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God’s Grace Through Child Sexual Abuse

Truth in Love 450

How do we counsel sexually abused children?

Jan 29, 2024

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me Dr. Cheryl Bell. She is the wife of one, the mother of four, and the grandmother of four precious grandchildren. Dr. Bell holds a B.S. in Nursing and an M.A. in Religious Education. After raising and educating her children, God called her to return to school where she completed her Ph.D. in biblical counseling with a minor in Women’s Studies. Her dissertation addressed the issue of child sexual abuse. She currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at Southwestern and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminaries. She writes and equips for the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. She counsels women who are struggling to meet life’s challenges. She loves to see God transform His children’s lives by His Spirit and through His Word in the classroom and in the counseling room.

I’m so grateful for you spending time with us today. I’m grateful for the things we talked about last week and we’re going to get a little bit more detailed this week as we talk. Last week, we walked through a little bit of your journey to biblical counseling, sort of the 30,000-foot view. It’s always interesting to me to hear the providence of our Lord. All of our stories are similar in proclaiming the grace of God, but they’re very distinct in the ways in which God uses certain things that are very specific to our own lives. I want to talk a little bit more today; we’ve titled this “God’s Grace Through Child Sexual Abuse.” That’s certainly a part of your past, and I’ve heard you talk about that frequently. I think it’s a means that the Lord is really gifted you to speak in such a way very strongly about the Scripture and its life-giving ability to people who have walked through devastating issues in their life. I want to start here. I want you to describe, if you can for me, how your experience with biblical counseling shapes the counsel that you give to people?

Cheryl Bell: Well, it’s certainly my story that God delivered me by His Spirit and by His word. I know that I’m not unique, so He will do the same thing for others. Therefore, I’m dependent on His Spirit as the agent of change in my counselees’ lives. I use Scripture both in the counseling room and in assigning homework so that I can work in cooperation with the Lord as He brings about biblical change in other people’s lives. That’s how it has shaped what I do.

Dale Johnson: Many of us can testify in much the same way the way we’ve seen the Word impact us and it just gives us such a confidence to want to minister to those who are hurting because we’ve seen how the Word gives us life. You do a lot of counseling, you minister well to so many ladies far and wide. You’ve been doing this for many years, even before you were doing formal biblical counseling, you were doing this just naturally as a discipler. I want to talk about how you’ve counseled those who’ve experienced sin against them or suffering in some of the same ways that you’ve experienced it.

Cheryl Bell: First of all, I want to back up just a little bit because I counsel any woman that God sends me, regardless of the issue, because He and His Word are able to address every problem that exists. My commitment to do this is my own personal affirmation of the sufficiency of God in His Word. There have been times when I thought, “Does the Word really address this?” But it does. He’s been faithful and sufficient every time. But I also counsel women who’ve had similar experiences to mine, which is that of child sexual abuse.

Much counseling in cases of abuse is done in adulthood since sexually abused children are often silent. Statistically, we know that sixty-six percent of children who have been abused do not tell until adulthood or never at all, except of course in anonymous surveys. Counseling the long-term effects of sexual abuse in adults can be challenging, because simple response is to being sinned against have been practiced habitually by victims for many years. In addition, these responses are variable and include any number of possible long-term after-effects. These effects may include anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, anger, unforgiveness, bitterness, distressed, interpersonal relationship issues, self-destructive behaviors and sexual problems. Some of these side effects cluster. Anxiety and depression go together. Many years before psychology saw the link, God pointed it out to us in Proverbs 12:25, where He said that anxiety in the heart of man causes depression. Guilt and shame pair up. Anger, unforgiveness and bitterness are closely related. Distrust lies at the root of interpersonal relationship issues, so we can expect to see some of these effects cluster.

In child sexual abuse, the sins of another are what lie at the heart of the suffering that a victim will experience. If a child is sad and breathing, that’s not a simple response in any way. When the body of Christ, the church, weeps with those who weep in these situations, that’s a righteous response, but that’s not where ministry ends. The involvement of legal authorities in response to this crime are essential. In the aftermath of child sexual abuse, the abused child or adult can be comforted as each comes to understand that his or her suffering can be understood from God’s perspective. His ability to use it for good even though it was wicked and evil trumps the reality of what it is they’ve experienced. He uses it to make them like Christ. It’s not limited even by the extreme nature of the assaults against them.

