the melodrama behind the smile
“There’s a melodrama behind every smiling face.” That’s a quote I’ve heard often from my father, a former Air Force personnel director who went into full-time Christian ministry after finishing his first career. In the 20-plus years I’ve worked with women in a variety of Christian contexts, this insight has proven true time and time again. The drama may be large or small, in a season of ebb or flow, but friends, we know we ALL have drama. Sadly, for many – if not most – of us, at some point that drama will include sexual abuse.
I recently came across the transcript of a talk presented by Diane Langberg, a well-known psychologist and member of the group GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. Her session can be read in its entirety here: http://netgrace.org/wp-content/uploads/Sexual-Abuse-within-Christian-Organizations.pdf. Since April is Sexual Abuse Awareness month, in this post, I’d like to offer a few observations drawn from Dr. Langberg’s insights.
Think this doesn’t apply to you? Think again. Sexual abuse touches all of us whether or not we experience it personally.
In the United States, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.
Let that sink in for a minute. We all need to embrace the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ to these broken ones. This means wading right into the depths of the mess, recognizing that the call to enter in comes from Jesus Himself and will not leave us unchanged.
Thankfully, we serve a God who never shies away from suffering. In fact, the story He’s writing is peopled with examples that demonstrate how His love actively embraces suffering as part of the package of redemption. Jesus left the splendors of heaven and stepped into human skin that He might one day present us spotless and virginal to His Father.
Entering into suffering is not fun, nor is it easy. But is it part of embracing the cross? Absolutely.
Some of you reading this are already resonating with the topic because you carry the wounds of sexual abuse. There was a season in my life when I believed that I had to have all my “stuff” in place in order to do meaningful ministry. The last thing I would have wanted to do in that season was admit my brokenness to others. In more recent years, I’ve learned that if anything will give me credibility and enable another to trust me with the drama going on behind their smile, it is my willingness to be vulnerable about the broken places in my own life.
To you, dear ones, I would say: neither your experience of pain nor your ongoing brokenness disqualify you from service. If anything, it creates a greater capacity in you to minister more deeply to others touched by pain. You understand in ways those who haven’t walked this treacherous path will never be able to grasp. Pursue authentic healing for yourself – in community – and you will blaze a trail along which you will one day be able to lead others.
For those without personal experiences of sexual abuse, I would encourage you to take to heart these words penned by one survivor as she responded to a friend’s attempt to exhort her about the love of God in the midst of her pain:
“I do not believe you intended to inflict any hurt on me, and to the contrary, I expect you intended to offer some comfort and hope. But from my perspective, it is as though your email brandished in front of me the very weapon that was used against me. It is as though you are telling me that I should pick up that very same sword that was once used to eviscerate me and should fall on it all over again. I can’t do that. My love of God, my faith, my extraordinary desire to live the will of God … those are the very parts of me that were transformed into weapons that savaged and destroyed me. As a result, that part of my brain, that part of me that was once able to turn to God, to surrender to God, to pour out my heart to God, to put things in God’s hands, to believe God would take care of me … all that part of my brain is inaccessible. It is electrically charged and it is the land of the predator … it is a ravaged land that is there within my own head.” (Christa Brown, This Little Light, as quoted by Dr. Langberg on pages 5-6, emphasis added)
These words hit me powerfully when I first read them. Because, though I have not experienced sexual abuse, I experienced spiritual abuse while working in a “Christian” organization. To have your own faith and love for God used to manipulate you to serve another’s purposes at the expense of your physical, emotional, and spiritual health is a devastating thing. It twists the good and bad strands of experience so tightly that it can become almost impossible to believe that untangling them will ever be worth the effort. I can only imagine the explosion of pain caused by stirring sexual abuse into this already toxic brew. So recognize that ministry to those whose lives and faith have been shattered by abuse means moving into their pain gently with humility, grace, and great patience.
Given the statistics, I’d venture to guess that everyone reading this article is either a survivor or knows survivors of sexual abuse. I’d like to touch on one other way that each of us is likely to be affected by this kind of brokenness. Sadly, it happens in Christian contexts all too frequently, and believers as a whole have a disgraceful track record of not handling it well.
All too often, when a victim actually works up the extraordinary courage to report her (or his) abuse, she is shocked to discover that her so-called shepherds are more concerned about preserving the system than exposing the sin. This magnifies the confusion and suffering this lamb has already experienced.
Friends, we can be voices for change in this regard. I like the way Dr. Langberg articulates the appropriate paradigm: “No system – family, church, community, or institution – is truly God’s work unless it is full of truth and love. Toleration of sin, pretense, disease, crookedness or deviation from the truth means the system is in fact not the work of God, no matter the words used to describe it.” (p.9)
There are spiritual matters at stake, and there are legal matters at stake. If someone confides in you about ongoing sexual abuse in an organization you are a part of, you have a responsibility to alert your leaders, yes; but the organization has an additional responsibility to inform the appropriate government entities.
Sexual abuse, according to the law of the land, is never something to handle “in house.” It is best for all involved that a thorough investigation be conducted by the proper authorities. This provides both justice for the abused and mercy for the perpetrator. We do no one any favors by covering their persistent, unrepentant sin, and we must never respond to the broken as though their pain is the greater hindrance to the work of the gospel.
In closing, I urge you to take time to read through the entire transcript of Dr. Langberg’s presentation and let it frame the conversations we have in our churches, schools, and institutions, as well as with our family and friends about this important topic.