Christ Alone Can Mend A Shattered Soul
How the Gospel Speaks to the Issue of Child Abuse.
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” . . . and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals. And . . . I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain . . .. Revelation 5:2-6 ESV.
Child Abuse: Sad Statistics, The Church, and My Own Story
In February 2020, the last full month before the COVID-19 shutdown, the Orange County Social Services Agency received referrals for suspected child abuse involving 1,217 children. Of those children, 458 were suspected victims of sexual abuse, 623 were suspected victims of physical abuse, and 136 were suspected victims of emotional abuse. [i] On an annualized basis, this data suggests that the agency receives approximately 15,000 such referrals in a year. Many in the child protection community anticipate that these numbers will skyrocket once children return to schools after the COVID-19 shutdowns, as children have been confined to their homes and some have been forced to months on end with their abusers.
On a national level, child protection agencies across the United States reported that at least 135,543 children had been the victims of child abuse in 2018. Of those victims, 47,124 children had been the victims of sexual abuse, 72,814 children had been the victims of physical abuse, and 15,605 children had been victims of psychological abuse. [ii]
Both the Orange County statistics and the federal statistics are likely under-reporting the extent of the problem because child abuse often remains unreported due to frequent involvement by family members or close family friends. For example, the National Children’s Alliance reports that Children’s Advocacy Centers across the United States investigated 243,039 cases of child sexual abuse allegation in 2019. [iii]
Underreported or not, these statistics are heart-wrenching. The thought that no less than 150,000 children a year are the victims of child abuse should bring tears to our eyes and righteous anger to our chests.
But before we are tempted think that child abuse is only happening outside the church, we must face the fact that the church has too often provided a place where child abuse could happen and remain hidden. We all know about the major sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church all over the world, as well as other major denominations. Looking closer to Irvine, just four headlines in the last few years show that child abuse is a real issue within the body of Christ:
- “OC Pastor Arrested Again, Charged in Molestation of 7 Children as Young as 5 Years Old: DA“[iv];
- “Santa Ana Youth Pastor Arrested for Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Minor”[v];
- “Youth leader at Santa Ana church arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting two minors” [vi];
- “OC Youth Pastor Accused of Sexual Assault Inside Church.” [vii]
These statistics about the numbers of victims of child abuse aren’t mere numbers for me. These headlines about sexual abuse within the church aren’t just random stories to me. They are reality, and they remind me of my story.
I was a victim of child abuse. Over a period of three years, between the ages of 10 and 13, I was sexually abused by a close family friend and well-respected member of my parents’ church. Thus, my soul echoes the cries of those victims for justice and healing.
A Grave Injustice: The Two-Fold Sin of Child Abuse
When thinking about child abuse, I believe it is important to view it as a grave injustice against the soul of a child – actually, a two-fold sin against the soul of a child. First, through child abuse, the abuser sins against the child by committing violence against the child’s soul. Second, through child abuse the abuser sins against the child by pushing the child farther away from a life of dependence on our Heavenly Father and towards a life separated from God. I will try to briefly unpack this two-fold sin, while focusing on the second aspect because it may be less obvious to some.
Child Abuse: Violence to the Child’s Soul
Secular literature covers abundantly the different ways child abuse, regardless of its form, does physical and psychological harm to a child. Sometimes the physical or sexual abuse causes outward physical injuries. But even when those outward physical injuries are not present or are minor and temporary, the psychological harm is much more enduring, oftentimes affecting the child for the rest of the child’s life (absent of Christ’s intervention). Such psychological harm takes countless forms, such as anxiety, depression, nightmares, attention deficit disorder, PTSD, and on and on the list goes.
But the Bible teaches us that children are much more than their bodies or even their minds. Children are image bearers, created in image of God. Children are living souls. Thus, when the abuser sexually, physically or emotionally abuses a child, the abuser commits violence against all of the child created in the image of God, including the child’s soul. Have you ever looked into the eyes of child abuse victim who had lost hope? If the eyes are the window to the soul, the eyes of so many victims tell a story of souls shattered by the evil committed against them.
Child Abuse: Causing One of the Little Ones to Stumble
If committing violence against the whole child (body, mind, and soul) wasn’t sin enough, the abuser sins against the child in a second way by making the child stumble into sin and by pushing the child away from their Heavenly Father. You may not have expected to read these words when you started reading. It is not something that you hear very often when the issue of child abuse is addressed, even in the church, and you sure won’t find it in the secular literature. But I believe this is the even more pernicious aspect of child abuse and the one that often has eternal consequences, which is why it is so important that we talk about it.
