Awhile back, when I led a discipleship group for women seeking to overcome sexual sin, I was amazed at how prevalent abuse was in the stories of these dear sisters in Christ. It’s not that abuse is an unusual part of the backstory of women who come to us; sadly, most who reach out to us for help have experienced sexual abuse in one form or another. What made this group was different, though, was the depth of trauma that was so common across the board among group members. I took in their courageous sharing with sobriety, heartbreak, anger, and confusion.
The very questions that many of them asked were now flooding my thoughts: “Why, God? Why did you allow this? What good could possibly come from this? How are they supposed to trust you when you didn’t stop this from happening?”
These are difficult questions, and there are no easy answers. It is too much for me to sort through why God allows what he does. It is too great for me to discern whether sin is to blame or if it is just a result of the fallenness of this world—or both. I admit that I have given in to demanding answers from God as I have attempted to sort through confusion created by others’ suffering.
In those times, I turn to Isaiah 55:8–9, which says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than yours and my thoughts than your thoughts.” There are answers that my finite mind can’t understand, and it lies in the character of who God is and the fact that he knows all of the things I don’t.
But, as helpers, what are we to do when God allows us to come face to face with what seem like “splashes of hell”?¹
If we’re going to truly identify with Jesus in this world, it’s important to realize a few things as a helper. First, hearing traumatic stories is hard, but it is a part of our calling as believers to bear with one another, and Jesus is compassionate to us in this process. Second, we can hear, hold, and steward these stories wisely.
Hearing Traumatic Stories Is Difficult
In Genesis 34, we read about Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who was horrifically raped by a man named Shechem. This chapter largely focuses on her brother’s response to the rape, which resulted in his anger boiling over into murder as a form of retaliation. But consider for a moment what it would be like to sit with Dinah. What anguish would you hear her heart express? What fears did this experience cause to rise up in her? What questions is she struggling to find answers to? It would be an understatement to say that her answers would be hard to hear and, most likely, grieve our hearts.
Now let’s consider Jesus: We see him entering into these broken spaces with people. He knew the story of the Samaritan woman who had slept with and married many men (John 4) and the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1–11). We don’t know the details of those actual relationships and what exactly those women endured leading up to the moment they encountered Jesus; we only get a glimpse at where they ended up. Yet Jesus wasn’t overwhelmed by their sin or suffering. He saw them and engaged them through his questions, listened to them, offered hope, and even offered himself.
We can do this too, but we need to be prepared: Hearing traumatic stories is difficult. We need to be aware of a few possible temptations for us helpers.
- Dependence on self. Many of us can rely on ourselves to heal, fix, and come up with answers for pain that often doesn’t have easy solutions.
- Pride. Our desire to help can get mixed in with pride that convinces us, “Look at what a great helper I am by hearing such traumatic stories!” Or we can begin to think someone needs us in order to get better.
- Avoidance. In many ways, it is easier to ignore hard things. We put our heads in the sand and pretend it away, or we even run away all together.
We need to remember that we aren’t entrusted with abuse stories unless they have first been heard, seen, and known by Jesus. He cares for the sufferer and for us, the one called alongside those who have endured horrific pain.
Dane Ortlund says in his book, Gentle and Lowly, “In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering, he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn’t—not that his invincible divinity is threatened, but in the sense that his heart is feelingly drawn into our distress. His human nature engages our troubles comprehensively. His is a love that cannot be held back when he sees his people in pain.”²
Holding Difficult Stories Can Be Done Wisely
So what should we do when someone comes to us and wants to open up, to share a painful experience of abuse with us? What about childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment at work? This is a wide and deep topic with lots of necessary detail that would need to be explored in each situation.
Let me offer four key starting points to keep in mind.
- Pray. Prayer must be utilized often as we confront this type of evil. Pray for wisdom to know what God is inviting you into as a helper, for God to guard your own heart as you listen, and for heart healing and comfort for the person sharing.
- Listen and learn. Don’t worry about having the perfect theological answer or the right thing to say. Intentional listening and seeking to understand the person in front of you will help eliminate your responses that lean towards, “I don’t know what to do with what I’m hearing.” Jesus was the ultimate question asker, and he already knows the ins and outs of a person’s heart and situation.
- Get the help you need. As we have talked about, being a helper in these situations can take its own toll on you. Hold the person’s story with honesty and integrity, but invite others to know you in this so they can pray specifically for you. In addition, seek safe spaces to talk about how the weight of these stories is impacting your heart.
- Help the person connect with someone trained in trauma care if needed. Often, the most helpful and loving thing we can do is to acknowledge that we care yet aren’t equipped to address certain experiences of trauma. So, seek to help this person connect with someone who is trained to help in these areas. Practical ways to do this are offering to research professionals in your region, making a phone call to learn more about their specific areas of focus, and providing contact information to the person in need. This doesn’t mean we eliminate ourselves from the situation, though, because God gives us the Body of Christ, and there is wisdom in coming alongside hurting people together.
