By / Dec 17

As pastor, on Sunday mornings I always got to church way ahead of most others. On this particular Sunday, Wesley had just returned from a camping trip. But when he saw me for the first time, he grabbed me tightly and would not let go. I couldn’t even walk. I thought he was just happy to see me, not knowing the trauma he was going through. 

That night, after the children were in bed, my wife, Carol, told me what Wesley had told her. I was flabbergasted. Shocked. Hurt. Angry. Bewildered. We decided I would talk with Wesley about it the next day. We chose the evening, since she was out of the house for the evening, and I would have Wesley all to myself. He and I were sitting on the bed. He was in my lap, his back to me. I asked him about what he told his mom about what Bob had done. I was careful to not try to lead him in any way. I just let him tell me what he wanted to. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I knew he would not make up something like this. But even if he had, I would err believing my son. When he finished, I hugged him and told him we would put a stop to it, and we would do all we could to keep Bob from ever being able to do this again. 

I knew Bob and his wife were going on a cruise. I purposely stayed away from the church the next day so I would not have to see him. Then I contacted our deacon leaders and asked for a meeting. In that meeting I laid out the story for them. With Bob away, we had some time to properly plan and respond. The deacons spoke with an attorney and got good legal counsel. Carol and I wanted to do everything the right way. We had to take care of our family. I also had a church congregation that would be grieving through this process. 

When Bob returned home, two of our men met him at the door of the church and asked for his keys. He was terminated because we had no confidence in him. They had taken me out of the picture at that time, which was good. 

Carol had reported the incident to the local police where the abuse occurred. A detective met with us at the Children’s Advocacy Center, and he observed a trained counselor interview Wesley about the abuse. When it was over the detective said he would arrest Bob that day if he could find him. When the arrest was made Bob was surprised there was only one count, since there had been another boy on the trip as well. The other boy did not tell until long after our ordeal. This was on a Wednesday, so at Prayer Meeting I told the folks present that Bob had been arrested and was in jail, and I gave no other details. 

When Sunday came, I took time in the worship service to address the situation publicly. I wanted to assure folks that we were doing everything we could to make sure children were safe in our church. We hid nothing, except I did not say it was Wesley who had been involved. Many did not know who the child had been until months later. 

Going through the legal process was long, tedious, and trying. There was never a trial. The solicitor worked out a plea agreement in the end, which just put Bob on probation. But he also had to be on the sex offenders list. In our meetings with the solicitor we gave all the facts we could, as well as giving names of other children we knew Bob had been with and were possible victims. In the end, some of the others did come forward, and then Bob’s family knew we were telling the truth. 

During the year-and-a-half legal process, we made sure every attorney and judicial official knew that we were not going away. We have never been afraid to stand up and take on anyone we had to. Though we were frustrated with the way the process went, we never wavered. We were at every meeting, even when we had been told we did not need to be there. We were not going away. 

After the story about Bob got out, I was amazed at how many others had stories and cautious feelings regarding Bob. He was crafty. Many, and even myself, felt something was wrong in the beginning, but chose to give him the benefit of the doubt. Over time he deceived us all. I had many people tell me they had been abused as a child, and had never told anyone, or they were not believed. It was like we turned on a faucet. Since we were open about everything, other people felt empowered to share their stories with us. We were suddenly thrust into a whole new ministry opportunity we never imagined or looked for. But since God had us there, we were going to embrace anyone and everything we had to. 

That ministry has not stopped. Other pastors have sought me out for help when they were faced with similar situations. Survivors have come to us for counsel. I have learned more about child sexual abuse than I ever wanted to, but now we certainly see the reason. 

We are very fortunate. Very few survivors tell, and certainly not on purpose. Wesley came to us freely. We are so thankful for that. God has led us through this so far, and we are still following him today as we continue this ministry opportunity passionately. 

Have I forgiven Bob? Absolutely. I have prayed for his reconciliation. I have not seen or spoken with him since all of this. Maybe I will run into him someday. I want to tell him, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness is much more empowering than anger.

By / Dec 17

Redeemed. Forgiven. Justified. Chosen. Safe. Loved. Set free. A new creation. Free, indeed. Child of God. More than a conqueror. Never alone. Free from condemnation. Reconciled. Joint heirs with Christ. And complete in him. 

