Category Archives: Counselling

Coming to Terms with the Reality of Childhood Sexual Abuse

One of the most helpful books on this difficult subject. There’s also an accompanying workbook.

It should be self-evident that sexual abuse is an unpleasant topic.  This is one of the saddest, hardest things we have to deal with in this broken world.  It can be difficult to approach this topic with honesty and openness.  Yet we need to, now more than ever.

Sadly, whether we realize it or not, many of us have been touched by the consequences of sexual abuse.  It not only happens out there in the world, but it also happens in our churches.  If I may be personal for a moment, this is something that has deeply touched my life.  I was not sexually abused, but someone I love dearly was.  After immigrating to Canada from the Netherlands, my mother was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a family member.  It left deep scars and pain in her life.  I don’t think she ever came to terms with it.  It affected her emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps even physically.

In the past, sexual abuse was typically ignored and covered up.  People didn’t want to talk about such a horrible subject, let alone admit that it happens.  It used to be that way in broader society as well.  But over the last three decades or so, attitudes have changed dramatically.  People in our broader society are willing to talk and do something about the problem of childhood sexual abuse.

But where does that leave us as a church community?  If we love Christ and we love his church, we too ought to be honest about this serious problem, try to understand it, and aim to address it.  We’ll try to prevent it.  And we’ll try to help those who have survived it.

Defining the Problem

First, let’s get our definitions clear.  In general, abuse is inappropriate conduct towards another person.  It can be a single event or a pattern of behaviour.  In particular, sexual abuse is “the sexual exploitation of a person or any sexual intimacy forced on a person (either physical or non-physical).  Child sexual abuse can include taking advantage of a child who is not capable of understanding sexual acts or resisting coercion such as threats or offers of gifts. Sexual abuse includes harassment by means of verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, brought on by an individual and aimed at a particular person or group of people with the aim of obtaining sexual favours.”  These definitions come from the Child Abuse Policy of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.

In the past some have tried to restrict sexual abuse to mean only intercourse, as if anything else is not really that sexual and won’t do any great damage.  But this is foolish and short-sighted.  Sexual abuse occurs whenever someone abuses his or her authority or power to gain sexual gratification at a weaker person’s expense.  That’s necessarily going to go beyond intercourse.  It includes all inappropriate touching, as well as exposure.  It also includes inappropriate talk, forcing someone to view pornography, and sexual harassment.

Sexual abuse involves someone being forced into an unwanted sexual experience.  Their feelings, desires, and emotions are completely ignored by the offender.  While touching, fondling, exposure, and dirty talk may seem harmless to some, the fact is that such acts can and do have tremendous impacts on the lives of those on the receiving end.  This is in addition to the fact that all these things violate the Seventh Commandment.  All these things are sinful in the eyes of God, sins against him and our neighbour.  It’s selfish and destructive.

It’s also important to remember that some sins are worse than others.  One of the things that makes sexual abuse such a horrible sin is that it is attack on something essential to our humanity, namely our sexuality.  We’re created male or female, and that has to do with biological realities such as our sexual organs and hormones.  Human reproduction was designed around these biological realities.  And when these core aspects of our humanity are assaulted, the pain really goes deep.

In what follows, I will sometimes refer to those who have experienced abuse as “victims,” and other times as “survivors.”  Those who’ve experienced abuse are both.  Besides, there has to be some short-hand form for referring to those who’ve gone through this.  At the same time, I don’t mean to leave you with the impression that Christians who’ve experienced this horrible atrocity should find their identity in being either a victim or a survivor of abuse.  We ought to find our identity in Jesus Christ – for it’s in him that there’s hope for healing.  Additionally, in what follows I’ll use feminine pronouns for victims/survivors, simply because females are more typically in that position.  However, it does not change the fact that many males have also experienced it.

What the Bible Says

It should be obvious enough that sexual abuse is wrong.  The Bible speaks about it.  In 2 Samuel 13 we find the sad story of the abuse of Tamar by her step-brother Amnon – it’s readily apparent in the story that Amnon traumatized his step-sister by raping her.  This was a wicked act with terrible consequences.  Moreover, there are numerous places in the Old and New Testament which tell us that any kind of sexual activity must only be between a husband and a wife.  Any other sexual contact is a violation of the Seventh Commandment.  Sexual sins, including abuse, are rebellion against God.  They are also a form of idolatry – placing one’s sexual desires on the throne in the place of the true God.  All forms of sexual abuse are selfish acts.  The damage inflicted on the victims can be far-reaching, even leading to suicide.  That also tells us something of the wickedness of this sin.

