Standing Up for Children: A Christian Response to Child Abuse and Neglect. All churches and schools need to be safe places where leaders actively work to prevent abuse. Freedom for the Captives (FFTC) offers online training videos taught by experts Mr. Victor Vieth, director of education and research at Zero Abuse Project and Prof. John Schuetze, a seminary professor and counselor. To learn more, check our training webpage. To request the training for yourself or your group, please complete our online learning registration form.
1in6 helps men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences live healthier, happier lives. 1in6 also serves family members, friends, partners, and service providers by providing information and support resources.
an organization committed to preventing, healing, and eliminating all forms of sexual victimization of boys and men through support, treatment, research, education, advocacy, and activism. Male Survivor
RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Resources include a national hotline (800.656.HOPE), resources, information, and education and training. RAINN
HAVOCA provides support, friendship, and advice for any adult whose life has been affected by childhood abuse. HAVOCA
The American Psychological Association has completed a comprehensive study on the potential long-term impact of psychological abuse.
The CDC and Kaiser Permanente have studied the impact of child physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and other adverse childhood experiences on our health. It is important to consider the potential impact on child abuse and neglect on our health and to discuss these issues with our medical and mental health providers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The ACE Study
Informational brochures and counselor information to help Christians make informed choices as they choose a mental health provider when suffering from abuse or addiction.
Visit our FFTC counselors page for resources that may help in finding a counselor.
Coping with Flashbacks
People who have experienced trauma may experience flashbacks in their everyday lives. Flashbacks can be intense and bring back the emotions and senses experienced during the trauma. These memories are felt as if they are currently happening, rather than something that occurred in the past.
Coping with flashbacks is not easy. Some cope with self-medication, forming addictions to alcohol or drugs. Others may erupt in anger and violence and exhibit poor behavioral compulsions. Even though these unhealthy coping skills lead to more pain, they are effective at deadening the thoughts and emotions in the moment.
Developing healthy coping skills takes time and patience. A licensed counselor can be very helpful and has a wealth of knowledge about ideas to use. However, not everyone is comfortable with seeing a counselor. If you fall into that category, here are some ideas to help you deal with the trauma triggers you experience.
Mindfulness means that you know what your thoughts, feelings, and body are trying to tell you. This is often difficult because the abuse causes you to try and look away. It is an important skill to develop so that you can identify the early stages of being triggered.
Grounding can be extremely effective for survivors. Flashbacks cause swirling emotions that quickly get out of control. Grounding brings those thoughts and feelings back into the body and slows them down.
Grounding techniques are plentiful, and each person is unique in what works best for them. Deep breathing, reciting the multiplication table, and holding ice in a hand are all examples of grounding exercises. Google “grounding techniques” to find some that you feel will be helpful.
Keep one or two ideas with you and use them the next time you start to experience a flashback. Practice it several times while you feel calm, so you are ready to use it when needed. If, after several attempts, it doesn’t help, move to a new exercise. Remember to be patient with yourself; finding what works best for you will take time and practice.
A word of caution is needed here. Faith is not a “cure” for the pain you suffered. It won’t stop you from being triggered. This is important to understand because too often, a survivor is tempted to think that they must not have enough faith. That if they did, the abuse would no longer affect them.
God does not promise this in his Word. Rather, he tells us, all the way back to the first sin in the Garden of Eden, that this life will be difficult. He has promised to be near us and be a help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). He has not promised to take trouble away. He has promised, however, to be our refuge and strength. We may not feel strong. Sometimes we only see things when we look back, and sometimes we can’t see. We look to the cross and know that Jesus also suffered, but his suffering and death was for us, to give us a different life.
God’s Word is important to keep nearby. It keeps you grounded in his promises of heaven, where all pain will be removed, and you will enjoy eternal life with him. This life is difficult, but through Jesus, you have an eternal life of bliss waiting for you!
What Is a Trigger, and What Makes it happen?
Experiencing a sudden onset of the feelings and emotions that you felt during an abusive situation is a common experience for survivors. This is because the brain records and stores traumatic memories differently from non-traumatic ones. Trauma floods the body with hormones that turn off certain parts of the brain and make other parts go into overdrive.
