Here’s an abuse survivor’s plea about nouthetic “Biblical” counseling

Yesterday I published a synopsis of and response to “Helping Women with Child Sexual Abuse in Their Past,” by Zondra Scott, a teacher of nouthetic counselors (going by the name “Biblical counselors”) whose husband Stuart taught “Biblical counseling” at  John MacArthur’s The Master’s Seminary and who currently teaches it at Southern Seminary (SBC) in Louisville, KY. I wrote this in light of the way “Jane” from The Master’s University says she was counseled after having been raped.

I emphasized that their style of counseling is one that they called “Biblical” but I’m calling “nouthetic” since that was its original name and there are other styles of counseling that are equally Biblical and arguably more so.

Though the details of “Jane’s” so-called counseling experience were of course unique, the overall picture looked eerily familiar to me.

Over on the other side of the continent, where I live, there’s a university called Bob Jones University, which is staunchly fundamentalist. That is, many people would think, from the music and the attire, that there would be little in common with The Master’s University.

But the style of counseling is the same.

Over two years ago, a childhood sexual abuse survivor who went through the counseling system at Bob Jones University wrote a response to it and a plea to the college to change their counseling system. You can read the original post here, but I’m also presenting it at this blog for a wider audience. 

As you read her words, please know that this applies to far more than Bob Jones University. Every college, Bible school, seminary, church, and other institution that follows nouthetic counseling (self-proclaimed “Biblical counseling”) needs to hear her words and undertake some deep and necessary changes.

Reposted from the website BJUGrace, at this link, originally posted in May of 2015. From an anonymous childhood sexual abuse survivor.

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Bob Jones University president Steve Pettit said about BJU’s counseling: “We believe Scripture is sufficient for addressing and meeting the spiritual needs of individual believers. We remain firmly committed to a biblical counseling model for all our on-campus counseling.”

This is the nouthetic counseling I received that did not help me.

 My counseling at the school

* I was simply told what to think instead of the counselor spending time finding out what it was that I already thought. The counselor did all the talking.

* My dorm counselor allowed for some acknowledgement of pain. She had me memorize Isaiah 61:3 “beauty for ashes,” but emphasized that God was using the “ashes” as a tool so that I could eventually get to the beauty.

* The focus was to consider the abuse as a trial that is “for my good and God’s glory.”

* With my counselor, I studied the story of Tamar (II Samuel 13). The focus was on the idea that God is the judge, we can leave the results in His hands.

* I was told that though I was not to blame for the abuser’s actions, I was accountable to God for responding in a Biblical way. According to Matthew 18, I was to confront him and forgive him, which I did.

* It was taught that forgiving him meant that I didn’t think about it anymore or hold it against him.

* I was told not to be bitter; but that wasn’t an issue for me; it hadn’t even occurred to me to be bitter. I had never even been mad at him. I had never been angry.

* I was later counseled for bulimia. It had become a way to make myself feel clean inside, as if I were getting rid of something evil or dirty. But the reasons I had this problem were never probed or discussed; instead it was treated as if I had chosen an unhealthy, sinful weight loss plan.

* I needed answers to deep questions, but the answers I was given didn’t fulfill the need to know; they just frustrated me, and made me feel guilty because I didn’t find the answers satisfying. (When I asked questions, wanting to know why this happened, I was told I just needed to trust God.)

Questions and confusion never addressed in counseling

I always felt guilty for all of these questions and confusion. I was never encouraged in counseling to honestly wrestle through my questions and confusion. I never confided in anyone, I never voiced these questions, but felt guilty for having them.

 Questions about the abuser and the assault

No one ever asked anything about the abuser. They knew nothing about who he was, whether he was my dad or uncle or whoever. All the focus was on me and what I needed to do. There was no opening for me to even try to formulate questions about the abuser and the assault. Such as:

 Why did this happen? Did I as a child do something to make this happen? Why did he take what he wanted of my body, but then pretended nothing had changed in our relationship?

