It is a privilege to be told a story of abuse in someone’s life.
When someone discloses their story of abuse or assault, they are trusting you with what is very possibly their deepest wound. They are showing that there is a level of trust, or a level of desperate need that they have reached and are courageously speaking up and testing the waters of acknowledging their hurt, potentially for the first time. What a privilege to be counted as worthy to hear such a thing!
And yet in the minutes that follow, those of us who are listeners will be put in a position to be God’s instrument to bring care and healing, or Satan’s to bring shame and condemnation. To be told a story of abuse is a privilege, but it is also to be put in a precarious position to do either great good or great harm.
We are often unprepared for such a conversation, and it is near impossible to predict when these things will come to light, but all of us have people in our lives who are carrying with them the burden of their story and pain and many of us will be given the opportunity to hear and respond to those we care about.
Given the gravity of the conversation, it is natural to ask, what should I do if someone tells me they’ve been sexually assaulted or abused?
“let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak..” – James 1:19
It seems so simple, yet it is the easiest step to skip. When we are told the story of someone’s abuse and victimization, it is so important that we stop and we listen. We don’t rush to say some feel good platitude or change the subject because its uncomfortable, but we pause and we listen.
It is likely you are the first person to be told this story, and your response may determine whether or not this story is ever told again, therefore we want to heed the warning in James, and not speak before we are ready or before the person sharing is ready to hear us. Often the most important thing you can do for a victim is to validate what they are saying and feeling by being a willing listener.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15
The Christian life is meant to be lived in community, meaning when one member suffers, we are to suffer with them. When someone shares their story of abuse, it is absolutely appropriate and right to weep with them. This means giving the situation the seriousness and the gravity that it deserves. It may or may not involve actual tears, but the message is the same: meet people where they are at.
Don’t try to change their feelings about the situation, don’t let your discomfort affect your ability to feel deeply what they are going through. Jesus felt deeply when his friends experienced difficult times (John 11:35), we ought to do the same.
Don’t be afraid to mourn, something has indeed been lost, in fact in scripture we see people mourn a sexual assault the same way they would mourn the death of a loved one (2 Samuel 13:19), not because hope is lost, but because death is the closest measurement of pain. Engage the emotions of the victim, encourage and do not minimize them, join in what they are feeling. This is what God expects of his people.
When people share intimate details of their life, when people are open and honest about their wounds and their shame, it is not a time to investigate their claims or poke holes in their story, it is a time to believe and to care.
Many of us are too skeptical for our own good. Being skeptical, not believing, or even giving any sort of hint or hesitation that you might not really believe what they said is to actually fulfill one of a victim’s greatest fears and reinforce a hoard of cultural lies and doubts that they are already battling. To not believe a victim is to stoke the fires of doubt, self-blame, and shame in a victim, some of Satan’s favorite weapons.
Less than 2% of reported sexual assaults are false. There is no benefit to a man or woman making up a shameful and painful story about their life.
Victims need to be believed more than they need to be corrected or questioned.
In fact, rather than assume someone isn’t telling you the truth, the opposite should be done, assume there is more that they aren’t telling you. Often a disclosure is the tip of the iceberg, the minimal amount of details protruding from the surface of their life, perhaps hiding a behemoth of pain under the waters.
False stories of sexual assault are the exception, not the rule.
(Look for part 2 of “Responding to Disclosure” for more ways to respond well to being told about abuse.)