I have heard these words my entire life. As a three year old, sitting alongside my twin sister at my Southern Baptist church, clothed in identical, pink smock dresses, folded white eyelet socks, and shiny shoes. Mama always had a great way of making us look like perfect little identical angels, until we decided to roll under the pews during church or cartwheel through the balcony during “How Great Thou Art.” 

I heard these words from Bible verses, bright and shiny and exciting at Baptist youth camps, and as an awkward teenager and at my part-time job at Chick-fil-A. Becoming an adult brought on new natural curls I was unsure how to tame and pimples I covered up with foundation that didn’t match my complexion. I was insecure about my appearance, but as a new believer, I was confident in my salvation. 

I read these words and verses in textbooks as a religion major at a Baptist college. I worked in the religion department as a student worker and attended and worked for a small Southern Baptist church. I survived on Easy Mac, Diet Mountain Dew, and very little sleep, but feeling called to the ministry kept me focused on the prize. 

Those words “called to ministry” defined me inwardly as a seminary student when women on campus were often defined as something else. Single women were something that needed to be fixed by marriage. And my favorite—we were there to find a husband. I was there because I knew with confidence God led me to that place to continue my education after college. I am, and I was, the child, teenager, college student, and now wife and mother sitting in the pews of your church.

Shamed in the face of abuse 

However, I felt those in authority did not see or value me as a child of God, a sister in need of protection, or a vulnerable, hurting student when I reached out to them over a decade ago to report I had been raped. Instead, I was questioned and made to feel as if what happened was my fault. I vividly remember the bright pennies inside the penny loafers of the men I told about the assault. I remember looking down at the floor as I shifted from side to side, still in physical pain from what happened. I remember my hair was down because I used it to cover my face.

The visual in my mind was as though the men that questioned me were sitting in high stools while I sat in a regular chair. Much later I realized we all sat in the same chairs. But as I felt belittled by leaders to whom I’d come to for protection, the visual that comes to my mind does accurately reflect what I experienced when I reported being sexually assaulted to men who claimed the name and authority of Christ. 

The day I reported what happened to me, I felt leaders saw a problem to be dealt with rather than a child of God who had been sinned against. I was a threat to an institution rather than a sister in Christ.

I was viewed as someone there to tarnish the reputation of the Church, instead of being seen as part of the body of the same Church. I was thrown away with no help. I lacked clarity about what happened. I believed I wasn’t raped based on what I was told. 

Sidenote: I was brought up to believe the adult, especially the pastor, the doctor, leaders, and especially Christian leaders are always right. To this day, I don’t know how truth was reversed or how I suppressed those memories into the deepest part of me. I never allowed myself to go back. I kept it a secret. 

Breaking the silence, finding freedom 

Now, let’s fast forward nearly 15 years later to the spring of 2018. I am so happily married to someone that works in insurance. I married up, and he loves God more than anyone I went to school with. God has blessed us with two of the most beautiful children on the planet. I’m not biased. We have a great church, and I have a job that I love—not in ministry, as those dreams were crushed from the years of shame I carried. I have my own social media business, and I stay busy. In fact, I just recently received awards for top 20 professionals under 40 and was voted the best social media marketer in my community. 

Looking back now, being busy is what kept my mind occupied on something else. Because I work in social media, last spring I began to notice things that made me uncomfortable—headlines that shouldn’t have been on my computer screen. I still remember the first story about a misogynist and physically shaking my head while squeezing my eyes shut to try and push the memories away. But they began to vividly appear. Those days were over, yet the fuzziness of what happened got clearer as I dove deeper into current events. While in public, at home, or asleep, I began feeling the jarring physical pain I pushed away for too many years. I tried not to read the stories, however, the flashbacks continued to come.

At my worst in the spring of 2018, my husband kindly and gently asked me why I was so angry. I yelled, and I screamed, and I told him exactly what happened for the first time. It was something I hadn’t shared with anyone in 15 years. Speaking of it made it real. I can still hear him say, “Megan, you were raped.”

Hear this: what I described at the time of my rape to the leaders of my school and what I described to my husband were identical stories. To some Southern Baptist leaders, it was a problem to be silenced, but to my husband, even in the unwarranted anger I hurled at him, he responded with clarity about what actually happened, and his first instinct was to immediately protect me, shield me, embrace me, and show me how much he loved me.