People who are willing to begin facing abuse and trauma are courageous. To invite someone else to know about that truth is even braver. So, while it is an honor to be entrusted with such stories, we, as helpers, need to be prepared for how those stories will impact our hearts. We also need to be prepared that removing the blinders of the depth of evil and suffering around us is often painfully uncomfortable.
When my co-leader and I finished the group I mentioned earlier, we marveled, with tears, at what we had witnessed in the lives of the group members. They had grown forward, healing had gone a bit deeper, and the pull of sin was lessening. Their stories of trauma had changed us as we bore witness to Jesus, the One who draws near to the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1–3).
Jesus was moved to compassion when he saw the needs of those around him (Matthew 9:36 and 14:14). As we sit with those who have experienced abuse and trauma, may we be moved to compassion, knowing that, although it is hard to hear such stories, Jesus is the one who redeems, restores, and enables us to hold challenging stories wisely.
¹ Joni E. Tada described suffering this way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU6q1r1Z9jg&t=2s, last accessed 2/24/21.
² Dane Ortlund. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Wheaton: IL, Crossway, 2020. 46.
24 Sep 2020
“I, like many others in her life, wasn’t necessarily bumping up against a proud, coldhearted wall. No, I was experiencing Kara’s protective shield that had been built one piece at a time in response to a scary world…”
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as Helping Students with Same-Sex Attraction by Cooper Pinson and Your Dating Relationship and Your Sexual Past: How Much to Share by Ellen Mary Dykas. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “Post-Traumatic Growth and the Gospel,” which corresponds to this video.
24 Sep 2020
“How in the world is she still standing?! Still functioning as a sane, responsible, adult woman?”
More often than I wish, I am left stunned, with these questions swirling through my head, as I hang up the phone or Zoom call or escort a woman to the door of our office. Why? I’ve just heard a story of such horrific suffering, of traumatic pain, that I’m left brokenhearted and in awe. I can only praise God through my tears for his supernatural strength that has enabled so many women to grow forward after suffering circumstances that could have crushed them—and, in fact, have crushed others.
Why is it that some people come through the horrors of this world still standing, even flourishing, while others’ lives are utterly wrecked in the aftermath of trauma? Military veterans, survivors of abuse, abandoned children, and betrayed spouses often experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a “mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”¹
Many of the wives who come into my office have experienced symptoms of PTSD because the husband and the marriage that they assumed and believed they had do not exist. The trauma of betrayal results in sleeplessness, depression, anger, outbursts, and paralyzing grief. They are responding to the demolition of the safety and security, life plans, and stable relationships they thought they had. Yet I’ve witnessed so many of these women shine for Christ! Faith, resiliency, and courage are fired up, and they plant their roots down deep into the Lord and his Word. How?
Post-Traumatic Growth: Psychological Category and Biblical Concept
The American Psychological Association gives one answer for my response of wonder and awe for the resiliency that I witness week after week in suffering women. It’s called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), which I learned about when I researched the impact of sexual abuse. “(PTG) is a theory that explains [healthy]…transformation following trauma. It was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the mid-1990s, and holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward.”²
While the APA provides one helpful perspective from which to consider PTG, Scripture addresses trauma and its impact differently from the APA. Repeatedly, God makes it clear that, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), and, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).
The Bible is honest about the ugliness of sin and how people commit evil against one another. In the pages of the Old and New Testaments, stories of traumatic losses, abuse, manipulation, and suffering cause us to cringe. However, the Bible includes something to which the APA is blind: Into this sin-broken world has come our Lord and Healer, Jesus Christ. He offers comfort in the face of terrifying events, hope that these events do not define us, and a trustworthy promise that he can use pain to promote growth rather than distress.
Jesus Enters Our Pain and Transforms Our Responses
Friend, if you’ve suffered trauma, Jesus knows. He sees, hears, and understands. He was treated horrifically through the crucifixion, suffered alienation from the Father, and experienced death. The distress he endured the night before these events was so traumatic that his blood vessels burst, leading to a literal ”sweating” of blood.
Here’s where the gospel brings life and the possibility of true post-trauma healing and growth in a way that the secular theorists can’t! Christ responded to the most horrific pain with honest grief, faith, and love—love for his Father and for us. Christ’s response to traumatic events can become our example and our way of responding, our faith-fueled path of resiliency; this is one of the amazing applications of John 15’s teaching about our union with Jesus.
Post-traumatic growth could be relabeled as “with-Jesus transformation.” As we grow in both knowing who Jesus really is and understanding that we are spiritually joined to him, our pain becomes his, and his resilience, faith, and love become ours in a process that promotes wholeness and healing, displaces our distress, and changes our desires for sinful, false comforts. Christ is in us, the hope of glory, and his power allows us to choose a different path!