An Abuse of Power

How can this wickedness take place, even among those who profess to be Christians?  Often it involves an abuse of power, someone older or bigger taking advantage of someone younger or smaller.  Sexual abuse often happens without the threat of violence or the use of physical force.  Victims are simply coerced into the act with threats or a lie about what is really going on.  Offenders will often solely lead their prey into the abuse so that it seems quite innocent and harmless at first.  Some offenders will make the abuse into a kind of game which makes it seem not quite so bad to a young child.  He might then tell the child that it is their secret game that no one else can know about or they won’t be able to play together any more.

Sometimes sexual abuse takes place between adolescents and young children – typically teenage boys and pre-teen girls.  We’re not talking about a simple case of sexual curiosity.  This is the manipulation of peer pressure.  Younger children are seeking acceptance into an older group.  The older group recognizes that and they take advantage of it to sexually abuse the younger ones.  That kind of abuse may happen just once or it may continue over several years.

In most cases the perpetrator is known to the victim.  It’s typically a family member, and more often than not male.  Females are known to abuse as well, but you don’t find the same numbers as with males.  If it’s not a family member, then it’s oftentimes someone else well-known by the family.  This could include doctors, teachers, or office bearers.

Any one of these people is in a position where they could potentially abuse a child or teenager.  They’re all in positions of authority and trust.  They have some honour associated with their position.  In the past, an allegation of abuse against a teacher or minister was typically not taken seriously.  There was always a greater chance it would be covered up.  Victims of abuse by such people usually felt that there was no point in bringing it up, because they wouldn’t be believed anyway.  If an offender was a respected teacher or office bearer, he often had something of a protective barrier against claims that would destroy his reputation.

Many abusers have a double-personality.  They may look like a good Christian on the outside.  They might be able to debate all kinds of theological or church issues with you.  But to the victim, such a person can be Satan personified.  He will have a face, an odour, and a peculiar voice which will never be forgotten by the survivor.  Oftentimes survivors face terrifying flashbacks when faced with people who are similar or when they are in situations that remind them of the abuse.  Some survivors find it difficult to return to places where the abuse happened.  That may include the surroundings of the family home.

Usually families where sexual abuse happens are legalistic when it comes to certain things.  Legalism can be a way that abuse is covered up so it can continue.  One survivor told how “…in my family it was not acceptable to sew on Sundays but it was acceptable to abuse children.”  Deep, dark secrets are kept within the family, protected by an outward veneer of super-serious piety.  The family may look very committed sitting together in church twice every Sunday, but no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.

A Christian counsellor related to me how sexual abuse often occurs in isolated, conservative, large families in Reformed churches.  Isolation leads to secrets.  Conservative (not meaning orthodox) includes having bizarre ideas about not talking about sexuality, leading to curiosity and an inability to have self-control when the opportunity presents itself.  And in large families, the parents are often unable to parent on their own.  They rely on the older children or other outside family members for child care, thus increasing the opportunities for abuse to occur.  Of course, there are large families where abuse doesn’t happen, but the risk level does go up.

The hypocrisy of the family environment can have devastating effects on a survivor of sexual abuse.  She may have bitter feelings towards the church and may even end up leaving.  She may feel that a church which allows such hypocrisy is a church in which there is no real faith or love.  However, this is only one of the consequences sexual abuse survivors often have to deal with.

Consequences:  Guilt and Faith

Now before I go a bit further with those consequences, I should say that not every person who’s been sexually abused is equally traumatized by it.  There are numerous factors.  Some people by nature are more resilient than others.  The person who was abused once will likely be traumatized less than someone abused repeatedly – but even this isn’t true all the time.  Incest is typically more traumatic than abuse by a non-family member.  And there are other variables as well.  So I’m describing a range of consequences that those who’ve been through sexual abuse MAY experience.

