Is it My Fault?

is-it-my-fault-holcombAs we sat in the school auditorium where our church meets, I could feel my wife seething beside me. Our pastor had come to a crucial text in one of the gospels—Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As we listened to our pastor strongly (and faithfully) teach on what the Bible says about marriage and divorce, Emily became increasingly agitated. Not because of anything that was said, but what hadn’t been: what about women who are being abused?

To many, the Bible’s teaching on divorce seems too simplistic to deal with these issues. Bad counsel based on incomplete teaching leaves many women (and men) feeling trapped, with nowhere to turn when their spouses begin to spiritually, psychologically, physically or sexually abuse them. When the abuse somehow becomes their fault in the counselling session, or they’re too ashamed to even say anything at all—or don’t even know if it “counts.”

Whose fault is it?

Emily’s anger was birthed from experiences of these feelings in both her childhood and adolescent years, and her empathy for several friends who have experienced abuse in their marriages.1 If we’re to offer any sort of hope and encouragement to those suffering from domestic violence, we need to know what the Bible has to say to them.

This is why books like Is It My Fault? are so necessary. From its opening pages, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb offer a compassionate and biblical look at the problem of domestic violence, beginning with five words victims need to hear: It is never your fault.

No matter what kind of abuse you have experienced, there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you think that makes you deserving of it. There is no mistake you could have made and no sin you could have committed to make you deserving of violence.

You did not deserve this. And it is never your fault.

You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. You are not damaged goods, forgotten or ignored by God, or “getting what you deserve.” (21)

These truths should be obvious, but for someone in an abusive relationship, they’re anything but. And truthfully, I’m not sure how obvious they are to some of us who aren’t, either. For example, we tend to look at marital problems and try to figure out how divide responsibility for those problems equally between spouses. And while this is certainly true in the average problems that come with marriage and relationships, we need to be careful to not apply this too broadly. Sometimes, it really is the problem just one person—and in the case of domestic violence, in whatever form it takes, it is always the abuser’s fault.

Although a bit of a loose example, consider the recent shootings in Santa Barbara, California, when 22-year-old Elliott Rodger stabbed three people to death, shot three more, and left 13 more injured, before killing himself. Why did he do it? Because “girls have never been attracted to me.” What surprised me with this wasn’t Rodger’s placing the blame for his yet-to-be-committed crimes on women, but because some online commenters seemed to agree, saying that if he wasn’t a virgin, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.

Yeah. Someone actually said that.

What is domestic violence?

Keeping this in mind is especially important when you consider how tricky it can be to develop a concrete definition of domestic violence. You need a broad enough definition that captures the full spectrum of abuse, yet doesn’t leave every reader paranoid that they’re either being abused or an abuser themselves. How is it defined in Is It My Fault?

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner. (57)

Despite being a little clinical, and maybe a bit lawyer-y, this definition is very strong. I believe the key word here is “pattern.” An abuser isn’t necessarily someone who says something stupid and hurtful once (again, if that were the case, we would all be abusers). An abuser is someone who makes an intentional behavior of it. This doesn’t mean that sinful and hurtful words don’t need to be dealt with (they do!); it just means we ought not label the one-time offender—depending on the nature of their offense—as being guilty of domestic violence. (There’s no such thing as being just a little stabby.)

What will God do about it?

The first several chapters of the book offer extremely necessary definitions and categories that readers may lack—beyond a definition of domestic violence, they may not know what the cycle of abuse looks like, or what types of personas exist among abusers, all of which the Holcombs provide. But the strength of the book really comes through when the authors turn to the Scriptures to show readers what God says about this issue. The picture shown here is of a God who “hates abuse, viewing it as sinful and unacceptable” (107), and “delights in rescuing the oppressed (2 Sam. 22:49)” (108).

This isn’t always easy for us to believe, though. After all, in our day-to-day circumstances—especially those in abusive situations—struggle to see God at work. They cry out asking for the Lord to deliver them, just as David did many times in the psalms. But it’s the tension we all face. Suffering and pain are real, but deliverance is real, too, even if it doesn’t come when or how we might wish it did. Despite how it may seem at times, “God is not standing idly by to watch evil run its course he will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and recreation” (113).

