Category Archives: Abuse

Some thoughts on “When Restoration Hurts”


In case you haven’t seen it, Christianity Today recently published an essay entitled, “When Restoration Hurts: Christian counselors grapple with how to encourage reconciliation while protecting victims.” Not quite an expose, it does detail some of the damage done by biblical counselors pressing victims for forgiveness of and reconciliation with those who abused them.

The essay details some of the experience “Amanda” had, both when looking for help as a 17 year old after sexual abuse by her father had come to light and then later when she brought a complaint against the organization that had certified the counselor. The writer of the essay goes on to describe the landscape of biblical counseling, integrationist counseling, and a new version of Christian psychology before returning to the challenge of what Christian counseling care is available for victims and perpetrators. Of concern in this essay is how the biblical counseling group views the bible’s place in counseling victims of abuse.

Before I make my observations, which will only be a small portion of what could be discussed, I want to give some background. I was first trained by CCEF (mentioned in the article) and worked as a part-time counselor there. I still have many friends at that organization. I’m quite impressed with Darby Strickland’s teaching on abuse in families. I’m acquainted with ACBC (formerly NANC) and know many who have been certified by them. I got my psychological training at Wheaton College and there became good friends with Eric Johnson mentioned in the article and was present for the early days of the Christian Psychology movement. Then, I spent 18 years leading a MA counseling program at a seminary. While this background does not mean I am smarter than anyone else, I repeat here to say I know the people and the conversations well. Over the years I have listened to stories of pain and healing at the hands of counselors from all parts of the professional, biblical, and pastoral counseling worlds.

Some Observations

Here are some thoughts of mine about what problems lie behind the misapplication of spiritual principles in these cases of abuse.

Restoration over protection. When restoration is valued over protection, it can only be for the benefit of the one pressing for restoration. What benefit do they get? They get to feel that God is indeed in control. Why do you think that false prophets told the exiles in Babylon that in 2 years they would be back in the land? Was it to earn money? Doubtful. Was it to appear wise? Maybe. But, most of all, it was likely that in repeating this belief (based on knowledge that God would redeem) they could take comfort now rather than sit in the reality that life was broken and not likely going to be restored in their lifetime.

Misapprehending fruit of repentance. I’m going to skip over the large problem of counselors pressing for any change whatsoever. (Suffice it to say that pressing a client for forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, or any other action rarely works and more often causes harm. You cannot heal a trauma caused by misuse of power with more force–even if your goal is good.) One of the great mistakes counselors make is speaking as if they know the heart of another. In no case is this more true than trying to speak with confidence about those who have a long pattern of deception. Tears, time, nice words are not evidences of a changed heart. It is ironic that those who are caring most about righteousness, who seem to be aware of “bad” fruit of not reconciling with someone who has done harm, appear naive in recognizing that tears and the right words are not evidence of change. For example, if a parent who abuses a child seems wholly focused on return home and to church life, is it possible that they only want the benefits of repentance without the work? Might better evidence be a willingness to die to own desires and to ask, “what do those I harmed most need?” while looking for the answer from others.

I conclude this point noting that those in the biblical counseling tradition have been quite willing to acknowledge the problem of evil and deception in the human heart. It is strange, then that some hold those who resist reconciliation to a tougher standard than they do those who have been harming others in the dark but now claim repentant hearts.

Restoration to what? One disheartening experience mentioned in the essay is when those in power demand that the primary goal of forgiveness is restoration and reconciliation. The essay quotes Heath Lambert, former ACBC head, “the goal in ministry to an abuser–as long as he will receive such ministry–is to see him be restored to his family, and ultimately to Christ.” In Ezekiel 34 God charges the priests of Israel with abusing the people, as shepherds who feed on the sheep. In chapter 44 he announces judgment on these idolatrous priests. He will restore them but only to the work of cleaning up the mess after the sacrifices. They will not be restored to their previous position. Today, the modern equivalent would be for an abusive church leader to be allowed to clean the church and the toilets but not to preach, teach or lead. Lambert is right in desiring to see restoration to Christ but his apparent assumption that the restoration would be to position (family) seems faulty. The goal should be to be present with the perpetrator on their journey rather than focus on the final destination.

