Some Responses to the Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children

Before I went to Africa, I wrote the beginning part of my article, "Where Was God: The Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children." Having written about the questions, I went on to talk about some theological ideas which might address these questions.

Is there God? If there is God, how could God love me? Is God stronger than evil?  How can a loving God allow devastating suffering? Is there healing? Can God be trusted? All of these questions are deeply spiritual and theological questions. They are human questions, asked at an early age. They have no easy answers. Perhaps listening to the questions is the most appropriate response anyway, and we have much to learn from the questions themselves.  But answers children will get, in and out of church, and some popular theological ideas will not serve them well. It is beyond the scope of this article or of my expertise to attempt an exhaustive exploration of the theological issues raised here. I will, however, name some theological ideas that are suggested by the witness of severe abuse.  

God’s love is unconditional

Imprinted bone deep with the erroneous conviction that they are bad, children of abuse hang on every word uttered about God and sin, until some of them, out of self protection, turn a deaf ear to all of it. Every proclamation of human sinfulness and blame coagulates their shame into dogma. Even assurances that they are “good” can backfire. Drenched in the secret shame of abuse, they know they are not good. Certainly any notion that God loves them if they are good is a consignment to hell. Only a word of love that takes them as they really are, caught in a web of obsessive evil, driven to allow their souls to be raped again and again, only absolute love no matter what they think, do or feel could meet these children where they are. How could a loving God not so love those who have been overwhelmed by abuse?

Even if we acknowledge that God has loved us “while we still were sinners,” (Rom 5:8) there may be other conditions on God’s love that our children’s experience may challenge.  I picked up a children’s book that told children that if they had faith, Jesus would love them and never leave them. How could a just God wait on the belief of a child (or the adult the child becomes) whose faith has been ripped apart by sexual assault and whose trust in God has been lost?  It is precisely the faith of the child that has been mortally damaged and is need of God’s compassion and healing. Only a theology that says that God’s love is unconditional can begin to address the questions raised here. Having known the limits of human will to accomplish the good, and having no faith in God on which to build, children of abuse show us that if there is a loving God, neither good works nor faith can be conditions on God’s love.

One powerful open door in the Christian tradition for me has been St. Julian of Norwich’s parable of the Lord and the servant. The Lord loves the servant and the servant the Lord. Filled with love, the servant rushes off to do the Lord’s bidding. But the servant falls into a ditch and becomes injured, disoriented and forgets his mission. The Lord sees him from afar and realizes that he is confused and hurt. The Lord trusts the good intent buried in the servant’s heart and has nothing but compassion for the servant. So God, according to Julian, has compassion for our sin.  Such an image makes sense of a loving God’s attitude toward one who has fallen into the vicious trap of sexual assault.

I was nurtured also by the abundant biblical references to God’s mercy and compassion. “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you” (Isaiah 54:10). 

None of this is to say that human sin does not matter or that a just and loving God would not want us to take responsibility for our actions and to work for the good. In this effort, adult survivors can and do work with the help of therapy, Twelve Step recovery, healing prayer, and by all means to stop destructive behaviors.  The wisdom of the Twelve Steps of AA strikes a helpful balance here in terms of accountability.  Like recovering addicts, adult survivors who are in the healing process from abuse do well to inventory, confess, and make amends when appropriate for the wrongs done to themselves and others, whether they were totally free to chose otherwise when they did the wrongs or not. (Such inventory can also help them be clear about what was not their fault or responsibility). Theologian Flora Slosson Wuellner makes the distinction between sins and wounds.  Sins are actions done by someone who knows the right and is completely free to do it, but does the wrong.  People acting out of wounds can do as much damage, but confession alone does nothing to change the behavior because they are not free to do otherwise and healing is needed. She suggests that more people are acting from wounds than freely chosen sin. She believes that, at the very least, every church service should have the sacrament of healing as well as confession. Julian uses the term “sin” more broadly, but says that God “regards sin as sorrow and pains for his lovers, to whom (God) assigns no blame.”

Christian artist Meinrad Craighead and Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, among others, have imaged God as Mother in a way that has brought God’s unconditional love to us in a powerful way, the way of a mother to her child. Biblical images like that in Isaiah, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Is 66:12-14) parallel therapeutic models of re-mothering which have been extremely effective in healing childhood sexual abuse. Abused children need hours and hours of holding, rocking, keening and soothing, whether they are now four or forty.  I have been re-mothered by an extraordinary therapist of faith, always with the calling forth of Sophia God. Such palpable experience of holy mother love was for me a most powerful window into faith. It was an experience of God. It helped address the lurking question, “is there God?’

I will discuss other theological ideas in following blog posts.


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d’s love is unconditional, then how could God allow such horrors to happen? Popular theolo


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