Almost 20 years ago, I finished a counseling certificate in graduate school in The Treatment of Perpetrators and Victims of Violent Crime. It was a grueling set of course work in which our professor, a police psychologist, made sure the class participants understood the felt experience of victims.
Reading books like Courage to Heal by Ellen Davis and Laura Bass opened my eyes and heart to the depths of suffering that one person could inflict on another’s soul. I decided to limit my clinical work to victims. We were taught in the course that victims tended to recover in a year’s time from a single incident assault, provided that they had at least one supportive relationship to process the abuse during that period.
In my work with clients, I found the ones with long-term symptoms had endured sexual abuse in the absence of support. In fact, many times the isolating environment that they were living under prevented them from healing. It became my mission as a therapist to give sexual abuse survivors a forum to tell their stories in an empathetic environment that would facilitate their healing and life perspective.
Some of my early clients dealing with Rape Trauma Syndrome were referred by local churches. Typically, they were referred for some type of relationship problem they were experiencing in their church community and I would later find out about their sexual abuse history.
What is Rape Trauma Syndrome?
Rape Trauma Syndrome is the psychological trauma experienced by a rape victim that includes disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal behavior (theory by psychiatrist Ann Wolber Burgess and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom in 1974, Wikipedia). It made sense that problems would first show up as relational in nature.
I got so many referrals early on, I started a support group using Dan Allender’s book (and workbook), The Wounded Heart. It was through these experiences, watching people struggle for healing and making sense of what happened to them, that I developed the conviction, “time does not heal all things.”
I watched many zealous Christian believers literally run out of spiritual gas as their faith journey began to put pressure on the parts of them injured by sexual abuse. They would argue to me that their new life in Christ negated all that happened in the past and that they should be able to sustain themselves with spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study alone. Understandably, why would anyone ever want to re-experience the most horrible memories and experiences of their life in the pursuit of growth and development?
In this article, I will present some perspective on how Rape Trauma Syndrome can interfere with spiritual development when it is not addressed as part of an affected believer’s faith journey.
Proverbs 19:22 (NIV) reads, “What a person desires is unfailing love, better to be poor than a liar.” This proverb has always summed up for me the dilemma everyone faces living in a fallen world. We are built for an unbroken love connection that is always there when we need it, but we face experiencing “failing” human love from the time we are born. By the time we reach grade school age, enough pain has been inflicted on our desire for unfailing love, we learn to cover it up. We quickly figure out the socially acceptable parts of ourselves to make connection predictable and bury the parts of ourselves that are injured. The socially acceptable person we construct becomes our “false self” (which I will discuss later).
I think the Proverb writer links the “better to be poor than a liar” part of the proverb to describe this covering up process. Most people tend to think of a rich person as having everything they need, as if money was a viable substitute for what we really need, unfailing love. The Proverb writer is merely commenting that a person is better off poor, but honest about what they really want versus covering it up with a substitute like money. Putting the condition of one’s heart into words and trusting God as the primary source for need fulfillment ahead of all things is the task for all Christians.
Trusting at a heart level is a difficult conflict for the Rape Trauma Syndrome sufferer. Jesus taught, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9, NIV) as an object lesson in trusting God. What if your father did give you a “stone” when you asked for bread? When pain is tied to a naturally occurring part of oneself, finding substitutes becomes a way of survival.
I counseled a young woman who had been raped by her father and asked her once after discussing the incident, “How do you feel about it?” She replied, “I am mad at myself for being so weak that he could hurt me.” In other words, she was angry at her own innate need to trust and depend on someone to take care of her as a child. She had organized her life into not needing anyone. The idea of growing in an abiding trust in God escaped her because it was too painful to be that needy. She preferred the aspects of faith that involved giving and sacrificing things involving her own strength. When her strength could not be sustained through giving, she was bathed in anxiety; feeling shame at her innate need to trust. Rape Trauma Syndrome limited the relationship dimension she could use with God.
In Ephesians 5:31-32 (NIV), sexuality is described as something that emulates the intimacy between Christ and the Father. If it is something that is designed to give married couples the transcendent experience of “oneness,” what happens to the heart when it is penetrated at the deepest levels by betrayal and abuse?
In my experience with victims, heart longings that are receiving-oriented become objects of fear and pain to be covered up. Examples of longings that are received in relationship include: feeling special, being valued, needing comfort, and being enjoyed. A person dealing with Rape Trauma Syndrome is naturally looking for substitutes for these longings because direct relationship exposure is too painful.
The false self is simply that part of the personality that the victim feels comfortable displaying in relationship. For example, if a sense of stability and trust is what the victim always wanted, they may become a super competent caretaker of others as part of their Christian walk. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. In fact, it is a good thing. What makes it “false” is that the person is really giving to others what they wish they could receive themselves one day, but never being direct or honest about it. Their spiritual development is like the guy in the gym who only does bicep curls and no leg work. The result is huge arms with skinny little legs.
