Be Angry, But Do Not Sin
About the Guest
Sexual abuse is at epidemic levels. Justin Holcomb, who has counseled with hundreds of sexual abuse victims and was a victim himself, shares how the gospel brings a fresh identity to those who have suffered harm. Justin tells of the shame and anger he felt as he tried to minimize and deny his pain. Join us to hear how God’s truth freed him from bitterness and enabled him to forgive his perpetrator.
Justin HolcombJustin is an Episcopal priest (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously taught at the University of Virginia and Emory University. Justin serves on the boards of REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade) and GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments). He holds two masters degrees from Reformed Theological Seminary...more
Sexual abuse is at epidemic levels.
Be Angry, But Do Not Sin
Bob: Is it possible for you to really forgive your attacker if you’ve been sexually assaulted? Justin Holcomb says it’s possible if you’ve been a recipient of God’s grace yourself.
Justin: This is going to take a miracle. Forgiveness is a miracle. We don’t naturally forgive people who sin against us. We hate other people. We don’t love God and we don’t love our neighbor. That’s the summary of the Law. When God forgives us of our cosmic sin, He gives us a new heart. So we actually do love God and we do love our neighbor. Then the miracle is that you would actually want to forgive and hope to see reconciliation.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, October 7th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll talk today about having the wisdom and the grace to forgive someone who has sexually assaulted you. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We are tackling a tough subject this week. I just want to encourage listeners—again, because of the nature of the subject, you may want to use some discernment about who’s listening to today’s program.
But, Dennis, see if this makes sense. I was thinking about this. We have some organs in our body that are non-essential organs. If your gall bladder has to be removed; life can go on without a gall bladder.
Dennis: I no longer have an appendix.
Bob: There you go. If your heart has problems, it’s a different deal. You can’t get along without a heart. As we talk about the issue of sexual assault or sexual damage, I was thinking that our sexuality is kind of like an essential organ in the soul. When there is damage done to a person’s sexuality, that affects every part of their soul. If you don’t address that damage, if you don’t deal with the damage that’s been done, you walk wounded. You walk emotionally-wounded for the rest of your life.
Dennis: This is overly simplified, but what’s the first question we ask when a baby’s born?
Bob: Is it a boy or a girl?
Dennis: What’s its sex, right? From that point on, sexuality really is an identifying factor. In fact, it’s a big deal today in our nation—discussing this. Are there just two sexes or multiple sexes?
Well, I think what we’re talking about here concerning sexual abuse is very important to understand; and we have a guest here with us, Justin Holcomb, who has spent a number of years dedicated to addressing the needs in people’s lives. He’s written a book, along with his wife Lindsey, called Rid of My Disgrace.
I want to welcome you back to the broadcast, Justin. I’m sorry your wife’s not here, though.
Justin: I wish she could be here, too. You both would really enjoy talking to her. She’s charming and wonderful. She’s much more the better half.
Bob: She’s trained as a counselor, as a therapist, as well, right?
Justin: She worked as a sexual-assault crisis counselor so she was on the hotline at two o’clock in the morning. She’d get the calls. She would go with men and women to the hospital. She would go to the police with them—advocacy. She also worked at a domestic violence shelter. Many women, who are abused in domestic violence situations, have also been sexually-assaulted. She also has a Masters in international public health, focusing on sexual violence towards women. So, she’s amazing.
Bob: You have your Masters in Theology. You’re on the pastoral staff at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Together, you guys have written a book called Rid of My Disgrace. You’ve together counseled with hundreds of people who have been victimized with sexual abuse. It was a part of your own background and your own experience.
I’m just curious? I made the statement that it feels like sexual abuse is really damage to an essential organ of the soul. Is that an overstatement?
Justin: No, not at all. That’s how God made things. He’s the One who said, “This is a gift between man and women.” It’s not the only picture of unity, but it’s one of the pictures of unity and harmony in the way things are supposed to be. It’s not a shock. If you look at the Bible, that with sin entering the world, that this would be one of the things that creates so much devastation. Sexual assault in Scripture is used as a symbol of how far and how bad sin has gotten.
Bob: And we live in a culture that almost celebrates it. We’ve turned it on its head; and I have to wonder if folks who are wrestling with depression today, or out-o- control anger today, or a sense of despair and worthlessness and shame—a lot of those folks have never traced back those feelings to sexual assault that happened to them as a child or as a teenager.
Justin: Well, it’s one out of five. If it’s one out of four women and one out of six men, have or will be, that’s at least that we know of. Those are conservative numbers. At least one out of five people that you know—that we know—have been victims or will be victims of sexual assault.
