Where Was God? The Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children, Part 5

 

Betrayal by God /  Where was God?

Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that the experience of the absence of God is an experience of God.[1] We do not feel the absence of that which does not exist. We do not name evil without some concept of the Good.  Whether innate or taught, most children have some sense of The Powers That Be. Alongside, or perhaps under, the fear that there is no order at all, children of sexual trauma know that The Powers That Be have failed to protect them at the most basic level.  If there is God, that God has betrayed them.  Where was God and why did God not help? These questions will dominate the spiritual journey of abused children for years to come, if not always. No superficial answer will satisfy them, and there will be no getting around the questions.

            Children make up answers to the questions they have, and create reasons for the things they do not understand.  If they have learned that there is a loving and good God, then that God must be punishing them justly. Their shame excuses God and puts the blame on themselves. But underneath that shame is the nub of a soul protesting that this was no just punishment. God must be unjust or uncaring, vengeful or capricious.  Or the loving God has simply betrayed and rejected them personally. God has broken the promise of protection and care, and God has withheld the love they so desperately need. God has abandoned them. Children project on to their parents their understanding of God. If their abuser is a parent or relative, especially male, this sense of betrayal by God may be intensified.

            The natural reaction to such betrayal is hurt and rage. The intensity of these emotions may be much too hard for an abused child to feel. Faced with such betrayal, children may outwardly cling fiercely to God while inwardly building an awesome wall of bitterness and resentment. Or they may reject God in anger and bury the hurt inside. It may take years to uncover this devastating pain. In a church community or even in the culture at large where it is unacceptable to be hurt or angry at God, such emotions fester long into adulthood. My own spiritual journey has been a process of uncovering and processing layer after layer of hurt and anger toward God.

             The soul’s natural longing for God is brutally interrupted and impaired by childhood sexual trauma.  Because the abuse is sexual, the passions are misused and co-opted. The longing becomes desperate and convoluted. If God is associated with the abuser, an unhealthy victim bond is established driving the child to ever more rigorous attempts to placate and please God in order to win back love, or at least to prevent more abuse. The underlying rage may fester into hate. Consciously it may appear as indifference. Underneath, there is hurt beyond hurt. There is no secular intervention for such spiritual pain.

            Basic trust has been broken on a theological level in childhood sexual trauma. It is a God question.  How can there be God? How can God be trusted? How can God love me? 



[1] Johnson, She Who Is, 124-128.

from my article, “Where Was God? The Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children” Sewanee Theological Review 48:1 (Christmas 2004): 87-108.

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