The only unknown in any situation like this is their response because we have to cooperate with God in adopting His perspective on the experiences that we’ve had. God also uses the comfort that He has given those of us who’ve been abused to help others. When Paul says that his affliction leads to the comfort and salvation of God’s people, he also speaks for every victim of abuse. The comfort that a believing abuse victim receives from God enables them to comfort others who are experiencing pain, yet in many cases—and this is the hard part—the cause of a victim’s suffering is more complicated. The abused child may add to his or her own pain with a sinful response to the offense and toward the offender. This begins as he or she turns away from God in anger and bitterness, knowing that God could have prevented the abuse. As a consequence, the child follows the abuser’s example, and both of them yield to sinful desires and thinking and behavior. When a child makes this choice and follows his or her abuser’s lead by turning to sin rather than to God, the child’s outward sinful behavior often does not look the same as that of the abuser. Many abuse victims never abuse anyone else, but when they choose to reject God, it demonstrates that the abuser, even many years after the abuse, still is exercising power over them. The only way for the child to resist the abuser’s powers is to submit to God and obey His command to forgive the abuser.

Forgiveness does not equate the restoration of the relationship because apart from salvation and transformation in the life of the abuser, the danger to the victim remains. In fact, the abuser must be reported to legal authorities and prosecuted for this criminal offense. And as counselors, we are, along with every other individual, mandatory reporters of this crime.

So as counselors, we have to remember that calling for reconciliation when there has been no repentance is wrong, for it does not picture the gospel rightly. This does sometimes happen within our churches. Calling a victim to reconcile with her abusers with no repentance on the part of the abuser is counter to the gospel. In cases of child sexual abuse, it’s difficult to talk about the sinful response of the abused child and yet these wrong responses contribute to the long-term after-effects of child sexual abuse. Research and this is secular research, has demonstrated that it’s not the abuse itself that produces the long-term negative outcomes but rather the way in which the child thinks about the abuse that will either produce or prevent these outcomes. Therefore, as counselors, we have to address the heart of the abused individual with biblical truth in order to prevent long-term after-effects in sexually abused children and to resolve the existing long-term after-effects in adult survivors.

Dale Johnson: What I pray our listeners will do is pause, go back and listen to some of those things again. Don’t take the comments that Cheryl’s making here as separate sound bites; hear the flow of how she’s talking through this. I appreciate you beginning in Paul’s language and 2 Corinthians 1 where he describes that we’re learning to rely on God by all the things that we walk through, the difficulties that we go through and that the Lord will never waste that. He uses the ways in which we’ve been comforted now to as you’re doing, you’re demonstrating 2 Corinthians 1, trying to comfort others with the same comfort that you’ve been given. That type of freedom is available. We see in the beauty of the Scripture for the Lord to take ashes and bring beauty about through this difficulty. Some of the ways that you tied together anxiety with despair and bitterness, I think those things are critical. Child sexual abuse, as an experience that someone walks through, can take on a lot of different forms in a person symptomatically, the feelings that they have, the way that they interpret the experience itself.

One really important piece is oftentimes not the experience itself, it’s the way that a person thinks about that experience in the present. It’s not a past event that’s necessarily dominating them, it’s the way we think about that past event in the present is what dominates our thinking and then dictates our responses to it. Whether that be a response of despair and hopelessness or whether it be a response that is driven by the Lord himself, as you mentioned the forgiveness. I appreciated the way that you described forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation is possible. Repentance also has to be a part of it, a truly redeemed relationship. I think that’s really critical the way that you nuanced that. I want you to talk to some of us who may or may not walk through something similar. How do you encourage counselors in counseling situations like what you experienced as a child and what many other children experience? How do you encourage counselors to engage them well in a redeeming biblical manner?

Cheryl Bell: My personal battle with the long-term effects of child sexual abuse has centered around the emotional distress of fear and anxiety. Since I didn’t report my abuse until I was an adult and did not seek biblical counsel until about twelve years later, I struggled with fear for a long time, and sometimes it’s still a battle. Before my abuse, I remember being carefree, a wonderful carefree childhood and afterwards, constantly afraid. I can’t think of a moment of a day for many years where I wasn’t fearful. I did not trust God since He allowed the abuse, and I tried to live life on my own in order to ensure for myself the hurt-free, pain-free life that I craved and that He had not given me.

The biblical text that God applied to my own heart and that I used for women walking through these same challenges, the ones that He’s used and is using to transform my fears into faith, include some of the following. I always begin or I try to always begin in Genesis 3, where I am reminded that unrepentant sinners are fearful. I address my own heart and the hearts of the victims I counseled with an assignment of self-examination. If there is any unconfessed sin since this is a possible route of anxiety. Psalm 139:23-24 has been particularly helpful as I’ve learned to understand how many years after abuse, sometimes anxious thoughts arise. This is what it says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my anxious thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting way!” Through this text, I learned that when God searches and tests us, He does so by examining our hearts.

While people often think that anxiety is a baffling emotion, this text makes it clear that anxiety is the result of the way we think. While our circumstances can certainly be hurtful. I wouldn’t want to minimize that in any way. This text explains that the lasting hurt from mistreatment is an inward one. Ultimately, persistent anxiety is a self-inflicted wound in which we harm ourselves with our own patterns of thought. The psalmist’s prayer to be led in the way everlasting implies that anxiety-producing thoughts lead us away from God and we, like the psalmist, must humbly cry out to be led back to God as a remedy for these fears. These truths are vital for the anxious victims of child sexual abuse who need to confess their fears as sin and renew their minds with biblical truth that leads them back to God and reality. The alternative to His truth is the false reality these victims construct through their thinking and emotions in response to hurt, but one that’s a frightening place to live since it does not consider God’s presence, His provision and His perspective on their life experiences.

