Trigger Warning: Discussion of abuse and other trauma
I think of a passing conversation in which a Catholic man flippantly dismissed a young woman’s current struggles with the comment, “I guess she was molested as a child or whatever.”
I think of the spiritually warped responses offered upon the breaking news of Josh Duggar’s abuse of several young girls that “We all sin,” “He’s done/can do so much good,” and “We need to forgive and move on.”
I think of the common refrain, “But she was so drunk!” in response to a young woman being heinously sexually assaulted on Stanford University’s campus.
I think of a prominent Catholic theologian initiating a Facebook discussion dissecting the sinfulness of being drunk immediately following the announcement of the laughable sentence in the Stanford case.
I think of a favorite priest of mine who convened a gathering for his parish on the clergy abuse scandal, admitting that abuse of children is horrible but focusing on how difficult it is to be a priest these days.
I think of the thousand children molested and raped by Catholic priests in Boston, of the slew of bishops and cardinals who simply shuffled those priests to new parishes, where they continued to abuse. Of our bishops as a whole who have not admitted culpability for this issue and yet are charged with creating policy on it. Of my beloved pope who refused the resignation of one such cardinal and instead elevated him to a prestigious position in Rome. (See this book for a comprehensive treatment of the Archdiocese of Boston.)
I think of family members who wanted to sweep it under the rug when a relative abused me. And others who continued to speak about him at family gatherings as though nothing had happened, focusing on their perceived need for me to reconcile with an unrepentant man.
And I think…if all these people—most of whom are God-loving—treat those who’ve been traumatized by sexual abuse this way, what can I really expect from God?
In the words of Diane Langberg, Ph.D:
You and I become the representative of God to the survivor. Our work is to teach in the seen what is true in the unseen. Our words, tone of voice, actions, body movements, responses to rage, fear, failure all become ways that the survivor learns about God…. While we represent God, the survivor struggles with questions about God: Who is he? What does he think about my abuse, my rape, the loss of all things? What does he think about me? Am I loved? Am I forgivable? Does his patience run out? Why should I have hope?
These words come from Langberg’s recent book, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores. She has counseled trauma survivors for over 40 years. When I stumbled across an interview she did about the book, discussing trauma as the mission field of our time, I knew at once that finally, finally here was someone who was articulating something I felt deep within me, yet did dare believe could be true.
For years, I’ve experienced anger bubbling up as I’ve witnessed cold, ignorant, and damaging responses to my own experience of abuse and those of people around me, by both the secular culture and Christians. I’ve wrestled with the righteous anger, the meaning of justice, and what Gospel charity looks like, devastated at how abysmally Christians generally approach and respond to abuse. It’s no small thing that, on the whole, non-Christians have such common sense about responding to abuse that we Christians seem to lack.
I’ve pondered what I consider a “good” response to a survivor of abuse to be. Once again, Langberg articulates it well:
I repeatedly get calls from churches and Christian organizations around the country about sexual abuse in their midst. They want help but hope no one has to know—children abused by dynamic youth leaders the church wants to protect or pastors abusing four to six women in a congregation. ‘But Diane, he is so charismatic and the church has grown. Do justice.’
Our God is characterized by justice, care, and concern for the oppressed and defenseless. Jesus came to the brokenhearted, captive, imprisoned, and afflicted. His gentle care for the downtrodden revealed the character of God to us….where we do not look like him, we have unchecked, untreated disease.
Reading Suffering and the Heart of God, I moved from “Whoa, I’m not crazy to think the way I do,” to “I feel understood and my experiences validated,” to “Wow! So that’s why I feel how I feel and behave the way I do,” to “This is how God feels about me!”
This is how God feels about me. In light of being abused. Broken. This is what I can expect from God.
Langberg conveys this through the utter humility in her words. She includes many examples of the types of trauma she has encountered—the evil she has battled—in her 40+ years of counseling. It’s clear she has expertise, yet she repeats the importance of never assuming you know or truly understand it all—and that sin, evil, and selfishness must be rooted out of us all.
Even more than that, Langberg makes it clear from the start that serving trauma survivors is holy ground. Looking into the face of a survivor is to look in the face of Jesus. Our Jesus—who knows suffering, knows trauma. Sitting with a survivor is to sit and minister to Jesus.
Doing so with humility transforms both of them more into the likeness of Jesus.
Most of the gentle, compassionate way she writes about survivors is counter to what I’ve experienced. I understand it to a certain extent: Trauma is not light matter. No one wants to listen to or talk about violence, rape, abuse of children, and the like.
It’s hard. Everything is us wants to flee from the ugliness. It can simply be too much with which to cope. Yet, survivors carry it, live with it, every day. And we are called to go where Jesus went, do as he did, and face the truth of what his people suffer for what it really is.
It looks a lot like listening to survivors as they speak about their experiences:
By honoring the memory [of the survivor] I mean speaking the truth about it, saying it really happened, saying it was really evil, and saying that it really did damage. It dishonors victims when we are silent about their experience or pretend it did not occur or was not important. Talking says, ‘I am here. What happened was wrong, I am damaged by it, justice is needed, and so is care for my broken heart.’
It looks a lot like walking with survivors in their pain and grief, weeping with them, shouldering their burden with them.
Everything about abuse teaches a survivor that they are not worthy of being treated that way.
Langberg explains that healing comes from a reversal of the dynamics of abuse. Reading her heart in her words accomplished just that, restoring a sense of dignity and worth for me. She demonstrated what she urges us to do: going where Jesus went, acting as he did, so we may know the love of God—from whom all dignity and worth flow.
Though some of this book is directed to counselors specifically, I consider it a powerful tool for all Christians. Yes, the subject matter is intense. Your toes will be stepped on. Mine were–convicting me to adopt more humility in this and any issue in which someone is struggling.
Langberg speaks truth in places it is most difficult to hear—but that truth brings life and light. We can all benefit from understanding the hurting among us—which is all of us, as well as dynamics of trauma, abuse, the nature of evil, how manipulators function among us, how institutions become corrupt, and most importantly, who God really is and how he pursues us.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review. All opinions expressed here are my own.