Traumatic memories are often stored in the amygdala, which significantly changes how those memories are later recalled. This part of the brain records what happened as sensory fragments, capturing how the five senses experienced the trauma. When recalled, a survivor relives the abuse as a mix of visual image, smell, sound, taste, and touch.
Since the memory is stored as what the senses experienced, the brain can be “triggered” to recall the memory with sensory input. This is often called a flashback. A particular cologne smell may automatically take you back to what happened. Or a green shirt is no longer just a green shirt; it’s the abuser returning to do more harm. The brain loses the ability to tell the difference between what is normal and what is a threat.
Another important thing to know about the amygdala is that it is unable to tell time. This means that when it detects the green shirt and associates it with the abuser, your brain interprets the danger as happening right now rather than a memory of the past. Breathing and heartrate increase, your palms become sweaty, and you react as if you are under attack. Some people describe it as a panic attack. All these, and many more, reactions are a normal response to being triggered.
Understanding triggers is an important first step to overcoming them. After you have recovered from a triggering experience, look back and ask yourself what caused it to happen. If you cannot figure out what caused it, don’t worry. That is normal, too. Keep a log, and after a while you may begin to see a pattern.
Once you understand what your triggers are, you can begin to address them. Knowledge is powerful. Some survivors find that once they know what will trigger them, they can plan for it and even manage it. We talk more in another article about ways to manage a flashback.
See the Bible verses on this website.
Check the book reviews on this website.
Many survivors worry that God will condemn them if they cannot forgive the person that abused them. For example, one man said that he couldn’t forgive his father for torturing him repeatedly and was worried his soul was in jeopardy. If you are a Christian struggling with forgiveness, it is important to remember that you are not God. Accordingly, you will never be able to forgive or perform other works in the way God can. The scriptures make clear that only unbelief sets us apart from God (John 3:16).
In commenting on the obligation in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive others, Martin Luther said the devil lies to us when he says “You must forgive or you will not be forgiven; you have not forgiven; therefore despair.” Luther simply retorted that through faith we will want to forgive but may not forgive fully this side of heaven.
Those who are abused as children often have a difficult time with forgiving the person or persons who hurt them. In many cases this was a parent, grandparent, sibling, relative, or some other person that was close to you. This was someone you trusted, someone who was to care for you, but instead this person hurt you and took advantage of you.
Another thing that can make forgiving your abuser difficult is that it may have happened many times over many years and in many different ways. Usually abuse does not come in a single form. Those who are abused sexually are often abused emotionally and spiritually. Likewise whose who suffer physical abuse often suffer verbal abuse as well.
Finally the person who abused you may not be sorry for what he or she did. Perhaps the person even denies that it ever happened. How can you forgive if the person isn’t even sorry for what he or she did, you may wonder?
These are only a few of the factors that make forgiveness a challenging task for those who have been abused. However, many survivors are able to work through this forgiveness process and heal from the abuse.
There are two kinds of forgiveness. Vertical forgiveness is God forgiving us. It is a proclamation. It is a done deal. On the cross Jesus announced, “It is finished.” Because Jesus lived and died in our place, we have forgiveness and life. It is always perfect and complete in this life because it comes from God. When we approach God with humble and penitent hearts, he assures us, “Your sins are forgiven.” He can say that because Christ paid the price of our sins.
Horizontal forgiveness is different. It goes from person to person. It flows out of our love for Christ and our appreciation for what he has done for us. Unlike God forgiving us which is instantaneous and complete, our forgiveness of others is a process that is never perfect in this life.
When we offer someone horizontal forgiveness, we are not saying that what the person did to us was okay. It was not. Nor does it mean that we will forget that it ever happened. We can’t. Horizontal forgiveness means that we give up our self-perceived right to get even. We leave justice in God’s hands and utilize the resources God has given us to respond to abuse—including using civil and criminal authorities.
Remember that this type of forgiveness is a process. It takes time.
There is a lot of confusion about forgiveness, especially when it comes to child abuse. Sometimes a well-intended friend will tell us, “You just need to forgive and move on.” Or a relative may encourage us to “forgive and forget.” Both of these statements confuse rather than clarify the matter of forgiveness.
