Where Was God? Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children

Issue X November 2011

by Barbara Hughes

When we address the spirituality of childhood, we are confronted with the tragic reality that at least one in four girls and one in five boys in America experience sexual abuse during childhood. Basic trust has been broken in childhood sexual trauma, invoking questions such as, “How can God be there?” Hughes relates places within the Christian tradition that offered her doorways into faith and healing.

Barbara Hughes teaches “Art and Spirit” at The School of Theology of The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She is a studio artist and sculptor with work on display at the Washington National Cathedral.


by Catherine Maresca 

Shortly after I began to offer courses in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in 1987 one of the course participants asked how the parable of the Good Shepherd would be received by children who had been sexually abused. I had no answer. Near the end of the course I read aloud Ezekiel 34 in honor of the children among us who have been abused, but I had no additional words of wisdom. The question has been raised frequently by catechists in the ensuing years; during that time, I had read, gathered and even written some research on sexual abuse of children. But that information addressed psychological, emotional and physical needs, leaving a huge gap in the area of the needs of the spirit. 

I was very grateful, then, to read this article by Barbara Hughes in the Sewanee Theological Review. Barbara’s work grows out the experience of being sexually abused as a child and the years of healing work that followed. She addresses in this article the spiritual questions such abuse gives rise to, and lists the most healing Scriptures, and approaches to Scripture, as well as liturgical rites she has encountered along the path to wholeness. 

Among these healing texts are those that proclaim the unconditional love of God, acknowledge the presence of evil and God’s condemnation of evil, reveal the vulnerable suffering of God, and announce God’s constant healing work among us. Her clear request for space and freedom for the child or adult to work with these according to their own need and time is met in our atriums where children are free to choose their own work and repeat it as often as needed, without an adult quizzing them about the content or meaning. She reminds us that we may also need to allow time and space for the children’s rage to be expressed. 

As catechists, we know only a bit of the suffering of the children in our care. Barbara’s focus on sexual abuse will help us to face that particular hidden reality, as well as to be sensitive to the wide range of childhood suffering. We have some indication from her that we are offering a potentially healing path to these children among us, even if their suffering has been hidden. 

When I became aware of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse of children I began to pay attention to this history among the women of my family, neighborhood, and workplace. Indeed, one in four had been abused as children. Our assumption must be that there are children before us being sexually abused. Our work with each child must be done accordingly: with compassion and the deepest respect. 

(This article was originally published in Sewanee Theological Review, Volume 48:1, Christmas 2004. STR is a journal published quarterly by The School of Theology of The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Subscriptions to STR are $24 annually. Back issues are available for $8 each.) 

When we address the spirituality of childhood, we are confronted with the tragic reality that at least one in four girls and one in five boys in America experience sexual abuse during childhood.(1) The spiritual lives of all children are shaped by their experiences in childhood. Children of sexual trauma confront the God-questions in profound ways, and the questions and issues of these children—this substantial percentage of all children—challenge some of our popular theological assumptions in equally profound ways. 

Children suffer from poverty, war, famine, alcoholism, disease, neglect, and every kind of emotional and physical abuse. Because it is what I know, and because it is so pernicious and so prevalent, I will focus on sexual abuse in this article. By focusing in this way, I do not at all intend to dismiss the breadth and depth of childhood suffering from many other causes. 

I will try to unfold some of the spiritual question that sexually abused children have, to look at some of the theological implications of their questions, and to suggest places where the Christian tradition can open doors into faith. I have heard it said that one ought always to preach as if a Holocaust survivor were sitting on the first row. What we are beginning to understand is that a significant number of people in almost any congregation will have experienced atrocity in the form of childhood sexual trauma. Their questions are at the core of all human interaction with God. They call the Christian community to new awareness, theological reflection, and compassionate response. 

I come to this issue as one person who was sexually assaulted from the ages of three to nine, and as one who has shared recovery over the years with many other women, some men, and children. I write largely from my own insights, and those that others have shared with me, from returning to childhood trauma experiences and recovering the feelings and struggles of childhood and beyond.(2) I have presented retreats using art to explore the spiritual issues raised by abuse, and I continue to be moved by the depth at which those who have been sexually abused ask questions of faith. I cannot speak for every child of sexual trauma, but I have seen common spiritual questions and issues that many survivors of abuse share. 

It is important to remember that children cope with trauma by repressing the feelings and often the memories of their abuse. They become cut off from their own reality and from their emotions in other areas of life as well. In childhood they may have no conscious awareness of some of the questions and issues discussed below. This dissociation does not mean that the issues are resolved. On the contrary, they lurk below the surface, forming a powerful undercurrent to the lives of these children until the questions are able to emerge into full consciousness. It may not be until they are adults engaged in the process of healing that these childhood spiritual issues are openly addressed. 

I might best begin by looking at the spiritual issues and questions raised by children who have been sexually abused. 

The Conviction of Being Bad by Nature/Am I Lovable? 

A seven-year-old girl receives early morning visitations in her bed from her older brother. A three-year-old girl is pulled into a closet during a game of “hide and seek” and raped by an older boy. A five-year-old girl is genitally fondled by her uncle. A sister and brother, six and eight, are coerced into have sex in front of their father. A four-year-old girl is lured into the garage and molested by a man who she thinks is the postman. A six- year-old girl is tied up and sexually tortured by a boy from her neighborhood. A ten- year-old boy is forced into sexual acts by his teacher. A six-year-old girl is prepared by her father to become his regular sex partner until puberty. These are just a few of the experiences of abuse with which I am personally familiar. 

Children have no understanding of what “sexual” is. All they know is that someone is doing something to or in their bodies—something that they know or sense is wrong—and that at the same time parts of their bodies are also feeling desire. Sexual feelings, powerful at any age, are overwhelming to children. The intensity, powerlessness, and confusion (and, many times, terror and physical violence) of the experiences are far beyond children’s ability to cope. They are thrown into trauma. In their attempt to make sense out of the event, they confuse their own arousal with consent, and they believe that they are fully implicated in the crime. Many abusers tell the child that it is the child’s fault, and other family members may react by confirming the lie of the child’s seductiveness, consent, and badness. In cases where the abuser is a family member, the child learns that the abuse is the price that must be paid for the affection and the attention that the child needs; the child’s belief in her or his implication in the crime is thus strengthened. 

Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone of greater physical or emotional power than the child. For this reason it is natural for children to be afraid that the abuser will hurt them even more if they resist, or that rejection or abandonment may ensue. Often girls and boys are taught not to make a fuss and to acquiesce before those in authority. Although the assaults can be gentle and from a trusted family member, because most of these children are forced to have sexual arousal, they believe that they themselves allowed or wanted the abuse and that it was therefore their fault. (3) They usually emerge from their experiences with a deep sense of moral shame. 

I came out of my initial violation believing not only that I had done a bad thing but that I was bad. Because of my arousal, I was ashamed that I had “done nothing” to stop the invasion into my body. More than that, I believed there was something in me that asked for this violence. Later attacks from the disturbed boy who raped me, and experiences of my awakened sexual feelings with my father, confirmed to me that I had a monster living in me over which I had no control. The badness, I believed, was in me

The shame associated with childhood sexual abuse comes not only from the confusion of arousal with consent. By their invasive, hurtful, or physically violent actions, abusers shame the very sexuality of their victims. The child’s sense of self is damaged or destroyed in part because the abuser has vanquished the child’s will about her or his own most private bodily core. This is one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so destructive and takes so long to heal. It is the very life force and the sense of self that have been shamed and ravaged.(4) 

We have learned about the neurological dynamics of trauma from work done on the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by children who are sexually abused. Pathways are formed in the brain during trauma that continue to create the same negative thought patterns and physiological responses long after the traumatic event is over.(5) It seems from my own experiences with survivors of sexual abuse that the spiritual trenches of shame are equally deep in the soul. The question of worth, our worth in creation and our worth before God, may be a struggle for any child. In the belief of children of sexual trauma, the question is decided early. We have no worth. There is an ontological quality to shame carried by children of abuse. We are unlovable to God. 

I have heard survivors of sexual violation say that it feels as if their souls, if they were there at all, were down to nubs. It is that remaining nub of life, buried deep underneath the shame and often accessible only through intensive healing work, that knows that the shame is false and feels the agony of the soul’s violation and denigration. Sometimes it takes years of healing before that soul pain is touched. Most of us will go to almost any length not to feel it, so devastating is its sting. Although it is a pain that can lead to healing and light, the pain itself may not end in this life. For children of abuse and the adults they become, both the theological sense of being bad and the soul pain underneath the shame become major elements in their spiritual struggle. 

The Experience of the Absence of God/Is there God? 

Belief in our own badness functions as a survival mechanism, not only protecting us from soul pain but also preventing us from an even worse terror: that we are actually powerless in the face of an unpredictable and sometimes violent world. If I am bad (we think), then there is at least some divine moral code that I have violated and some reason why I am being punished. There is order in the universe. There is also the possibility that, if I am extremely good, I can avoid at least some of what could happen. To give up this sense of badness is to be faced with a chaos that is intolerable for a child. That terrible things can happen to and in one’s body with no way to predict or control them is unthinkable. As we have seen, however, it is not in the power of a child or adult survivor to give up the shame without intensive intervention, even if she or he were able to face this fear. 

Yet underneath the shame, the fear of chaos does lurk, and it informs the spiritual journey profoundly. My own most powerful experience of this terror occurred one of the times that I left my body during an episode of sexual violence. I experienced a nothingness, a state of being lost and separated from everything, that would haunt me all of my life. The absence of God was not a theoretical state; it was a place where I had been. Other survivors have spoken to me of their familiarity with this place of nothingness. The loss of parts of themselves through repression and splitting, too, can result in a terror of being lost and of chaos. Elizabeth Johnson writes about ways in which we experience God’s absence. She says the experience of the loss of the self is a loss of the experience of God.(6) 

The doubt about order and about God comes not only from experiencing the terrible void or the loss of self. Children may doubt that there is any divine plan because they simply cannot imagine that such craziness, unpredictability, and horror could be part of it. What happens to them as children may be so far out of their understanding that they have to repress and deny it rather than face the terror of such chaos. Other children’s daily lives may be so filled with chaos that it is simply what they know and believe. Some adult survivors doubt God’s existence because of their long-term struggles with the effects of sexual abuse: dissociation, addictions, emotional numbness, panic attacks, clinical depression, sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, PTSD, and, for some, multiple personality disorder. 

The theological question of whether there is a God has an urgency in the souls of those who have experienced severe trauma. During my college years, I let myself doubt whether God existed, and I plunged into a deep depression. Children of abuse have been taken to a place that looms behind every child’s fear of being lost and of the dark. Some children have experiences of God’s presence with them even in these dark places, and their faith in God carries them through childhood and sometimes beyond. For many others the conviction (or at least the fear) that there is no God lies deep within the soul and is hard to challenge. 

The Experience of Evil/Is God Stronger than Evil? 

During my ordeals it was my own experience that a malevolent energy was present that was connected to, but more than, the sadism of my abuser. The real terror for me was not only that I might be spiritually lost but that I might be left alone with that terrifying power. The existence of evil has never been a question for me. I shared recovery with brave women and men who were abused as children in satanic ritual. Their experience of evil was also palpable. 

Not every child who is sexually abused relates an experience of an evil spiritual presence. There are many ways to understand “the spiritual forces of wickedness” the Episcopal baptismal vows call us to renounce.(7) There is the power of the addiction of the abuser, the power of perverted sexuality, and the force of oppression of the weak by the strong. All of these can become more than the sum of their parts and take on lives of their own. The systematic tearing of personal and family fabric that occurs in addiction has long been chronicled.(8) We may or may not believe (as the writer to the Ephesians put it) that we fight “against the spiritual host of wickedness in heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12)—which is to say that there are spiritual beings of evil intent that both feed on systemic evil and go beyond it. But, in any case, underneath the shame the children of abuse know very well that they are in the hands of an unsafe power, and that power is out of their control. For survivors of sexual trauma, such power is a living reality that sits at the edges of terror well into adulthood. 

Most abuse takes place within the home or the neighborhood of the child. Many children experience their ordeals within earshot or close proximity to the adults that they assumed would protect them. Much abuse is perpetrated by the very adults who should be their protectors. When children do have a basic sense of safety, it rests primarily in the adults who care for them. The experience of being exposed to the destructive energy of sexual violence while the protectors are unresponsive adds to the child’s belief that nothing can stop the abusive power. Finding ways to feel safe becomes a lifelong driving force. For children of abuse, the question of whether God (good) is more powerful than evil is a question no amount of fairy-tale endings can answer. 

The Infection of Evil and the Collapse of Virtue / How Can I Do the Good? 

