Released From Bondage (2/11/2018)

Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t easy. He calls us to let go of the things we have in our lives that are preventing us from being the people he wants us to be. We all know from experience that letting go of deep-seated ideas and emotions is difficult.

One area where we have to be mature as disciples is in the area of trusting other people. That’s difficult for anyone who has experienced painful rejection or been hurt by others in the past. If we want to continue on the path of being a disciple of Jesus, we have to let go of past hurts and learn to trust. Most people who have been sexually abused have trouble trusting other people. For example, one lady who experienced this kept asking me, “Can I trust you?” over and over again because her pain and feelings of betrayal was affecting everything she did.

I realize this is an issue that’s uncomfortable to all of us and very painful to some. Let me start off by saying that I was never molested or abused. I don’t know what it’s like to experience it firsthand. All I know is what it’s like to work with those who have.

I’m not preaching on this subject because it’s the “in” thing to discuss in culture right now. I’m doing it because throughout my ministry, I’ve dealt with many people who still carry the scars of being sexual abused. Another reason is that in talking with other pastors, I’ve come to realize sexual abuse is a much bigger problem in this area than many people want to admit.

Sometimes the Lord gives us preachers sermons to speak that aren’t geared to everyone in attendance that day. I once felt led to preach a sermon similar to this one on Easter morning because there are people who come on Easter that don’t attend worship any other time. One dear saint in the Lord was unhappy I didn’t preach a typical Easter sermon. However, later that week I was contacted by a woman who heard the sermon and wanted help in dealing with the sexual abuse she’d suffered from her father. The woman who wanted to hear an Easter sermon didn’t need to hear about sexual abuse. The woman suffering in silence did.

For those of you who have been abused, I’m so sorry. It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s OK for you to be angry. It’s ok to acknowledge the agony you’re burying deep inside because it’s too painful to let out. I’m not trying to increase your pain. I’m want you to know that you don’t have to keep suffering alone. There is hope. There is help. The people around you want you to find healing.

God’s heart breaks for you. He views you the same as he did the Israelites when he spoke to Moses at the burning bush. God told him, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. I have come down to rescue them…” (Ex. 3:7-8a).  He wants you to be free from the bondage you’re under.

Sexual assault is a major epidemic in our nation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (www.nsopw.gov), 18% of women in the United States have been raped during their lifetime. Only 16% of these assaults are reported. This is a social tragedy. Adding to this heartbreak is the fact that adults aren’t the only targets of sexual predators.

Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. What does this look like in real numbers? For the sake of making things a little easier, let’s say there are 100 people attending worship today. 50% of them are men and 50% are women. Based on the national percentages, this would mean that 13 of the females here today either have been or will be sexually assaulted. It also means 8 of the males here either have been or will be sexually assaulted.

If you have been a victim of sexual assault, please know you are not a percentage or a number. You’re a person. A person Jesus loves. A person Jesus wants to heal.

Before we go any further, let’s make sure we understand the definition of child sexual abuse. According to the Dept. of Justice, it is “any form of sexual activity imposed upon a child by an adult or other child in a position of power, authority, or influence. Child sexual abuse can involve touching the intimate parts of a child’s body, enticing or forcing the child to have sexual relations, or participating in nontouching offenses, such as obscene phone calls or taking pornographic photos.”

The long-term effects of this type of abuse scars most of those who suffer through it. According to WebMD, studies show that those who experienced childhood sexual abuse have an increased risk of mental health issues and social problems. They are twice as likely to attempt suicide, 40% more likely to marry an alcoholic and 40-50% more likely to report problems in their marriages than people who weren’t abused.

It affects them in other ways also. Christian author and Bible teacher Beth Moore suffered from sexual abuse as a child. While speaking at Saddleback Church, she said, “Somebody’s selfish five minutes can cause a lifetime of painful memories and set them on a course to question everything they believe to be true.”

One woman who was abused by a relative described how this played out in her life. She says, “I felt dirty. Used. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Unloved. Unworthy of love. Isolated. Vulnerable. Being manipulated so easily taught me to never fully trust men–and mankind for that matter. I withdrew and built an emotional wall for protection so no one could ever hurt me again.    I eventually found someone who was mostly safe to be my life partner. Occasionally, I left him into my world for a few brief moments, but generally, my husband was kept at an emotional arm’s length.  I did attempt to deal with my trauma once, and spent thousands of dollars on therapy. It became too painful, so I made excuses and quit. Antidepressants numbed the pain enough for me to function to be socially appropriate.  I carried a heavy burden of anger and suffered from low self-esteem and had a negative body image.

The years of living with the anxiety of my secret have been exhausting. It consumes an incredible amount of energy to suppress the memories and function like I have it all together–when on the inside, I am actually falling apart. Dealing with my PTSD is also grueling.”

This is only a partial description of the pain she faces.

But surely this issue doesn’t affect the church. It’s a problem out in the world. Because Christians want to look for the best in everyone, many have turned a blind eye to suspected abuse because they don’t want to believe anyone in their congregation could do such a thing. This makes church one of safest places for predators to operate.

Several years ago, the congregation where I was serving as pastor decided to start a more contemporary worship service. Rather than have it in the sanctuary, we decided to hold it in the fellowship building. This is because some people are uncomfortable coming into a church building. The strategy seemed to work. We began attracting some new people from the community.

