Light Magazine Commentary Articles  Human Dignity  Life  Marriage and Family  Religious Liberty  Sexual Abuse

Andrew J. Schmutzer

A male abuse survivor looks back

I’m 53 now, some 40 years after my abuse started. Time has been a good teacher, but also a very painful one. It has only been about 14 years since I told my wife that I was abused. For male survivors my age, we often don’t get professional therapy until later in life—after kids have arrived and well into married life. How I wish I’d had the healing help I needed decades ago, but no one talked about sexual abuse then—especially of boys.

My story is a long journey of healing; a story of digging out landmines, redefining faith and family, and striving to dispel stereotypes that victims don’t need. This long journey reveals a powerful paradox for survivors: the more one heals, the more one can hurt, because I’m able to feel more. My story can be unpacked through several key observations.

1. I cannot cure what time must heal. 

I continue to be amazed how childhood sexual abuse (CSA) can scar people for life. My father was my abuser. When I learned what abuse was, I confided in my mother—but she did nothing. If I had spoken to my pastor in the late 70s, I cannot imagine the fallout to my church community and family. It would be almost 20 years before I received any help—again, because I went looking. I now know that survivors can struggle with a unique profile of mental health issues, relational suspicion, interpersonal skills, addictions, “bent” views of gender, and skewed views of God. I also know these are not popular things to say. Then again, what’s palatable about incest? 

Survivors need safety and compassion, not timetables, suspicious questions, or theological adages about the sufficiency of the gospel—from the nonabused. Even the richest truths still require timely application. Because sexual abuse is such an extensive breaking of interconnected realms of personhood (emotions, body, psyche, and faith), healing can be an art project for life. Biblical counselors should prioritize comforting over confronting. When the inexpressibility of trauma joins with the inexpressibility of God’s nature, the crisis for a survivor of faith can be profound. It’s not about cure; it’s about care. That requires patience, not prooftexts. 

2. I cannot heal what I will not name. 

One day, between teaching classes and following a number of “triggers” I’d been experiencing, I walked into a counselor’s office. Later I discovered he was also a survivor. Over the coming months, he taught me the horrible name of what I’d been avoiding my entire life and the extensive problems of not facing it. I learned to sit in the complexity of my pain. I learned to cherish psalms of lament. I learned that abuse had a history in my extended family. I learned that my church could not name some types of evil. I learned there were no support groups for male survivors. I learned that unwanted experiences create unwelcomed testimonies. 

Wise leaders know that significant healing requires accurate naming. Such naming is not labeling, because the motive and tone are different. Preachers and leaders must be faithful to teach what we find in Scripture. For example, the first book of the Bible includes stories of shame and sexual abuse, even of men—nakedness and isolation (Gen. 3), Noah’s exploitation (Gen. 9), attempted male gang-rape (Gen. 19), Lot’s daughters’ incest of their father (Gen. 19), Dinah’s rape (Gen. 34), and the attempted seduction of Joseph (Gen. 39). Scripture’s sword is sharper than our stories, and far more nourishing (Heb. 4:12). For the faith community, biblical naming reaches beyond hashtags, safe spaces, and image management. Naming fosters healing and knowledge of an ancient evil. Leaders must give victims the gift of true names, support groups, laments, quality Bible teaching, and opportunities for raw testimonies. 

3. I will not name what I am unwilling to grieve. 

As a professor of Bible, and one who respects the printed page, I looked for quality books on abuse from a faith perspective. I found little. Material for abused men was especially scant, lost in the politics of a sexualized culture, gender fluidity, and a craving for status. The Long Journey Home and Naming Our Abuse were two books that grew out of my story. 

In addition, my church had collective fear, psychological ignorance, and arrogance toward the broken. The elders disciplined me because I would not display the kind of reconciliation they thought I owed my abuser. They did not understand the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. What I desperately needed were leaders who were empathetic, trauma-informed, and capable of grieving with me. In fact, my entire church needed lessons in collective grief for the one in four women and one in six men who experience abuse. Because of the growing antagonism toward me, I eventually left that church.

Collective grief is the antidote to disenfranchised grief. Leaders must model such things. But leaders who live with their own uninspected pain will not be able to enter into the pain of others. Beyond just the penitential psalms (e.g., Pss. 32, 51), lament is the language of victim’s grief, not just sin’s confession. If we are unwilling to lament, then we are unprepared to face the pain that needs it. Find leaders who know what grieving and lament are. These are shepherds who have faced their own pain.

4. I will not grieve what I am unprepared to redeem. 

One of the more difficult tasks I needed to do was tell my children. They needed to know, for example, that my anger was not their fault—that was on me. This was an important way to redeem my deep frustration. By “redeeming,” I’m referring to a release from toxic shame, exchanging some core experiences, and restoring a dignity and purpose within family and church. Survivors need these “exchanges.” One of abuse’s darkest secrets is that it can run in families for generations. By informing my children in age-appropriate ways, I helped stop the cycle. It’s called being a hinge-parent. What is not transformed risks being transferred to the next generation. I needed to redeem my experience from many different angles.

The collective faith of the Body of Christ helps buoy the survivor, renewing healthy patterns of behavior, and restoring trust and relational vulnerability. When we “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), then we are grieving a loss as Christ meant for us to do. The church community and leaders also need to be aware that some language, for example, can be painful to hear: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) is loaded language for survivors who have been physically pillaged. Often, the victim’s story sits too close to the biblical story. Both leaders and laity need to practice sensitivity with the language and texts of Scripture. Restoring their trust in people can be as complex as restoring confidence in Scripture. Unless Bible passages of brutality, rape, and incest are addressed with some warning, psychological insight (e.g., Tamar in 2 Sam. 13), and even an apology for victims in the audience with PTSD struggles, these will remain texts of terror, and largely avoided by abuse victims. 

Healing is more than the art of self-announcement. Society often confuses advocacy for the abused with a vitriolic protest that cares little for the redemptive horizon of faith. That said, what churches and families do need to understand is that survivors have been betrayed at many levels. Show survivors patience, a listening ear, and the willingness to help redeem their PTSD symptoms by keeping quality books on abuse in a church library and offering support groups for both women and men. Are we doing this?

5. I cannot redeem what I prefer to redefine. 

I never asked for my story, but stories teach us how to feel, messy as they often are. Many elements of my life have improved so much in my healing journey. But I still struggle to trust and can’t stand conflict. Healing does not remove suspicion, but it does give one a sixth sense. So I’ve had to learn another paradox: relationships uniquely wound us, but they also uniquely heal us. I dare not redefine any of my struggles or just give up because relationships can be so difficult. 

The church also gives up on survivors when it redefines incest and abuse as a “bad situation” or slaps Romans 8:28 on a survivor before understanding their story. 

This reminds me of Paul’s words about an incident of incest, “that even pagans do not tolerate . . . Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning?” (1 Cor. 5:1, 2). The right words are intentional and face reality. But a secular society that promotes “victim Olympics” wants a maximum platform to punish, not a lifetime dedicated to healing. In other words, society craves an identity without closure and protest without nurture. So the church must declare, in advance of their next victim who bravely speaks up, that they are ready with the full care of Christ, expressed through his body, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s name this most ancient evil for the 12-year-old child in the church youth group who doesn’t know how to. Knowing that our scarred Lamb (Rev. 5:6) takes wounds seriously helps us take our wounded seriously. Sadly, many abused people have already left, before we heard their stories. Now is the time to start listening.

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