My husband was observant and patient. He saw me instead of my anger, and his concern was for me; he was never concerned with what others thought; protecting something or someone else; what this might cost us—in fact, what it has cost us. The next day, he took his very reluctant wife to see our pastor. It was so difficult for me to share that story again that I asked my husband to.

My pastor was the opposite of those men with the pennies in their shoes. He responded the same way my husband did—with humility and with validation when he didn’t know what to say—and there were many times that happened. He didn’t pretend to have answers. He wept for me, and he wept for us.

My pastor was patient as he listened. He wasn’t quick to make assumptions about how I reacted or didn’t react after my attack. He never questioned my years of silence or asked why I kept this secret for so long or why I was sharing it now. Silence didn’t discredit me in his eyes.

He wasn’t afraid to tell me the physical symptoms I had at the time were no indication of the healthiness of my relationship with God. He wasn’t afraid of me, and he wasn’t afraid of modern medicine. He was secure in his role as my pastor, and he was educated. He wanted to make sure we knew insomnia can cause psychosis, which can lead to many other issues, including suicide. And at the same time, my pastor knew he was not equipped with the tools in his office to treat what I needed. He knew I needed to see a medical professional and encouraged us to do that immediately.

But that didn’t stop him from reading Psalm 3 and other passages from the Bible that were the only balm to my soul and wounds that day. And he prayed for us. My pastor shared something with me that day I will never forget. He said, with a kind and meek smile, in the most gentle way possible, that he had always seen potential in me. Yet he also saw a reluctance to throw myself into ministry. We knew in that moment that the reluctance came from the shame that I carried for 15 years. 

He checked in on us after that almost daily to make sure I was seeking help. He contacted professionals. Without sharing my story or identity, he worked diligently to educate himself. After leaving his office, I became consumed with something else. Leadership where my attack happened had changed. I knew they were probably unaware of what happened. I had this overwhelming sense of urgency to tell them in case there were other victims hurting and silenced as I was. It was all-consuming and kept me up at night. In my attempt to reach out to the school to try and care for victims I didn’t even know, the past reality was the complete opposite of the men with those pennies in their shoes.

I was met with an immediate, “We will support you if you wish to press charges.” In addition, I was given access to my file. Right in front of me, in black and white, I read my file and the report of what happened, and my heart dropped into the deepest part of my stomach. I did report what happened. It was the same story I shared with my husband. I wasn’t crazy. I found encouragement and validation that day when someone shared with me, “You were forced to show mercy when there should have been justice.” 

From that moment, I was and remain cared for by the institution I was convinced had failed me. And yet those became some very dark days. For the first time, I was safe, heard, and believed, but that didn’t erase the past. The memories I suppressed returned with a vengeance. At the time, I knew nothing of complex trauma or PTSD or what was happening inside me. I only knew what I was experiencing, which included physical pain, flashbacks, and insomnia to name a few. It wasn’t pretty. What I was forced to look at made me question everything around me. Through therapy and EMDR, a treatment many have found life-changing for recovering from trauma, I found healing. EMDR took me back to those places, but I walked away from my attack knowing I’m no longer there, I’m whole, and I’m safe. 

For those who don’t have experience with a difficult subject, it may be helpful to know survivors inside and outside the church walk through life with an incredible amount of internal fear, anxiety, and insecurity. To this day, I question the validity of friendships and motives of people.

What I would say to the woman who has been abused

What would I say to that hurting girl in the office with those men on high stools? What would I tell her so she could understand the path to safety? 

I would help her with an understanding of justice. While God is a God of justice, the past remains with me. Justice doesn’t bring healing. There’s a false perception that I will feel better once justice plays out the way I think it should. Sometimes it leaves survivors feeling more empty than before because of the security many believe it will provide. I’ve learned for many women that we’re not prepared for what justice did not provide for them. 

Another false perception I had: As I came forward, others did with similar stories, but I didn’t feel relief. In fact, my pain became more intense. I didn’t feel better that there were more stories like mine. I felt regret, and I felt responsibility. And new victims certainly didn’t change my past. 

