You Are Not to Blame
About the Guest
Sexual abuse. Even the word makes us cringe. Justin Holcomb, a pastor in Seattle, talks frankly about the abuse he experienced as a child and the self-blame that so many victims battle. Justin encourages abuse victims to bring their questions and their pain to God, who promises never to leave or forsake us.
Sexual abuse. Even the word makes us cringe.
You Are Not to Blame
Bob: It is not unusual for someone who has been a victim of sexual assault to, at some point, ask the question, “Where was God when I was being assaulted?” and, “Why didn’t he stop it?” Justin Holcomb says that’s a question a victim should feel free to ask.
Justin: When they go through it, and they’re engaging the God of the Psalms and Ecclesiastes and Job—not the American god of, “Get going and be good, and I’ll like you”—not this kind of Deistic, distant god—but the God Who listens to those that cry out. That question starts to melt. It doesn’t make it go away. It doesn’t erase it. It doesn’t even lose its pup; but what it does for that question of, “Where were you?” , they actually realize, “I can ask that question.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, October 5th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Justin Holcomb joins us today to talk about how victims of sexual assault can find real help and real healing. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re going to be talking about a sensitive subject today, Dennis. You know, it just occurs to me what a strategy of the enemy it is to take a good gift from God—
Bob: --and to see it get twisted, perverted, abused. To see it become a weapon in someone’s hand. That’s what we’re going to explore today.
Dennis: Yes. Our friend, Dr. Dan Allender, makes the statement that “Sexual abuse is the hardest stone the Devil of Hell can throw at a human being.” The older I become and the more stories like the one we’re going to hear today, the more I believe that really is true. So, if you have younger listeners who are within earshot of the radio, I’d suggest maybe shooing them off or recording this for later listening.
We have with us in the studio Justin Holcomb, all the way from Seattle, Washington. Justin, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Justin: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate this. Thank you for taking the risk in talking about this topic. It’s not an easy topic to talk about on Christian radio, and so hitting it head-on is important. I really want to thank you both for the opportunity.
Dennis: It really is important; and every time we’ve talked about this on FamilyLife Today, we are inundated with emails and letters, with stories of people who have been impacted. As you know, one in four women have been sexually-abused, and one in six men. I think this is going to be an even more important topic as we move into the future.
Justin has his PhD from Emory University. He is the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.
Bob: No, no, you can’t say he’s the pastor of Mars Hill Church; there’s another guy—
Dennis: Just ask him!
Justin: You’ll get me in trouble.
Dennis: I’m just asking Mark Driscoll to move over for a day. (Laughter)
Dennis: That’s all; that’s all. I’m just reading this the way Justin gave it to me. (Laughter)
Dennis: No, he didn’t. He didn’t do that, really. He is also an adjunct professor at RTS. He and his wife Lindsey have been married since 2006, and together they have written a book called Rid of My Disgrace.
There is an interesting fact omitted from your book. You talk about how you were sexually abused, but you never tell the story.
Justin: I didn’t want to steal the limelight. I didn’t want to tell my story and then have people read everything that was said and wonder, “I wonder if this is a personal thing he’s saying or if this is him speaking as a pastor. I wonder if this is Lindsey writing as a counselor.”
So, we wanted to put in there—and we did put one line in there—that says, “We are writing this from professional, pastoral, and personal experiences.” We just wanted to leave it at that. We wrote it to victims. We thought, “If we said that, they would realize that someone there—“
And we also didn’t want them to think, “Okay, that’s a guy. I’m a woman. He was younger.” (I was 10 or 11 years old)
Dennis: You’re speaking of when it happened to you?
Justin: When it happened to me.
Justin: And so, both because of the gender—because if a woman was reading it, she might think, “Well, my situation was really different. I don’t know if what he’s saying here really applies to me.” We didn’t want to clutter it up and create white noise. So we included six other stories from people that are just friends with us or people that we’ve counseled.
Bob: You and Lindsey have counseled hundreds of people who have experienced sexual abuse. Having come from that as a part of your background, does it make it easier, or is it harder to counsel them because every time you are in there hearing their story, it’s got to be pulling an old scab on you, doesn’t it?
Justin: It does. It triggers. It triggers. I know the memories. Memories don’t know time.
Dennis: I want to get to your story in a moment; but there’s a message of your book that you get right to, right off the start. It has to do with what victims of sexual abuse experience—and that’s blame.