The New Testament passage that captures best this second aspect of the sin of child abuse is Jesus’ warning in Luke 17:
“And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” Luke 17:1-2 ESV
Jesus tells his disciples that temptations to sin are a normal part of life this side of Eden; they are sure to come. We should expect them and be on our guard against them. But then Jesus says something more. He issues a warning to those who would bring about temptations, “Woe to the one through whom they come!” I believe this warning can apply in many contexts, but one of them is child abuse. Jesus says to the child abuser “Woe.” In stark terms, Jesus tells the child abuser that it would be better to have a millstone hung around their neck and be cast into the sea than to cause one of the “little ones” to sin.
If you are victim of child abuse (or a loved one of a victim), I hope you will hear me, a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself, when I say that the most evil aspect of child abuse is that it often forces the child to learn defensive mechanism to protect themself from further harm, which, in turn, keeps the child from trusting the only One who is truly trustworthy and can truly protect the child from ultimate and final harm.
Child abuse is overwhelmingly committed by someone in a relationship of trust, like a family member, a close family friend (as in my case), or another trusted person, such as a teacher or a pastor/priest. While there are cases where a complete stranger abuses a child, such cases are the rare exception. The reason for this is obvious. Most parents do not allow their children, especially younger children, to spend unsupervised time in the presence of people they don’t trust. And because child abuse is almost always committed by someone the child (and the child’s parents) trust, the abuse fundamentally harms the child’s ability to trust and, the closer the relationship, the greater the loss in ability to trust.
In response to being hurt by someone they trusted, the child subconsciously learns that they must protect themself against future pain, developing one or more self-protective mechanisms. While this response is natural and initially necessary for self-preservation, these mechanisms all too often harden into patterns of behavior that are fundamentally sinful because they are based on the falsehood that only the child can protect themself from harm, even better than God. Ultimately, many victims struggle to truly trust anyone, relying on themselves rather than the only One who can truly protect their souls from ultimate harm.
Thus, every child abuser makes one of God’s little ones to stumble. In doing so, child abuse creates the need for repentance and forgiveness in both the abuser (for the two-fold sin of harming the victim and making the victim stumble into the sin) and the victim (for the ultimately wrongful response towards God in answer to the harm done to them by the abuser). It is an important part of healing for the child or the adult working through their childhood trauma to recognize how the child abuse pushed them further away from God and to choose to turn and run to Him, knowing that He is worthy of their trust. [viii]
The Church and Child Abuse - The Need for Corporate Repentance
Sadly, others in the church often add to pain the child abuse victim experiences. When the child finally finds the courage to confide in someone about what was done to them, the child often finds one of several responses in the church: (1) disbelief; (2) silence; and (3) a preoccupation with bringing the abuser to repentance.
When this happens, the impact can be devastating. As if abuse at the hands of a professing Christian isn’t enough to push the child away from the Christian faith, the wrong response by the child’s church will only compound the problem and push the child even further away from a trust-worthy God.
This is what I experienced when I first told my story. There were some who did not believe me, who couldn’t believe that the honorable and beloved member of our church would do what I, and ultimately others, accused him of doing. I cannot put into words how deeply it hurt when people did not believe me. Even after the abuser had confessed to at least some of his actions, some in the church, including some of the elders, continued to doubt my story and downplay the severity of the abuser’s actions. When the time came to respond to what had happened, the elders in my parents’ church put their emphasis on restoring the sinner to repentance rather than caring for me and the other victims. Little was done to help us feel safe and see that the church cared about the pain we had experienced.
How did the church respond as a whole? While some in the church spoke up on behalf of the victims and called out the church’s erroneous response, the vast majority remained silent. Ultimately, almost all the victims’ families left the church.
I wish that my experience was unique and that most of the time churches respond better to revelations of child abuse. However, all the stories about child abuse in various denominations that have come to light in the last 10-15 years suggest that my experience is akin to what many other victims have experienced. Far too often, the church covers up or downplays incidents of child abuse and thereby enables abusers to continue with their evil actions. And the negative witness this has created for the church in the world cannot be overstated. As such, I believe there is a need for corporate repentance by the church for how we have failed to reflect Christ to the world in our response to child abuse in our midst.
Christ Came To Mend Shattered Souls
Child abuse is a tragic reality for way too many children. The effects of child abuse are devastating and the two-fold sin of child abuse forever alters the life of the victim. I believe that the best methods and medications of the secular world can do nothing more than numb the pain and provide partial healing of the body and the mind. This world is incapable of mending a shattered soul.
Only Christ Can!
