A Road Map for Recovery From Sexual Abuse

Excerpted From
Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse
By Elaine A. Heath

When read with survivors, the exodus narrative is a road map for recovery. Every major test in the wilderness is archetypal for the thresholds of healing God wants to bring us through as survivors. In so many ways we are like slaves learning to walk in freedom after a lifetime of bondage. Our journey is arduous and sometimes slow. The Redeemer won’t let us off the hook.

We have to learn that the real God is our God now, and our former gods are not. This means that we can no longer worship our old gods of relationships and achievements and possessions.

Addictions to substances, to patterns of control and fear and perfectionism and passivity have to go. In the wilderness, we face our own hunger, thirst, and fatigue—elemental human needs. Each time we do, we have a choice to return to the old ways of bondage or to walk in the newness that God offers. If we will cooperate, the wilderness sets us free. The wilderness gives back to us our own voice.

We see clearly the ways we thought we owned our children, our spouses, our friends. We come to see how the liberating mission of God in this world is manifested most powerfully through healthy, mutually enriching community. One relationship at a time, one experience at a time, we open our tightfisted grip, step back and begin to love others in freedom. This is a wilderness journey because it is uncharted in our lives. It is a path into a frontier we never imagined possible.

Our self-sabotaging ways and our patterns of victimization and our fatalism about our condition are revealed in the brisk wilderness air for what they really are: the suffocating remnants of abuse. In the wilderness, we are tested repeatedly as we face memories, relationships, jobs, dreams, religion and freedom.

Again and again we are brought back to who God is and who we are. One step at a time we walk into shalom. We cannot do this without the pillar of cloud and fire.

The Cloud

The story of the pillar is found in Exodus 13:17–22. The Bible says that when Pharaoh finally releases the Hebrew people, God does not lead them in a direct route to the Promised Land, because that would take them through Philistine territory. God decides the best way to deliver them is to take them in a roundabout path through the wilderness so that they are not overwhelmed with the temptation to return to Egypt. The shortest route to the Promised Land, in other words, is not the best route for them. By keeping the Hebrews out of Philistine territory, God spares them from having to flee from the Egyptian army and at the same time face warfare with Philistines, who surely would attack the vulnerable group. The frustratingly inefficient route the people must traverse is a carefully planned strategy on the part of the Redeemer. The goal is absolute liberation. The Redeemer has their backs. The Redeemer wants them to know they do not have to choose between the lesser of two evils—Egyptian oppression or Philistine violence. The Redeemer is charting a new way that is free from oppression.

To make the safer route utterly clear for the fleeing Hebrews, God provides a theophany, a physical manifestation of the divine presence. “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people” (Ex. 13:21–22).

In Exodus 13:17 there is a pun in the original language that is missed in most English translations, playing on the Hebrew word for “repent.” God thinks the people might “change their minds and return” (repent) to Egypt if they have to face angry Philistines too early in their journey out of Egypt. Ordinarily we equate repentance with turning from wicked ways to the path of righteousness. In this case, God thinks the Hebrews will repent of their righteousness and return to Egyptian slavery if they are faced with too many tests of faith too soon! For survivors the wordplay is profound, because so many times we have to repent of loss of self, loss of courage, loss of agency.

We have to repent of cooperating with our offenders in our own adult experiences of abuse. We have to choose to go into the foreign wilderness of healing. The temptation for us, especially early in our healing, is to repent of healing and go back to familiar bondage.

The language of repentance to describe the Hebrews’ early struggle toward freedom is striking, for there is a deep spiritual core to the old life of bondage. We survivors have to embrace an ongoing conversion to our new life of freedom in Christ.

That old bondage is related to whom and what we worshiped, that to which we gave ultimate authority in our lives. This is a spiritual problem. Even so, we cannot just leave Egypt, forget about it and act as though that’s the end of that. We have to learn to inhabit our holy freedom. When we set out with God, we have no idea of the extent to which we have lived our lives from broken boundaries. We cannot see just how much shame and fear have driven us. The wilderness is the place where God gradually shows us the truth. With each revelation God offers the way through to greater freedom. God’s method is to lead us with a “cloud.”

The story of Exodus is filled with supernatural phenomena: a burning bush, the 10 plagues, a shepherd’s staff that turns into a snake, water from a dry rock. In each of these phenomena, God uses ordinary, everyday elements but infuses them with divine power for the purpose of liberation. Some of these natural means of deliverance are elemental in a deeply symbolic way: earth clogging the wheels of the chariots, wind blowing to part the sea, water drowning the enemy and fire blazing to illumine the night. God the Creator uses primordial elements of creation—earth, wind, water and fire—to redeem and re-create his oppressed and broken people. In our own journey from bondage to freedom, God also uses natural elements infused with divine power. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “cloud” God gives to us.

The theophanic cloud (a theophany is an event where God is manifested in a visible way, in this case a cloud) is found in several other passages in the Bible, including 1 Kings 8:11, where God’s glory fills the newly dedicated temple, and Isaiah’s call vision (Isa. 6), where Isaiah is humbled and cleansed and sent forth in mission. In these and other passages, the theophanic cloud is God’s way of calling people forward into a life of holiness. Sometimes the cloud references are fearsome, with God metaphorically riding on the clouds in a cosmic battle against evil (Ps. 18). Most of the Old Testament theophanic cloud references are linked to deliverance and holy empowerment.

In the New Testament, we find an extraordinary new image, one in which the cloud is human, “so great a cloud of witnesses,” all the faithful who have gone before us and are now cheering for us as we run the race of life (Heb. 12:1). Just as the natural elements of earth, wind, water and fire comprised the pillar of cloud in Exodus, the “cloud of witnesses” is a large body of real people whose job it is to cheer us on to faith and wholeness. Their light illumines our darkness. Their warmth brings comfort and hope on cold, hard days. Some of our “cloud” are indeed the saints, mystics and martyrs who have literally gone before us in death. Their lives and writings are guides to us in the wilderness. But we need more than books and stories; we need a cloud that we can see and touch. God comes to us in the cloud of faithful, healing people today. It is the job of the church to be part of that cloud now, “while we are yet alive,” as the old hymn says. It is the vocation of the church to manifest the divine presence leading people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, on to the Promised Land.

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Excerpted from Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse by Elaine Heath, ©2019. Used by permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group BakerPublishingGroup.com

Elaine A. Heath
Elaine A. Heath

Elaine A. Heath is abbess at the Community at Spring Forest, an intentional Christian Community in rural North Carolina, and former dean and professor of missional and pastoral theology at Duke Divinity School.