Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault is a new book from Crossway coauthored by my friend Justin Holcomb and his wife Lindsey. It is an excellent gospel-drenched book on a subject rarely broached for popular audiences, and I highly recommend it. From the publisher's description:
"Because sexual assault causes physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual pain, victims need clear help, hope, and healing. In Rid of My Disgrace, a couple experienced in counseling victims of sexual assault explains how the grace of God can heal the broken and restore the disgraced.
"Justin and Lindsey Holcomb outline an approach for moving from destruction to redemption. While avoiding platitudes and shallow theology, Rid of My Disgrace combines biblical and theological depth with up-to-date research. This book is primarily written for those who have been assaulted (either as children or adults) but also equips family, friends, pastors, and others to care for victims in ways that are compassionate, practical, and informed."
Justin was kind of enough to let me interview him on the book's content. I think you will profit from his insight.
Justin, 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.
What kind of advice would you give to a forgiving victim and a repentant offender who are mutually interested in reconciliation? Think of a married couple or family members who want to experience reconciliation. Lots of woundedness and perhaps distrust is still there and will be for some time, but if both parties were interested in experiencing healing of their relationship, what kind of guidance would you give?
Forgiveness and reconciliation are miracles. So, the first thing is to acknowledge that a desire to forgive and reconcile is a gift from God. God is in the business of reconciling us to him, even while we were still enemies of God and committed cosmic treason. Only experiencing the forgiveness of God provides the motivation and ability to forgive others.
But that doesn’t mean the victim needs to be forced into interaction with the perpetrator if they don’t feel safe. Be patient and very aware of how the victim feels. The fracture in the relationship was severe, so healing and building trust can take a long time. Go at the victim’s speed and listen to their concerns and needs. Their will was violated in the assault. They don’t need their will violated in the healing process. Offenders don’t get to dictate what they want in the process.
Be hopeful that God makes sinners new creatures. The perpetrator, if they trust in Christ, is forgiven, but the consequences of their sin could last for a lifetime (registering as a sex-offender, divorce, not being able to see the grand-children alone, etc). While celebrating that sinners are made new, err on the side of caution in pursuing renewal of the relationship between a victim and their assailant.
Involve others in this process. Be wise and pursue healing of the relationship with a pastor and others who can give support to the victim and be involved in the relationship as an advocate for the victim. Accountability and involvement of others is necessary. A husband who assaults his wife doesn’t have a right to privacy in marriage anymore and others need to be involved.
One of the more interesting surveys in the book is over how the self-help industry's messages actually do more harm than good. How do self-help and attempts at self-healing negatively impact those with low self-esteem?
If one is devastated by being sinned against, their own sin, or personal failure, to be told they need to rise above the effects of that will likely create a snowball effect of shame. Hurting people need something from the outside to stop the downward spiral. That “something” is God’s grace and unconditional love.
Self-help attempts, such as positive self-statements and techniques, have been found to be ineffective or even harmful by making people with low self-esteem feel even worse about themselves in the long run. These statements and techniques boost self-esteem briefly but then backfire by reinforcing the person’s negative self-perception they were trying to change.
For positive self-statements to work, the people saying them need to believe them. But that’s the very problem the techniques are trying to address. When people say things to themselves that they don’t believe to be true (“I am lovable” or “I’m not disgusting and dirty”), this eventually leads people to think of examples of their identity that contradict the statements instead of thinking of evidence to support them. Then their negative self-assessment is then reinforced. When people feel deficient in some quality, positive self-statements usually highlight the discrepancy between their deficiency and the standard they would like to meet. Tragically, self-help ends up rubbing the person’s nose in the very thing they are ashamed of or insecure about.
One example we experienced was particularly disturbing. We counseled a woman who felt filthy, ugly, dirty, unwanted, and deserving of the abuse she experienced. She was told by a self-help book to look at herself in a full-length mirror and to then write words she wanted to feel about herself on a post-in-note and stick it around her image in the mirror. She wrote the words “beautiful,” “clean,” “desirable,” and “deserving good things” on placed them around the image of her self in the mirror. Then she stared at her self and glanced at the words, hoping that the association would take hold. It did the opposite. She felt mocked by these words. She felt like the butt of a cruel joke. She ends up cutting her self that night, not loving her self.
Self-help is shallow and can’t get below the surface where the pain of trauma lurks. What victims need is the identity bestowed on them from their creator and redeemer. They need to hear the identity for them over and over again that the Father purchased at the cost of his Son’s life. Anything else is just a homemade ritual.
The personal stories are some of the most powerful portions of the book, and all of them come from people who have learned to trust God in and through their pain. But what would you say to people mad at God, to those who want to know why God let this happen to them?
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 (Justin) 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.