First let us consider what forgiveness is not. It is not saying what the person did was okay. It was not. It was wrong and it hurt us deeply. Nor does forgiveness mean we have to forget and act as though it never happened. That is not helpful either. If we know someone is an abuser, we need to remember that and do what we can to prevent that person from abusing us or others in the future. That was difficult to do as a child because of our vulnerable situation.
A simple definition of forgiveness is “giving up my self-perceived right to get even.” Romans 12 tells us, “’It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Giving up the desire to get even does not usually happen quickly. The person hurt us deeply, to our very heart and soul. Some days we may be ready to leave it in God’s hands. Other days we are filled with anger and hurt.
The more we let go of this perceived right, the more we free ourselves from the captivity of the abuse. So we see that giving up the right is not something that benefits the abuser, but something that helps us in our journey of healing.
Because forgiveness can be difficult and complex, it is helpful to seek out a pastor or Christian counselor to help us with this process.
As noted in previous question Do I need to confront the person who abused me?, God’s Word does not require you to confront your abuser and doing so may place you in danger of physical or emotional harm. If you are contemplating confronting your abuser, it is wise to discuss this thoroughly with a competent counselor who is trained in working with survivors of child abuse and who is current with the literature.
A counselor can help you sort out the feelings you have about confronting the abuser and to assess the possible advantages and disadvantages of such a confrontation.
If you choose to go forward, it is wise to have one or more professional support persons with you that can stop the meeting if it is harming you and can help you process your emotions after the confrontation.
Although it is appropriate to report your abuser to the authorities and otherwise take actions to prevent him or her from abusing other children, God’s Word does not require you to confront the abuser. Indeed, it may be physically or emotionally harmful to speak directly with the person who violated you. Even if an offender admits the abuse, he or she may continue to blame you for the abuse or otherwise make you feel responsible. The confrontation may also cause the offender to destroy evidence.
Sometimes, pastors and other Christians have told survivors to confront their abuser by citing the words of Jesus to go and show a fellow believer his or her faults (Matthew 18:15). However, this verse must be read in the context of all of the scriptures.
When Jesus was in danger of being killed by King Herod, God did not tell Joseph to confront the would-be killer of his son. Through an Angel, God told Joseph to flee and not return until it was safe to do so (Matthew 2:13). Although it is important for civil, criminal and church authorities to confront a child abuser, God does not require victims to place themselves in physical or emotional danger.
If your neighbor stole your car, you would report him to the police. Your abuser stole something from you much more valuable than a car. He stole a part of your very life and self from you. In doing so that person committed a crime and needs to suffer the consequences of his or her actions. It is not unforgiving or unchristian to report such a person. In fact, it is wise to do so. It forces the person to deal with the reality of what he or she did. It also reduces the likelihood that the person will abuse others in the future.
God established the church to help us forgive. He established the government to provide temporal justice and curb lawlessness in society. As Christians we enjoy the benefit of both realms.
Many survivors of abuse and neglect lead productive lives free of many of the adverse medical and mental health conditions previously discussed. How quickly, and to what extent a victim of abuse heals is dependent on a number of factors.
- How quickly was there an intervention?
- Did the doctors, counselors and clergy who intervened respond competently?
- Does the survivor have a network of friends and family members who are supportive?
There is a body of research on resilience which finds that simple things such as keeping a child in school, getting them involved in sports, music and other activities that build self-esteem and model non-abusive responses to conflict can be very important. There is also a substantial body of research that maintaining a connection to faith, including a healthy sense of spirituality, can reduce the potential short and long term impact of abuse.
There is research suggesting boys may delay disclosing sexual abuse longer than girls—perhaps as long as 20 years. Studies indicate boys have myriad fears that keep them quiet including fears of being labeled weak or gay as a result of sexual abuse. In our society, we often make jokes about boys who are sexually abused by older girls or women. As a result, a boy sexually abused by a woman feels guilty for not “enjoying” the victimization. In designing church policies and in implementing personal safety programming, it is critical to keep in mind these differences and to specifically address fears that may be unique to boys.
