By / Oct 5

Jill Waggoner: You’ve mentioned your vision for next year’s annual meeting as “Jesus is the Center of it All.” What does this mean for us as believers and for the SBC as a whole?

Ed Litton: I loved J.D. Greer’s theme: “The gospel above all.” The Lord made it very plain to me that it is one thing to say the gospel is above all, but what really makes the gospel above all? Jesus has to be at the center of it all. We can assume that is the case for people, but I think it is a false assumption. It is a constant [work] in my life to make sure Jesus is the center of it all. I think the struggles we’re facing as a convention are going to be helped when we return to our first love.

JW: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the SBC?

EL: I think unity is key, and it’s what I hear the most from people. I’m teaching right now in the book of Philippians. The very text I’m going to be approaching this Sunday, chapter 2:1-11, tells us what unity is, what destroys unity, and ultimately, our example of unity is Christ. We have to become self-forgetful and Christ-centered. Unity is something we all have a choice in — how we’re going to live and participate, how we’re going to disagree with one another. The toxic nature of the public discourse within the SBC should be alarming to all of us. 

I hear people say [things] about one person versus another person in our convention. I hear all the time: “He hates this other person.” That’s unbecoming a child of God. That is so elementary and so clear. One might say, “Well, that’s not his problem. That’s what people are saying.” We need to clean up our public discourse. We need to go back to the basics of the gospel, and with Jesus as the center of it all.  We must say, how does that mean I treat my neighbor? 

Obviously, we’re having issues with sexual abuse, and the convention in Nashville was very clear they want that addressed. I think, also, that racial reconciliation is huge. Southern Baptists said, as they added to the 2025 vision, those two things. One of our greatest leaders of my lifetime, Fred Luter, said, “Southern Baptists just don’t do racial reconciliation well.” That’s wrong [of us] because the Scripture is very clear. This is not a theory. This is biblical, gospel reconciliation. 

JW: What does the SBC need to do to make our churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse? 

EL: Some of our state conventions have really led the way in this. They have taught pastors, and they hold seminars for pastors. But we need this in every state. We need a national convention focused on how we prepare pastors in seminary to know how to report and what to report, so that is the first line of defense. Then there are other things we can do to make our churches safer for children and safer for the vulnerable. We also have to be safe for those who have been abused. They need to know that they will be heard, that they will be seen, and that we care about their suffering. All of those things are important. 

The convention made it powerfully clear that we’re to have an investigation of our own Executive Committee. It’s always a painful thing to be investigated, but the truth is what sets us free, and we need to know the truth. 

JW: How can God redeem times of suffering? What have you learned about God and his work in your own life? 

EL: One of the first questions I was asked after my wife, Tammy, died was, did your view of God’s sovereignty help you or hurt you? I said yes. 

It was utterly devastating that God would let me hurt that bad. But at the same time, it was the most comforting thing that this wasn’t an accident. I’m still a part of a divine plan, and God is moving through that suffering. Now, it’s not automatic because you have a choice as to what attitude and mind you will have toward suffering. 

We often, as Baptists, are critical of the health-and-wealth gospel, but I think we have our own form of health-and-wealth gospel — that everything’s going to work out great. My kids are going to be good and not embarrass me too much. But the reality is that is a false gospel. Our salvation came through suffering. And Jesus [said] to take up your cross and follow me. He didn’t say, take up your Lexus and follow me. We’re on a mission with him into a world of suffering. 

By the way, our credibility for the gospel hinges on how well we suffer. We have the resources for suffering. We have a presence of the powerful Holy Spirit of God. Jesus walks with us. He draws near to the broken-hearted and those who are crushed in spirit. We cling to his Word. We comfort one another. We pray for people that suffer. My church was the most amazing ministry to me in my times of suffering. Ultimately [suffering] is the platform for the gospel. 

One of the reasons our churches are not as effective as we could be or should be is because we have gotten distanced from the world that’s hurting. People don’t think of us when they’re hurting. They think of a bar. They think of drugs. They think of maybe a counselor or a therapy or another religion. But they need to think of us as people who know what suffering is about. Our best, and most effective, evangelism is when we’re not separated from the world, but we are actually showing them the love of Jesus Christ in the midst of their suffering. 

JW: What encourages you the most about the SBC?

EL: The thing that encourages me the most right now is that Southern Baptists are a praying people. The people who came to the convention [in Nashville], or didn’t come to the convention, pray. Other presidents have told me that there is a unique power in this role that comes from the fact that Baptists pray. 

The other thing is watching our SBC Disaster Relief work. Kathy and I stumbled onto Disaster Relief workers in Grand Lake, Colorado, nine months after a tremendous fire had swept through that region, hit the Rocky Mountain National Park, and destroyed homes. They are still out there ashing out homes, and most of them are in their 70s!  Man, what a great way to spend your retirement. I encourage [your readers]: Don’t think about sitting on a beach the rest of your life. These people are out there doing hard work, loading heavy equipment, but with smiles on their faces, sharing the gospel with people and the love of Jesus. That, along with what’s happening with hurricane relief and what’s happening on the border with different associations and churches that are feeding the hungry and helping, is one of the greatest testimonies of what we really believe.

