What I’ve learned from working with survivors of abuse and trauma

The power of story and community in healing

March 19, 2020

“I’ve never shared this with anyone.” 

“My husband thinks I’m crazy because I can’t seem to get past this. It affects our communication, our intimacy, how we parent.” 

“Every time I walk into church, I feel like I’m going to throw up.” 

“I don’t know where to begin.” 

These represent common responses from women who participated in support groups for survivors of abuse and trauma.

In recent years, we have seen the light of truth and justice shining into dark corners where unspeakable things have gone unchecked. Sometimes the light shines brightly, exposing whole systems of oppression. Other times, it breaks through the night slowly and quietly, one story at a time.

We can affirm the many ways churches are seeking to equip themselves for greater understanding and compassion toward the abused and traumatized. And yet, as we are confronted with statistics of abuse and trauma survivors, we can acknowledge the reality of the work before us.   

As a woman in the church with a masters degree in counseling, I sensed a call from God several years ago to come alongside those recovering from abuse and trauma. I long for people to experience healing from whatever suffering plagues them. 

Over the past two years, I facilitated five women’s groups to process the experience of abuse and trauma. Each group of 12 women met weekly, spending 90 minutes at each session for six weeks. Two of the groups met in local churches, and the other three were conducted in an online format with women from across the country. I’ve been able to observe and learn several things during time with these incredible women. 

Healing in story

A few weeks ago, a new friend asked me to tell him my story. He had heard a small piece of my personal background, and it prompted him to want to know more. With warm eyes, he inquired of me, and I found myself comfortable sharing with him. As I finished, he looked directly at me and said, “It’s not supposed to be that way. Our God is grieved by that, and I am very sorry you experienced that.” The offender has never acknowledged it, and likely never will this side of eternity. But something was restored in my heart that afternoon by one person being willing to listen empathetically and acknowledge the wrong done to me. 

While telling our stories does not absolve the offender of responsibility, it can serve as a reminder that God hears us and cares deeply about our stories. His own Son spent a great deal of time listening to the stories of those who had been mistreated, abandoned, and abused. One account we find in Mark 9 of a father bringing his son for healing serves as a vivid example of Jesus inviting the man to share his story. He offered dignity and restored hope to those who felt alone. 

One way of being ambassadors of light is by providing a context for hope and healing through engaging with survivors’ stories and helping them find meaning in the larger narrative of God’s story. That’s what the support groups seek to do, honoring each person’s story and cracking the window just enough so that light can start shining into the darkness. 

Healing in community

The groups I facilitate take a whole-person approach, giving consideration to the intricate ways the body, mind, and soul have experienced abuse or trauma of various kinds. My hope is that they offer a compassionate and safe space to begin processing what recovery might look like. The groups are not intended to be a substitute for individual counseling or other specialized forms of trauma care. The primary aim is to provide a Christ-centered perspective on healing in the context of a supportive community. 

Standing by a survivor requires empathetic people who can feel their feelings, absorb their pain, and walk alongside them for the long haul.

Many of the women who participate in these groups have never opened up to anyone about their abuse and trauma. They have pressed on with life while greatly affected by how their bodies and minds respond to the trauma. Shame becomes a recurring theme. Some have found themselves unable to hold jobs or maintain intimate relationships because they never processed their experience. Some have faced compounded or secondary trauma after sharing their story with someone who diminished them with a quick platitude like “forgive and forget,” or worse, abusive statements like “move on!” or “keep quiet . . . don’t stir up trouble.” We must offer a community that builds trust and listens well.

Important elements to remember

Understanding several critical elements will prove helpful for anyone seeking to care for abuse and trauma survivors.

Oppression and abuse reach far wider and deeper than we can imagine. The power structures in place within our churches can often create an atmosphere where abuse can be miscategorized or hidden as “anger issues” or a “marriage problem.”

Survivors need a multi-pronged approach to healing. They need a support system including trauma-informed therapists, counselors, doctors, friends, advocates—a community who will speak hope and truth back to them when the voices of darkness whisper doubts and accusations.

Each experience of abuse or trauma is full of nuances. There is no one-size-fits-all model for healing. Approaching the survivor with a canned format for counseling or support creates the potential for retraumatization. Continuing education and training, growing in empathy, and being an active listener are critical to the helper’s ability to adapt to the unique needs of each survivor. Two resources that are helpful for learning more at an individual and church level are caringwell.com and churchcares.com

A survivor doesn’t always know exactly how he or she feels or what he or she wants. Their identity has been so skewed and silenced by oppressors that the survivor may not have a vocabulary for processing the experience. Acknowledging this helps us approach he or she with greater patience and compassion, particularly because it reminds us that there may be confusion as they share their story. Indecision or fluctuating emotions are common responses from survivors. As they encounter someone who remains steady and committed to patiently listening to them, they may begin to gain clarity about their feelings and be empowered to make decisions about next steps.

Walking alongside a survivor requires patience. We should only engage someone in their story if we are prepared to offer the care necessary to walk through it with them. Standing by a survivor requires empathetic people who can feel their feelings, absorb their pain, and walk alongside them for the long haul. We should not sign up to care for a predetermined length of time, but must be willing to be there for the long haul.


I share what I have heard and learned and continue to learn from survivors so that when a survivor chooses to share his or her story with a friend, there is a deeper awareness out of which the friend can listen, support, and help provide a context for healing. Survivors will need a multipronged support system in the healing process. One person cannot play all those roles, but if we are invited into the support system by a survivor who shares their story, may we bring hope.

Melissa Affolter

Melissa Affolter is a counselor with Fieldstone Counseling, and research editor with Truth For Life Ministries. She is passionate about leading women's discipleship at her home church, and enjoys visiting local coffee shops whenever she gets to travel. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24