Healing the Spiritual Wounds of Sexual Abuse

A correct understanding of the Atonement and of gospel principles can replenish the faith and hope of those who have been sexually abused.

Today Julia * is secure in her faith in Heavenly Father and in her belief that He cares about her and answers her prayers. But she did not always feel this way. Having suffered from sexual abuse as a child, she struggled to reconcile her experiences with what she had been taught about Heavenly Father. She could not understand why He, being all-powerful, didn’t stop the abuse. She wondered why it was so difficult for her to feel Heavenly Father’s love and to recognize His answers to her prayers.

She found no easy answers to these questions. However, Julia began working through her painful past with the help of her bishop and a professional counselor. As she studied and prayed for a better understanding of gospel principles and acted upon the knowledge she received, she was able to feel Heavenly Father’s love for her and find the peace and healing that had eluded her.

This pattern is common among those who have been abused. They often grow in confidence as they gain a better understanding of the Atonement, agency, and the Lord’s mercy and as they develop a closer relationship to Heavenly Father. Many have found comfort through prayer, forgiveness, keeping sacred covenants, and service.

Possible Effects of Abuse

Many who have been abused have experiences like Julia’s and find it difficult to feel the influence of the Holy Ghost as well as to feel answers to prayer. Although they may interpret this as a lack of Heavenly Father’s love, there is another explanation. A basic defense children use against sexual abuse is to shut down their feelings, helping them to get through the trauma. Yet this response also cuts them off from positive feelings. As a result, those who have been sexually abused may have difficulty feeling the love of Heavenly Father, His servants, and other nurturing people in their lives.

Sexual abuse can lead to deep spiritual wounding in other ways. People who have experienced such abuse may develop erroneous ideas about Heavenly Father, doctrines of the gospel, and their own worth. No wonder President Gordon B. Hinckley has condemned the sexual abuse of children in strong terms:

“The terrible, vicious practice of sexual abuse … is beyond understanding. It is an affront to the decency that ought to exist in every man and woman. It is a violation of that which is sacred and divine. It is destructive in the lives of children. It is reprehensible and worthy of the most severe condemnation. …

“Shame on any man or woman who would sexually abuse a child. In doing so, the abuser not only does the most serious kind of injury. He or she also stands condemned before the Lord.” 1

Healing Principles

Those who seek spiritual healing after sexual abuse can become whole again and feel peace in their lives as they come to correctly understand and apply principles of the gospel:

Finding hope in the Atonement. No spiritual healing can take place without the healing balm of the Atonement. Not only can its sanctifying power assuage our hurts, but it can transform our very souls. Where there was once anguish, there can be peace; where there was despair, hope; where there was sorrow, joy. We read in the Doctrine and Covenants:

“And this is the gospel, the glad tidings, which the voice out of the heavens bore record unto us—

“That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness;

“That through him all might be saved” (D&C 76:40–42).

Through the Atonement the Savior took “upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people … that his bowels [would] be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he [would] know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11–12). He understands and knows how to heal us if we will turn our hearts to Him and allow Him to carry our burdens.

Carrie felt alone and misunderstood, isolated in the shame, humiliation, and pain of the abuse she had experienced. In one illuminating moment, she read that the agony of the Atonement caused the Savior, “even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit” (D&C 19:18). Carrie realized that she was not alone in her suffering and that the Lord had suffered far more. And she realized that He had been sent “to heal the broken-hearted” (Luke 4:18) and that through His Atonement He could heal her wounded soul.

One author wrote: “There is a miraculous rebirth, a spiritual phoenix that emerges with our acceptance of the Savior and His Atonement. His spirit heals; it refines; it comforts; it breathes new life into hopeless hearts. It has the power to transform all that is ugly and vicious and worthless in life into something of supreme and glorious splendor. He has the power to convert the ashes of mortality to the beauties of eternity.” 2

Improving our relationship with Heavenly Father. The scriptures reveal the true nature of God as our loving Father and underscore our importance to Him as His children. We learn that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8) and that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). This includes all souls, each and every one.

Dale had been sexually abused by a neighbor and physically abused by his father, and as a result, he believed most authority figures were stern, demanding, and punitive. He couldn’t imagine a loving Heavenly Father who valued him despite what had occurred.

As two Latter-day Saint missionaries taught him the gospel, he was surprised that these former football players were gentle and understanding. They knew of his challenges and still accepted him fully. With their encouragement, Dale engaged in pleading prayer and came to feel Heavenly Father’s acceptance and understanding, which brought deep peace to his spirit.

To those who have been abused, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said:

“Recognize that you are a beloved child of your Heavenly Father. He loves you perfectly and can help you as no earthly parent, spouse, or devoted friend can. His Son gave his life so that by faith in him and obedience to his teachings you can be made whole. He is the consummate healer.” 3

Learning about agency. Moral agency is an integral part of our mortal experience—indeed, it is a central feature of our Heavenly Father’s plan. Our purpose in mortality is to exercise our agency in ways that lead us back to Christ. Yet some individuals use their agency to make evil choices, and others suffer deeply as a result.

