A couple months ago we posted a few paragraphs from the introduction to Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s new book Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. As promised, we were fortunate enough to finagle an interview with Justin and Lindsey in which they spoke candidly with the lovely and talented Andrea Zimmerman about what distinguishes this project. Take it away, Andrea:
Even in the few short months since its release, Rid of My Disgrace has proven to be an invaluable and much-needed resource. So I was truly honored to have the opportunity to speak with Justin and Lindsey about it in a bit more depth. Through my work with Side by Side, helping single mothers here in Pittsburgh through mentoring and practical support [to hear Andrea's breakout session on this topic from our recent conference, click here], I’ve been struck afresh by both the devastation that sexual assault wreaks on society, as well as the egregious lack of good resources for its victims, esp those that are faith-related. Justin’s answers to my questions represent nothing less than a beacon of hope for anyone hurting from abuse (even if they can’t/don’t buy the book), a fresh and utterly vital perspective on this dark corner of human experience. So to women and men who are victims of sexual abuse as well as those who counsel them, I couldn’t recommend it more.
What makes this book unique from other books on sexual abuse?
Most Christian books are written for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, which is a sub-category of sexual assault, and there is very little written for those that experience sexual assault in their adult years. The child abuse books do not encompass the whole age range of experiences for adult sexual assault. Also, a book was needed for both men and women. Most books on the sexual assault are written for women. But the truth is that there are many more male survivors then most people know about. Rid of My Disgrace is written for men and women and child and adult victims of sexual assault.
There are many non-Christian books that are very good at describing the effects of sexual assault but offer weak suggestions regarding healing. By not believing the Gospel, they advocate self-love and self-affirmation and miss grace—God’s one way love, the unconditional love of God—which is the only thing that gets to the depth of the devastation of sexual assault. Eventually, self-love turns into nihilism. Our book places God’s radical grace and redemption of sin and its effects front and center and responds to the survivor’s experiences, pain, and needs from that perspective.
Some Christian books on sexual assault offer bad or shallow theology. Too many religious books spend lots of time telling victims about their responsibility to God for overcoming abuse. The clear message is that healing is up to the survivor. One book says this: “No matter how many wonderful plans God has in mind for you, there is one thing you must know: God’s ability to bring His will to pass in your life is determined by your faith in Him and His Word” (emphasis in original). Or this passage: “The Holy Spirit is grieved because He is sent to bring God’s plan to pass in your life, and He never is able to do it without your cooperation.” That is crappy news!
Survivors need to hear about Jesus and how he responds to their pain and past. They need to hear repeatedly that their story does not end with the abuse or assault. Their life was intended for more than shame, guilt, pain, and denial. The abuse does not define them or have the last word on their identity. Yes, it is part of the story, but not the end of the story.
In avoiding platitudes, suspicious questions, and shallow theology, we combine practical victim advocacy, biblical and theological depth, and update-to-date academic research.
Some books on healing from sexual abuse seem to trivialize the depth of the pain by focusing on forgiveness in a way that seems quick and trite. It can make a victim feel like she/he will never find healing because forgiveness is not always realized. How is forgiveness approached in this book?
Many Christians push the idea that victims should “forgive and forget,” bury the memories, and be nice to your abuser by never mentioning the past. Some also argue that victims should just “hand it all over to Jesus” and everything will be fine. These are simplistic at best, but mostly just cruel.
Sexual assault creates anger at what has been done to victims. While anger can be a natural and healthy response to the unquestionable evil of sexual assault, most victims express it poorly or feel they have to suppress it. They have probably been discouraged from expressing their anger, but suppressed anger holds them hostage and leaves them vindictive, addicted, embittered, and unbelieving.
We want to tell victims that God is angrier over the sin committed against you than you are. He is angry because what happened to you was evil and it harmed you. Godly anger is participating in God’s anger against injustice and sin, crying out to him to do what he promised: destroy evil and demolish everything that harms others and defames God’s name.
Anger expressed to God is the cry of the weak one who trusts the strong One, the hurting person who trusts the One who will make it all better. Because vengeance is God’s, you can be free from the exhaustive cycle of vindictive anger.