Pride is the issue. “…Several victims pointed out the difficulty of knowing when real change [in perpetrators] has happened, and that it was prideful for their counselor to assume they knew the hearts of their abusers.” Pride is one of the greatest sins of counselors and pastors. We think we know the problem/diagnosis and therefore we know the solution. The great trap for spiritual leaders and helpers is that we want to be seen as such.

Do you want to be a leader? Be a servant. In this case, be a student of those you want to help. Learn from them. Stop trying to dictate what they do and how they do it. When we experience pride as therapists we stop asking questions of ourselves, stop evaluating our motives and our hypotheses, stop desiring to learn. This can happen to licensed therapists as well as pastoral counselors. Those who want to work with trauma should ready widely those who have the most experience with trauma–regardless of their religious and philosophical moorings. Those who want to work with people who have abused power ought to learn from those who have worked most closely with patterns of deception. Don’t assume you know something just because you know basic categories of right and wrong. Your pride may be evident to those practiced in deception who will tell you what you want to hear (your greatness) in order for you to do their bidding.

Nothing harms the bible and Christian counseling more than someone with half understanding of basic ideas acting as if their opinions should be taken as pure doctrine. If you are facing a situation where you are wanting either a perpetrator or victim to progress, take a moment and write down what you think their most pressing need is today. Take a moment to listen well and see if they also agree. When pressures mount to get to some destination, resist it. Pray for God to give light to the path today. Let him hold the concern for where the journey ends. For that we can be sure he will be faithful to complete in his timing.

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Free webinar on the impact of child abuse on adult mental and spiritual health


Consider joining me September 4, 2019 on a webinar hosted by The Partnership Center: Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, US Dept of Health and Human Services. I will be presenting on the spiritual impact of child abuse on adult survivors.

Part IV: Mental Illness 101: Childhood Trauma and Mental Health Impacts

Wedneday, September 4, 2019 | 12:00 —1:00 p.m. EDT

Register at: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/437d661ca5d8d0c434538d7d4481ef37  

Trauma ― specifically trauma experienced as children or adolescents ― can significantly impact individuals across their entire lives. In fact, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (@NCTSN) notes that survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to have long-term health problems or are at higher risk to die at an earlier age than their peers.  With so many walking wounded souls in our midst, people are starting to ask, “How can I make a difference?” Our July webinar will focus on this important factor impacting many people who are struggling with mental illness concerns – untreated childhood trauma. Our goals are to equip local faith and community leaders with the signs and symptoms of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and provide the proven resources they can incorporate into their congregational and community outreach efforts.  Register today for our September 4th webinar, and invite a friend

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Advice for church leaders when dealing with abuse in congregant families


Looking for a good introduction and tips to respond well when abuse is alleged or exposed? Dr. Diane Langberg has a great blog as your launch point: http://www.dianelangberg.com/2019/02/recommendations-for-churches-dealing-with-abuse/.

I could summarize it but I’d rather you just go and read it!

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Live stream the 2018 Global Community of Practice conference, March 13-15


This year the Global Community of Practice is on the theme of generational trauma (and its antidotes). If you aren’t coming, you may wish to access the live stream link below and watch the main sessions. I believe the link will contain the means to text or type logo-thiquestions and comments to what you are seeing. A moderator will review the comments and questions to be included in large group discussions so your thoughts may well be part of the global discussion.

See Agenda flyer listing the program for the next three days. The times listed are Eastern Daylight Time. Be sure to note the time that Diane Langberg is speaking on Tuesday on “living with generational trauma” and her closing on Thursday afternoon. There are many other can’t miss moments: devotions by Rev. Gus Roman and Carol Bremer-Bennett; presentations by Dr. Michael Lyles, Carolyn Custis James, Rod Williams and many more.