Justin: Self-blame and cultural-blame. Because of sexual assault—because it’s so devastating for people and because people don’t know how to respond to it—there’s a lot of silence. What happens in the vacuum of silence is that a victim will have that experience of sexual assault. They will start by blaming themselves, “What did I do to deserve that? Did I drink too much? Did I wear the wrong clothes? Was I flirting? Why did I walk home at 2:00 in the morning? Why wasn’t I more vigilant?”
They start looking around and asking the “what if” questions, “What if I had done something different?” Self-blame kicks in, and that is extremely strong; but because our culture doesn’t like to talk about sexual assault –it’s a taboo—so culturally, there’s just this sense of this blanket of silence that intensifies that self-blame.
Justin: But then, victim-blaming. I saw that being taught at a university. For five years, I was a university professor and I was a campus minister. I actually saw men and women who were assaulted at frat parties or on dates. The things that were questioned about them or that were said about them! Like, “Oh, yeah, yeah! We know about her. She’s promiscuous.” That somehow undermines the fact of what happened to her.
Bob: If she was assaulted, then the word is, “She wants it,” or “She’s promiscuous,” or whatever.
Justin: Exactly. Or, “Well, she was drinking. What did she expect?”
Justin: Hearing something ridiculous like that—that then puts the responsibility on the victim. That happens a lot with sexual assault, as opposed to other types of crimes and assaults.
Bob: What about God-blaming in the midst of all this? Because, I imagine, at some point in your own processing, every sexual-assault victim has to be saying, “Now wait a second. If there is a God Who loves me and Who is sovereign, Who is in control of all things, where was He when this was happening to me?”
Justin: That question did not hit home with me. That wasn’t something like “a rock in my shoe” that I felt the pain of every time I took a step, but it’s probably the question I hear most frequently. It’s the topic that’s brought up most frequently.
It usually happens early in talking with a victim; the questioning of “Okay, I know I’m reading the Bible and the Bible says, ‘God is good, loving, and powerful.’ I am His. So, a good father would want to protect. It seems like I wasn’t protected.” That’s that question; that problem. There’s the evil question and, “Why is there suffering?”
But something else I’ve noticed is that those who suffer—in any kind of suffering, not just sexual assault—When they go through it, and they’re engaging the God of the Psalms and Ecclesiastes and Job—not the American god of, “Get going and be good, and I’ll like you”—not this kind of Deistic, distant god—but the God Who listens to those that cry out. That question starts to melt. It doesn’t make it go away. It doesn’t erase it. It doesn’t even lose its pup; but what it does for that question of, “Where were you?” , they actually realize, “I can ask that question.”
Then, they start asking the question—and there’s a story in the book by Mandy—we changed all of the names. She had multiple assailants. She was asking that question. The answer that she felt like God gave her was that, “What they used for evil, He would ban that evil for good—for you because I love you. Not even that will separate you from My love for you.”
She actually realized that God was answering back to that question now. So, I don’t want people not asking that question. I want people to hit that one head-on. I tell people all the time that He can handle it. He’s not afraid of your emotions. He’s not afraid of your thoughts.
If the God that we’re pointing to and talking about can’t handle how you feel, then we’ve created a really wimpy version of God. It makes me think of J.D. Phillips’ book Your God Is Too Small.
Justin: And we’ve just offered a miniature version of the God of the Bible.
Dennis: And what you have in the Bible are so many promises that God is good, and that He causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. What I hear you saying is that you call people back to what are they going to believe and who are they going to believe” as they moved forward.
I want to take a step back, though, to your story. I want to go back to when you were a boy of 10, 11 years old. You said you grew up in a good, Christian family. Is that right?
Justin: A wonderful Christian family.
Dennis: Your parents protected you?
Justin: Yes. They loved me! I learned the words “unconditional love” by my parents. They said, “We love you unconditionally.” I lived in Florida, and I knew what air conditioning was. I was confused about “unconditional love”—air condition. (Laughter)
What is this “air conditioning love” thing? My dad said, “No. Unconditional love means there’s nothing you can do that will cause me to not love you.” That’s how God loves us. My dad was great! My mom and dad were very good sinners. They grew up and were hippies. They grew up in abusive homes. They had track records. When they heard about Jesus, they were quick to repent and thrilled with the good news!
Dennis: And they had experienced grace.
