If you’re a survivor of child sexual abuse, it can be pretty hard to walk through the door of a church. Maybe the church you were raised in was what I call a super-ego church—rigidly applying the rules found in the Bible and looking down their noses at anyone who failed to live up to their expectations. A church like that can cause you to wonder if that’s the way God feels too, in which case, you’d just as soon avoid church altogether. Or maybe you didn’t grow up in the church, but you feel a yearning toward the holy. Unfortunately, the public sexual abuse scandals make you think that not even a church can give you the sense of sanctuary and safety you hope for. All of those thoughts and feelings are perfectly legitimate for someone who has suffered the soul-destroying effects of child sexual abuse. But I think the primary reason that most survivors avoid church is that they feel defiled and unclean in the biblical sense of the word. They think they don’t deserve to enter the sacred space of a house of God. They doubt that they could ever belong in a place that is considered holy ground.
I had a co-worker years ago who was sexually and ritually abused as a child. He told me that for years walking through the door of a church was the hardest thing he had to do, which was particularly difficult since he was the pastor of that church! But he kept going, leading his flock despite his shame and fear, and at some point in his healing, church stopped feeling like such a challenge. He began to feel God’s loving presence there.
This shame he felt, this sense of being damaged and unworthy is nearly universal among survivors. And yet, if you look at Scripture, you will see all manner of stories in which wounded, imperfect women and men were loved and accepted by Jesus. The Samaritan woman at the well who had lived with five different men (a hint of possible sexual abuse) was not only accepted by Jesus, but worthy of his pronouncement that he was the prophesied Messiah. And then he offered her living water! Likewise, when the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery (another hint), Jesus granted her amnesty from the sentence of stoning that her captors were eager to instigate. And when the woman with the twelve year flow of blood touched his garment, Jesus turned around—not because he was angry that someone unclean had touched him, but because he wanted to see her for who she was and give her compassion and healing. Jesus was known to hang out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other people of ill repute. He did this because he understood that when people are suffering, they deserve love and acceptance, not judgment or exclusion from society.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.” While survivors feel that no light still exists in them, Jesus says otherwise. Certainly, abusers attempt to extinguish the light of their victims. Children who no longer have any light are easier to manipulate. Their shame prevents them from telling other adults what is happening to them. And this allows the abuser to continue their heinous actions. But few are successful at completely putting out that light. Most survivors I know still have a spark that longs to be fanned into a flame of love, faith, and healing. May you find a church that will honor and help feed that light. Step through its doors knowing that you are worthy of being there. Everyone is imperfect and messed up in one way or another, and God’s arms are wide enough to embrace us all. Let your light shine! Allow yourself to receive the benefits of being part of a community of faith that accepts you as you are, a beloved child of God.