JW: How should we be praying for the SBC and Christians, particularly in America?

EL: Pray that we will return to our first love, that Jesus will be the center of it all. That we will renew our focus on sending missionaries and planting churches, revitalizing churches and making your own church revitalized. We’re in a terrible time coming out of COVID. We keep using that terminology. I’m not sure we’re out of this time, but wherever we’re at right now, we have to be there, and we have to say, “All right, what’s God’s plan?” I don’t know of any pastor whose church has grown during the COVID times. I’m sure there are some. Most of us, however, have suffered profoundly. I have buried more people that I love in the last two years than I want to ever think about. 

It’s important that we ask the Lord, what are we doing here? What would you have us do differently? We can’t hold on to things that we’ve always done. We’ve got to say, “Lord, what are you doing,” and follow him. That’s one of the greatest challenges for any pastor. 

Pastors are exhausted. This is a good time for us to put ourselves before the Lord. One of the best and most dangerous verses in the Bible is in Psalms: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psa. 139:23). God wants us to enter into a time of not just renewal and refreshing, but a time of really searching out our motives, and, ultimately, getting back to the simplicity of the gospel. 

By / Dec 17

The disruption of my life began at age 14 in my small Southern Baptist church a few miles outside of Birmingham, Alabama. For months, my youth minister had showered me with flattering attention, telling me that God had chosen me to help his ministry. This grooming led to 18 months of progressively worse sexual abuse, layered with threats. When I could not tolerate the abuse any longer, I told the only person whom I thought could stop it—my pastor. Implausibly, he was not receptive, and suggested that maybe I had brought it on myself. 

Now put your feet in my teenage Nikes and try to comprehend the extent of this evil. I had no way of knowing that my pastor not only knew about the abuse, but was also having an affair with my Sunday School teacher; the two ministers were locked in their own secrecy battle and had checkmated each other with blackmail, to my detriment. My pastor’s response was to fire the youth minister and pick up with me where the youth minister had left off. 

For another year, I stared at the worn carpet in my pastor’s office while he told me about pornography and activities I was still too young to understand, praying for the horror to stop. Finally, a deacon caught my pastor in his affair, and my horror ended. Yet for years I remained locked in my own silent prison, held quiet by the deadbolt of their threats to harm my family if I told anyone. Meanwhile, they moved on to churches throughout Alabama during their careers and likely abused others. 

I am living proof that sexual abuse has been overlooked for many years in Southern Baptist churches. The research literature in medicine, psychology, and counseling overflows with studies suggesting that sexual abuse, as an adverse childhood event, results in a predictable adult life cycle of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, isolation, hopelessness, suicidality, and more. When it occurs in the church, the additional trigger of spiritual betrayal instigates extensive self-blame and pervasive shame. 

When we encounter trauma, we most often search for God, but what happens when trauma occurs in the church? Sexual abuse in the church is a desecration, a violation of the most sacred role and relationship, a trauma leaving emotional and spiritual blinders. It kills the spirit. It is evil of the highest order. 

It is a children’s Sunday School answer to say that sin is the cause, and superficial at best. The cause of sexual abuse in the SBC is rooted in our culture of casual indifference to predatory sexual behavior. This indifference is the expressionless face of denial and silence. Worn like a shield, indifference results in the catch-and-release practice of catching predatory staff members in the act and releasing them to move freely among other churches and organizations and harm others. 

This practice may pretend to protect the institution, but not the victims. 

Indifference also leads to the upside-down prioritization of mercy over justice, demonstrated by the persistent protection of vaunted leaders who have clearly abused young people. When our churches, agencies, and seminaries try to act first out of mercy rather than justice when confronting sexual abuse, we marginalize the victims and God himself. 

Likewise, we see this look-the-other-way indifference in our systemic failure to use law enforcement in favor of “just dealing with it in the church.” Sexual abuse is not a mistake, bad behavior, a reaction to stress, or a lapse in judgment. It is a crime, and abusers must face arrest and prosecution. In Southern Baptist culture, we have reversed God’s design; forgiveness and mercy originate from the victim and from God, not from the church as an employer. Determining innocence or guilt belongs to the courts. Sexual abuse is sin, but in classic preaching mnemonics, the sin driving sexual abuse is empowered by our culture of Silence, Indifference, and Neglect. 

Sexual abuse in the SBC is an epidemic powered by a culture of our own making. It takes years of purposeful work to change the culture of indifference and develop a cure for such a poison. It takes a movement to change the culture, not a mandate, and movements begin with the undeniable burden that things are not right the way they are and must change. In this movement, we are not just an autonomous group of 47,000 churches; we are accountable before God as a cooperative movement capable of leveraging our enormous collective power to topple the culture of indifference.

Sexual predators won’t stop just because we start paying attention. We will never rid ourselves of their evil, but we can reduce the risk and protect our own. Do you feel the conviction that things are not right the way they are? I have lived it deep in my soul for over 30 years. We have a path forward that is within our collective power. Will we take that path and fight this evil, together as one? 

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.