Victims of Childhood Sex Abuse Deserve the Church's Attention

"We will remember that God waits while we learn." Diane Langberg, PhD

Those words brought me tremendous joy recently as I prepared for a doctoral course at SEBTS in counseling sexual abuse and addictions. Dr. Diane Langberg wrote them in her book, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse. I doubt she intended them to play a central role in anyone's reading, yet I found them to be very encouraging and insightful.

In Isaiah 30:18, we read God's words to the Old Testament nation of Israel, "Therefore the Lord is waiting to show you mercy, and is rising up to show you compassion, for the Lord is a just God. All who wait patiently for Him are happy" (emphasis mine; HCSB). This verse was central to my conversion to Christianity, because it taught me that despite my years of rebelling against Him, God waited for me.

How has God waited for you?

Patience, as we see throughout the Bible, is an attribute of God, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and therefore something for us as Christians to imitate (Eph. 5:1). Far from a debated theological topic, can you imagine what the Christian life would be like without it? 

Numerous times in the New Testament alone, the Greek word for patience is used in a variety of forms, all in a positive sense, and as a command for the believer (2 Tim. 4:2). Patience, it turns out, is an important component of the Christian life and discipleship. It is no less true for the task of biblical counseling.

A Necessary Component in Counseling the Sexually Abused

In her book, Langberg identifies three core areas that are or can be deeply affected by childhood sexual abuse. These may occur individually, together, and at varying lengths of time and intensity. These "aftereffects" may include but not necessarily be limited to the following:
  1. Emotional: Guilt, shame, powerlessness, body image issues, fear of intimacy or commitment, and trust issues.
  2. Physical: Self-harm, suicidal ideation, addictions, and sexual dysfunctions.
  3. Spiritual: Distorted images of the nature of God (i.e. God as punisher, taskmaster, impotent, irrelevant, or indifferent).
Justin and Lindsey Holcomb wrote in their book, Rid of My Disgrace, that "At least one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime." Many of these will have been childhood victims, and many will carry the scars of abuse with them well into adulthood and marriage, hidden and unredeemed.

If the figures cited by the Holcombs are even remotely true (and I believe they are), the church at large has a powerful, spiritual opponent at work in the lives of many of its people, young and old. To ignore it is to leave a dangerous wolf prowling throughout the sheepfold.

If we isolate this issue alone, how is sexual abuse and its vast aftereffects as mentioned above derailing the discipleship of earnest Christians who are suffering in silence because the church, broadly speaking, is unresponsive? Pastors and ministry leaders: in this we find a legitimate, undeniable "social justice" issue for the church, and a regrettable yet gaping-wide window into the lives of people.

Why are we, the church, choosing to do nothing?

It is my sincerely held belief that the church does not respond well to this issue because it fails to grasp how powerful a role the Gospel and community can play in the healing process of a victim, choosing to believe instead that sexual abuse is a matter that can only be addressed by "mental health professionals" according to a medical model of "mental illness."

It's often said that "God meets us in our valleys," yet when the church fails to act on this, what is communicated is "Just not that valley."

Could it be that when the Apostle Paul wrote that we are to "bear one another's burdens," that he meant nothing less than moving with care and compassion toward those who've been victimized in ways we can barely name in a public worship service (Gal. 6:2)? 

I believe this is the case.

Counseling is a Mission of the Church and Patience is a Guide

Sexual abuse can produce profound, sustained effects in the survivor that require compassionate, patient care rooted in the patient love of God for His people (1 Jn. 4:8; 1 Cor. 13:4). By not involving itself in the counseling process, the church misses out on a tremendous opportunity to love its own and evangelize the lost.

How then should the church and victims of abuse respond?
  1. The church must consider either the establishment of an intentional counseling ministry (see ACBC), or it must vet for biblical faithfulness counselors already in the community with whom it can partner. There are many critical issues to be resolved in either case, but one thing remains clear: unresponsiveness is not a biblical option.
  2. The sexual abuse survivor, especially those who have suffered in silence for many years, must prayerfully entrust this matter to God, and ask Him to provide a Christian counseling resource that can be trusted with this delicate truth. Silence and isolation do not promote healing, but leave the victim enslaved to the past.
The Practical Side of Patience

In this post, I've suggested that patience is a key to counseling the sex abuse victim. While it may feel tertiary, I assure you it isn't. Counseling the survivor will require copious amounts of patience from both counselor and counselee, depending on the individual circumstances. Neither party should expect anything more than incremental steps toward redeeming a portion of life so harmed by such horrific an evil.

But, there is hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways unimagined by secular theories of counseling. Meaning, purpose, and value can all be discovered through a season of biblical counseling (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28). At the intersection of faith and depravity, grace conquers despair.

Even, or especially for, the sexually abused.

Join the Discussion

If we can help you or your church process an issue related to counseling sexual abuse, or any other counseling related topic, please contact us at Baylight. We'd love to hear from you.