In addition, guard your story. Once you expose your story publicly, it can never be taken back. I never realized my motives and intentions would be questioned. I had no idea lawyers would ask if I was having financial or marital problems. I never expected to have pieces of my personal file exposed online. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that members of my own family would not believe me. Overnight, I was no longer a person. Instead, I was reduced to a movement associated with a political party or theological shift they somehow felt could all be dismissed as agenda-driven and irrelevant. Once again, I was a threat to power, which made me the enemy. 

However, my story is the biblical story. While some may think I am their enemy or that anyone who speaks for the vulnerable among us is a threat, we are not that enemy. But there is an enemy. It’s the same enemy of every human who’s ever lived, even those who disagree on the very issues we’re discussing here. There was a day in the garden when no one had ever shed a tear, been hurt in any way, and when there was no separation between God and his creation. On that day back in the garden, when the enemy showed up as a crafty snake to twist God’s words and to try and guarantee his seat of power, Eve listened and Adam followed rather than obeying the voice of God who had given them everything they needed.

What we’re facing and discussing may seem new, and the dynamics of how to address these are specific to our time, but the source is the same enemy from the garden—a snake who wanted to be God, convincing people that if they will do this one thing, they can have power like God. Far too many have listened to him, and far too many are still listening. But it doesn’t end there, because once the fruit of power has been consumed, victims are inevitable. And then that enemy tells them lies—lies about who they are, which keeps them silenced. We must join together against this enemy and draw near to the one who has already crushed his head. 

Sisters and brothers struggling with the same past experience as I am: your identity is in Christ, whether there is an abundance of evidence or none, whether justice prevailed or justice was not served. Apology or no apology, repentance or none. Whether you are heard, believed, or have remained silent. When members of my family did not give me the support I thought I so desperately needed, it brought me to my knees. The words of Rich Mullins best describe how this season has looked: “And now the night is fading and the storm is past, and everything that could be shaken was shaken. And all that remains is all I ever really had.” 

And the words of God best describe what this has revealed: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Light came from my husband, who was the first voice of truth about what had been done to me and who has faithfully walked with me despite all it has cost us. The darkness has not overcome the light. 

Light came from new leadership, who sat in chairs across from me, eye to eye and heart to heart, and shepherded me on the path to healing even when attacks came. The darkness has not overcome the light. 

Light came from rediscovering my calling to ministry and seeing God weave together my business experience and love for the Church to burst something new. The darkness has not overcome the light. 

And I have been told that the light comes from within me, which is Jesus—that despite the attack, trauma, humiliation, ungodly leadership, loss of family and friends, media, and the loss of more than you can imagine—all that loss—it is nothing compared to the light of Jesus; the Jesus who was attacked, who was mocked, who was dead but rose again, destroying that lie-telling, power-stealing enemy who wants to shove us all into darkness. No, he has not won. Jesus has won. I am his, and it is his love and power that shines in me when the shadows creep. The darkness has not overcome the light of Jesus and never will. 

So, I’m here today with confidence and with boldness, knowing I am in fact redeemed, forgiven, and justified. Chosen. Safe. Loved. Set free. A new creation. Free, indeed. Child of God. More than a conqueror. Never alone. Free from condemnation. Reconciled. A joint heir with Christ. And complete in him. Not because someone finally believed me. Not because I was given a second chance. Not because I’m called to ministry. But because of who I am in Christ. 

By / Dec 17

It’s hard to describe the indescribable, especially considering age and how it makes memories dim and inaccurate at times. I don’t remember plot points. I don’t know what color shirt I had on. I don’t know if it was blue or orange or black like the room it all happened in. And I don’t remember how he got me to follow him into the basement; if he bartered the promises of toys or candy with me; if he led me by the hand, or if I ran after him like any child under 7 does when around a teenage boy that they trust. 

But there I was, completely unaware, with no context for how familiarity with someone by no means excludes them from harming the ones that they know. If anything, it’s always proved to be the currency of abuse. To know him already was to leave my heart unguarded. So, imagine my surprise when I was told to do something that I’ve never done or known or seen or heard. This act. My inability to breathe during it. The dark basement. The adults upstairs never coming to see what a 16-year-old boy might be doing with a first grader.

My mother, at work, believing her baby to be safe, trusting that the people she left me in the care of would protect me as only she would. But there again is the contradiction of familiarity. You expect it, and the people it describes, such as family or friends, to mean that they are trustworthy. You hope their nearness makes them that, or at least you hope to have enough wisdom to be able to discern if there is a serpent up their sleeves. But he’s crafty enough to hide from even the most protective eyes. 

