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From Shame to Peace:
Ministering to Victims of Rape, Incest, and Abortion

As women openly acknowledge the injury and insult of sexual sins, how will the church respond?

By Gwen Shaw

When Christ walked the earth, He said that love would be the distinguishing mark of Christians. The way Christians care for women suffering from the trauma of rape, incest, preabortion, and postabortion prove the dynamic power of this love. We have a vivid depiction of God’s love in John 4 — where Christ encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. When He asked her for a drink of water, she in turn asked Him, “How can you ask me for a drink?” (verse 9).

Jesus replied, “If you knew the gift of God” (verse 10). I will apply various translations of the phrase, “If you knew the gift of God” to three areas:

The Pastor’s Privilege and Responsibility — “If You Just Knew What God Has To Give” (Williams)

The greatest privilege a pastor or Christian counselor has to offer a counselee — not available in other counseling situations — is the opportunity to introduce the counselee to the love of God and the power of His love to heal.

Competent to counsel

Pastors and Christian counselors hold a unique position in the lives of both believers and nonbelievers. People often view the pastor and Christian counselor as God’s representatives and caretakers of the Word of God. When a congregant or a person outside the church seeks help, he frequently sees the pastor as a safe, wise, trustworthy, compassionate healer who has the answer when other counselors are unable to provide lasting relief.

Because of the pastor’s unique position of authority, people approach him with the tenuous hope that he can provide the help they need. This can humble a pastor as well as increase his faith in God to help him be competent in counseling. His challenge is to allow the Holy Spirit the freedom to establish the right balance between the attitude of a humble servant — “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NKJV1) and a confident believer — “I can do everything through Christ” (Philippians 4:13, KJV).

The pastor’s heart attitude is crucial. He must be equally open and accepting of people who have presentable/acceptable issues and those who have unpresentable/objectionable issues. A pastor may feel uncomfortable or inadequate when dealing with people who have experienced incest, rape, abortion, or other sexual sins. This is what the Scripture describes as ministry to the “uncomely” parts (1 Corinthians 12:23–27, KJV).

Expressing the mind and heart of Christ

Pastors need to approach their involvement with wounded women with the mind and heart attitude of Christ —that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In spite of (or because of) the universality of man’s propensity toward sin, pastors must establish their mind and heart firmly in the love and compassion of Christ. To see wounded women coming for help through God’s eyes — as persons of value, worth, and great potential — is the first criteria in giving help. When pastors seeas God sees, their vision expands and compassion floods their heart.

Speaking truth in love

God’s love, coupled with openness and acceptance, puts the pastor in a position to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). This may be a new experience for the woman coming for help — to be aware that genuine love operates in the light of truth. Someone may have told her the truth in her past, but not in a loving way. Someone may have wounded her too much for her to receive the truth spoken in love.

Typically a person carrying the secret of a heinous sin initially discloses only to someone close to her who will generally say, “Oh, it’s okay. Don’t feel bad about it.” This makes the burden worse because it is not okay. She still feels guilty and ashamed. The pastor, having shown himself to be caring and safe, is in a position to speak truth: “Yes, this is sin; yes, it is bad; and yes, there is hope and healing for you.”

For example, the woman at the well was only able to tell one small bit of truth about herself: “I have no husband” (John 4:17). Jesus responded lovingly with greater truths and drew her into true worship (verses 21–24).

When a woman comes for help, she seldom presents the real issue. Rather, she starts with a problem easier to disclose. Pastors must have discernment. As pastors and counselors, we cannot simply be listening boards, hoping that by talking it out a counselee will come to wisdom and direction. We must guide the person into all truth. We call this counseling didactic — instructional in nature, geared toward moral change.

Serving as a bridge

When working with a woman dealing with sexual sin, the pastor needs to see himself as an intercessor or intermediary between the counselee and God. The pastor is a bridge for meeting her where she is and bringing her to where God wants her to be. Many women have never found a male (most pastors are males) they can trust enough to be truly vulnerable. They are tentative about trusting anyone. But when a woman is truthful and open, the pastor must continue to point her toward the Savior, Jesus Christ. A professor working with our staff and interns at our counseling center regularly reminds us: “Remember, each person walking through your door needs a Savior — and you are not Him. The Savior is Jesus Christ and you must point that person to Him.”