Understandably, victims of sexual abuse will often be scarred with deep wounds of guilt and betrayal.  They may feel betrayed by someone who was supposed to love and protect them.  They may feel guilty because, in their mind, they “allowed” the abuse to happen and continue.  But realistically the victim could never have stopped it.  The abuser was too clever and manipulative – he knew how to get what he wanted.  Still, survivors will struggle to find an explanation for what happened.

In the process, they may question why God would let his happen.  This is part of the betrayal.  The survivor feels betrayed, not only by the offender (especially if it’s a family member), but also by her God.  Why God allows abuse to continue is not easy to grasp and there’s no simple answer.  When you’ve been abused, it feels like God has let you down in a cruel and ruthless way.  Then it’s difficult to trust God, even when Scripture says that God works all things for our good.

Some incest survivors also struggle with relating to God as a Father.  If your earthly father had been slipping into bed and abusing you for ten years, you would struggle in that human relationship.  In the same way, incest survivors can really struggle with understanding how to relate to God as our Father.  Sadly, this struggle can and does lead some away from the Christian faith.

Other Consequences

As I’ve already hinted, sexual abuse involves trauma. By that I mean that it’s a deeply upsetting experience that often has long-term psychological and physical consequences.  Most victims of sexual abuse experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Just as a soldier goes into battle and may see various atrocities and brutal acts of violence, so the sexual abuse victim is traumatized and has her childhood or teenage years murdered.  Her soul has been ripped out of her for the gratification of the enemy.  Unless it’s dealt with, that trauma can stay and haunt a victim for a long time.  There can be terrifying memory flashbacks.  But there can also be memory blocks – some can’t remember their childhood, or can’t remember any joy at all in childhood.  Sometimes there will be denial or minimization of the abuse.  With other survivors, there can be debilitating depression, anxiety, multiple personalities, and other serious mental health issues.

Another consequence is loss of trust.  Many victims feel they can no longer trust anyone ever again.  Wouldn’t you feel that way if a relative told you he was going to teach you how to drive, but part of his definition of driving included some kind of unwanted sexual activity?  Victims are often abused by people they thought they could trust and when this trust is betrayed, it can take a long time before they ever trust anyone again.

This also has implications for the reporting of sexual abuse.  Often the reactions of those being told can complicate the feelings of betrayal and mistrust, especially if the victim is not taken seriously.  If a little girl tells her mother that she’s being sexually abused and her mother doesn’t believe her or do anything about it, that little girl is going to feel that her mother doesn’t really care about what’s happening to her.  Of course, that scars the relationship between the mother and daughter, and increases the feelings of betrayal in the heart of the survivor.

Those feelings of betrayal can also lead to a twisted self-image.  The survivor feels no one wants her (except perhaps for one thing), no one believes her, and she is really worth nothing.  Her human dignity has been attacked and it has an impact.  She may feel as if the whole world is against her and trying to destroy her.  That can lead to other problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, workaholism, perfectionism, sexual promiscuity, and eating disorders.

Eating disorders tend to be especially prevalent among survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  Eating disorders include bulimia, anorexia, and compulsive overeating.  Bulimia (bingeing and purging) and anorexia (self-starvation) are the most common.  The effects can be far-reaching and deadly.

As a result of the damage done to the self-image of the survivor, eating disorders are often regarded as a way of coping.  They can be seen as a method of control, the victim feeling that finally she has power over something in her life.  Or they can be seen as a way to become unattractive, and thereby hopefully avoid any future sexual abuse.  It could be a combination of those factors and others.  Eating disorders are tragic and devastating – they are truly representative of how sexual abuse can lead someone to self-destruct.

A history of sexual abuse often also has a detrimental effect on marriage.  If a spouse is ignorant of the history, there can be deep rifts in communication and disruption in normal marital intimacy.  For example, one spouse may have a normal view of sex, but the spouse who has survived sexual abuse may feel that it’s a dirty, disgusting duty which only brings back horrible memories from a ruined childhood.  Obviously such a marriage is going to struggle to be healthy and strong.

Taking Action

So what can be done to stop and heal the effects of this horrifying sin?  First and foremost, let’s not neglect prayer.  We ought to pray for the survivors of sexual abuse and those who may still be experiencing it.  Pray for the men and women who have experienced this terrible trauma and for children and teenagers who are still being abused.  Ask God to give them the strength and courage to come to terms with what’s happened.

