One in four. That’s the average of how many women in America have experienced some form of sexual assault.
One in six. That’s the average number of men have been sexually assaulted.
These are underestimates.
Sexual assault is a crime surrounded by misconceptions and confusion. Definitions are either too specific to sufficiently identify instances of assault or too vague to even be helpful. It’s a crime that robs victims of their dignity and their identity. And often, in our attempts to be helpful, we find ourselves at a loss; we don’t really know what to say or how to help victims of assault and abuse.
How can the stain of disgrace be removed?
Authors Justin and Lindsey Holcomb provide a compelling, thoughtful and hopeful answer in Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault, as they apply the gospel to this horrendous crime.
Dividing the book into three sections, “Disgrace,” “Grace Applied,” and “Grace Accomplished,” the authors handle the subject matter with great care. It’s evident that they’re not working from a theoretical perspective, but that this is hands-on, practical knowledge. In part one, they begin by providing a proper definition of sexual assault. They define it as follows:
Sexual assault is any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority. (p. 28)
“This definition,” they explain, “gets beyond our society’s narrow understanding of the issue and expands the spectrum of actions to be considered sexual assault.” (ibid) In fleshing out this definition, they also go to great pains to clear up a number of misconceptions:
- Sexual assault can be physical, verbal, or psychological
- Prior consent does not mean unlimited consent
- The perpetrators of sexual assault are more often than not educated, middle class, white men who know their victims
- While underreporting is a serious problem, false reporting is actually quite rare
Practically, this means that the myth of the mystery deviant jumping out of the bushes is just that: A myth. While things like this can happen, it’s more likely that a victim will be abused by a friend, family member, coworker or other acquaintance.
They also look to the effects of sexual assault. What was surprising to me was how varied the harmful emotional, psychological and physiological effects that can be. Some are: anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, eating disorders, gastrointestinal disturbance, hyper-arousal, various phobias, insomnia and other sleep disturbances, jumpiness… on and on the list goes (p. 39).
Further, the authors stress that it’s important to understand that acknowledgement does not equate or ensure automatic healing. Naming the sin committed is only the first step in healing.
In part two, “Grace Applied,” the Holcombs examine the implications of the gospel on the effects of sexual assault:
Denial. The myth says that time heals all wounds, but “in order to heal, you need God’s compassion and redemptive work applied to your suffering.” (p. 54) God hears, sees and knows a victims pain and He does not stand idly by while it happens; suffering draws Him near. Grief and mourning should lead to hope in God’s healing and restoration. And because Jesus is acquainted with sorrow, there is confidence for the victim that he or she can receive grace and mercy (cf. Heb. 4:14-16).
Distorted Self-Image. Because many victims “perceive themselves as being vile, defiled, filthy and dirty, as opposed to them having had a vile, defiled, and dirty act done to them” (p. 72), the issue is less about self-esteem as it is self-identity. This is why self-help, according to the research, actually results in self-harm. When self-help statements fail, victims often feel worse than they did before.Instead, “you need to know God’s statements and images about who you are, not self-produced positive statements or the lies being told to you by your experience of disgrace.” (p. 73) Victims need to know that they are not what their experience calls them, nor what their abuser says they are, but they belong to Christ. (cf. p. 84)
Shame. Shame robs victims of being fully known by anyone—but God rescues victims from their shame; He takes it away in the death of Christ. “He took on your shame, so it no longer defines you nor has power over you. . . . It is Jesus’ death on the cross that forgives our sins and cleanses the stains on our soul. . . . Because of the cross, we can be fully exposed, because God no longer identifies us by what we have done or by what has been done to us. If we trust in Jesus, God sees us as Jesus was: pure, righteous, and without blemish. . . . In Jesus, you are made completely new.” (pp. 102-103)
Guilt. “Feelings of guilt and blame are often linked to the myths and misconceptions about sexual assault that prevail within our society,” the authors write (p. 110). Our society tries to play stupid games, saying that a woman was asking for it or if they dress provocatively, they somehow “deserve it.” Recently a police officer in Toronto made a statement to this effect during a safety panel, which just goes to show how ingrained this idea is. But the reality is, it is never the victim’s fault under any circumstance. To say otherwise is simply wicked. This is also why the gospel is such good news. “Because [Christ] accomplished your redemption, guilt and sin have no right to condemn you.” (p. 118)
Anger. This is perhaps one of the most difficult chapters as it deals with forgiveness. Although anger can be a natural and healthy response, it is often expressed poorly or turned inward by victims of assault. God is angry at sin and His holy, righteous anger will be satisfied, whether by the cross of Christ or on the final Day of Judgment. And this is the hope of all who have been oppressed and abused. God will have vengeance and we can have confidence in that.
