Conversations about sexual abuse are delicate dances around landmines of shame and traumatic memories. Generally, we tease apart abuse only in the raw and protected atmosphere of a therapist’s office. Bound up by shame and humiliation, fear of retaliation, and the expectation of not being believed, survivors hold their past like a hand of cards no one wants to play, for laying those cards down reveals vulnerabilities. For those who hear or read stories of abuse, empathy is difficult because bearing the weight of such pain on behalf of a survivor exhausts the resources necessary to talk and breathe for two.
Jenn Greenberg, in her book, Not Forsaken: A Story of Life After Abuse: How Faith Brought One Woman From Victim to Survivor, presents an unflinching march through her own history of abuse, taking it out of protected space to the printed word. Greenberg walks the reader through the malicious abuse inflicted by her churchgoing father, covering her story by the words of Jesus from Hebrews 13:5: "Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you." She shares her story as it occurred, explores the question of whether it was actually abuse—an inexplicable question almost every survivor asks over and over—discusses survivor guilt, answers the “why I didn’t report” question, and finally makes a victory sweep to forgiveness, love, and strength by God’s grace.
This is the arc of many survivors’ experiences over time, and Greenberg captures hers in a beautifully written journey that culminates in a renewed and strengthened faith.
The ongoing struggle
Christians often struggle to accept that abusive experiences—like childhood sexual abuse and clergy abuse—span the adult lifecycle of survivors, who often suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and suicide attempts and completions throughout life. The abuse itself is just the beginning of suffering. Instead, Christians not abused early in life often expect that survivors will move on and put their past behind them, as one might do with an errant adolescence. However, this expectation is idealistic and fails our survivor sisters and brothers. It also fails Christ.
Childhood sexual abuse is probably the most effective weapon the enemy has for taking down a believer for life. Many survivors, including myself, do not lose our faith in God, but the vibrancy of our early faith slips further out of our grasp the more we battle our memories. We become dehydrated by the lack of living water in our souls, a water that evaporates in the heat of traumatic flashbacks, depression, and the inability to see a clear path forward.
The cross of Christ bridges the pain of abuse and enables both survivors and helpers to realize that we are not forsaken by him.
Many Christians do not know how to respond to our wounds, nor do most churches. Some don’t even try, because the work necessary to restore a wounded believer or to bring a wounded person to Christ is a messy, tangled process that requires resources and training. Some churches fear that openly addressing deep personal pain within the church may repel intact families who appear secure and healthy and are desirable new members. Others fear that caring for the pain of abuse means inviting misery that threatens the unity and stability of a church. This is faulty logic. Jesus commanded us to take care of all of the sheep, not just the unblemished ones. The irony is that none of us are unblemished.
The offense of facing reality
Billy Graham famously said prior to his death that the cross is offensive to those who do not believe. In the same way, Not Forsaken is a necessary affront to believers and churches who either minimize or do not acknowledge the massive problem of childhood sexual abuse. In one poignant chapter, Greenberg writes about how Jesus suffered as man suffers, wept as man weeps, and died as man dies. We often cite the verse that Jesus was tempted as we are but was without sin. True, but Jesus also suffered as we do. As Greenberg writes, Jesus was abandoned, betrayed, slandered, neglected, hated, and abused horribly to the point of death. He understands the pain of our abuse because he suffered as we do.
This pain is offensive to believers and churches who do not want or are not able to acknowledge the widespread problem of sexual abuse in believers’ lives, and especially in those who have not yet come to Christ. The pain of sexual abuse is hard for us to walk through with someone. Yet facing it with survivors, learning to care well for them as we make our churches centers of healing, and reducing the risk going forward is a pleasing and acceptable offering to them and to God.
Jenn writes, "Abuse victims have a deep fear that if we break our silence, our words will fall on deaf or disinterested ears . . . if we are met with complacent responses, all our fears are confirmed. And it breaks our hearts" (59). Later, Greenberg writes that "We find our identity — our unity and our wholeness — in Jesus" (226). So will all Christians who assist survivors. We all find our identity in Christ when we care well for those who have suffered from sexual abuse.
After reading Not Forsaken, I hope you will approach survivors with compassion and belief, and even participate in the Caring Well curriculum to learn how to help churches care well for those who have been abused. We’re called to bring the good news of Jesus to those who do not yet believe. And we are equally called to bring this healing good news of Christ to those who believe but have lost the vibrancy of their faith due to abuse.
Sexual abuse should be offensive to us. Yet the cross of Christ bridges the pain of abuse and enables both survivors and helpers to realize that we are not forsaken by him. His suffering makes the vibrancy of our faith possible. In Not Forsaken, Greenberg will take you on a journey of pain and recovery and will acquaint you with the path of a survivor. Ultimately, this may enable you to walk that path with a survivor who needs you.