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Navigating Feelings After Abuse

As a victim of child sexual assault and now a biblical counselor, I have found the faithfulness and lovingkindness of God declared in Scripture to be real and powerful to heal.

I don’t want you to think I’ve come to this place overnight or that I’ve arrived and don’t still struggle! There were years when I looked within myself for strength and sought after control to alleviate my feelings of helplessness and fear of getting hurt again (whether emotionally or physically). However, in my pursuit of control, I found that I was the one being controlled—by my emotions. Whatever I was feeling determined my reality and impacted my decisions, making it difficult to live the stable, biblically wise life I was called to as a child of God.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to share a little about what I’ve found in Scripture on this subject, although I wish I could sit down and talk with you over coffee instead! I hope that this post and the gospel will encourage you to know that we are not at the mercy of how we feel. We do not have to be enslaved by our emotions.

Abuse Complicates Emotions

For those of us who have been abused the God-given gift of emotions can often feel like a curse. Our feelings can cause us to relive past trauma or make us feel unsafe and powerless. Fear can be a constant unwanted companion who infiltrates so many of our thoughts. However, the good news is that God’s Word provides the guidance and counsel that we need for how to navigate through our (often-complicated) emotions and feelings.

Sorting Through Feelings

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” Our hearts are deceitful and cannot be trusted. Consequently, the feelings and emotions which flow from our hearts cannot be relied upon as an ultimate standard of truth. Rather, Scripture must be our standard of truth. It is through the lens of God’s Word and the hope of the gospel that we are able to sort through our feelings well. When we begin with God as our starting point, Scripture clarifies to us what is real and reliable and what isn’t.

Sara’s Life

Here is an example of how this might play out in real life. Let’s consider my counselee, Sara, who was struggling with intense feelings of sadness and shame after abuse in her youth years. She felt as though she would never be able to get past the grief of what had been taken from her or let go of the crushing weight of shame.

I began counseling her with the same truth I studied for myself in college when I was working through my past; the lovingkindness of God. All of Scripture is weaving together a story of God’s perfect and selfless love. Studying this perfect love has two major implications for dealing with grief after abuse; 1. We realize that because God is perfectly loving everything He has allowed us to experience in His sovereign will is for our ultimate good; that we could become more like Christ. Through a growth in wisdom and righteousness we are able to experience the goodness and joy which flows from a life of worship (Hebrews 12:4-11, Romans 8:28-29). 2. We learn God’s love is so vast and full it is powerful enough to heal our brokenness. Christ was sent to “bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

If we refuse to trust in the lovingkindness of God and instead rely on our own strength to be “okay” we will never find healing. Sara was lost in her suffering because she didn’t know the depth of God’s love for her. When she began to trust in God as her savior, stronghold, refuge, rock, shield, and strength she found the courage to work through her feelings of grief (Psalm 18:1-3, 33:18-22, 62:5-8).

Lamentations 3:17-26 was life changing for Sara because she realized she didn’t need to seek control by minimizing her emotional pain to feel stronger. Instead she could allow herself to experience all of her pain because there was no depth of emotional darkness powerful enough to steal away her hope; because it was built on knowing and trusting God. She learned to say, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD’S lovingkindesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him.” God’s love is powerful to heal and give us hope no matter the depth of our sorrows.

But what about Sara’s struggle with shame? Because God’s Word speaks of both sin that we have committed, as well as sin that has been committed against us it was helpful to take time separating out the two from her past. For the first category, Scripture shows us the pathway to complete removal of guilt and shame from the sins that we have committed comes through repentance and turning to God in worship (1 John 1:9, Psalm 103:1-12, Hebrews 10:15-23, Psalm 32:1-5). The truth is that even though we might be the one who was initially wronged or hurt, our sinful human hearts are prone to sin in thought and deed in response. In Sara’s case, it was difficult for her to take ownership of her own sin when she had been wronged so severely. We focused on how the gospel sets us free from the power and enslavement of sin. Even when we have been significantly sinned against by others we do not have to sin in response. Nothing and no one can force us to sin. In light of this truth she found freedom in the truth that her abuser didn’t hold power over her, and through repentance a weight was lifted.