The power unleashed in childhood sexual violence is both terrifying and infectious. Sexual abuse is in part a crime of seduction. Through inappropriate sexual manipulation, the victim is seduced into becoming a participant. The child believes that the mysterious force causing the abuse is inside him or her. Underneath this false shame, there may be a deep sense of being stained by evil. The loss of innocence, though in no way the fault of the victim, is no less a loss. 

The infection comes also from a desperate need to get back somehow from the abuser what was stolen. Isolated in ongoing trauma, children may cling emotionally to their abusers as the only ones that seem to stand between them and the nothingness and evil that they fear. Opened up to a force that should be connected to intimacy, an abused child may form a dismal, intimate bond with the perpetrator. As the abuse continues, the dissociation of the child from her or his true feelings strengthens, and the ability to resist any harm weakens. The bonding with the abuser and people like the abuser becomes more complete. I know a director of a domestic violence crisis center who says that well over 95 percent of the battered women under her care have had a history of sexual abuse during their childhood. 

Established deep in the neural pathways of the brain, thoughts of abuse take on a life of their own. Recurrent obsessive thoughts of violence are not unusual. The passions are rewired and associated with situations of abuse. 

Another sign of the infectious nature of the evil of abuse is the way in which survivors continue to act in self-harming ways long after the childhood abuse is over. The reasons for the prevalence of behaviors like self-mutilation among sexual abuse survivors are many. A need to relieve the inner pain with other intense feelings, a way to express suppressed rage, and an obsessive need for reenactment of what is repressed are among them.(9) 

It is vital that survivors of abuse understand that all of these behaviors stem from the abuse and function as survival tools. The blame for behaviors does not lie with the victim. These behaviors do not, as victims are often told, come from any innate sexual perversion of desire in the victim to be hurt. It is clear that no one of one’s own free will wants to be hurt, especially sexually. When they attempt to stop these behaviors as adults, they often find that it is not in their ability to do so. 

Although some survivors of abuse try to be bad to show their pain outwardly, most try very hard to be very good. And in most areas of life, they are. Often they are honor roll students, superb athletes, civic helpers, and overachievers. But in some behaviors, usually those on their own behalf, they find themselves, like Saint Paul, willing the good but doing the bad (Rom. 7:18-19). In fact, their ability to want the good for themselves is impaired. Underneath the lies and false self-blame, they know that there is no goodness that is not vulnerable, nor virtue that cannot be defeated in the face of certain forces. They have lost faith in human moral goodness as a function of will. This struggle with the infection of evil can produce a quest for healing of a spiritual nature. How can personal integrity be restored? 

Betrayal by God/Where is God? 

Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that the experience of the absence of God is an experience of God.(10) We do not feel the absence of what does not exist. We do not name evil without some concept of the good. Whether innate or taught, most children have some sense of “The Powers That Be.” Alongside the fear that there is no order at all, or perhaps beneath it, children of sexual trauma know that those powers have failed to protect them at the most basic level. If there is God, that God has betrayed them. Where was God and why did God not help? These questions will dominate the spiritual journey of abused children for years to come, if not always. No superficial answer will satisfy them, and there will be no getting around the question. 

Children make up answers to their questions and create reason for things that they do not understand. If they have learned that there is a loving and good God, then that God must be punishing them justly. Their shame excuses God and puts the blame on themselves. Underneath that shame, however, there is the nub of a soul protesting that this was no just punishment. God must be unjust or uncaring, or perhaps God is even vengeful or capricious. Or the loving God has simply betrayed and rejected them personally. God has broken the promise of protection and care, and God has withheld the love that they so desperately need. God has abandoned them. Children project onto their parents their understanding of God. If their abuser is a parent or relative, especially male, this sense of betrayal by God can be especially intensified. 

The natural reaction to such betrayal is hurt and rage. The intensity of these emotions may be much too hard for an abused child to feel. Faced with such betrayal, children may outwardly cling fiercely to God while inwardly building an awesome wall of bitterness and resentment. Or they may reject God in anger and bury the hurt inside. 

It may take years to uncover this devastating pain. In a church community or even in the culture at large, where it is unacceptable to express feelings of hurt at God’s betrayal or to be angry with God, such emotions fester long into adulthood. My own spiritual journey has been a process of uncovering and processing layer after layer of hurt and anger toward God. 

The soul’s natural longing for God is brutally interrupted and impaired by childhood sexual trauma. Because the abuse is sexual, the passions are misused and co- opted. The longing becomes desperate and convoluted. If God is associated with the abuser, an unhealthy victim-bond is established between the child and God, driving the child to ever more rigorous attempts to placate and please God in order to win back love, or at least to prevent more abuse. The underlying rage may fester into hate. Consciously, it may appear as indifference. Underneath, there is hurt beyond hurt. There is no secular intervention for such spiritual pain. Basic trust has been broken on a theological level in childhood sexual trauma. It is a God-question. How can there be a God? How can God be trusted? How can God love me? 

Some Theological Implications and Doorways Into Faith 

Is there God? If there is God, how could God love me? Is God stronger than evil? How can a loving God allow devastating suffering? Is there healing? Can God be trusted? All of these questions are deeply spiritual and theological questions. They are human questions, asked at an early age. They have no easy answers. Perhaps listening to the questions is the most appropriate response anyway, and we have much to learn from the questions themselves. But children will inevitably receive answers in and out of church, and some of the more popular theological ideas will not serve them well. It is beyond the scope of this article or of my expertise to attempt an exhaustive exploration of the theological issues raised here. I will, however, name some theological ideas that are suggested by the witness of sexual abuse. This will be an adult discussion, and some of the concepts will be beyond the ability of a child to grasp. Some my not be appropriate or helpful as answers to be give to abused children while they are young. Our having worked with these issues ourselves, however, will always be helpful to our children. 

In this section I will also relate some places within the Christian tradition that have offered doorways into faith for me and for others with whom I have shared the journey. When I began my healing process, my spiritual director told me (among other things) to read the Bible and to go to the liturgy. She also told me to pass over anything that did not help my healing and to take in whatever did. It seemed strange to me, but it turned out to be good advice. It was easy to find scriptural passages that fed into false shame. By looking beyond those passages, or by re-framing them, I was able to find the open doors.(11) I remember that one of the hostages returning from long captivity in Lebanon said that the only book he had was the Bible, and he had read it from cover to cover eleven times. He had not been a religious man, but he discovered that the Bible was all about the experiences that he was having. Able to hear the words of the Bible in a new way, I found it to be the same for me. 

