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

Evil and death are conquered!

As we approach the time of year when Christians focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we stand in awe of the way God chose for victory over evil and death. 

Take time to reflect on this great quote and the Scriptures and song of worship below:

“Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. The maneuver is utterly unprecedented” (Henri Blocher).

  • “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:21, NLT).
  • Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying” (John 11:25, NLT).

Christ appears in Heaven for us!

When the apostle encouraged us to “set our affections on the realities of heaven,” he specifically identified it as the place “where Christ sits at God’s right hand.” 

“For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands… he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence” (Hebrews 9:24).

 What makes heaven so desirable is not the absence of anguish and suffering (as great as this will be), nor the presence of angels and fellow believers. Heaven is so desirable because it is the place “where Christ sits at God’s right hand.”

The apostle Paul spoke about his death with this perspective. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23).

After Jesus finished His mission of bearing our sins and being raised from the dead, He returned to heaven and took the seat of highest honor to appear before God “for us.” These two words “for us” are amazing!

In the highest court, those who know Christ as their Savior are represented. Let these words settle deeply into your heart: “Christ went into heaven itself to appear in the presence of God for us.”

In Colossians 3:3-4, the apostle reinforced his call to focus on heaven by writing: “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is our life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.”

Reflection

“The Christian’s whole and only status before God is in Christ. True and wonderful though this is, however, the sphere of the Christian’s existence is still here on earth. He is still beset by temptations; he is hampered by weakness and frustrated by failings; he falls short of ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13); the perfection for which he longs is not yet. He needs a holiness not his own, made available to him by the Lamb of God who has made atonement for his sins and who now interposes himself as his representative in the heavenly sanctuary. And this is the representation which Christ fulfills as he appears in the presence of God for us” (Philip E. Hughes, Hebrews, p. 349).

For deeper meditation on Christ’s representation, see: Romans 8:33-34; Hebrews 4:14-16; 7:23-27; John 2:1-2. The apostle John said those who confess their sin (I John 1:9), have an “advocate” with the heavenly father (I John 2:2). The N.I.V. translates advocate as, “one who speaks to the Father in our defense.” It pictures a legal setting with Christ as counsel for the defense. And His position as advocate is based on His redeeming work (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5-6).

“Our advocate doesn’t plead that we are innocent…He acknowledges our guilt and presents His vicarious work as the ground for our acquittal” (John R. W. Stott, I John, TNTC, pp. 81-82).

We must guard against misguided understandings of representation. We should not picture a dualistic situation where a well-pleasing son is trying to persuade a hostile father to look on us with favor. God was the one who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (II Corinthians 5:18-21).  God “spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32; cf. 1 John 4:9-10).

Reflection

“The intercession of the Son, then, is in no sense a pleading with the Father to change his attitude toward us. Nor does the Father have to be reminded of the full redemption that he himself has provided for us in his Son—the very thought is preposterous! The presence in heaven of the Lamb bearing the marks of his passion is itself the perpetual guarantee of our acceptance with God, who gave his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. In ourselves, however, though we have the forgiveness of our sins through the blood of Jesus Christ and though we are united to him in love and trust, we are unworthy because Christ has not yet been fully formed within us (cf. Gal. 4:19) and we still sinfully fall short of the glory of God (cf. Rom. 3:23). This consideration explains our continuing need of the advocacy and intercession of him who alone is accounted worthy before God (cf. Rev. 5:1-10). It is in his worthiness that even now we rejoice in the blessings of the divine favor, for by the grace of God his merit has been reckoned to us as our merit, his heaven has become our heaven, and his eternal glory our eternal glory” (Philip Hughes, Hebrews).

 Do we need the assistance of saints or angels to bring us to God?

“To imagine that saints or angels can be influenced to intercede for us is not only delusion; it is to cast doubt on the perfect adequacy of the intercession of Christ on our behalf and thus to deprive ourselves of the fulness of the security which is available to us only in Christ. Our Lord clearly taught that no man can come to the Father except by him (John 14:6) and that our requests to God are to be made in his name (John 14:13f.; 15:16; 16:23, 24, 26), precisely because there is no other name which avails and prevails with God (cf. Acts 4:12) (Philip E. Hughes, Hebrews, p. 353).

Christ alone is our mediator, advocate, intercessor, high priest, and way of access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; John 14:6). “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous. He (Jesus Christ) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2; cf. Hebrews 7:26-27). “And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:18). 

