, pastors, and victims have turned to in search of Christian answers to the calamity of sexual abuse. With a new introduction reflecting on the ongoing importance of the book, and a companion workbook for personal and group recovery, The Wounded Heart continues to offer an urgently needed word of grace in a world ravaged by sexual abuse.