“The effects [of sexual abuse] cover physical, psychological, spiritual, social … I mean, every dimension of who we are.” With the unfortunate increase of relevancy that sexual abuse/assault has, it would be ridiculous to simply ignore it. So, what exactly do we mean by sexual abuse/assault? How prevalent is the issue? What does the Bible say? What’s the weight of it? And where can hope and healing be found? We ask all these questions to pastor and author Justin Holcomb. For those who’ve been well acquainted with this issue, this conversation will point you to hope. And for those who are quite unaware of it, it’s only right that you take the time to at least consider this issue.
Who is Our Guest?
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Among his own books, he’s also co-authored with his wife, Lindsey, God Made All of Me, Is It My Fault? and Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.
You can find Justin’s (along with his wife) book, Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault, here. He also mentioned a children’s book he and his wife wrote called God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies.
With me today is professor and author Justin Holcomb. Justin is an Episcopal Priest serving in Florida, and he teaches Theology and Apologetics at Gordon-Conwell and also Reformed Theological Seminary. It’s great to have you with us today, Justin.
Thank you, Isaac. It’s good to be with you.
You know, before we address our topic that we’re going to get into, I’d love for you just to kind of first share with us maybe how you were saved, just to help us get us know you a little bit better.
I grew up in a Christian home. So, my parents converted when they were about 22, kind of dramatic conversions on the beach. You know, meeting a beach preacher. And thankfully, grew up in a Christian home where my parents from … I don’t remember not believing. I remember just growing up, and it was just normal. Getting baptized at seven. And, you know, the reality of all the work of Jesus has done for me has been, you know, there’s always waves and waves of deeper understanding of it, but … so, and God’s kindness, He knows that my personality is the kind that unless I had Christian parents, and grew up living it, I’m not the kind of change-my-mind kind of guy. So I think if He wanted me to believe, He had to give me Christian parents. And so He did.
No, that’s great. And you’re also married?
I am. Married to my wife, Lindsey, and we’ve been married for 11 years. And we have two daughters who are, right now, seven and nine. And we’re a foster family, so we’ve had … so far, little boys, young boys, living with us for a few weeks or a few months at a time. So we always have a random family member.
Yeah. And we live in Central Florida. We’re in Orlando. And as you mentioned, I’m working as a minister. I’m an Episcopal priest. And I help oversee leadership development in the ordination process. We have 85 churches in our geographical region, it’s called a diocese. So I’m always looking for leaders who are … preach the Bible and do evangelism and mission and are good shepherds to the people in the congregation.
That’s awesome. Well, thank you for that. It kind of helps us know you a little bit more.
Now, we’re going to dive into this topic. And now, it seems as though to me that obviously, sexual abuse and assault has just got a lot of attention just in the media in the last year or so. Particularly rising to the surface with the whole, you know, #MeToo incidents, which obviously, you’re aware of.
So since so many thoughts and opinions on all this is just, you know, expressed to death, I think it’s just best to go to the definition. So some people listening right now, Justin, are very well aware of sexual abuse. Some are not at all, because they’ve never experienced it and they don’t really know anything about it. So what exactly do we mean when we talk about sexual abuse, assault? Are those two different things? Are there multiple opinions on the definition?
Yeah, let me give you a definition of sexual assault, and we’ll kind of unpack it from there.
First, sexual abuse and sexual assault, some people use them interchangeably. Sexual assault, by the way, is the largest category of the issue. Rape is a form of sexual assault. Sexual abuse usually refers to abuse of children, and that’s just practically how people use it. But people use it interchangeably. The big idea is you want to have a definition that fits psychologically, legally, and medically, and is not so broad that everything is sexual assault, but also not so narrow that only forcible rape counts as sexual assault.
So let me give you the definition. Sexual assault is any type of sexual behaviour 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. So it’s any type of sexual behaviour or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained.
And so the parts of that definition are the issue of consent. You know, communicating yes, and not being incapacitated or not being so young or unable to actually consent. There’s a variety of methods that assault can take place. It’s not just a physical, physically violent only or use of a weapon. There are other ways. And there are behaviours and contact. There’s a whole list of types of behaviours, behaviour and contact, that would count.
So that definition is a definition from our book, Rid of My Disgrace, and what we’ve done in that definition was try to make it broad enough that legal, psychological, medical understandings of sexual abuse, sexual assault, would be included, but again, not so broad that, you know, every single thing would be included.