Why didn’t I tell anyone? Did that mean I wanted it to happen again? Would I ever tell my future husband about any or this, or should I pretend to be “pure” when I wasn’t?

Why could the abuser do what he did and still act spiritual and godly when I knew he wasn’t?

 Questions about forgiveness

I was told to forgive my abuser. This forgiveness was treated in counseling as if he had called me a name, or made fun of me, like when my children irritate each other and I tell them to forgive each other.  It was as if he did nothing more than irritate me.

In my jumbled thoughts, forgiving seemed easier than one might expect.  Because I hadn’t yet understood what he had done to me, I wasn’t even angry.

But what was I forgiving him for?  For what he did to my body?  For what he did to my soul?  For stealing the innocence and naïveté of a child?  Which of these was I to forgive?  How is one to forgive, when they don’t even know what they are forgiving?

Because I had to focus on forgiving him, as I grew older and understood what it was he had taken from me, my anger turned instead to God and to myself.  But not to him – because I had forgiven.

I was taught at the University that if one hasn’t asked for forgiveness, forgiveness can’t really be granted, but in counseling I was told to grant forgiveness without my abuser asking for it. These two teachings don’t seem to match.

Questions about God

My relationship with God was damaged. How can God be both powerful and good? I have a visual image of God being present during my abuse and being passive. This makes me think that either He is good and doesn’t have sovereignty over everything, or he is sovereign and isn’t very good.  It doesn’t seem to make sense that both of these qualities can coexist.

And then when I finally sought help, I was told that God was asking me to do this horrible thing – contact the abuser and speak to him about what had never been said or acknowledged between us.  Then God required me to forgive, while God’s expectations of my abuser were so small – an easy apology was all that he was required to give.  I was the one who suffered, and yet God still expected the impossible of me, and not him.

These were questions that I wasn’t allowed to bring up and wrestle through.

Confused emotions I didn’t understand that were never addressed 

Shame – No one told me that shame was the word for the feelings I was struggling with. This word was right there in the story of Tamar. “How can I bear my shame.” The dorm counselor studied that story with me for weeks, but she never said anything about the shame.

Guilt – I didn’t understand the nature of what happened to me. I didn’t tell anyone at the time, so I felt that I was complicit in what happened.

Fear of getting in trouble, because in my mind I was complicit. Fear of exposure, of others knowing.

Grief – There was no allowance for working through grief in any way. I was never to mention the abuse again or even think about it, and if I did, it was evidence that I hadn’t really forgiven.

Rejection – I struggled with feelings of rejection, but wasn’t allowed to work through them. No one ever told me that Christ felt the same feelings I do – shame, nakedness, rejection.

Anger– I wasn’t allowed to be angry at the abuser because I had “forgiven” him, so my anger turned inward toward myself for letting it happen and upward toward God, for allowing it.

Doubt – My faith became compartmentalized.  I am angry and mistrustful of God, yet I love and serve him.  I go through the motions of Christian living, and do not deal with my hurt and feeling betrayed by Him.  I feel guilty for feeling the way I do, but I don’t know how to change it.

What is needed 

You think we are asking you to abandon the use of Scripture in counseling.  That’s not it at all.  We need more Scripture, not less.  But we need it to be a help, and not a weapon. People who have been abused need to have a clear understanding about certain things.

* My view of myself changed, and this is true of other abuse survivors too, so we need to be assured of God’s love for us, and His acceptance of us.  We need to be assured that how He views us doesn’t change.

* Survivors need to be assured that no part of the abuse was our fault.

* We need to have freedom to feel, and to work through those feelings rather than pushing them down inside.

* We need freedom to be honest, freedom to respond in a different way from others and not on a certain timetable.

* We need freedom to grieve our loss without being judged for grieving.

* We need to learn to pray to God honestly and candidly, not “good girl prayers,” not compartmentalizing our hearts.

* The counselor should show love for us, not expectations that seem insurmountable.

