Orange Jello. The girls were excited. My friend had made it for her mutual class. As she peeled back the foil, their delight turned quickly to dismay. Something was wrong.
“What’s that in the corner?” asked one of the girls. “It looks like dog poop.”
“It is dog poop,” said the teacher, “but don’t worry. It’s just in this one corner. We can cut around it. Who wants a piece?”
“Ooh, gross.” “Yuck.” “Disgusting.” “Are you kidding?” “I’m not touching it.”
It was an effective object lesson on the content of movies. You get the idea. “It was a great movie all except that one part.” We’ve all said it. It’s not quite the same with Jello.
What if instead of a movie, the Jello represented a human life and the dog poop represented sexual abuse? Just as the dog poop changes everything about the Jello, sexual abuse changes the texture and landscape of an individual life. Cutting around the dog poop is not an option. The Jello will never be the same. “Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.”[i]
Sexual abuse is one of the most damaging experiences imaginable. Whether it happens once or a hundred times, the damage is often deep and lasting. Some children bury the secret and never tell or talk about it. These are the ones I worry most about. A child who doesn’t get help may have a very hard time healing.
In the quiet heart is hidden, sorrow that the eye can’t see. [ii]
What is my Worth?
When speaking about self-worth, I often open my presentation by waving a hundred dollar bill in front of the audience. “Would anyone like to have this?” I ask.
The response is immediate. Everyone would like a crisp $100.00 bill. Why? They understand its value. I crumple the bill and ask “Now, who wants it?”
They all do.
I stomp on the bill, shout at the bill, and I may even tear it, write on it, or smudge dirt on it. “Who wants it now?”
They still want the money. Despite what I have done to it, I haven’t changed its value.
Everyone understands the value of money, but some have a hard time understanding their own value. This is particularly true for those who have been sexually abused. Though we each have scars of some sort, the scars left by sexual abuse are deeply personal, and difficult to overcome.
A person who has been sexually abused is often burdened by feelings of worthlessness. Some feel that they can never be good enough, that they can never be loved or accepted. They feel broken. They are like the hundred dollar bill which has been crumpled, torn, and dirtied, yet their value is real.
It is important for each of us to understand that our worth does not change. It is eternal. We brought it with us. Our worth comes from our Father in heaven, who knows us personally and loves us no matter what. Our worth comes from our Savior Jesus Christ who bought and paid for us through his precious blood. Our worth is related to our potential as divine sons and daughters of heavenly parents, rather than our achievements.
I am a child of God, and He has sent me here.[iii]
Our worth is not dependent on our goodness, our possessions, our intelligence, or our physical appearance. Our worth does not increase with the items we check off on our “to do” list. These things can make us feel good, but they do not increase our value.
There is a subtle but important difference between self-esteem and self-worth. Self-esteem is what we think of ourselves and it can change. Self-worth goes much deeper. It is who we are. It does not change. It is eternal.
Our worth does not diminish when things go wrong. We are not worth less when we make mistakes, when we sin, or when others abuse us. Like the hundred dollar bill our value is tangible and real. When bad things happen to us, we may feel “less than”, but it is an illusion, a counterfeit.
Satan loves us to feel worthless. He loves us to believe that we are scarred beyond repair. He encourages us to feel unlovable, unworthy, not good enough. Guilt and discouragements are his weapons of choice. He works in darkness. He is the author of lies.
In contrast Jesus says, “Come unto me.”[iv]
Jesus is the author of truth. Love and light are His weapons of choice. He loved us enough to die for us. His love is an extension of our Father’s pure and unconditional love for us, His children.
“I testify to you that our Father in Heaven loves His children,” said President Uchtdorf in April conference. “He loves us. He loves you. When necessary the Lord will even carry you over obstacles as you seek his peace with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Often He speaks to us in ways that we can hear only with our heart.”[v]
I know my Father lives and loves me too.
