Where was God? The Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children, Part 1

5 years ago

When we address the spirituality of childhood, we are confronted with the tragic reality that at least one in four girls and one in five boys in America experience sexual abuse during childhood.[1] The spiritual lives of all children are shaped by their experiences in childhood. Children of sexual trauma confront the God questions in profound ways, and the questions and issues of these children –  this substantial percentage of all children -- challenge some of our popular theological assumptions in equally profound ways. 

 Here I will unfold some of the spiritual questions that sexually abused children have, look at some of the theological implications of their questions, and suggest places where the Christian tradition can open doors into faith. It has been said that one ought to preach as if a Holocaust survivor were sitting on the first row. What we have come to understand is that a significant number of people in almost any congregation will have experienced atrocity in the form of childhood sexual trauma. Their questions are at the core of human interaction with God. They call the Christian community to new awareness, theological reflection and compassionate response.


I come to this issue as one who was sexually assaulted from the ages of three to nine, and as one who has shared recovery over the years with many other women, some men and children.  I write largely from my own insights, and those others have shared with me, from having gone back into our childhood trauma experiences and having recovered the feelings and struggles of the childhood years and beyond.[2] I have presented retreats using art to explore the spiritual issues raised by abuse, and I continue to be moved by the depth at which those who have been abused ask questions of faith. I cannot and do not speak for every child of abuse, but I do believe there are common spiritual questions and issues that many survivors of abuse share. 

It is important to remember that children cope with trauma by repressing the feelings and often the memory of their abuse. They become cut off from their own reality and from their emotions in other areas of life as well.  In childhood they may have no conscious awareness of some of the questions and issues discussed below. This dissociation does not mean, however, that the issues are resolved. On the contrary, they lurk below the surface, forming a powerful undercurrent to the lives of these children until the questions are able to emerge into full consciousness. It may not be until they are adults engaged in the process of healing that these childhood spiritual issues are openly addressed.


THE ISSUES AND QUESTIONS   The Conviction of Being Bad by Nature  / Am I Loveable?


 A seven year old girl receives early morning visitations in her bed from her older brother.  A three year old girl is pulled into a closet during a game of “hide and seek” and  raped by an older boy.  A five year old girl is genitally fondled by her uncle. A sister and brother, six and eight, are coerced into have sex in front of their father. A four year old girl is lured into the garage and molested by a man she thinks is the postman. A six year old girl is tied up and sexually tortured by a neighbor boy. A ten year old boy is forced into sexual acts by his teacher. A girl is prepared by her father at age six to become his regular sex partner until puberty. These are just a few of the experiences of abuse with which I am personally familiar.

Children have no understanding of what “sexual” is. All they know is that someone is doing something that they know or sense is wrong and that parts of their bodies are feeling desire. Sexual feelings, powerful at any age, can be overwhelming to children. The intensity, confusion and sometimes terror and physical violence of the experiences are far beyond children’s ability to cope.  They are thrown into trauma. In their attempt to make sense out of the event, they confuse their own arousal with consent, and believe that they are fully implicated in the crime. Many abusers tell the child that it is the child’s fault, and other family members may react by confirming the lie of the child’s seductiveness, consent and badness. In cases where the abuser is a family member, the child learns that the abuse is the price that must be paid for the affection and the attention the child needs; the child’s belief in her/his implication is thus strengthened.

Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone of greater physical or emotional power than the child.  For this reason it is natural for children to be afraid that the abuser will hurt them worse if they resist, or that rejection or abandonment might ensue. Often girls and even boys are taught not to make a fuss and to acquiesce before those in authority. Sometimes the assaults are gentle and from a trusted family member. But because most of these children are forced to have sexual arousal, they believe that they allowed or wanted the abuse, and that it was their fault.[3] They usually emerge from their experiences with a deep sense of moral shame. 

I came out of my initial violation believing not only that I had done a bad thing, but that I was bad. I was ashamed that I had been unable to stop the invasion into by body. More than that, I believed there was something in me that asked for this violence. Later attacks from the disturbed boy who raped me, and experiences of my awakened sexual feelings with my father, confirmed to me that I had a monster living in me over which I had no control. The badness was in me. 

The shame associated with childhood sexual abuse comes not only from the confusion of arousal with consent. By their invasive, hurtful or physically violent actions, abusers shame the very sexuality of their victims. The child’s sense of self is damaged or destroyed, in part because the abuser has vanquished the child’s will about her/his own most private bodily core.  This is one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so destructive and takes so long to heal.  It is the very life force and the sense of self that have been shamed and ravaged.[4]

We have learned about the neurological dynamics of trauma from the work done on the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by children who are sexually abused. Pathways are formed in the brain during trauma that continue to create the same negative thought patterns and physiological responses long after the traumatic event is over.[5] It seems from my own experience with survivors of sexual abuse that the spiritual trenches of shame are equally deep in the soul. The question of worth, our worth in Creation, our worth before God, may be a struggle for any child. In the belief of children of sexual trauma, the question is decided early. We are of no worth. There is an ontological quality to the shame carried by children of abuse. We are unlovable to God. 

I have heard survivors of sexual violation say that it feels as if their souls, if they were there at all, were down to nubs. It is that remaining nub of life, buried deep underneath the shame and often accessible only through intensive healing work, that knows that the shame is false and feels the agony of the soul’s violation and denigration. Sometimes it takes years of healing before that soul pain is touched. Most of us will go to almost any length not to feel it, so devastating is its sting.  It is a pain that can lead to healing and light, although it may not go away in this life. 

For children of abuse and for the adults they become, both the theological sense of being bad, and the soul pain from this shame become themes of the spiritual struggle.      


[1] U S. Bureau of Justice 1994 number (casacares.org). New studies are underway which may make the estimate higher because the reporting of abuse has become better in recent years

[2] For the psychological and social dynamics of child sexual abuse, mentioned throughout this article, see Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (New York: Harper Collins, 1988).  drop and

[3]Children can also feel shame from covert sexual abuse such as repeated inappropriate looks, comments, exposure to nudity, or seeing or hearing sexual acts in life or in pornography.


[4] See my “Lament for a Broken Child” in Women’s Uncommon Prayers (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse Publishing, 2000) 63-64.

[5] See Francine Shapiro and Margot Silk Forrest, EMDR  (New York: Basic Books, 1997)

This blog is adapted from the first part of the article,“Where Was God? The Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children” Sewanee Theological Review 48:1 (Christmas 2004): 87-108.



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