What I appreciate throughout the authors’ reflections on several psalms is how they hold this tension. They don’t offer a pat “God’s in control,” although that would be easy to do. They dig into the reality of the pain, the difficulty of the circumstances. But they don’t leave us there. Instead, they redirect despair to hope, showing how we can be confident that God’s deliverance will come.

This, arguably, may be the most important practical takeaway for readers (aside from the very helpful action plan in the appendices). When the darkness won’t seem to lift2, we need the hope that God is not ignoring our circumstances. That God is at work, even when we can’t see it. That His promises are still true—and because His promises are true, hope cannot be extinguished.

What will we do about it?

Is It My Fault? will provoke some strong feelings in its readers—anger that abuse happens at all, perhaps temptations toward seeking vengeance, and a longing for Jesus’ return and the coming of the new creation. What I hope it does is remind us all that none of us can stand by when abuse occurs in our homes or in our churches. In those situations, our goal should always be to bring hope into the darkness of abuse of all kinds. To humbly, earnestly and uncompromisingly call perpetrators to repentance, and allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. To offer compassion to victims and allow them to begin to experience some form of healing, while holding out the promise of the final restoration Jesus will bring when He comes to wipe every tear from every eye. This is what victims of abuse need, and by God’s grace, it’s what we can offer, if we’re willing.


Title: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence
Authors: Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
Publisher: Moody (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Know the Heretics

Know the Heretics by Justin Holcomb

“Heretic” is one of those words we struggle to use well. Often times, you see it used in one of two ways—either liberally or ironically. One equates all disagreement with apostasy, the other pretends disagreement doesn’t matter at all.

Both rob the word of its power.

Justin Holcomb understands the seriousness of heresy and what it means to call someone a heretic—it is “a weighty charge that [is] not made lightly, nor [is] it used whenever there [is] theological inaccuracy or impression” (14).

So how do we learn to use this word wisely? By knowing what heresy really is. And so, we have Holcomb’s newly released Know the Heretics. This short book introduces readers to several heresies that have threatened the church throughout history, and how the controversies surrounding each—whether it be the requirement to obey the Law, the existence of original sin, or the Trinity itself—helped shape the church as it is today.

Learning from the past to understand the present

It’s tempting to pretend that ancient heresies don’t matter anymore because, well, they’re ancient. But this tendency is our chronological snobbery at work. We like to think we’re beyond the problems of the ancient world; that because we are so much more advanced, we couldn’t possibly fall prey to the same errors our spiritual forbearers did.

You know what they say about those who ignore the past, right?

That’s why we need a book like this one. “This book is a case study of fourteen major events when the church made the right call—not for political or status reasons… but because orthodox teaching preserved Jesus’ message in the best sense, and the new teaching distorted it,” Holcomb writes (12).

These case studies confront readers with our core problem: apathy. Take Sabellianism—a form of Modalism—for example. The reason this error gained ground so easily wasn’t because it was intellectually sound or vigorously defended. It gained ground simply because we have a tendency to be apathetic. The idea of the Trinity as best we understand it from Scripture—that there is one God who exists in three persons (Father, Son, Spirit)—is one of the chief areas in which our apathy reigns.

It’s not that we don’t care, though. It’s just that the idea of the Trinity is too hard for us to comprehend fully. “Compared with the idea that God is merely one, the orthodox answer might seem overly complex and philosophical, or an unnecessary later addition to the authentic Christian faith” (85).

So we wind up not thinking about it too much, and use really bad analogies to describe it—often ones that themselves find their roots in Sabellianism. But, as Holcomb notes, “Trinitarian theology…takes seriously the idea that God has revealed himself in Scripture and wants to be known, and that he has revealed himself in a certain way” (85). And so, the Bible forces us to answer the question of whether or not God is one or three.

Just as practically, having a sense of the Trinity better helps us respond to the claims of other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, who actually view biblical Christianity as Sabellian:

Since many of the errors that these groups ascribe to mainstream Christianity are actually Sabellian in nature, it is useful to know the middle road that orthodox doctrine strikes between unity and distinction. Being able to articulate concisely what the Trinity is, how it makes the best sense of Scripture and how it affects our salvation and the worship of God can be valuable in witnessing to others as well as developing our own relationship with God. (86)

The Trinity also helps us see the power of the gospel at work—in fact, it’s safe to argue that without the Trinity, there is no atonement. Only if Christ is God as well as man could He pay for the sins of the world. Without the three persons of the Godhead agreeing from before the foundations of the world to redeem and rescue sinners, we’re left with a deficient view of the gospel that sees it as some sort of back-up plan.