The responsibility for finding open doors in Christian tradition and worship does not, however, rest solely on the survivors of abuse who are seeking them. In her doctoral thesis Deborah Johnson Elder writes, “The Church as an instrument of justice, peace, and reconciliation is responsible for actively ministering to survivors of sexual abuse.”(12) I believe the need for this ministering includes informed Bible study, preaching, and liturgy, as well as pastoral care. Such ministering would extend healing well beyond those who have been sexually abused. 

Before we move on to theological considerations, I must say something of the essential role of psychotherapy for healing from childhood sexual abuse. Good therapies now exist, and healing (short of the miraculous) is not possible without them. Such therapies can be the groundwork for spiritual healing and the accompaniment for prayer. Theological answers, or even religious faith, cannot substitute for the healing work of therapy. By the same token, however, therapy alone cannot address the spiritual issues that we have raised here. The secular book, The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass, which has been a resource for adults healing from childhood sexual abuse for many years, acknowledges that some kind of spiritual dimension is necessary for healing.(13) 

I know some sexually abused children who have encountered a loving God throughout their childhood and who have never wholly lost their faith, even through the hard work of healing. But the question of whether God exists at all can be a lifelong struggle for many who have learned to mistrust love as children and who as adults experience numbness, depression, and sometimes suicidal despair. On the one hand, children of abuse may have a sense of One-by-Whom-They-Were-Betrayed. Some will hear of a vengeful God who confirms their shame and underlying sense of injustice. Others will learn of a loving God whom they do not trust because of God’s inaction on their behalf. At the same time, these children may fear or believe that there is no God. Some of this belief is born of anger, some of depression and despair. It is also based, as we have said, on encounters with the void, the loss of self, and/or the lack of experiential evidence of God. 

We can say that such experiences of chaos and loss imply God. I believe they do. We can give the classic arguments for God’s existence, but children of abuse, even if they are in adult bodies, need evidence of God’s presence that is as real and compelling as their experience of God’s absence. As we move through this section, we will see places where that evidence may exist. In the end, however, we must honor the integrity of the doubt raised by those who have experienced severe trauma. 

In the following section we will proceed with the assumption that there is God in order to explore the implications of the other questions and issues raised here. We will address the questions: If there is a just and loving God, what would have to be true about that God in order to address the questions posed above? In the process we may hope to remove at least some unnecessary impediments to restoring faith. 

God’s Love is Unconditional 

Imprinted bone deep with the erroneous conviction that they are bad, children of abuse hang on every word uttered about God and sin until some of them, out of self- protection, turn a deaf ear to all of it. Every proclamation of human sinfulness and blame coagulates their shame into dogma. Even assurances that they are “good” can backfire. Drenched in the secret shame of abuse, they know that they are not good. Certainly, any notion that God loves them if they are good is—in their minds—a consignment to hell. Only a word of love that takes them as they really are, caught in a web of obsessive evil, driven to allow their souls to be raped again and again, only absolute love no matter what they think, do, or feel can meet these children where they are. How could a loving God not so love those who have been overwhelmed by abuse? 

Even if we acknowledge that God has loved us “while we still were sinners” (Rom. 5:8), still we may place other “conditions” on God’s love that our children’s experience must challenge. There is a children’s book that tells children, if you just have faith, Jesus will love you and never leave you. But how could a just God’s love wait for a child (or the adult the child becomes) to have faith when that faith has been ripped apart by sexual assault and when trust in God has been lost? It is precisely the faith of the child that has been mortally damaged and is need of God’s compassion and healing. Only a theology that says that God’s love is unconditional can begin to address the questions raised here. Having known the limits of human will to accomplish the good, and having no faith in God on which to build, children of abuse show us that if there is a loving God, neither good works nor faith can be conditions on God’s love.(14) 

One powerful open door in the Christian tradition for me has been Julian of Norwich’s parable of the lord and servant.(15) The lord loves the servant and the servant loves the lord. Filled with love, the servant rushes off to do the lord’s bidding, but the servant falls into a ditch and becomes injured, disoriented, and forgets his mission. The lord sees him from afar and realizes that he is confused and hurt. The lord trusts the good intent buried in the servant’s heart and has nothing but compassion for the servant. God, according to Julian, also has the compassion for our sin. Such an image makes sense of a loving God’s attitude toward one who has fallen into the vicious trap of sexual assault. 

I was nurtured also by the abundant biblical references to God’s mercy and compassion. “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you” (Isa. 54:10). 

None of this is to say that human sin does not matter or that a just and loving God would not want us to take responsibility for our actions and to work for the good. In this effort adult survivors can and do work with the help of therapy, Twelve-Step recovery,(16) healing prayer, and all other means to stop destructive behaviors. The wisdom of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous strikes a helpful balance here in terms of accountability. Like recovering addicts, adult survivors who are in the healing process from abuse do well to make inventory, confess, and make amends, when appropriate, for the wrongs done to themselves and others, whether they were totally free to choose otherwise when they did the wrongs or not.(17) (Such inventory can also help them to be clear about what was not their fault or responsibility.) 

Flora Slosson Wuellner makes the distinctions between sins and wounds. Sins are actions done by someone who knows and is completely free to do the right but instead does the wrong. People acting out of wounds, on the other hand, do what is wrong, but they are not completely free to do otherwise. Confession alone does nothing to change the behavior because healing is needed. She suggests that more people are acting in response to wounds than freely choosing sin. She believes that, at the very least, every church service should have the sacrament of healing as well as confession.(18) Julian uses the term “sin” more broadly, as does the Bible, and says that God “regards sin as sorrow and pains for his lovers, to whom [God] assigns no blame.”(19) 

Christian artist Meinrad Craighead and theologian Elizabeth Johnson, among others, have imaged God as Mother in a way that has brought God’s unconditional love to us in a powerful way, the way of a mother to her child.(20) Biblical images like that in Isaiah, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (66:12-14), parallel therapeutic models of re-mothering that have been extremely effective in healing childhood sexual abuse. Abused children need hours and hours of holding, rocking, keening, and soothing, whether they are now four or forty. I have been re-mothered by an extraordinary therapist of faith, always with the calling forth of Sophia God. Such palpable experience of holy mother love was for me a most powerful window into faith. It was an experience of God. It helped address the lurking question, “Is there God?” 