In most cases Heavenly Father does not prevent individuals from accomplishing evil; to do so would compromise the agency of all of His children. He knows that moral agency is a precious gift that must be protected, for the proper and best use of it will result in the greatest gift of all: exaltation and eternal life.

An experience of Alma and Amulek illustrates the importance of agency. Amulek was horrified when faithful women and children were thrown into the fire, and he implored Alma to exercise the power of God to save them. Alma replied:

“The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer … that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day” (Alma 14:11).

The gospel teaches that when bad things happen to people, this does not make them bad. No one can destroy another’s possibilities for eternity. We are judged only for our own desires, intentions, and actions, not for the actions of others against us.

Understanding repentance. When people are sexually abused, they often develop incorrect ideas about themselves and their relationships with others, and they may treat people inappropriately. The good news of the gospel is that through faith, diligent effort, and the help of the Lord, they can change their behavior and repent of their own harmful actions.

Such was Rachel’s experience. As a result of the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child, she felt consumed by shame and anger. She turned her anger on others, lashing out at those who were closest to her. However, as she learned to separate the hurtful things that had been done to her from the wrong things she had done in her life, she was able to give her perpetrators responsibility for their acts while accepting responsibility for her own wrongs. There was no need for her to repent for bad things done to her—they were not under her control, were not her choice, and had even started when she was too young to understand what was happening. But she could repent of her own acts of agency that had hurt others. In doing so, she began to experience a sense of peace and forgiveness that she had not dreamed possible.

Remembering the Lord’s mercy. Sexual abuse often results in feelings of shame and in an excessive fear of judgment by others. This, in turn, may lead to an obsession with perfection. Yet the Lord knows we experience different levels of difficulty in this life, and He asks that we do the best we can with what we have. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “God thus takes into merciful account not only our desires and our performance, but also the degrees of difficulty which our varied circumstances impose upon us.” 4

The Lord wants each of us to return to live with Him again and will help us do so. He proclaimed, “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Only He is capable of pronouncing final judgment on anyone, for He alone fully knows our challenges, our choices, and the desires of our hearts.

In the premortal existence we knew that making mistakes would be part of the mortal experience. Aileen Clyde, a former counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, wrote: “We live by choices and can work toward becoming perfect by choosing well. This perfecting does not have flawless living as its aim; rather, perfecting is the exercise of agency amidst difficult choices that yields growth and progress.” 5

Naomi’s life was spinning out of control. Like many others who have been sexually abused, she believed that even her smallest mistakes were proof of her lack of worth. Paralyzed by her fear, she did not dare cook, clean, balance her checkbook, or teach her children. But she realized that not doing these things was also a mistake. Caught in this double bind, she felt almost unable to function.

When she finally realized that mistakes were an inevitable part of the plan of salvation and that they could not diminish the Savior’s love for her, she found the courage to face the things she had so feared. She learned that the Lord Jesus Christ felt the weight of our infirmities as well as our sins through the Atonement (see Alma 7:11–12), and she was able to lean on Him for strength and guidance.

Seeking peace through prayer. Whether or not we feel Heavenly Father’s influence in our lives at any given time, we can still pray to Him and receive His help. He loves us and wants us to communicate with Him. President Ezra Taft Benson said of prayer: “Prayer will bring solace and comfort. It has healed sickness [and] comforted those distressed. … Truly there is power in prayer.” 6

Naomi echoed the feelings of many when she said, “Prayer has always been an outlet for my emotions. I could tell Heavenly Father my hurts and needs that I couldn’t tell anyone else. When the time was right for me to begin the healing process, Heavenly Father led my life in significant ways to bring me into contact with the people who could help me the most.”

Understand righteous use of the priesthood. If abuse came at the hands of a priesthood holder, there may be confusion about what the priesthood is and how the Lord intends it to be exercised.

The scriptures clearly teach that priesthood power is lost when it is used unrighteously:

“The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and … the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. …

“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:36–37, 41).

As a child, Jeanette had been physically and emotionally abused by her father and sexually abused by her brother, both of whom were outwardly active in the Church. As a result, it was difficult for her to trust priesthood leaders and even attend church. Her attitudes about the priesthood began to change, however, as truly honorable priesthood holders showed caring and concern, doing much to help her heal.

One such person was her bishop, who listened nonjudgmentally and with deep concern as Jeanette haltingly told of her past experiences. He met with her regularly to offer support and inspired counsel. He shared scriptures and explained gospel principles, and he gave Jeanette priesthood blessings that helped her understand she was loved by Heavenly Father and was important to Him. The bishop also extended to her a Church calling that enabled her to build needed friendships in the ward. His example helped Jeanette understand the essential role of priesthood holders in the healing process.

