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Engaging Abused Women

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast we have Pam Gannon with us. I am so delighted to have Pam here speaking particularly on this topic of engaging abused women. She goes to Grace Bible Church in Bozeman, Montana. Just before we recorded this podcast, my wife and I actually had a wonderful dinner with Pam and her husband Dan, and I’m so grateful to hear the ministry that they’re doing there.

Pam is an ACBC certified member. One of the things that you need to know about her as well is at our 2018 Annual Conference, Pam shared with us her testimony and story. To me, it is one of the most impactful, moving expressions of the beauty of God’s grace, compassion, kindness, and mercy. Pam, I’m so grateful to be here with you for us to record this podcast to talk about this very difficult issue that is certainly growing in our society. Thank you so much for your message at the Annual Conference and also being here and being willing to talk about this issue.

Pam Gannon: My pleasure.

Dale Johnson: As we think about engaging abused women, sometimes we’re a bit nervous to do that. We have questions like, “How should the church should manage and handle this? What is the church’s role and responsibility? How do we navigate some of the issues relative to legal responsibilities?” We’ve done a lot of podcasts talking about some of those distinctions and they’re helpful and we need to move in those directions.

Sometimes those fears of what not to do or thinking, “We’re going to do this wrongly,” keep us from engaging in real ministry. You’ve engaged with a lot of ladies who are being abused. I think it’s important for us to consider and to know it’s our responsibility as biblical Christians to engage ladies—or any victim of abuse—where they are. As we think about engaging abuse victims, what kind of things do we need to understand in order to engage those who have been abused (abused women in particular) with compassion and grace and mercy?

Pam Gannon: That’s a great question. Each person is obviously unique, but abused people do have some common struggles that we need to be aware of. They’re fearful. They’re ashamed. They have feelings of guilt for what they’re going through or have gone through. They might be angry. They might be in despair and feel helpless. They’re probably going to be having trouble with all kinds of relationships—they don’t quite know how to do them. There’s misunderstandings about trust and love. They’re confused about life and how to do it, and we’re going to have to address all those issues at some point in our counseling.

But when you first meet, you can see typically that these are just broken people. They belong in the “weak” and the “fainthearted” categories that we find in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. They are afraid and they’re likely afraid of you. They want to protect themselves and they’re afraid to be hurt again. They want to know that you are a safe person, that you’re not going to crush them with how you approach them or what you say. They tend to be afraid of sudden noises or movements. You’ll see them startle very easily. So you may want to meet in a quieter place with minimal distractions. They’re afraid of being controlled by others, so we’ve got to keep that in mind and be super gentle with them. They may be afraid to sleep, so they might be coming in exhausted. I mean, there are lots of things to think about with women who are fearful.

Then they tend to be ashamed—they don’t even almost look at you when you first meet with them. They just look down the whole time. And that’s okay, as they gain trust they’re going to glance at you more and more. They’re ashamed because sometimes they have been led to believe that the abuse is their fault if they’re in it now, or if it’s happened to them in the past. They carry the blame and shame for that. Oftentimes the perpetrator tells them that actually, that they are at fault here. They’re ashamed if it is a sexual nature to talk about the intimate details. They may want to just imagine and pretend it’s not real.

They’re confused. They don’t know why God would allow these bad things, why other people didn’t help them. They’re asking, “Who’s going to help me now? Are you really going to help me? How do I relate to people? I don’t fit in.” They don’t understand oftentimes what love looks like, because love has been used in wrong ways with them. They’re confused about guilt and innocence and they’re being trained by evil in their conscience. Their conscience needs complete retraining.

So they’re afraid, they’re confused, and they’re ashamed. And because that’s true, they may be doing all kinds of things to try to escape the thoughts of the bad things. One of the things that I would recommend is just try not to be shocked by some of the things that they tell you or what they have done to handle the past. You have to look underneath what they’re telling you. Look underneath the sin and see the pain, because they’re using those sinful escape methods a lot of times because they believe that’s going to help them and relieve their pain. Sometimes they tell you shocking things, so be ready for that.

They may test you, actually, because they don’t trust people oftentimes. They might test you by looking and being angry when you didn’t expect them to be angry, or avoiding you. That will surprise you. So persevere, this is not a quick fix. It’s not an easy thing. It’s going to take them some time to see why what they’re doing is wrong and destructive. Also another caution I would say, because they’re so afraid and ashamed, is that they’re going to feel very condemned at correction, because they’re already full of shame. Correct them very very gently.

