Sunday, March 20, 2016

Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Abuse

Q&A with Pastor Justin Holcomb

Justin Holcomb is a pastor at Mars Hill Church and executive director of the Resurgence. He is also an adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and holds two master’s degrees from the Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D from Emory University.
Justin and his wife, Lindsey, wrote Rid of My Disgrace, a book on gospel hope and healing for sexual assault victims.

How does the gospel of Jesus offer such a hope and healing for victims of sexual abuse?  
JH: God’s grace dismantles the beliefs that give disgrace life. Grace recreates what violence destroyed.
Victims of sexual assault experience many devastating physical, psychological, and emotional effects. The most prevalent responses include denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair. If this is you (or someone you love), you need to understand that the gospel of Jesus applies to each of these.
Denial — Sexual assault makes you feel alone, unimportant, and unworthy of sympathy. It tempts you to deny and minimize what happened to you to cope with the pain and trauma. It might initially help to create a buffer while you start dealing with the difficult emotions, but eventually denial and minimization will actually increase the pain, because it keeps you from dealing with the psychological destruction and trauma of the assault.
God does not deny, minimize, or ignore what happened to you. Through Jesus he identifies with you, and he has compassion. He knows your suffering. He does not want you to stay silent or deny, but to feel and express your emotions, to grieve the destruction you experienced. The cross shows that God understands pain and does not judge you for feeling grief. The resurrection shows that God conquered sin—that he is reversing sin’s destruction and restoring peace.
Because of Jesus, you have the privilege to confidently go to God and receive grace and mercy. Your need and your cries don’t make God shun you. He has compassion on you (Hebrew 4:14-16).
Identity — Sexual assault attacks your sense of identity and tells you that you are filthy, foolish, defiled, and worthless. It makes you feel that you are nothing.
The gospel gives you a new identity through the redemptive work of Jesus. Through faith in Christ, you are adopted into God’s family. You are given the most amazing identity: child of God (1 John 3:1–2). God adopted you and accepted you because he loves you. You didn’t do anything to deserve his love. He loved you when you were unlovable.
The gospel also tells you that through faith in Christ, his righteousness, blamelessness, and holiness is attributed to you (2 Cor. 5:21). If you are in Christ, your identity is deeper than any of your wounds. You can be secure in this new identity because it was achieved for you by God—you are his, and he cannot disown himself.
Shame — Sexual assault is shameful and burdens you with feelings of nakedness, rejection, and dirtiness. Shame is a painfully confusing experience—it makes you acutely aware of inadequacy, shortcoming, and failure.
Jesus reveals God’s love for his people by covering their nakedness, identifying with those who are rejected, cleansing their defilement, and conquering their enemy who shames them. God extends his compassion and his mighty, rescuing arm to take away your shame. Jesus both experienced shame and took your shame on himself. Jesus, of all people, did not deserve to be shamed. Yet he took on your shame, so it no longer defines you nor has power over you.
Because of the cross, we can be fully exposed, because God no longer identifies us by what we have done or by what has been done to us. In Jesus, you are made completely new.
Guilt — Sexual assault attacks you with guilt that leads to feelings of condemnation, judgment, and self-blame.
You are not guilty for the sin that was committed against you—and this realization alone can bring great freedom. Yet the reality is that your sense of guilt goes deeper than what was done to you. You know that you have sinned against God and others—both before your assault and in response to what happened to you.
The shocking message of grace is that Jesus was forsaken for us so we could be forgiven. God turned his wrath away from you and toward Christ on the cross. If you trust in Christ, all your sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven. All of them. All threat of punishment, or sense of judgment, is canceled. Through faith in Christ you are loved, accepted, and declared innocent.
Anger — Sexual assault creates anger at what has been done to you. While anger can be a natural and healthy response to the unquestionable evil of sexual assault, most victims express it poorly or feel they have to suppress it. You have probably been discouraged from expressing your anger, but suppressed anger holds you hostage and leaves you vindictive, addicted, embittered, immoral, and unbelieving.
God is angrier over the sin committed against you than you are. He is angry because what happened to you was evil and it harmed you. Godly anger is participating in God’s anger against injustice and sin, crying out to him to do what he promised: destroy evil and demolish everything that harms others and defames God’s name.
Anger expressed to God is the cry of the weak one who trusts the strong One, the hurting person who trusts the One who will make it all better. Because vengeance is God’s, you can be free from the exhaustive cycle of vindictive anger.
Despair — Sexual assault can fill you with despair. Feeling that you’ve lost something, whether it’s your innocence, youth, health, trust, confidence, or security, can deepen into hopelessness and despair. And then depression can add seemingly inescapable weight to the experience of despair.
The gospel gives you hope. Biblical hope is sure because God is behind his promise of a future for you. The hope you need right now is grounded in God’s faithfulness in the past and anticipation of it in the future.
Because of Jesus’ resurrection, all threats against you are tamed if you trust in Christ. Jesus conquered death and evil, so evil done to you is not the end of the story and you can have hope. Because Jesus rose from the dead, he ascended to heaven and is “making all things new.” Your God is strong, and he, not the evil done to you, will have the final say about you. That hope animates the “groanings” within ourselves that everything will someday be renewed. We will be delivered from all sin and misery. Every tear will be wiped away when evil is no more.

What are a few practical ways that family and friends can help care for their loved ones that have been victimized?
JH: If you are a loved one, friend, or pastor serving a victim of sexual assault, here are some suggestions on how to best care for that person:
1. Don’t minimize or deny what happened to the victim.
2. Listen. Don’t judge or blame the victim for the assault. Research has proven that victims tend to have an easier adjustment after abuse or an assault when they are believed and listened to by others.
3. Do not to ask probing questions about the assault. Questions like this can cause revictimization. Follow the victim’s lead and listen.
4. Let the victim know the assault(s) was not his or her fault.
5. Reassure the victim that he or she is cared for and loved.
6. Let the victim know that he or she does not have to manage this crisis alone.
7. Be patient. Remember, it takes time to deal with the crime.
8. Remember that each sexual assault victim has different needs. What may have been beneficial for one person might not work for another.
9. Empower the victim. Refrain from telling him or her what should be done and from making decisions on the victim’s behalf. Present the victim with options and help him or her think through them.
10. Encourage the sexual assault victim to seek medical attention.
11. Encourage the victim to talk about the assault(s) with an advocate, pastor, mental health professional, law enforcement officer, another victim, or a trusted friend.
12. Fight on behalf of the victim against the lies and challenge the myths and misconceptions about sexual assault.
13. Take care of yourself. As a support person, you need to be healthy in your caregiving role.
14. Learn what to say and what not to say.
15. Avoid placating statements as an attempt to make the victim feel better.
16. Take time to notice where the victim is in the healing process and do not rush him or her through it. Help the victim keep moving through it at a pace comfortable to him or her rather than trying to force progression to a different stage immediately.
17. If you are a husband or a wife who is supporting your spouse through the effects of sexual assault, here are two specific suggestions:
(a) Encourage him or her to tell a trusted friend or friends. It is a good idea for the victim to have a broad support base, as it can be exhausting if the supporting spouse is the only one involved. You won’t always be available to talk, and at times it can be easier for a victim to talk to someone of the same sex about certain dimensions of an assault.
(b) Don’t ever press or whine for sex or intimacy.
18. If you are a parent or guardian who is supporting a child through the effects of sexual assault, here are two specific suggestions:
(a) Advocate for your child. This means pursuing justice by calling the police and finding a good counselor who knows how to deal with the sexual abuse of children.
(b) If the assault occurred because of your negligence, apologize to your child and ask your child to forgive you.

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