Ministering to the abused...

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The one sure thing is that pastors who care for victims of child sexual abuse must not allow pity to ruin our pastoral care. Child sexual abuse permeates our congregations today, so we must grow in wisdom and compassion towards those who suffered these crimes. Such wisdom and compassion will always cause us to set our sights higher than ameliorating victims' shame and moving them toward self-acceptance. It may sound callous to say so, but Scripture doesn't trade in self-acceptance. The precious treasure we have to offer those weighed down by sin and shame is God's acceptance through the shed blood of His Son. Yet that is too often absent in the narratives of survivors.

After several days riding the wave of World Vision's flip-flopping on homosexual marriage, Christianity Today ended the week by running a "this is my life" piece by Jonathan Merritt, a writer for the Religious News Service. The piece is an account of the corruption by an older neighbor boy Merritt suffered in his childhood and the terrible fruit that corruption bore in his life. Merritt tells us he has lived with a deep and pervasive sense of shame, he has suffered the compromise of his male sexual identity, he has sinned homosexually, and he has been alienated from the Church.

CT took this excerpt from Merritt's forthcoming book, Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined, and the excerpt ran under the headline, "A Thread Called Grace: How I came to stop hiding and face the biggest secret of my early life." From the start of the homosexualist movement several decades ago now, this has been the narrative of those committed to normalizing homosexual sin: come out of the closet and be done with the shame. Thus CT ran Merritt's piece under the phrases "biggest secret" and "stop hiding."

Merritt tells a very sad story. CT, though, has its own reasons for promoting this story and we must see those reasons and resist being manipulated through our tears. Christianity Today has a larger purpose in providing subscribers this intimate view of one man's sexual suffering and clearly its purpose is not simply to promote Biblical compassion and love...

Readers may be inclined to resent scrutiny of Merritt's cri de coeur, but with 8,000 FB likes in just a couple of days, it's evident that CT and Merritt are not lacking support. So now, let me speak to our readers: if you possess even a small amount of Biblical discernment, reading Merritt's account will make it clear that our sons and daughters who "liked" this article are proof of our failure to equip them to think Biblically as they take their places on the battle lines of Christian witness within our postmodern culture.

Among postmoderns, accounts of victimhood are unimpeachable, particularly when the suffering is caused by fathers, pastors, and well-meaning church women—all of whom come in for their knocks in Merritt's story. Thus Merritt's account lacks a moral dimension beyond its condemnation of the ignorance and judgmentalism that, for so many years, left Merritt ostracised, alone in his shame. Merritt presents himself as the victim, first of the neighbor boy and then of the Church and Her faithful who demanded he put on and wear his mask. So what we learn is shame is evil, shame is bondage, shame is a cruel prison. Then, in the end, Merritt offers readers the catharsis of trading shame for shamelessness.

Notice I did not write of a catharsis leading into grace, mercy, and forgiveness, but instead a catharsis leading into "shamelessness." Merritt gives no account of forgiving as he has been forgiven, or of washing his own sin in the blood of Jesus Christ. He doesn't interpret any of his suffering as conviction of sin. He doesn't come out from under his guilt and shame by means of the forgiveness we all find under the Cross. He's simply ashamed of his victimhood and its fruit. And the healing he tells us he needs is to face it down, finally coming to the realization that everyone else is a victim, also. We're all victims. Thus all of us must take the step of bringing our victimhood out into the open where we'll finally experience the wonderful freedom to be who we really are; to know and be known.

Then, of course, comes the obligatory quote of Henri Nouwen who has made his name publishing books in the "wounded healer" genre. In an article commending homosexualist Republican Andrew Sullivan, Nouwen wrote, "there is a huge gap between my internalized homophobia and my increasing conviction that homosexuality is not a curse but a blessing for our society."1

Close friends with Roman Catholic Jean Vanier of the L'Arche communities, Nouwen is a hero of today's "Christian" homosexualist movement. Having suffered through a lifelong struggle with homosexual desire, Nouwen came to see, with Robert Schuller, that self-rejection was the greatest spiritual evil:

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. ...Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved."