And so the bigger issue is that many people have too narrow of a view. They hear some of these stories, they go, “That’s not that big of a deal. I mean, he just touched her.” And they’ll kind of minimize what happened. Because, you know, “It’s not rape.” And so the minimizing is what we’re mostly worried about in defining … making sure the definition.
So there’s not really … you asked about multiple options of the definition. Different states have different understandings. But for the most part, the definition we gave, that’s kind of the boilerplate standard definition.
Okay, no, that’s really helpful. Now, in terms of that, Justin, obviously, I know your book’s a couple years old now, but it’s still obviously very prevalent. Do you have some sort of rough idea of how, like, big this issue is? Because, again, some people, because they’ve never experienced it … I remember talking to a friend of mine, and she just didn’t know the extent of pornography use. And it really opened her eyes when she found out how much it is in use. So yeah, could you kind of help us know how big this issue is?
Absolutely. It’s epidemic, is the non-dramatic way of just matter-of-factly … one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. One in four women and one in six men. That’s enormous. And those numbers are actually the more conservative numbers. There are other numbers that say one in three to one in five. So we actually, for the sake of not, you know … stats can be misused, and so we wanted to take the most responsible, careful, non-debatable stats.
So that means if you’re …. you know, roughly one in five people. And I mean, just to show you how prevalent it is, I’m one of them. Most people think, rarely does this happen to men. And that’s just a myth. And it happens to men and women across the religious spectrum, across the racial spectrum, across the economic spectrum, across geographical. It is around the world … and those stats are for the United States. Outside of the United States in some other countries it’s even worse than that. It’s going to be one out of two women.
So those are more U.S., Western stats. I do a lot of work with pastors, and I always tell them, they go, “Well, we haven’t heard any of these things.” I say, “Well, tell you what. I dare you to start talking about how God’s grace is for healing for sexual abuse, among other things, and watch people coming out of the woodwork. You’ll be shocked at how many people.”
And I know anecdotally, just from life and when you write a book about sexual assault, people who you … because they don’t talk about it, I’m accustomed to at least one in four out of five of my friends who I know who will go, “Yup, that’s me, too.” So anecdotally, it’s one in four, one in five. And statistically, it’s the same thing. So those are pretty rough numbers to hear.
Absolutely. Definitely. Now, you know, it’s interesting, Justin, like, something, you know, whether you’re Christian or not, something just innate in us says, “There’s something wrong with sexual assault,” obviously. There’s just something natural there. Now from your studies in the subject, what could you say are sort of God’s thoughts on sexual abuse? How does the Bible speak into this issue?
That’s a really good question. So let’s start in Genesis, because when God made Adam and Eve, He gave them the call to multiply and have dominion. And part of multiplying and having dominion actually requires marital intimacy to procreate. And so part of the peace and union and shalom that was before the Fall, a picture of it, is marital sex. So it’s noteworthy that God gives them this gift of marital sex, but also how important marital unity is for their calling, to multiply and have dominion.
When sin enters the world, it’s noteworthy that the picture of shalom, of peace, pre-Fall, gets so distorted that it’s actually used as a weapon to exploit and dominate other people. And so the Bible doesn’t say a lot about sexual assault, in the sense of like, quantity. But when it does talk about sexual assault, it’ll tell a story about sin and say, “Sin grew in the world. It grew this much, and then it grew this much. It grew so much that they even did this,” and it’ll be a story about sexual assault. And so think of some of the stories that you know, you know, the Levite and the concubine, and the rape and sexual assault stories. There are a few of them. But it’s usually done as a picture to say, “It got so bad they even committed sexual assault and rape.” So it’s used as like the pinnacle of how bad it actually gets.
And so other places that we do know of Scripture, like Psalm 11:5, where it talks about things that God abhors. God abhors violence, and those who oppress and exploit. And sexual assault fits within the categories of the behaviours that God abhors and wants to redeem and heal and stop.
So that’s kind of the shorthand on the Bible on this issue.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s so good. And, you know, this next question, among other forms of assault, what makes sexual assault different? Because I’m sure no one just puts sexual assault in the same as just violence or just verbal abuse or emotional abuse or things like that. So, what is the weight of sexual abuse?
Well, the weight, is … it goes back to what we just talked about, is that … and I’m not saying sex is the core of who we are. But it’s a significant piece of our identity and how God made us. And so, to take the gift that God gave us, to have it be distorted and misused as a way to create pain and suffering for someone else, that’s the depth of what happened.
So, if Satan hates image bearers and the God who they image, I couldn’t think of a better way to wreak havoc in someone’s life than sexual assault, because the effects cover physical, psychological, spiritual, social … I mean, every dimension of who we are, our interaction with ourselves, our world, and those around us, is impacted by sexual abuse.