Live stream link: abs.us/COPLive

 

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When don’t we support victims of abuse?


At the American Bible Society, where I work, those of us involved in trauma healing often say that what gets us up in the morning is our mission to equip the church to be a safe place, a place of hope and healing, for traumatized individuals. I think most Christians want to believe that the church is a safe place for the most vulnerable among us.

But this has not been the case for far to many who report child or adult abuse and harassment.

Now, as a son of a pastor, I am well aware of the challenges pastors and church leaders have in leading their congregations. Frequently, the leaders need the wisdom of Solomon, especially in cases of life and death conflict. The work of pastoring through abuse allegations is never easy. Don’t let your love of the church stop you from reading the rest!

I imagine we all believe that the Church can do so much better. And we ought to be asking ourselves, why have we failed as much as we have? In theory, we are always against abuse and always for protecting the vulnerable. But it does not always play out this way.

Consider what responses might be given to these three “first meeting” vignettes:

  1. A woman comes to church leadership to seek pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-known to be antagonistic to church and to the Christian faith.
  2. A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-respected in the community and has been a Sunday School teacher for the past decade. She is also known to be a wise and careful woman.
  3. A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. The man is involved in the church and the woman has been known to be a bit of a church hopper.

Whether or not there is objective evidence supporting her allegations what response should these women receive? Will it be the same? Will the compassion and support offered be the same for each woman? Who will be treated with more compassion, who will be treated with more suspicion (or even just neutrality)? Will the amount of circumstantial evidence influence our response?

Minto, Hornsey, Gillespie, Healy, & Jetten (2016) have attempted to research (a) whether we are more likely to fail to support abuse victims when the abuser is one of our own and (b) whether circumstantial evidence will change our position. [You can download their full-text research essay here.] Their interest was exploring how social identity (what group you are a part of and have pride in) influences how we handle allegations of abuse by fell0w group members.

Study 1. 601 individuals read a vignette of an adult male alleging that a priest sexually abused him as a ten year old. The vignette included details of the alleged abuse and the rebuttal made by the defense attorney for the priest. Catholics, Prostestants, and non-believers all rated the assumed credibility of the victim and the perpetrator. Results indicate both Catholic and Protestant individuals with high church identity were significantly more likely to defend the accused and doubt the accuser. This was especially true if their faith was central to their core identity.

Study 2. 404 individuals also read the same vignette however the level of circumstantial evidence against the priest was manipulated. For some, the survey participants learned that church authorities were not defending the priest and that there had been a previous suspension for similar behavior (i.e., higher certainty of truth). The remaining participants learned that there had been no other cases and that this case was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The results for this study indicate,

ingroup participants were more likely to defend the integrity of the accused (and to cast doubt on the accuser) than were other participants, an effect that was exclusively driven by high identifiers. Interestingly–and somewhat surprisingly–this effect was not moderated by the subjective level of certainty surrounding the guilt of the accused.

In other words, those who highly identify with the Catholic church are more likely to defend the accused even when there is considerable circumstantial evidence against that person.

While this research was carried out examining responses to Catholic priest allegations, it appears that the problem does not lie only within the Church. Consider the obstructing responses of Michigan State to allegations of Dr. Nasser’s abuse of young female athletes over the years. The authors conclude,

Our data confirm that such highly identified ingroup members are the least willing to believe that the accusations are based on fact. This helps to provide psychological explanations for qualitative and anecdotal accounts of senior group members failing to adequately follow up allegations of child sexual abuse within their institution.

But why? The authors ask, wouldn’t the ingroup members be more motivated to purify their ranks by rejecting those who are accused of bad behavior? What is gained (or lost) by standing by accusers when the there is circumstantial evidence of abuse and no evidence of circumstantial evidence of lying on the side of the accuser? This is the challenge for those of use who listen to stories of abuse that happen in our own cherished communities.

