God created sexuality as an expression of love, to be experienced in lifelong, monogamous partnership between a man and a woman. Within God’s design, the fire of sexuality warms and enlivens us; but outside of that design, the same fire chars and sears. What brings life within boundaries brings death outside of boundaries. Sexuality is either principled and life-giving or unprincipled and life-destroying.
One of the most important principles of God-designed sexuality is mutuality. Either both participants freely and knowingly make love, or it is not love at all. Whenever domination or force comes into a sexual context, whenever the strong sexually exploit the weak, you have sexual abuse.
To get an inspiring and expanded glimpse into God’s ideal for sexuality, let’s scroll back in time. We’re in Eden. Adam strides through the garden, enjoying the glories and pleasures of life in a flawless world. He praises God for His many good gifts, singing in jubilation till the air rings with melody. But deep down in the cockles of Adam’s heart lies a hunger so intense that it stabs him raw. God says,
It is not good for man to be alone. (Genesis 2:18).
He anesthetizes Adam, extracts a rib from his massive chest, and then forms a slighter, daintier, more delicate person from it. Then God does something noteworthy. He brings Eve to Adam. This means that Eve spent at least some time with her heavenly Man before she ever met her earthly man. This hints at Eve’s full agency and viability as a person, and the fact that she was first and foremost God’s, and secondarily Adam’s.
This right to one’s own sexuality must be instilled and cherished in both men and women if they are to develop healthy attitudes and emotions about sex. The enemy hates anything healthy, including healthy sexuality, so he incites his agents to violate the sexual boundaries of the vulnerable. The massive, pervasive, global bane of sexual abuse comes belching forth from his Satanic majesty’s own throne, disrupting the growth and well-being of countless of God’s children.
But a powerful little phenomenon keeps the enemy from having the last word. That phenomenon is the redemptive power of God. He does better than to stop the enemy from damaging us; He even does even more than reverse the damage; He redeems the damage and brings us forth “more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37).
I want to explain how this healing redemption occurs, but not in a pat-answer, denial-fueled way. So, before I get to the good news, let me first establish the very sad realities of sexual abuse.
Sexual Abuse—Its Definition
Sexual abuse occurs whenever a stronger person sexually exploits a more vulnerable person. Sexual abuse ranges from violent rape involving penetration, to unwanted fondling, to molestation of children, to the subtler forms such as exposing others, particularly children, to pornography, or to sexually explicit, age-inappropriate material.
Clearly using children as the subjects of pornography constitutes abuse, as does even dressing children provocatively. Manipulating another person into sex constitutes abuse. A person pushing sex on a work or family subordinate is abuse.
Sexual Abuse—Its Prevalence
Because of under-reporting and community codes of silence, the prevalence of sexual abuse is difficult to know. The very “honor societies” that perpetrate the most abuse, keep it under the most secretive cover. But a recent study showed that globally, an estimated 7.9% of men and 19.7% of women experienced sexual abuse prior to the age of 18. That’s nearly 8 and 20 percent for men and women, respectively. And that doesn’t even include sexual abuse of those over 18! If you’re recovering from the scars of sexual abuse, you’re not alone—in fact, you’re among a substantial percentage of people.
Incest is the most common form of childhood sexual abuse, and the most damaging. Like an autoimmune disease, incestuous abuse means the protective system has turned on the one needing protection.
It means that the family system put in place by God to protect the vulnerable, instead attacks the vulnerable, causing not only primary but secondary damage. Secondary trauma occurs when the child attempts to disclose the abuse and meets with denial or even outrage as enablers protect the more “valuable” member of the system.
One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lifetimes. Most rapes are by either an intimate partner or someone the victim knows. Nearly a quarter of women are forced into sex during their college years. Yet the vast majority of assault victims do not report, and when they do, only a small percentage of the reports result in a conviction.
Sexual Abuse—Its Effects
Probably because our sexuality lies close beside the very core of our identity as human beings, sexual abuse has been shown to be more damaging than non-sexual abuse. Other factors determining the severity of effects include the extensiveness of the abuse, the age at which it occurred, and the number of sexual abuse events.
A survivor of one incident of adult sexual harassment probably won’t be as traumatized as a survivor of childhood rape. But resiliency factors in the person also influence the effect. Factors such as the perspective of the individual toward the abuse, the level of social support they have before and after the abuse, and their internal emotional resources will have an impact. Some bounce back after a childhood horror show; others cave in as the result of an apparently minor incident in adulthood.