Liturgies like the approved alternative wordings to the Episcopal Eucharist found in Enriching Our Worship reflect these theological ideas and can remove barriers for sexual trauma survivors. After attending a service that used one of these liturgies, a survivor friend said to me, “It is only a few words different, and it is everything to us.”(21) 

God Never Sends Radical Suffering 

If God’s love is unconditional, then how could God allow such horrors to happen? Popular theological ideas that God has a reason for everything that happens, or that God sends suffering to strengthen or test us, cannot look this kind of maiming in the eye. The idea that we draw to ourselves the things that we need for our spiritual growth is particularly horrendous when we consider the sexual violation of children. Many victims of childhood trauma never recover in this life; their souls remain locked in self-hate and isolation. More than a few commit suicide. 

Elizabeth Johnson uses Wendy Farley’s definition of “radical suffering” as “an assault on one’s personhood as such,” when “the soul itself is so crippled that it can no longer defy evil.”(22) Childhood sexual abuse is a prime example of this kind of suffering. Only a belief that God never sends radical suffering for any reason makes sense of a loving God. Wuellner sorts through this issue in a helpful way. She says that there are two kinds of suffering into which God may invite us. One is what may be the result of a freely chosen call (and then it only remains God’s will if we also thrive in it). The other is what comes from growth and healing.(23) The painful healing process from abuse is certainly an example. Beyond these two kinds of suffering, which we may freely choose to embrace, Wuellner says, “It is an ancient and evil heresy that God sends our tragedies.”(24) 

God Never Violates Our Boundaries 

One of the questions that remains, then, is: How can a loving God fail to stop radical suffering? Wuellner’s answer is that God is so committed to our freedom and so protective of our personal boundaries that God would never force us to do or not do anything. God never violates our boundaries.(25) Thus God does not stop abusers from hurting others. Wuellner uses passages from Isaiah 62:7-8 about God’s protection of the borders of Jerusalem as an image of God’s protection of our personal integrity.(26) Such a response is consistent with a loving God and makes some sense for people whose boundaries have been violated. This good answer still leaves us, however, with a God in whose creation terrible suffering occurs, a God who seems to have no apparent way of responding to it. Understanding the reasons for God’s inability to stop suffering does not satisfy the outrage and hurt of those who have been victimized. 

The Ravaged Soul Requires a Proper Raging and Complaint to God 

Walter Brueggemann reminds us of how the Psalms reflect the spiritual need of those whose selfhood has been destroyed to declare their protest before God: 

How long, O Lord? Will you

forget me forever? 

How long will you hide your

face from me? 

How long must I bear pain in

my soul? 

And have sorrow in my heart all

day long? 

How long shall my enemy be

exalted over me? 

Consider and answer me, O Lord

my God, 

Give light to my eyes, or I will

sleep the sleep of death. (Ps. 13:1-3) 

These are, Brueggemann notes, 

Statements that describe a situation of disorientation and intend to fix the blame firmly on Yahweh. They do not seek information, but rather accuse Yahweh of being responsible for the trouble….The speaker does not for a moment entertain the thought that the trouble comes from guilt or failure. It is because of Yahweh’s irresponsible absence, which is regarded as not only unfortunate, but unfaithful to covenant.(27) 

Silenced by fear and false guilt, children of abuse lose their voice. They cannot say (or even feel) what they know inside. When the true self has been stripped of its voice, crying out can start the reawakening. This is why the spirituality of self-denial can be misleading and toxic for those beginning the healing journey from abuse. Thinking that “self” in self-denial refers to their lost self, they are driven back into quiescence. Such denigration of the self can then lead to a victim-relationship to God.(28) Along with the belief that God does not intend to violate our personhood, a proper raging and complaint to God can counter such toxicity. 

Brueggemann confirmed what I had already discovered, that the Psalms were another open door into faith. The Psalms both described my soul pain and gave voice to my rage against God.(29) At his 1993 DuBose Lectures in Sewanee, I remember Brueggemann giving us the image of the child clinging to God for comfort with one arm, and pounding the fist with the other—an image that well describes the spiritual needs of the abused child. Praying the Psalms gave me a way to reestablish my relationship with God. 

Evil Exists and Our Suffering is Beyond Human Ability to Create or Heal 

What responsibility, however, does God bear for the radical suffering of this world? Are we, in fact, betrayed by God? To answer these questions we are faced with the complex problem of the origin of evil, a problem with which theologians have long grappled. If God does not send radical suffering, then who is responsible? The placing of the blame for evil solely on humanity is challenged by the witness of child survivors on several levels. First, there is the experience of evil as a power greater than human wrong. The power of a childhood incident to bring misery throughout the life of the victim (and sometimes into the lives of their children) strains our credulity that only human error is at play. As we have seen, the evil that infects children of abuse goes well beyond the scope of human will. It raises the question of how free their abusers were in their actions (and similarly back into history). While abusers must of course be stopped by all means, still the question of the powers at work must be asked. To encompass the witness of children of sexual trauma, we must have a theology that acknowledges that evil exists and that our suffering is beyond human ability to create or to heal. 

God Bears and Takes Some Responsibility for Our Suffering 

Unless we believe in an uncreated evil being who is equal to God, some created forces or beings, whether earthly or celestial, have perverted the good intentions of God. Toward such “spiritual forces of wickedness” our outrage can be justly expressed. Even though we believe that God does not intend, support or cooperate with this evil in any way, it can still be argued that God bears some responsibility for suffering in that God created the whole enterprise in the first place. It is God who set us on this path and who continues to will its existence. In this sense, feelings of anger toward God and God’s betrayal are appropriate. Jesus’s own lament for the cross, in the word of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is just this kind of cry. Where were you? 

Over the course of my prayer life with God that was opened up by my expressions of rage and hurt, I was met with grief, outrage on my behalf, and God’s apology to me. Later still, when in prayer I asked Jesus if he had betrayed me, he simply said, “Yes.” There was no intention for harm on God’s part, nor neglect, no lack of love. But there was acknowledgement that it was a kind of betrayal to create an innocent child and then not be able to protect it in this very basic way. It was after having this truth affirmed that I could see the possibility that God could both love me and be unable to stop the abuse. Children must have truth that goes all the way down before they can move to a new place with God. Platitudes about God will fail every time in terms of the real spiritual growth of the person. Besides needing the acknowledgement of God’s responsibility in order to grow spiritually, children of abuse may have pointed us toward a powerful truth. 

