Editor’s Note: A former Northwest Baptist pastor shares his personal story of abuse and the necessary healing journey in order to bring awareness about the impact of abuse and ways churches can help victims who have suffered from it.
Nine years ago I came face to face with my deepest fear. For years I knew that I had a difficult time connecting emotionally with others. My relationships were shallow and I would only allow them to go so far. This was especially true in my marriage. Though I had been married for more than 20 years, because I didn’t know how to connect emotionally, I hurt my wife numerous times.
I was distant, avoiding any real meaningful conversations and ran at the first sign of conflict. Being a pastor, I was constantly around people, but no one really knew me. After years of living in emotional solitary confinement, I had learned to fake it well. But I lived in loneliness and it started taking its emotional toll on me. At that point, I began to realize I could continue to live in loneliness and pain, killing my relationship with my wife, or I could face why I so alone. It was a turning point in my life, one I wished I had faced many years ago.
The first appointment with a counselor was terrifying as I shared that I had been sexually and emotionally abused as a young child. I could hardly get those words out of my mouth. It was a secret I had kept for 40 years, telling no one. For all those years I had made myself believe it was okay, that I just needed to be tough, that it wasn’t that bad. Besides, I was a pastor, so what would people think?
As a child, I had no safe person to tell, so I learned to survive on my own. That’s the way I lived for 40 years — in a prison of loneliness, shame and regrets. It took its toll, not only on me, but on my wife and family, those who loved me most. It took a year after starting counseling to build up the courage to tell my wife.
After realizing the damage that abuse and abandonment had caused and that I was suffering from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, I went through a period where I wasn’t sure I could make it out on the other side. I had not only come face to face with the terror that had held me a prisoner of shame, but also that I held a lot of pain and regret. Many abuse survivors turn to drugs, alcohol or even sex to deaden the pain. In my teenage years, I had plenty of opportunities to abuse those, but none of those were my “medication.” Mine was being alone and spending money.
Years of not connecting emotionally with my wife took its toll on our marriage. For years, I would avoid talking to her about anything remotely difficult. Even though I served as a pastor, dealing with people’s problems daily, it was a way to mask my own pain. I grew up spending a lot of time fishing and hunting and used to think it was just a hobby. But when I started dealing with the abuse, I realized for the first thirteen years of our marriage, I would hunt and fish just to be alone. Or I could be alone by coming home at night, sitting on the couch watching TV and virtually having no interaction with my wife. The desire to be alone was like an addict wanting to quit, but the desire was too strong. The secrets were too much to bear and I was sure no one could love me if they knew.
For forty years I had survived, but I was exhausted and worn out. I honestly didn’t know how long I could live with the pain and regrets of my past. When the seriousness of all that happened hit me, the pain seemed too much to bear. Consistently, I would pray that God would take my life and I started having suicidal thoughts, because I was certain my family, friends, and church would be better off without me.
Slowly, through a wonderful counselor, reading a lot of good resources and a lot of God’s love and grace, I’m learning how to live without fear and shame. Jesus died so I don’t have to live in fear and shame. As I have asked him many times why he allowed this to happen, he has shown me how in the midst of the pain, he has been there. I’ve learned he loves me unconditionally and that I’m not a mistake.
Dealing with abuse has made me sensitive to others who are struggling. God has humbled me in a lot of ways and I’m less apt to judge others, looking beyond behavior to the heart. But all this is a process. Every day, I have to remind myself who I am in Christ and when the pain, shame and regret resurface (because it does), I keep moving forward with his grace and the resources he has provided for me.
As an abuse survivor, who is also a pastor, I encourage church leaders – don’t ignore abuse in your church.
Pastors, if you are suffering from abuse, go to a counselor and begin the healing process. The reality is, we can use a lot of good things to cover up our pain, even serving a church. But if you keep covering it up, you (and your loved ones) will pay a price. We can’t expect people in our church to be honest about the pain and regrets in their lives if we aren’t willing to confront ours.
Talk about sexual abuse. Statistically, many in your congregation have or will suffer from abuse. It’s worth talking about. Sexual abuse is a sin and a crime; it should be treated as such and there should be no question about where the church stands when it comes to sexual abuse. The more we make people aware of it, the more opportunities we will have to minister to the many living in its terror.
Become a safe place for victims to talk. A survivor, who is terrified, will hesitate to talk to anyone. So, if they have trusted you enough to share, listen without giving advice, unless it’s to recommend a counselor. Maybe all you can do is to let them know you love them and there’s a God who loves them.
Refer victims to good counselors skilled at helping sexual abuse victims. Sexual abuse leaves a complicated impact and causes lasting damage. Jesus can bring healing, but just telling people to forgive and forget will not bring about healing. Jesus wants us to begin to experience healing and freedom on this side of eternity. But the reality is, there are issues in our lives that will not be solved with shallow spiritual platitudes. It will take the grace and love of Jesus as he uses many resources to bring about healing.
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