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Dan Allender: What I’ve Learned Over 25 Years of Ministry to Wounded Hearts

Excerpted from Healing the Wounded Heart: The Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope of Transformation by Dr. Dan B. Allender. Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016. Used by permission. http://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.

There have been scores of times in the past 25 years when I have felt like one of the most fortunate men on the planet. The privilege to be invited into the stories of thousands of women and men as we explore some of the darkest chapters of their lives is a gift that precious few on earth experience. This journey has taken me from the jungles of Thailand to the savanna of Ethiopia and into countless homes, churches and conversations that all in some sense define my life and calling. I am a therapist, theoretician, speaker, writer, professor, administrator, husband, father and grandfather. I am also a victim of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse has affected for good and ill everything I have done and likely will do on this earth. The harm from the past simply doesn’t go away.

Decades ago we were in a car accident in Anchorage, Alaska. An intoxicated woman ran a red light and crashed into the driver’s side of our car, just a few inches from crushing my upper body. I sustained a neck injury that over 23 years has cost me thousands of dollars of chiropractic care, and it still aches as I write this. I can’t imagine what my condition would be without the immense care I have received, but even more so I can’t allow myself to consider what my life would be like if that accident had never occurred. The same is true with sexual abuse in that I can never fully eradicate the consequences of the harm I have endured—yet unlike the car accident, it has given me the opportunity to be transformed with each tear I have shed.

Would I trade these benefits for not being harmed? Of course, without a doubt; I’d do so in an instant. But that is not an option, and until God’s final victory over darkness fully removes the harm of living in this world, it is best to embrace heartache and determine to use it for larger purposes. It is to that end that I write this book.

When I began writing and teaching about sexual abuse in the late ’80s there was little material available from which to glean those first putative steps on the journey. At that time it was assumed that informing people about the diabolical damage of abuse would decrease the likelihood that it would continue to occur at the same rate, and I wanted that outcome with a passion.

I have learned a lot in the past 25 years. Mostly I have learned from my clients. I have also gleaned an immense amount of understanding from fellow professional and lay therapists who continue to lean into darkness that most fear to name, let alone enter. While I am encouraged by the advances that have been made in bringing the reality of sexual abuse into the light, I have seen the culture flip from massive denial to indifferent minimization. In spite of the growing body of research that underscores how one abusive moment can shadow a human life for decades, date rape, sexting, pornography, unwanted sexual advances, sex when intoxicated or stoned, groping and other behavior that is sexually suggestive, demeaning or harassing have become so common that in many people’s minds they hardly warrant being called sexual abuse.

In reality, our day is vastly more adversarial, opportunistic, shallow and violent than ever before. Abuse often creates a 28-car pileup with massive debris, bent metal and wounded victims. It spirals into generations. It sinks into the depths of the heart. I believe there is value in writing a 25-year retrospective because so much new data and research have enhanced our understanding of the nature of the harm of abuse and trauma. For example, we understand the human brain better; it’s as though we have landed in the new world and discovered the first few miles of a vastly unexplored continent. We are clearer about the need to involve the body in the process of addressing the by-products of abuse, especially dissociation and triggers that prompt addictive behavior, sabotage and self-harm. The role of the Internet, pornography and post-traumatic injury to the body and soul are understood today in ways they were not 25 years ago. Most important for me, I am clearer about the work of evil—both human and in the unseen realm of spirits—in the design and devastating consequences of sexual abuse. As disconcerting as it may be to some to be asked to consider the realm of foul and dark spirits, it would be cowardly for me to ignore that dimension.

If there is a central, driving factor as to why I am writing a new volume about sexual abuse, it is because I am a grandfather of four wonderful, wild, beautiful grandchildren. Each of them will grow up facing the dark prospects of an earth heating up from global warming, oceans that may see a radical deficit of fish, shorelines being swallowed by encroaching water, and nations rising and falling due to calamities that go far deeper but involve no less than the weather.

As the winds blow foul, there will be upheaval in this century that will directly and indirectly turn the strong against the weak, resulting in what has occurred for millennia: more women and children and men will be sexually victimized. It is in this world that my grandchildren will become men and women. While I have no guarantee they will ever read my work or know or follow my life trajectory, I can’t stand idly by and not fight a little harder and longer for their sexual future.

I am blessed to be working with a small cadre of therapists in The Allender Center for Abuse and Trauma whom I trust will carry on our labor far after I am residing in another world or am unable to speak and write as I wish. There is good reason to hope that we will continue to make progress in addressing the harm of sexual abuse. However, the war will not ever be finished until the Lord Jesus Christ returns to set his kingdom right in the midst of this broken and scarred world. Until then, this labor of inviting those who know sexual brokenness and scars to wholeness and beauty is an endeavor worthy of all the suffering, struggle and sweat.

Listen to our conversation with Dan Allender on this episode of the ChurchLeaders Podcast.

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Dr. Dan Allender has pioneered a unique and innovative approach to trauma and abuse therapy over the past 30 years. Central to Dr. Allender’s theory and approach are the categories of Faith, Hope and Love, and their converses betrayal, ambivalence, and powerlessness. Through identifying and engaging these categories in one’s personal narrative, healing and transformation can occur by bridging the story of the gospel and the stories of trauma and abuse that mark so many.