Suffering in silence

They try to force themselves to appear cheerful as they struggle to survive. But, under the surface, life feels anything but happy as they suffer in silence, shame and confusion.

This was the story for a bright university student who attended our Church. She appeared to be happy and was eager to participate in Church activities. But inwardly she was fighting a losing battle with turmoil, fear, confusion and depression.

As she slowly weakened in her efforts to maintain control, she hesitantly agreed to the recommendation of a friend that she should meet with me to talk about her struggles. In this meeting, she finally gained the necessary courage to tell me a story that she had kept to herself until that point. She had been sexually molested by a family member when she was a little girl and, to my surprise, I was the first person to hear her painful story.

This began a challenging yet essential path to healing and rebuilding. Today she is doing well and able to help others facing similar circumstances.

A time to learn

Several years before this encounter, I was taking a graduate course in pastoral psychology and I impatiently asked myself, “Why do we have to spend a whole section on sexual abuse?” We even had to read a book about it and listen to a guest lecturer. Although I knew little about the subject, I didn’t expect to encounter very often. I was very wrong — and very humbled by God’s grace in equipping an impatient pastor.

Over the next couple of decades, I counseled more people dealing with a history of sexual abuse than I ever imagined. I’ve also repeatedly recommended the book I was assigned in the class. I remain humbled by the kindness of God to equip me to help those struggling to overcome the life-debilitating effects of sexual abuse.

During my graduate class, my eyes were opened to a world of darkness that holds many victims in silent pain. The more we learned about the issue, the more my heart grew heavy for the victims of such evil. 

Most of my counseling has focused on those who were sexually abused as children by family members. They come to me as adults who are struggling to live normal lives. They battle feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Since their abuse included manipulation and force, they long to feel a sense of security and control. They often substitute excessive and controllable behaviors to feel a sense of normalcy. Extreme exercise and dieting are two examples. Yet they easily spiral out of a sense of control. Inability to function and overall lack of motivation can inexplicably grip them.

It’s not unusual for survivors to experience significant loneliness, loss of appetite and need for unusual amounts of sleep. Mood swings plague those battling the grip of sexual abuse. Unusual gregariousness can give way to unexplainable depression and crying. Other waves of emotion include self-hatred, panic attacks, irrational phobias, guilt, shame, overall sense of humiliation, unexplainable anger and rage, lack of normality and a feeling of being trapped.

Survivors of sexual abuse sometimes turn to other forms of abuse to escape their pain. Obsessive behaviors rang from alcohol and drug abuse to sexual addictions and promiscuity. Sometimes victims engage in self-mutilation and battle suicidal thoughts.

Without help from a caring friend, most victims don’t recognize how badly they’ve been affected. They tend to suppress the past to survive in the present. Victims often conceal their pain and keep others at a distance. Relationships don’t come easily to these adults. Trust, one of main chords of healthy relating, feels out of reach because of their experience of betrayal. Yet they long for close relationships as much as they fear them. They fear that allowing someone to become a caring friend will cause suppressed feelings to emerge. Vulnerability is risky but necessary for gaining freedom.

Marriage and sexual abuse

Those who enter marriage relationships without first addressing their history of sexual abuse rarely do well. To flourish in marriage requires vulnerability, transparency and trust — painfully difficult qualities for victims of sexual abuse. Marriage can also provide a helpful context for recovery and renewal through the love and devotion of a spouse. But it typically requires assistance from a wise counselor.

The person who marries a victim of sexual abuse is often surprised by the effects of the abuse. It’s not uncommon for the mate of a victim to feel frustrated, confused and helpless. Making matters worse, they typically interpret the behavior of the victim as a personal affront when they don’t know the source. When victims put up walls or shut down their emotions, their mates often interpret it as rejection or personal failure.

The intimacy and closeness of marriage requires a level of vulnerability survivors feel unable to give. Adults who are victims of child sexual abuse must seek wise counsel if they want to enjoy healthy relationships.

Overcoming the past

The only thing we can change about the past is how we allow it to effect us in the future. One victim of abuse expressed her pursuit of freedom as a refusal to tie her soul to her abuser. As hard as it will be, victims must courageously acknowledge their pain and confront their past.

The path to freedom requires dealing with the past but the most formidable obstacle is often fear. Those who have been abused should remember that they have been victimized by the evil actions of others. They must reject self-blame and all blame that others try to project on to them. Although difficult, they must reject the powerful emotions of shame, guilt and fear that hold them in bondage.

The book I was assigned to read, “A Door of Hope: Recognizing and Resolving the pains of Your Past” by Jan Frank, emphasizes the importance of confronting your past. As Jan Frank explains, this must also involve some form of confrontation of the abuser. After counseling others through this painfully necessary process, I know with certainty that the freedom awaiting the victim is worth the challenge of confronting the past.

