I don’t care if I sound mental to you, but I hear voices. They mock and threaten me. I’m not psychotic. I sometimes wonder if they are just an extension of myself, but there are times when the voices seem crueler than anything I have ever felt or done to someone else or myself. The only way to silence them is to do a little bit of what they ask, and then I feel quiet inside for a while. Then it all starts over again.
—Participant in a recovery group
Our sexuality is so deeply intertwined with and expressive of our gender, our heart, our yearning for pleasure and for love—it is core to our being. When harm is done here, it is done in the depths of our existence, and our enemy seizes the opportunity to access dark strongholds within us. Those places of oppression tend to be among the deepest forms of oppression people experience, because evil has accessed wounding done to core parts of our soul. Our hope is that as those strongholds are broken, we can experience a healing and freedom otherwise impossible apart from God banishing the darkness and reclaiming His own.
I have come to believe that the most significant portions of a story of abuse are guarded not only by our self but also by foul spirits that threaten, mock, confuse, and shut down our internal world whenever we get too close to shame and heartache. Are they in us, outside of us, around us? Are they demons? Fallen angels? Speculation is not my goal—only discernment and engagement are.
The moment the topics of evil and spiritual warfare are brought into the conversation about sexual abuse, conflict or chaos seems to reign. I have talked with fellow Christian therapists about spiritual warfare and observed their amused incredulity and academic contempt that an educated professional psychologist in the twenty-first century would resort to such a “primitive” worldview to understand human suffering and psychological symptoms.
There is a second response, and I find it more troubling. It is from people who acknowledge that there is evil—in fact, personal or intentional evil, not merely a force of the consequence of human cruelty—but that this evil is so limited by the work of Jesus that it is like a distant thunder. It can be sensed but doesn’t have to be addressed beyond praying the Lord’s Prayer. Bright and educated people have told me they can’t fathom why there is a need for therapy; if I would simply help abuse victims get free from their demonic warfare and get back to the Bible, they would be completely healed.
A participant in a sexual abuse recovery group told me, “Look, I know there is something working against me. I don’t need to be convinced there is a dark presence in the world. But I was in a church that demonized every problem or mishap. I finally shared with an elder’s wife that I had a history of past sexual abuse, and she told me she thought so. She said she felt a spirit of fear and seduction and that I needed to pray against these spirits. She gathered a few of her friends and prayed over me. I thought it was weird. I know they are sincere, but one woman started waving her hands over me and said, ‘You are haunted by a spirit of perversion.’ I got angry. She might be right, but I felt like I had to agree and do what she was demanding or I’d be told I had a spirit of defiance or something. I either agreed or was written off. Frankly, it didn’t feel that different from how one of my abusers set me up. It was all or nothing. In this case, I walked out of the ‘deliverance’ and I have not been back. I feel sick because I liked them and the church until I became their project to rid me of demons.”
When I wrote The Wounded Heart, I believed evil existed but it was not my calling to directly address its presence or consequences. If asked then what my therapeutic approach was, I’d say I simply didn’t want to consider the presence of evil other than in systematic and impersonal terms. Then I changed. How? By listening to my clients. Through their stories I have come to the conclusion that evil is very much at work in the world, in our mind, and in our body.
Core convictions about evil
Theories about the nature of evil, let alone how to address it in life, have little consensus even among those who acknowledge that it exists and is deeply engaged in all aspects of human affairs. This lack of common ground leads me to offer my thoughts and experiences with pause and caution. We have much to consider and learn, and I don’t write from a position that is dogmatic. It is important for me to put forth a number of core convictions:
1. Evil exists and is not infinite but is a creature, a fallen angel (and his cohorts) in opposition to the glory of God and God’s plan for His creation.
2. Evil is limited by its existence as a creature. Evil is not omnipresent, omniscient, or omnipotent. Only God is God. Nevertheless, the kingdom of darkness is intentional, well informed, relentless, and perverse.
3. Evil’s primary way of operating is in darkness and secrecy, subtly using its cunning to reach its ultimate goal: ruining the glory of God. It will expend no more energy against a person, marriage, family, institution, or community than it needs to achieve its goal. If a person can be seduced by hours of television, sabotaged through a depression, or lulled into self-sufficiency through money, a degree, or a set of convictions that limit curiosity, then evil will likely focus more attention on those who are more dangerous to its kingdom.