God Shares Fully in Our Suffering 

That God takes responsibility for our suffering must be more than a simple acknowledgement. We are still suffering and we need a response from God. The most important open door that I found here is the life of Jesus and the cross. God responds to the suffering that God is unable to stop by joining us in that suffering in a fully human way. I agree with Elizabeth Johnson and others that God does not will the crucifixion.(30) God wills only Jesus’ faithfulness to the truth. But in the crucifixion we see God visibly suffering with us and for us. Beyond the witness of God’s suffering, the life of Jesus is for me a sign that God suffers in the body with us during all violation. Johnson says that “the suffering body of Christ includes the raped and denigrated bodies of women.” (31) (She would surely agree that it includes the grown bodies of little boys who were violated as well.) Nothing less than God’s presence in the sinews of our pain can reconcile the wounded soul to God.

God Continually Works for Our Healing 

Is God, though, able to do more than suffer with us? It is the witness of many people who have been abused that the power of God’s love is experienced within the healing process itself. We must first acknowledge that most adult survivors of abuse find the path to healing more painful and challenging than they could have imagined. Long- buried childhood pain and terror comes up and must be processed over time. Nothing cancels out the suffering of those who choose this difficult road. At the same time, many have found surprising experiences of grace in the midst of the pain. We have mentioned this dynamic in the re-mothering that happens in some therapy. There are other ways that love is revealed in the process as well. As Bill W. discovered in coping with alcoholism, there is a healing magic that happens when two addicts get together to seek help.(32) Similarly, there is an awesome power at work when survivors of sexual trauma come together for healing. It is more than the sum of the parts. Such gatherings are where many learn a love that they can trust. So also is grace tangible in the empowering work of safely expressed rage and the releasing flow of tears, lovingly witnessed. Many find a redemptive power in their ability for helping fellow victims. Those battling obsessive behaviors and addiction attest to the daily reprieve given with the help of a “Higher Power.” Some people find an abundance of gifts and strengths coming from the healing process that is far beyond their expectations. They witness no less than the rebirth of their souls. Others still struggle and count on spiritual support simply to get through the day. That there is a force working for our healing in these and other ways becomes real to many who enter the healing process from sexual abuse. These experiences of healing may open the door to the belief that we are not left desolate (John 14:15-18) and can help us to believe that there is in fact One who is continually working for us. For some it is a chink in the armor of doubt that God does exist. 

These encounters with God’s love do not need to wait until adulthood if intervention can come sooner to violated children.(33) One of the children with whom I have done art on two mission trips to Romania is a girl of thirteen. Her father had sexually abused her over a two-year period. She reported to her counselor that she had felt distant from God during her abuse and sometimes felt angry that God did not protect her. But it was one evening after she came to the loving children’s home where she began to get help that she felt God close to her. She continues to do the hard work of healing with a very gifted counselor.34 

For me, as for others, there have been long dark periods of struggle along the way to healing, and time when I have not been able to perceive or reach God. Still, there have been many ways in which I have experienced God, particularly in the hard labor of remembering. Sometimes it has been precisely at the moments when I have stood on the floor of my pain, however, that I have known a silent presence of grace. I have asked for people to pray for me when I faced difficult therapy work, and the spiritual support was palpable. Many times I called on Jesus to protect me from evil when I went down for healing work into traumatic memories and I was protected. Prayerful rituals of healing brought unexpected peace and empowerment. I experienced the motherly love of Sophia God, mediated through my therapist, and the care of others with whom I worked. I also found loving communion in a circle of courageous survivors. The day-by-day deliverance from the obsession of the abuse, over years, has been nothing short of a miracle of God’s grace. 

 In these tastes of love, the work of the Holy Spirit has become more real to me. The Spirit-as-Advocate has given me moments of truth in the midst of lies, as Comforter has been present in the eyes of my healers and of fellow survivors, and as Guide has helped me to discern a way in the darkness—or has simply given me courage to stumble forward. 

In all I have received grace upon grace over the course of the healing journey, and my faith in God has deepened. Yet these experiences of God have not yielded any simple sense of victory over suffering. The cost has been too great—for me and for others. Often grace has been more like a kind of healing glue in the midst of brokenness. I am also aware that I have had many opportunities for healing work and many gifted healers. I have had the faithful support of a husband, family, friends, a faith-community, and good spiritual guidance. Many survivors are not so fortunate. 

God Condemns, Judges, and Fights Evil on Our Behalf 

Still, God’s suffering love and healing work do not wholly suffice as a response to the evil and injustice witnessed by our violated children. A loving God must do more than apologize, suffer, and heal our wounds. The truth must be told, evil named, injustice condemned, and wickedness fought on our behalf. Johnson reminds us of the image of God from Hosea as a raging mother bear in defense of those who are victimized (13:8). Johnson writes about the wrath of God, reframed as a mother’s fierce love.(35) Understood as God’s fury at the evil of abuse, biblical passages about God’s anger took on new meaning for me. “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her vindication goes forth as brightness and her salvation as a burning torch” (Isa. 62:1). I could see God’s demands for justice as the necessary result of God’s love. Once I stopped seeing these rages at injustice as God’s anger at the victims, they became a powerful support. Seeing God’s wrath on behalf of victims of abuse helped kindle my own desire to work to stop the victimization of children. 

Embroiled in implanted lies about their own guilt, victims of abuse need a God who will judge the real good from ill and who will fight for them. The stories of Jesus taking on the powers of evil in the desert, in Gethsemane, and on the cross tell us that we are not left alone to fight evil. The idea of Jesus exposing all lies (Matt. 10:26) provides another doorway into hope. It was the grace and genius of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid.36 Children who grow up with lies need most for the truth to be told. It helps restore trust in the good. 

We have suggested God’s love is unconditional while God’s condemnation of wrong is unequivocal. Such a balance is critical in responding to the dilemmas faced by those who have been infected by evil. It brings us to another very important and difficult spiritual issue for children of abuse: forgiveness for the abuser. If God condemns the evil but has mercy on the perpetrators, can we do less? We have seen that children who are being sexually manipulated find every reason to excuse the behavior of their abusers and blame themselves. Such toxic “forgiveness” keeps them trapped in victimization. In order to heal, it is vital that survivors of childhood sexual abuse redirect their blame away from themselves, first toward their abusers and those who failed to protect them, then toward evil, and finally in part toward the God who created those possibilities. To demand that they forgive their abusers as any prerequisite to healing or to God’s mercy (or ours!) only invites a false and damaging resignation. For me it was a long way down the line, after years and years of healing work, of prayer, and of raging (in therapy and in prayer) at my abusers, that I was ready to open myself to the possibility of forgiveness. The doorway for me was to notice that, as Jesus did when he was crucified (Luke 23:34), saints like Stephen asked God to forgive the sin of those who killed them (Acts 7:60). There may be things that only God can forgive. I found myself able to say to God that I did not will to have the abuse of me stand between my abuser and his salvation. Such is the nature of biblical forgiveness. Much later, I could see that full forgiveness for myself demanded a creation in which there was full forgiveness for my abuser. 

