The spiritual wounds of abuse

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It is a known fact that abuse of any kind will leave scars on the mind and sometimes the body of the person abused. It’s not uncommon to find that those who have suffered physical, emotional or sexual abuse, especially in childhood, are left with a greater sensitivity to stress, higher anxiety levels and a tendency to become depressed and attempt suicide. Character disturbances are also not uncommon. Abuse destroys that fundamental sense of security and safety that is needed to function well, often leaving survivors with a highly reactive nervous system, always vigilantly watching out for further threats. The psychological effects of abuse are long lasting and, according to some experts, are responsible for many of the ills we see in society. What is not as well understood is the fact that these experiences can also have an effect on the spiritual wellbeing of those who have been abused.

Adventists believe that the mind and body are an interconnected unit. We do not believe in the separation of the mind or soul from the body. We believe that the physical body and the invisible soul exist together in indivisible union, brought to life at creation by the breath of God. The implications of this belief are particularly striking when one considers the domain of trauma and abuse. It means that when someone suffers abuse, it is not just their physical or emotional health that suffers but also their mind/heart and soul. Abuse of any kind undermines spirituality in that it destroys the ability to make meaning of life and to connect to God as a compassionate and caring Entity. And nowhere is this more evident than in cases of sexual abuse.

Her devotional life was hollow and pointless and God seemed remote and unyielding. In her mind, God had let her down.

In his book Flame of Yahweh, Richard Davidson compellingly connects human sexuality to spirituality and to our view of God. There are many Old Testament metaphors that depict an intimate relationship between God and His people. Davidson says: “. . . if human love is the very flame of Yahweh, then this human love at its best . . . points beyond itself to the Lord of love . . . and reflects the I-Thou love relationship inherent in the very nature of the triune God” (pp 630, 631). When human sexual activity, therefore, occurs in the context of abuse and not love, it affects not only the body but touches the soul and devastates the spiritual life. The survivor experiences himself/herself differently; their view of the world is distorted and so is their view of God. 

I recently met a client whose life depicted the effect of sexual abuse most vividly. Rachel* had a difficult childhood, losing her mother at an early age and left with a father who had a serious mental illness. In her late teenage years she was welcomed into a prominent church family. Rachel was the same age as the daughters in the home and for the first time she caught a glimpse of family life as it should be lived. One day, however, this idyllic picture was forever altered. Alone in the house with the father of the family, he made it clear that he wanted more from her than just the civility expected of a guest. Paralysed with fright, confused (he was a respected leader in the church), and aware that her options for finding another home were limited, she did not repulse his advances and so started an affair that was to last for more than 10 years. In that time her “mentor” moved her away from his family and set her up in a unit of her own. They travelled together, worked together, all the while conducting a clandestine affair. Rachel grew increasingly dependent on him for advice and help in conducting her life. When I saw her, in the third decade of her life, Rachel felt trapped and stuck. She had ended the physical side of the affair some years earlier but the emotional dependence and involvement were still strong. Her mentor opposed any budding relationship that Rachel was interested in forming and she was lonely. She had few friends and had told almost no-one about the affair. She was battling serious depression fuelled by despair about the choices she had made. The future seemed lonely and uncertain. 

Rachel had grown up in a Christian environment. She knew about God and His grace and love but she had difficulty in sensing this in her own life. “I know God is good. I just haven’t seen any of it,” she said. Her spiritual life had withered as guilt poisoned her soul. She blamed herself for her situation and kept saying of her mentor: “But he is so close to God.” Although she had been led astray by someone she looked up to and who was much older than herself, she struggled to share any blame and felt that God could not possibly forgive or bless her. Her devotional life was hollow and pointless and God seemed remote and unyielding. In her mind, God had let her down.

When early experiences violate a sense of safety and play havoc with meaning making (the essence of spirituality), it becomes very difficult to establish a loving relationship with God. God is experienced as absent and unable or unwilling to help, and this creates a distorted image of Him that is difficult to correct.

Abuse of all sorts, and in particular sexual abuse, affects a large number of people in our society (approximately 20 per cent of girls and 10 per cent of boys; perhaps more) and leaves its mark not only on the body and mind of the survivor but also on the soul. This creates a huge challenge for the Church; we cannot afford to ignore the realities around us. Sexual abuse is regarded as a scourge of almost epidemic proportions, a point not to be overlooked in our outreach endeavours. Perhaps our first responsibility is to correct the misapprehensions about God that exist in the wider community. As the awareness of sexual abuse grows, so should our determination to present to the world the true character of God. This may be the message survivors of abuse most need to hear. We need to flood the world with the love of God, not only in our publications and the sermons we preach, but also in acts of care, concern and kindness. For those zealous for the reputation of God, surely nothing else matters.

* Not her real name.


Deanna Pitchford is a clinical psychologist living and working in Brisbane, Qld.