Let your heart dwell on these great words: “Christ went into heaven to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24).

Steve Cornell 

 

Deep thoughts on Spiritual maturity

Spiritual maturity is God’s primary goal for our lives. We are beings who have fallen from the greatness of the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27; Romans 3:23). When we are reconciled with God through faith in Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 5:17-21), God begins to restore us to the greatness of His image (Romans 8:29-30; II Corinthians 3:18).

This is the process we call spiritual maturity. God is far more concerned about changing us than about changing our circumstances.

We must recognize that God’s changes are thorough — affecting every aspect of our being — our thoughts, attitudes, values and actions. His work is a deep transformation of character. Consequently, sometimes these changes are painful (II Co. 1:8-9; Heb. 12:1-11; Ja. 1:2-5).

Spiritual maturity is a process of bringing your will into conformity with God’s will. This involves your intellect (as you use your mind to explore God’s truth), your will (as you increasingly yield to God’s authority), and your emotions (as you cultivate godly affections). A maturing Christian will pursue all of this with increased humility.

“For the Christian, the path of connectedness to God involves the development of a Christlike mind, will, affections (or emotions), character, relationships and actions. When any of these capacities is undernourished, our spiritual growth will be stunted” (Bruce Demarest, Satisfy Your Soul: Restoring the Heart of Christian Spirituality).

Salvation

Spiritual maturity must be understood as part of the gift of salvation, for “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:29). We experience this in dimensional and sequential progress based on the three tenses of salvation. We are saved; we are being saved and we will be saved.

We have joy in what we possess but we wait and groan for its completion. We taste and are satisfied as we go on to hunger for what awaits us.

The gospel is a gift that we receive once for all in Christ and experience in temporal sequence until “by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, Jesus transforms our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20) and then “the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father” — “so that God may be all in all” (I Corinthians 15:24-28).

Not passive

Of course, we are not passive recipients but active participants who are “working out our salvation with fear and trembling. But we can only do this because it is God who works in us “to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13). And the gospel reminds me that I am an unworthy recipient who has been made worthy by Jesus.

We need the deep encouragement and confidence that comes from knowing that sanctification is God and the believer at work together, not pitted against one another (Colossians 1:29; Philippians 2:13).

God put his treasure (the gospel) “in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7). Yet “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).

Grace-based motives

We are motivated to godliness by the fear of the Lord, the consequences of evil, love for one another, the judgment seat of Christ, and other worthy realities.

“So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:9-10).

A grace-based motivation for godliness will not diminish our need to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” or “the struggle against sin” (Hebrews 12:1-4). But trying to do these things without “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and finisher of faith” will easily degenerate into something unworthy of the gospel.

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

The gospel of grace must always be the primary motivational reality for transformation. And it will be for chest-beating, mercy-pleading, self-confessed sinners who go home justified (Luke 18:9-14). Without this as our motivation, we easily slide toward religion where I must get myself to the place where God looks with favor on me. This is to engage in religious notions of propitiation where I try to propitiate the Deity and ignore the truth of the gospel that our loving God already propitiated Himself by becoming the propitiation for our sins (I John 2:1-2).

“Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 3:3; 5:16, 25).

Steve Cornell

Struggle Theology

While reading some feedback on Tim Challies’ post “Desecration and Titillation,” I recalled a quote from a series of messages I gave many years ago. It came from the book, “Flirting with the Devil,” by Bill Pride and has to do with Struggle Theology (an incredibly creative device invented to explain why professing Christians fail to conquer their sins). 

“Struggle Theologians say, ‘Forget that stuff about being more than conquerors in Christ and all things being possible to him who believes. Don’t start thinking you are better than other people. In fact, we’d like you to concentrate on other people. Don’t think about Jesus if you can help it. Think instead about sinners who call themselves Christians. These are your real role models.  Whatever they can’t do, you can’t do either.’”

“If a Struggle Theologian can find one person who professes to be a Christian and also is failing to overcome the sin of habitual drunkenness, he considers that sufficient reason to tell all of us that drunkenness is a difficult problem requiring complex coping strategies and that there are ‘no simple answers’ to this problem. If you try to point out that the Bible says drunkenness is a sin, not a disease, and that we are supposed to live above sin, the Struggle Theologian will accuse you of thinking you are better than other people and of being insensitive to the real problems others face. He may even go so far as to claim that when the church calls sin ‘sin’ and expects sinners to change their ways, we are driving the poor victims of sin even farther from the ‘healing’ that supposedly only occurs when we unconditionally accept them and their bad behavior” (pp. 28-29, Flirting with the Devil,” Bill pride).