This is the seduction of postmoderns. Sin and guilt have been replaced by victimhood and shame. Postmoderns have been robbed of forgiveness and left with shamelessness—a shamelessness most promoted (as with Merritt) precisely at those places shame ought righfully to be most alive, most active, and most redemptive. Shame is a gift of God ordained by Him to assist us in forsaking wickedness and fleeing to the Cross. God's Law gives the gift of shame to the unbeliever so he may flee to Christ. Shame is much of the weight Christian felt as he ran from his village and family, covering his ears and crying out, "Life! Life! Eternal life!" Where do we hear such cries today?

Postmoderns don't know the language of sin and redemption. Sin has morphed into brokenness. Conversion and redemption have been replaced by self-disclosure's emotional and spiritual catharsis.

Why then did the Apostle Paul dispatch all of it by the simple statement, "of such were some of you?" Neither Merritt nor Wheaton's editors over at Christianity Today are about to let go of sexual predation and homosexual debauchery that easily. They refuse to settle for such a simple narrative of Christian repentance and faith as this found in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Church of Corinth:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1Corinthians 6:9-11)

This is no long drawn out emotional account of the sexual suffering and sin of the believers in decadent Corinth. In fact, nowhere in Scripture do we get any such account. The Holy Spirit did not consider such survivor accounts helpful, nor have church fathers across the centuries left us such narratives.

Consider Augustine. His autobiographical Confessions does not trade on his childhood suffering to explain his fornication. Surely there was such suffering. There's always such suffering behind later sin. Such suffering is the history of every woman and every man. It's always been this way. As I've pointed out before, my work as a pastor has been a constant stream of the confessions of sin and repentance by women and men who have suffered during their childhood just as Jonathan Merritt suffered. And much worse—fathers raping their own flesh-and-blood daughters throughout those daughters' childhood and adolescence, for example.

Let me say it again: victims often become predators. That's the nature of sin. It's addictive and it corrupts others. We call child molesters "corrupters of children." But we would do almost anything to keep from acknowledging the implications of our words: namely, that many of the children pedophiles and pederasts corrupt end up themselves corrupting others.

If you've spent time counseling victims of child sexual abuse, you know that often you have to help the victim with his or her own guilt. Some of these children became so acclimated to the abuse that they remember how they looked forward to the abuse, and even enjoyed it. Are we so bound up in the politically charged climate of our culture that we have no uniquely Christian place from which to minister to these souls? Are we so intimidated by our culture that we refuse to help victims experience the love and forgiveness of God for their own sin? Must we allow the pagan mantra that one must never "blame the victim" cause us to deny victims' moral agency that is so integral to their own grief and pain? Is our spiritual care for victims of molestation so tone-deaf that we can't recognize and communicate the distinction between saying a child "asked for it" and hearing an adult survivor's confession that he "came to anticipate and enjoy it?" Is not this too a part of the evil done to the victim by the child corruptor? Regularly, I've counselled souls whose own sexual sin was predated by the sexual sin of others against them, usually during their childhood. Is this any surprise and must it be responded to by pastoral obtuseness or denial of these victims' own guilt?

In connection with the suffering of children of divorce and their parents habit of sending them to psychologists to manage that pain, University of Chicago homosexual philosophy professor, Allan Bloom, made the simple observation that "psychologists are the sworn enemies of guilt." Since the publication of his classic Closing of the American Mind in 1987, I fear this duty of psychologists has been assumed by Evangelical and Reformed pastors. Guilt, sin, and judgment are gone. The certification of victimhood has replaced them. Confession of sin is dead. Forgiveness of sin is dead. Self-disclosure and self-love have replaced them.

The Substitutionary Atonement is dead. Christ Jesus turning aside the wrath of His Father is dead. The imputation of His righteousness is dead. Rather, we're promised self-acceptance through shared narratives of repentance for shame, leaving us all in a stinking pool of mutuality based on the very lowest sort of expectations.

We have succumbed to the moral influence view of the atonement: redemption comes through looking on Jesus, realizing his love for the unlovely, and coming away from that realization inspired to confess our own fears of rejection in such a way that other people feel free to confess their feelings of rejection, also, and then to see His love as we saw it ourselves. Sin isn't dealt with. God isn't wrathful against us. Judgment doesn't await, but God loves you just the way you are, and that's how you should love yourself and others.

