- Written by Margaret Bernhart
“Where will I carry my shame?” asks Tamar as she frantically rebuffs her half-brother’s seductive advance. Within a matter of seconds, this beautiful princess is overpowered and tragically raped. After the violent assault, it is recorded in 2 Samuel 13:15 that, “suddenly Amnon’s love turned to hate, and he hated her even more than he had loved her. ‘Get out of here!’ he snarled at her.’ ‘No, no!’ Tamar cried. ‘To reject me now is a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.’ But Amnon wouldn’t listen to her. He shouted for his servant and demanded, ‘Throw this woman out, and lock the door behind her!’ The servant did as he was told.” Devastated and disgraced, the sobbing princess rips her long flowing, exquisitely embroidered robe, desecrating the vestment that signified her nobility and virginity–an act that speaks more deeply of the splitting in her own soul. She places ashes on top of her long flowing hair and begins moving with the gait of a wounded animal as tears stream down her checks. In humiliation, she covers her face with her hands as she mourns publicly the loss of innocence. Soon Absalom, Tamar’s brother, discovers the wickedness perpetrated against his sister and is consumed with murderous rage toward Amnon. Absalom cares deeply for Tamar and takes her into his home to live with his family. Tamar, however, is described as existing “as a desolate woman in Absalom’s house.” When Tamar’s father, King David, hears of what Amnon had done, he is angered. The story ends violently several years later with Absalom avenging the sexual assault of his sister by having Amnon murdered. As word of Amnon’s death reaches King David, he tears his clothes, weeps bitterly and mourns openly for many days. Absalom’s rage and disrespect for his father smolders and later erupts as he incites an insurrection against his father’s throne, ending in his own death. Again, King David must mourn the loss of another son. He is so overcome with emotion that he bursts into tears crying, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I could have died instead of you!”
The sacred literature is replete with violence and situations that would be rated “R” by today’s standards. King David’s family could certainly be diagnosed as psychologically dysfunctional. All great literature offers a slice of life that reveals the tensions and struggles of the human heart. God must have thought it was important to have sexual abuse contained in the holy scriptures, an indication of His desire to rip the veil of silence off this heinous crime. David grieves the loss of two of his sons, but nothing is mentioned about him sorrowing over the violence Tamar endured in her body and soul. Some scholars indicate that David’s anger more rested with Amnon’s action, rather than on behalf of his daughter’s shameful sentence. In King David’s passivity, he does nothing to discipline Amnon, nor move to mend the incest wound that lay inside his daughter. Reactions in biblical times were no different from what we see today in situations of sexual abuse. Abuse still remains an insidious violation, shrouded in silence, and from what we see in the news headlines, the church can be just as passive and unprotective as King David.
Research over the past two decades suggests 38% of women have been sexually abused by an adult or family member by the age of 18. For men, that figure may be as high as 33%. Noted Christian psychologist Dan Allender states that “sexual abuse involves any contact or interaction [visual, verbal or psychological] whereby a more vulnerable person (usually a child or adolescent) is used for the sexual stimulation of an older, stronger or more influential person.” Abuse is most often perpetrated (89%) by a relative or someone the victim knows. Two-thirds of children never tell their parents of the abuse. This is because silence is often maintained through threats and the abuser further consummates the seduction by cruelly manipulating the child into feeling culpable because he or she did not put up a struggle and participated in the physical contact. When a child breaches the code of silence by telling a parent and the plea is met with indifference or unresponsiveness, the damage is increased exponentially, as the child feels utterly helpless and devalued.