Scripture tells us that weak and fainthearted people need help, comfort, and encouragement. And so we uphold them. That’s what we need to do.

Dale Johnson: Listening to you describe that really helps me as a counselor in how we approach someone who is weak and timid at the moment that we’re helping to overcome some of their predispositions, because when they respond in anger they’re waiting for that to be a trigger for somebody to lash out in abuse or harsh language. We need to be able to come in calm, with compassion, being willing to correct, but to do it in a way that understands where that person is and how they’ve been treated consistently—whether right or wrong. That really helps to bring us back to a point of center, to see through the lens of Christ with deep compassion for the person and meet them where they are.

So you’ve convinced us that we can engage and this is how we should do it. This is the disposition that we should have, knowing some of the predispositions that someone who’s been abused may come in with. They’ve overcome a lot of fears and lack of trust to come into the office, and so now what do we do? What are some of the key elements in our counseling approach to help and engage this abuse victim?

Pam Gannon: I think the very first thing you want to do is reassure them that they’re not alone anymore, because you’re there and you love them. Let them know they don’t have to manage this crisis alone. A lot of abused people do not report the crimes done against them, and if they haven’t reported it to anyone, they’re going to have felt alone for a long time. You want to reassure them that you’re going to help, you’re going to be there. And God is going to help. God is near to the brokenhearted and He saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). He heals the brokenhearted He binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3). Scripture’s truth is beautiful.

You might want to tell them, “I’m going to walk with you and I want to be helpful to you. That’s my goal. I want to bring you the best help that there is in God, so that you can become the person that He wants you to be.”

Next, you have to listen with compassion. You have to give them lots of time to tell their story. You have to be exceedingly patient and kind. I think a mistake sometimes we can make is to push too hard and too fast for information. Remember it’s going to take somebody a long time to deal with the crime and its aftermath. Because of their difficulty in trusting people, they may not trust you right away. You can tell them, “I don’t want to add to your hurt unnecessarily, so I’m not going to push you to tell me things beyond what you’re okay with telling me at this point.” I’m going to actually let them know that, and usually they’ll come a point where they are ready to share with me.

When they do tell you about that abuse, when they do share with you what’s going on, you have to really watch your countenance. Don’t look shocked. Be grieved—be very grieved. Gently show them your sorrow, but try not to look shocked. That’s going to scare them. Weep with them. You’re going to share their sorrow. Be willing to step into the grief and the ugliness of the evil you’re going to hear about. When we share their burden, we’re now bearing it with them as Christ tells us to in Galatians 6:2 (“bear one another’s burdens”). I think it was Bob Kelleman who said, “Shared sorrow is endurable sorrow,” and I think that’s right. You might tell them, “I am so sorry that you have gone through this.” To express our sorrow in that way is not denying the goodness of God’s sovereignty in using suffering for good, it’s just simply acknowledging that there is real damage here and there’s destruction that sin causes.

As they tell their story, be careful not to deny it or question if it happened. Believe them unless there’s good evidence to the contrary. Think about it: It takes a lot of courage to walk into the counseling room and to finally share what’s feeling so shameful to them. Try not to close them down with expressions of disbelief. You can appropriately show them what it’s like to be angry and not sin.

When I’m explaining to counselors, I’ll often use the Tamar story to explain to them how they should not be responding to these stories of abuse. You may know the story about Tamar. That was David’s daughter. She had a brother named Absalom and a half-brother named Amnon. And Amnon had strong sexual desires for Tamar. He deceived her, violated her by force, and then threw her out. Tamar went away crying loud. Then David, her father, found out and he was angry, but he didn’t do anything. He was passive. Absalom found out and after two years, he took the opportunity to kill Amnon. Obviously neither of those is a good response. I think the right response for counselors is to be angry and let that anger motivate you to help your counselee seek justice and not vengeance. Your response of godly anger can be comforting. They can see there is a way to be angry about this that is appropriate, and there are appropriate ways—righteous ways, even—to express it.