Dennis: Okay. You were sexually abused when you were 10, 11, 12 years of age. I want to ask you about the anger, the rage—that undoubtedly you felt after you took a step back.
Bob: Well, you talk about shame, and despair, and anger, and all of these things. Did you experience the full gamut of it?
Justin: I did. We talk about six specific issues; but I’m going to come right back to the anger and rage. The six we looked at are denial and minimizing, identity, shame, guilt, anger, and despair. Those are the six from counselors who deal from this—from all the research, and from—antidotally—people we’ve talked to. Those are the six we realize were the real “doozies” we wanted to go after.
I love that you asked the anger question because that was mine. So, the anger and forgiveness chapter—we put that one together. That was the one that was the most enjoyable for me to write.
Bob: What did that look like for you as a teenage boy or as a new husband? I’m just imagining how that anger seeped out in your—or were you able to kind of “keep it toned-down”?
Justin: It was toned-down for a while, but anger’s like a hydraulic system. It’s going to come out somewhere. In later twenties, thirties, I started realizing, “Man, I kind of got furious.” And then when he became a Christian, it made things really interesting because—
Bob: Your perpetrator became a Christian?
Justin: Yes. So, I knew I was supposed to forgive him; but the anger! What was most helpful for me was Ephesians 4, because—
Dennis: Now, wait. I want you to get to Ephesians 4; but I have to believe there’s a listener right now who is going, “Talk more about what you were feeling—your rage.” And it’s not a matter of being voyeuristic into what happened. It’s a matter of, “How controlling was it?”
Justin: I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to mock him. I wanted to belittle him, and I wanted to physically hurt him.
Dennis: You wanted to publicly expose him?
Justin: No, because that would have required me looking like I was trying to get revenge or something. I didn’t want to look small, trying to get revenge. So I was getting my own revenge in the ways that I could, as strategically as possible.
Dennis: So, back to the Bible—back to Ephesians 4. Was it your forgiveness of him and going to him to forgive him that was your public statement and coming out of your own prison? Or did you do that with another person before you went to him?
Justin: It was another person. I had to actually work through the forgiveness with someone, talking to my wife and others about where I was before I could actually articulate that.
Dennis: So others helped you—?
Justin: Oh yes.
Dennis: --get out of the prison? That’s important.
Justin: I wasn’t even sure—I didn’t know that I was that angry. So, I needed other people to say, “You’re really ticked off about this.” I realized that was the case—that I was furious!
Bob: You’re a pastor with a theology degree. But (a) you still had this going on inside; and (b) you still needed help from others.
Justin: Oh, yes.
Bob: I just want folks to understand.
Dennis: That’s important.
Bob: We all need community. W e all need folks who are holding up the mirror and say, “Huh? How does this look to you?” And when your friends held up the mirror to you and you saw it, you had to address that what you were doing was hanging on to sin, weren’t you?
Justin: And that’s what communities do. They reflect the truth back to you, but then Christian communities also get to be agents of reconciliation and grace. So, the people who were saying it, they weren’t saying it like, “Oh, you’re not doing good managing your anger!”
Bob: What a bad person you are!
Justin: It was, “Hey, we’re going to show you the truth; but here we go. And you have been forgiven of a lot and out of that forgiveness will come—” So, they were speaking wonderful, powerful grace to me. That’s what motivated me. We went through Ephesians 4; and it said, “Be angry; but in your anger, do not sin.” That one line was huge for me. I had, “Anger is sin”—that’s over there. “Don’t be angry.” Then I realized, “Wait a second, I’m allowed to be angry!” Not only am I allowed to be angry, God’s angry at what happened to me. He’s angry at sin and the affects of it.
So, my response is to participate in His anger. He does anger perfectly. I do anger sinfully. So, “Be angry; but in your anger, do not sin.” Then, at the end of Ephesians 4, it says, “Forgive as Christ has forgiven you.” Then I thought of the parable of the unforgiving servant. I thought, “I’ve committed cosmic treason against my Creator.” If God can forgive me of cosmic treason, I wanted to be able to forgive him. Just the desire to want to forgive was huge—where I thought—the saying is, “Bitterness is drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemy.” I thought, “That’s what’s happening,” is that, “I’m furious, and he doesn’t even care.”
Dennis: You’re summarizing a process that took place over what period of time?
Justin: This was at least seven years ago. It was a while ago.
Dennis: And how long did it take you after you entered the process and admitted your anger, until you ultimately had the meeting with him and expressed forgiveness?