Extending forgiveness. Forgiveness is a crucial part of healing. It may not be a single event; rather, it is often a difficult process requiring much soul-searching, earnest prayer, and often the guidance of a bishop or stake president.

Forgiveness does not imply that an individual has “forgotten” all memories of the abuse, that he or she condones the behavior or absolves the perpetrator of responsibility, or that he or she must become reconciled with the perpetrator, particularly if there is the possibility of further abuse. What forgiveness does imply is that an individual has relinquished feelings of hate or bitterness toward another, has placed the matter in the Lord’s hands, and has enabled Him to operate more fully in his or her life. In forgiving, an individual frees himself from the perpetrator and is therefore better able to progress.

Raised in a home where his mother did not protect him from his father’s abuse, Stephen struggled with bitter feelings toward both of his parents. Realizing he would never fully understand his parents’ behavior, he eventually was able to leave the matter in the Lord’s hands and let go of his rancor. In time, the self-condemnation he had felt because of his own shortcomings was replaced by self-acceptance and peace.

The Gospel: A Message of Hope

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of hope and of eternal possibilities. Through it, even in our darkest hours, we can receive spiritual strength and a heightened understanding of the Savior’s love for us.

Brandon said, “I have realized that the Lord kept me going when all else failed and no one was there. I have a stronger love for Him now, and that love is incomprehensible. He is my best friend, and one day I know all the other questions will be sorted out and answered.”

Let us put our faith in Jesus Christ and trust that He will heal. He wants each of us to come to Him, and He will help us do so, for He has said:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).

The Church Condemns Abusive Behavior

President Gordon B. Hinckley

“We condemn most strongly abusive behavior in any form. … When there is recognition of equality between the husband and wife, when there is acknowledgment that each child born into the world is a child of God, then there will follow a greater sense of responsibility to nurture, to help, to love with an enduring love those for whom we are responsible.” President Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 72.

How to Help Those Who Have Been Abused

  • Be a friend. Many people who have been abused feel distant from others. Don’t feel that you have to solve their problems; just be willing to listen empathetically.

  • Be trustworthy and dependable. Many abusers held a position of trust and then violated that trust. It can help survivors immeasurably when they are able to consistently count on others.

  • Facilitate their activity in the Church. Be sensitive to the possibility that survivors of abuse may feel unworthy and uncomfortable in Church settings. Let them know that the scriptures which describe God’s love for His children apply to them. Provide opportunities for them to serve others, and show them that righteous living can bring joy and happiness.

  • Withhold judgment. Unfortunately, some people who have been abused may turn to questionable activities to dull their pain. Without condoning their behavior, realize that as they work through their pain they will be better able to keep their bodies and minds free of things that are harmful to them.

  • Don’t expect them to quickly “forgive and forget” or “just get over it.” Until the issues have been worked through, the effects of the abuse may still be an ongoing and painful part of the person’s everyday life. Genuine forgiveness may take time, and it does not happen by merely denying one’s feelings and avoiding the issues.

  • Be sensitive to the needs and feelings of the abused when teaching, speaking in sacrament meeting, or giving comments in Church classes. For example, when talking about families, be aware that not every person has a family he or she wants to be with. Holidays may be especially difficult for those who have been abused, particularly Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

    When talking about enduring trials, recognize that the Lord never intended anyone to experience abuse so that they could learn lessons from it. Abuse is always wrong and is condemned in the strongest terms by the Lord’s prophets and by the Savior.

  • Help survivors of abuse understand that they are not bad because bad things were done to them. Appropriately place responsibility on the perpetrator. Don’t imply that being abused was the victim’s fault. People do not have to repent of evil that was done to them; in fact, they cannot do so.

    It can be painful for abused children to hear about divine intervention for the righteous. Although Daniel was saved from the lions, does that occur all the time for all of us? Clarify the truth so that any who have been abused and not rescued will understand that they are still worthy individuals.

  • Teach the importance of respecting others’ bodies. Emphasize that all have the right to keep their bodies private, regardless of another person’s status or authority.

  • Never give up in bearing testimony of the power of the Savior. Lovingly testify that we can access His marvelous power and love again and again.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Keith Larsen

Ann F. Pritt, a therapist, is a member of the Kaysville Ninth Ward, Kaysville Utah East Stake.

Show References


  1.   *

    All names have been changed.


  1.   1.

    “Save the Children,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 54.

  2.   2.

    Tad R. Callister, The Infinite Atonement (2000), 206–7.

  3.   3.

    “Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse,” Ensign, May 1992, 32.

  4.   4.

    “‘According to the Desire of [Our] Hearts,’” Ensign, Nov. 1996, 21.

  5.   5.

    “We Must Cherish One Another,” in Hearts Knit Together, ed. Susette Fletcher Green, Dawn Hall Anderson, and Dlora Hall Dalton (1996), 176.

  6.   6.

    The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (1988), 422.