Where was God? The Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children, Part 2


The Experience of the Absence of God  / Is there God?

            Belief in our own badness functions as a survival mechanism, not only protecting us from soul pain, but also preventing us from the worse terror: our powerlessness in the face of an unpredictable and sometimes violent world. If I am bad, they think, then there is at least some reason, some morality by which I am being punished. There is order in the universe. There is also the possibility that if I am very, very good, that I can avoid at least some of what could happen. To give up this sense of badness is to be faced with a chaos that is intolerable for a child. That terrible things can happen to and in the body with no reason and with no way to predict or control them is unthinkable. As we have seen, however, it is not in the power of a child or adult survivor to give up the shame without intensive intervention, even if they were able to face this fear.

            Yet underneath the shame, the fear of chaos does lurk, and it informs the spiritual journey profoundly.  My own most powerful experience of this terror occurred one of the times I left my body during an episode of sexual violence. I experienced Nothingness, a state of being lost and separated from everything, that would haunt me all of my life. The absence of God was not a theoretical state; it was a place I had been.  Other survivors have spoken to me of their familiarity with this place of Nothingness.   The loss of parts of themselves through repression and splitting, too, can result in a terror of being lost and of chaos. Roman Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, writes about ways in which we experience God’s absence. She says the experience of the loss of the self is a loss of the experience of God.[1]              

            The doubt about order and about God comes not only from experiencing the terrible void or the loss of self.  Children may doubt that there is any divine plan because they simply cannot imagine that such craziness, unpredictability and horror could be part of it.  What happens to them as children may be so far out of their understanding that they have to repress and deny it rather than face the terror of such chaos. Other children’s daily lives may be so filled with chaos that it is simply what they know and believe in. Some adult survivors doubt God’s existence because of their long-term struggles with effects of sexual abuse: dissociation, addictions, emotional numbness, panic attacks, clinical depression, sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, PTSD and, for some, multiple personality disorder.

            The theological question of whether there is a God has an urgency in the souls of those who have experienced severe trauma. During my college years I let myself doubt whether God existed, and I was plunged into a deep depression. Children of abuse have been taken to a place that looms behind every child’s fear of being lost and of the dark. Some children have experiences of God’s presence with them even in these dark places, and at other times, and this faith in God carries them through childhood and sometimes beyond. For many others, the conviction (or at least the fear) that there is no God lies deep within the soul and is hard to challenge.


[1] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is (New York: Crossroads Publishing,1994) 65,126.


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