Justin: It took a few years. I wanted to actually say it and mean it. I didn’t want to just say—and, also, just practically, just distance. There wasn’t an arena. There were other things going on in his life where it would have been selfish of me to say, “Hey, this needs to be real important,” because he was going through some other things in his life. So, it took a while. I waited until we would be in the same city and not just, “Do it.”
Dennis: Justin, I appreciate the integrity of that. You just kind of said it under your breath, “I wanted the forgiveness to be real, to be authentic.” I think sometimes we’re so familiar within the Christian community with terms like grace, mercy, forgiveness; and these are terms that cost our Savior His life. We throw around, “Oh, I forgive you. You got my grace. You can—Yes, it’s okay. Keep on.” I think it’s disingenuous. I think it may, at points, mock a process that needs to take place in the soul, where the Holy Spirit truly works a work of grace.
I heard you say under your breath, also, you recognized what he was going through. The timing of you going, and confronting him, and forgiving him wouldn’t have been healthy to him.
Justin: I wanted reconciliation, not just forgiveness.
Dennis: It’s Galatians, Chapter 6, you know. It’s going with an attitude of confronting about the sin, but going to restore. It sounds to me like you went to restore him, not merely just pass on forgiveness.
Bob: So when you called him and said, “Hey, I’d like to get together.” What did he say?
Justin: He had no idea why. So, “Yes. Why not?”
Bob: When you said he had no idea why—in the back of his mind is any—he’s remembering what he’s done to you all those years ago?
Justin: He didn’t seem to be anticipating it at all.
Dennis: He wasn’t looking in the rear view mirror?
Justin: No, there was no indication that he was.
Bob: When you sat down and you said, “Here’s what I want to talk to you about.” I mean, just take us—what was that experience like?
Justin: He minimized it a little bit. I expected him to. I wasn’t there to try to rub his nose in it. I said, “Hey, this is—I want to talk to you about this. This is what happened. Do you remember that?” “Yes, yes.” But he made it sound like, “Oh yes, that’s what boys do” type of thing. I was curious and exploring.” I was like “No, that’s not how I remembered it; but I’ve been angry at you for this.”
So, I used it really as my confession of my sinful response to his sin. Whether or not he was going to repent, I wanted to repent to him for my anger. So I did. I said, “I’ve hated you. I’ve wanted bad for you. I wanted you to get locked up. When I knew things weren’t going well in other dimensions of your life, I was happy. I was actually in favor of bad things, hoping for bad things to happen to you. That’s not right, and you believe in Jesus.”
When he was not believing in Jesus, I rationalized that it was okay for me to hate him because, you know, “He’s a reprobate, and so it’s okay.” I just had weird rationalizations for it. When he became a Christian, that just messed me up. I realized, “Oh, Jesus can forgive him. I would like to get in line with that.” I didn’t want to go there and go bestowing forgiveness.
What I was hoping for was something crazy like reconciling. I don’t plan on being buddy, buddy with him; but I wanted to have a sense of, “We’re both Christians. We’ve both sinned. I’ve sinned against you. You’ve sinned against me. We’re not going to try to figure out which one was worse and all that. We’re both going to look at Christ now.”
Dennis: Justin, you’re making this story sound very rational, cognitive, logical. I have to believe you were filled with all kinds of emotions, going to confront somebody who had done evil to you. What were you feeling?
Justin: I was wondering if I was doing the right thing. I didn’t know if I should—I didn’t want to bring it up because I thought bringing up the past—maybe I shouldn’t do that because I’m keeping a record of wrong. I’m saying this as a seminary professor. I pastored, a PhD. So, this is really what’s going on, “Okay, am I—“?
Dennis: Kind of checklist. The spiritual checklist deal.
Justin: Yes. I don’t trust myself with my own perspectives. So, I’m asking a lot of people, “Okay, I’m supposed to do this, right?” Again, going back to the community—I had people saying, “We think you should. We think that would be good.” No one said, “You’ve got to forgive and forget. Come on, get this forgiveness -thing going,”—like it was some type of a hovering imperative command that I had better do.
It was actually like, “You’ve been forgiven. You get to forgive. You get to actually see the grace you’ve been given, going as an agent. You’ve been reconciled with God, and now you’re an agent of reconciliation. You get to participate in that.” It was the wondering, “If I was keeping a record of wrong,” to kind of the excitement and anticipation of, “This is going to take a miracle.”
Forgiveness is a miracle. We don’t naturally forgive people who sin against us. We hate other people. We don’t love God and we don’t love our neighbor. That’s the summary of the Law. When God forgives us of our cosmic sin, He gives us a new heart so we actually do love God and we do love our neighbor. Then the miracle is that you would actually want to forgive and hope to see reconciliation.