Childhood sexual abuse has been correlated with a huge menu of conditions, including:
- eating disorders
- somatic concerns
- dissociative patterns
- sexual problems
- relationship problems
A puzzling twist of sexual abuse effects is that survivors often blame themselves, even in the most clear-cut, black-and-white cases. When she was just a tender seven years old, author Maya Angelou’s stepfather raped her. She spoke up, and although he spent only one day in jail, Maya’s uncles murdered him upon his release. Rather than feel vindicated, bewildered Maya believed she caused the murder and stopped speaking,
I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.
She stopped speaking for five years.
Sexual Abuse—Its Prognosis
The long arc of sexual abuse’s effect can be discouraging. Many develop self-destructive coping strategies such as substances, sex, gambling, media addiction, excess food, eating disorders, and other escapes. Many struggle with avoidant or unstable relationship patterns, finding intimacy and bonding threatening. Many more have chronic depression or anxiety.
Dr. Vincent Felitti of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study connected the dots between sexual abuse and mental health problems by observing the many dropouts of his weight loss clinic. He learned, through a series of interviews, that most of the dropouts had been sexually abused as children.
The revelation began while interviewing a female program dropout. Dr. Felitti meant to ask the woman, “How old were you when you were first sexually active?” but he accidentally asked, “How much did you weigh when you were first sexually active?”
The woman said, “Forty pounds.” Felitti thought he’d misheard and asked again. She began sobbing,
It was my father.
Felitti had only run into one case of incest in his entire medical career, so felt flustered and unsure what to do. But again, and again in his interview process, he heard similar stories. He says,
It seemed that every other person was providing information about childhood sexual abuse.
Teaming up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Felitti surveyed over 17,000 patient volunteers about childhood trauma. Most of the participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience. The ACE Pyramid came forth from that study. It shows a clear cause-and-effect from ACEs to social, emotional and cognitive impairments, to the adoption of high-risk behaviors, to disease, disability, and social problems, and finally early death.
In other words, if you experienced sexual abuse as a child, there’s a greater chance you’ll struggle socially, emotionally and mentally. This may lead you to drink, smoke, be promiscuous, or engage in other high-risk choices. These practices bring health consequences, which may lead to you dying too young. I don’t know a more despairing picture, do you? Someone else makes a choice to hurt you, and you pay the bill for the rest of your (possibly shortened) life.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end here.
Help—The Way Out
God aches with our sufferings, but He also puts them in perspective.
This light affliction, which is but for a moment works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. (2 Corinthians 4:17, italics supplied).
The Prince of Suffering validates our pain without giving it more power than His redemptive grace. Not only can He “restore the years that the locust has eaten,” (Joel 2:25), but He will exceed that restoration with an eternal weight of glory. God promises that these afflictions will “work for us.”
They will work for us to, among other things, make us agents of comfort to others using the same comfort with which we were comforted of God. They will deepen our capacity for joy, giving us a clearer picture of His love. God always, always, has the last word.
The Lord’s care is over all His creatures. He loves them all and makes no difference, except that He has the most tender pity for those who are called to bear life’s heaviest burdens. God’s children must meet trials and difficulties. But they should accept their lot with a cheerful spirit, remembering that for all that the world neglects to bestow, God Himself will make up to them in the best of favors.
What are some action steps to make sure God has the last word in our personal experience? In other words, how can we heal from sexual abuse? In the language of science,
The percentage of CSA [child sexual abuse] survivors who were found to have a normal level of functioning despite a history of sexual abuse ranged from 10% to 53%. The protective factors that had the best empirical support were found to be education, interpersonal and emotional competence, control beliefs, active coping, optimism, social attachment, external attribution of blame, and most importantly, support from the family and the wider social environment.
Okay, let’s break that mouthful down. Here are the “protective factors” boiled into three categories:
Educate yourself on sexual abuse (see the end of the article for recommendations). Learn to identify and change your core beliefs, such as “It’s my fault!” Survivors have been “programmed” to believe lies about themselves, others, and God. Consider working with a professional counselor (see sidebar) to identify and change these deeply-embedded lies.
We can learn biblical optimism, which is both realistic about the horrors of sin and optimistic about God’s salvation from it. He said,
In this world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33).
We learn how to trust and bond from our childhood relationships. If those relationships suffer due to abuse, our relationship “machinery” suffers. Fortunately, repair is possible. Neuroscientist Christina Brooks says,
Early brain development is not the end of the social brain story.
Seeking out connection may be difficult, but it can be done (see the end of the article for suggestions). Though we limp through the process, God can help us build a solid social skill set.