When the teenage boy, the one whose name I will forever remember and never speak, was finished. I was able to breathe again. And he never told me not to tell, or maybe he did, and I just don’t remember. But what I do know is that it became a secret because to tell someone, I thought, was to implicate myself in an act of doing something that ought not be done. Being a child, I didn’t have the capacity to even consider that his evil was not also my own. I’m the one that followed him into the basement. I’m the one that whispered in between the shadows. I am the one that silenced my laugh to replace it with silence. I am the one who let him take my breath and my body from me. I didn’t speak of that day until I learned of its name.

Naming what happened to me 

I was 14 and watching an episode of “Oprah” because Oprah is America’s therapist. There was a woman speaking, with wet eyes and a cracked voice, and she was telling Oprah about the molestation that occurred in her home. She described the scenario in which her innocence was overcome. And as I listened to her story, I thought of the basement’s darkness and what happened inside of it. What I heard from her and what I remembered sounded the same, except I’d never given it a name like she did. 

To me, it was just something that happened. But according to this woman, I was a victim of sexual abuse. To call it by name allowed me to connect dots. The consequences of abuse like fear and shame and control dominated my days. But it had a source that I could not acknowledge until it was reintroduced to me. It was not merely that a teenage boy did something to me when I was little. That’s far too abstract, which mutes the heartbreaking reality of what actually happened. It was that I was molested and violated by an image-bearer who did not see me as one. What happened was perversion, demonic, a tragedy, the product of a corrupted bloodline, a cursed humanity, a dying boy spreading death because he thought to steal from me would give him life. To call it by name, no matter how painful, was to make sense of it all; to put flesh on floating bones and watch it walk.

If I wanted to be healed, I needed to be specific about what had been broken. I always thought that healing was an immediate act of God dependent upon the measure of my faith, like the woman whose bleeding stopped the moment that she touched God’s clothes. Though I had no hem to hold, I had all of the time to pray; to ask God to deliver me from what that almost-man did to me. But what I’ve come to learn of God is that his healing is gradual and unassuming, and it usually begins with the hard work and sometimes unintentional revelation that the trauma actually exists. 

Unearthing the pain 

Everything related to my molestation that needed to be healed had to be recognized first. It wasn’t until my now husband began his pursuit of my heart that much of the unearthed pain surfaced. He liked me, and I liked him. We followed each other on Twitter and liked each other’s posts. But when we voiced our attractions for each other, and he followed through, I shut down. I became hard, unfeeling. And for the life of me, I did not understand why. 

I wanted to love him freely. I wanted to let him hold me. I wanted to be vulnerable, but I couldn’t. He wanted to lead me well. But complementarianism as it looks when lived was terrifying when I remembered what happened the last time I let a boy lead me. I learned my lesson on letting a man use my trust as food for his demons, and it made me hypervigilant, always needing answers to motivate me to action, always questioning things so I had enough information to guarantee safety. How could I know that this new boy wouldn’t be and do the same? That he actually wanted me and not just my body? What proof did I have that I’d be able to breathe when he was in the room, and that I wouldn’t have to hold my breath until he finished?

Trauma makes you inquisitive. It makes you doubt everything and everybody. It makes you squint your eye at the familiar, rummage through your memories, and project what you gathered onto anybody that might mimic it. It makes you afraid to be yourself, to be honest, to have faith in anything other than God and your own feeble attempts at self-preservation. And it makes you jealous when you see other people who only held their breath underwater and not in basements, so they have no fear of swimming in the dark; when you see a woman being held by their lover, and they love it. They don’t resist his affection for fear of what it might mean or do. They delight in his love, and they tell him why. They don’t see vulnerability as a threat, but a gift. The sexually traumatized can only imagine a world where they don’t have a ghost in their bedroom at all times. 

I cannot tell you how frustrated I still am, because it does not matter how much theology I have attained now, I am still affected by what happened to me then. Even though my mind does not remember all of the details, my body does. I am all of 30, and I still feel like a 7-year-old on most days. I am still so fearful of following anybody, anywhere. I have made a living out of showing people how to breathe, but here I am, still holding my breath, still wondering if when I surface there will be someone to say, “Jackie, you will be OK.”