We ought also to pray for the offenders.  We can pray for their repentance.  We can pray that they will confess their sins and at least attempt to make amends with their victims.  We can pray for their restoration so that they too live for God’s honour and glory.  However, we can also pray for God’s justice.  If they will not repent and turn to do the right thing, we can entrust the whole matter to the just Judge.  Vengeance belongs to him and he will repay.

Prayer is important.  But we also believe that action goes with prayer.  The first thing is to take abuse seriously, and to take reports of abuse seriously.  Research has repeatedly shown that false reports of sexual abuse do happen, but they are few and far between.  This is simply because, in most cases, the one making the report has so much to lose.  There’s still often a stigma attached to having been abused, especially for younger women.  The social cost and stress involved in reporting sexual abuse mean that we should always take reports seriously.

Going further, our children have to be taught about physical boundaries.  Because we all bear the image of God and therefore have human dignity, no one is allowed to touch us in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable.  We ought to teach a healthy Christian view of consent when it comes to our sexuality.  Our children and young people have to learn that females are not called to submit in general to all men, and certainly they’re not at the beck and call of every man’s sexual whim.  We have to model biblical examples of male headship and leadership in the home and the church.

Let me say a few words about our duty to report sexual abuse.  Different jurisdictions have different mandatory reporting requirements.  There can be different legal obligations depending on where you live.  But we have to distinguish between legal obligations and moral obligations.  As Christians, I hope we would agree that, even in the absence of a legal obligation, there is still a moral obligation for all of us to report a disclosure of abuse or a reasonable suspicion of abuse.  If a horrible criminal act is being carried out against a weak and vulnerable child, wouldn’t we want to do everything in our power to stop it?  If you were to put yourself in that child’s shoes, wouldn’t you want someone else to put an end to your abuse and suffering?

But someone may ask, “What if the perpetrator is a member of the church?”  The crucial thing to remember is that sexual abuse is not only a terrible sin, but also a criminal offence.  If a member of our church murdered another member, we wouldn’t say, “Oh, let’s just let the elders sort that out.”  We would recognize right away that murder is a criminal act and it needs to be addressed by the police and justice system.  It’s a serious, criminal matter.  Sexual abuse is no different.  It has to be treated as a crime, because that’s what it is.

There is no immunity for church members from the execution of justice by God’s appointed ministers in the civil realm.  Being a member of the church should not give you “a stay out of jail” card if you’re an abuser.  That’s not to say that it won’t be dealt with as a church matter.  After all, like we saw earlier, sexual abuse is a serious sin against the Seventh Commandment.  Church discipline has a place in dealing with this sin.  The church has to take it seriously and deal with it decisively – sadly, this has not always happened.

But when it is dealt with properly, the hope of the gospel can be held out to all involved.  For abusers, they can repent and turn to Christ for the forgiveness of this horrible sin.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they can change.  They’ll still have to live with the consequences of what they’ve done, but as far as eternity goes, they can find hope and comfort.  And for those who’ve been abused, it’s often a long, difficult journey of healing.  But healing is possible through the grace God offers in the gospel.  By God’s grace, I have seen abuse victims who were once angry and embittered deal with all that in a Christian and God-honouring way.  But it never happens quickly and those trying to encourage abuse survivors need to remember to be patient and give these things time.

Conclusion

There is far more to say about this topic.  I’ve only scratched the surface.  I’ll just make a couple of remarks by way of conclusion.

What you’ve read above is a revised version of an article I wrote for Clarion in 1995.  It was the first article I ever had published in Clarion.  Afterwards, I heard a lot of positive feedback, especially from people who’d been abused and those who work with them.  But I also heard some negative feedback.  One instance was especially memorable.  After a worship service, an older brother who’d served as an elder came up to me and told me my article was stupid.  He said something like, “You think we should report that to the police?  That’s ridiculous.  If I stole a dime from you, would you go and report that to the police?”  He compared sexual abuse to stealing pocket change.  Unbelievable.

