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Descending Into the World of Abuse
Many good people are giving survivors space to tell their story. That is essential work, and I am so thankful to see that growing. I wonder though, are people listening? Are you listening? Are we listening? Are we capable of really listening? Or are we in an analogous situation to the communication failure between different worldviews—conversations that often resemble ships passing each other in the night because of unshared beliefs. If that is the case, if the night of trauma is keeping Christians from seeing survivors’ accurately, then we need a brighter light on our bow. As Os Guinness notes, the sources of light often needed for worldview issues are “signals of transcendence”,
“experiences [which] beep like a signal, impelling us to transcend our present awareness and think more deeply, widely and seriously.”1
What sometimes removes scales from our eyes could also be called “signals of descendence”. Apple tells me that is not a word, but just think of “descend” as the contrast of “transcend”: as transcendence refers to a “climbing beyond”, descendence refers to a “climbing down.” Sometimes the only way we transcend the limited vantage point of our comfort is by descending into the experience of a victim.
Eric Schumacher testified to this dynamic in his open letter to Rachel Denhollender in 2019. He shares how he did nothing when he first heard about sexual abuse within the SBC, and how he dismissed allegations about sexual abuse coverups in Sovereign Grace Ministries.2 His perception began to change as he walked alongside women whose “stories were minimalized, brushed aside, and disbelieved.”3 But it seems what really changed things for him were signals of descendence:
“At the same time, I experienced false-accusations, abuse, betrayal, and other sufferings through church controversy. While this initially made me defensive of pastoral heroes, the Lord used it to help me hear the cry of the poor. When I was mistreated, many expressed sorrow and support for me in private, but not many stepped up to actively stop it. When I was attacked, some minimized it or applied quick fixes. I had "friends" who refused to listen to or follow me as a pastor merely because influential pastors said and believed otherwise. I learned what it was to be the victim. Through this, the Lord stirred in me a desire to see, hear, and respond to those who experienced abuse.”4
These signals of descendence serve to bring about a necessary culture shock, forced education in seeing with different eyes. Os Guinness writes that a culture shock is
“some event or experience…that smashes against our normal way of seeing things, and causes a breach in our given views of reality that opens up the possibility of different and alternative realities…[W]e see a culture that is different from our own with new eyes, but more than that: from then on we see our own culture with different eyes. The question then is not just “How on earth could they think that?” but “How can I still think this?” The unquestioned and taken-for-granted solidity of our own reality is no more.”5
Eric Schumacher could no longer think the way he formerly thought about the experiences of victims because of culture shock and forced learning through signals of descendence. We can and should learn from the example of people like Eric, but there is a limitation: signals of descendence “are always clearest to those who hear them, rather than to bystanders and those who hear about them later.” If we haven’t been abused, are we to go looking for it? Obviously not. But we can choose to learn rather than wait to see if God might force it upon us. Because that is what Jesus did: he freely “partook of the same things” as the children of God and voluntarily “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 2:14, 5:8). Christians will not protect vulnerable and wounded sheep unless we understand their stories. And we will not understand their stories unless we descend with Christ to see from victim’s eyes the the worldview created by abuse. Which is to say, we can benefit from vicarious signals of descendence:
“Other people may hear of a signal of transcendence and understand its logic from the outside, but the thrust of the signal will only have its full force for those who share enough of the life experience of the one who hears the signal.”6
That is the key: sharing enough of the life experience of the one who hears the signal. Reading this newsletter won’t do it. Reading a book about trauma won’t do it. But there are other ways to seek out experiential encounters, and they always involve stories. For me, those stories have come from my wife, other women in the church who have been abused and dismissed, my clients, podcasts of abuse survivors, and memoirs of trauma such as Night by Elie Wiesel.
These stories were signals, signs that pointed and gave me a choice to follow where they led. I see these signals of descendence leading to what Diane Langberg calls the mission field of the 21st century: trauma. It is the mission field of the Son of God, whose cross was the ultimate signal of descendence and whose life experience we share. For it is in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and yes, the abused, that we see and serve Jesus. If we would follow these signals, whether in our own lives, or sharing the life experiece of those we encounter at church, our communities, and in memoirs of abuse and trauma, maybe we can learn to better understand abuse survivors before they come to us, so that when they do, we will be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Quote from Diane Langberg
“Have you ever sat with someone unlike you, being grace and truth to them? Have you ever listened, trying to understand what it is like to be them rather than trying to correct them and make them like you? So often we listen just long enough to convince another to be more like us or to instruct them about how to “get over” whatever has happened. It is an egocentric approach. Jesus’s presence with us was not and is not like that. He listened and responded to the individual. Have you ever been struck by the fact that he healed all blind people in unique ways? Let us watch Jesus and see who he was with others who were utterly unlike him. Let us watch and see who he was with “them.”
Bodies Behind the Bus, “a podcast centering on the voices of spiritual abuse victims from within the Acts 29 network.”
Safe to Hope, a podcast to “help women in crisis tell their story with an eye for God's redemptive purposes.”
Are you willing to descend with Christ into the world of trauma and abuse? How much of your own beliefs about abuse and trauma might really be unquestioned assumptions that you have taken for granted because that’s all you’ve known?
Guinness, Os. Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. IVP Books, 2015.
Fitzpatrick, Elyse, and Eric Schumacher. Worthy: Celebrating the Value of Women. Bethany House, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2020, pp. 275-276.
Ibid., p. 277.
Ibid., p. 277.
Guinness, Fool’s Talk.
Guinness, Fool’s Talk.