Jesus has the final say 

At this point, heaven is my ultimate hope of healing. It isn’t that God is not healing me now, because he is. He is using my husband’s patient love, my community’s constant ear, and my therapist’s insight to mend me, but I am not satisfied with that. And I don’t believe that I have to be. This incomplete healing is what propels my hope for a more sufficient one—a healing that is not limited by space and time. A healing that isn’t undone by what triggers me here. 

There, in heaven, is when I will be made whole. And not merely by faith, but tangibly. I will see it. I will feel it. I will know it. I won’t need a sermon or podcast or conference to convince me. It will be an eternal reality because what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. This body, with all of its fear and shame, will be done anew. I will no longer have to force myself to think on whatever is good and pure. I will do it on its own accord. Whatever memories I will have, they won’t have any control over me. 

They will remind me of Jesus and how he suffered too. How men made in his image did not recognize him as God. They abused his body before killing it, but they could not control the body nor the God that they abused. His resurrection is all of the proof that I need that he will make all things new—and not just this world and the heavens and the church, but me, my mind and my heart and my body will resurrect into something glorious. 

In heaven, I won’t have to hide behind the delusion of strength to protect myself from pain. I will still be weak, as all humans are, but I will be stronger than I have ever been. In heaven, I won’t have to be afraid of intimacy. The one-flesh union between spouses and the closeness experienced between Christians of all kinds is but a metaphor of what is to come. I am constantly finding leaves to cover my nakedness, but there we will be completely exposed and yet unashamed of what our neighbors will see. They will see us for what we are and what we’ve always wanted to be, which is free.

In heaven, there will be a man that has never taken advantage of me. A man that has always used his power to serve. A man who unrobed to cover my shame. I have followed him out of darkness and into light. And with him I can breathe at all times. There he is, seated at the right hand of his Father and mine. Fully victorious, not only over my sin, but also over what the sins of other people have done to me. Neither their sin nor mine was missed during the crucifixion. Jesus sees and settles the dust that the devil kicks up around us. The serpent, though crafty, is still a created thing who will bow before the King one day. The devil and the death that he brings will die. 

And this is our hope: that all will be made right one day, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

There will be a new heaven and a new earth with new people living on it—people that we can know well and trust thoroughly. And don’t think that when I speak about heaven I am disregarding the trauma of today. I speak about heaven because it reminds me that today and all of its troubles are not eternal. So I can be honest about my struggle without being cynical, and I can look forward to what is to come without being negligent.

Jesus is healing me, and Jesus will heal me. It is an already-and-not yet-reality that has made my days much brighter. Yes. It hurts, still. But, what has happened to me or us won’t hurt forever. Trauma will not have the final say. Jesus will.

By / Dec 17

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.

By / Dec 17

Horrible atrocities have been done in the name of Christ. This should not be. In Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg defines power, addresses the various ways power has been abused in the church, and shows how power can be redeemed. Power rightly used is Christ-like power. Power abused, however, is “power used for the control and coercion of the victim” (93). This abuse of power dehumanizes, damages all involved, and “does untold damage to the body and name of Christ” (3).

In the book, Langberg addresses topics such as racism, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and spiritual abuse. It can be tempting to turn away from seeing these evils, but this book spurs the reader to instead enter in and to care for others. This is how Christ used his power; he entered in and acted on our behalf. Throughout the book, Langberg never fails to connect what is true and right back to Jesus himself. What has been destroyed by power abused, he uses his power to rebuild, and invites us to participate in his redemptive work (117).

By / Dec 17

Into The Light is a seven-week Bible study that addresses trauma and healing by looking at Scripture. Author Mary DeMuth helps the churches not only care for the survivors in their midst, but care for one another in general. This study provides a theological understanding of shepherding, care, the church, sorrow, lament, justice, and repentance. The “We-Too Moments” each week provide practical action steps for caring for one another. And the discussion questions will help someone working through the study on their own reflect and will help those working through it together to listen well and better care for those who have been silenced by trauma. 

We don’t heal in isolation. We need one another, and this book brings hope and instruction from Scripture on how to heal together. DeMuth brings hope by pointing to God’s intent for the church and by helping those doing the study to be better neighbors and ambassadors to a “bleeding world” (150).