Dale Johnson: I think the topic of justice is an important one for us. We want to strive for what God’s strives for. He is certainly the judge of all the earth. He will do what’s right, and He is a just God. For us to long for that for those who have been oppressed and those who have been taken advantage of is absolutely appropriate. For us to even be angry in a righteous way at what’s happened, what’s been done to them, is appropriate because it is a wicked thing. It is an evil thing. I think that’s very healthy for us. We’re helping set the counselee up in a way to identify what God says is evil and what God says is good, and say, “What you’ve gone through is in the category of evil and God sees it as such.”

We want to deal with real life, and the Bible is not afraid to represent real, raw questions—questions that people have because of experience that they’re walking through in life. Sometimes those are hard questions to answer. In a situation of abuse, a frequent question is, “We see that God is good in the Scriptures. We hear people proclaim all the time that He’s good. Why would He allow these things to happen?” What are some of the principles that you might utilize to navigate this type of question?

Pam Gannon: That’s a great question because we do get that question frequently. I think what we want to do is help the person see that God’s Word actually gives us wisdom to deal with that question. First, I want to talk about what we do know about God, that’s probably where I’ll start. I’ll start with, “We do know that God is good, He’s sovereign, He’s wise, He’s holy, and perfect in all His ways. And He’s never the author of wrong.” You can point them to Genesis 3, which shows that it wasn’t until man chose the way of Satan—rather than the way of God—that evil and suffering entered the world. The suffering and sorrow that we are seeing, that they are facing, is not the work of an unkind God, but it’s a consequence of sin, because sin brought suffering and destruction into the world. We do know that.

When they’re confused and angry about that, they have to place their blame for it squarely on man’s sin. I think suffering, if we look at it rightly, actually gives us a glimpse of the evilness of sin. It really does. It helps us see why a perfect God hates it. That’s where I would start is to say what we do know about God.

Then I would tell them, frankly there are many things we don’t know. I’m going to talk about the fact that it’s okay not to know the precise answers to “Why?” question. God doesn’t actually require us to understand things that He has not revealed. Beyond the general understanding of why suffering is in the world, which we’ve just told them, we can’t always know. There are secret things—it’s a Deuteronomy 29:29 issue, which says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” There are things that we know and that we can trust that we do know about God, but many things we won’t know.

Sometimes I use this analogy—I actually use this a lot in counseling—and I try to explain it like this. Suppose that you came across an anthill. Let’s say that I drew a line across an ant’s path or I disrupted the sand in some way. The ant would have no idea what just happened and it would just start running around doing ant things to fix it. It wouldn’t even know I was there—it can’t fathom my life. Now suppose though that I wanted to explain my life to this ant. Suppose that I wanted to explain computers and air travel and stars. I can’t possibly explain those things to an ant, and why not? Because it has an ant brain. It’s incapable of understanding the ways of people and the universe. If I could become an ant, I might be able to communicate to it in some ways, but I’m always going to be limited because of their imperfect capacity for knowledge. That’s okay, because the ant knows all it needs to know in order to function as an ant. In a similar way, we are creatures with just human brains. We cannot possibly understand all the ways of God. His ways are far greater than we can grasp. But He has revealed to us enough, He’s given us enough to enable us to live life well to His glory.

I would sum up my answer to their question by pointing out that what we do know is enough. Humility accepts the fact that we live with unanswered questions, but God has revealed to us everything that we need to know (2 Peter 1:3-4). That’s the approach I would use to help strugglers deal with questions that arise in the face of evil that’s been done to them.

Dale Johnson: That’s such an important point when we think about God in His grace, mercy, and ability to restore. It’s not a prerequisite that we know why. Thank you for the encouragement, Pam. This is so helpful, certainly as we as counselors are going to continue to deal with this type of situation more. We need to be bold, but we need to be compassionate in the way that Christ did. I think you’ve expressed that very well. So thank you for for encouraging us in this way.

Pam Gannon: My pleasure.

Recommended Resources

A Testimony of God’s Grace in the Aftermath of Abuse – Pam Gannon

Counseling a Fearful and Abused Wife – Pam Gannon (Free Lecture and notes)

2018 Annual Conference: Light in the Darkness (Free teaching series on abuse)

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Pam Gannon
Pam is certified by ACBC and serves as a biblical counselor at Grace Bible Church in Bozeman, Montana.
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