Scripture also addresses a second category of sin (that which is done against us). It is clear we are never responsible for someone else’s sin (Ezekiel 18:20) and that each person will stand before God to give an account for their actions alone (Romans 14:10-12). Therefore, we do not need to carry the burden of shame for another’s sin and must refuse to do so.

It took time, but Sara was able to change; instead of feelings controlling her reality, truth became her firm foundation. She daily reminded herself of God’s lovingkindness, embraced forgiveness for her sin through the gospel, and refused to carry shame that didn’t belong to her.

Just because something feels true doesn’t mean that it is! For many abuse victims, our reality can often be determined by our emotions but this doesn’t have to be the case as we reshape our thinking to have our standard of truth built on Scripture.

A Genesis 4:3-8 Perspective on Emotions

Another aspect of emotions that is helpful to consider is the relationship between our circumstances, feelings, and choices. We don’t have control over what happens to us in life, but as believers we do have a choice in how we respond. We can either choose what is right as an act of worship to God or choose sinfully as an act of worship to our idols. But what role do feelings play as we navigate through the circumstances of life?

The world teaches us that if we make choices based on how we feel we will get what we want (“if I follow my heart and do what feels good, I will be happy”). This belief system is shown in the following progression:

Circumstance → Feelings → Choice → Outcome.

Non-believers have no other option than to live based on how they feel and in reaction to whatever happens to them. They are a slave to their hearts’ desires. For example, if the uncontrollable circumstance I have experienced is abuse, that makes me feel unsafe and if my idol is security I will make choices to protect that idol. Such as never allowing myself to be vulnerable in relationships in order to achieve that which I desire most; feeling safe. Without God we have no other choice but to live based on how we feel in an effort to protect our idols.

Because of the gospel this is not our only option and Genesis 4 helps us to understand that our circumstances don’t have power over us because our choices should be based on what is right, not on how we feel.

In this passage we see that Cain reacts with anger because God accepted his brother’s offering and rejected his. In response, God asks Cain in verse 6, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you. But you must master it.” Even though He already knew the answer, God began with two questions in order to draw out Cain’s heart. These questions should have caused Cain to consider why he was so angry. What did he want more in that moment than pleasing God?

Next, God clearly explains Cain had a choice to do what is right which would lead to better feelings (“will not your countenance be lifted up?”). On the other hand, the opposite would be true if Cain chose to continue to live for himself. A life of sin might give momentary pleasure but always will be a downward spiral leading to death (Romans 6:23). Whereas a life of worship leads to life and life abundantly (Jeremiah 17:5-9, John 10:10). God was teaching Cain he had a choice to do right or wrong and his feelings would be dependent upon that choice. From this passage, we see that the true progression is:

Circumstance → Choice → Feelings → Outcome

Although we don’t have control over the circumstances of our lives, because of the gospel we can choose what is right, even when it is difficult. Feelings don’t have control over us. We can choose righteousness and experience the blessings and positive feelings which flow from a life of worship (Proverbs 3:13-18).

Feelings Don’t Have Power Over Us

Are you beginning to understand the profound effect these truths have on those of us who have experienced some of life’s most cruel circumstances? We are not at the mercy of what has happened to us because our circumstances don’t have the power to control how we feel and our emotions don’t have control over what we do. Our feelings don’t interpret our reality. Through the gospel we have been given the ability to have hope in the midst of grief, choose what is right no matter the circumstance (Romans 6:4-11), and experience the abundant blessings that come from a life of worship. If God were not real, we would have no choice but to be controlled by our emotions, constantly living in reaction to the uncontrollable circumstances of life.

Praise God that because we belong to Him, we have been set free from the power of sin and through faith are able to choose what is right even when we have been hurt! It is in Him alone we are set free and find healing, hope, and joy.

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Aliza Hawkins
Aliza lives in Torrance, California with her wonderful husband, James and toddlers, Hudson and Eva. She attended The Master’s College for an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and a masters degree in Biblical Counseling. Aliza is affiliated with The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) as a certified counselor. James and Aliza are members of Lighthouse Community Church in Torrance, California where Aliza serves in the biblical counseling ministry.
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