By / Dec 17

You would think abuse would be easy to identify, but because of many dynamics of oppression including coercion, blame-shifting, manipulation, threats, and danger, it often takes patient care over time to identify domestic abuse. Abuse can be disorienting and distressing for victims and for those walking alongside. Because of this, many don’t venture into those troubled waters. But the church must care for the vulnerable in their midst and confront oppression. In her book, Darby Strickland helps the church answer the question, “Is it abuse?” and equips the church to walk faithfully with care where abuse is present.

The book is immensely practical with inventories, cautions, encouragements, and steps for counselors and friends, but it’s also nuanced. It recognizes the need for wisdom and dependence on God to respond to specific situations. The book acknowledges the need for help from experts and reminds the reader of their specific role, whatever it might be. The resources at the end alone are worth the price, but every pastor, counselor, or women’s ministry leader should read this book and then keep a copy on their shelf for reference and to utilize in the future. 

By / Dec 17

How much is a girl worth? 

This question is both the title of Rachael Denhollander’s book and the lens through which she powerfully recounts the childhood sexual abuse she endured at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar and the road to justice that she and many of her fellow survivors courageously forged. 

Her story of abuse is graphic and heartbreaking, illuminating not only the physical realities of abuse, but the emotional scars that follow survivors long after their physical abuse ends. Though I am an attorney and advocate who has walked through trauma with many clients and friends, Denhollander’s detailed account of the suffocating pain and protracted grief that survivors of sexual abuse endure left me gasping for air. I could easily place myself in her shoes.

A trust broken

In hopes of providing an outlet for my unbridled energy and neurotic resolve, my mother had placed me in my first gymnastics class at 3 years old. And it worked. Although a car accident sidelined my ability to compete when I was 8, I was far enough into the competitive gym scene at that point to understand the world Denhollander vividly depicts in her book—a world where little girls are pushed to their physical limits day after day, parents are not allowed in practice areas, and you are punished for questioning authority. 

It was against this backdrop that Denhollander and her fellow survivors were serially sexually assaulted by Nassar. Denhollander graciously and constructively allows her readers to feel the weight of each triggered memory, each significant life milestone marred by the painful scars of abuse, and the perpetual silencing of a victim’s voice by abusers and the institutions who protect them.

The injustice survivors face

Denhollander also walks her readers through one of the questions that looms so large in the face of so many survivors, “Why don’t victims report?” What is a Girl Worth? exposes the tidal wave of inequity that faces each survivor when disclosing abuse. Through her story of survival, Denhollander exposes not only her abuser, but also the institutions and authority figures who failed to protect so many from abuse and fail to follow through when a victim reports—from the church leaders who silenced her abuse at the hands of a church member when she was a small child; to the beloved coach she disclosed Nassar’s abuse to but who discouraged her from telling anyone else; to the university that had multiple reports of abuse but continued to let Nassar have access to children; to the defense attorney who drug her reputation through the mud.

Offering perspective 

But What is a Girl Worth? does more than just detail horrific abuse. It also provides perspective, modeling what those of us who want to help empower survivors and fight for justice can do. It spotlights the courageous survivors and advocates who push back against the seemingly impenetrable darkness; the detectives who listen and investigate fully; the prosecutors who listen and model their strategy based on the needs and desires of the victims and tenaciously argue the case; and the church members and friends who walk alongside survivors. Most importantly, it spotlights the resolute survivors, like Denhollander herself, who persevere despite unthinkable odds, to ensure that their abusers are stopped once and for all and no more little girls are hurt. 

Denhollander asks her readers the same question she asked the judge in Nasser’s sentencing hearing, “What is a girl worth?” And her beautiful testimony of sacrificial love and unrelenting pursuit of justice on behalf of others compels her audience to agree with the answer: Everything. These girls are worth everything.

By / Dec 17

The floodgates began to open up in October 2017 with the phrase “Me too” on Twitter. Exhausted and fueled by the injustice of abuse and the devastation of enduring years of cover-up, people began to share their accounts of sexual abuse and assault, which led to countless predators being brought to justice amid a powerful movement that continues today. 

Some of the stories that circulated in the media included the conviction of Harvey Weistein, a powerful film producer; the firing of Matt Lauer, the long-time co-host of the “Today Show,” in light of numerous sexual harassment allegations; and the trial and conviction of Larry Nassar, the USA gymnastics doctor, who was a serial child sexual abuser. 