Justin: A lot of it.
Dennis: So they knew how to dispense it.
Justin: Sure did.
Dennis: So they literally trained you in knowing how to experience grace?
Dennis: That may have something to do with how you’ve come through your own situation.
Bob: Was it a family member, a friend?
Dennis: It was an extended family member—an older male, who was 17.
Bob: Did you have any sense of what was going on, the rightness or the wrongness of it? What was happening to a 10-year-old brain when a 17-year-old says, “Let’s try this”?
Justin: That was really confusing! That threw me for a loop of, “Okay, my body’s changing—and urges, desires. Are these good or bad?” Just the basic questions. So, mixed with that was curiosity and his sin—put together.
There was no real way for me to know how to separate the two. They were blended together. So, what that did was have a significant influence on how I thought about sex and my body. It got me into the trajectory of thinking that sex and sexuality has a “grossness” to it. It blended with the sense of shame.
The sense of shame—the sense of shame for me—that was heavy. Of thinking, “Did I do something that made him think that I wanted him to do that to me?” Then, the really confusing part was—and this happens to a lot of victims—was that there was arousal. So, then, you’re thinking, “Maybe I really did want that. It looked like my body said I did.” Just adding that level of confusion; and then you’re spinning around, wondering—
I didn’t know who in the world to talk to. My parents had always told me, “You can tell us anything you want.” I mean, they had things happen to them. So, they wanted to make sure that if anything ever happened to me or anything—
They said, “There’s nothing you can tell us that will shock us.” I never talked to them. I didn’t talk to them for years about it. God was really faithful in navigating my little 10- year-old/11-year-old heart.
Bob: Didn’t talk to them because—?
Bob: Because you just couldn’t look at Mom or Dad and say, “Here’s what happened”?
Justin: I felt disgusting. I felt filthy, and disgusting, and dirty. I thought, “I know they said ‘unconditional,’ but they surely didn’t think this would happen. I’m gross!”
Dennis: Many victims who have been sexually assaulted are manipulated. They’re lured into a trap, and then they’re snared in a way. Was that true in your situation?
Justin: Oh, yes. It was coordinated. Realizing that, looking back, I would even say there were times when the perpetrator was really charming to my parents. There was just this sense of safety that he could be trusted. Because he was five years older than me, that played into it a little bit. I have a younger sister who is five years younger than me. I was always the big brother. I knew what protecting my little sister looked like.
Then having this male, five years older than me—five years older—it was kind of a cool thing to have someone—I got to be the “little brother.” He kind of was my “big brother” in that sense just because I knew what that was like, and I liked it. So he played into that.
Dennis: Created safety, and also more than likely, created a relationship with you that invited you into the relationship with him; and then it got twisted into the sexual dimension.
Justin: Yes, absolutely. Something that is important is that most perpetrators don’t just have one victim, they have multiple victims. Three years later, after that, when he was charged with sexual assault in a date rape case, everyone in the family thought there was no way; no way that he could have done that. I was the lone one in the family saying, “I can guarantee you he did.” No one knew why I was so vigilant about that.
Dennis: Even that didn’t cause you to come out and tell your parents what had happened?!
Justin: That’s the power of shame. That’s what shame does. It literally is a prison that shuts people down. It’s the shame on one side, and then it questions your identity. “Am I really a Christian if I like that--?” You’re not sure. “Am I really, really a Christian? or, “Am I just a bad person? What am I? Who am I before God?”
Then you have this shame and silence. Again, my poor parents said, “We didn’t have any idea.” I told them, “I know. I know you didn’t know.” They were the loving, wonderful, very protective parents. So this is happening, and can happen right under parents’ noses.
Bob: Justin, we’re undoubtedly talking to folks today who have had this experience and it’s been locked up inside of them for decades. They’ve been married; they’ve got kids. They have never told a soul what’s going on. In fact, if I remember right from your book, the majority of victims never tell anyone.
Justin: Yes, most victims don’t have the opportunity to tell anyone. Most do not.
Dennis: When you say the “opportunity”?
Justin: They don’t have the opportunity. They don’t think that they have people in their lives that are safe enough.
Dennis: That will give them grace.
Justin: Yes. One of the things I really encourage people in counseling to do is to look around and pray, and say, “Okay. Is there someone?”