I didn’t conjure forgiveness. This was not something that I heard a command and went “Well, I better start figuring out how to forgive.” It was Philippians 2:13, “God works in you to will and do His good pleasure.” He changed my heart. I actually was hoping to see reconciliation while, at the same time, wondering if I was being a proud, self- righteous person because, “I forgave you.” Not knowing how to do that—and then still—angry.
Even now, when I think about it, my favorite line is, “A memory doesn’t know time.” I think about it; and I still go, “That poor kid,”—like I remember now what I felt like 17 years ago, thinking, “That poor kid!” Like, “Man I wish I could have talked to you, man. You felt so stupid, and dirty, and ugh!—like the stuff—I sound all weird talking to my 17-years-ago self; but I just wanted to take care of myself, take care of that kid. I felt bad for him. I was angry. I think some of my anger went from being wrath to actually more appropriate anger—like, “That’s just not right.”
That’s the thing about our vengeance. This was huge for me—that vengeance is not ours. Once we realize that vengeance is God’s, it gets us off the hamster wheel of trying to get a pound of flesh and get that person to do some penance. Once we can kind of go, “Okay, God. You’re holy and righteous. You do vengeance. You do what You do. I’m going to do what I’m called to do.” It freed me from not having to hold on to that burden and try it get my own.
Dennis: So, everybody’s wondering. What did he say? What did he do?
Justin: He didn’t have the best response. I was hoping for a lot more. I had it built up in my mind that this would be amazing. He didn’t minimize it completely; but it was like, “Yes, I mean, that’s what—” He did the, “Boys will be boys. That is what they kind of do,”—and, “I understand, and thank you for forgiving me.” It didn’t do some real wonderful, magical—like, “Oh, we’re buddies now.” It was anticlimactic.
Dennis: But it did do something in your own heart, didn’t it?
Justin: Oh yes! That was the gift—the barb with the hook—the bitterness—that was letting the devastation and sin win. As long as I had that bitterness, it was destroying me. It was also creating anger, rage, control things that were influencing other relationships. I wasn’t forgiving him for my own good; but God is wonderful, and it ended up being for my own good also. I wasn’t even—
It’s funny when you even asked the question. I thought, “I didn’t even really care what his response was.” That was a freedom because, if I needed him to know it, I would have needed him to respond in an appropriate way or else he wasn’t going to get my forgiveness. It was like “No, I forgive you man. You’re a mess right now, and good luck. Go with it!”
Dennis: You may have just answered my last question here. Do you think you’ll ever double back, just because of the way he didn’t handle it as perhaps a new Christian? It did sound to me like he minimized it. Do you think you’ll double back or are you going to consider this to be Romans 12? “As much as it’s possible with you, be at peace with all men.” You took your shot, and you’re going to just let it be with him.
Justin: Right now I think I’m going to let it be. That could change; but right now, it feels—I think the response is (I love that line) “as much as it is possible.” I did what I needed to do. I’m happy. I’m content and settled with that conversation. I don’t get rattled by it. It would have been nice if he would have said something differently, but it wasn’t contingent on his response.
Dennis: I think that’s a healthy approach, and I think there are some of our listeners who needed to hear that. God is just. He’s also perfectly merciful, and full of grace, and forgiveness. So, if there are scores to be settled, God will settle them. It’s not up to us to do that. Justin, I appreciate your transparency, your candor with us. I just appreciate your book. I think it’s going to be a great resource for our listeners for a lot of years. Thanks for being on the broadcast.
Justin: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it—the opportunity to say, “Grace upon grace,” loudly and clearly with both of you—who, that’s what you care about. You get it. You care about these listeners and the people who love them, knowing the devastation and disgrace they are feeling and just swirling around them. To be able to be a light of good news and freedom to the captives is a great privilege and joy.
Dennis: It is.
Bob: You have done that this week on our program. But you’ve also done it in the book that you’ve written called Rid of My Disgrace, which we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. I would encourage listeners, if this is a part of your past or if you know someone who was abused sexually as they were growing up, get a copy of this book. Either read it yourself, or pass it along to a friend.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about Justin Holcomb’s book, Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. We have additional information available there, dealing with sexual abuse and sexual assault .
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We hope you have a great weekend and hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend. We hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to meet a man who received a blood transfusion when he was a teenager, actually a pre-teen. He became HIV-positive as a result of that blood transfusion. We’ll talk about how he has lived a positive life all these years. I hope you can tune in for that.
Bob: I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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