Church, unfortunately, can be a wonderful place to bury relational needs in a flurry of activity and service. Enduring emotional pain, self-sacrifice, putting others before yourself are very socially acceptable qualities in Christian communities. The unconscious goal of the Rape Trauma Syndrome sufferer can be to use these qualities as an indirect way to receive dependency needs without direct exposure.
“Working as the head of several church committees allows me to work hard and have people reflect how much they need me” could be the way a sense of value is attained. “I can get my need for feeling valued met through working hard for the church in a predictable display of my strength” is the motive buried underneath, that even the person may be unaware of. The problem with this approach is that God’s love can’t be earned and to experience “unfailing love,” a person needs to feel it outside of their performance. Unprocessed trauma can be a huge obstacle to the soul-anchoring security that comes from unconditional love.
Sometimes we need to be re-wounded to heal. In the story of the Canaanite woman, I always wondered why Jesus seemingly made her go through so much to get healing for her child (Mathew 15:22-28, NIV). He ignored her, rejected her race, and even compared her with a dog. The woman was probably undergoing a great deal of suffering already, due to the spiritual condition of her daughter.
Why would Jesus treat her this way? Some would say to test her faith, but isn’t that kind of a mean test? Maybe Jesus had a perspective about the woman’s suffering that others could not see. She may have initially believed that the answer to her life’s problem was her daughter being healed. A very temporal solution, but what about her eternal condition? What if seeking healing her daughter was the deepest she was willing to go in her experience of God?
Sometimes good things can become idols when we put them before God. She may have walked away with the experience that God’s job is to fix all my problems down here on Earth. Jesus lived and died by the idea that our spiritual condition surpassed all things (John 6:3, NIV), that flesh “counts for nothing.” His priority was never to fix everyone’s temporal problems. My opinion was that Jesus was helping the woman prepare for an eternal solution for her problem that she was not initially ready to experience by helping her go deeper.
God doesn’t force his way into our hearts. He wants to be invited in. However, in the emotional world, if something feels the same, our minds can conclude it is the same and act accordingly. Life has a way of creating circumstances that “feel familiar” to past, unresolved hurts. It can be hard to trust God when a life situation triggers feelings associated with these past hurts.
This is where the spiritual crisis is created for a person with Rape Trauma Syndrome. Shutting down receptive parts of their heart to manage overwhelming feelings of trauma comes at a cost. It is like getting a piece of glass stuck in a wound and letting the skin heal over it. Eventually it needs to be cut out for the person to regain full use of that part of their body. Similarly, a person can only give to others for so long before they collapse, needing someone to take care of them.
If a situation that makes them feel powerless brings up too many feelings or memories associated with trauma, the Rape Trauma Syndrome sufferer may choose their own self-protective defenses over turning to God (or others) for comfort. Choosing to suffer without support may be a lesser pain than feeling powerless. The end result is spiritual exhaustion.
It is not a simple decision for a person with stored up trauma “to just trust God.” Proverbs 27:7 (NIV) reads, “One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” In other words, a person with the experience of being full could turn away the most delicious desert because they feel satisfied, whereas the person without the experience of being full would be happy eating a moldy bologna sandwich.
I think God looking at the person who can only offer part of their heart in relationship with Him is like him watching someone live on the moldy sandwich. What grief, what painful memory does the person need to face so that there can be room for a full meal? The Canaanite woman had to completely abandon looking good and get desperate about her desperation to get her meal.
Choosing to suffer in the pursuit of healing is never an easy choice, particularly when it is from rape trauma. I am certainly not advocating going on a hunt for issues just because a person has a rape trauma history. However, if you have a history of rape trauma and have never received support for it, it may be worth spending some time with a trained professional examining how it has affected you.
Emotional numbness, loss of judgement in relationships, and emotional instability are all signs that deeper healing is needed. Letting someone help you at a pace you can handle that leaves you feeling empowered is an important place to start. I have heard stories that I personally cannot imagine ever recovering from. My typical stance when hearing someone’s abuse history is with the attitude that they are coping better with it than I ever would. I am constantly amazed at the resilience of the human soul. When connected to a source of unfailing love, the worst story can not affect it.
Christian Counseling for Rape Trauma Syndrome
Unpacking the memories of abuse would be pointless with no goal in mind. Getting the full use of yourself and being free to experience all the fullness that God has to offer is on the other side of the struggle. Christians dealing with Rape Trauma Syndrome know all too well that the world is not a fair place, but they have a champion who has overcome the world. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and I will give you rest” (Mathew 11:28, NIV). Investing the time and energy to heal at a heart level is the first step toward rest that can’t be taken away. Call us today to start your healing journey.
“Afraid the Edge,” courtesy of Jason Blackeye, unsplash.com, Public Domain License, “On My Knees,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, Public Domain License, “Dessert Time,” courtesy of Igor Ovsyannykov, unsplash.com, Public Domain License, “Free,” courtesy of William White, unsplash.com, Public Domain License