How the Church Can Care for Those Seeking Healing from Abuse

In my part of the country, this is the season when spiders come out from their dark places and I see them crawling around inside my house. The other night, I found a giant one crawling across the ceiling of my bedroom. My husband, Randy, captured him in a glass using a piece of cardboard to block the spider’s escape. We decided to put the critter in a child’s insect viewing box so our granddaughter could see the spider in the morning. However, when I looked in on the spider the next day, he was dead, and he had drawn all of his legs tight up to his body.

As I observed the spider, I marveled how he had once seemed so big with his legs stretched out as he scuttled along; yet now, he seemed lifeless and little with his legs drawn in tight. And in that observation, my spirit recognized what trauma does to a person’s internal self: Where once she or he was stretched out and engaged with a beautiful interesting world and a loving God, the person is pulled in and tight and lifeless. The world is fearful and dangerous, and God seems far away and uninterested.

WHAT TRAUMA DOES TO OUR SOULS

Trauma is the response to any event (in war, in the home, in a church, in a workplace) which overwhelms the senses. Trauma is deeply disturbing to the psychological, spiritual and emotional state of a person. Like the pulled-in, lifeless spider:

“Trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.” [1]

When violence, physical or emotional, is witnessed or is perpetuated against someone, trauma is often the outcome. Something pulls in and stops moving inside. The spirit and sense of one’s very being becomes still.

For Christians, of course, trauma is of great concern. Jesus came to heal and to bring justice, as well as to invite us into his eternal kingdom. Jesus is the one who takes dead things and brings them to life:

“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17).

We are promised life and living water.

Therefore, all the recent revelations of sexual, physical, emotional abuse and the violence all around us are opportunities for our faith to provide haven. They are also opportunities for the church to be an incubator where the very being of our personhood might come back to life again.

As more stories of abuse in the church come to light, expect that a large part of the church’s mission right now is to care for people through the traumatic after effects of this abuse. Here’s how.

WALKING WITH PEOPLE THROUGH TRAUMA

So what are some spiritual practices that will help? What might churches do to companion survivors on their journey?

1. Be a Caring Community.

There is one fundamental way in which the church as the body of Christ can be critical partners in a survivor’s healing journey. Trauma survivors need to be seen, valued and connected to a caring community. The church is called to be the living body of Christ, and that is spiritual work. Because trauma survivors need to feel safe, the church commits itself to providing shalom love and gracious hospitality.

Trauma changes the body so that the traumatic experience gets trapped inside a person. The church can create an environment which gives the individual body a chance to heal. A spiritual practice might be to provide listening healers. A church could prepare persons to be such listeners. These listeners would create sacred space for hearing and receiving the stories of trauma survivors. They would simply listen and bear witness to the truth of the other’s experience. The first step in healing and restoration is the graceful act of listening fully to the stories people need to tell. One of the ways trauma victims begin to stretch again is telling their stories, and having someone honor them with listening.

This is not easy. I met a woman, Mary Burton, who was one of 17 people on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and who listened to the stories of people affected by the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa. When I spoke with her, she and the committee members had listened to 10,000 stories of the worst of humanity. Because of her faith, she stood before me hopeful and strong. She knew the Light—and darkness could not overcome it. She bore witness to the healing value of hearing and receiving a victim’s story.

Churches can do the same.

2. Refuse to Excuse or Explain Away Abusive Power.

Every church should develop policies that assure no tolerance for any type of sexism, abuse or bullying (using privilege to dishonor another). The church should have the highest ethic for treating people with respect and have the highest motivation for protecting the vulnerable.

The elder board of Willow Creek resigned precisely because they realized they had not protected the vulnerable and had not respected the women’s stories. “Boys will be boys” or “a simple indiscretion” are never perspectives tolerated in God’s church. [2]

3. Present a God Who Both Fathers and Mothers.

God is not just a father; God is also a God who mothers. Unfortunately, for women and men who have been sexually abused, most often by male church leaders, the image of a male “father” God can be a stumbling block. It was for me, and I didn’t even know it. My body did, but my mind didn’t until I had a wake-up experience in prayer.

Before I speak, my spiritual practice is to prepare myself in prayer by imagining Jesus coming to me, and then we have a small conversation about the speaking task ahead. I receive his blessing. Recently, as is my custom, I was preparing in prayer to speak and Jesus was coming towards me. But then something deep within me rose up, and I cried out, “Do you always have to come as a male?” I just had had a succession of experiences which awoke memories of trauma and bullying. After my heart cried out, my departed stepmom and great aunt were there with Jesus. The three of them prepared me for my task. I was comforted and grateful for a God who was both mother and father to me.

If the church were to offer up other biblical images of God, it would help victims during their healing journey. There are so many images of God mothering, especially passages which speak of “taking refuge under wings” just as a mother cradles her child.

When the church offers images of God both as father and mother, it helps sexual abuse victims during their healing journey.

SPIRITUAL PRACTICES FOR SURVIVORS OF TRAUMA

Along with the support and love of a healthy church community, there are actions a trauma survivor can undertake for their journey toward healing. What have I found as a trauma survivor myself that has transitioned me from surviving to thriving?

1. Receive Counseling From a Professional Therapist.

Trauma research suggests many ways for survivors to feel alive again in the present rather than trapped in the past. One of the most fundamental ways is to find a trauma therapist, someone who understands the way trauma changes the body and the brain and knows how to guide a recovery journey. I believe getting a wise counselor is a spiritual practice, whether that counselor believes as we do or not. All wisdom and truth is God’s, and the Spirit uses wisdom to awaken and heal us. Therefore, consulting trained persons who have experience and knowledge is a way to take our healing journey. I did. I’ve had two cycles of therapy of 5 years each which oriented me to my real identity and path, and I’m beginning another one because of recent experiences. Find someone to help you. [3]

2. Talk to Jesus About Your Pain, Your Trauma, Your Abuse and Your Healing.

Lean into the God who also mothers you. God created us in God’s image. Therefore, we know that God is both father and mother to us. Jesus himself yearned “to gather [his] children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13: 34b). Find Scripture verses which you can adapt to be your prayers as you travel your healing journey, such as below:

• A trauma victim’s prayer: Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings, I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by (Ps. 57: 1).

• A trauma victim’s hope: God sustains me in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; God shields me, cares for me, guards me as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guides me (Deut. 32: 10–12a).

THE GLORY YOUR HEALING JOURNEY REVEALS

In Colossians, Paul wrote to believers:

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col. 3:3–4).

The trauma survivor is not dead like the lifeless spider. Within the survivor is a life hidden with Christ and in God. This healing journey will reveal your life in glory. The church can provide sanctuary, a place hidden with Christ in God for all persons who have suffered. In doing so, the church and the survivor choose life and refuse the limitations of the darkness.

MaryKate Morse is professor of Leadership and Spiritual Formation in the seminary at George Fox University. Currently she is the Lead Mentor for the Doctor of Ministry in Leadership & Spiritual Formation. This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org.

NOTES:

[1] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2014), 3. [2] Example of a church policy: https://protectmyministry.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Sample-Screening-Policy-2.pdf [3] Trauma therapists in your area can be found online. Universities and counseling practices often have supervised interns who do not cost very much.