“Active coping” means to ask for help when you need it, to be solution-focused and healthy in your attempts to deal with distress. One of the most important aspects of this is self-care. The definition of self-care is doing healthy things that you enjoy. Exercise that you enjoy, healthy foods you enjoy, reaching out to people you enjoy, listening to uplifting music that you enjoy—all those are examples of self-care (see the end of the article).
God “heals the broken in heart and binds up their wounds.” When in your healing journey you are too tired to walk, God will carry you. “The eternal God is your Refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” The enemy of God wrote a chapter in your book, but you and God get to write the rest of the story.
Books on sexual abuse recovery:
- Broken Children, Grown Up Pain by Paul Hegstrom
- Healing for Damaged Emotions by David Seamands
- Is it My Fault? By Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
- On the Threshold of Hope by Diane Langberg
- Rid of My Disgrace by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
- Shame Interrupted by Edward Welch
- The Wounded Heart by Dan Allender
- The Hidden Half of the Gospel by Paul Coneff
Other educational resources:
- The Bucket Brigade works within the Seventh-day Adventist Church to educate members in sexual abuse prevention and allegation handling. bucketbrigadeagainstabuse.com
- The Hope of Survivors educates and coaches against clergy sexual misconduct cross-denominationally. thehopeofsurvivors.com
- Abide Counseling Network is a group of Seventh-day Adventist counselors and coaches who offer distance sessions (by phone or skype). Abide also has two free telephone support groups. Go to abidecounseling.com
- Nedley’s Depression and Anxiety Recovery Program is a 10-day inpatient treatment program that offers not only counseling but lifestyle interventions to help improve brain health. https://www.depressionthewayout.com
- The North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists Family Life Department has a database of Adventist professionals. https://www.nadfamily.org/resources/counselors/
- New Life Live radio show has a directory of Christian counselors at https://newlife.com/counselors/
- The American Association of Christian Counselors has a yearly conference, educational resources, and a counselor database http://old.aacc.net/resources/find-a-counselor/
Social connection resources:
- Abide Counseling telephone support groups are free of charge and open to anyone, anytime. Go to abidecounseling.com for more information.
- Celebrate Recovery is a worldwide movement for “anyone struggling with hurt, pain, and addiction” with free local meetings in most cities. Go to https://www.celebraterecovery.com
- Church, with all of its flaws, is still far and away one of the best places to meet people and make friends.
- Meetups can be a great way to connect with people over shared interests like hiking or cooking. https://www.meetup.com
- Do deep breathing and relaxation every day and when you feel anxious. Breath in, to the count of six, hold for two, then purse your lips and breathe out to the count of eight in a very thin stream of air. This will help calm you. Also, while breathing tense and release groups of muscles: feet, calves, thighs, buttocks, abdomen, chest, arms, neck and head.
- Keep a journal to process the experiences of the day.
- Get regular, moderate exercise. Do something you like, such as walking or bike riding.
- Try to get seven hours of sleep per night at least.
- Avoid being too critical, even of yourself.
- Call a friend just to check in.
- Pick or buy flowers and keep them in your workspace.
- Laugh each day. Watch funny videos.
- Watch pet rescue videos.
- Eat foods you like that are also healthy.
- Engage in a craft such as scrapbooking or cooking, or art such as painting.
- Play an instrument or sing.
- National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-a-child)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline (1−800−799−7233)
- National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673)
 John Wihbey, “Global Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse,” Journalist’s Resource, Harvard Kennedy School, November 15, 2011.
 Melissa Hall & Joshua Hall, “The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Counseling Implications,” American Counseling Association Website, Vistas, 2011.
 Terri Lewis, et al., “Does the Impact of Child Sexual Abuse Differ from Maltreated but Non-Sexually Abused Children? A Prospective Examination of the Impact of Child Sexual Abuse on Internalizing and Externalizing Behavior Problems,” Child Abuse & Neglect, January 2016.
 “Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” World Book Club. BBC World Service. October 2005.
 Jane Ellen Stevens, “Toxic Stress from Childhood Trauma Causes Obesity, Too,” ACES Too High News, May 2012.
 See 2 Corinthians 1:4.
 Ellen White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 106.
 Matthias Domhardt, et al., “Resilience in Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: A Systematic Review of the Literature,” Trauma, Violence & Abuse, November 10, 2014.
 Christina Brooks, “The Social Brain,” The Science of Friendship, May 2, 2013.
 Psalm 147:3.
 Deuteronomy 33:27