It is vital to remember, however, that forgiveness does not mean in any way that perpetrators should not be confronted or prosecuted, or that we are able to forget or minimize the abuse. Like Holocaust survivors, we must always remember and honor the full impact of what has happened. Neither does it mean that our outrage at the crime is no more. Cynthia Crysdale writes of the damaging effect of the Christian “virtue” of forgiveness when it is seen as a silencing of the proper anger of victims.(37) Forgiveness is a hard-won gift of grace, and, if it is to happen in a healthy way, it will probably happen after much healing work has already been done. It should never be hung over a survivor of abuse as an expectation. It is my conviction that a loving God would want us to withhold any “forgiveness” that would cause us to fall back into spiritual sickness. I also believe that God would not reject any abuse survivor who as not able to reach a place of forgiveness in this life. I have heard many sermons on forgiveness that have failed to understand the delicate dynamics of forgiveness for victims of abuse. 

Forgiveness of self is much more hard won. The infection of evil is so devastating and the wounding into adulthood so pernicious that it is difficult to restore any sense of spiritual peace. At one point, far down the way of healing, a counselor asked me if I was absolutely sure that God did not condemn me for my participation in the evil of abuse. I said, “No.” She asked me what it would take for me to be absolutely sure. At that moment the word came to me, “Absolution.” I needed God’s absolution. Fortunately, I knew where to get it. I went to a healing service, made my confession, and received the outward words of absolution to sanctify what God was giving me inside. Because I was ready, it was another doorway into faith. 

Christianity Offers Us a Witness and a Promise 

Some survivors of abuse become appalled at the amount of time and work that it takes to heal and at how persistent the negative consequences of abuse are even with extensive therapy, love, and prayer. At some point we all come to realize that some effects of our abuse are permanent. Further, we all know that sexual violence continues daily and that fellow survivors suffer around the world. We are faced with the question of whether God is more powerful than evil. Despite the workings of the Spirit, is it beyond God’s power to overcome evil? This question may loom large for those who endure the ongoing ravages of abuse.

Here Christianity offers us a witness and a promise. The witness comes from those who experienced Jesus’ resurrection. They tell us that we will not be lost forever. Children of trauma are concerned with more than their physical safety. In fact, some survivors consider death a friendly option that is always there as an alternative to their pain. Their fear is a spiritual one. Having experienced the void and having lost parts of themselves, they fear being spiritually lost. The witness of resurrection, echoed throughout the Bible in assurance of God’s enduring love, may provide an open door. 

Further, Christianity offers a promise that the way of evil is doomed and that God will prevail in the end. It says that evil was defeated on the cross and that its power is finite (Heb. 2:14-15). This is no theology that protects us from suffering the effects of evil during our lives. There is certainly no doubt that evil is alive and well in our present time. For me, however, a promise that evil does not have the final power was very important. Countless times, when I was faced with my terror of evil, I received the sacramental laying-on of hands, and something within me calmed. At other times it was simply exposing myself to others’ faith in the promise that moved me back from the edges of fear and despair. Often I have clung to Saint Paul’s words, “For I am convinced that… [nothing] in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:37-39). 

The promise also says that there will be a fulfillment of God’s intention for love, that God will “destroy the shroud that is cast over the peoples” and will “wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isa. 25:6-8), and there will be a reign of peace. It is hard to fathom such a place when we see the world as it is, but I believe that we all long for it and that it is somehow embedded in us as well as in God. Clearly, for reasons that we have already discussed, God is unable to make it happen fully now. If we experience hints of redeeming love in this life, however, we may be able to hope that God has more to come. 

We are not delivered by this promise from our grief for the horrific toll of human suffering. Neither apparently was Jesus when he grieved over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37). There is terrible loss and there must be real ongoing grief at the heart of God, no matter what glory resurrection holds. 

A Hope against Hope 

Faced with the tragedy of our children’s ongoing violation worldwide, we are left with a hope against hope (Rom. 4:18). For myself I have let myself be surrounded by the scriptures of this hope (Zeph. 3:14-20; Isa. 11:4-10; John 16:20-24; and Rom. 8:18), marked them in my Bible, inscribed them on my walls, posted them on my mirrors, and enacted them in liturgy. In my own paraphrasing of Ezekiel 37:11-14, “Then [God] said to me, daughter, these bones are the whole host of those who have been violated. They said, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, thus says the Holy One: …‘I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.’”(38) 

No theology gives us completely satisfying answers to the very real theological dilemmas pointed out by our violated children. For those who doubt God, we have no absolute proof that the God we have described exists. We cannot with theological arguments soothe those who feel God’s betrayal. At one level the pain of their souls is inconsolable. For the children in this pain, their complaint to God stands bathed, I believe, in a fierce and infinite love. If we cannot fully answer their questions, we can still hear our own theological statements through their ears. We can avoid the bad theology that confirms their fears about God. We can interpret scriptures in the light of their witness. We can preach as if they were in the front row—because they probably are. As a church we can embrace alternative liturgies and revisions that speak of God’s mercy in language that they can hear. We can tell our children that they are loved by God no matter what they think, feel, or do; that it is safe to be angry at God; that God is also angry and sad about their abuse. We can give them the promise of Jesus and our best hope that God is more powerful than what they fear and that God will keep them in eternity. Enkindled by God’s motherly rage, we can become advocates for prevention and intervention.(39) What we can offer most, besides our protection, prayer, and the best therapy, is our ears to listen, our laps for holding, and our tears at their pain. Perhaps through these acts we can point them to a loving God who counts every hair on their head (Matt. 10:30). 


1 Statistics from the United States Bureau of Justice 1994 (see www.casacares.org). New studies are underway that may make the estimate higher because the reporting of abuse has become better in recent years.

2 For the psychological and social dynamics of the sexual abuse of children mentioned throughout this article, see Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998). 

3 Children can also feel shame from covert sexual abuse, such as repeated inappropriate looks, comments, exposure to nudity, or witnessing sexual acts. 

4 See my “Lament for a Broken Child” in Women’s Uncommon Prayers: Our Lives Revealed, Nurtured, Celebrated, ed. Elizabeth R. Geitz, Marjorie A. Burke, and Ann Smith (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2000), 63-64.

5 See Francine Shapiro and Margot Silk Forrest, EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma (New York: BasicBooks, 1997). 