When I have a Christian who is telling me—frequently, I’m the first person they’ve ever told in the Pastoral Care Counseling office. The next thing is, “Okay. God is creative, and He’s sovereign; and He’s good and He loves you. Will you look around and see if there’s someone else in your life that you can tell?”
When I ask that question, they come back the next time—or when they start thinking about it. They’ll come back with a list of people that they could. They just didn’t realize that they could. They might start telling their spouse, or their parent, or their friends in community group. That’s where a lot of the goodness happens.
Bob: So you’re saying to, “Open that door.” The person, who’s listening, who says, “I’ve never told anybody. I’m so ashamed. I couldn’t tell my husband,” or, “I couldn’t tell my wife.” You’re saying, “You’ve got to unlock that door, and you’ve got to figure out who the safe people are. You’ve got to get it out, even if it was 20 years ago and you think you’ve got it walled-off and it’s okay.”
Justin: Back to what I said earlier, “Memory doesn’t know time.” Time doesn’t heal all wounds. So, especially if it was 20 or 30 years ago. Pray about this, think about this. It’s going to take some courage and some bravery.
You don’t have to say everything! I really want to encourage people—think through, “Is there someone who will listen and believe you?” You don’t have to say everything. You can start with just a part of the story—with one piece of the story. Then see how they respond. Hopefully, God in His sovereignty and creativity and love, has placed people around them like pastors, friends, sibling—whatever their situation is—who will be agents of grace for them.
Dennis: Justin, I want you to just take a moment and speak to the person who may be the confidante. They may be the one not to go tell someone else. They may be the person someone is about to share this with.
What’s your best counsel for them? You’ve already given a couple here: “Listen carefully to what they say, and then believe them when they tell you.” Is there anything else that they really need to practice, in the safety of this relationship?
Justin: They need to not offer simplistic platitudes and go straight to fixing God’s reputation and doing apologetics, explaining the problem of evil and getting all philosophical. They need to sit in there and listen to the story. Don’t ask probing questions because probing questions can re-victimize. Let them tell the story.
Don’t do it voyeuristically, like, “What happened next?” Don’t offer just simplistic things like, “Out of bad things, good things come.” Yes, God works wonders through the suffering we go through. He bends evil.
But there are certain things you just don’t need to lead off with in the middle of someone opening up and showing you this big, gaping wound that they’ve had. So listening, believing—not offering just platitudes, not going philosophical. Saying something like, “I am so sorry that happened to you.” You get really simple at that point. “Thank you for telling me. How can I pray for you? You’re not crazy for feeling the way you do.”
You are being emotionally and relationally hospitable. Just the same way as if you had someone coming into your house for dinner, you would be so aware of how they feel. “Are they thirsty? What time do you think they want to eat? Where do they want to sit?”
Justin: So, thinking through. When someone is telling you, try to imagine how painful or awkward or weird or ashamed—how must they feel? Then try to respond in a way that would embody hospitality to them.
Dennis: I want to go back to an earlier image that you used for the person who has been a victim of sexual assault. You explained earlier that they’re imprisoned. If you’re the one they’re coming to and they have been unjustly self-condemned to a prison, think of someone who’s getting out of prison who had been there for unrighteous reasons, for unjust reasons. How would you welcome them? What kind of grace would you extend them?
You would say, as you just said, “Man, that is so wrong that that happened. I am so sorry.” Then begin to extend the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to them; the love of Christ; the comfort of Christ; the comfort of the Holy Spirit. I think all of these things are really important to that person who has confided in in that situation.
Bob: Even the title of your book—you call it Rid of My Disgrace. You point out in the first chapters of the book that disgrace is the opposite of grace.
Bob: So, to respond with grace is to begin to undo some of the disgrace that you may have been experiencing for years as a result of sexual assault.
We’ve got copies of Justin Holcomb’s book, Rid of My Disgrace, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLIfeToday.com for more information about how to get a copy of this book. There’s also information about other resources we have available, both online and in our Resource Center to help you with this particular subject.
Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call us toll-free at 1-800-FLTODAY. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.” When you get in touch with us, we can answer any questions you have about the resources we have available or make arrangements to have a copy of Justin Holcomb’s book, Rid of My Disgrace, sent to you.
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We want to encourage you to be back with us again tomorrow when we’re going to talk more about the impact of sexual assault in a person’s life. Tomorrow, we’re going to see the definition of what constitutes sexual assault. It may be broader than you have realized. I hope you can be with us for that.
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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