1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have been or will be assaulted during their lifetime. Heartbreakingly, many of the victims of this epidemic are children: 15% of those assaulted are under age 12, and 29% are between ages 12 to 17. Girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault. (You can read more about protecting children from abuse over here.)
You may have noticed the hashtag #MeToo appearing in the news or in your social media feeds over the last year.
How should Christians respond to the growing number of sexual abuse cases? Before we can respond, we need to first understand what sexual abuse is, and second, what "shame" feels like. Only then can we truly begin to see how the gospel rids us of our disgrace.
What is "Sexual Abuse"?
Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent. Most victims and perpetrators know each other. Immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder. While efforts to treat sex offenders remain unpromising, psychological interventions for survivors—especially group therapy—appears effective.
In most states, the legal definition of molestation is an act of a person who forces, coerces or threatens the victim to have any form of sexual contact or to engage in any type of sexual activity at the perpetrator’s direction. Childhood and adolescent sexual abuse damages the developing human being and therefore may result in severe symptoms. Sexual abuse prevents healthy flourishing (i.e. the ability to function and exist in a ‘normal’ manner) through conscious and subconscious means.
Sexual abuse robs men, women, and children of their ability to exist in the social world by creating a loss of trust, feelings of guilt, and self-abusive behavior. It can lead to antisocial behavior, depression, identity confusion, loss of self-esteem and other serious emotional problems. It can also lead to difficulty with intimate relationships later in life. (Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology, s.v. “Sexual Abuse,” and the American Humane Association)
What is "Shame"?
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre accurately describes shame as “a hemorrhage of the soul,” that is, a painful, unexpected, and disorienting experience. It is often linked to some painful incident—sin that has been done to us rather than by us. Shame has the power to steal our breath and smother us with condemnation, rejection, and disgust.
Shame is a painfully confusing experience—a sort of mental and emotional disintegration that makes us acutely aware of our inadequacies and shortcomings and is often associated with a shrinking feeling of failure. It can be simultaneously self-negating and self-absorbed: “All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face” (Ps. 44:15).
The Bible uses many emotionally charged words to describe shame: reproach, dishonor, humiliation, and disgrace. Additionally, there are three major images for shame in Scripture: nakedness, uncleanness or defilement, and being rejected or made an outcast. In the great exchange, Christ took on our nakedness and defilement as he was rejected and crucified like an outcast; and we were clothed in his righteousness, cleansed of all sins, and adopted into the family of God. (Read more about the difference between guilt and shame: What is the Difference Between Guilt and Shame? by Justin Holcomb)
How the Gospel Rids Me of My Disgrace
How does this issue affect the mental and spiritual lives of both victims and perpetrators of this form of assault? More importantly, how should we apply the gospel of grace in these situations?
In this special episode, Michael Horton discusses these questions and more with Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.
Listen in to this interview: Sexual Abuse Episode
Yes, that abuse or these abuses happened, but that's not the end of your story. This is part of your story, but because of Jesus you live in light of his story now. Your story is part of his story now, and this doesn't define me.– Lindsey Holcomb
It is not the final word on you, because there is another declaration on who you are in Christ.— Justin Holcomb