As a child, Emma (name has been changed) was abused. Now, as a 33-year-old mother of four, she quietly weeps in my office. “I don’t understand,” she stammers. “I try to be faithful, pay an honest tithe, attend church, and serve in callings. Why do I feel so worthless? Why can’t I feel God’s love?” As a Latter-day Saint psychotherapist living and practicing in the United Kingdom, I have witnessed this scenario repeatedly over the years as I have counseled abused Church members in a professional capacity.
Many of my clients, like Emma, currently live faithful lives but continue to struggle with the effects of abuse in their past. In some cases, they perceive Heavenly Father as remote, stern, critical, or condemning. They assume that they “deserved” the abuse, that it was somehow their fault. In other cases, they feel as though their experiences place them beyond the healing power of the Savior. Church activity can seem overwhelming to these individuals, often because they compare themselves with other members and develop feelings of inadequacy. “What’s wrong with me?” they ask. “Why do I feel so unworthy?” Faced with ramifications such as addictions, self-hatred, mental illnesses, or broken relationships, they are eager to find hope and rest, but sometimes they are unsure about how to do so.
I am convinced that Latter-day Saints—or anyone, for that matter—struggling with the results of abuse or childhood trauma can receive peace through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The effects of abuse may persist for a while, but the power of the Atonement can ultimately relieve such burdens and facilitate healing. The Savior included those who have been abused when he beckoned, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The Savior’s promise of rest can help victims know that God does love them, that they can feel His love, that they can forgive, and that their wounds can be healed.
Clients frequently come to me feeling angry or resentful, asserting that a loving God would never have abandoned them to a fate of abuse. They perceive a lack of divine intervention as an indication of their personal unworthiness. However, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “There can be some who choose willfully to violate the commandments and harm you. … [But] the Lord has provided a way for you to overcome the destructive results of others’ acts against your will.”1
Healing occurs when individuals learn to search for and accept the Savior’s love. For example, I know of a case where a young brother and sister, twins, were forced to flee from their home late one night. Their stepfather had exploded in rage and threatened to kill them. As they wandered the dark streets searching for a place to rest, they discovered a secluded stairwell in an apartment building. Cold, exhausted, and fearful, they huddled together and somehow slept.
Years later, as an adult, one of those children questioned God, “Why didn’t you help us? Where were you?” An unexpected, gentle answer came to her mind, confirming that He had truly watched over her that night—that He in effect had sent angels who stood sentinel. In searching for answers, she hearkened to the Spirit’s whisperings and came to know that God loves her and is with her in times of need.
Our mortal experiences, however difficult they may be, can be channeled to help us know God and to learn about who we are in relationship to Him. When we learn that we are His children, we can feel that His love for us is unbounded: “Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life” (Isaiah 43:4).
Even though they may know about God’s love on an intellectual basis, many people who have suffered abuse cannot, at least initially, fathom His caring for them individually. Some have never experienced a kind, loving, and respectful earthly father, so thinking about God in such terms is a difficult challenge.
To help transcend this barrier, I often ask clients to first think about the people they know who have loving qualities: a spouse, a bishop, or other Church leaders. Next, I ask them to visualize Heavenly Father listening to and responding to their prayers in ways that their spouse, bishop, or leaders might respond. With practice, the Spirit teaches them, and they begin to feel Heavenly Father’s tremendous love and compassion, often for the first time. As Jeremiah wrote: “I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
“Then shall you call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.
“And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11–13).
Bishops play an especially vital role in the process of helping the abused feel God’s love. Though not all aggressors are male, when this is the case, subsequent relationships with males may be awkward or difficult. To restore healthy attitudes, victims need to see examples of men, particularly fathers, who live righteously and according to gospel standards. By serving in a fatherly role, bishops become healing instruments as they afford sensitive counsel, positive examples, and effective priesthood leadership devoid of unrighteous dominion. Others can assist in the recovery process by reflecting the Savior’s love and sacrifice in how they serve selflessly.
Forgiveness is often difficult because offenders may deny their behavior or avoid acknowledging it. Regardless of how the offender responds—even if the perpetrator does not admit responsibility—the person who has been abused can choose to forgive. It is important to note that forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting the offense, trusting the offender, or even associating with him or her. However, it does mean letting go of self-destructive anger.
To help the abused person forgive, leaders, friends, and family members can acknowledge the gravity of the offense, allowing the innocent person to work through his or her anger and pain. Much abuse involves the denial of feelings and truth, so people who have been abused need to be heard and have their feelings validated if they are to truly recover and regain self-worth. When the person who has been abused is pressured to forgive, he or she may feel an added measure of guilt, taking the blame not only for the abuse itself but also for being unable to forgive. Allowing the person time to forgive can be a lengthy process, but it is critical to healing.
Some may fear that their loved one might become stuck at this stage or obsessed with unhealthy rage. However, although needlessly extending this painful process can be unproductive, insisting on forgiveness before feelings have been adequately acknowledged may cause withdrawal and may impede healing. Bishops and other supportive members can facilitate healing by empathetically allowing the hurt to find its expression and then offering Christlike love.
Some members feel so unclean, unworthy, or damaged that they live on the fringes, never allowing the blessings of the Atonement to heal their distress. They believe that their hurt can never be mended or that their pain is greater than the Savior’s ability to heal. Satan is the author of these lies, for “we believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved” (Articles of Faith 1:3; emphasis added). Through patience, charity, spiritual awareness, and prayer, Church leaders can reach even the most troubled souls, dispelling negative ideas, instilling hope, and fostering self-worth.
The journey of recovery from abuse can be long and lonely. However, through my work I have witnessed the undeniable power of the Atonement to renew and revitalize lives. In the advent of abuse, people feel helpless in not knowing what to do or where to turn. But those who suffer—and those charged with the responsibility to help them—are not alone. The saving principles of the gospel have the power and capacity to heal wounded souls. Not only does the Atonement wash the sins of repentant offenders, but it also reconciles with God all who may feel estranged from His love, including the abused and their families.
President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has taught that it is often necessary to “walk to the edge of the light, and perhaps a few steps into the darkness, and … the light will appear and move ahead of you.”2 In other words, it takes faith to move forward. But when we exercise faith in His omnipotence, we begin to feel the atoning power of the Savior, who bore our pain in Gethsemane. We become free to receive refreshing inner peace born of spiritual renewal that arises from the Atonement’s cleansing and healing power.
The Savior’s sacrifice provides tremendous hope on the path of recovery from abuse: “He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives … to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18). Through prayer, faith, scripture study, hearkening to the Spirit, counseling with priesthood leaders, and receiving support from friends or relatives, those who have been abused can see a road to complete healing.
Many times I have counseled Latter-day Saints recovering from the trauma of abuse, I can testify that though recovery may seem difficult and fraught with temporary setbacks, the Savior offers solace to aching hearts, heals wounded souls, and changes sorrow into joy. All who have been hurt can receive relief through the Atonement of Him who knows and has experienced all: “He will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy … that he may know … how to succor his people” (Alma 7:12).