The Spirit whispers this to me and tells me it is true.[vi]
When someone abuses us, we are not to blame. Sexual abuse is never the victim’s fault. Elder Richard G. Scott clarified this. “Your abuse results from another’s unrighteous attack on your freedom. Since all of Father in Heaven’s children enjoy agency, there can be some who choose willfully to violate the commandments and harm you. Such acts temporarily restrict your freedom.”[vii]
Further clarification is found in For the Strength of Youth. “Victims of rape, incest, or other sexual abuse are not guilty of sin. If you have been a victim of any of these crimes, know that you are innocent and that God loves you.”[viii]
Sexual Abuse Happens Somewhere Else
Diligent parents may have a hard time understanding the risk of sexual abuse. They are inclined to think that sexual abuse only happens in seedy neighborhoods, or in dysfunctional families. The unsavory truth is that it happens everywhere, in every religion, in every race, in every neighborhood, in every culture. Sexual abuse is a plague that crosses all boundaries. We would like to think that we are different and that sexual abuse doesn’t happen in our church. How wrong we are.
The numbers are staggering: nearly one in three girls will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen, and more than one in six boys. Over two thirds of all reported victims of sexual abuse are younger than eighteen years old, and more than half of those are younger than twelve. Nearly one third of all children who are victims of sexual abuse will never tell anyone.
I know of no evidence that those numbers are different for Church members. How I wish that Church members would realize that the danger is real and take opportunity to teach their children about the dangers of sexual abuse. How I wish they would give them tools to protect themselves from abusers.
“I wish that my family had been more open,” said one abuse victim. “I wish that they had given me tools. They had never talked to me about sex, so I never told them what was happening to me.
“Some patterns of sexual abuse were repeated in my own family. The experiences were different. However, I still had no tools. Even though I had experienced sexual abuse as a child, I did not know how to protect my own children from similar experiences. I wanted to be more open with them, but I didn’t know how.
“My parents were active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were involved in my life, and tried to do what was right, but they didn’t understand the danger and they didn’t know how to empower me.”
Richard G. Scott advised, “Parents, in appropriate, sensitive ways, teach your children of the potential danger of abuse and how to avoid it. Be aware of warning signs, such as an abrupt change in a child’s behavior, that may signal a problem. Be alert to a child’s unsettled feelings and identify their origin.”
Who can I Trust?
When a child is sexually abused their perception is altered. They see the world through different glasses. They may withdraw from friends and family. Their ideas about healthy relationships between men and women, including dating and marriage are often skewed. Their schoolwork and personal development may suffer.
Though abuse is never the victim’s fault they may feel guilty or ashamed. Having been deprived of their agency and betrayed by someone who should have protected them they often have a difficult time trusting others.
One woman who had experienced sexual abuse as a child said, “After my children were grown, I began to notice that I didn’t trust men. I trusted my husband, and most church leaders, but I was often surprised to notice men being kind and compassionate. I didn’t expect men to be nurturing or to care about others. Though I had moved on from the abuse in many ways, I had leftover feelings of mistrust, particularly for men. Part of me believed that most men were motivated primarily by sex and that they married and had families only to fulfill that desire. ”
An abused child is often a lonely child, particularly if they choose not to tell. Telling is difficult because they don’t know who to trust. The secret is so startling and so deeply personal that they are often afraid to tell. This is compounded if the secrecy has been enforced with bribes or threats. If adults seem uncaring or unapproachable, children will go it alone. Many caring adults stand ready to help, but children are often unsure.
One girl was raped at a neighborhood park at the tender age of eleven. She went to the park with friends but stayed behind when they went to the store. Her attacker was known to her. She was afraid of the future. She didn’t know how to tell her parents, but she went to the church and hung around outside the bishop’s office in the hope that he would invite her in and she could unload the terrible secret. She didn’t initiate contact with him, but hoped that he would somehow see her need.
Her parents were concerned about changes in her behavior, but they never suspected the nature of her problems. They were raising a blended family, and attributed her anti-social and disagreeable behavior to stress from the divorce and subsequent marriage, along with normal teenage angst. For a while, she frequented the foyer outside the bishop’s office, but never connected with him. Giving up, she carried her dark secret alone, until she collapsed from the mental and emotional stress in her late teens.
She was finally able to get the help she needed from a kind bishop, supportive parents, and understanding professionals.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints Condemns Abusive Behavior
The feeling of mistrust can extend to church leaders and even to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Many abuse victims wonder why God did not protect them from abuse. We all want to be rescued from our trials, but that is not the gospel plan. Our Heavenly Father allows agency and seldom intervenes even when his children suffer. What must He feel when He sees the suffering of His children?
One survivor of sexual abuse said, “I have found it extremely difficult to feel self-worth of any kind. The little girl inside me still wonders where God was through six years of abuse. Forty years later, I still pound on the doors of heaven wanting an answer…any answer.”