These are the truths we ignore at our peril.

Understanding God’s purposes in heresy

Reading Know the Heretics is equally disheartening and encouraging. It’s disheartening simply because it’s easy to see the heresies of the past still making the rounds in our day, in one form or another, as (mostly) sincere people ask sincere questions, but accept wrong answers. These lies continue to be propagated, and men and women continue to be lead astray, thinking they know God when they are in fact rejecting Him.

But it’s also encouraging because, in learning more about the heretics of the past, readers gain greater insights into God’s purposes in allowing these aberrant teachings to exist—to strengthen the Church’s understanding of the truth about—and love for—God. “In order to love God, one must know who God is… right belief about God—orthodoxy—matters quite a bit” (156).

  • Without the Marcionites, we may never have formally developed the canon of Scripture.
  • Without the many heresies surrounding the nature of God and Christ, we might never have had the doctrine of the Trinity clarified.
  • Without the Pelagian error, we might not have as significant an understanding of the grace of God in saving sinners.

In that sense—and in that sense alone—we should be thankful the events and teachings Holcomb describes, not because falsehood is praiseworthy, but because the truth about God is.

Particularly valuable for those taking their first steps into studying church history, Know the Heretics offers powerful insights into the past and practical relevance for today. Read it carefully, learn from the past, and be encouraged for the future.


Title: Know the Heretics
Author: Justin Holcomb
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Book Review: Rid of My Disgrace by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb

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:

  1. Sexual assault can be physical, verbal, or psychological
  2. Prior consent does not mean unlimited consent
  3. The perpetrators of sexual assault are more often than not educated, middle class, white men who know their victims
  4. 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:
[Read more…]

Hurting People Need Something from the Outside

Disgrace is the opposite of grace. Grace is love that seeks you out even if you have nothing to give in return. Grace is being loved when you are or feel unlovable. Grace has the power to turn despair into hope. Grace listens, lifts up, cures, transforms, and heals.

Disgrace destroys, causes pain, deforms, and wounds. It alienates and isolates. Disgrace makes you feel worthless, rejected, unwanted, and repulsive, like a persona non grata (a “person without grace”). Disgrace silences and shuns. Your suffering of disgrace is only increased when others force your silence. The refusals of others to speak about sexual assault and listen to victims tell the truth is a refusal to offer grace and healing.

To your sense of disgrace, God restores, heals, and re-creates through grace. A good short definition of grace is “one-way love.” This is the opposite of your experience of assault, which was “one-way violence.” To your experience of one-way violence, God brings one-way love. The contrast between the two is staggering.

One-way love does not avoid you, but comes near, not because of personal merit but because of your need. It is the lasting transformation that takes place in human experience. One-way love is the change agent you need for the pain you are experiencing.

Unfortunately, the message you hear most often is self-heal, self- love, and self-help. Sexual assault victims are frequently told some version of the following: “One can will one’s well-being” or “If you are willing to work hard and find good support, you can not only heal but thrive.” This sentiment is reflected in the famous quote, “No one can disgrace us but ourselves.”

This is all horrible news. The reason this is bad news is that abuse victims are rightfully, and understandably, broken over how they’ve been violated. But those in pain simply may not have the wherewithal to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” On a superficial level, self-esteem techniques and a tough “refusal to allow others to hurt me” tactic may work for the short term. But what happens for the abused person on a bad day, a bad month, or a bad year? Sin and the effects of sin are similar to the laws of inertia: a person (or object) in motion will continue on that trajectory until acted upon by an outside force. If one is devastated by sin, a personal failure to rise above the effects of sin will simply create a snowball effect of shame. Hurting people need something from the outside to stop the downward spiral. Fortunately, grace floods in from the outside at the point when hope to change oneself is lost.6 Grace declares and promises that you will be healed…

From Rid of My Disgrace by Justin & Lindsey Holcomb (pp 15-16). Read the forward by Mark Driscoll, the introduction and first chapter here.)

Below, Justin Taylor interviews authors Justin and Lindsey Holcomb about the book. Give it a look:

(HT: JT)