I pastor an inner-city church in Baltimore—The Garden Church. Like many urban communities around the world, our neighborhood is filled with extreme levels of drug abuse, joblessness, and broken homes. All of this contributes to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
Abuse in Poor Communities
Nearly 700,000 children per year are victims of abuse. Every 73 seconds, sexual abuse happens. While child abuse is everywhere, poverty and child maltreatment go hand in hand. The likelihood of mistreatment increases when fathers are not in the home and a mother is the sole provider for the family. Add the incarceration rates combined with drug and alcohol abuse, and abuse is off the charts. Considering how many cases may never even be reported in communities which distrust the police, we’re left with gut-wrenching realities.
Those who suffer from abuse often suffer in silence and believe they are alone.
When I first began my ministry, I was blown away as I began to peel back the layers of trauma people had experienced. A young man who was sexually abused by his mother until age sixteen. Another who was abused by multiple older cousins his entire childhood. A boy whose mother trafficked herself out of their living room with him present.
I was shocked at such evil. And I witnessed first-hand the effects of this trauma. Inability to connect. Constant fear and mistrust. Deep insecurities. And, more than anything, shame.
You Are Not Alone
You have people who walk into your church suffering with the gaping wound of abuse. But they need not suffer alone any longer. The gospel, at its core, tells them: You are not alone. Let me read two passages side-by-side which highlight the hopelessness of abuse but the hopefulness of the gospel:
1. Ecclesiastes 4:1, the writer laments: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.”
2. Luke 4:17–21: “And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Without the gospel, we would be left with only tears for the oppressed. No comfort. No hope. Only darkness and suffering.
But, because of the gospel, we can introduce our friends to Jesus.
But how, exactly, does the gospel help those who have been abused? On one hand, the gospel offers forgiveness of sins. Any sin which any of us have committed can be taken to the cross and dealt with fully. Finally. However, that’s not the only way in which the gospel helps us.
I’m going to assume that we understand that forgiveness comes through the blood of Jesus Christ. I’m going to assume that we know Jesus has released us from the prison of guilt and the oppression of sin. What I want to focus on is another dimension of gospel hope. One author put it this way: The gospel “invites the sinner to find forgiveness in Christ through repentance and it also invites the sufferer to find refuge in the Comforter from a harsh, broken world where things like abuse occur” (emphasis mine).
It is that second dimension I want to focus on: “The gospel invites the sufferer to find refuge in the Comforter.” Because of the violation that abuse is, because of the incredible levels of deception, because of the coercion of the abuser, great damage has been done.
How Abuse Damages
Diane Langberg’s Suffering and the Heart of God presents an incredible work on the topic of trauma from abuse, and she highlights a few ways abuse damages:
- The abused cannot make sense of their story. Langberg explains that the abused tell one version of their story which doesn’t include the abuse. But there’s another version of their life defined by abuse. The abuse that happened to me doesn’t seem to fit, instead “I live beside it.” (Langberg, 141) If the survivor looks at his/her abuse, it will overwhelm them. He/she must, therefore, stay away from it and tell themselves a different story.
- The abused run from the bad feelings. They do everything they can to keep the feelings away. They try not to feel anything at all. (Langberg, 150)
- Memories of the trauma haunt the abused. The memories don’t leave. (Langberg, 146) They color every aspect of the life of the one who was abused, shaping their view of themselves.
- Shame dominates the abused. The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt deals with things you have done, whereas shame deals with who you believe you are. When a person is abused, they are told that they are worthless. Less than human. Zero dignity. Shame reinforces that view. Shame reminds you. Shame tells you that what you think of yourself really is true: That you are defective. Shame causes you to hide. What if people know who I really am? When something then happens that reminds you, in any way, of these feelings, the event merely serves to solidify your view of self. (Langberg, 129)
According to Langberg, it is shame which drives the person to fight, flee, or freeze. (Langberg, 135) Some fight: they will belittle you to make them feel better about themselves. They take deep offense to anything and everything. They become very defensive. Some flee: they use marijuana, alcohol, and harder drugs which numb the pain and erase the memories. Some freeze: they shut down and shut you out.
A few years ago I was playing basketball at a church retreat and suffered a terrible ankle sprain. It took months before I could get back to working out or playing sports. But even to this day, I’m painfully reminded of the injury now and again. If an ankle sprain takes time to heal, how much more do wounds caused by abuse?
But the good news is that healing is possible. Christians are equipped with something that no one else has, and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel has the power to heal every spiritual and emotional wound, and one day heal every physical wound as we receive new bodies in the new earth.
Since the gospel brings healing, it deals with the damage of abuse. How does the gospel deal with the damage of abuse? We’ll look at that in detail next week.