Choose Jesus and the Promises of the Gospel
The men and women who come to Harvest USA have a backstory to their sin struggles, just like you do. They may define themselves initially as a sex addict, a traumatized wife, or a person messed up beyond repair. They have been sinned against and suffered much in a sinful world, and they in turn have responded to it with their own sinful choices. However, the gospel of new life in Christ gives us the capability to respond to sin done against us, as well as horrific circumstances, by turning to God for comfort, strength, and wisdom to obey and trust him. This is true post-traumatic growth!
You can also watch the video, “Why a Christ-Centered Lens Is Important,” which corresponds to this blog.
09 Jul 2020
Our childhood experiences impact how we all think, desire, believe, and act as adults. But is there any value in reflecting upon those past experiences for the sake of repentance and transformation in the present? Believe it or not, this is a highly debated question among counselors, ministers, and anyone seeking to help those who are struggling in life.
At Harvest USA, we believe that understanding where we’ve come from, what has influenced and shaped us, and how to apply the gospel to those experiences is absolutely vital. Here are two ways that a growing understanding of the shaping influences in your life can help you battle sin and temptation today.
Healing Is an Aspect of Repentance
In Sexual Sanity for Men, Dave White writes, “You are not merely the sum total of all the individual decisions you make. The aspects of life outside your control are extremely significant and impact you as an individual.”¹
Repentance involves choosing to turn from sin to God. Notice this: We don’t repent of our sufferings; we repent of our sin. In order to effectively turn from our sin, we are helped by understanding why we sin. One major motivation behind sin is an autonomous desire to deal with suffering on own terms. A son whose parents neglect him and show him no comfort easily finds himself turning to masturbation for self-soothing, a pleasurable alternative to crying himself to sleep. A girl who is rejected by her peers and degraded by her father behaves with increasing promiscuity to find validation and worth. A young boy who is sexually abused by an older man is thrown into a world of fear, confusion, shame, and even awakened desire, which he has no ability to process; further, his family culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” keeps him from sharing with anyone about this traumatic experience.
So many men and women who struggle with sexual sin see Jesus only as their judge. They are all too aware that he sees their sin, but they have no concept of him seeing their suffering, especially suffering that happened decades ago, though it continues to deeply impact their lives today. Jesus came to be their Healer, Warrior, Advocate, and Comforter. Once people begin to experience Jesus as one who is for them, who has not forgotten their wounds, who came to heal them, he becomes a refuge for them in times of temptation and guilt. Most sexual strugglers have been hiding not just their sin from Jesus, but their suffering and shame as well.
God designed us to be fundamentally relational, as well as vulnerable to external influences. This is not a result of Adam’s fall into sin. Children are meant to be shaped by their parents, family, and larger covenant community, which should all be saturated with his Word. We are so moldable as children because God wants Scripture to inform our hearts, minds, and desires, both as it is formally taught and as it is lived out in everyday interactions and relationships. As Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Though God intended for us to flourish, man’s fall into sin has made our vulnerability to external influences a heavy liability. We all grow up in a world and culture that rebels against God and his Word. From very young ages, boys and girls are bombarded with unbiblical messages about what is desirable, what it means to be successful, what is means to be a man or a woman. Throughout our lives, we breathe in these messages every day so that none of us are immune to their shaping influence. So many of the men to whom I minister have never given thought to the fact that their beliefs and desires were, on certain levels, taught to them.
But this actually is the beginning of some very good news because, if our beliefs and desires are moldable, we have the opportunity to have them refashioned after God’s own heart. While decades of belief and wrong desire are not easily reformed, our hope for transformation rests in the reality that our union with Christ guarantees this kind of change—albeit with slow, gradual steps—as we daily abide in Christ and his Word.
A Word of Caution
As with every shaping influence in our lives, both good and bad, none of these external influences are ultimately determinative. A child may grow up in a godly, strong, safe, Christian environment and still choose to live a life of rebellion against God. Conversely, a child who grows up in a toxic, painful, ungodly environment is not without hope for gospel transformation that leads to a life of increasing sanctification.
This means that we can’t blame our sin on external circumstances. The Bible always locates sin in our hearts. God will not excuse our sin because of our circumstances. But neither does God discount our circumstances. He takes into account every nuance of our lives, from the biggest moments of trauma to the smallest offense imaginable. He remembers them, cares for us in them, and ultimately uses them to serve our worship of Jesus. Jesus came as a suffering servant: “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). A greater understanding of the way we’ve suffered leads us to a greater understanding of the love of Jesus, the One who willingly bore our shame, suffering, sin, and guilt, to reconcile us to God.
¹ David White, Sexual Sanity for Men (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2012), 51.
You can also watch the video, “You Are Always Being Influenced,” which corresponds to this blog.