It can grind someone down. So the effects are … the only thing more staggering than the statistics that we talked about are the effects. And so the reason it’s a different category is because it’s so comprehensive and so intense in the destruction that it can cause, and the lingering effects of it. And so you actually create massive devastation and in such a way that people feel shame and are silent. So there’s tons of people suffering in shame.
If you had just a medical illness, or you had a horrible tragedy where you’re missing a limb, or you have a sickness or a disease, that’s normal in the sense of people knowing it and talking about it, giving you empathy. When something happens to you that makes you feel like you’re to blame, and it’s shameful and dirty and you feel disgusting and filthy, and it causes you shame and silence, you have this amazing amount of pain and destruction that you’re not encouraged, for the most part, to share with other people, because you feel like you’re to blame for some reason, and you’ve been told that you’re to blame. So if I’m thinking in the way to be most effective with evil, it is a powerful tool for evil to destroy and silence God’s images. And I couldn’t think of a better tool for Satan to use.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, you kind of already explained this next question a little bit, but maybe I can rephrase it. When considering, you know, the effects of sexual assault on someone, and I mean, you even shared personally this happened to you, what is kind of the one thing that sexual assault does to the victim that, for those who haven’t experienced it, they should know, if that makes sense?
Yeah, can I give you two?
Okay. One is it causes trauma. The best word to give the comprehensive picture of what sexual assault does, is it causes trauma. And that trauma is psychological, spiritual, emotional, physical, and social. It causes severe trauma. And most people, during an assault and after, feel anxious, fear, and trauma.
Now, the effect of that, for the most part, is some type of self-blaming, some way of blaming one’s self. So victims blame themselves. They think, “Why didn’t I say more? I should’ve known better,” and our society victim-blames. “What were you wearing? How much were you drinking?” Just the default of American, Canadian, Western ways of thinking are “We’re a victim-blaming society and we’re a shaming society.” And so the big thing is, it creates trauma, but that trauma, the effect of that trauma is suffering and silence, self-blame.
Yeah, no, that’s powerful. Now, I read that in your book, Rid of my Disgrace, you say that the grace of God is the solution to those who have experienced, obviously, sexual assault. So I’m wondering, we do still have some time, so could you take some time to explain the fact that no other solution will actually ultimately eternally fulfill the trauma that comes from this, and how exactly the grace of God can actually be a lasting solution?
Yeah, the only option if you don’t have grace of God in the mix is some type of homemade ritual. And one option is what’s called positive self-statements. Well, positive self-statements are when you basically tell yourself the opposite of how you feel. And what ends up happening are that positive self-statements actually end up– Well, positive self-affirmations actually only work for one group of people, and that’s narcissists. And this is actually a psychological study, that the only group it works for are narcissists.
What it actually does to people who need it, people who are feeling low self-esteem or whatever category you want to use, is it spikes one’s self esteem for a little bit, but then it actually is cruel, because it reminds them, “Hey, by the way, no one else is saying this to you, and you’re saying it to yourself. How lame is that?” So it actually rubs their nose in their shame and reinforces their low self-esteem. So it actually is cruel to give someone that.
So I use that as an example because, you know, the things I might come up with and say, “Hey, Justin. You know, you’re smart. And some people like you.” Well, you know, I come up with my self-statements. Well, then you look at what God says about us in Christ, and you look at New Testament words, Paul, Peter, and John, who said things like this, “If you’re in Christ, you are pure, perfect, and righteous. Holy, without spot, blemish, or wrinkle.” Like, what God says about us is way better than we could ever make up about ourselves.
So, some of the major effects of sexual assault are distorted self-image, shame, anger, despair, minimizing what’s happened to us, or guilt. Some people feel guilt. So let me just talk about shame as an example. If we have time, we can talk about identity or something like that. But shame, the three pictures of shame in the Bible … by the way, shame is the major effect that most people feel, sexual assault survivors or victims feel. And they feel dirty, filthy, and like they’re to blame.
The pictures in the Bible for shame are this: naked, dirty, and outside the camp. So, you know, Adam and Eve were naked and ashamed after sin. Or the Bible, the imagery associated with shame in the Bible is filth, like you’re dirty with shame. Or outside the camp, not a part of the community. Well, I couldn’t think of three better images of how sexual assault victims feel. They feel vulnerable and naked, literally naked, but also just emotionally vulnerable. They feel dirty, that’s why so many people shower after they’ve been abused. And they feel isolated and alone, and they feel broken, like they’re damaged goods.