Joshua Waulk
Executive Director

Book Review: Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry

"We have too many Christians out there who are strong on convictions but embarrass the name of Christ in how they relate to the world around them. At the same time, we have too many Christians who are remarkably civil, but you would have no idea what convictions they hold. We need both convictions and civility." Dr. Mark Yarhouse

Youth pastors and those who work with young people have always had a responsibility that is at once exhilarating and excruciating. From late night lock-ins to after-service conferences with concerned parents, the student pastor and his assistants have always been at the "tip of the spear" when it comes to shaping the church's next-generation leaders.

But, youth ministry has never been as precarious as it is today.

In generations past, the youth pastor always had to wrangle the hearts of disinterested teens, and comfort the emotions of students passing through life's rough waters. And, they always bore the weight of impressing on young people a Christian worldview, to include a biblical ethic of human sexuality.

But, it seems that the youth pastor of old never faced the nature or intensity of an increasingly hostile culture like those who minister to students today. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll have always been alluring to teens, but the sexual revolution of the 1960s has morphed into a movement that now rejects nearly every once-culturally-assumed marker of sexuality. 

Today, the very words once used to describe how ministry to youth gets done, i.e. "boys over here and girls over there," are slandered as socially constructed tools of discrimination that are emotionally abusive to the children upon whom they are imposed. Today's youth pastor is increasingly on the horns of a dilemma where he must carefully maintain his witness, defend the Gospel, protect his church, and effectively love those entrusted to his care by the Chief Shepherd while not capitulating to popular culture.

And here's where things get strained: He must do all this while learning how to understand and work with words and phrases like same sex attraction, same sex orientation, gay as an identity, LGBTQ, transgender, and gender dysphoria

To minister to youth in a post-Obergefell world demands familiarity with these issues and some level of competence in working with students who are being ever confused and wooed by the "affirming" culture that surrounds them--a culture that is louder and better funded than any youth ministry ever has been.

A Valuable Resource

Enter the book "Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry" by Mark Yarhouse. Yarhouse is a Christian psychologist who teaches at Regent University, and is the founding director at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He has written extensively on the issue of homosexuality, and is considered a leading Christian researcher in the field. Much of his work is devoted to helping the church minister to those who are navigating the sexual waters of today.

I had the pleasure of reading this particular book from Yarhouse as part of a course on sexuality that I'm taking at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In short, I highly recommend it for every youth ministry team, to include senior pastors.

Yarhouse does an excellent job of writing a book to youth ministers who are probably more often than not less than equipped to minister substantively to teens who are struggling with issues related to same sex attraction (SSA). As an expert in his field, he writes in an accessible tone in order to better equip his audience to minister with conviction and compassion.

Yarhouse's aim is to provide the youth pastor with tools that will help him understand the spiritual and emotional battle faced by teens who are questioning their sexual identity. He calls the student worker to engage with their teens in a way that transcends the culture war. 

He reminds the church that living, moving, and breathing in youth ministries everywhere are children who are experiencing thoughts, messages, and emotions for which they are ill-equipped at such a formative stage of life. He calls the church to not abandon them to willful ignorance, or condemn them with words they do not fully understand.

If anything, our failure to discuss the topic in meaningful and relevant ways is one of the things that drives young people toward greater isolation and the consolidation of a new sexual identity. (Yarhouse 2013, Kindle 765)

While holding to a biblical sexual ethic, Yarhouse lovingly persuades his reader to what he calls a "convicted civility" in working with students who are considering who they are as created, sexual beings. In so doing, Yarhouse doesn't merely wax theoretical, but he provides his reader with tools for ministering to youth that neither capitulate to culture nor send the student away from the church feeling guilty and ashamed.

No Child Left Behind

As a biblical counselor, I appreciate Yarhouse for his conviction concerning biblical sexual ethics, while extending grace to young people who are navigating difficult terrain, and often without the biblical compass they so desperately need. As I read the book, I was impressed in my heart concerning the many young people who may populate our youth ministries, struggling with profound questions related to their sexuality, yet feeling unable to safely bring their concerns to light.

The question I found myself asking is: How many teens is the church losing to culture unnecessarily because it only knows how to address same sex attraction on an individual counseling level with one script---sinners be damned?

I have sat with young people in my counseling office who found themselves questioning their sexuality. I can confirm what Yarhouse informs, that the church must provide (and indeed does possess) a more compelling script than the culture at large. Sadly, as it has been caught up in the culture war, much of that script has been lost at the tip of the spear where lives are changed.

My hope is that this book would gain wider exposure as a needed and helpful tool in the perilous times in which our children live. While there must not be any capitulation to the culture at large, no young person should search for answers to questions of sexuality alone simply because in their mind, only rejection from the church awaits them.

"It is important that [we] communicate to [SSA] youth that they have worth and value before God. You want them to see that it is God who ultimately gives their life worth and value." (Yarhouse 2013, Kindle 1017)

Join the Discussion

How is your church preparing to minister to SSA youth?

New Stats on Suicide Underscore Need for Biblical Counseling

Suicide rates in Florida and in Tampa Bay are rising.

