What’s heartbreaking about it for me isn’t a realization that anyone assumes this is the norm. What’s heartbreaking for me is that I generally assume it, too. I think about people in my life, and I can create a frighteningly long list of women (and men) who have been violated. Dehumanized.
What’s heartbreaking for me is that there’s always a possibility of my daughters and son experiencing it too.
My son is still deep in the throws of learning to people; developing empathy and consideration for others. Recognizing that others are worthy of dignity and respect by virtue of being people. That showing love includes being kind and helpful. That hurting others, whether with his fists or his words, is never acceptable. That he would never be the type of “man” who would dare say, “She asked for it.”
My daughters have been taught from a very early age that their bodies belong to them, but it’s something Emily and I always trying to reinforce. They have freedom to say no to anyone—even us—if they’re uncomfortable with anything. And our rule is that we always respect the “no.” They know what they’re supposed to do if anyone asks them to keep a secret, ever: tell mom and dad, always.
But there’s part of me that fears that no matter how much we try, they could still have a “me too” story. That they would experience the same pain, guilt, and shame that so many others have in a world that encourages the abuses it then decries.[1. Don’t believe me? Then tell me why 50 Shades of Creepy was a bestselling series and a box office hit.] But where I find hope is that even though all this could happen, God will not leave it unanswered.
Despite how it may seem at times, “God is not standing idly by to watch evil run its course he will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and recreation.”[2. Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, 113] Suffering and pain are real. But even if it doesn’t come how or when we might wish, deliverance is real too. Lord, may it come quickly.
As more and more stories of women’s encounters with Canadian radio host/musician/producer Jian Ghomeshi have come to light (and sparked an investigation by police thanks to at least three women coming forward to file complaints), Emily and I have spent a great deal of time talking about this situation in specific, but assault in general. The other night, I asked:
Why aren’t more women reporting these types of crimes?
After thinking about it for quite a while, Emily gave her answer on the ride to church Sunday morning. She suggested that for some women, it’s a case of not thinking it counts. At least, not for them.
What Emily hit on right away is the lie sexual assault (and sexual predators) tells victims, A lie that says “this isn’t a big deal.” A lie that says:
It doesn’t “count” if it was (at least initially) consensual.
It doesn’t “count” if you were just being groomed.
It doesn’t “count” if you had one too many drinks.
It doesn’t “count” if you didn’t fight back.
And so, as the lie take root, victims pretend like nothing happened. Or that it wasn’t a big deal. Or that maybe they “deserved” whatever happened.
Predators continue to roam free, while their victims become trapped by their shame-induced silence.
I wonder how many women (and men, for that matter), would speak up if someone told them, “It counts”?
No matter how things started, it counts.
No matter how far things progressed, it counts.
No matter how much (or little) you drank, it counts.
No matter how much of a fight you put up, it counts.
“You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. You are not damaged goods, forgotten or ignored by God, or ‘getting what you deserve.'” (Is It My Fault?, 21)
If we want victims to speak up, we need to help them see the truth. We need to help them see that when assault happens, it counts. Period.
As we sat in the school auditorium where our church meets, I could feel my wife seething beside me. Our pastor had come to a crucial text in one of the gospels—Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As we listened to our pastor strongly (and faithfully) teach on what the Bible says about marriage and divorce, Emily became increasingly agitated. Not because of anything that was said, but what hadn’t been: what about women who are being abused?
To many, the Bible’s teaching on divorce seems too simplistic to deal with these issues. Bad counsel based on incomplete teaching leaves many women (and men) feeling trapped, with nowhere to turn when their spouses begin to spiritually, psychologically, physically or sexually abuse them. When the abuse somehow becomes their fault in the counselling session, or they’re too ashamed to even say anything at all—or don’t even know if it “counts.”
Whose fault is it?
Emily’s anger was birthed from experiences of these feelings in both her childhood and adolescent years, and her empathy for several friends who have experienced abuse in their marriages.[1. Emily has given her permission to share this.] If we’re to offer any sort of hope and encouragement to those suffering from domestic violence, we need to know what the Bible has to say to them.
This is why books like Is It My Fault?are so necessary. From its opening pages, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb offer a compassionate and biblical look at the problem of domestic violence, beginning with five words victims need to hear: It is never your fault.