* The counselor should get to know the counselee as an individual, listening more than talking, finding out their beliefs about God and about themselves, instead of just following a formula.

* The counselor needs to understand us when we can’t understand ourselves.  To help us understand our confused feelings, our unhealthy ways of dealing with our pain.

* We need a clear understanding that our questions were/are normal. We need someone to explain to us the nature of abuse and abusers.

* Acknowledge the connection between eating disorders and abuse. Instead of treating eating disorders as isolated sin problems, seek to identify the reasons behind the disorder.

Synopsis of the University’s counseling system

By ignoring issues such as shame, confusion, anger, and despair, and instead focusing solely on my “Biblical response,” (repent of bitterness, confront abuser, forgive) the counselors at the University give the idea that I can fix this problem myself.  That if I just do all the “right” things, I will be able to heal myself.

The reality is that I can’t heal myself, and all of my attempts just result in further shame, confusion, and despair.  I did everything I was told to do.  But I am not healed.

I know healing comes from God, but I still don’t know how to allow him to do it.  From the University’s perspective, I either didn’t “truly” forgive, or I didn’t actually repent of my bitterness, or I am broken.  Instead of finding a loving God who wants to meet me where I am, I find a God who rejects me, who won’t help me to find the healing I seek, unless I can do everything perfectly in my own strength.

I don’t know who God is anymore.  Is He a list of rules?  Is He loving?  Is He active?  Does He care? If I try harder to be perfect, will He love me more? The Bible seems so contradictory about who He is.  The Jesus I know is constantly dissatisfied with me.  The God I know wants me to fix myself before I am allowed to draw near to Him.

You’re using God’s Word to harm, and so you’re causing us to doubt God and His love and goodness.  But when you tell us that the reason we aren’t healed is because of our lack of trust in God’s love and goodness, you’re unable to see that you yourselves are the ones who have caused these doubts.

I want you to know that we’re not asking you to embrace a philosophy of counseling that diminishes the importance of God’s Word in the life of suffering believers.  The University president has said that he believes that the University’s counseling practices are Biblical, and you’ve stated that the University will continue to practice nouthetic counseling, albeit in a more loving manner.  You believe that the problems of the past are due to the manner in which the counseling was given; that if the counseling were more loving or occurred at a slower pace, the counseling would then be adequate.

I hope you understand that the content of the counseling I received has damaged my faith and my understanding of God.  And I’m not alone; my questions and struggles are common among those of us who are survivors of the counseling you are defending. It wasn’t the manner or the way the counseling was given that has resulted in my struggles to understand Christ.  It’s the counseling itself; not only what was said, but more importantly, what was not said.  The answers to many of my questions were in the Bible, but no one pointed them out.

Why must the University insist that they aren’t abandoning Biblical counseling, as if to imply that we are negating the importance of Scripture in healing?  I needed Scripture. But I needed someone who knew how to use it properly.  Someone who wanted to understand and identify what my needs were, and help me to find my healing in a God who loved and accepted me, and who wanted to heal my suffering by giving me more of Himself.   A 22-year-old with a couple of classes in counseling theory is not going to be able to provide this, even if she has handouts with fill-in-the blank statements about Scripture.

I’m urging you to reconsider your practices when it comes to victims of trauma.  God asks us to “rightly divide the Word of Truth.”  The University is not obeying this command. 

I pray that you will reconsider.  Whether you realize it or not, God has surrounded you with people who want to help and who understand the needs of abuse survivors. I ask you to please actively listen.

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3 thoughts on “Here’s an abuse survivor’s plea about nouthetic “Biblical” counseling

  1. This is exactly what was used on me for marriage counseling. The root could never be looked at because the focus was on me being more forgiving and more loving so that he,my husband, would stop the abuse…..if there even was abuse. They wouldn’t use that word and continually pointed out that if I was pointing a finger at him there were three others pointing back at myself…..meaning I needed to look deeper at myself. I spent 20 years at the hands of this method, growing more lost, confused and guilty…

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