Incest victims need your help

Chances are you know someone who has been deeply wounded by incest. Learn how to be ready to help.

Julia C. S. Vemon writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.

From the time I was 3 until the offender died when I was 11,1 was the victim of incest. As I grew up, I suffered physically, psychologically, and morally. And when I became a Christian, my suffering did not automatically end.

Even after my baptism I struggled with the incest-caused problems in my relationship with God. I sought help from many different ministers, but none of them was knowledgeable enough in this area to help me. They could not under stand the nature of my problems or relieve my fears.

But God has helped and supported me, gradually teaching me that which has made our relationship whole. He found me a godly and understanding husband; He counseled me through His Word and through prayer. But despite all. this, 1 found myself considering, suicide after the birth of our third child.

I remember sitting and crying and praying, "God, if You really do have an answer, please give it to me. Why aren't You helping me? Please tell me what to do."

Finally the answer came: "Your problem was caused by someone else's sin. You know the cure for sin. Bring it to the cross." The tears of grief turned into tears of praise as I took the Lord's counsel and brought all the guilt, shame, fear, and frustration to the cross of Jesus.

Since that time I have talked with other ministers and victims, and have concluded that within our church there is a great need for understanding of incest.

How can a counselor best help?

In preparing to write this article, I en countered many other victims who had been unable to find competent help within the church. It was frightening to hear the same story from so many lips. Only occasionally was there a bright spot--a story of successful counseling by a church worker for an incest victim. The following two examples illustrate the potential for help or harm that exists when a woman seeks counseling from her pas tor. Both of the counselors involved were kind and well-intentioned, but only one really helped the woman who came to him.

The first man was grasping at straws from the beginning. He was ill-informed on the facts about incest and the needs of its victims. Even though he could not grasp the exact nature of the woman's fears, he could see that she was in deep distress and did his best to help her. He told her that the incident had happened long ago and was best put out of her mind--that she should stop dwelling on it. He urged her to exercise Christian forgiveness toward the offender. Then he read some scriptures about the love of God, forgiveness, and laying our burdens on Jesus. Finally he urged her to move out of the past and concentrate on building up a solid day-to-day walk with Jesus. They prayed, and the sister left. A few more sporadic meetings went exactly the same way. The minister became impatient with the lack of progress, and the sister became greatly frustrated over the lack of relief for her suffering. Finally she gave up hope.

The other counselor had a better understanding of incest. He expended his time freely, putting personal matters aside to make time for counseling sessions. The stability of these regular sessions provided the security she needed.

The minister encouraged her to talk, even though she rambled, so that she could work out her grief and so he could learn more of her problems. He accepted her condition as she was rather than rejecting her reality by urging a hasty course of "forgive and forget, then change right away." The Holy Spirit enabled him to gradually build up her self-worth and understanding by laying a firm foundation of knowledge of the love and understanding of Christ.

In this way the pastor led the woman into a closer walk with Jesus so that the Lord could heal her warped image of God. He worked to resolve her guilt, anger, and other burdens rather than glossing them over with cosmetic forgiveness. He guided her to a good counselor from the county mental health unit to deal with problems not of a spiritual nature. Gradually she became a new person in Christ. This counselor's knowledge, understanding, and acceptance, all rooted in the Lord, made the difference between spiritual health and disaster, perhaps be tween eternal life and eternal death.

Incest affects your church

Even if it isn't happening among your members right now, chances are good that incest is still having an effect on someone in your congregation.

About one girl in 10 and about one boy in 70 is a victim of incest at some time. 1

Few victims speak up even as adults.

Shame and guilt still keep them silent. It is estimated that for every person who seeks help, 10 do not. 2 Their silence does not mean that their problems are insignificant or less devastating than those of victims who do seek help. Their hurts may be worse because they have no outlet for them. These silent sufferers need to be led out of this darkness.

Incest strikes at the very heart of salvation. It loads the victim's soul with undeserved guilt, creates in her such a self-loathing that she3 shrinks from the Saviour, and all but destroys her capacity to form a whole relationship with God. Even after the victim has come to Christ, she often remains spiritually crippled, unable to accept God as her Father.