The purpose of a bridge is to move a person from one place to another. A bridge is simply a connector, not the highway. Therefore, the pastor must discern when to refer the counselee to the next helper — another counselor, a church member, or another leader who is equipped to mentor and disciple. The pastor may always be the counselee’s spiritual leader, but he should not always be her counselor. A wise pastor knows when he has completed his task and can safely transport her into the safe care of another helper.

The Woman’s Struggle — “If You Only Knew What God Gives” (New English)

Understanding her struggle

Pastors must have insight and understanding of the tremendous struggles women, who are contemplating an abortion, are having. In counseling, it is important to consider separately the activity prior to conception and the activity as a result of conception. A woman’s preabortion struggle differs from her postabortion turmoil.

The preabortion struggle depends on the level of choice the woman exercises in becoming pregnant. A victim of rape or incest has a different horror to deal with from the person choosing to engage in sexual activity in either a committed relationship or a promiscuous one.

Throughout history, in almost all (even the most primitive) cultures, anthropologists note there are behaviors that are taboo and universally rejected. Among these are rape and incest. The person perpetrating these sexual acts of dominance and rage does so because he feels he has power while the victim feels powerless. The victim of these acts finds herself in a position of little or no choice in a behavior that has profound impact on her life.

The result of a forced or unforced sexual activity may likely be the same — an unwanted pregnancy. With an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, a woman often thinks abortion is the only solution to her dilemma. However, she may consider all of her options — choose abortion, give birth and adopt out, or give birth and raise the child. Each decision has a powerful emotional impact on the woman. If the woman has already undergone an abortion, she may be experiencing the devastating aftermath of her decision. It is important to know that the preabortion struggle contrasts sharply from the postabortion turmoil.

Enduring insult and injury

A few common dynamics occur in the aftermath of traumatic preabortion and postabortion events.

  1. All women suffer injury and insult on every level of their personhood — physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, and relational.
  2. All women labor under a burden of guilt and shame and are unable to distinguish between good guilt that prompts conviction and bad guilt that traps one in condemnation.
  3. All women need love and forgiveness.

A pastor needs to understand the injury and insult a woman suffers no matter how distant or recent the event. Both injury and insult heavily affect one in all areas of life and relationships.

Revisiting Tamar’s tragedy

The story of David’s daughter Tamar (2 Samuel 13) is an example of the trauma and tragedy of rape or incest. Tamar’s half-brother (Amnon) was physically ill with lust for his beautiful half-sister. He may never have had the courage to act out his sexual lust if it had not been for a crafty and devious friend who helped construct a plot to entrap the young woman and attack her. Read the account and the words describing her reaction to Amnon’s behavior. “No, my brother, do not force and humble me, for no such thing should be done in Israel” (verse 12), “How could I rid myself of my shame?” (verse 13). “No! This great evil of sending me away is worse than what you did to me” (verse 16). “She put ashes on her head and tore the long sleeved robe which she wore, and she laid her hand on her head, and went away shrieking and wailing” (verse 19). “So Tamar dwelt in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman” (verse 20).

This story is a chilling realization of the immeasurable injury and insult inflicted by rape and/or incest. As a woman openly acknowledges the injury and insult, the pastor/counselor must explore and clarify with her the issue of guilt.

Transforming bad guilt to good guilt

Separating guilt from the entangled emotions of shame, humiliation, and anger can be difficult. When separation is possible, two kinds of guilt emerge— good and bad. Guilt can be good — a conviction brought about by God’s Holy Spirit because of the great love He has for His creation. But what about bad guilt? In the case of an abortion, some women describe it as not only killing their unborn child, but killing themselves. Others speak of a murder of the mothering instinct. These feelings help us understand the condemnation, worthlessness, and hopelessness a woman experiences. She becomes engulfed in fear that manifests itself in many forms, especially the fear that God will take from her a future child. She may also turn the hatred of herself toward a future husband or other male relationships.

I have clients who quote Micah 6:7: “I gave the ‘fruit of my womb for the sin of my soul’ and now I’ve added more sin to my uncleanness.” They feel they do not deserve forgiveness. They believe the prayers and Scriptures that work for others’ forgiveness and restoration just cannot work for them.

Women who think in these terms are the ones who practice self-punishment manifested in alcoholism, drug abuse, self-mutilation, eating disorders, continued destructive behavior, and relational conflicts. Pastors and counselors must gently yet firmly guide them into an awareness and acceptance of the unconditional and transforming love that God has for them in Christ Jesus. Pastors and counselors must teach them to identify and refute the lies and deceit that have trapped them in a pit of self-condemnation and destruction. These truths can move a person from bad guilt into the experience of good guilt.

