Lessons Learned from Counseling the Sexually Abused

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I am delighted that we have Dr. Shelbi Cullen with us. Shelbi received her doctoral degree in Educational Ministries with an emphasis in Biblical Counseling from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. She serves as an Assistant Professor of Women’s Ministries and Biblical Studies at the Master’s University in Southern California. She’s married to Sean and has been for 35 years. They have four adult children. One very important piece of the puzzle is their first grandchild was recently born.

I’m so excited that Shelbi’s with us. She’s also the host of a new podcast called Women’s Hope. She co-hosts that with Kimberly Cummings, another one of our ACBC certified members. For you ladies, they deal with a lot of very helpful issues that are very pertinent to you all. I want to recommend it to you as well.

Shelbi, I’m so glad that you’re here to talk about this subject today. So many questions arise in how we think about counseling those who have been sexually abused. Now, before we get started today, I want to remind us that sometimes when we’re dealing with these types of cases that are quite intense and often make us very uncomfortable, where folks are dealing with such deep and difficult issues, sometimes what we have a tendency to forget basics in dealing with these issues. In our minds, they raise to some level of complexity—and rightly so, there are difficulties and complex challenges that come with counseling those who have struggled through such difficult and deep darkness—but I think it’s important that we recognize very clearly that we can’t run away from the basics when we approach this.

We should also include the key elements, making sure that we’re walking through the process. Shelbi, I want to ask you about that, because no one is a perfect expert in dealing with sexually abused, dealing with deep difficulties that someone experiences. All those things have nuances. All those situations have different spins and different contributing factors and so on. But how important is it to you—as you think through this and lessons that you’ve learned—that we include the key element with this type of counselee?

Shelbi Cullen: It’s such a great question. Thank you for asking it. I think it’s super important because our methodology really frames and helps us in the counseling process. I think of the typical counselee who comes to me that might have sexual abuse in her background and how important it is to be able to, for example, give her biblical hope. That would be one of our key elements. Inspiration, how she needs to hear the words of truth that are found in the nature and character of God, for example. That’s just super important. I was taught that biblical counseling is a theological discipline, right? And so that’s really tied to it as well. But it helps because I’m thinking of the typical lay counselor who wouldn’t see themselves as an expert—and so the key elements actually helps a lay counselor to structure their counseling. I wouldn’t say that it’s a Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, but as you incorporate the key elements into your counseling there’s a lot of overlap and your consistently using it in your counseling.

Dale Johnson: In the key elements, we often talk about the 8 I’s. Those things are absolutely important. I agree, it’s not a Step 1, 2, 3, 4 when we’re dealing with the wisdom of God and trying to apply it to difficult —it rarely is a step-and-stage type of thing. You mentioned hope, or inspiration. When you’re dealing with somebody who comes in and they describe this sexual abuse, how important is it that we instill hope into them or we inspire them with the hope of Christ? Especially if she’s come in and maybe she’s described something like she’s been raped on a date or something like that.

Shelbi Cullen: Well, as we think of sin and sin in the world for somebody like that, they realize that there are people that come and go that will disappoint us, that will deeply hurt us in our lifetime. But as we bring the Word of God to bear on that situation, we can give her great hope and confidence that even though people come and go, God is who He says He is. He remains constant. He’s unchanging. He has a multitude of all kinds of mercies. That’s really helpful not just for a counselee who has sexual abuse in her background, but really for any counselee to help them to know God better because it gives them greater assurance. It gives them greater hope for their hurting, that one day that wrong that’s happened to her will be made right again. It’s super important to bring biblical hope to bear in a person’s situation.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think that’s critical. If you think about a person who is struggling to that degree, often the way they’re seeing themselves is wrapped up in that moment of difficulty. Their identity is now bound in that moment of trouble or struggle. And they’re thinking, “My purpose, my hope in life is bound to that moment. And so how in the world can I have or experience hope?” What you’re describing is exactly right—we step outside of that moment, not dismissing it, certainly, but really pointing to that their identity is found in something far greater than an event that happened to them, a way in which they were misused and abused, to remind ourselves of who God is, our experience with Him, and that He is the one who cares for those who are broken. That’s critical.

As we think about God in this situation and we’re trying to help the counselee think in this way, why would having confidence in who God is and His promises be important to a particular counselee in this situation?

Shelbi Cullen: I think that it probably is wrapped up in the fact that there are promises that God makes in His Word. We serve a God that is going to do what He promises.

Dale Johnson: And those promises aren’t void based on some experience that this person had, right?

Shelbi Cullen: That’s exactly right. Even like you were saying before, that’s where we differ from secular counseling, because they often do create a victim’s mindset. But we know that their identity is found in Christ. And so we can empathize with her suffering because she was victimized, but we actually can provide additionally just that hope that’s rooted in God’s character. God’s character—He’s unchanging. He’s faithful. He’s compassionate. He has long steady love, that “hesed” love in Hebrew. That’s so important.

Dale Johnson: As we boil some of this down, Shelbi, as we think about tons of lay counselors who are out there often feeling inadequate certainly in levels of complexity dealing with counselees like this, if you were able to have some sort of conversation with them and give them encouragement to engage in a situation like that where a counselee is afraid, they’re scared, their world has been turned upside down by this intrusion into their life. What are some of the critical things that you might encourage them with to ground them as they engage in counseling?

Shelbi Cullen: We have a wonderful verse in God’s Word, Romans 15:14. What Paul does there is he reminds us that we are full of goodness, and we are able to come alongside with God’s Word and we’re able to counsel one another. I definitely like to encourage lay counselors in that way because I think there’s this idea that we have to be specialized in a particular area.

For example, “I’ve never counseled a person who’s experienced sexual abuse. I don’t think I would know what to do.” I would want to encourage her, and encourage him, that you possess a sufficient Word. You have everything you need for life and godliness. You have everything you need to come alongside her and to give her wise biblical counsel, or we would even say wise, compassionate biblical counsel. I would want to encourage them that way because really at the end of the day, I think the biblical counseling is a one another ministry. I think that we’re really losing out when we say that only certain kinds of people can counsel certain kinds of people. That’s how I would encourage them because the Scripture does say that, and I think we just have to believe that the Word of God is sufficient and that God’s going to give you the grace to get through the counseling session. Then additionally like we were talking, the essentials of biblical change really help to structure that. It really gives a counselor confidence (in the right way) to minister the word of God in that moment.

Dale Johnson: None of this nullifies what we’ve talked about extensively on the podcast in the past relative to legal requirements and all that stuff. What we’re describing is that personal relationship that a lay person has with an individual who’s struggling with a scenario that’s happened in their life. What I appreciate, Shelbi, that you’re describing here is the importance of us getting back to the basics, the importance of us not allowing the complexity of a situation to disorient us in relation to the usefulness of God’s Word. It’s so important and critical that we not lose that. I see a tendency, often, with us sort of shifting our focus as if the world has something better to offer as it relates to trauma or as it relates to this situation or that situation. When in reality, I think we’ve described here that God has promises, God has hope in His Word that helps us to navigate even what we consider to be some of the most complex and difficult situations to provide legitimate hope, legitimate comfort, and legitimate peace for whatever it is that we find ourselves struggling with.

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