the Hope of Survivors

Looks Can Be Deceiving by Samantha Nelson

Sick ZoneIt was 1:30am on Friday, November 13, and I was sitting in bed, rocking back and forth, crying and trying not to wake up Steve. The pain in my right ear was excruciating and I could no longer tolerate it. Just a few days before, I had awakened to discover a painful and itchy rash on my right side and upper back, which was soon diagnosed as shingles. Now it was getting complicated, affecting my facial nerve and ears. Steve woke up, despite my efforts to be quiet and, when he saw how much pain I was in, he rushed me to the emergency room where the doctor had to place a wick in my ear so that he could get medicine into it, as well as start me on an IV cocktail of antiviral, antibiotic, pain and other medications. It was not a good way to start the day!

This attack of shingles (my first) came on the heels of a tremendous amount of stress and lack of sleep, so it was no surprise I got sick. In many ways, I knew I had pushed myself too much and that I was on the verge of illness. I never suspected shingles, even though I had had chicken pox as a child. It was an experience I would not wish anyone to have to go through.

During this time of illness, some dear, compassionate friends brought over a card and some food for us. One of them made the comment that I didn’t look sick like she’d imagined I would. The other friend, who had seen me very pale and in pain a few days earlier, assured her that I was indeed sick.

That incident reminded me of another time, about a decade ago, when I was very ill. It was during the time I was being abused by the pastor and the stress of the abuse had taken a serious toll on my health. At that time, the doctors had not yet diagnosed my autoimmune disease and I was suffering greatly. We thought I would have to quit work altogether and go on disability. Praise God for His healing power, as I now work harder for Him than I ever worked in the secular field! Even the doctors seemed oblivious to the physical and emotional pain I was in. Throughout that timeframe, I was attempting suicide frequently, cutting and injuring myself, and suffering abuse from the pastor. Yet, with all this going on, the doctor noted on my chart just prior to major surgery, “she is…not in acute distress….” Amazing! If only he had been able to see more clearly what was really going on with me, perhaps I would have received better care and help to end the abuse sooner.

But, the doctor wasn’t the only one who failed to see what was really taking place. It was very frustrating for me during this time to share with people how awful I felt and how much pain I was in only to have them say, “Well, you look good.” Often, I wished I could look as bad on the outside as I felt on the inside just so people would see what I was really experiencing.

You see, my looks—the outward appearances—were deceiving. I didn’t look sick, even though I was very ill.

So what does this have to do with pastoral sexual abuse and The Hope of Survivors? Well, much—when you think about it.

Think back to the story of Samuel when he went to visit Jesse for the purpose of choosing Israel’s next king from among Jesse’s sons. As Eliab passed before Samuel, he thought this was surely to be Israel’s next king, but the Lord warned Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7, “…Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” This experience was repeated as Samuel went through seven of Jesse’s sons, until eventually young David was called upon and God told Samuel he was to be Israel’s next king.

Israel had previously chosen Saul to be their king because he looked kingly and commanded the respect of the people. Yet, Saul did not have the heart or mind of God and He brought spiritual disaster and reproach, among other things, to Israel during his reign.

How many times are pastors chosen because they look respectable and command attention from the people? How many are chosen because they speak smooth words and give eloquent sermons? Or, perhaps they are chosen because they appear to be so amiable and outgoing that everyone loves them? Are these the qualifications for a minister of the Gospel? Is it simply to look good, to sound good and to act good?

It makes me wonder, how seldom are pastors chosen because of their heart for God and for the lost sheep? How few times are the shepherds chosen for their purity of heart and Christlike life? Are we missing God’s best for us because we, like Israel of old, are looking on the outward appearance and not the heart? It’s something to seriously ponder and pray about.

Pastoral sexual abuse is taking place in every denomination around the globe. When it is brought to light, when the church members and the community find out about it, how often do you hear people say, “Well, he didn’t seem like the type of person to do that”? Or, “But he’s so charismatic and he’s done so much good for the church,”—like that would excuse his abusive behavior! Then, there’s always the comment, “He was such a nice/godly/caring (you-name-it) man!” In general, people tend to look on the outward appearance, not on the heart, as God does. This can lead to many tragic experiences in the lives of God’s people.

It’s true we can’t know what is in a person’s heart, but God has given us a means by which we may know whether one is truly following God or not—and whether we should remain under their spiritual leadership or not. Consider the warning given in Matthew 7:15-21, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. …Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

Judging someone’s motives is not for us to do, but God has given us the task of judging one’s fruit (behavior, words, etc.) and, in doing so, we can make better decisions about the relationships we have with others, especially the pastor-congregant relationship. Let us pray for God to increase our discernment so that we do not permit the outward appearance to influence our decisions about spiritual leadership. Let us go deeper than just looking good on the outside. Indeed, let us be transformed by the Holy Spirit so we may more perfectly reflect Jesus to all.


If you are a survivor of pastoral abuse, we would love to hear your story and possibly make it available on this web site for others to read and renew their hope. You can use a pseudonym if you choose and rest assured that all personal information will be kept private and strictly confidential. Please contact us.

Please note: We do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the information contained in the survivor’s stories. We do, however, feel they have some valuable information that could be useful to you in your recovery. It helps to know you’re not alone, that others have shared your pain and have healed, by the grace of God, in their own time and way.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18