Question: "How can I overcome the pain of past abuse?"

Answer: Before we talk about abuse, we need to define it. Abuse is the misuse of something that is otherwise good. Substance abuse is the misuse of medicines that, if used properly, can save and improve life. Abuse of power is the misuse of authority that God ordained (Romans 13:1–2). The abuse of a human being means that someone has not treated a person the way God intended him or her to be treated.

Abuse comes in many forms: verbal, emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual. Abuse during childhood is the most devastating form of abuse because it shapes the way a child views the world from then on. Childhood sexual abuse violates and distorts a person’s sexuality and identity. It is also the betrayal of trust, since most abuse comes from an adult the child trusted. Abuse affects the victim’s self-worth and often creates huge barriers in future relationships.

But there is much good news for victims of abuse. God does not see us in light of the abuse. He sees what He created: persons individually made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). He is eager to restore us to the purpose for which He created us. Because God designed us, He is the only One who can define us. Nothing can steal that definition. No abuse, sin, mistake, or tragedy is strong enough to override what God has declared to be true. We can choose to defy Him, reject His offer of restoration, and walk away from His gift of eternal life (John 3:16–18). But when we allow Him to work in us, surrendering ourselves to the One who loves us best, beauty can spring from ashes.

Overcoming past abuse is similar, in some ways, to overcoming an addiction. Recovery involves a lifetime of maintaining wholeness. We can’t erase the memories, but we can render them powerless as we allow God to give us a new identity. True soul healing begins with a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the restorer of broken souls (Psalm 23:3). Some abuse victims have a subconscious fear of God. They see Him as one more angry being who cannot be pleased. Recognizing that such a view stems from abuse, not truth, a victim can replace that mindset by developing an intimate friendship with Jesus. When we choose to allow His evaluation of us to override what the abuse told us, we are on the way to total freedom.

Second Corinthians 5:17 says that those who are “in Christ” are new creatures. The old is gone, and all things are being made new. Abuse victims often feel that they are damaged goods, especially in cases of rape or molestation. Victims feel dirty and imagine that God sees them that way, too. They may even harbor deep hatred for the younger version of themselves that allowed such victimization to occur. But God’s Word says that we are all broken and dirty in some form (Romans 3:10, 23). If His evaluation of us depended upon our being whole and presentable, no one would make the cut. Salvation through faith in Christ gives us a fresh start. He takes all that abuse upon Himself and pays for it. In exchange, He gives us His righteousness, His life, and His name (2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:3–7).

Abuse survivors feel hopeless when they believe the lie that the abuse defines their worth. Especially when the abuse was constant throughout childhood, victims grow up believing Satan’s evaluation of their worth and his prophecies about their future. It takes time to understand all they have believed to be true about themselves is false. Such processing should be pursued with a qualified biblical counselor. A wise counselor can help a victim accept the great harm that was done and learn to see it in light of God’s truth. The victim can learn to forgive the abusers as God has forgiven them (Ephesians 4:32). Forgiveness frees a victim from ongoing hurt and shame. It empowers them to learn to love and trust again. Thousands of abuse survivors have found hope and restoration by losing themselves in their new identity and allowing Jesus to define their futures.

Only God can take the helplessness of past abuse and transform it into a platform for future ministry. God promises that all things, even painful events of the past, will work together for the good when we love Him and seek His will for our lives (Romans 8:28). He invites all victims to lose the “victimhood” status and learn to see themselves as “clothed with strength and dignity” (Proverbs 31:25). Healing starts when we lift it all up to God and let go.