“Where will I carry my shame?” asks Tamar. This is the soul-hemorrhaging question that lies within every sexual abuse survivor. The soul-murdering exploitation pervades and infuses the psyche. Abuse survivors feel defective and scarred for life, while usually shouldering some undue blame for the violation. They will generally hate legitimate longings for intimacy that set them up to be drawn into the arms of a perpetrator and made to feel like a fool for trusting. Fear of being found out and rejected overlies the victim’s sad and mistaken belief that “I must be dark and seductively dangerous.” The resulting anguish, self-hatred, fear, and confusion leads to a false self that defends against feeling pain and emotion. As the deep realities of the heart become too painful to embrace, abuse survivors approach life by making it work apart from “living in their skin,” so to speak. Thick, impenetrable walls of self-protection are erected. Control becomes a key defense so as to never feel powerless again, suspicion replaces trust to circumvent betrayal and ambivalence overlay the enjoyment of touch, love, and desire as the horror of being sexually used is wed with intimacy. Dan Allender says, “It is natural to want to protect ourselves. It is natural to try to make sure that we will never again be hurt so badly by someone who has betrayed our trust. The problem is that self-directed efforts always end up making things worse…As understandable as these self-protective efforts are, they usually reflect a decision to rely on our own strength and abilities rather than struggling to understand God’s purposes and provisions for our life…In other words, sexual abuse makes it difficult for a person to believe that God has uniquely built and equipped him or her to love and be loved by others and by God.”
People have said to me, why is sexual abuse such a big deal? My immediate reaction is to wonder if the person asking that question has been abused. For how could a healthy parent envision their trusting five-year-old son or daughter being touched and sexually aroused for the pleasure and exploitation of an adult and not wonder about its impact? It takes just a moment for innocence and childhood to be lost forever, and a lifetime is spent unveiling the heart from self-protective walls. Children of abuse will never relax in their mother’s arms the same way they did before the violation, nor will they rest with the same abandon in their spouse’s embrace. The damage to the soul will eventually erupt into external realities. “The incident of shame, depression, and dissociation have been found to be primary symptoms of significant trauma, especially sexual abuse,” states Dr. Allender. Other problems often associated with sexual trauma are compulsive disorders such as alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, poor self-esteem, and narcissistic grandiosity, and a host of stress-related disorders such as intestinal problems, lower backaches, neck, and jaw pain and chronic headaches.
The seemingly insurmountable consequences of abuse can feel hopeless. In the story of Tamar, it is noted, “There were born to Absalom three sons and one daughter; her name was Tamar” (2 Samuel 14:27). It is striking that the male children remain anonymous and Tamar’s niece is highlighted in the text. Further, the niece is described in the same terms as Tamar, she “became a woman beautiful to behold.” Theologian Phyllis Trible states, “From aunt to niece have passed name and beauty so that rape and desolation have not the final word in the story of Tamar.”
The trauma and pain of sexual abuse do not have to be the final word either. There is hope. The path to healing, however, is a paradoxical one. Time doesn’t heal wounds, the festering sore is simply crusted over, still needing to be lanced and cleansed. Jesus’ words offer the power to let the infection drain, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”(Matt. 5:4). The word “blessed” actually means to be envied and the term “mourn” denotes grief too deep to conceal. To be envied are those who acknowledge pain and lament loss. There are times when it is important to allow ourselves to enter sadness and to be washed by the flow of sorrowful tears just as Tamar and King David did, and not shy away from its expression as our culture is so apt to do. Sorrow counters the fortress of self-protection and admits the need for comfort for what has been perpetrated against us, and for the damage done to ourselves and others through self-inflicted insulated and disengaged living. Our hearts are made to rest and to be loved. Again, the perplexing path to wholeness requires “surrender.” Relinquishing control opens the heart to receive love in surprising ways and not on our terms; embracing the hunger for trustworthy relationships honors discernment rather than hypervigilance; and a willingness to welcome longings for intimacy and nurture leads to freedom and life. The path of sorrowing over the realities of life, repenting over the damage we’ve done to ourselves and others is not complete until we surrender moment by moment to the love and care of the One who longs to comfort us in our sorrow. A short time before Jesus went to his death on the cross he said, “No man can take my life from me for I lay it down of my own accord”(John 10:18). Though his death was prophesied and purposed for the good of all creation, and a corrupt legal system had him in its judicial grasp, Jesus was poignantly describing the power we have as sons and daughters of God to combat the evil of this world–sexual abuse does not have to steal our life. We have a choice to surrender our lives to God and his paradoxical path or take the alternate course of making our own way.