Some of the debate on Tim’s blog focused on whether those who profess faith in Christ but remain in habitual sin should question whether they ever really experienced salvation. The passage Tim quoted offers a clear warning.   

“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. … Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6,8-10).

On this subject, there is (as with all biblical truth) tension and balance to respect. The early church leader James acknowledged that, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). The book of Hebrews described the christian life as a “struggle against sin” (Hebrews 12:4). The Apostle Paul pointed to the depths of our battle when he wrote, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). 

Yet none of this is meant to ease our conscience toward habitual sin in a way that we accept it as normal to the christian life. We’re called to, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5; cf. Romans 8:12-13).

The point about “Struggle Theology” might seem a bit simplistic or in need of balanced, but it’s worth considering when tempted to abuse the truth that we all struggle. 

“We Christians are supposed to deal with sin at the point of a sword, not to ‘struggle’ with it. Satan had to stroke [Eve] up and down with tempting suggestions before she ate the fruit. This kind of struggling is just a coy way of giving in to sin. You put up the appearance of a fight to fool onlookers into thinking you’re a good person who is trying his best, when really you never intended to permanently reject that sin in the first place” (p. 29, Flirting with the Devil,” Bill pride).

 Steve Cornell

When the past destroys your future

Allowing a painful past to control your present is a sure way to destroy your future.

Yet so many choose to do this. Why? Because sometimes the past is so painful that it’s hard to put it behind you and move on. 

If you feel bound to a painful past, I suggest that you examine the thought patterns and postures of heart that bind you.

Start by clearly renouncing wrong and damaging ways of thinking about yourself, others, life and God. Reject false perceptions, self-blame, guilt; the need to be in control, wrong ideas about all men or all women.

Reject wrong thoughts and distorted perceptions about God by choosing to see how He has revealed Himself in Scripture (see: Psalm 103:8-13II Corinthians 1:3-4).

Give blame and responsibility to those to whom it belongs. Refuse to allow resentment, anger and bitterness to bind your soul to those who hurt you. Embrace forgiveness in a context of worship. Recognize the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.  

Leave your Grudge with the Judge

Address your unwillingness to trust others.

Renounce efforts to isolate yourself in lonely forms of self-sufficiency. Fear of loss and betrayal often imprison hearts in fear of vulnerability and loneliness. Allow your heart to love another person as God loved you (See: Romans 5:8).

Renouncing bad patterns and embracing new ones takes patience and resolve. Identifying destructive thought patterns is a process that usually requires the help of others. Don’t be threatened by learning painful truths about yourself. A change of mind or outlook requires honesty about our feelings and thoughts. It also requires a new way of seeing things — God’s way. This is where the path to healthy and joyful living begins.


Recall these great words: “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close” (Psalm 27:10, NLT).

God said to His people: “I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,” (Jeremiah 30:17). God is the one who can “….restore to you the years that the locust have eaten” (Joel 2:25). Like the Psalmist, we must pray, “Renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

Resolve to commit yourself to a renewed mind. Change the way you think by learning to think godly thoughts from Scripture. “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23).

The pattern of renunciation and renewal—“ do not be conformed….but be transformed” (Romans 12:2) is essential for overcoming one’s past. It is also a daily practice that yields long-term benefits over time. Change comes through a disciplined practice of renunciation and renewal.

The mind is what must be renewed. The mind is the center of thought, perception, understanding, and consciousness itself.

Change must begin with new ways of thinking. God uses Scripture to work this change in us: (Joshua 1:8Psalm 1:1-3Psalm 119:11;II Timothy 3:15-17Hebrews 4:12James 1:22-25).

Recommit to the confession of Psalm 62:1-2 – “I find my rest in God alone. He is the One who saves me. He alone is my rock. He is the One who saves me. He is like a fort to me. I will always be secure.”

Steve Cornell

See also: Hurt by a broken relationship

Two images of the Christian life

1. A race requiring perseverance (Hebrews 12:1-3)

  “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (v. 1)

2. A son receiving discipline (Hebrews 12:4-13)
          ___________________

  “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (v. 7)

What did you expect?

Paul and Barnabas “returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said” (Acts 14:21-23).
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“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything…. Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:2-4, 12).