by Guest Blogger
The walls are white. The chair is comfortable. I have my elbows resting on the table as I listen to the professor. The topic today in pastoral counseling is sexual assault. The prof writes the staggering statistics on the whiteboard: 1 of every 4 women and 1 of every 6 men have been sexually abused. I think to myself, “How horrible!” as I sit in the classroom. Then something unexpected happens. In walks a man and woman. Each tells their story. Within seconds, their stories are nightmares. Images of horror screams from helpless victims come into my mind. Anger rages inside, then a cry for justice. My heart beats faster and my breath becomes shorter. Tears fall down my face and I am left stunned.
This is a visual picture of what I experienced as I read Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb. As a new pastor, I picked it up to gather more information on how to help victims of sexual abuse. What I received was more than statistics; there were stories. The victim’s stories, yes, but I heard the greater story, God’s story. God entered into their lives, or rather, they were drawn into God’s redemptive story so that the violence done to them was yes, a part of their story, but not the end of it. The message of His grace has replaced their disgrace.
Authors Justin and Lindsey Holcomb were meant to write this book (as they were meant to be married!). Lindsey currently counsels victims of sexual assault, has worked in a sexual assault crisis center and did her graduate work in sexual violence and public health response. Justin is a pastor who has counseled numerous victims of sexual assault, has taught courses on the subject and has a doctorate in theology. With heads full of knowledge, hearts full of compassion and hands-on experience, the authors write this much needed work for victims of sexual assault and those around them who desire to help, not hurt. The authors help the reader to accept something, reject something, and let something be redeemed.
The experience of sexual assault is traumatic. The pain inflicted on the victim leaves him or her feeling worthless, unimportant and beyond hope. As a coping mechanism, this often leads victims to downplay, or even deny, the event to dull the pain. Often to cover up the sin and shame, family and friends will tell the victim not to talk about the assault. “Don’t air the family’s dirty laundry” or “Forget the past and move on” (p. 55). Victims are disabled to truly deal with the problem as all those they trusted have selfishly abandoned them.
Rid of My Disgrace helps victims to ACCEPT the disgrace done to them. The Holcombs seek to define sexual assault exhaustively, both legally and biblically as “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). The benefits of an exhaustive definition are manifold as it helps those involved accept all of what has been done to them, craft words describing the traumatic event, and reduce myths and victim blaming. Miroslav Volf writes, “We must name the troubling past truthfully—we must come to clarity about what happened, how we reacted, and how we are reacting to it now—to be freed from its destructive hold on our lives. Granted, truthful naming will not by itself heal memories of wrong suffered: but without truthful naming, all measures we might undertake to heal such memories will remain incomplete” (p. 63).
Acceptance is the start of restoration and hope. This takes an act of faith in Christ. The step from silence or denial to healing will only happen when grace is involved. The Holcombs present the gospel of Christ and His work as the step to healing. God accepts someone based on Christ only, not on what he or she has done or what has been done to them. They can accept the truth of the disgraceful experience, honestly deal with the disgrace, and live in the freedom to either forgive as they have been forgiven or repent where they have sinned.
Self-help might work for improving your golf game or fixing your house, but with matters of the heart, it is of no value. Sadly, the prevailing model to help sexual assault victims is self-help, self-love and self-healing. Rid of My Disgrace helps victims and those who help them REJECT the self-help model. The self-help model actually hurts. “Research shows that self-help statements have been found to be ineffective and even harmful by making some people with low self-esteem feel even worse about themselves in the long term” (p. 39). People, especially hurting ones, can only live factitiously so long. A poorly reconstructed identity of themselves will fail. And when it does, the hurt and pain will become worse. The Holcombs do us all a great favor in showing self-help vanity and the work of God in Christ as the only lasting solution.
Penal substitutionary atonement is not only a fancy theological term describing the benefits of Christ’s work on the cross, but the only hope, healing, restoration and comfort, changing a life of disgrace into a story of grace and redemption. His life is for your life. His death is for your death. His grace is for your disgrace. Rid of My Disgrace announces and invites sexual assault victims and those who help them into God’s redeeming story in Christ. “Jesus Christ was killed,” the Holcombs write, “not for revenge but to bear her [Tamar; see 2 Samuel 13 for the account of Tamar’s rape by her brother] shame on the cross and to offer her a new robe of righteousness to replace her torn robes of disgrace” (p. 21). Rather than give a “victim’s identity”, the book repeatedly gives Christ’s identity to the victim as the remedy. God has redeemed and is redeeming the victim in the most unusual, shocking way – the death of His one and only Son. This is the theology of grace applied to the disgraceful experience and effects of sexual assault.
Justin and Lindsey tenderly, compassionately and biblically have written a book primarily for and to victims of sexual assault. As a pastor, I commend this book wholeheartedly to those who have suffered from or are offering help to victims of sexual assault. I have one exception. The theology of grace can’t be applied alone. It must be done in community, the local church. God’s story of redeeming grace is fully lived out in the body of Christ. A book can only take you so far in the healing process. Tears from sin and trust in the living God are best experienced with the people of God under the promises of God in Christ.