According to 34 major studies involving more than 19,000 abused children, a significant number of children suffer “spiritual injuries.” This can happen when the abuser uses religion in the abuse of a child. For example, a parent may beat a child while telling his son or daughter that the beating was ordained by God. Spiritual injuries can also result because a child is confused by God’s response to the abuse.
For example, a child may have asked God to stop the abuse and is saddened or angry that God did not answer the prayer in the way the victim desired. Research has found that left unaddressed, spiritual injuries can also impair our physical and mental health.
In a series of studies of more than 450,000 patients, the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente found that physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and other forms of maltreatment are associated with higher risks of numerous medical and mental health conditions including cancer, heart disease, liver disease, depression, anxiety disorders, and sleep disorders. The researchers found that the greater number of categories of abuse a patient endured, the greater the potential impact on their health.
If you or someone you know has experienced child abuse, you may want to acquaint yourself with Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research and to discuss this with your doctor, counselor or other professionals.
Most abused or neglected children are violated in multiple ways. Specifically, 66% of children abused in one way are abused in at least two ways and approximately 30% of abused children are maltreated in five or more categories (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, etc.).
This is why it is important to pay attention to all possible forms of abuse and, when working with a survivor, to keep in mind the likelihood he or she has been abused in many ways. If you would like to read more about this research, we recommend the following articles:
Heather A. Turner, David Finkelhor, and Richard Omrod, Poly-Victimization in a National Sample of Children and Youth, 38(3) American Journal of Preventive Medicine 323 (2010); David Finkelhor, Richard K. Omrod, Heather A. Turner, Poly-victimization: A Neglected Component in Child Victimization,31 Journal of Child Abuse & Neglect 7 (2007).
Every ten years, the United States Department of Health conducts a massive study to determine as much information as possible about child abuse in the United States. This research has consistently found that most children are abused or neglected by their biological parents or their non-biological parent or partner. Specifically, the researchers found that 100% of neglected children, 93% of emotionally abused children, 91% of physically abused children, and 60% of sexually abused children have been victimized by their biological or non-biological parents or partners. Others who may abuse children include those who have access to children through day cares, schools, churches and other youth serving organizations.
Children are abused or neglected in many ways. A child may be beaten. A child may be touched sexually or forced to touch sexually another person. A parent or other caretaker may emotionally abuse a child by telling them they are of no value or should have never been born. A child is also maltreated when a parent fails to feed or clothe a child or denies essential medical care. Children are also maltreated when they witness violence between their parents. Although child abuse laws differ from state to state, our website includes a summary of standard definitions developed by the World Health Organization and International Society on Child Abuse and Neglect.
How many people who experience trauma secretly condemn themselves for the anxiety that continually surfaces in their thinking? Books have been written about the relationship between anxiety and trauma from a psychological perspective. But for the Christian, the spiritual dimension and the Scriptural comfort and direction are usually left out of the book.
William Woodington, man with chronic anxiety, has written a book for any child of God who struggles with anxiety. The genius of the book is that is not wordy. You will find no stories or illustrations and not a lot of exposition and application of the Bible passages that fill the eleven chapters that fill this book. What is said, however, is enough. The author connects the passages on a topic with a concise flow of comments that introduce or illuminate the passages on each chapter’s topic.
This tiny book can be read in a single sitting (109 small pages), but I wouldn’t recommend reading it that way. Each chapter is worth reading, taking notes or marking in the book, and reflecting on what you read. I do not struggle with anxiety, but I imagine that those who have that struggle will want to absorb the contents of Whatever Is True and make it part of their thinking. This would be an excellent tool for a support group of people who struggle with anxiety or survivors of abuse. The group could discuss a chapter at each meeting and better appreciate what God has said to them in their distress.
William Woodington credits the book Hope and Help for Your Nerves by Claire Weekes for her concepts of “Facing, Accepting, Floating, and Letting Time Pass.” As helpful as the concepts were, he concluded that she didn’t have the full story. As a Christian, he sees a dimension not mentioned in her book and so he writes “in the context of dealing with anxiety and panic. That’s the way God chose to discipline me to bring me closer to him.” As one who suffers chronic anxiety, Woodington does not offer pat, promising but ultimately frustrating advice – rather he changes the reader’s perspective.
