It’s all a bit ironic now, looking back, how the first two pastors responded when I spoke with them about sexual abuse in my early twenties. The most intriguing part of opening up the door to working through abuse was the way these pastors responded, given that they were in a position of spiritual leadership.
My cousin Maria seemed to feel an element of responsibility for my wellbeing, after our conversation, most likely because I was so much younger, and she knew what it was like to be victimized. She called me some time after my visit and wondered if I would meet with her and her pastor some evening. She had already told him her story, so the groundwork was laid. I wouldn’t need to do a lot of explaining, but maybe he could be of some support.
“Sure, I’d do that,” I said. What harm could it do?
And that is how I found myself in a pastor’s office in the Baptist church, a few minutes from Maria’s home. Maria and I sat, side by side, across the desk from the pastor.
The pastor opened the conversation. “Maria tells me your father sexually abused you.”
“Yes. The memories are still very vague, but something happened. I went to her because I remembered rumours in my childhood that I didn’t understand then, but I thought maybe he had abused her too. She confirmed it.”
The pastor leaned back in his chair. “He should be shot.” He said it as nonchalantly, yet matter-of-factly as if he had said my dad needed medication.
Startled, I did what I always do in an awkward, uncomfortable situation that catches me off guard. I snorted. A half laugh, half something-I-can’t identify sound that says, “You didn’t just say that… I must have heard wrong…” I said something like, “pardon me?”
The pastor, unflinching, and still leaning back in his chair said again, “He should be shot. Anyone who does that to a child should be shot. Line ‘em up and shoot ‘em all.”
“No. I disagree,” I said. “What about forgiveness? What about grace? What my dad did is terrible, but God’s grace has to be big enough for that too,” I spoke more in defence of God’s grace than my father. I understood well the desire to see my father pay for his sins. As a young teenager I had prayed for his death many times. I had often asked God to ‘make him repent and then run him off a cliff so he goes to heaven, and we don’t have to hurt like this anymore.’ Each time, immediately after praying that prayer, I felt a pang of guilt and shame for wishing him dead, but I had never withdrawn the request. And at night, when he would pull up again, I felt the same guilt for being sorry he was still alive. I couldn’t judge the pastor. I understood. Still, when Jesus saved me from my ‘hell’, He had offered complete, unconditional forgiveness. How could I withhold that from someone else?
The pastor insisted that it was the one crime that should always result in death. Every time. When an innocent child suffers sexual abuse at the hands of an adult, it should go without saying.
We chatted a while and parted ways. He was kind enough, and compassionate towards me, but I was not interested in a pastor sentencing my father. No harm was done, and nothing was gained.
The first time I told my one Mennonite pastor and his wife, when I was struggling with some life ‘stuff’, the pastor also spoke quite matter-of-factly, but with a very different message. “You know, Trudy, you can’t use that as an excuse for your struggles. You need to take ownership.”
And that was the end of that discussion. I was simply to choose to ‘Get over it.” There was no effort made to hear my heart, to encourage me to get counselling or go for other help. I was simply to ‘not allow’ it to impact me. It seemed really quite simple, from their point of view.
Their response, in hindsight, reminds me of the Bob Newhart skit ‘Stop it’. (click here to view clip on YouTube.)
As though the impact of a traumatic past would simply have an on off button that you simply press ‘stop’ and the impact is gone and your whole life is right. You simply ‘stop it’.
Both pastors—the first two that I told—responded to extremes and neither had the answer, yet both had an element of truth.
Sinners deserve to die. Death is the consequence for sin, just as the first pastor said it should be. But, because Jesus took that penalty, we go free and we are given life eternal if we repent. And that is all sinners.
The second pastor also had a point. I don’t have to give the past power over my present and I do have to take ownership of my life. Part of taking ownership, however, and it is the part he failed to recognize, is in acknowledging the past and daring to walk through the pain. In seeing how horrible it was, and allowing Jesus to heal that pain.
Freedom does not come through denial and suppression. If the past causes a present struggle, then I need to invite Jesus into that, allow Him to heal that past and set me free from the bondage of unforgiveness. The instant I choose to forgive, I am free from the burden of that perpetrator’s sins against me.
I have since spoken with many pastors who give very different advice to abuse victims. Thank God. The first two spoke out of ignorance and a lack of experience, and I won’t hold it against them. Fortunately I had Howard and Alice, and a few other great people, speaking into my life and the advice these pastors gave didn’t throw me. It could all have turned out very differently, had I been fragile and without support in either situation.
Somewhere between these two responses is a healthy response to abuse. Both of these examples go to show the importance of leaders being educated on the topic of sexual abuse, and sexuality in general, and knowing how to deal with abuse situations in a redemptive, healthy way. In knowing how to hear hearts, while not compromising God’s redemptive truth.
If you are a pastor reading this, or someone who works with victims, and would like resources, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to assist you.
© Trudy Metzger
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I really appreciate your balance and wisdom. Thank you, Trudy.
Thank you Peter.
Thanks for your transparency and for shedding light on the responsibility of the spiritual leader to handle matters in an understanding and compassionate way. Of course, that topic is difficult for some to address, but you are right that heartlessly telling someone to “get over it” and callously telling a Christian to kill their offenders is not the Christ-like way to handle that situation. It’s one of those situations where you just have to suffer long until God relieves the burden. And also use that suffering to give you enough strength to encourage others.
I love “And also use that suffering to give you enough strength to encourage others.” Even in our broken journey, this reality gives life and helps us heal. Silence cannot offer that kind of hope… Thank you.