6 Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroads, 1994), 65 and 126. 

The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1979), 302. 

8 See From Survival to Recovery: Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home (Virginia Beach, Va.: Al-Anon Family Group, 1994.) 

9 For more on this phenomenon, see Bass and Davis, The Courage to Heal, 219-20. 

10 Johnson, She Who Is, 124-28. 

11 I had already been given the benefit of the biblical re-framing done by landmark works like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroads, 1983), and Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). 

12 Deborah Johnson Elder, “The Murder of the Soul: The Church’s Responsibility to Minister to the Spiritual Healing of Adult Female Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: A Model of Ministry” (doctoral thesis for The School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, 1995), 48. For this thesis Elder created and studied an exciting model program of covenant groups for women survivors of abuse in the Episcopal Church. 

13 Bass and Davis, The Courage to Heal, 155-60.

14 The NRSV of the Bible notes that “justified by faith in Christ” (Gal. 2:16) can be translated as the faith of Christ, that is, by Christ’s faithfulness and not by our own faith. For example, see Christopher Bryan, A Preface to Romans: Notes on the Epistle in its Literary and Cultural Setting (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 108- 109, and literature there cited. 

15 Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (New York: Paulist, 1978), 267-69. 

16 The “Twelve Steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous have been adapted for abuse survivors in Incest Survivors Anonymous (www.lafn.org.medical/isa), and there is also help for addictive behavior at Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (www.slaafws.org). 

17 See steps four through ten in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 6th ed. (New York: AA World Services, 2000), 42-95.

18 Flora Slosson Wuellner, Heart of Healing, Heart of Light: Encountering God, Who Shares and Heals Our Pain (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992), 57-58. 

19 Julian of Norwich, Showings,245. 

20 Meinrad Craighead, The Mother’s Songs: Images of God the Mother (New York: Paulist, 1986), and Johnson, She Who Is.

21 Enriching Our Worship: Supplemental Liturgical Materials (New York: Church Publishing, 1997), 50-71, prepared by the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church. 

22 Wendy Farley, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 53-55, as quoted in Johnson, She Who Is, 249.

23 From notes taken in Flora Wuellner’s course on “Prayer and Human Wholeness” at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, in 1991. 

24 Wuellner, Heart of Healing, Heart of Light, 30. 

25 Wuellner,Heart of Healing, Heart of Light, 35.

26 This image was from Wuellner’s Berkeley course, but she also uses Isaiah to talk of healing in Heart of Healing, Heart of Light, 37-39. 

27 Walter Breuggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 58- 59.

28 I have written a special Ash Wednesday liturgy for survivors of abuse in Women’s Uncommon Prayers, ed. Geitz et al., 290-92. 

29 See Psalms 6; 7; 10; 22; 54; 74; 102:1-11; 109; 119:81-84; and 139:19-22 (the part we do not read in church). 

30 Johnson, She Who Is, 158. 

31 Johnson, She Who Is, 264.

32 Alcoholics Anonymous, 11-16. 

33 For healing work with sexually abused children while they are still children, see Jan Hindman, Just Before Dawn: From the Shadows of Tradition to New Reflections in Trauma Assessment and Treatment of Sexual Victims (Ontario, Or.:AlexAndria Associates, 1989). 

34 Alina Jitaru, a psychologist at the Prison Fellowship Home at Nadasel, Romania, asked the God-questions of the abused children under her care, and their answers have contributed to this paper. My special thanks to the children there.

35 Johnson, She Who Is, 259.

36 The official home website for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and further contacts and resources—can be found at www.doj.gov.za/trc. 

37 Cynthia S. W. Crysdale, Embracing Travail: Retreiving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum, 1999), 103. 18 

38 This deep hope can be obscured by the excessive triumphalism of some Christian worship. 

39 Excellent resources can be found at the Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Violence (CASA) on the Internet at www.casacares.org. 

Occasional Papers is a publication of the Center for Children and Theology copyright © 2005 

This paper is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the publisherʼs written permission. 

8 Responses

  1. May I Print this article for my own reading? I need to be able to highlight and write my thoughts and questions….

      1. I’m still reading this article and will save to finish as my eyes are glued to the words. For some reason I began to u understand that God was right there with me through all the sexual, physical me tal a use. He was holding g me crying. I convinced. Myself God cannot control the sin. We all have free will. My question has always been..when does it ever end. Where is god and. His blessings. Why does he not do. Something good for those who suffered for so long. Is that the life he wishes upon his children who lived a childhood of horrific pain.

  2. This is a very thoughtful and insightful article on so many levels. As a child victim and as a spiritual director, I am grateful to find others that are willing to share their wisdom and hard work for the benefit of all those walking lonesome roads. I am always amazed that the thoughtfulness of articles like this can still so quickly bring forth vivid images and memories of something from my life that was over 60 yrs ago. One’s spirituality is forever enmeshed with trauma whether recognized or not, but once the recognition occurs the windows that seemed to only reflect darkness begins to let the light shine in. Hope is an unmeasurable gift and when others share their journeys the common bond of survival makes a life of peace more plausible and ultimately possible. The Breath of God is shared among all and truly brings life to the “dry bones” of isolation, shame and being lost to one’s self. It is my fervent prayer that each sacred wound will find healing and that the joy of resurrection in both this life and the next will be found by all. Gratefully ~

  3. I just stumbled upon this article. Wow! Absolutely wonderful and insightful. I have struggled with the after effects of a childhood abuse at 10 years old that has brought me through pain, anger, self-hate, self-condemnation, some recovery, much healing, and after many years (decades), true forgiveness of the perpetrator. And yet, I am still struggling with the effects, and with what I call “the black thread sin” in my life. This “sin” (I like your word usage of “wound” but still feel it is something that I cannot stop and keep doing so I call it “sin”) causes me to still feel every day that I need God’s absolution. And since this “sin” continues as an event in my life…I need to know that God understands from where it comes and will love me despite my constant falling. (The “sin” I speak of is masturbation and use of sexual imagery and self-deprecating actions/drugs that keep me connected to the event even at 61 years old.) I am now working to disentangle these actions from the event so that I can stop this “black thread sin”. This for me would be a sense of absolution, that I can finally walk away from the event and its effects on me and finally, in my forgiveness of the perpetrator, and with Christ’s help, find healing and restoration for both of us. God bless all that you do! Patrick W.

  4. a wonderful and insightful message for the Church so that the Christians will be guided and be able to help survivors and victims of Sexual Abuse.

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