Rid of My Disgrace is a gospel-saturated book written for the victims of sexual assault. My friend and colleague at Docent Research Group Justin Holcomb and his wife Lindsey wrote this book to apply the good news of Jesus Christ to those sexually assaulted. I have mentioned it a few times on my blog in the past and reviewed it here. What follows is my interview with Justin on this rare and important book:
1. Quickly, what is sexual assault? How widespread is it?
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.
The number of occurrences of sexual assaults is staggering. It is much more common than most people know. At least one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. And these statistics are probably underestimates.
According to the most recent statistics, every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, and approximately 80 percent of them are assaulted by someone they know (a relative, spouse, dating partner, friend, pastor, teacher, boss, coach, therapist, doctor, etc.). Researchers have estimated that sexual assault occurs in 10% of all marriages and that incest is experienced by 10 to 20 percent of children.
Regarding the age breakdown of sexual assault, 15 percent of sexual assault victims are under age twelve, 29 percent are ages twelve to seventeen, and 80 percent are under age thirty. The highest-risk years are ages twelve to thirty-four, and girls ages sixteen to nineteen are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault.
2. What practical advice do you have for the husband or wife who are walking their spouse through dealing with the effects of past sexual assault?
- Listen to their experience and do not ask probing questions about the assault. Let them divulge what they want to when they want to. Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. Research findings suggest that blaming victims is not only wrong but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims are being believed and being listened to by others
- Challenge the myths and misconceptions that promote self-blame. Self-blaming is a common behavior among victims. As a coping technique and to make sense of the assault, victims make attributions for why the assault occurred. Self-blame is associated with more distress and poorer adjustment. Unchallenged sexual assault myths perpetuate feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blaming tendencies for victims. Refusal to accept these myths may help victims to assign different meaning to the experience instead of society’s stereotypical ideas regarding sexual assault.
- Learn what to say and what not to say. Reflect theologically when they are ready. Connect the grace of the gospel to the disgrace of sexual assault and the specific effects connected to it (denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair). It is important to address the effects of sexual assault with the biblical message of grace and redemption. Jesus responds to victims’ pain and past. The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to disgrace
- Fight against the lies for them. Communicate frequently this message: “What happened to you was not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not deserve it. You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. Nobody had the right to violate you. You are not responsible for what happened to you. You are not damaged goods. You were supposed to be treated with dignity and respect. You were the victim of assault and it was wrong. You were sinned against. Despite all the pain, healing can happen and there is hope” (Rid of My Disgrace, page 15).
- Be sure to take care of yourself as a support person, so you can be healthy in your care-giving role.
- Encourage them to tell a friend or friends they trust. It is a good idea for victims to have a broad support base as it can be exhausting for the supporting spouse if they are the only ones involved. The supporting spouse wont always be available to talk and at times it can be easier for a victim to talk to someone of the same sex about certain dimensions of an assault.
- Don’t ever pressure or whine for sex or physical intimacy.
3. Is there any additional practical advice for parents who are walking with a child through dealing with the effects of sexual assault?
#1-5 also apply directly to parents who are caring for their child. Here are additional things to consider:
- Don’t minimize or deny or blame them for happened to them.
- Advocate for your child. This means pursuing justice by calling the police and finding a good counselor who know show to deal with sexual abuse of children.
- If the assault occurred because of your negligence, ask your child to forgive you.
4. For those who have been sexual assaulted and have not yet told anyone what is your advice to them?
- Tell a spouse, family member, or friends you trust.
- Find a trust and informed pastor or counselor to support you through dealing with this.
- Contact your local sexual assault crisis center for legal advocacy, practical advice, and support groups.
- Read Rid of My Disgrace, which is our book on hope and healing for sexual assault victims.
5. As a pastor, how do you counsel victims of sexual assault regarding the sovereignty of God over the event(s) of their assault?
First, we have no idea why God let it happen. Any attempt to answer why usually end up in spiritual platitudes or bad theology.
Second, we learn from the Bible and Jesus that God understands the pain you experienced, that he mourns and grieves for the sins done against you, and that he is angrier than you are for the sins done against you.
Third, I can tell you from personal experience in this issue that God is so creative and sovereign that he bends the evil intended for you destruction and uses it for your good (Gen 50:20 and Romans 8:28).
Fourth, God can handle your emotions. Don’t run from him in anger but toward him. The intent of the evil done against you is to create distance between you and God, the only one who can bring real healing to you. Please realize this and bring your emotions and thoughts to God. The psalms are filled with a wide spectrum of emotions related to God: shame, fear, sadness, reverence, anger, love, joy, and doubt. The psalms provide release, rationality, and relief for our emotions. You won’t find yourself blamed, laughed at, mocked, or punished. You’ll find yourself embraced by the love of a God who meets you in your pain.
6. As a pastor, how would you counsel the perpetrators of sexual assault in how they too can receive God’s redeeming grace? Any comments on the rehabilitation of sex-offenders?
I’ve said something like this before:
“Sexual assault is a sin and a crime. You have committed a serious sin and crime.
