In my role as a Pastor of Counseling, I am frequently asked questions on topics that individuals believe are too uncomfortable or awkward to discuss with others. Many times people are unsure how to put into words what they want or need to know. It doesn’t mean I’m an expert on the question’s answer; it usually just means I am a safe place – implication: you don’t have to be an expert to be a safe place (i.e., good friend).
Recently, I was asked one of those questions: “What does the process of redemption and restoration look like for a person scarred by a past that includes multiple sex partners and abortions?”
Within this question, there seems to be several unstated questions:
- Is anything different about redemption for sexual sins or abortion?
- What don’t I know about these experiences? What do I need to understand?
- What inaccurate assumptions am I most likely to make?
- How do I navigate subjects where my instincts are significantly shaped by moral-political debates, instead of conversations of personal care?
- How do I avoid making this interaction feel like an “us-them” conversation, while also acknowledging the experiences being discussed are traumatic in nature (for my friend)? How can I be sensitive to this reality, knowing that my friend is allowing me into, perhaps, the most vulnerable part of her story?
I hope you are saying, “Yes, those are the questions I wanted to ask, but may not have had words for.” In this post, I am not going to provide expert-level background information on the impact of multiple sexual partners or abortion. Instead, I am going to offer more general guidance on how to care well when you’re having a conversation on an emotionally-powerful subject that contains a strong mix of sin and suffering.
First, redemption begins with listening because Jesus’ ministry began with incarnation.
Jesus entered our world by humbling himself, in the form of a child. We enter another person’s world by humbling ourselves enough to listen. Whenever you are not sure what to say, focus on being a really good listener. Enter their experience and, thereby, help them feel less alone and alienated.
- Start by saying “thank you” for being entrusted with such a delicate part of your friend’s story. Acknowledge the courage in your friend’s disclosure and the special privilege you are being granted to walk with them.
Second, redemption allows listening to breed empathy, because we imitate a High Priest who is able to empathize with our weaknesses and temptations (Hebrews 4:15).
When Jesus had a conversation like the one we’re describing, his new friend was amazed at how well he understood her without shaming her (John 4:29). If we are an effective ambassador of Christ, our friend will feel the same.
- Allow yourself to be moved by the hurt, confusion, betrayal, trauma, shame, and other emotions in her story. We’ll talk more, later in this article, about how to minister effectively. But we earn the privilege of walking with someone, and the right to be heard, by being able to empathize with their experience.
Third, redemption honors the pace at which an individual is able to move forward, because we are ambassadors of the Good Shepherd.
Notice the pace of Psalm 23: they are walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (v. 4). Good shepherds don’t go faster than the condition of the sheep allows.
- In your mind, make sure you are thinking of conversations and not a conversation. We often represent Christ poorly when we rush by being too concerned with “having the right answer” that “makes things better.” This is why so many unhelpful things are said at funerals. Often, the most important skill in being helpful is the ability to patiently be uncomfortable with someone who is uncomfortable.
Fourth, redemption shows interest in the whole person, because redemption is about all of life.
No one chapter of any person’s life defines his or her whole life. Shame often tempts us to define our entire lives by our most painful moments. One of the unique opportunities of friendship and pastoral ministry – that is different from formal counseling – is that the relationship does not have to be problem-focused. We help lift shame when we take interest in all of our friend’s life by celebrating the good, supporting the hard, and being interested in the mundane.
- Warm, patient eye contact from a friend who knows you is a simple and powerful way to mitigate the effects of shame.
Fifth, redemption is as eager to see suffering comforted as it is to see sin forgiven, because it reflects the heart of a Good Father.
As you unpack the implications of the gospel with your friend, make sure you highlight God’s compassion for our suffering as much as God’s remedy for our sin.
- It may be helpful for you to review this article that briefly examines how the gospel speaks to guilt, shame, and regret in unique ways for each experience.
- If you don’t feel as equipped on the suffering side of the ministry spectrum, consider this extended article on suffering or Ed Welch’s book, Shame Interrupted.
A question that is likely to come up as you have these conversations is, “What do I do with the memories? I mean, I am grateful God has forgiven me for the things I did. And it is easier to receive God’s forgiveness now that I better understand his tenderness towards my suffering. But I can’t forget the things that happened and the things I did. I feel haunted by my past.”
- The best resource I have come across on this subject is Miroslav Volf’s book, The End of Memory. It is a difficult question, so his book is not an easy read. But Volf’s book is the most rich writing I have found on the question of, “What do I do with my memories after forgiveness… memories of other’s sin I have forgiven, or my sin that God has forgiven?”
- A good resource more specifically written for the experience of abortion is Forgiven and Set Free: A Post-Abortion Bible Study for Women by Linda Cochrane.
Another question that emerges is, “How do we prioritize whether to focus on the sexual sin or abortion grief / trauma first?” Answering this question requires a triage model for care. My recommendation is that unless the sexual sin is actively (present tense) at an addictive level, begin with processing the traumatic experience of abortion, while providing accountability to mitigate any ongoing destructive influence from sexual sin.
If the sexual sin reached an addictive level, then the False Love study provides a gospel-centered, step-work process for pursuing purity that, if your friend is married, also has a complementing True Betrayal companion study (because we don’t want to assume personal purity, by itself, creates marital harmony after the pain of sexual addiction or adultery). However, if your friend’s struggle is with unrelenting guilt for their past sexual sin, a book like Doug Rosenau’s Soul Virgins is helpful.
As you move towards the more subject-specific part of these conversations, the guidance offered would need to be increasingly tailored to the unique variables of each situation. This is when formal counseling can be beneficial. Below are a few links to frequently asked questions in situations where personal or pastoral conversations may lead to a recommendation of formal counseling.
- How do I know if my life struggle merits counseling?
- How do I find a counselor who is a good match for my needs?
- What is the difference between meeting with a pastor and a formal counselor?
- How would the counseling provided by a pastoral counselor compare to a licensed counselor?
- How do I find a good counselor in [name of city]?
One final word: don’t let the possibility that formal counseling might be beneficial intimidate you out of being a good friend or pastor. Often we think about “making a referral” as “passing the baton.” This feels awkward because it feels like abandoning our friend in their time of need. Instead, if formal counseling would be beneficial, think of it as “adding another member to your friend’s care team.” It allows you to play the supportive role of a good friend, without having to be an “expert” in an area that your life experience does not allow you to do so with confidence.