As we got to know these new worshippers, we began to learn their stories. One woman grew up in church where she was repeatedly molested by one of the church leaders. Even though she’s now in her 50s, these experiences still haunt her. One day she told me, “I’m glad you’re having this service in the fellowship hall. Now I can walk into church without having a panic attack.”

A woman from another congregation told me, “My first abuser spent the week grooming me during church camp when I was in second grade. I believed him when he said I was smart and pretty and fun to be around. His attention made me feel special. At the time, I didn’t know what was happening because I had no clue about sex and physical boundaries–it was never talked about at home.  I also believed him when he said not to tell anyone or there would be terrible consequences, but to trust him because I was his special friend. He said he loved me more than any of the other girls.”

Working with people who experienced childhood sexual abuse has taught me that many sincere, God-fearing Christians would be shocked to hear the names of the people in their own congregations who engaged in this type of crime.

This is a painful subject to address. No one wants to believe that a family member or someone at church might be doing this to another family member. However, in as many as 93% of the child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the person that commits the abuse. While we certainly don’t want to falsely accuse anyone of abuse, we also don’t want to enable abuse either.

When Beth Moore revealed she’d been sexually abused, it caused a rift between her and her mom. Moore said, “When my mom found out she said, ‘We protect the family.’ There was a sense of shame to her for revealing what happened. It was put back on the victim for speaking out about this.”

I’ve had more than one person tell me they believe family members had to suspect abuse was happening to them but these family members didn’t really want to know the truth. They turned a blind eye. So, the abuse continued.

Many other Christians have this same mentality. A woman who was raped in college told me she went to her church for help and comfort after it happened. She was met with either silence or questions such as, “What did you do that might have caused it?” She soon left the church.

As we can see from statistics and from personal testimonies, this is a horrific problem in our society and in the universal church. So, where do we go from here?

First of all, we need to open our eyes to the signs of sexual abuse. Please open the following link to see what to do about this problem. You may have to copy and paste it.

https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/Preventing%20Child%20Sexual%20Abuse.pdf

If you are an abuser, whether you’re a man or a woman, please get help. The odds are you can’t stop on your own. You’ve got to find out what’s triggering you to act this way. Also know that Jesus want’s you to find the healing, forgiveness and restoration you need. And so do we.

If you suspect someone you know is being abused, don’t turn a blind eye. Again, we don’t want anyone to be falsely accused of anything, but protecting the family name is nothing compared to the emotional, physiological, spiritual and physical damage the abuse is causing.

Second, if you have experienced abuse, please know you can find healing. Talk to someone. This is true for both females and males. As difficult as it is for women to admit the abuse, it’s even harder for men. Because of the culture we live in, their shame is even greater.

But if it has happened to you, tell someone you trust what happened to you. It’s too big of a burden to carry alone. Compare the burdens you’re carrying to heavy boxes that are full of things from the past. Have someone walk alongside you, help you unpack them and throw away the junk.

Third, while some Christians are sexual abusers, the great news is the vast majority are not. We’re called to help bring healing. One woman who was abused by her Christian father told me, “Dad is a vision of what God looks like. If that person is hurting you, who is the role model you look to to see what God looks like? Hopefully, it’s someone in the church.”

We want to make sure we have an atmosphere here in our congregation where those who have been abused can find words of comfort and affirmation rather than questions about what they did to deserve it. If you suspect someone is carrying pain from sexual abuses that have never been dealt with, pray for them and ask God to show you how to help that person. If you ask them about it, they may deny it. Children may be afraid of what will happen if they tell. Teens and adults may feel ashamed or be afraid of being stigmatized and made to feel like it was their fault.

Fourth, and this is the most important thing you can do if you’ve suffered this type of abuse, look to Jesus. He understands what you’re going through. While the Bible doesn’t indicate he was sexually abused, he was abused. He suffered pain. He was rejected by those who should have loved him the most. He was isolated. He was in anguish and torment. He was alone.

Jesus not only understands. He offers hope and healing. In Luke 4:14-21 14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Do you notice what he said he came to give us? Freedom, healing and God’s favor. If you are willing to trust Jesus to walk with you through the painful process of dealing with what happened to you, if you’re willing to accept what he has to offer, then you will find healing.

One person who’s recovering from childhood sexual abuse said, “The path to finding healing is not an easy road, and it takes an extraordinary amount of courage to travel. You will question your sanity. Your body and spirit will hurt from the gut-wrenching tears. Revisiting the past causes excruciating emotional pain that will bring you to your knees. But it is there, with God’s grace and tender mercy, you can begin to deal with your heartache and fully work through the process as you grieve the loss of your innocence. Our Abba Father grieves with us, and wants us to seek his healing. He wants us to leave behind the heavy baggage we carry and experience new life and freedom through Him.”

Because she’s found people who will listen to her, help her unpack the heavy boxes and find healing in Jesus, she’s learning to trust. She’s moving forward as a disciple. She’s walking with Jesus.

Rachael Denhollander is one of the gymnasts who was assaulted by Larry Nasser, the former Team USA gymnastics doctor. In her victim-impact statement, she asked, “How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?” We could also add to that, “How much is a little boy worth? How much is a young man worth?

To Jesus, they’re worth everything. Let’s make sure they’re worth everything to us as well.

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