If you would have asked me back then if I thought that 24-25 years down the road would see an improvement in the prevalence and handling of these things, I would have been optimistic and hopeful.  Young men often are.  If you ask me now whether there has been an improvement, I wouldn’t be quite so positive.  I’m still most familiar with the Canadian situation and from there I’m still hearing of these things happening and these things sometimes being mishandled by consistories.  It deeply saddens me.

I think one thing that has made the problem far worse is accessibility to pornography through the Internet, and especially violent, abusive, degrading pornography.  Child pornography is also easy to access.  These things contribute to the ongoing sexual abuse of children, teenagers, and sometimes even spouses – also in our Reformed churches.

Dear reader, we need to take sexual abuse seriously.  We need to talk about it openly – after all, sin is like fungus; it grows best in the dark.  Let’s do everything we can to shine a light on this detestable evil.  Let’s do everything in our power to prevent it and make our churches havens of healing for those who have experienced it.


Position Statements on Reformed Churches and Sexual Abuse

I wish I knew less about sexual abuse.  In my personal and pastoral life, I have learned far too much about the horrific reality of what some human beings will do to others for the sake of their own pleasure.  However, the knowledge God has providentially placed in my life has motivated me to advocate for the abused.  I have developed the following position statements with the purpose of creating awareness and provoking discussion in our Reformed communities.   Please note:  I do not claim that these statements are exhaustive, nor that they are necessarily the best and final way to frame the issues at hand.  If others wish to improve upon them, they are certainly welcome to do so.

Let me first say a few words about definitions.  In general, abuse is inappropriate conduct towards another person.  It can be a single event or a pattern of behaviour.  In particular, sexual abuse is “the sexual exploitation of a person or any sexual intimacy forced on a person (either physical or non-physical).  Child sexual abuse can include taking advantage of a child who is not capable of understanding sexual acts or resisting coercion such as threats or offers of gifts. Sexual abuse includes harassment by means of verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, brought on by an individual and aimed at a particular person or group of people with the aim of obtaining sexual favours.”  These definitions come from the Child Abuse Policy of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.

When I write below about “Reformed churches,” I am referring to the churches with which I am most familiar:  the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This is not to say that other Reformed churches are not affected, nor is it to say that all individual CanRC and FRC congregations are affected equally.  I am simply commenting from the perspective of someone acquainted with these church federations.

POSITION STATEMENTS

  1. Reformed churches must unequivocally and publically condemn all forms of abuse

While we should always welcome truly repentant sinners, our churches must never give the impression of being a safe harbour for abusers.  Instead, we should reflect the compassionate heart of our God for those who are downtrodden and afflicted (Psalm 34:18).  Further, we should aim to create a safe and healing environment in our churches for those who have experienced abuse.  Finally, we ought to be churches where justice and righteousness are upheld, where victims are not further victimized and perpetrators are properly held accountable for their sins.  All this starts with clearly condemning abuse, when appropriate, in our sermons, articles, etc.

  1. Sexual abuse has occurred in our churches

While I am unaware of any official statistical data, certainly anecdotal evidence indicates many instances of sexual abuse.  Whether these instances are out of proportion to the broader population is unknown (yet certainly worthy of a responsible scientific study).  However, with sadness we ought to humbly admit that it has happened in the past.  One might hope that it would no longer be happening, but because churches are made up not only of sinful human beings, but also a mixture of believers and unbelievers (Belgic Confession art. 29), realistically we should expect continuing occurrences.  Nevertheless, we ought to do everything we can to eradicate this great evil from the church of Christ.

  1. There is often a link between sexual abuse and unhealthy spirituality

Abuse victims often struggle in their relationship with God.  Because they have had horrible evil inflicted upon them (often when quite young), they may question God’s goodness, love, and providence.  If they were abused by a father or other authority figure, they may have difficulty relating to God as a loving Father.  They may also have difficulty understanding and appropriating biblical teaching about sexuality, family, and marriage authority structures.  The spiritual consequences of abuse can be far-reaching and add to the guilt carried by abusers.

  1. There is often a link between sexual abuse and mental health issues

Sexual abuse is a form of trauma.  It is an atrocity that may overwhelm the one who has experienced it.  Any type of trauma can have mental health implications.  Depression, anxiety, self-harm, multiple personality disorders, addictions, and other effects can result from sexual abuse, particularly if it is not addressed. These mental health issues can then also present challenges to a sexual abuse survivor’s spiritual health.