Relating to God

Relating to God is another difficultly for victims of sexual abuse. “How can I trust God if He didn’t protect me when I was vulnerable?” they ask. It is hard to fully understand how God’s control relates to the evil actions of people. And these kinds of questions mixed with feelings of worthlessness and anger combine to obstruct faith in God. Such hesitations and struggles must not be treated lightly. Scripture reminds us to “be merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 22).

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse need merciful and wise guidance to help them in their struggle to trust God. They especially need help to understand the difference between forgiveness of their offender and reconciliation. See here. 

Many others (like the student who entered my office) have walked this path. It is possible to know the joy of freedom from bondage to a painful past.

Steve Cornell

Nothing wasted

 

God doesn’t ignore or waste our suffering. After each of the following Scriptures, make a list of the purposes accomplished through suffering. Then talk to God about what you learned.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (II Corinthians 1:3-4).

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (II Corinthians 1:8-9).

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (II Corinthians 12:7-9).

leaning into grace,

Steve Cornell

* Other Scriptures: James 1:2-5; Psalm 23:4; 62:8; Proverbs 3:5-6.

Advantage of Christian counseling

In a conversation with a medical doctor, he expressed frustration about the number of times he diagnosed significant levels of anxiety or depression only to be told by a patient that her pastor or friend warned against medicine and suggested that her problem was spiritual.

“This kind of five Bible verses and you’ll be better approach is far more common than many realize.” The doctor said.

He’s right. And Christians lose credibility in this area when they have far more too offer. In my conversation with the doctor, I suggested the following perspective:

Perspective on Christian counseling


When I counsel others, I usually begin with an assumption that they have a full line of moral credit. I treat them as individuals who can accept and pay for their debts. Out of basic respect for their dignity as beings made in the image of God, I relate to them as responsible, capable, culpable and accountable.

Yet I realize that life is not so easily reduced to raw choosing. We must guard against a tendency within the Church to make all of life a matter of choice; of obedience or disobedience. We must apply compassionate consideration to how complex life can be. Far too often believers approach people one dimensionally, as if humans were only spiritual beings in need of salvation.

Yet, according to Scripture, there are four dimensions of human life. We are…

  1. physical beings with bodily needs.
  2. social beings with relationship needs.
  3. psychological beings with cognitive needs.
  4. spiritual beings with a need for God.



Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being able to approach issues holistically based on these dimensions. I use the word “advantage” because many other disciplines will not consider that spiritual dimension. If we find it inadequate to leave out this dimension (as we should), why do we do the same thing with the other dimensions?

A thorough biblical understanding of humanity protects us from simplistic reductions because we know that God has made humans as physical, social, psychological and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions must be considered when understanding and counseling behavior.

Unlike other disciplines, Christian counselors do not treat people as products of impersonal chance. Since we know that there is a personal creator, we call people to more than human perspectives about life.

The mistake Christians often make is being overly zealous to offer quick answers for the issues that trouble people. “After all,” we’re told, “the Bible speaks to every issue of life.” “So,” it seems to many believers, “all I have to do is find a verse or two of Scripture that applies and share them with the person who asks for advice.”

This approach is typically based on careless listening. When we’re more interested in our answer than in understanding a person’s problem, we need to learn patience by listening more compassionately. We don’t want to be the fool who answers a matter before hearing it. And we should always try to ways that the four dimensions might relate.


Some clarification

I am not suggesting that we encourage people to avoid responsibility for their actions. Playing the victim only binds people to more destructive life-patterns. But superficial diagnoses typically lead to inadequate remedies.

When counseling others, for example, it would be horribly simplistic to overlook or  minimize the effects of a deeply troubled upbringing. When children (who are intended by God to be lovingly nurtured and brought to maturity under the responsible oversight of parents) are neglected, poorly guided or abused, it profoundly affects their personal lives and relationships.

In many cases, one must look back to better understand the influences that shaped their current approaches to life. Our story is not meant to be one formed in isolation but in a social context — for better or for worse. Each persons story has been significantly shaped by others.

We shouldn’t look back to blame, excuse or justify, but to understand and find a clearer plan for change.

What we’re saying is that one’s sociology (relationships and life circumstances) plays a significant role (by divine intent) in shaping one’s overall life. This must be considered by those who counsel the whole person holistically (based on a full biblical perspective of humanity).

Wisdom then calls us to consider a wider perspective of life as we help individuals address their deepest needs. When counseling deeper life issues that hold people in patterns that are not flourishing in God’s will, very often a person’s social history and context must be explored as part of the diagnosis. This is validated by the fact that a key component to flourishing in a blessed life is our associations or those we are in company with (Psalm 1:1-3).