Until we solve this problem, we will stand with the young women who accused Dr. Nasser of sexual abuse because he was not one of us but refuse to do the same when the accused is one of our own.


For further reading on reasons why we fail to act well in light of abuse allegations or reports of failures to act:

  1. Why we fail to act: Sins of complicity
  2. Failures to act: Why we don’t always blow the whistle on abuse
  3. After failures: What is more important? Gospel behaviors or reduction of liability?

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If you thought about posting #metoo, consider taking this poll.


Are you watching #metoo trending in social media settings? It is sobering to remember that the numbers of men and women who have suffered sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are astronomical. Such posts have the opportunity to help others recognize this hidden wound that many carry around their entire lives. I’m grateful when a victim is able to voice something that has held power over them for far too long. It can be part of the healing journey. And yet I also know that voicing our pain can lead to further pain. I’ve created this anonymous poll to find out how those who have considered posting #metoo (whether you posted or not does not matter) to see how the hashtag trend is impacting them. Results will only show how many numbers of votes per option.

Thankful for all who respond here.

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Trauma-informed Churches: Clinical, Pastoral, and Theological Support for Victims of Trauma


Today I will be presenting a one hour breakout at the 2017 AACC World Conference in Nashville, TN. If you are interested in seeing the slides, down them here.

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Spiritual Abuse and Toxic Systems: Therapeutic and Congregational Interventions


Today Dr. Diane Langberg and I will be presenting Spiritual Abuse and Toxic Systems in a 3 hour pre-conference seminar at the 2017 AACC World Conference. Take a look if you like.

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Belief that a rape victim is responsible for the assault misunderstands what rape is all about


This morning I was reading a journal article in the latest issue of Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice & Policy (vol 9:3, special issue on South Africa). In discussing rape of women in the context of South Africa, the authors report

In a recent study, 17% of the South African women agreed that rape usually results from what a woman says or does. (p. 310)

Does this number seem high or low to you? 

While 17% do not make up the majority of women, it is not a small number either. Without being able to see the original study, I had the following questions:

  • 17% of South African women agree that rape usually is the result of female behavior. How many more believe that it is sometimes true?
  • What are the numbers for what men believe about the problem of rape?

Lest we think that this is just a problem in less evolved countries (note: that perception is offensive and false), we have the same conversation debate here in the US about whether a woman is responsible for what happens to her if she drinks too much at a party or wears the wrong sort of clothing.

What is behind rape?¹

Rape by men requires two factors: aggression and arousal. First, the rapist is aggressive and uncaring about the experience of the other, willing to take what they want by physical, verbal, or psychological force. Often (though not always) the rapist experiences anger, both during and after the rape. And second, the male must be sexually aroused in order to rape. Normally, one would think that aggression and anger would extinguish arousal but this is not the case for those who engage in rape.

What enables this pairing? Several factors are clearly involved:

  1. Obsession. When someone is obsessed with sex or power or anything at all it has a tendency to shape a person and to increase self-focus and shape beliefs about what others think and want. Wants become needs become demands. “I want” becomes “I’m deserve.” This is even true for those rapes that appear un-premeditated.
  2. Fantasy. Coupled with obsession, a person must then begin to fantasize about getting the obsession. They may find ways to normalize what they want (e.g., the other person wants it in their fantasy). No one rapes without having practiced in their mind.
  3. Objectification. Others only exist as opportunities to solve the obsession. They don’t have feelings. They don’t have needs. They don’t matter. The best example of this in Scripture is Amnon’s rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13).
  4. Blame-shifting. The victim wanted it, asked for it, deserved it. Alcohol was the cause. They didn’t know it was wrong. They couldn’t help it. Any number of excuses may be at work to shift blame. In order to avoid the crushing weight of a stricken conscience, one would have to find a means to shift blame or deny reality.