Forgiveness means not taking vengeance into our own hands toward those who have sinned against us. Godly anger allows the offense to be seen as an issue between the offender and God. When someone sinned against you, they also sinned against God. Vengeance belongs to God; and he will repay. Forgiveness means more than not being vengeful, it also means loving your enemies, and anyone who sins against you acts like your enemy. Receiving forgiveness and love from God through Christ is essential to understanding forgiveness. Because God forgave you for your sins, you are now free to forgive others. Jesus received God’s anger and punishment so those guilty of cosmic treason would be forgiven.
Grace is the miracle that causes change. It creates loving people who can forgive. As sinners who have received mercy instead of wrath, we have the otherwise inexplicable capability simultaneously to hate wrong and to give love to those who do wrong. It is a miracle for a sinner to forgive another sinner. But this miracle is based on the prior miracle of God freely offering his Son to bear the wrath deserved for the guilty.
Forgiveness from God frees us from the condemnation of our sins which compels us to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Many Christians mistakenly assume that forgiving someone who has hurt them means no longer feeling pain, anger, or a desire for revenge. Forgiveness does not mean that painful memories of the past are wiped away; nor does it mean that a desire for justice is ignored. Neither does forgiveness mean that the victim will not first feel a deep sense of anger and hurt for what has happened.
Forgiveness means a willingness and desire to cancel the debt that is owed to you because of the far greater kindness God has shown. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. Forgiveness provides a framework in which the quest for properly understood justice can be fruitfully pursued. Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice.
Your forgiveness to the perpetrator is not sanctioning the violence they did to you. Forgiveness does not mean that you do not participate in activities that impose consequences on evil behavior such as calling the police, filing reports, church discipline, criminal proceedings, etc. You can forgive your abuser without the expectation of pretending the assault never happened.
Forgiveness is not ignoring harm and acting as if nothing happened; it’s the opposite. Forgiveness requires acknowledging the harm and calling it what it is—sexual violence, sin, evil—and calling the perpetrators what he/she/they are—evildoers and sinners. It also means acknowledging the consequence of God’s judgment for the sins committed, and then not holding the charge against them. However, the perpetrator must deal with God at that point. The victim’s forgiveness is not the declaration of God’s forgiveness.
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. Forgiveness also does not mean that the victim should feel like they need to prove their forgiveness by any interaction with the perpetrator. Forgiveness is something the victim extends with or without the perpetrators being aware of it. When possible, communication of forgiveness is best, but there are circumstances where this may not be possible or prudent.
Sadly, much re-victimization can occur due to a simplistic rush to forgiveness, which masks an unwillingness to face complex layers of damage to the victim. Apart from a victim encountering grace and having received forgiveness for themselves, demanding forgiveness toward others is simply a cruel burden to place upon them.
The miraculous gift of forgiveness is the best thing for the victim—it can release you from the anger, resentment, hatred, and bitterness that destroy you. While forgiveness has been a topic reluctantly considered by sexual assault theorists, the results from numerous studies suggest that forgiveness is helpful in the counseling of victims. Forgiving provides greater reduction in the long-term symptoms associated with the sexual assault experience and improved overall functioning. It promotes more effective living, reductions in long-term effects of sexual assault, improved well-being, improved marital satisfaction, and improved relational skills.
Because vengeance is God’s, you are free from the exhausting hamster wheel of vindictive behavior. Victims can trust God to make all wrongs right so they can get on with their lives and not fixate on bitterness and hatred. In this regard, the wrath of God is a central piece of the hope of God’s people.
You never have to stop longing for God to deliver you from evil. The Bible closes with the plea, “Come Lord Jesus!” This is a request that the Jesus of Revelation will come to remove all evils, to destroy death, Satan, all causes of tears, and all sin. The Bible links hope in God with a willingness to wait. To wait is to have confidence that God will bring justice. He will satisfy the depths of our desire, but it will happen in His time and not ours.
How does Rid of My Disgrace deal with the shame and disgrace that a victim of sexual abuse often feels the rest of her/his life?
