Women in your congregation who have been abused, assaulted, molested, or raped carry a tremendous burden. Without biblical help, these dear women are left to struggle with shame, fear, ragged emotions, difficulty trusting, impaired relationships, regret, self-blame, sexual difficulties, depression, nightmares, and an overwhelming lack of hope.
Frequently, abused women find it hard to develop relationships at church or one-on-one friendships. If a woman who has been traumatized gets married, her abuse won’t affect just her; it will be something that affects her husband and children. Abuse often spills its ugliness into every relationship the abused woman forms.
As Christians, we are not people who God created to live as isolated individuals. We’re part of a body, and the body works together. Paul says of the body of Christ, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). Ministering to a victim of abuse necessitates a willingness to suffer with another member of the body.
Understanding the situation
Each story of abuse is unique. Kate was abused as a child by her stepparent. Monique was date-raped. Stacia was an adolescent girl hanging out with neighborhood boys who molested her. Each story, and each woman, is different.
Yet, these women often battle similar patterns and problems. Here are some of the similar elements that you may hear in the stories of these women.
An abused woman will likely experience some level of fear in her life after abuse. She may feel fear of her abuser, fear of the reaction of others, fear that it will happen again, fear that others will think she wanted it, or a more generalized fear. She might be experiencing nightmares or even flashbacks of the events.
The woman may be thinking, “I must have done something to cause this, or this wouldn’t have happened to me.” It’s easy for an abused woman to feel isolated, convinced that she is different from others. She may believe that this wouldn’t have happened if she were like everybody else.
Feelings of shame and pain may lead to strong desires for control. Many women have a desire to always be in control because they don’t ever want to go through abuse again.
It may be that the pain is so intense that the abused woman turns to substance abuse to try to alleviate it. She may have jumped into a relationship or marriage trying to escape her abuser. Or she may attempt to bury the past by pretending everything’s okay. Sadly, everything is not okay.
Remembering there is hope
The traumatized woman’s burden can be met with hope. The psalmist reminds us, “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22). Hope grows as this precious woman develops a deep, deep intimacy with her Savior and Redeemer.
As this happens, out of her suffering will arise loveliness and hope that confidently communicates the ability of our King to bring beauty out of ashes. She will be living proof that He brings restoration.
Restoration means that over time the abused woman is not functioning in life as someone who is only a victim. Of course she’s been victimized, but by God’s grace she’s been able to move beyond being only a victim. She can live with joy and hope. She’s able to establish relationships that are authentic, not shallow. Incredibly, not only is she able to function well in her own sphere, she’s also able to help others take steps in that same direction. She displays the splendor of God (Isa. 61:3).
In 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, Paul says: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” So here she is; she’s a person who has been through something horrendous, but God has graciously brought beauty out of ashes in her life, and now she is able to come alongside others who may have experienced something similar.
What can a male pastor do?
If you are a male pastor seeking to help a woman with this history, I want to give you all the encouragement I can. Don’t look at opportunities to counsel victims of abuse and say, “I can’t do that.” You may not have been abused yourself, but as 2 Corinthians 1:4 tells us, it’s the Lord’s guidance and comfort you’re offering, not your own.
These dear women are sufferers who need comfort and hope, and that’s exactly what the church can offer. In Psalm 34:18 we hear, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” A woman with abuse in her past has been brokenhearted and crushed for a long, long time. She’s been treated with wickedness by someone in her past, but there’s someone she can turn to who will bind up her wounds. And you may be the vehicle God uses to help her begin to understand that the Lord loves her.
I would recommend that you involve a mature, godly woman. It may be hard for a woman who has been abused to meet with a man. A godly older woman can help counseling be a safe place for her.
Offering words of life
In Psalm 30:2 the psalmist says, “LORD my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.” I think there’s some shock and amazement in the psalmist’s words here. It’s as if part of him didn’t think it could happen. Yet it has. Think about a woman who has been treated wickedly. She thinks she will bear the burden forever. And she cries to God for help—and help is available!
The psalm continues, “You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit” (v. 3). The experience of abuse in a woman’s life may have resulted in the death of her hopes and her dreams. It certainly resulted in the death of life as usual. But the Lord is able to bring us up from the grave.
At the end of the chapter, after experiencing the Lord lifting him out of the pit, we hear the psalmist say, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (v. 11). Victims of abuse may think they will wear sackcloth for the rest of their lives. They may believe their tears will never stop. Yet, we have a God who clothes us with gladness!
God gives hope
Our God is a God of hope. As a pastor, your prayer for a woman with a history of sexual abuse can be Paul’s in Romans 15:13. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
God makes it possible for someone with a history of abuse to overflow with hope—so much hope she can’t even keep it in! Our God is generous; he doesn’t dole out hope in small portions, He lavishes hope so abundantly that those who receive His hope can’t even contain it. Hope overflows when we seek it from God.1
Preparing for an initial meeting
When you schedule a meeting with a woman suffering from an abuse history, remember that you’re meeting someone who is suffering and needs help. You may want to review the experience of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 to be reminded of the despair that sexual assault brings. This passage is a living-color portrait of the despair of someone who was sexually assaulted. Prayerfully consider the text and ask God to give you the wisdom and compassion you’ll need so that you’ll be able to express all the gentleness our Savior would express in a similar situation.
Think through what passages have given you hope when you’ve felt desperate in your life. Just because you haven’t been through this experience doesn’t mean you’ve never faced despair before.
The first meeting’s goal is not to provide solutions to specific issues. As we read in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.” The most appropriate thing to do at first is to humbly enter into the story of the woman who has come for counsel.
As you hear her story, express your reasons for confidence in God, and tell her that in the coming weeks you want her to grow in that same hope. Explain that as incredible as it might seem, the Lord wants to bestow on her a crown of beauty, and He wants to bind up her broken heart. What you’re doing is letting her borrow your hope at the end of that first session. She may not be able to see it for herself yet, but you’ve got hope. You want to give her a taste of what that hope in the Lord is and cast a vision of what God is capable of doing.
Encouragement to pastors
You may feel like you’re out of your depth when you’re meeting with a woman with an abuse history. But, if you feel like this is over your head, remember this: God has entrusted you with His Word. He is a God of hope. The psalmist says that even when we feel far from God, “even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139:10).
If you believe the situation is too much for you to handle, I encourage you to humbly let the woman know. Seek consultation, get some guidance from a mentor, or plan to study the Bible together. Corroborate on a plan with the woman.
Then, invite her to cry out to God with you for help. You will both get to see God’s power at work in that situation because God’s power is able to penetrate our weakness. Just think of the encouragement you can be as she sees you depending on God for help. Our God is faithful. We can and should seek Him out when navigating troubled waters like these.
- See also Romans 8:22–39, 12:12.