Is there a culture of rape?

If a significant portion of a population believes either that victims of rape are responsible for the crime or that perpetrators are unable to stop themselves, then where do those beliefs come from? Culture can support these beliefs, either in an active or passive manner. Mostly commonly we see passive means at work. For example,

  • Failing to investigate he said/she said crimes and thereby failing to bring justice supports rape
  • Responding first to victims about their culpability
  • Promoting violence in media towards victims as normal and acceptable

Who is responsible for rape?

While we can say that sexual violence is multi-factorial (learning, culture, history, habits, opportunity, etc.) it is wrong to say that the victim has brought it on. In fact, a naked individual actually asking to be violated cannot succeed unless there is someone willing to respond. Drunken, flirty, scantily dressed women cannot cause rape (once again, a terrible perception that most victims fit these descriptors). Thus, the only one responsible for a rape is the one doing that act.

For Christians, this should be a no-brainer:

Luke 6:45. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

2 Cor 5:10. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

What can we do?

Simple acts are best.

  1. Notice and correct all “explanations” about causes of rape that do not put the blame solely on the perpetrator.²
  2. Notice and speak up about messages from the larger culture that make light of violence, especially sexual violence. In fact one special area is the sexual abuse of teen boys by female teachers. This is all to commonly treated as a win for the boy. It is not.
  3. Engage in community discussion about the shame tactics used to blame victims for their situation.

¹Rape is not only committed by males against females. And there are many reasons why men rape and many contexts in which it happens. This post is not trying to speak to all the types of rapists nor all of the contexts where it happens. It is only focusing on the rape of women by men as that was the context of the initial article.
²There is a time to discuss with both perpetrators and victims about aspect of the situation that may have contributed. A rapist may need to explore how family history or personal abuse history contributed to their acting out. A victim may also need to explore some of their own choices that may have increased their vulnerability to being victimized. The challenge is knowing when. While avoiding these conversations can be unhelpful, having them too early can be deadly to the soul.

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Systemic sins: Why might we discount them?


I just finished reading “In God’s House” by Ray Mouton. It is a terribly disturbing novel (barely one as it is thinly disguised from  his real life) about the massive cover-up of pedophile priests in Louisiana in the early to mid 1980s. Like the Spotlight story in Boston more than 15 years later, those in positions of power in this story (or those who felt the loss of church integrity too much to lose) found ways to deny that a systemic problem existed. Some knew full well and denied the systemic cover-up and obstructed justice as often as they could. Others did not have the facts but chose to minimize the consequences when evidence was presented to them–frequently out of fear for bringing scandal to the church.

But before we get too self-righteous about the problem of child abusing priests, let’s consider how we respond when a system we love is accused of significant and systemic evil. Let me give you a couple of examples, beginning with the trivial

  1. The home run steroid era in baseball. If your favorite team had several players caught taking steroids. Would you acknowledge the problem and suggest that awards won by the team should be revoked…or would you point to the fact that all the teams (possibly true) had steroid users as well?
  2. The race and incarceration problem. African Americans are inordinately represented in prison populations despite being a smaller minority group in the United States. Of course the problem is complex. But can we agree that racial discrimination on a systemic level plays a large role?

Notice that both the trivial and the serious examples are complex and that multiple factors can be implicated in the problem. Notice also that not everyone involved in the incarceration issue are evidence of systemic problems. For example, there are good judges and biased judges. There are profiling police and upright police. There are wrongly accused and justly punished. And yet, we do have a serious problem of sending more Black men to prison than we do men of other races. Naming this problem does not condemn all involved in the justice system. But the problem still exists and reveals some systemic evil.

Is it possible to name a problem without going first to a defense (or attack of another’s position)? It seems this is our common first response when a system we love comes under fire.