Jeremiah 17:7-8 points out the sinful heart attitudes behind fear and anxiety when God says the following, “Thus says the Lord, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord. For he will be like a bush in the desert and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant.” In contrast, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit.” In this text, God describes two kinds of men or even abused children. Since the hearts of both individuals trust in someone it’s obvious that we were created to trust, but the similarity between these two individuals ends here.

The man whose heart has departed from God trusts in man and the object of his trust is often himself. While God extends His love to this man as he does to every man, this man, because of his heart’s condition, has no ability to see God’s goodness to him. Ultimately, through his unbelief, he creates a desert-like dwelling place for himself, which he inhabits alone like a shrub that barely survives in such a hostile environment. This is a past some abuse victims choose and it was the one I chose. By way of contrast, the man who trusts God flourishes as a result of his hope in God. This hope isn’t one that English speakers can completely understand for when we define hope, we understand it is a longing that may or may not come to pass. But the Hebrew word for hope is quite different, for it testifies to the confident, joyful expectation of good that is based not on circumstances but rather on the character of the God who controls our circumstances. God compares this man to a tree that is rooted by a river and constantly supplied with life-giving water. In the midst of such a supply, when the suffering of heat drought comes, the tree seems to be untouched by the harshness of its surroundings. It is evident in this text that the man who trusts God is spiritually healthy, for he produces green leaves and as God provides for his need, He in turn provides for the needs of others by producing fruit that sustains them.

Every victim of child sexual abuse has the same choice to follow one or the other of these paths, and as counselors, we need to clearly point out each path and the outcome they can expect based on the choice they make. The beauty of hope and trust in God can redirect fearful hearts back to Him. This text is a very powerful one for victims of abuse. Thankfully, God doesn’t simply describe anxiety and its causes. In Philippians 4:5-7, he prescribes a remedy when he reminds us the Lord is near, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” For believers, confession of sinful fears, a mind renewed by the truth that God is near and the replacement of fear with prayer and thanksgiving brings resolution as God replaces our anxiety with His peace. These are a few of the texts that I found to be helpful in redirecting my own heart and the hearts of the anxious women I counsel.

Just as a side note, because I am a nurse, I want to address briefly one of the things we need to understand physically because when we’re working with anxious women, they say, “Well, I’m obeying the Lord. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to but I don’t feel any better.” In counseling women with anxiety, we must recognized, that the relief that comes through obedience takes time. When our hearts entertain fear-provoking thoughts, our brain signals to release adrenaline. The unpleasing physical sensation that follows are the result of this hormone being released into our bodies. Our brains have no ability to discern whether the thoughts we send are true or not; only our immaterial hearts can make this determination based on the truth of God’s Word. As we learn to gate-keep with our hearts by replacing fear-provoking thoughts with biblical truths, the adrenaline response will be interrupted, and the physical symptoms will subside.

Dale Johnson: Cheryl, what you have done is so unbelievably helpful. I want to thank you for being vulnerable yourself and being able to share your story as light and testimony of the grace of God and His kindness toward you through such a difficult experience. For many who are listening, some of the things you said are probably hard to swallow and accept, especially as we think about the culture’s view of child sexual abuse, but I can just tell you that the way the secular world thinks about child sexual abuse its as if, if you ever experienced something like that, then you have almost a difficult sentence for the rest of your life and you have to undergo almost determined life outcomes because of this past experienced.

I can just tell you based on the Scriptures and based on the testimony here, the Bible knows nothing of that determination. The Bible knows something of the grace of God in difficult moments and that God Himself is willing to use any difficulty like that in a way that testifies of His goodness and His grace that redeems the most tragic and difficult circumstances. So many who are listening today who find themselves afraid, afraid to talk, afraid to tell, bitter, angry, anxious, fearful. I understand your experience makes sense, it makes sense that you would respond in those ways but I pray that they will listen to some of the words you have given. The passages that you referred to and that they will find a God of peace, hope, care, a God of comfort, a God who is willing and powerful enough to overcome experiences. Experiences are not more powerful than the God that we serve. I pray for our listeners who have been wrestling with an issue very similar that they will take heart in your story, the story of Scripture, the promises of the Word that we can be different and experience a different reality. We are not sentenced to the destructive life that the world describes; there is hope and comfort to be found in the Lord that we can then, at some point, share with others about what the good Lord has done for us.

Cheryll, thank you for this testimony, it’s been a blessing to me personally and to so many who will be listening. Thank you.

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