The very week last fall that the #MeToo campaign began to dominate my social media relationships, a woman in my community told me that she was being physically hurt by a family member. Of course I immediately did everything I could to help her. But I also remember thinking at the time:
Would most women in the church know how to wisely respond to a friend who is being physically and/or sexually assaulted?
Having worked as a Christian mediator for over twenty years, and having taught thousands of women at conferences and retreats during that time, I have many examples of responses that make things worse, and of responses that make things better. Let me share just three of each …
How not to Respond to a Friend Who is Being Hurt
- Do not be silent or run away: Most of us will feel like our minds are swirling when a friend tells us that she is enduring the unimaginable. This is a normal adrenaline response to a high stress situation. Do not give in to “flight.” You may be the first person she has ever told—if you abandon her because the topic makes you uncomfortable, you will be missing out on an opportunity to do good and to love. Give it your best and stumble your way through an explicit expression of care and commitment to her safety. Hopefully there are professionals in your community who can help. You don’t need to “fix” or “save” her or have all of the answers. But please! Do not respond to her pain with silence.
- Do not presume that she is exaggerating or fabricating a story: Especially if the person she is talking about is an ordained church leader, a respected person in the community, or a family member who just seems so sweet when he interacts with everyone else at Bible study or church, you may be tempted to discount what this woman is saying. Don’t. It is possible that she is making up the story or embellishing it—but improbable. The vast number of women who are being hurt and telling no one is far greater than the number of women making unsubstantiated or false claims. Presume she is telling you the truth until you have facts that prove otherwise. Help her get to safety so that she can then work with the relevant authorities to sort out the details.
- Never pull back and treat your friend like she is “dirty” or “bad”: As any sexual assault survivor will tell you, the voices screaming, “BAD! BAD!” are already insufferably strong inside of our hearts. We do not need another chorus member to join in the song of graceless condemnation and rejection that has defined some of us since we were children. If your friend trusts you and invites you into this part of her life, count it a privilege and strive to be faithful in your care for her. You may not be able to relate to her specific life situations, but you know what grief, fear, and sorrow all feel like. Normalize her pain. Put her suffering in the context of your own suffering and move towards her, not away from her. If you do this, you will be a breath of fresh air and true grace in her life.
How to Respond to a Friend Who is Being Hurt
- Let her know that you are grieved by her suffering but not overwhelmed by her pain: When a person shares her worst darkness and greatest suffering with you, you have an opportunity to communicate empathy and compassion—while also providing tangible help. If you only weep with her, you are not bringing resources to her. But if you only bring her outside help in a detached manner, you are not being a friend to her. Try to thread that emotional needle of letting her know you care, but also that you are not paralyzed by what she has shared with you.
- Give her hope—biblical hope—that every day of her life will not feel this bad: It is easy to forget everything we know and believe about God when our hearts (and our bodies) have been battered. As you seek to minister God’s grace in its various forms to your friend, keep it clear and brief. Explicitly encourage her that every day of her life will not feel this terrible. If she is facing community rejection and shaming, stand with her. Go with her into that room so that she is not the only woman in a sea of men. When she sees that you will inconvenience yourself and face rejection in order to help her, you will be providing tangible evidence to her that God will one day make all of this right. Your faithfulness as a friend will help her to remember the bedrock assurance that is built on God’s promises which are fulfilled in Christ: the wrong will fail, the right prevail.
- Remind her that there is a safe place for her: The vast majority of childhood sexual traumas are at the hands of known, trusted adults. For our churched kids, youth group is the second most likely place that they will be sexually assaulted. Christian men (including ordained Christian men) abuse their wives and children. It can be easy for an abuse survivor to think that there is no safe place for her in the world. Be a safe place for her. Don’t gossip about her or hold meetings about her behind her back. Help her to discreetly access diaconal resources if that is what she needs in order to get to physical safety. She may need help from the police and from professional sheltering charities. Walk with her. Point her to Christ. Be her friend—if she is like many other abuse survivors, some of the “friends” she thought would always be there for her may be dropping to silence and turning a deaf ear to her cries. Be one of the new friends that God brings into her life to remind her that she is not alone.
In Summary: Show Your Love by Your Deeds
The #Metoo campaign went viral just a few weeks before the three-year anniversary of my own sexual assault. At the time my criminal and civil matters were finalized (2015), I had no idea that heroes like Rachael Denhollander were about to lead us into a public dialogue—and a public reckoning for perpetrators—related to this heart-wrenchingly important topic. But here we are.
Some of us have been in biblical and trauma counseling for years, so we know how to reach out for help when the constant bombardment of media on this topic feels overwhelming. Others of us are remembering for the first time the smells and touches of that dad at a junior high sleepover, that youth worker in the back of the church bus, our own uncle or father or neighbor. We don’t know how to talk about it. We think that we will die if we face it and talk about it. If we reach out to you for help, please recognize that you are in a unique position to help us. Please help us. Don’t walk away or reject us. Don’t claim to love and then ignore.
In a situation this painful and precarious, mere words are meaningless. If you only say you love your friend, but you take no steps to help her to reach safety, restrain the evil being done against her, grieve for her sorrows, and actively minister to her as she grows in grace and heals from this trauma, you are not actually loving her. Show your love by your deeds:
“Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” 1 John 3:18
For more specific ideas of how you can help, please consider the following resources:
- Being There: How to Love Those Who are Hurting by D. Furman
- Sexual Abuse: Beauty for Ashes by Kellemen
- Suffering and the Heart of God by Langberg
- Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse by Heitritter and Vought
- Rid of My Disgrace by Holcomb and Holcomb
- Hush: Moving from Silence to Healing After Childhood Sexual Abuse by Bromley
- Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection by Welch
 This article is meant to provide only a basic introduction to this extremely important topic. It is not intended to provide pastoral, medical, or other professional advice. Readers are encouraged to seek the counsel and oversight of their local church leaders as well as any competent professionals relevant to their life situations.
 Women can be abusers, too.
 93% of child sexual assaults are by known perpetrators: https://www.rainn.org/articles/adult-survivors-child-sexual-abuse
 Church youth group is the second most likely place for child sexual assault—see articles at: http://www.tarabarthel.com/category/child-protection-abuse-in-the-church/ and at http://www.netgrace.org/.
 Such actions objectify her and remove her humanity by treating her like she is an incident or a problem.
About the Author:
Tara applied her law degree and MBA as the first female senior staff member at Peacemaker Ministries, and then was (happily!) surprised to be home, later in life, serving her husband, Fred, and their two daughters. When her children were young, Tara published her first video series, “Living the Gospel in Relationships,” and coauthored two books: Peacemaking Women and Redeeming Church Conflicts. Currently, Tara travels extensively to serve at events on topics related to anxiety, disordered affections, teaching logic to children, writing, and relationships. In addition to mediation and publication duties, Tara is also currently enrolled in Reformed Theological Seminary where she is pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion.