It’s important to note that because we are whole individuals, sexual abuse wounds the whole person – body, soul and spirit. The physical scars typically disappear fastest, though they, too, are significant.

The emotional aspect

Emotionally, the hurt never goes away; however, through the healing journey, what changes is the control the pain has over the survivor’s life. Just as a mother can never forget the pain of a child’s death because that loss is irreplaceable, the wound of that loss can be healed to the extent that it is no longer paralyzing. So, too, survivors of sexual abuse have many losses to grieve, such as the loss of innocence and the loss of protection from someone they trusted. The pain of the memories for most survivors is initially like the destruction from a bomb blast, but the pain can take a back seat in the overall perspective of, and functioning in, life.

The spiritual aspect

Spiritually, I have never met a survivor of sexual abuse who did not struggle in their relationship with God. The part of them that relates to Him has been damaged. A central, haunting question is, "Where was God? Why didn’t He stop it?" The long, hard journey through counselling addresses mainly the emotional and spiritual areas that need healing. It is a journey, not some pat answers in the form of Christian platitudes.

Unfortunately, what some well-intentioned friends and family advise may be along the lines of "forgive and forget." However, forgetting is a human impossibility. The hardware of the memory is always there. In fact, survivors try to forget, often for years, until the memories or the pain explode. Denial, as it’s called clinically, is not a spiritual virtue. What it is, is a lie. Healing requires conscious remembering on emotional and spiritual levels in order to process through to acceptance.

Survey the damage

What did Nehemiah do when he arrived at Jerusalem? Roll up his sleeves and go right to work? No. Before attempting the rebuilding stage, he took seriously the task of surveying in detail the extent of the damage to the walls. The survivor, too, must bring to conscious awareness the extent of the damage to their life. The tendency is to want to find a shortcut, an easier way, but the reality is that the damage needs to be detailed and the rubble cleared away before rebuilding of the life can occur. Forgiveness is part of the healing stage, and, if premature, it can sabotage healing.

Remembering opens the door to the future possibility of forgiveness. For most victims, a major hurdle to overcome is placing guilt where it belongs, which is NOT on their own shoulders. When that milestone is passed, the Holy Spirit can begin to work in their heart regarding the possibility of forgiveness.

What forgiveness is and is not

There is often a misunderstanding about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Biblically, the basis of God’s forgiveness is not something soft and warm. Anger is legitimate! It is right to be angry at sin and wrongdoing. God is angry at sin. How did He become willing to let go of His anger toward us for our sin, to forgive us? The atonement. When Jesus paid for our sins, He paid God. God received the payment, we received the benefit of no longer owing anything. So, the basis of forgiveness appears to be a payment.

One way to look at it is: God was abused by sin; He was hurt and separated from those He loved, which led to anger, which led to the need for punishment as payment, which led to the punishment Christ took on. For victims of sexual abuse, who is going to pay? The concept of propitiated forgiveness is an answer to survivors’ need for vindication, their need to punish someone. In this, they can feel empathized with and heard. They can identify with a God who has been wounded and got angry, who made somebody pay. And the payment is enough for all time. He was vengeful for them, on their behalf. Their attempts at punishment could never be enough. The good news is that God agrees with them! Somebody should pay! Somebody did. The survivor’s part is to release their claims to punishment.

Different stages

The healing journey for survivors entails intense work at the stage of identifying what wrongs were done to them, owning their sadness and anger, grieving their losses, and clearing away the damaged thoughts and behaviours that have held them back. This work then eventually provides the way for them to appropriate the knowledge that God kept score on their behalf, He made somebody pay, and that is enough. They can then let go of their tight grip on the need for vindication. It’s been accomplished for them, and is more adequate than whatever means they might attempt.

So, for people who have been damaged by sexual abuse, the journey is one of remembering, grief and anger. Only then can the choice of forgiveness, based on Christ’s payment on their behalf, lead to the wonderful, hope-filled process of rebuilding a life. As they begin to integrate their past with their present, and live beyond the confines of sorrow, they open the doors to a future filled with new possibilities, and a trust in the God who is entirely trustworthy.

Louise Madill, MA, RCC, maintains a private practice in Vancouver, BC. Her training and experience have led her to specialize in trauma recovery work.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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