World Suicide Prevention Day was a couple of weeks ago. That day, I read about another beloved Christian who died by his own hand. I don’t know him and I don’t know his story, but according to his Twitter feed, he was a pastor who was very concerned about mental illness which makes his death even more tragic.
Mental illness concerns me, too, particularly how it relates to childhood sexual abuse. Which is why I’m posting this. From what I understand, there is a strong connection between suicide and childhood sexual abuse (and I’m sure other forms of abuse as well). One mental health professional even goes so far as to say, “. . . I have never met a childhood sexual abuse survivor who has not been suicidal.” Perhaps that’s an overstatement. I doubt it, though.
But even if childhood sexual abuse does not result in suicidality, the effects of the abuse are always devastating. Why? Because sexually abusing children tramples their bodies and lacerates their souls. It attempts to leave the image of God ground down into the earth in order to reduce a victim into dust beneath an abuser’s feet. Children made in God’s image used, devastated, and discarded. And for what? Evil. Absolute evil. I heard one pastor describe that the touch of sexual abuse “. . . comes from the very pit of Hell.” That is not an overstatement. Look at the reports, listen to the voices of victims. Weep with those who weep. Childhood sexual abuse is worldwide and it often results in mental illness.
Which brings me to my focus for this post: one-sided teaching in the church regarding men’s and women’s roles and its possible negative impact on female sexual abuse survivors. Why am I so concerned about this? Because I am one. And I know firsthand what one-sided teaching can do to people with similar stories.
I’ll give you a mild example of the teaching I’m talking about. I was recently at a store when I saw a female Bible study teacher I knew a long time ago. We started talking and the conversation moved to women in the church (PCA). She was visibly upset about “those women” who are “rocking the boat” by how they view men’s and women’s church roles. Now, I’m fine having these conversations. I’ve been taught about women submitting to elected male church authority my whole life. I even understand why some things going on in the PCA might be considered troubling. But two phrases that she said broke my heart. One was this — “Genesis is so clear that women are going to do everything they can to usurp male authority. That’s what’s happening now in the church. It’s part of the curse.” And this — “Women have got to be restrained!”
Now, this woman knows nothing about me except that I look like a “good” Christian girl from a “good” Christian background. She doesn’t know that one of my childhood sexual abusers was a PCA elder (who is now deceased). She doesn’t know the magnitude of betrayal that was heaped on me as a child by someone in authority in the church. I understand that and I don’t blame her for not knowing these things. But what bothers me the most is that I saw in her no real desire TO know either. In fact, when I mentioned that some of this frustration among women may stem from past mistreatment by male authority, she said she understood that. Then, she essentially shrugged it off. Apparently, it is easier to stay with the familiar church narrative of women usurping male authority than to grapple with the reality that men in positions of power abuse authority — even within the church.
But going back to child sexual abuse and suicidality, I was 12 years old when I first attempted suicide. I had blocked it from my memory until just a few months ago when I was thumbing through an old diary. Does that surprise you? That I, as a 12 year old, had grown so hopeless that I wanted to end my own life? It shouldn’t. Felt hopelessness (even in children) is more common than you think.
Which brings me back to one-sided male/female teaching in churches. If churches promise hope for those who walk through their doors, if they claim that here within their walls are the words of life, then they will have hopeless people desperate to hear those words of hope — and that includes suicidal people. Which is why, for the ones who feel hopelessness due to sexual abuse, one-sided teaching about women in the church being “the problem” can be devastating.
Just to be clear, though, am I saying that we should stop teaching the traditional view of elected male authority in the church? No. What I am saying is this — in addition to teaching that doctrine, we MUST acknowledge that men can and do abuse this doctrine. And we must act to stop that abuse. It is a both/and, not an either/or. The truth must be spoken — and that includes identifying evil, calling to repentance, AND giving hope.
Think of it as the church being a hospital (terminology I heard growing up). If we’re going to use that analogy, then churches will have some Christians walking through their doors who need emergency care, some who need surgery, some who need physical therapy, some who just need a check up, etc. So, if someone comes in seeking help after a car wreck (i.e. trauma) and walks through your “hospital” doors with obvious injuries, it’s easy for everyone to jump into action to help them. But think about someone who’s in a car wreck (i.e. trauma) with internal injuries while all you can see are a few bruises on the outside. The person with internal injuries can still bleed internally and die in a matter of minutes. Just because wounds are not outwardly visible does not mean they’re not there and in need of immediate attention. And if you send that traumatized person with internal bleeding to the physical therapist instead of the ER doctor, what will you have? A person in extraordinary pain, trying to do what they’re being told to do while making the injuries ten times worse. Is it any wonder why they would start to lose hope of ever healing? The actual injury (or injuries) was never identified and addressed. Instead, it’s being exacerbated.
Just to show you how serious this is, though, Suicide rates have increased in the past 10 years. It is heartbreaking to see. And while mental illness is incredibly complex, I think it is safe to say that Christians are not immune to the feelings of despair that can lead to suicide. This isn’t just church members, either. It’s pastors as well. If I could, I would include what all this means for male sexual abuse survivors, too, but I can’t speak to that experience. My heart breaks for them, too, though.
But most of all, I’m concerned about this because I love Jesus and his bride, the Church. I love how he loves her and how he gave himself up for her. How he makes her beautiful and pours his light into her and through her into the darkness of a desperate and depraved world. How he takes her weakness and transforms it into mighty displays of his glory. How he shields her and covers her and protects her and ultimately heals and restores her. How he took her sin and guilt and shame to the cross and buried it in the grave. How he loves her. And how he desires for us to love her. Which is why I wrote this: I want to love her even more. The man who abused his authority over me did not reflect Jesus — the Jesus who is the suffering servant who washed the disciples‘ feet; the Jesus who loved the widow and the orphan and called children to himself to bless them; the Jesus in whom there is life both now and in eternity. My Jesus, my Savior, my Lord, my Treasure, my Wisdom, my Strength, my Rock, my Refuge, my Deliverer, my Provider, my King, my Comfort, my Joy — the One who will come in judgement, but who will also wipe away every tear from his children’s eyes and turn their sorrow into joy. The Jesus I will worship both now and into eternity.
Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), but love also speaks the truth. Love never rejoices in the wrong but only with the truth. Love never fails (1 Cor. 13:6,8). So, although I’m not an expert and this post is not exhaustive, I hope I have spoken somewhat clearly about this danger because where the vulnerable are concerned (in this case, the suicidal due to sexual abuse), speaking the truth about this issue is the most loving thing to do. And where I fail to speak the truth clearly or in love, I will simply say this — I’m sorry. I’m only now beginning to understand these things and even then, imperfectly. But Jesus understands all things and never fails to be both truthful and loving. Trust him. He is the one who will never fail you.
This picture was taken a year or two before I was abused for the first time. In that moment, I lost all the innocence and trust that you see here. So, I ask you, when you discuss “women’s roles” in the church and submission to “male authority” please don’t forget little girls like me who have had that authority used against them so grievously.
(If you are struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, please, please, please talk to someone immediately. Here is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number: 1-800-273-8255).