At the same time, our anger can lead to bitterness and an unforgiving spirit. It leads us to seek to take vengeance for ourselves, which only makes things worse. And this is why we need to understand biblical forgiveness. As the authors write, “It is a miracle for a sinner to forgive another sinner. But this miracle is based on the prior miracle of God by freely offering his Son to bear the wrath deserved by the guilty.” (p. 133) No one is excused from the list of the guilty, not even victims. We all sin, we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. But the more we press into the reality of our own sinfulness, “the more [we] will understand with joy the mercy of God to [us].” (p. 134)
This understanding leads us to be willing to extend forgiveness even to our enemies. “Forgiveness is costly for the victim, but it is not a naïve, foolish, simplistic, look-the-other-way pretense that all is well and parties should return to relating as they did before the assault.” (p. 137) We must be careful in not rushing prematurely to forgive in a simplistic fashion, which can lead to revictimization. We must not forget that our forgiveness does not mean that God has forgiven them. And ultimately, we look to the coming wrath of God to make all things right.
Despair. It can seem like God is absent in the midst of abuse, and this can lead to despair, which is the enemy of hope. But God is not absent and He is using all for His glory. No matter how deep the despair, this knowledge can bring real, lasting hope, because it rests in the person of Jesus and in the resurrection. “This side of glory, we will not be fully redeedmed and satisfied, but sorrow opens the heart to the desire for the hope of redemption to be fully realized.” (p. 155)
These chapters are packed with practical wisdom and offer great confidence to those who have suffered assault. The answer is not to fix themselves; it’s not to get over it and move on, or forgive and forget. And it’s not to allow bitterness to destroy you or despair to ruin you. Instead, the cross of Christ offers freedom from disgrace when His grace is applied.
Interspersed throughout these chapters are testimonies of victims of sexual assault and how Christ has restored hope to them. These were equally the most heartbreaking and uplifting portions of the entire book:
- Allen, who was molested by his grandfather as a boy;
- Crystal, a young woman who was molested by her father only to later experience date rape;
- Barbara, who was repeatedly raped by her own husband and feared that he would the same to their daughter when she reached puberty;
- Brian, who was exposed to pornography and molested by his baseball coach;
- Mandy, who attempted to take control over her sexuality by toying with men, only to find herself gang raped in the VIP room of a night club;
- Nicole who was deceived and molested by a 30-something woman from her church.
These are painful stories to read. It’s painful to even share these brief snippets I’m not an emotional guy by nature, and I’m fighting back tears just thinking about the horrors these men and women experienced. It’ heartbreakingly evil.
But even in the midst of the horror, there was hope for each. Allen, Crystal, Barbara, Brian, Mandy, Nicole and so many others whose stories haven’t been shared—in the end, they discovered that even in these moments, God was with them. God removes the stain of the sins committed against them. He gives them a new identity in Christ. He restores hope and offers forgiveness.
In part three, “Grace Accomplished,” the Holcombs remind us of the root of sexual assault: It is a sin against the victim and a sin against God. “Sexual assault is always a sin against the victim and God because all crimes are depicted as sins, that is, violations of God’s will and the reflection of his glory in others.” (p. 171) The Bible never excuses sin. God never ignores it. Instead, He uses every evil act for His redemptive purposes. Through the shadowy images of Christ in the Old Testament through His glorious revelation in the New, God is at work, offering grace to all who trust in Jesus. “The cross is God’s attack on sin and violence; it is salvation from sin and its effects. . . the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering.” (p. 191) Through Christ, God replaces disgrace with grace. He ends the story of violence and ushers in peace. And in that we have much to hope for.
Rid of My Disgrace is a hard book to read. It’s one that will make you weep, either when you’re reading it… or if you’re like me, days and weeks after when you look at it again. It vividly portrays the evil of sexual assault and the tragedy of its effects on its victims. But thankfully, the authors are equally vivid in detailing the hope that the gospel offers those who suffer. Pastors need to read this book. Small group leaders need to read this book. Husbands need to read this book. And we need to pray that it will help us offer hope to the victims of sexual assault to whom we minister or with whom we live.
Title: Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault
Authors: Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
Publisher: Crossway/Re:Lit (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by Crossway Books.