We have the opposite in Augustine's Confessions in which Augustine bears the full weight of his own sexual sin, neither absolving himself of guilt through a personal narrative of childhood pain, nor pulling his readers into a sympathetic posture through telling of his moral anguish surrounding his sin. Instead his self-accusation is matter-of-fact:

In those days I lived with a woman, not my lawful wedded wife but a mistress whom I had chosen for no special reason but that my restless passions had alighted on her. But she was the only one and I was faithful to her. Living with her I found out by my own experience the difference between the restraint of the marriage alliance, contracted for the purpose of having children, and a bargain struck for lust, in which the birth of children is begrudged, though, if they come, we cannot help but love them. 2

We find a similar directness and honesty in Augustine's prayers of the time:

Give me chastity and continency—but not yet! 3

Why then no similar confessions or self-accusations in Mr. Merritt's narrative? Reading his account, we find that he views homosexual desire as simply the detritus of the victimhood of his childhood, to be managed as best he's able. Mr. Merritt's tack is simply to live with it and get on with life:

When people today ask me how I identify myself, I never quite know how to answer. It doesn't feel authentic to label the whole of my being by feelings and attractions, and my experience has been that those parts of me tend to be somewhat fluid. One day I may feel more one way than another, and the next I feel a little differently. I am far more than my feelings, so I don't answer that question. Not because I want to evade others but because I want to stay true to myself.

The essence of who I am is far more shaped, influenced, and guided by my spirituality than by my sexuality.

Mr. Merritt does not process his homosexual identity and desires by the simple past-tense statement of faith, "Of such was I." For Mr. Merritt, it is present tense followed by a yawn and a sigh: "Of such are some of us, but it doesn't really matter. We're not defined by our sexual sins. We are victims, but we refuse to allow shame to keep us in bondage any longer."

Now then, here are four Biblical steps for those who love and minister to victims of child sexual abuse.

First, see what you see. Survivors of sexual abuse are normally easy to recognize. For instance, If a high school or college age woman who recently left her childhood home recoils from male contact; if she is morbidly obese or highly sexualized; if she can't bear eye contact with men; you should assume she's been abused. Talk about it with your wife and work towards your wife or another older (Titus 2) woman of your church reaching out to her to the end that, in a year or two or three, she might feel safe and loved enough to open up and tell her story. The Apostle Paul wasn't obtuse. Do not be a blind watchmen or a shepherd with no understanding (Isaiah 56:10, 11).

Second, when a victim shares his story with you, don't keep his suffering at arm's length but cry with him. This is the command of Scripture:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. (Romans 12:15, 16a)

Victims of abuse are "the lowly" and we are not to avoid them out of fear of becoming tainted. When God sends victims of abuse into your congregation, see them for who they are and associate with these lowly ones. Have them over to dinner. Ask them questions without cornering or badgering them. Let them know you care and that you are very patient. Don't be overly intrusive. Don't threaten them—they've been threatened enough. Yet also realize that any probing is likely to be a threat to them. Their entire life is an attempt to avoid vulnerability and pain, so the slightest attempts at intimacy will likely be rebuffed for several years.

Third, when the story finally comes out and you've mourned with those who mourn, don't neglect to confront the predator. This is very difficult work that in itself could easily be the subject of an entire book. But simply put, both the healing of the victim and the protection of other potential victims from the predator require that an authority expose the predator. Yes, the victim will have innumerable reasons why the terrible secret must be kept; why this nasty work cannot and must not be done. Work through those reasons as best you can while not flinching in your commitment that the wickedness must be exposed. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the victim must never be granted veto-power over your fulfillment of this Biblical responsibility:

Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:11-14)

And fourth, work diligently to listen to the victim such that you discover the ways he or she has been corrupted by their corrupter. He may have become fixed in homosexual desire because of the homosexual predations he suffered as a child. After being raped by her older brother, she may herself have seduced her younger brother or sister. He may be fantasizing about sex with another man while he is intimate with his wife. The list of possibilities is endless, but what is required of you is that you listen and probe for victims' sins. They are always present. Give permission to your beloved brother or sister in Christ to confess them so you may minister to them the forgiveness of sins through the shed blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. 

Membership in the fraternity of self-affirming victims is a paltry and squalid affair compared to the joy and peace we experience within the brotherhood of believers cleansed by His precious blood.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1John 1:9)

  • 1. Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p27.
  • 2. Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, p. 72.
  • 3. Ibid, Book VIII, Chapter 7.
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!