I had the privilege of presenting at the annual Search for Meaning Festival at Seattle University about my book, Healing the Ravaged Soul, on Saturday. It was a great experience, and my audience was deeply engaged in the subject, one that is often difficult to talk about. At the end of the presentation, there was a fifteen minute Q&A session. I fielded several really great questions, and then came the hardest question from a young man who is studying to become a mental health counselor. “How do I respond to a survivor of sexual abuse who says, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and still be respectful of their beliefs?” That is one of those statements that triggers such a strong negative response in me that I think I probably failed to give that young man the answer he deserved. But it did challenge me to come up with a better response after it was too late. Nonetheless, it’s a response that I want to share with my readers in the event any of you are ever in the situation of hearing those words that make you cringe.
Instead of my usual internal response, which is basically, “That’s BS,” I think I would say, “That’s not the God I know.” And then I would ask where that statement is coming from. Is it something the survivor actually believes, or is it something that others have told them? Because if it’s the first, then we can explore that belief together and how the “everything happens for a reason” statement turns God into a sadistic deity that intentionally makes bad things happen in order to fulfill some mysterious purpose. And it’s pretty difficult for a survivor of sexual abuse to trust in or desire relationship with a God like that. Then we can talk about the God I believe in, that displays love and compassion toward all God’s children, one who sorrows at the horrible things an abuser chooses to inflict on the innocents of this world. He/She is also a God that has the power to heal and transform the worst wounds humans can bear, but that doesn’t mean they were divinely caused.
However, if the statement arises because the survivor has heard it from misguided but well-meaning friends or church-goers, that’s a different conversation. Why do people so often feel compelled to repeat such a harmful platitude? Often, I think their purpose is to minimize their own discomfort at the difficult issue of child sexual abuse. It’s something to say when they don’t know what to say. Then they can pat themselves on the back for offering “comfort” to the survivor and go on their merry way. But then there are those who truly feel compelled to blame the victim, to judge their presumed lack of faith for struggling so much from the aftereffects of abuse. For them, the statement implies, “how can you be depressed or suicidal or self-harming when your abuse was intended to serve God’s purposes?” What they really want is for the survivor to pull themselves up by the boot straps and get over the abuse, so the speaker doesn’t have to be confronted with the reality of sexual abuse or any need on their part to do anything about it.
All of this is what I wish I had said to the young man with the great question. For what it’s worth, hopefully this blog post will reach even more people who will find it useful. What’s my response to “Everything happens for a reason”? “That’s not the God I know.”