God intended for families to be sanctuaries of safety and protection, where children can grow up nurtured and loved, without being taken advantage of. The reality, however, can be quite different.

Incest is defined as having sexual relations with a close relative whom, in much of the world, you cannot legally marry (son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, grandparent, uncle, aunt, cousin, etc.). Unfortunately, this type of sexual practice still happens. It is rarely consensual, meaning that someone is being forced into sex against their will. Such coercion falls under the definition of sexual and emotional abuse, and can lead to life-long emotional, physical, and even spiritual problems.

Incest often depends on a family culture of secrets. A parent may realize that something is going on but, for whatever reason—such as their own history of abuse, embarrassment and shame, detachment due to addiction, or fear of losing financial support if the abuser is a primary breadwinner—they choose not to acknowledge it. A perpetrator will often convince the abused child that what’s happening is their fault, or may claim that they’re teaching the child how to protect themselves from someone else who might hurt them.

Victims of incest are often afraid to report what they’ve experienced. This may be because they love the person who is hurting them and fear what may happen to them; are afraid of not being believed or of getting in trouble; or because they’ve already tried to tell and their story was ignored or what happened was excused. They may believe that what’s happening is normal, or fear that they or someone they love will be hurt if they tell.

A pastor, youth leader, teacher, professional counselor, or other trusted adult is a vital help in recovering from abuse. If you’re hurt and confused, it’s easy to discount your own memories, thoughts, and feelings, particularly if others don’t believe you. A support group for people with similar experiences can help you realize that you didn’t just “imagine” what happened, and that it was wrong and destructive.

If you are a survivor of abuse, know that God loves you and values you. The abuse you have experienced, or are experiencing, is not in God’s plan for you. He wants you to reach out and find help, and He promises: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, NIV).