Why did I start this blog post with a passage out of Revelation, which on first glance has nothing to do with child abuse? Because in those words is found the only hope for shattered souls. In those words we see the only One who can mend what has been irreparably broken - the Lion who is the Lamb that was slain.
In Revelation 5, John finds himself in the throne room of God and the One who sits on the throne is holding a scroll. A mighty angel asks whether there is anyone who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll. The answer is that no one is worthy to open the scroll and read it, no one in heaven, on earth, or under the earth. At that news, John begins to weep loudly.
Why does John weep at the news that no one is worthy to open scroll? What is on that scroll that would make John weep when learning that no one is able or allowed to open it? While we won’t fully know the answer this side of eternity, the scholarly explanation I have found most satisfactory is that this scroll contains the answers to all our questions about why there is so much suffering in the world, why there is so much injustice, and how everything can be made right.
John weeps because no one is worthy to open the scroll that would make sense of all our pain, that would explain how God was at work in and through all of our suffering, and that would explain how God could heal our shattered souls.
But then something happens, as John weeps, one of the elders says to him: “Weep no more.” There is One who is worthy - the Lion of Judah - He is worthy. But when John looks for the Lion, he sees something different altogether. He sees a lamb looking as though it had been slain.
When I think about that picture, tears come into my eyes, and I find hope for myself and for all the victims of child abuse. The hope is found in the Lion who became the Lamb, the strong One who became weak, so that He could mend our broken souls. He is the One who can open the scroll and He knows the answers to all of our questions.
When Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth, He opened a scroll and read from the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” Luke 4:18-19 ESV.
That is why Jesus came. He came to mend shattered souls.
But how did he do it? By laying aside His glory, the glory of the Lion of Judah and becoming the lamb who was slain. Again, the words of the Prophet Isaiah express it so beautifully:
"He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:3-5 ESV
It is only His wounds that can make the shattered soul of a child abuse victim whole.
A Hope That Transforms Tears
I want to end this blog post where I started, with the book of Revelation, words that bring tears to my eyes whenever I read them. For although Christ has been mending my broken soul for these last 23 years, I still bear the scars of those years of sexual abuse. My body and mind still subconsciously respond to stress differently than I would like. But it will not always be that way. A day is coming when:
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4 ESV.
That is a hope that will transform tears of sorrow into tears of joy.
With that, I have only a few more words to say:
- If you are like me, a victim of child abuse, there is hope.
- If you are a family member of a victim, there is hope.
- If you don’t know anyone who is a victim, open your eyes and see us, we are here. Share hope.
- If you are or have been an abuser, repent and humble yourself under His mighty hand.
We hope this blog was helpful for you. If you are a victim of child abuse, or have had your life impacted by child abuse in some way, we want to hear from you and do our best to care for you.
If reading this article impacted you in some way, we would love to hear from you as well. We want to continue this important conversation in the months and years ahead, and we would appreciate your feedback. Would you take a minute and fill out this quick survey?
[i] Orange County Social Services Agency, Child Abuse Registry Statistical Report, February 2020, https://ocssa.ocgov.com/CARSA/MonthlyStaticRep.aspx (accessed July 4, 2020).
[ii] 2018 Child Maltreatment, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children’s Bureau, p. 55 ( https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2018.pdf. These statistics represent victims where only one form of maltreatment (e.g., sexual abuse, physical abuse) was identified. If multiple maltreatments were identified, the statistics do not identify whether some of them fell within the three categories of child abuse, rather than some form for neglect.
[iii] National Children’s Alliance, National Statistics On Child Abuse, https://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/national-statistics-on-child-abuse/.
[iv] KTLA5 (May 13, 2019), https://ktla.com/news/local-news/o-c-pastor-arrested-again-accused-of-molesting-7-children-between-the-ages-of-5-and-15-da/.
[v] Eastvale News (October 16, 2018), https://anapr.com/2018/10/16/santa-ana-youth-pastor-arrested-for-aggravated-sexual-assault-of-a-minor/.
[vi] The OC Register (April 10, 2019), https://www.ocregister.com/2019/04/10/youth-leader-at-santa-ana-church-arrested-on-suspicion-of-sexually-assaulting-two-minors/.
[vii] CBS Los Angeles (November 7, 2015), https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2015/11/07/oc-youth-pastor-accused-of-sexual-assault-inside-church/.
[viii] I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Allender and his book The Wounded Heart in helping me to understand this reality and to learn to let go little by little of all the ways I learned to protect myself in response to three years of sexual abuse. All these defensive mechanisms kept me from trusting even the people closest to me, and, most importantly, from trusting God.