Yet, for all the stories that made national headlines, there were countless other victims whose names may never be known but who courageously decided to share what happened to them and bring their abusers to account. Many of them revealed that abuse wasn’t just in the world but that tragically their victimization was tied to the church. As a Christian woman, I am horrified by what people have endured at the hands of those who should have kept them safe in Jesus’ name. This should not be so. 

The ERLC, together with the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group of the SBC, has continued working to try to prevent more terrible instances like this from happening in the future and to care well for victims. That’s why we wanted to focus this issue of Light Magazine on educating and equipping Christians to stand against sexual abuse and advocate for the safety and care of those within our churches. 

This volume includes various resources that we pray will be used to help make our churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse, including an article by Travis Wussow, the ERLC’s vice president of public policy, that covers updates on the SBC’s ongoing work in this area; a piece by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb on how to protect your children from sexual abuse; and a reflection by Brad Hambrick, editor of the Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused curriculum, on ministering to those who have experienced abuse. Most importantly, this edition contains personal testimonies from brave survivors who have chosen to share their experiences in order to benefit others. We welcome your feedback at [email protected] if you have questions or comments after reading this issue. 

Too many have been hidden in plain sight as victims of abuse, and it is our prayer that our powerful and compassionate Father would use efforts like this magazine to bring hope, help, and healing to the ones who should have received the dignity and respect they deserve as those made in God’s image. Though the work is plentiful, the road is long, and the obstacles are many, we must press on, offering support, care, and the love of our Savior, who will not allow his beloved to be overcome by the darkness. 

Lindsay Nicolet
Managing Editor, Light Magazine

By / Dec 17

Nearly two years have passed since the Houston Chronicle launched a series of articles exposing an abuse crisis among an alarmingly large number of Southern Baptist churches. That investigation into church sexual abuse told about the harm done to over 700 survivors, including children as young as 3 years old. What stood out in these articles was the contrast between the courage and resilience of the survivors of this abuse with the horrific depravity of those who would prey on them—and, further, to use the name of Jesus to prey on them. 

In the wake of that report, I, along with many others, called on Baptist Christians, as a first step, to see what was before us, and not to turn away. At the time, some ridiculed concerns about sexual abuse as an irrational sweep into a secular #MeToo moment, implying that the issue was merely “political correctness” over something that isn’t a problem within church life. Others suggested that the church should not concern itself with questions of “justice,” and that preaching the gospel itself will resolve matters of injustice. Some seemed more concerned with investigating those who would name the problem for what it is than with investigating the problem itself. Thankfully, multitudes of churches and Christians rejected wrongheaded responses—or non-responses—as dangerous to the lives of present and future survivors of these horrors and to the witness of the church itself. 

Every rape, every sexual exploitation, every grooming toward such, is evil and unjust. Sexual abuse is not only sin but also a crime. All of it should be prosecuted in the civil arena, and all of it will be brought before the tribunal of the Judgment Seat of Christ. Nothing is worse than the use of the name of Jesus to prey on the vulnerable, or to use the name of Jesus to cover up such crimes. What we must learn from all of this is that the issue of predators in the church is not a secondary one. Churches must not simply brush up their policies or pay fleeting attention to the issue because of the cultural moment. This is a primary issue, one that Jesus himself warned us about from the very beginning. 

The church is a flock, he told us, vulnerable to prey. That’s why, he said, the church would need shepherds who would know both how to feed the flock with the Word of God and also to protect the flock from predators who would tear them apart (John 10:10-14). The Holy Spirit warned us expressly that some would infiltrate the church to carry out their sexually violent depravity (2 Tim. 3:1-9; 4-13).

We should see this scandal in terms of the church as a flock, not as a corporation. Many, whether in Hollywood or the finance industry or in many forms of organized religion, see such horrors as public relations problems to be managed. But nothing could be further from the way of Christ. Jesus does not cover up sin within the temple of his presence. He brings everything hidden to light. We should too. When we downplay or cover over what has happened in the name of Jesus to those he loves we are not “protecting” Jesus’ reputation. We are instead fighting Jesus himself. 

Two years later, we should not be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting. We should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden, and to protect those who never should have been unprotected. 

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, and he will have the last word. 

Russell Moore
President, ERLC