This is the conclusion of a newly published report by the Florida Department of Health. According to the report, outcomes for men and women increased in the 2003-2013 decade, the last year for which statistics are now available. White men age 45-65 are at the highest statistical risk overall, but in the Pasco-Pinellas district, there was a dramatic increase in suicides among women and girls. 

In 2005, there were 46 reported suicides involving females in Pasco-Pinellas. By 2013, that figure had risen by nearly 60% to 77. Statistics for male suicide victims remain shockingly high. In 2013, 187 males took their own lives in the district--down from over 200 annually between 2009 and 2011.

Nationally, suicide rates have increased, with more deaths per year by suicide than by vehicle crashes. The Department of Health report cites multiple factors as influencing those who choose to end their own lives, to include economic hardship, the desire for instant gratification, a loss of hope, and a lack of available funding for mental health treatment. In fact, the state of Florida rates among the worst in the nation for per capita mental health funding.

Losing Our Religion and the Care of Souls

Long ago, in generations past, the church was the seat of every community, and the pastor was the counselor of the people, pointing people not to self-help and self-esteem, but to the Christ and His Gospel. That all began to change by the late 1800s and certainly by the early 1900s, with the advent of the secular psychologies. 

As modernism took root, doubts about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture for the mental and emotional troubles of life crept in. Slowly but surely, the church acquiesced to the academy, convinced that it had little to offer those who struggled with their behavior and emotions. The Gospel was still seen as the individual's hope for eternity, but only modern psychology and its medical model of care offered hope for the mind today.

When Sigmund Freud, the so-called "Godfather" of modern psychology was busy developing his theory of psychodynamic therapy, devoid of all things theological, he recognized that the coming age of the psychotherapist would provide culture with what he called a "secular priest." He recognized that modern psychology would supplant the role of pastor as counselor, while appropriating for itself the nature of the work men and women of God were called to accomplish in Scripture. 

History shows that Freud's dream has largely come true. Across denominations, the church has rejected its biblical mandate to counsel the wisdom of God to those struggling with life dominating sin and suffering issues. It has replaced the difficult spade work of ongoing counseling with motivational speeches and religious platitudes. The church, it seems, has lost its stomach for the reality of life-long discipling through besetting sin, choosing instead to be satisfied with programming designed to fill the Sunday pew.

Sadly, this is part of the legacy of cultural Christianity in America.

A Mandate and a Golden Opportunity for the Gospel

Ironically, the Department of Health report cited earlier lists "instant gratification" as a factor for those who commit suicide. I would submit that the church has engaged in its own brand of pursuing instant gratification where discipleship is concerned by throwing off counseling in favor of ministries that give the appearance that "all is well."

In so doing, it has been risking its own spiritual life all the while. After all, if the church is not fully invested in the care of souls, if it is not serving as a spiritual hospital for the emotionally sick with ministry offerings that truly "bear one another's burdens," if it is unwilling to go the distance with people who hurt with precision and intentionality, for how long should it expect to retain possession of its lampstand (Gal. 6:2; Rev. 2:5)?

Until now, this discussion has been very broad and theoretical. I have cited the Department of Health report to underscore the severity of the spiritual crisis that exists in our culture (what it calls the "mental health crisis"). 

But, consider these truths: 1) Suicide is but one example of the crisis that is before us (depression, anxiety, divorce, sexual sin, etc. abound), 2) The numbers in the report have names and faces behind them--some connected to our churches, and 3) For all those who successfully take their own lives, there are many others who make attempts, and many more who on any given day are struggling with the thought.

These issues cannot and must not be addressed by rock concerts and referrals to counselors who find the seat of their care in the wisdom of man--even if they adorn their counsel with a Bible verse or two and in so doing call it "Christian."

Do Not Turn to the Right or the Left

Mental health counseling is often long, arduous work. Counselors can spend hours working with the hurting with seemingly little return on investment. But, do we need reminding that we walk (and minister) by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7)? Have we forgotten that our ministries must be marked by the fruits of the Spirit, which include "long-suffering" (Gal. 5:22)? Do we believe God when He says that His word does not "return void" but always accomplishes His good and perfect will (Is. 55:11)? When we say that God's word is inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient, do we need to be honest by adding a disclaimer that excludes mental-emotional-spirtual health issues?

To be sure, a decision by the church today to re-engage the task of counseling does not mean fully operational counseling ministries tomorrow. There are, in fact, very real clinical issues that must be accounted for in any legitimate attempt to provide a "next level, professional" counseling ministry. This means training and oversight must be provided and liability issues must be addressed. None of what is contained in this post is intended to neglect these realities.

But, these realities are no excuse for inaction. The situation in our culture is worsening, while the church holds the keys to the only true model for the care of souls. It must no longer evade this responsibility by turning to the right or the left. This is biblical malfeasance. 

Do we not believe that we will give an account of what we did with what He gave?

Join the Discussion

I would love to hear back from you. Please email me with your thoughts, especially those who live in and around the Tampa Bay region. Baylight Counseling is a biblical counseling ministry that exists to serve the church and community at large with professional quality, clinically informed, biblical soul care.

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