  1. There is a link between pornography and sexual abuse towards children and spouses

In general, pornography objectifies others as a means to sexual gratification.  In itself this predisposes an individual who uses pornography towards abuse.  This effect is exacerbated by the way pornography use often sinks to increasingly depraved levels.  The wide-spread availability of violent and abusive pornography is proven to increase the prevalence of sexual abuse.  Consequently, Reformed churches must be vocal about the dangers of pornography, as well as supplying resources for members to escape slavery to this sin.

  1. When preaching and teaching the Fifth Commandment, Reformed churches must also address the abuse of authority

Anecdotal evidence relates that abusers will sometimes invoke the Fifth Commandment (“Honour your father and your mother”) in order to justify and continue their abuse.  Reformed churches regularly preach on the Fifth Commandment (with Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism) and should take the opportunity to emphasize that this law does not condone abusive behaviour.  We should make it clear that all abuse is contrary to God’s will and abusers who appeal to God’s law to justify themselves are doubly condemned.

  1. Reformed churches ought to develop abuse policies to address past abuse and prevent future abuse

When things are put in writing, it indicates that we take them seriously.  A matter as weighty as sexual abuse ought not to be dealt with haphazardly.  While not every circumstance can be envisioned ahead of time, some general guidelines for church leaders and members can go a long way to dealing effectively with recent abuse in the church.  Moreover, policies to prevent future abuse ought also to be in place as a matter of due diligence in protecting the sheep and lambs of God’s flock.

  1. Any local church which facilitates abuse by covering it up or refusing to report it puts into question its status as a true church of Jesus Christ

One of the marks of a true church is the faithful exercise of church discipline.  If a local church allows abuse to continue by covering it up rather than dealing with it as the gross sin that it is, that church is dramatically falling short on this mark.  If the office bearers of a church refuse to report abuse to the proper authorities, they likewise show a significant failure to deal with sin appropriately.  A true church will take serious sins seriously and deal with them accordingly, both through the keys of the kingdom of heaven and by cooperation with the civil authorities where appropriate.

  1. There is hope for survivors and perpetrators in the gospel of Jesus Christ

For those who have experienced abuse, the wounds can heal.  They can heal as the balm of the gospel is applied and we learn to understand better the unfathomable grace of God towards us and others.  Perpetrators of past abuse can also find help and healing at the cross.  If they truly repent from their sins, if they are humble and honest, if they look to Jesus Christ alone as their righteousness, they can receive forgiveness from a gracious God and meaningful change in their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.  However, that in no way diminishes the personal, criminal, or ecclesiastical consequences of this sin.


Top Three Marriage Books

Over my years in the ministry, I’ve taught many marriage preparation classes.  From time to time, I’ve also counselled couples with marriage problems.  In my preaching, I’ve had many opportunities to speak about marriage.  Besides all that, I’ve been married myself for what’s going on to 23 years.  All these things give me a vested interest in good books about marriage.  I’ve read a few.  Almost all of them have something worthwhile, but there are some that really stand out.  Here are my top three, in order of importance:

When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage, Dave Harvey.

This one tops the list because of the author’s relentless focus on the gospel.  Written in a warm, personal style, Dave Harvey helps couples come to terms with the biggest problem that all marriages face and the solution to this problem.  Along with some of the other topics one would expect in a marriage book, he also discusses one you don’t often encounter:  death.  If you’re going to read just one book about marriage, make it this one.

Strengthening Your Marriage, Wayne Mack.

Are you ready to get to work on your marriage?  Then this is the book you’re looking for.  It’s not just a review of biblical teaching about marriage, but a very practical workbook.  It contains a variety of exercises for husbands and wives to complete.  The idea is that they would be done with a pastor or counsellor, but certainly couples could benefit from doing them on their own too.  I use Wayne Mack’s book Preparing for Marriage God’s Way for my marriage preparation classes and I appreciate his biblical approach.

Each for the Other: Marriage As It’s Meant To Be, Bryan Chapell with Kathy Chapell

I really like this one for three reasons.  One is that it includes the perspective of a woman.  Another is that it has great stories and illustrations to drive home the points of the authors.  Finally, I value the clear explanations and applications of biblical submission and headship.  This book also includes discussion questions to go with each chapter.