Well, look what the Gospel actually does. Because of the work of Jesus, Jesus said, “You know what? I’m going to take on your nakedness. I will take on nakedness on the cross, and I will give you my robe of righteousness and clothe you, and I will take on the filth that you feel, the effects of filth. You’re not dirty, but you’ve had sin done to you. I will take on any sense of filth that you have, and I will be crucified outside the camp. And I will take on your isolation. So you can be robed in my righteousness, you can be clean in my blood, and you can be adopted by my Father. I will take your nakedness, your filth, and your isolation, and I will exchange that with you.”
So that’s one picture of how the Gospel, the actual … not just the effects of the Gospel, the actual work of Jesus, apply in those situations. And so that’s just one snapshot. There’s more, but that’s just one example.
Yeah, and that’s so helpful, Justin. Thank you for sharing that.
And, you know, I can imagine that having the courage and the boldness to open up to someone about this issue can be hard and difficult. So I guess my next question is, when someone is vulnerable enough with you to share with you their experience of being a victim, what are the best ways that we can respond? Like, how do we respond to that?
Well, you nailed it, first of all. It does take bravery and courage. So if someone’s going to tell you such an intimate story of their suffering, one of the first things you can say is, “Thank you for telling me and trusting me with such an important thing.” So just literally saying thank you to them.
The other thing, this sounds really simple, and this is beautifully simple, listen and believe them. Indicate that you’re listening and indicate that you believe them. Because they did a study on survivors, they said, “What’s the most helpful thing that people have done?” And they gave them like ten things. At the top of the list, all the time, is being listened to and believed. You don’t need to be a counselor or a minister or trained in this. The power that other people have by simply listening to their story, not asking probing questions, just saying, “Thank you for trusting me and telling me such a powerful story of your suffering and whatever else,” and indicating, or just saying, “I’m sorry that happened to you. And I believe you.” I mean, just indicating listening and believing goes a long way.
Don’t ask probing questions. Don’t minimize it by saying things like, “Well, at least blank didn’t happen to you,” and indicate that … almost everyone who tells you their story, you’re going to have to remind them, “That’s not your fault.” And be patient with them, because … you know, reassure them of your love, reassure them of God’s love. Depending on if they’re telling you a recent story or a past story … if it’s recent, encourage them to actually get medical care and talk to a therapist or a pastor, someone who can kind of be there with them.
And I want to hit the bullseye of what the main issues are. Listening and believing and being careful about what you’re saying. Being clear to say things like, “I’m sorry this happened to you. I believe you. It wasn’t your fault.” Those are the main things. Or encouraging them to cry. Like when they start wiping their tears, just saying, “I’m sorry,” saying, “You don’t have to apologize for this.” Like, really basic human things. Don’t theologize it away. Don’t start talking about God and the problem of evil. Don’t ask for more gory details, and don’t minimize in any way.
Absolutely. Now, for the last thing before we wrap up, so this is a huge question for a one-minute answer. What can churches … and I even think just youth groups and Sunday school rooms … what can we be doing to really prepare our people for this world where sexual assault is a living and active thing?
Talk about it matter-of-factly, but carefully. Train parents … my wife and I wrote a book called God Made All of Me, which is a children’s book. Because one in five children under the age of 18 will be sexually abused in their lifetime. So preparing children. Equipping parents to prepare children for body safety awareness. Making sure that our churches are cultures of grace and peace, that they’re safe. Making sure that you have policies for volunteers, making sure that when people come forward, they’re believed. Making sure that there is pastoral care or at least counselors who are referred to.
And being aware that our Bible talks about sin. We should be the least clueless and naïve people. But for some reason, the church is more naïve and singularly clueless sometimes on the effects of sin and that it’s out there, since Satan is seeking to devour people. And not being naïve about the ways that evil destroys. And assuming that it’s not within the Church. The numbers of sexual abuse in the Church are the same as outside the Church. It is horrendous of what people have experienced in the churches.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I mean, this topic, obviously, for those listening, this is a huge topic. And for the sake of our time, we can’t go even deeper. But I’m very thankful for you, Justin, just for your wisdom on the sensitive topic. In our short time, you were able to give some super solid things that I hope our listeners will take with them.
So to learn more about Justin, to read his blogs, excerpts from books, and check out his books, including Rid of My Disgrace, which is a book that he wrote with his wife, you can just head to justinholcomb.com. And I can provide the links for that on our episode podcast page.
But anyways, thank you again, Justin, a lot. I really appreciate it.
My pleasure. Thank you, Isaac.