Sexual assault is shameful for victims, and feelings of nakedness, rejection, and feeling dirty are often associated with their assault. Jean Paul Sartre accurately describes shame as “a hemorrhage of the soul” that is a painful, unexpected, and disorienting experience. Shame has the power to take our breath away and smother us with condemnation, rejection, and disgust.
The Bible uses many emotionally charged words to describe shame: reproach, dishonor, humiliation, and disgrace. Additionally, there are three major images for shame in scripture: nakedness, uncleanness or defilement, and being rejected or made an outcast. These images reflect the experience of many victims regarding the effects of sexual assault.
Jesus reveals the love of God for his people by covering their nakedness, identifying with those who feel or have been rejected, cleansing all their defilement, and conquering their enemy who shames them.
In his ministry, Jesus brought grace to disgraced people. The good news Jesus brings is for all kinds of people, especially those who experienced shame—the lowly, marginalized, oppressed, the outsiders in society, such as lepers and tax collectors. During his ministry, Jesus sought out one unclean outcast after another, touching them and making them clean. And while the specifics of your story may not be perfectly represented among the people that Jesus ministered to, we can be sure that the hurting people he was in contact with most certainly had experiences of defilement and shame.
Jesus’ cross was the epitome of his identification with us in shame. His solidarity with the shamed and excluded of his day led to the ultimate experience of shame—his crucifixion. Jesus willingly suffered the most shameful death and this exposed the extremity of sin’s shameful consequences and the despicable character of our humanly devised shame. He “despised the shame” (Heb 12:2). We can say that Jesus both shared our shame and had borne our shame so we can have freedom from its dread and power.
God understands your shame. God extends his compassion and his mighty, rescuing arm to take away shame. Jesus both experienced shame and took your shame on himself. Yet Jesus, of all people, did not deserve to be shamed. He took on your shame, so it no longer defines you and has power over you.
Perhaps the greatest fear of a person marked by shameful defilement is the fear of exposure. Consequently, they often labor to present themselves to others in the way that they wish they were instead of being honest about their brokenness and need.
It is Jesus’ death on the cross that forgives our sins and cleanses the stains (resulting from sins we have committed and that have been committed against us) on our soul. The glorious result is a life purified of unrighteousness, no longer defiled but rather cleansed through a relationship with Jesus because of His death on the cross to remove sin and its stain of filth. 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. We have been given the righteousness of Christ. We can’t add to it or subtract from it. In Jesus, you are made completely new.
What would you say to those who say, “I don’t believe there’s healing for this. I’ve tried this ‘trust Jesus’ stuff and it hasn’t worked”?
I’d ask them what their hope for healing looks like. We don’t mean “trust Jesus” as if it is some magic potion that makes all the pain immediately evaporate. Discussing expectations seems key here, but we don’t mean this in a patronizing way. Memories sometimes haunt. Despair can return or linger. Physical effects might not be healed. Your distorted self-image might be persistent. However, God is going for the root cause, not only the symptoms. The grace of God because of Jesus gets to the heart of our denial, shame, negative identity, lingering guilt, anger, and despair. The healing of God’s redemption begins now but is not done yet and it completed in the future. He is making all things new and one day God will wipe away all our tears (Rev 17:7).
Trusting Jesus isn’t a faint hope in generic spiritual sentiments, but is banking our hope and future on the real historical Jesus who lived, died, and rose from the dead. That means believing that Jesus is who he claimed to be (God in the flesh) and believing what he did—lived the life we should have, died the death we should have, and rose from the dead, which conquered our ultimate enemy. That means believing that the Bible is true as it talks about God’s character and all the benefits of being a child of God. What we are suggesting is being at God’s mercy in the best sense of that phrase.
We need to be reminded of the Good News on a regular basis. Our hearts wander, so a community of believers who will help us connect the dots between the truth of the Gospel and the reality of our pain is helpful. Under the pain of trauma, our minds doubt. So reading about apologetics can be helpful to some.
Psalm 34:18 says that God is “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in Spirit.” Ask him to make that promise a reality for you. God is like a good father who likes to give his children good gifts.