Common System Defense Tactics

This week, after the events of Charlottesville and the debates over the statues of leaders of the Confederacy, we see some of these types of responses:

“Well, should we remove all statues, including Washington and Jefferson since they too are tainted? 

“Can’t we celebrate the values we see in General Lee?”

“The other side’s extremists also bear some fault.”

Let’s get specific about some of these tactics which are responses we may go to first, before listening to the concerns of the other:

  • Blame-shifting. Point out the sins/flaws of those pointing out the sins of the system.
  • Sin-leveling. We’re all sinners so no one can point a finger. If every system is tainted, then no system gets to call out the sins of another system.
  • Emphasizing the good. If a system has flaws, quickly point out the good it has done.
  • Pointing out the exceptions. If an exception to the complaint exists, then point it out to invalidate the complaint.
  • Taking the complaint to the extreme. If a system has flaws then take the complaint to the extreme to invalidate it. Example: Complaint: some statues need to come down. Response: So, I guess we need to remove all statues of those who stood for things we don’t like.

System Justification: An Explanation?

Aaron Kay and Justin Friesen discuss factors behind justifying a broken system in their 2011 paper, “On social stability and social change: Understanding when system justification does and does not occur.” They pinpoint 4 factors common in responses that justify maintaining status quo: system threat, system dependence, system inescapability, and low personal control. In other words, when a system I am connected to is threatened and I feel somewhat dependent on it, but it is a large system (e.g., a government or a religion), and I personally cannot make a change, then I’m likely to defend it. In the words of these and other authors, system justification is when “people are motivated to perceive existing social arrangements as just and legitimate” even if not always fair to all.  (Kay et al, 2009, p 421).¹ “…Thus, when little can be done to change [a system that is unfair], people will likely be motivated to justify their system in an attempt to view it in a more legitimate, fair, and desirable light” (Kay et al, p. 422). Why would we do this? The authors say to reduce the sense of threat and anxiety that would come in acknowledging a sick system.

It wasn’t that long ago that our country was embroiled in controversy around big tobacco companies. After clear evidence of tobacco’s role in causing cancer, some still insisted that control of tobacco companies (especially their advertising) would harm the country. These companies paid billions in taxes, they employed hundreds of thousands of people and farmers needed to make a living. They gave generously to many important non-profits. And anyway, the product was legal and bought on a voluntary level.

In an interview in the New York Times Magazine in 1994, a lawyer for Philip Morris had this to say to his daughter regarding tobacco,

And I told her that a lot of people believe that cigarette smoking is addictive but I don’t believe it. And I told her the Surgeon General says some 40 million people have quit smoking on their own. But if she asked me about the health consequences, I would tell her that I certainly don’t think it’s safe to smoke. It’s a risk factor for lung cancer. For heart disease. But it’s a choice. We’re confronted with choices all the time. Still, I’d have to tell her that it might be a bad idea. I don’t know. But it might be.

The author of that essay (with extensive interviews of Philip Morris executives) did not conclude that they were morally bankrupt individuals. Instead, he concluded,

The best answer, which isn’t particularly satisfying, is that people in groups behave differently, and usually worse, than they do singly. In speaking with these Philip Morris executives, I felt the presence of the company within the person. In the end, I felt that I was speaking with more company than person, or perhaps to a person who could no longer distinguish between the two. 

A Question and A Challenge

A question for each of us: Which “company” –system–are you so beholden to that you are inclined first to defend status quo? Your “companies” may include the NFL (the CTE problem), a political movement, a beloved pastor, a denomination, a school.

And a challenge: Be willing to discuss what is before moving on to what ought to be. Discuss the problems. Own them even if you have no power to change them. Then later you can have a discussion about what to do.


¹Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Peach, J. M., Laurin, K., Friesen, J., Zanna, M. P., & Spencer, S. J. (2009). Inequality, discrimination, and the power of the status quo: Direct evidence for a motivation to see the way things are as the way they should be. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology97(3), 421-434.

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