The problems do not end when the incest stops. The scars can last a lifetime and may be a factor in leading her to marry an abusive or otherwise unfit spouse. Broken homes, child abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, psychological problems, health problems, and even suicide attempts are frequent latent symptoms that may haunt the victim in her adult life. A licensed clinical social worker who specializes in incest counseling estimates that 20 percent of the patients in the psychiatric hospital where she works have been victims of incest.

The spiritual devastation that results from incest is appalling. Parents stand in the place of God to their children. It can be nearly impossible for someone so dam aged by a parental figure to form a faith relationship with God. Faith is trusting God. Incest is treachery, the betrayal of a child's trust by someone who stands in the place of God. The victim may feel so vile and degraded that she dare not approach God; she may feel that she has no worth even to Him.

Even after an incest victim has accepted Jesus, her faith relationship can remain crippled. Guilt remains; she feels somehow deserving of punishment and shame. Often she fears that her sin is truly beyond the forgiveness of Christ or that Christ may reject her for it. Praise God that He meets us where we are, so that this crippled faith can still grasp His hand.

Often bitterness and hatred remain in the victim's heart. These are directed not only at the offender but at herself and at those who were instrumental in the situation or who simply did not help. As long as these feelings are cherished, her relationship with Christ is in trouble.

These are major soul wounds that hinder the work of grace. Victims can go to secular counselors for help with some of their incest-related problems, but most will need a mature, Spirit-filled Christian counselor to help them accept God's grace, lay their burdens at the foot of the cross, and permit the wounds to heal.

Helping victims find healing

The basic steps involved in bringing incest-caused wounds to the cross are conviction, justification, sanctification, and forgiveness.

Healing begins as the Holy Spirit convicts the victim of her need of the Saviour. Even a Christian incest victim needs to be led to recognize this need again and again along the way to healing.

Often the victim feels guilty for the incest. She may feel that she is responsible for it because she did not say no and because she did not tell on the offender. She may also have enjoyed the attention (often the only type of attention she ever got from the offender), or she may believe that her participation broke up the family. She may believe that she committed a crime against the offender's spouse. Many offenders ensure their victims' silence by telling them that what they are doing is bad and that they will get in trouble if they tell anyone else. The fact that such guilt is undeserved does not make it any less real. It cannot be dismissed as a figment of the imagination. Jesus, who delivers us from the guilt of our sins, is able also to deliver us from the guilt of sins committed against us.

But a sense of shame, defilement, and utter worthlessness can make the victim fear to approach Christ. Remind her that Jesus healed lepers who were considered unclean and defiled. He befriended the outcasts and the despised. He lifted up the ones who were caught in sin and said, "Neither do I condemn thee." If Jesus did not condemn these people, He will not condemn an incest victim.

The victim needs to forgive the offender before her wounds can be fully healed. This is not because God is unwilling to heal, but because hatred and bitterness keep the wounds open.' Forgiveness is not a mere formality. It must be based on the victim's understanding of herself and the offender in the light of the cross.

This is where sanctification comes into the picture. We must forgive, but we do not have the ability. Only the forgiveness of Jesus is that strong. Through the work of sanctification, He offers His strength to us in place of our weakness, His ability to forgive in place of our hate and anger. When the victim is ready to take this step, Christ will provide the ability for her to forgive completely.

One additional step is important when dealing with a married woman. Often the victim's problems lead to marital problems that perplex, anger, and frustrate her husband. Such marriages have a staggeringly high rate of failure. If the husband can be led to understand the root cause of the marital problems and give his support to his wife, the marriage may well be restored. If he meets her with kindness and understanding, he can help her learn to trust again. At this point they should be counseled together.

Be prepared to help

Here are 10 tips to help you prepare to meet the needs of incest victims:

1. Become informed. The references in the article "Victims of Trust" in this issue of Ministry provide a good starter list of books on incest.

