I have a dear mentor who says the challenge to faith that touches and confuses her most is this: “Where is God when children are being abused?” She doesn’t ask this due to personal experience of abuse, but simply as an imperfect, loving mother and grandmother, and compassionate mentor to many, many struggling human beings over many, many decades. This woman, who’s considered a strong woman of faith and a respected Christian leader, still struggles with this question. When it’s raised, her generally confident manner is suddenly clouded by a facial expression of deep sadness — maybe even a hint of anger. As a survivor of childhood abuse myself, I take comfort in knowing she “gets it:” the deep confusion and pain of abuse.
Another favorite mentor of mine is gifted in many ways, but especially in the ability to sit with great pain and not break. (Perhaps it’s not so much a gift as a learned discipline? I don’t know.) Because of her deep trust in a God who understands, loves, and heals, she has been able to witness my deep emotional and spiritual pain, PTSD, and the parts of my soul I can’t describe with words. So when I dissociated or cried hysterically, she breathed and prayed, often in silence. In silence, because I often couldn’t tolerate hearing her pray out loud in those moments.
One way this mentor had found healing for herself was though “healing prayer.” With this approach, a person remembering a painful past event in their life is asked to consider this question: “Where was, is, God in that moment?” The hope is that healing will happen as the memory is re-written with the understanding that not only is a loving God present now, but has been present all along — even in those worst moments themselves.
Well. This is all fine and well. But the thought of exploring this question for me fills me with…sadness, anger, and emotions I’ve never tried to put into words. And honestly, I’m not sure that I will ever put words to them. Why? Because I experienced moments in my early childhood in which things went from bad…to worse…to unbearable. But you did bear them somehow, you say? Yes, yes I did. How? By going away.
I’ve written about dissociation, the clinical term for “going away.” In a nutshell, dissociation is a severe “shutting down” of the brain and body on a psychological level. If you’ve ever been in a bad argument with someone, you can relate just a bit. You know that moment when the person says something so hurtful that you feel your face and mind go a little blank? The other person may then say, “Hey, I’m talking to you! Don’t tune me out!” Or maybe you’ve been on the other end of this scenario and can picture someone tuning you out. Dissociation is simply a more extreme version of this ability of the human psyche to protect itself from pain it perceives as too threatening or overwhelming.
So if my mentor-friend asked me to go there — to picture Jesus or God in the middle of one of my painful memories of abuse, I would probably scream, at least internally. Why? Because she would be asking me, in a sense, to enter into a moment my brain decided a long time ago to escape mentally, for the sake of my own survival. This is quite difficult for trauma survivors partly because our brains often never fully recover the details of those moments in which we mentally “went away.” But for the parts of the abuse that we can remember — often way too vividly — the idea of picturing Jesus or a loving God being present in these memories only adds to the pain, at least for me. “You want me to do what?!” I would cry — if not aloud, in the silence within.
You see, the biggest question we survivors have for God — whether or not we believe in God — is the very question you are now asking us to answer. “Where the heck was God when I was being damaged so badly? When I almost died? When my soul did die? Did God allow this to happen? If God is all-powerful and good, then why, why, why didn’t God stop or prevent the abuse? Why did God remain silent, absent to us in our moments of greatest pain?”
For some of us, this gets at the crux of why we don’t believe in a personal, all-powerful, good God at all. We decide that if God wasn’t there back then, then God isn’t here now either — and if God does exist, God certainly isn’t both all-powerful AND good. It just doesn’t compute.
Perhaps those of us who do believe in a God who is Goodness and Love itself will be asking these questions for the rest of our lives. I often haven’t asked them consciously, in literal words, but my soul sometimes screams, sometimes whimpers the questions.
This afternoon was no exception. As I stood with my church family singing songs of praise and hope, I wasn’t asking the questions. I actually felt more hope and gladness than vulnerability or distress. So when the revelation came, it hit me like a load of bricks I had totally missed before.
I felt a little light-headed as a result — whether from my epiphany or the effects of a large vanilla latte I’d just consumed I don’t know. But the answer felt somehow…true. Could it be?
I’m not even certain this was a revelation from God at all, though I think it might be. It went something like this:
Anna, I was indeed there when the horror was happening to you. I was the one that covered your eyes, that covered your body, when that evil monster was attacking you. I was the face of your ‘going away,’ when no one else came to save you, when you couldn’t face the monster yourself. I was the one who arranged the memories your brain stored, far away from your conscious memories. I’m the one who guarded those memories, and who decided when and how much you needed to remember. I’m the one who closed the lid again after you had remembered enough to heal.
Why didn’t I change the law of man’s free will long enough to stop your abuser from doing what he did? That’s a different question altogether. What’s important for you to know right now is that I didn’t abandon you, that I didn’t ignore your cries, and that I didn’t just ‘stand by and watch it happen.’ I was there, I heard you, I trembled with rage, and I intervened to protect your soul from death.
As for the monster who did that to you? Oh, justice will be served, one way or the other. I did not forget. I will not forget.
Lord, have mercy on us all.