Those who have been abused may have a difficult time feeling the influence of the Holy Ghost and feeling connected to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sexual abuse may cause deep spiritual wounds that are difficult to resolve. Not surprisingly, a spiritual disconnect can occur when the abusers are active members of the church. The spiritual pain is often magnified when a perpetrator bears the Priesthood of God, however unworthily.
One young woman was abused repeatedly by three different men, first her father, then an uncle, and later her boss. “All three men were members of the church. My uncle was Elder’s Quorum President and my boss was a counselor in the bishopric. I had enough sense to understand that abuse does happen and it’s not the girl’s fault, but when it happened with three (none knew of the other abuse) and they were my priesthood leaders I decided it had to be me. There they stayed in church week after week as if nothing had happened. I knew there was guilt somewhere, but since none of them seemed to carry any, I carried it all.”
This young woman told her mother about the abuse from her father and was not believed. Eventually she told a stake president about the abuse by her uncle, the Elder’s Quorum president. The stake president was supportive and promised a church court. However the Elder’s Quorum president denied the charges and the case was dropped.
Another young woman told her mother that her father was molesting her. Her mother went to the bishop. The bishop and the girl’s father were close friends and the bishop refused to believe that he was capable of abuse. Fortunately the girl’s mother stood up to her husband and took steps to protect her daughter.
Some victims of sexual abuse, both women and men, who were not supported and believed by their bishop, have a difficult time resolving their feelings toward the church. Some remain active, but find their activity painful. Others distance themselves from church activity. For those who remain active, sometimes the motivation is feeling a responsibility to teach the gospel to their children. Though their pain is deep, their commitment is stronger. I admire their faith.
“Do not be discouraged if initially a bishop hesitates when you identify an abuser,” counseled Elder Richard G. Scott. “Remember that predators are skillful at cultivating a public appearance of piety to mask their despicable acts. Pray to be guided in your efforts to receive help. That support will come. Rest assured that the Perfect Judge, Jesus the Christ, with a perfect knowledge of the details, will hold all abusers accountable for every unrighteous act. In time He will fully apply the required demands of justice unless there is complete repentance. Your preoccupation with a need for justice only slows your healing and allows the perpetrator to continue his abusive control. Therefore you should leave punishment for the diabolic acts of abuse to civil and Church authorities.”[ix]
“No man who abuses his wife or children is worthy to hold the priesthood of God,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley. No man who abuses his wife or children is worthy to be a member in good standing in this Church. The abuse of one’s spouse and children is a most serious offense before God, and any who indulge in it may expect to be disciplined by the Church.”[x]
The LDS Church is serious about helping abused members find healing and peace. The Church’s press release on sexual abuse emphasizes this. “Helping the victim is of first concern. It is the very nature of Christians to reach out with compassion and love to those who are struggling with the agonies of abuse. It is integral to our ministry. Within the Church, victims can find spiritual guidance that eventually leads to healing through faith in Jesus Christ. Abuse victims are also offered professional counseling so they can benefit from the best of secular expertise, regardless of their ability to pay.
“The Church’s official handbook of instructions for leaders states that the first responsibility of the Church is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse.”
Can there be any doubt where the Church stands on this issue?
The Church’s press release further states “A Latter-day Saint congregation is like a big family, a group of people working together with an attitude of mutual support. The Church has long encouraged families to talk about child abuse, to educate themselves on how to recognize and prevent such tragedies. Since 1976, more than 50 news and magazine articles have appeared in Church publications condemning child abuse or educating members about it. Church leaders have spoken out on the subject more than 30 times at Church worldwide conferences. Child abuse is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings.”[xi]
His Grace is Sufficient
I was taught from childhood that the Atonement made resurrection and repentance possible. I was married with children when I began to understand that the Atonement can also relieve my pain and suffering.
For me the Atonement of Jesus Christ was an exquisite one room house, glorious in every way. As I was inspired to study the Atonement I learned that it was not a one room house, but a mansion on the hill, a mansion with many rooms. The Atonement offered not one gift, but many.
As the eyes of my understanding were opened I began to study grace. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not believe in grace, does it? That’s what I had heard. We believe in works. Grace is what other religions believe.