2. Be prepared to give liberally of your time. In, helping incest victims, short, rushed, or irregular sessions can be disastrous. Deep hurts cannot be helped in a few short talks; neither can griefs that have shaken and torn a life apart be helped by the further instability of irregular scheduling. Remember that it has taken untold courage for the victim to seek help. She has risked great shame and condemnation in coming to you. Superficial interviews, advice to come back at a more convenient time, or promises to work her in when you have extra moments may very well send her right back into silent suffering. If this happens, you will not likely get a second chance to help her. In view of the eternal consequences involved in an incest situation, you need to spend quality time with the victim promptly and regularly.

3. Be attentive. The victim may find it hard to talk. She may stammer, hesitate, lapse into silence, and cry. Do not prod her for details or interrupt her in order to hurry the proceedings. Gently lead her to continue. Once this gentle leading has given her some confidence, the session will begin to move more quickly. After the victim has gotten enough confidence to talk freely, she may find it very hard to get to the point. If you are inattentive to or impatient with this rambling, you will do damage in two ways. First, you will miss important details that could prove valuable in counseling. Second, she may notice the inattentive attitude. Many incest victims are convinced that they are so degraded that no one cares to deal with them. Inattentiveness or impatience by the minister serves to confirm the victim's low opinion of herself.

4. Accept the victim's feelings. To dismiss guilt by saying "Now, you know you have done nothing wrong, so just put that notion aside and stop dwelling on it" is to reject the very real feelings and problems of the incest victim. Such a course puts the very topics she most needs to discuss off-limits. It puts help out of her reach. Whatever problem she has is real to her. Treat it as real.

5. Same-sex counseling is best. Men should counsel with men, and women with women. It is easier for one to speak of such things to a counselor of the same sex, and also more in harmony with Bible principles. But a woman should never be denied badly needed help because a sister is unavailable to counsel with her. De lays and frustrations that increase the victim's suffering can well have eternal consequences.

6. Carefully govern your emotions.

Strong emotions should not always be expressed. Expressing your horror and revulsion may frighten or shame the victim away. Expressing anger toward the of fender or mourning for the victim can lead her to dwell on these emotions and make it difficult for her to leave them at the cross. The counselor needs to show kindness, understanding, acceptance, and sympathy.

7. "If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute, . . . and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful... ; what doth it profit?" (James 2:15, 16). We tend to deal with human problems on the simplest possible level. A few scriptures and uplifting thoughts and a word of prayer will not work a cure. They will only tantalize a thirsty soul without giving a single drop of relief.

8. Recommend a trained therapist or counselor, preferably a Christian one. Unless you are a trained therapist it is unlikely that you can meet all the needs of the victim. Most county mental health units provide low-cost or free help. It is wise, however, for the pastor or another Christian worker to continue counseling the victim on her spiritual problems and her relationship with God. Spiritual and secular needs should be met simultaneously.

9. Do not be afraid to take measures to ensure the safety of a child victim. Voluntary separation of the parents and even legal intervention are not too strong measures to take when the safety of a child is at stake. Many workers feel that the breaking of the family unit, perhaps even the removal of the child from her home by the authorities, is too great an evil; but it is not so evil when the alter native is physical, mental, and spiritual damage to a child. Seek peaceable means. Determine whether or not the offender is still present, then find out what the attitude of the parents is and act accordingly. Use tact if at all possible, but always put the welfare of the child first.

10. Pray without ceasing. Incest counseling is a spiritual battle. Incest is a tool of the devil for keeping souls away from their heavenly Father, for denying them the hope of salvation. Evil angels fight to hold these victims. You cannot succeed in freeing them unless you let Jesus fight the battle for you.

The great need

There is a great need for better education, understanding, and counseling training among our workers. Not only pastors but medical workers, teachers, and college students need to become better informed about incest. Whether or not you know it, there are people near you who are suffering the results of incest. Please take the time to prepare to help them when they come to you.

1 Susan Forward and Craig Buck, Betrayal of
Innocence (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 3.
Ann Landers column, Salt Lake City Tribune, June
13, 1984.

2 Ibid., p. 28.

3 Since the great majority of victims are girls
and the majority of offenders are men, I have used
the pronouns she and he respectively to avoid en
cumbering the article. Almost every point can be
applied to the reverse situation.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Julia C. S. Vemon writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.

January 1989

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