Whatever is True.
Author: William Woodington
Reviewed by James Behringer on June 7, 2021
“…the LORD was with [Joseph].” – Genesis 39:3
Abuse destroys lives: physically, psychologically, emotionally. Sometimes abuse kills. This is why we fight back. We pray, of course, but we also report physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as the crime it is.
And yet, Christians survive abuse. Martin Luther looked at Joseph and appealed to a theologian named Augustine who wrote, “the miracles performed daily in the world surpass those performed by Christ.” There’s better than blind receiving sight? Yes. Every day God the Father feeds the world. Every day God takes care of birds and plants. Every day he is your God, your Father. Your life is a miracle. You’re here and I’m here – miracle. We get to baptize children, preach the Word, commune – miracles. We eat, sleep, work, play – miracles. From God.
Which is why you’ll survive. I know this because Moses says about Joseph: “The Lord was with him.” This isn’t Joseph picking himself up by his bootstraps or having more grit. This is the Lord being with Joseph. Joseph is, by faith, a temple of the Holy Spirit. That gets you through: when God lives in you and with you.
Moses gives us Jesus. “The LORD was with him.” That’s Christ. You know, God with us. Immanuel. That’s what Moses says. God is with us. Jesus was with Joseph, preserving, protecting. He’s with you. In injustice. In abuse. In success.
“The LORD was with him.” Sometimes this is all I get. It’s what I need. It got David through: “You are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.” The LORD is with him, and it’s the crucified Lord. It’s Jesus, who came in the flesh, who became Joseph’s brother and yours. Jesus suffered every temptation Joseph suffered. He suffered every abuse, and more. Jesus let the world abuse him for you. Jesus nailed to the cross is the Lord with us. He’s with us in slavery and death. Until he breaks free. He rises, like Joseph. Joseph rises from the dead: from the pit, from slavery, from prison. This points to Christ, the one who can’t be killed or destroyed, but rather destroys the power of death. For you.
Father, Son, Holy Spirit, you have promised to be with me, keep me firm in that promise when you seem to be gone. Fix my eyes on your love for me in Christ. Amen.
“…the LORD gave [Joseph] success in everything…” – Genesis 39:3
“It could be worse.”
“It’s darkest before the dawn.”
“Something good must come from this.”
You’ve heard these. They’re meant well. They prove that we don’t process trauma well. Sometimes silence is best, right? If someone just sat with us until things got better.
But what if they don’t? What if abuse doesn’t stop? Anxiety never leaves? Therapies don’t work?
We could give in. We could do whatever makes us feel better. We could end it. If it’s not going to get better, why not kill myself?
And now you throw Genesis 39 into our face and show us Joseph’s success? I do. Mind you, he’s still a slave. God didn’t free Joseph. God didn’t suddenly make Joseph powerful. Those things happen. But first, Joseph spends years as a slave and in prison falsely accused of rape.
Joseph could conform. He could curse God. He could be a wicked, lazy, unfaithful servant. He could dole out physical and sexual abuse upon those below him. He could indulge in the sex his master’s wife offered. He could say, “God screwed me! Screw him!”
But he didn’t. Pay attention. Whether you’ve been abused, are being abused, or know someone who has. When Joseph holds firm to his trust in the Lord, he offers his body as a sacrifice to God: not conforming to the world, not doing what it wants, what makes us feel good, what’s most convenient.
Martin Luther said about Joseph: “The Word spoken by his father reigns in his heart…. ‘My father has taught me. No matter how long God wants to forsake me, I will hold out. My father has taught me to believe and to wait patiently for God’s help, no matter how long He postpones or delays. “Wait for the Lord….”’” Wait. God remembers. He remembers you. He wrote you upon his hands, the hands imprinted with the marks of nails that attached him to the cross. After going through such trauma for you, he doesn’t forget. In fact, he wrote his name upon you when he baptized you.
Father, lead me out of temptation. Forgive my sin. Bless me according to your will. Amen.