No matter what kind of abuse you have experienced, there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you think that makes you deserving of it. There is no mistake you could have made and no sin you could have committed to make you deserving of violence.
You did not deserve this. And it is never your fault.
You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. You are not damaged goods, forgotten or ignored by God, or “getting what you deserve.” (21)
These truths should be obvious, but for someone in an abusive relationship, they’re anything but. And truthfully, I’m not sure how obvious they are to some of us who aren’t, either. For example, we tend to look at marital problems and try to figure out how divide responsibility for those problems equally between spouses. And while this is certainly true in the average problems that come with marriage and relationships, we need to be careful to not apply this too broadly. Sometimes, it really is the problem just one person—and in the case of domestic violence, in whatever form it takes, it is always the abuser’s fault.
Although a bit of a loose example, consider the recent shootings in Santa Barbara, California, when 22-year-old Elliott Rodger stabbed three people to death, shot three more, and left 13 more injured, before killing himself. Why did he do it? Because “girls have never been attracted to me.” What surprised me with this wasn’t Rodger’s placing the blame for his yet-to-be-committed crimes on women, but because some online commenters seemed to agree, saying that if he wasn’t a virgin, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
Yeah. Someone actually said that.
What is domestic violence?
Keeping this in mind is especially important when you consider how tricky it can be to develop a concrete definition of domestic violence. You need a broad enough definition that captures the full spectrum of abuse, yet doesn’t leave every reader paranoid that they’re either being abused or an abuser themselves. How is it defined in Is It My Fault?
Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner. (57)
Despite being a little clinical, and maybe a bit lawyer-y, this definition is very strong. I believe the key word here is “pattern.” An abuser isn’t necessarily someone who says something stupid and hurtful once (again, if that were the case, we would all be abusers). An abuser is someone who makes an intentional behavior of it. This doesn’t mean that sinful and hurtful words don’t need to be dealt with (they do!); it just means we ought not label the one-time offender—depending on the nature of their offense—as being guilty of domestic violence. (There’s no such thing as being just a little stabby.)
What will God do about it?
The first several chapters of the book offer extremely necessary definitions and categories that readers may lack—beyond a definition of domestic violence, they may not know what the cycle of abuse looks like, or what types of personas exist among abusers, all of which the Holcombs provide. But the strength of the book really comes through when the authors turn to the Scriptures to show readers what God says about this issue. The picture shown here is of a God who “hates abuse, viewing it as sinful and unacceptable” (107), and “delights in rescuing the oppressed (2 Sam. 22:49)” (108).
This isn’t always easy for us to believe, though. After all, in our day-to-day circumstances—especially those in abusive situations—struggle to see God at work. They cry out asking for the Lord to deliver them, just as David did many times in the psalms. But it’s the tension we all face. Suffering and pain are real, but deliverance is real, too, even if it doesn’t come when or how we might wish it did. Despite how it may seem at times, “God is not standing idly by to watch evil run its course he will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and recreation” (113).
What I appreciate throughout the authors’ reflections on several psalms is how they hold this tension. They don’t offer a pat “God’s in control,” although that would be easy to do. They dig into the reality of the pain, the difficulty of the circumstances. But they don’t leave us there. Instead, they redirect despair to hope, showing how we can be confident that God’s deliverance will come.
This, arguably, may be the most important practical takeaway for readers (aside from the very helpful action plan in the appendices). When the darkness won’t seem to lift[2. With apologies to John Piper], we need the hope that God is not ignoring our circumstances. That God is at work, even when we can’t see it. That His promises are still true—and because His promises are true, hope cannot be extinguished.
What will we do about it?
Is It My Fault? will provoke some strong feelings in its readers—anger that abuse happens at all, perhaps temptations toward seeking vengeance, and a longing for Jesus’ return and the coming of the new creation. What I hope it does is remind us all that none of us can stand by when abuse occurs in our homes or in our churches. In those situations, our goal should always be to bring hope into the darkness of abuse of all kinds. To humbly, earnestly and uncompromisingly call perpetrators to repentance, and allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. To offer compassion to victims and allow them to begin to experience some form of healing, while holding out the promise of the final restoration Jesus will bring when He comes to wipe every tear from every eye. This is what victims of abuse need, and by God’s grace, it’s what we can offer, if we’re willing.