Consider the difference:

Bad guilt — condemnation — is a sense that my thinking or behaving results in consequences that are deplorable. I am doomed to suffer continuing consequences that are irreversible and unredeemable. There is no hope of change for me.

Good guilt — conviction — is an awareness and sensitivity that my thinking or behaving is opposed to what God would choose. Conviction pricks my heart. I am troubled and disheartened until I confess my wrongdoing, turn, and agree with God that His way is right and best for me.

Once God transforms bad guilt into good guilt (or conviction) in a woman’s life, she is in a position to begin the process of forgiving herself and others. This process of receiving and granting forgiveness transforms her relationships, starting with her relationship to God, then to a changed sense of self. For someone whose trust has been violated it is a powerful thing to experience relationships as God intends them to be, built on a newfound trust.

The Church’s Response — “If You Knew the Generosity of God” (Rieu)

Becoming well equipped

The church community under the compassionate guidance of pastors can be an instrument in God’s hand in the continued care and work of reconciling and restoring ruptured relationships. Pastors who equip their people to disciple and mentor wounded women will see their investment reap rich rewards. When wise pastors link mature Christian women with struggling, wounded counselees, the counselees will experience acceptance and see themselves as part of God’s family. Whether the wounded woman had an abortion, given a child up for adoption, or chosen to raise the child, caretaking is a blessing to all involved. Furthermore, pastors should provide opportunity for the spiritually minded men in the church to minister to the men involved, as well as extended family members. When the body of Christ is more directly involved in the ministry of reconciliation, the Body is built up and grows together in love.

Mentoring and discipling

The church community should be involved in the ongoing counseling and care of victims of rape, incest, and abortion. Pastors should be knowledgeable of available resources and have connections with professional Christian counselors who are trained in didactic methods and who can help facilitate the continued healing process for wounded women.

The experience of Carol Everett is an example of how the church community can respond to wounded women. Carol had an abortion that led to her involvement in the abortion industry. In 1982, she experienced the saving, healing power of Christ. For the next few years, the husband and wife who led her to Christ counseled, discipled, and mentored her. Their small church welcomed, nourished, and supported her as she experienced forgiveness and healing. Today she is one of the most sought-after pro-life speakers in the nation. Her ministry (The Heidi Group) ministers to preabortion and postabortion women, their mates, and their families. She is testimony to the power of God working through His church.

I recently received a call from my pastor’s wife. She had met a young woman and cultivated a friendship with her. The young woman shared photos and talked about her child whom she adored. After a while, the young woman felt safe enough with my pastor’s wife to confide in her that she had had an abortion. In the following months, the young woman revealed that she had several abortions. Soon after that revelation my pastor’s wife called me.

After months of counseling, this young woman confessed her sin of abortion and received forgiveness. Her confession and forgiveness released her from alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, and the guilt and shame of several marriages ending in divorce (as well as some illicit relationships). The church took her into community where she restored her relationship with Christ. Today she is a caring, healthy, fully functioning person with a sense of purpose. She continually acknowledges the transforming power of the love of God.

Expanding God’s kingdom through restored vessels

Women whose lives have been transformed by Christ can be an immeasurable blessing to the body of Christ. They bring a unique blend of acceptance, compassion, and enthusiasm because of what they have experienced, from the wretched to the sublime. They love much because they feel they have been “forgiven much” (Luke 7:47). Not only are wounded women transformed, but so are those in the faith community who provide the loving, caring, compassionate ministry these women so desperately need.

Conclusion

To the pastor: “If you just knew what God has to give” — as you surrender yourself to be a channel of love to help hurting women experience God’s love, truth, and ultimate healing, you will enrich your personal life and expand the effectiveness of your ministry.

To the wounded women: “If you only knew what God gives” — as you receive His love, truth, forgiveness, and healing, there is a change that an encounter with Christ makes in all areas of your life.

To the church: “If you knew the generosity of God” — in providing the opportunity to participate with Christ in this work of reconciliation and restoration, you are expanding the kingdom of God.

To all of us: “If we truly knew the gift of God” — how might our encounters at the well be different?

GWEN SHAW, marriage and family therapist, Dallas, Texas.

Notes

1. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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