Who Should Treat Depression?

Depression -- "The Black Dog."

Depression — “The Black Dog.”

Clinical depression has been described as the common cold of mental illnesses.  At times in my ministry I have wondered:  who doesn’t suffer with depression or hasn’t at some point or other?  The more open we are about discussing it, the less stigma we attach to it, the more we discover how common this ailment is.  Unfortunately, its prevalence does not mitigate its pain.

The pain is not eased by those who see the ailment in a simplistic way as merely a spiritual problem with a spiritual cure.  Even today there are Reformed believers who want to maintain the old view that a spiritual issue is the root cause of most (maybe even all) depression.  This view insists that depression is directly caused by the sufferer’s sin and then the solution to depression rests in repentance.  According to this perspective, pastors, elders, and regular believers, should call depression-sufferers to determine the sin which caused their anguish and turn from it.

Thankfully, other voices have been bringing a more balanced view.  Among them is Dr. David Murray.  His excellent book Christians Get Depressed Too (review here) proceeds on the basis that depression is a complex phenomenon often involving biological and medical realities.  One might think that this is a contemporary approach, something only developed in the last few years.  However, Murray points out that a nuanced view of clinical depression has been around for hundreds of years.  William Perkins (1558-1602) recognized that depression requires medical treatment, and so did Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).

Perkins and Edwards were not alone.  I was recently paging through Peter Lewis’ The Genius of Puritanism.  In chapter 3 (“The Puritan in Private”), Lewis has a discussion of mental depression.  He notes that the Puritans distinguished spiritual depression (obviously caused by sin) from mental depression.  They used the term “melancholy” for the latter.  Lewis notes that Richard Baxter (1615-1691) and Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) both recognized melancholy as a medical phenomenon.  I want to focus for a moment on Brooks and what he writes about this in The Crown and Glory of Christianity (found in volume 4 of The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks).

Brooks was addressing the question of why some Christians seem to be hard pressed with sadness, sorry, and grief.  After all, shouldn’t Christians be joyful?  Part of Brooks’ answer was to note that some of these issues arise from our bodies and the way we were constituted.  Some people are constitutionally more inclined towards melancholy.  He adds a vivid description of it:

Now there is no greater enemy to holy joy and gladness than melancholy, for this pestilent humour will raise such strange passions and imaginations, it will raise such groundless griefs, and fears, and frights, and such senseless surmises and jealousies, as will easily damp a Christian’s joy, and mightily vex, perplex, trouble, and turmoil, daunt, and discourage a Christian’s spirit (page 260).

He further says that this inclination towards melancholy can be used by Satan to his advantage.  Moreover, it is a condition which afflicts both soul and body.  There is definitely a spiritual aspect to the experience of depression, according to Thomas Brooks.  In another book, he writes that this malady “tries the physician, grieves the minister, wounds relations, and makes sport for the Devil.”  This surely sounds familiar!

Also familiar is the cure of which Brooks writes.  He writes, “The cure of melancholy belongs rather to the physician than to the divine, to Galen than to Paul” (page 260).  By “divine” here, Brooks means “theologian” or “pastor.”  Galen (129-200 or 216) was one of the ancient pioneers of medical science.  In our terms, Brooks was saying that depression needs to be treated by doctors, rather than by ministers.  Certainly he would agree that ministers must be involved and can provide spiritual guidance as treatment is sought and provided, but at its roots this is a medical problem to be addressed by medical science.  Did I mention that this was written in 1662?  Yes, in those times they had a far different understanding of medical science, yet they were not averse to pinning a mood disorder on a biological cause.

If you were to encounter a brother or sister suffering from a brain tumour, you would encourage them rather than admonish them to examine themselves for the sin which caused their condition.  Of course, we hold each other accountable for how we respond to medical ailments.  Every Christian is responsible for how they respond to adversity in whatever form.  Clinical depression should be dealt with in the same way.  Those suffering from it need medical treatment — and Christian encouragement from office bearers and regular church members.  In so doing, we reflect the heart and compassion of our Saviour Jesus.