Discovering grace was like seeing a sunrise for the very first time. We do believe in grace. Grace is the front door to the mansion on the hill. My works may take me up the hill, and through the heavy entrance gates. My works will lead me up the walk, but they cannot take me into the mansion, for grace is the door.
Oh to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above. [xii]
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is a glorious gift. Because of Jesus Christ we can be resurrected, cleansed, redeemed, and exhalted. We rejoice in these truths, but there is more. There is so much more. The Atonement is not just for sinners. The Atonement offers “beauty for ashes.”[xiii]
Because of Jesus we can be supported and strengthened in every trial. We are not alone. Jesus suffered not only for our sins, but also for our sickness, our pain, and our grief. Though the results of child abuse are devastating, healing is possible through the Atonement and grace of Jesus Christ.
As Elder C. Scott Grow explained, “The Savior felt the weight of the anguish of all mankind—the anguish of sin and of sorrow. ‘Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.’[xiv]
“Through His Atonement, He heals not only the transgressor, but He also heals the innocent who suffer because of those transgressions. As the innocent exercise faith in the Savior and in His Atonement and forgive the transgressor, they too can be healed.”[xv]
The exquisite truth is that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is real and offers comfort and hope in every situation. His Grace is sufficient. We can call on the power of the Atonement to help us through troubling times. Even in the wake of sexual abuse we can find comfort and help. We can know that healing is possible for all involved and we can rely on the Holy Ghost to guide us through the process.
And since he bids me seek his face,
Believe his word, and trust his grace,
I’ll cast on him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer.[xvi]
“I am a survivor of sexual abuse,” said one woman. “Many people kept telling me different ways that I could be healed, and I did try many of them. It wasn’t until I decided one summer that I would read and re-read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament, and learn of Christ, his life and his atonement [that I began to heal]. I read the four gospels about four times and felt the healing power of my Savior and began to fill with peace. I am so thankful for the scriptures and my testimony of the Atonement.”
In the True to the Faith gospel reference manual we read, “Through your faith and righteousness and through His atoning sacrifice, all the inequities, injuries, and pains of this life can be fully compensated for and made right. Blessings denied in this life will be given in the eternities. And although He may not relieve all your suffering now, He will bless you with comfort and understanding and with strength to ‘bear up your burdens with ease.’” [xvii] [xviii]
Some of my favorite scriptures bear the promise of peace, from the Savior of the world. Through the Atonement we can find peace, in this life and throughout eternity.
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”[xix]
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled neither let it be afraid.”[xx]
“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”[xxi]
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[xxii]
One woman wondered why she was born into an abusive family. She endured many types of abuse including sexual. She prayed for understanding. Her answer came one day as she was weeding flowers. “When you plant flowers in your yard, where do you like to plant them?” were the words that came into her mind. I like to plant them in some ugly spot that I want to make beautiful.“That is why you were born into this family. I had an ugly spot that I needed to make beautiful.”
Some abuse victims have felt impressed that they were born into an abusive family to stop the cycle of abuse. Some have felt that they were foreordained to this task.
Let the Spirit heal our hearts,
Through it’s quiet gentle power.[xxiii]
[i] Herbert Ward
[ii] Susan Evans McCloud, Lord I Would Follow Thee; Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; p.220
[iii] Naomi W. Randall, I Am Child of God, Hymns: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 301
[iv] 3 Nephi 9:14
[v] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Waiting on the Road to Damascus; Ensign, May, 2010
[vi] Reid N. Nibley, I Know My Father Lives, Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 302
[vii] Richard G. Scott; To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse; May 2008.
[viii] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, For the Strength of Youth, p. 28
[ix][ix] Richard G. Scott; To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse; May 2008.
[x] Gordon B. Hinckley, What are People Asking about Us, Ensign, November 1998.
[xii] Robinson, Robert, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing; Hymns, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1950 edition, p. 70
[xiii] Isaiah 61:3
[xiv] Mosiah 14:4, Isaiah, 53:4,
[xv] C. Scott Grow, The Miracle of the Atonement; Ensign May 2011
[xvi] William W. Walford, Sweet Hour of Prayer: Hymns: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 142
[xvii] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference Manual, 2004, p.20
[xviii] Mosiah 24:14-15
[xx] John 14:27
[xxi] John 16:33
[xxii] Matthew 11:29-30
[xxiii] Penelope Mood Allen, Let the Holy Spirit Guide; Hymns: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 143