4. Evil hates what God reveals in and through the creation of humanity, especially with regard to gender and sexuality. Nothing brings evil greater delight or power than to foul our joy in being a man or a woman through sexual harm or gender confusion on the one hand or dogmatism on the other.
5. Evil is involved in all human suffering indirectly, but it is dangerous to equate any specific event directly with the work of evil. Illness, relational conflict, or psychological struggles can never be approached with a universal, singular understanding; instead, the effects of evil, direct or indirect, must be approached from many perspectives that include the body, heart, mind (brain), and self, as well as cultural systems that involve family, race, ethnicity, and culture.
6. Evil gains access and power to ruin a part of our life by seducing us with lies that tempt us to form an alliance or covenant with the kingdom of darkness. No human being is immune to this seduction, and therefore every person, whether aware of it or not, struggles in a war that eventually affects every dimension of life. (Let this not be read to say that evil cannot be indirectly and profoundly thwarted and disempowered through prayer.)
7. Evil delights in sexual abuse because the return on investment is maximized. It takes but seconds to abuse, but the consequences can ruin the glory of a person for a lifetime.
8. Finally, He who is in us, Jesus, is greater than he who is in the world, the prince of darkness. And through the Spirit of God we are empowered to do direct harm to the kingdom of evil through the skillful use of faith, hope, and love.
Evil’s plan for sexual abuse
I view Satan as a thief, murderer, and destroyer who seduces us into making a covenant that thwarts God’s plan and ruins God’s creation. When we covenant with another it is binding and irrevocable unless a greater authority supersedes to free us. The plan of evil is to get us, through lies, deceit, accusations, and threats, to make a vow of loyalty to it. The endgame of evil is to destroy our trust in God and then offer us any alternative that further distances us from the healing God longs for us to experience.
Evil steals innocence and joy. It hates our potential intimacy with God, therefore it uses the desire He created in us for beauty and sensuality, and our hunger for wisdom, to seduce us away from Him. Its tactic is simple: Use desire to tempt us away from our deepest desires and then turn us against desire as the enemy that got us into trouble. It is like a sting operation.
The calling of a good therapist is to follow the story of abuse and its aftermath closely enough to see the tracks of evil. There will always be a unique configuration of debris, a pattern of evil’s intent that gives an indication of the covenants the victim has made, consciously or unconsciously, with the realm of darkness.
Sometimes the covenants or agreements are as simple as, Your body is evil, and desire will always get you into trouble. Other times evil weaves accusations and threats with promises. You will never be loved because you are ugly, but at least your body can be used to get the closest thing to love—attention. Evil is brilliant at then setting up experiences that bring us “evidence” of its deceitful accusations. The more we believe and bind our heart to evil’s “truth,” the more pathways it can develop to other lies.
Never trust, never love, never need anyone
A client told me about the moment she decided never to love again. She was abused by her father often and had been sold to various people for money, power, and drugs. He had a girlfriend who was the first woman ever to be kind to her. This woman was the first person who held her when she cried and even gave her counsel on how to escape some of the abuse. The day came when the girlfriend left the girl’s father and she came to the girl’s bedroom to say goodbye. After she left, my client said audibly: “I will never love anyone again and feel this alone.”
My client is a good woman, strong in faith and faithful. She is resolute and passionate about helping others; she is stubborn and unwilling to ask for or receive help from anyone else. She made a vow soon after her one source of care and protection abandoned her to never trust or need anyone again. The vow she made unwittingly gave a portion of her heart to darkness, and this foothold allowed evil to pound away at her every time she let herself “need” a friend. She would hear a voice in her head that mocked her for being so needy and then threatened that her friends would talk about her and make fun of her.
Is my client’s struggle psychological or spiritual? The question is tedious. The fact is there is nothing about our spirituality that doesn’t intersect with our personality; there is nothing about our personality that isn’t a reflection of our spirituality. Therefore, my client’s paranoia is as much a spiritual issue as it is an issue of the body and soul.
Jesus intends to take the blow first
There is nothing that will open our eyes to our bondage to the kingdom of darkness other than the kindness of God. It is the love of God that called Jesus to become the One to bear the full weight of all the accusations and debts claimed against us. The apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 2:13-15 (NLT):
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.
Jesus intends to stand against every accusation and claim made against us. When we are assaulted by a half-truth contemptuously hurled at us, He intends to take the blow first. His death is a covering against every assault of contempt and every claim of debt owed. The more freedom we gain from evil’s brutal lies, the clearer we will see how past events have been used to capture and kill parts of our heart.