Another example is the use of medicinal aids for behavior or moods. Many medicines are helpful for addressing actual physical needs but use of them should not preclude responsibility and accountability in seeking resolution to negative behaviors and moods. The need for medicines should temper our approach to people with large doses of compassion and mercy, but only in a context that preserves the dignity of an individual exercising as much responsibility as possible — in a context of truth.

I suggest that counselors and doctors should never view medicinal aids as a solution for neurologically based needs. We are more than bodies and brains with physical needs. Other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive thoughtful consideration in our battle for health.

There is a tendency among some Christian counselors to react with suspicion toward medicinal aids. This is sometimes a reaction to a common negative posture found in secular psychiatry and bio-psychiatry toward spiritual dimensions of personhood. But we must not allow misguided assumptions (no matter how condescending) to cause knee-jerk reactions among Christian counselors. Nor should we carelessly dismiss research and findings in these fields.

A biblically-based holistic approach to counseling respects all dimensions of personhood created by God in the full context of a narrative of creation, fall, redemption, sanctification and final restoration.

Christian counselors should use the widest possible lens for understanding and addressing human behavior. This provides counselors with a unique advantage for being holistically honest in dealing with human problems.

Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. A theologically grounded vision of humanity protects counselors from simplistic reductions. Each dimension of life must be considered when understanding human behavior. And we also take seriously the profound affects of sin on each dimension. Diagnosis and solution that does not take seriously this painful truth will be superficial at best and ultimately harmful.

Steve Cornell


Questions about forgiveness

When it comes to forgiveness, a lot of people want answers to these questions:

  1. Is forgiveness a mental effort to erase or ignore the actions of the one who wronged us?
  2. Does forgiveness require us to become morally neutral about right and wrong?
  3. Is forgiveness an imaginary zone of forgetfulness?

Jesus went to the heart of forgiveness by making it part of worship. He said, “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).

I explain how this works here.

Steve Cornell

When faith causes doubts

Some struggle because they doubt; I sometimes struggle because I believe.

I believe in a God whose love is so great that He is love. I also believe in a God who is all-powerful. But sometimes my belief causes me to struggle.

When I see sad and desperate situations, compassion compels me to help and to pray. If I am completely honest, this is where faith can become a little confusing.

When I can’t do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering (especially of those whom I love), my faith is unwavering in the fact that God can do something to help. But when I pray and nothing changes to alleviate their suffering, or they become worse, I struggle to understand why God doesn’t seem to answer the cries of my heart for those in need.

I am not completely sure what role faith and prayer play in the painful and perplexing drama of human suffering.

An old tension

I realize that I am not the first to be conflicted between faith and suffering. I resonate with the psalmist,

“How long, O Lord ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2).

“I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble. Come near and rescue me…” (Psalm 69:3, 16-18).

Like the psalmist, I have also struggled with an apparent uneven distribution of pain and suffering. This is the age-old question of why righteous people suffer and the wicked are healthy and prosperous (see: Psalm 73). But I maintain strong reservations about anyone being righteous enough to lay claim to a good life from God.

Needed perspective

I believe in the verdict “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). I also believe that, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death is such a horrible word and an even more horrible fact. But it is a just verdict pronounced over sinners like me. I am slowly experiencing it every day of my life.

I believe that there is a dark and sad back-story to our suffering and a glorious end-story for those whom God loves. Yet pain in this life is often hard to reconcile with God’s love and power.

The agonizing question we face is why God chooses to allow pain and suffering when I am praying so much for its relief. Why doesn’t He answer my agonizing prayers for those who suffer? I cannot endure superficial answers to this real-life question.

Skeptics offer answers ranging from atheism to deism. But for honest people, these alternatives only lead to deeper levels of despair. They also force a degree of thoughtless dishonesty which I cannot permit. If I must choose between “no God” or “a God who means well but either cannot or will not do much to help” I am left with even more perplexing questions on more levels than human suffering. In addition, these conclusions profoundly compromise basic intellectual integrity.

Other questions 

Let’s not ignore other questions equally worthy of reflection. Why does God choose to love and to forgive rebellious creatures? The back-story of human sin explains the source of human suffering better than any other explanation (and there are not many others). So why would I think we deserve to have it better?

Why do I feel that God should intervene? And what would intervention look like on a world scale?

If want God’s love and power to converge to rescue us from our misery, isn’t this exactly what happened when God entered our world of suffering in the person of Christ and suffered for us ? (see: II Corinthians 5:17-21).

Finally, why does God even provide such a glorious end-story for forgiven sinners?

Cultural conditioning

On a cultural level, I admit that I have become accustom to (and even impatient for) solutions to pain and suffering. Advancements in science and medicine have strengthened my expectations. Is it possible that I am conditioned to hold unrealistic expectation for health and gregariousness? Do I have a place for sadness and suffering in normal life?