Jay Adams and Colitis

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I really do appreciate a lot of what Jay Adams has done for Christian counselling.  In fact, in 2010, I featured him in my series “Friends You Should Meet.”  I’ve read quite a number of his books and have gained something from almost all of them.  I especially appreciate his eagerness to have the Word of God as the foundation and guide for Christian counselling.

Over the last while, I was reading his 1972 collection of essays and addresses, The Big Umbrella.  This was published two years after his landmark volume, Competent to Counsel.  In these essays, one finds the same principled approach to the discipline:  “The Scriptures must be the basis for all that is said and done in counselling” (26).  Moreover, as elsewhere, he affirms that there is really such a thing as mental illness.  It can be due to “organic problems, brain damage, chemical damage or malfunction, toxic damage, or other organic causes” (47).  In a footnote later in the book, Adams adds that some mental health issues can be caused by glandular imbalances.  Then he also says this:  “There is also a gray area of problems that are of uncertain etiology” (161).  Etiology refers to the causes of diseases.  Uncertain etiology means that we don’t know what causes it.  Adams usually deals in black and white, but in this footnote he admitted a gray area.

The chapter “Is Society Sick?” includes a note about “Sickness in the Scriptures.”  This note mentions Adams’ idea of hamartiagenic illnesses.  Hamartiagenic illnesses are those that are brought on by sin.  A classic example would be how sexual promiscuity results in sexually transmitted diseases.  You would not have caught that disease if you had not been sexually immoral.  As a category per se, I don’t think there is any reason to object to this notion.

However, later in that note, Adams mentions colitis as a hamartiagenic illness.  (What is colitis?  Click here.) The underlying cause of colitis, says Adams, is resentment.  I looked to see if Adams discusses this anywhere else.  I found mention of it in The Christian Counselor’s Manual (1973).  There Adams is discussing a hypothetical marriage breakdown involving Bill and Jane.  Adams says to Jane, “Your colitis is not the result of Bill’s wrongs toward you, but evidently has been occasioned by the sinful way in which you have handled these wrongs.  After all, Jesus did not have a colitis attack on the cross” (268).  Adams bases this view on a 1963 book by Dr. S. I. McMillan, None of These Diseases (since republished many times, also in a revised edition).  McMillan cited research supposedly showing that “96 per cent of colitis patients admitted to one hospital were dominantly resentful persons” (Adams, The Big Umbrella, 61).  Bitterness and resentment cause colitis, and colitis is therefore a hamartiagenic illness — according to Adams in 1972/73.

I read this and went a little squinty-eyed.  I’ve been a pastor for a few years now and I’ve known several parishioners who suffer with colitis and its cousin, Crohn’s disease.  I don’t recall these parishioners being particularly resentful or bitter people.  Maybe they were and just hid it well — that can happen.  But what Adams was saying just does not seem to fit with what I have observed.  Could Adams have been wrong on this?  Notice that his case was not made on the basis of what Scripture says, but on the basis of a medical study done some years earlier.

I did some further research.  I asked friends on Facebook — a very scientific way to start, I know.  Of those who responded, some were colitis sufferers and said that emotional stress can definitely make the symptoms of their colitis worse.  However, can emotional stress (including intense bitterness, anger, resentment) cause colitis? According to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, the cause of colitis is still unknown.  However, as also mentioned anecdotally by my Facebook friends, stress of all kinds can aggravate symptoms.  Interestingly, the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada website adds that the reverse is also true:  colitis can cause stress and emotional upset.  People might get angry, bitter, resentful because of their colitis.  Research done at the University of Calgary also suggests other possibilities.   But to categorically claim that colitis is a sin-engendered illness — that really seems to be a stretch in 2016.

Perhaps it was credible in the nouthetic counselling world in 1972, but today Adams’ claim is not only rather questionable, but also potentially dangerous.  I could imagine someone reading The Big Umbrella, not doing their own research into the state of the question today, encountering someone with colitis, and concluding that they must be bitter and resentful.   Addressing them on that basis could do a lot of harm, not only to the individual being suspected of sin, but especially to the relationship between the pastor/counsellor and the colitis sufferer.  At best, when it comes to the cause of colitis, one should fall back to “uncertain etiology.”  We don’t know what causes it.  That being true, pastors and other counsellors should focus their attention on helping people cope with their colitis in a biblical, God-honouring fashion.