First, for your sin, you need forgiveness. Trust in Jesus because he died in your place and for your sin of sexual assault and all other sins. On the cross, he was treated like a perpetrator so you could place your trust in him and be declared righteous and forgiven and innocent before God. There is no sin beyond the grace of Jesus. You can’t out sin his abounding grace.
Second, for your crime you deserve justice and need to make restitution. This means you will need to turn yourself in to the proper authorities. You should also repent and apologize to the person or people you sinned against. Offer to pay for the counseling they endured because of your crime.
Third, God makes sinners new creatures. If you trust in Christ, you are forgiven, but the consequences of your sin could last for a lifetime (having to register as a sex-offender, divorce, not being able to see your grand-children alone, etc).”
7. Most importantly, what does the gospel have to say to victims and the perpetrators of sexual assault?
Victims of sexual assault experience many devastating physical, psychological, and emotional effects. The most prevalent responses include denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair. If this is you (or someone you love), you need to understand that the gospel of Jesus applies to each of these.
Sexual assault makes you feel alone, unimportant, and unworthy of sympathy. It tempts you to deny and minimize what happened to you to cope with the pain and trauma. It might initially help to create a buffer while you start dealing with the difficult emotions, but eventually denial and minimization will actually increase the pain, because it keeps you from dealing with the psychological destruction and trauma of the assault.
God does not deny, minimize, or ignore what happened to you. Through Jesus he identifies with you, and he has compassion. He knows your suffering. He does not want you to stay silent or deny, but to feel and express your emotions, to grieve the destruction you experienced. The cross shows that God understands pain and does not judge you for feeling grief. The resurrection shows that God conquered sin—that he is reversing sin’s destruction and restoring peace.
Because of Jesus, you have the privilege to confidently go to God and receive grace and mercy. Your need and your cries don’t make God shun you. He has compassion on you (Hebrew 4:14-16).
Sexual assault attacks your sense of identity and tells you that you are filthy, foolish, defiled, and worthless. It makes you feel that you are nothing.
The gospel gives you a new identity through the redemptive work of Jesus. Through faith in Christ, you are adopted into God’s family. You are given the most amazing identity: child of God (1 John 3:1–2). God adopted you and accepted you because he loves you. You didn’t do anything to deserve his love. He loved you when you were unlovable.
The gospel also tells you that through faith in Christ, his righteousness, blamelessness, and holiness is attributed to you (2 Cor. 5:21). If you are in Christ, your identity is deeper than any of your wounds. You can be secure in this new identity because it was achieved for you by God—you are his, and he cannot disown himself.
Sexual assault is shameful and burdens you with feelings of nakedness, rejection, and dirtiness. Shame is a painfully confusing experience—it makes you acutely aware of inadequacy, shortcoming, and failure.
Jesus reveals God’s love for his people by covering their nakedness, identifying with those who are rejected, cleansing their defilement, and conquering their enemy who shames them. God extends his compassion and his mighty, rescuing arm to take away your shame. Jesus both experienced shame and took your shame on himself. Yet Jesus, of all people, did not deserve to be shamed. Still, he took on your shame, so it no longer defines you nor has power over you.
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. In Jesus, you are made completely new.
Sexual assault attacks you with guilt that leads to feelings of condemnation, judgment, and self-blame.
You are not guilty for the sin that was committed against you—and this realization alone can bring great freedom. Yet the reality is that your sense of guilt goes deeper than what was done to you. You know that you have sinned against God and others—both before your assault and in response to what happened to you.
The shocking message of grace is that Jesus was forsaken for us so we could be forgiven. God turned his wrath away from you and toward Christ on the cross. If you trust in Christ, all your sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven. All of them. All threat of punishment, or sense of judgment, is canceled. Through faith in Christ you are loved, accepted, and declared innocent.
Sexual assault creates anger at what has been done to you. 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. You have probably been discouraged from expressing your anger, but suppressed anger holds you hostage and leaves you vindictive, addicted, embittered, immoral, and unbelieving.
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.
Sexual assault can fill you with despair. Feeling that you’ve lost something, whether it’s your innocence, youth, health, trust, confidence, or security, can deepen into hopelessness and despair. And then depression can add seemingly inescapable weight to the experience of despair.
The gospel gives you hope. Biblical hope is sure because God is behind his promise of a future for you. The hope you need right now is grounded in God’s faithfulness in the past and anticipation of it in the future.
Because of Jesus’ resurrection, all threats against you are tamed if you trust in Christ. Jesus conquered death and evil, so evil done to you is not the end of the story and you can have hope. Because Jesus rose from the dead, he ascended to heaven and is “making all things new.” Your God is strong, and he, not the evil done to you, will have the final say about you. That hope animates the “groans within ourselves” that everything will someday be renewed. We will be delivered from all sin and misery. Every tear will be wiped away when evil is no more.
Thanks Justin for taking the time to answer these questions so thoroughly!
For more on hope and healing for sexual assault victims: http://theresurgence.com/categories/sexual-assault