These are not theoretical questions for me. They have been real for most of my life. When my father came down with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis in his mid-thirties, I learned what it was like to carry a prayerful burden for a suffering loved one. It profoundly shaped my life and, gratefully, did not lead to bitterness. I learned so much about God’s sustaining grace and His redeeming power to bring good out of pain and suffering.

I continued to learn when I entered pastoral ministry and chose to care about many others. Some key scriptures that carry me to better places include: II Corinthians 1:3-11; 4:16-18;12:1-10; James 1:2-9; Psalm 62:8; Proverbs 3:5-6.

I will continue to pray and trust that suffering has a purpose even when I cannot see it. I will pray with one eye on the back-story and a hope-filled focus on the end-story (see: Colossians 3:1-4).

When God’s loved ones enter the place He has prepared for them, ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (see: Revelation 21:1-6; John 14:1-3). I find myself longing more and more for this day; for this place.

Reflect on these words:

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10).

Steve Cornell

When words cannot restore trust

Among people who have been loved by God, “love covers a multitude of offenses” (I Peter 4:8).

Forgiven people forgive others. Where minor offenses occur, forgiveness and reconciliation will restore relationships to true unity. Those who withhold restoration over minor grievances are not behaving consistent with gospel-based love (see: Ephesians 4:32-5:1). Where such love is lacking, immaturity and manipulation often threaten unity.

But when we have been deeply or repeatedly sinned against, forgiveness does not necessarily require immediate restoration of the same level of relationship with an offender. Even when God forgives our sins, He does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions.

Being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who significantly hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are not enough to restore trust in such cases.

When a husband speaks harshly to his wife in a way that is out of character, his acknowledgement of sinning against her should be received with forgiveness and restoration. If he repeatedly speaks this way, he should expect his acknowledgements of wrong to be more difficult to receive. If the pattern continues, his wife could appropriately tell him that she forgives him but will not accept his harshness in the future without consequences.

When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. This is especially true when an offense has been repeated.

See: Seven signs of true repentance and Instruments of godly sorrow

Steve Cornell

When life hurts

Life is hard because evil is real. It hurts to live in this world.

If we’re not hurt by our own stupidity and sinful deeds, the evil committed against us by others can be deeply painful and damaging. And our hearts become particuarly vulnerable when we’re victims of the evil actions of others.

Beyond what happens to us, there is also a secondary kind of suffering we experience when those we love are either hurt by others or when they hurt themselves.

In all of this painful mess, the question will sooner or later be asked about how God relates to our pain. 

When bad things happen to us that we cannot directly control and that prayer will not immediately change, we might find ourselves wrestling through a few dark nights of the soul concerning how God relates to the hardships of life. 

But in such times, when we’ve been hurt badly by uncontrollable turns in life, we must guard our hearts from misguided conclusions about God. He is our source of comfort (II Corinthians 1:3-4) and we only add to the pain when we distance ourselves from God.

But the temptation to become disillusioned and bitter is real and Scripture warns against it. The possibility of developing “a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” is presented as a serious concern for the community of believers (see: Hebrews 3:12-13). According to this text, we are called to watch out for one another and to encourage one another — daily, if necessary.

Reflect on the example of Joseph

A man named Joseph suffered a series of “misfortunes” beyond his control (Genesis 37-50). There was little he could have done to stop the abrupt and sad change he experienced. As is often the case, it all began for Joseph with a dysfunctional family.

Joseph came from a large family. He had many brothers but his father loved him more than any of them. Joseph was the “victim” of parental favoritism that made him the object of sibling hatred born of jealousy (see: Genesis 37:11).

When only seventeen years old, “his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him” (Genesis 37:4). As the object of two opposite responses (parental favoritism and sibling hatred), Joseph became a victim of unimaginable circumstances.

After many years of forced separation from his family, Joseph reconnected with his brothers. His words to them are rich reflections of deep trust in God’s providential rule over the evil intentions and actions of man. 

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:1-8a).

Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Liberated to love

When we yield to God’s sovereign control in the ugliness of life (see: Daniel 3:16-18; 4:34-35; Proverbs 3:11-12; Romans 12:17-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-12), it liberates us to follow Jesus in radical kingdom obedience (see: I Peter 2:21-25). Jesus said,

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

We are free under God from the poison of bitterness and the evil of revenge. We are free to refuse to participate in the multiplication of evil. We can even choose to absorb the loss and return a blessing instead (see: I Peter 3:9). Even if we do choose to require restitution or other measures of accountability toward those who hurt us, we are free to do this without a vindictive or vengeful motives.

Steve Cornell