Is It My Fault? Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Abuse by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb has been a difficult book for me to review. I read it twice through, carefully marking the good and bad points with two different highlighters. Being one of the canaries in the coal mine, and seeing the anguish of other canaries who are fainting from the toxic fumes, I have had to overcome my ‘irks’ and disppointments before I could give fair praise where it is due, while simultaneously trying to encourage the authors by suggesting some improvements. I hope I have achieved this graciously.
Before beginning my review, let me share what the Holcombs said about themselves when promoting their book on sexual abuse, Rid Of My Disgrace, (source):
Our experience in the area of abuse, both personally, professionally, and pastorally, led us to write this book. When Justin was 12, he was assaulted by a member of his extended family. So, he knows personally what victims are experiencing.
Lindsey has served for years both counseling victims of sexual assault and training leaders to care for victims. She worked at a sexual assault crisis center where she provided crisis intervention to victims of assault and conducted a variety of training seminars to service providers. Lindsey also worked at a domestic violence shelter. Many of the women she served were also victims of sexual assault. Her graduate research was on sexual violence and public health responses.
Justin has served in ministry for almost twenty years and has counseled numerous victims of sexual assault. He has taught theology at Reformed Theological Seminary since 2001. Justin has also taught courses on sexual violence in the Sociology and Religious Studies departments as well as in the Studies of Women and Gender program at the University of Virginia.
The good points of “Is It My Fault?” (with a few hints for improvement)
The Holcombs (mostly) do not blame the victim. “It is never your fault. You are not to blame. You do not deserve this,” are frequent refrains. They say abuse is wrong, it is sinful, and the victim has been sinned against. They use the word ‘victim’ the way I use it, and for the same reasons: “The term victim signifies the cruelty and unfairness of domestic violence and puts the responsibility for the assault where it belongs — on the assailant.” (26) At the same time, they recognize that ‘survivor’ has nuances that ‘victim’ may not have, and some people who have suffered abuse prefer to describe themselves as survivors rather than victims. (27)
They do not see abuse as a ‘relationship problem’. They quote Lundy Bancfroft saying, “Abuse is not caused by relationship dynamics. You can’t manage your partner’s abusiveness by changing your behavior, but he wants you to think he can.” (21) They encourage the victim to speak out and not be silenced (67); but they also say, “You don’t need to confront the abuser alone, because what you most need is to be safe.” (23) The fact that abusers choose to abuse is spelled out clearly in chapter 3. They do not waste time on pushing the forgiveness barrow, and they never push couple counseling or ‘reconciliation’ or talk mushily about ‘redeeming’ such and such.
They get the gender stuff right. They recognise that some victims are male, but they write to and for the overwhelming majority of victims who are women, and whose abusers are men. (28)
The principle of fleeing abuse & escaping from persecution is expounded in chapter 10, with very good use of scripture; and throughout the book it is mentioned quite often. The Holcombs sum up chapter 10 by saying,
If a woman has an opportunity to be safe and away from abuse, we believe that God would rather she take the opportunity. More than trying to reform the abuser, staying because marriage is forever, staying to show forgiveness, it is better to be safe.(140)
They put safety first. Putting safety first is one of the cardinal rules for supporting victims, and I am very glad they got this right and gave it the emphasis it deserves. They discuss ‘deliver us from evil’ in the Lord’s Prayer and how not all people are trustworthy (25). They explain the harm domestic abuse does to children (61-3) and how abusers say they will change — but statistics show that they continue to abuse (63). While they encourage the victim to leave, to remove herself from the abuse, they recognise that leaving is not easy but dangerous and that post-separation abuse is quite common (23, 64). They talk about reporting the abuse to the police, and they recognise that going to the justice system is not an absolute guarantee of safety, but it can still be an effective deterrrent (65-6).
How to make a safety plan is very well covered in Appendix 2. And in appendix 1 there is a list of USA hotline numbers; this appendix would been better if it told readers that the hotlines only cover the USA, and if it had given the HotPeach page which gives links to domestic abuse services worldwide.
Psalm 18 is expounded in chapter 11, showing how it pertains to victims of domestic abuse; this chapter is very well done. I particularly recommend the discussion of hamas, the Hebrew word for ‘violence’ which David quotes in Psalm 18.
Psalm 55 is well expounded in chapter 13, showing how it offers great comfort to victims of abuse.
They help the reader who is unsure whether she is being abused (chapter 2). They use key phrases:– “walking on eggshells”, “the abuser’s well-stocked arsenal,” his “deceptive wielding of control” that is “difficult to discern” (32). They list things that abusers do, and how they behave. They classify different types of abuse: physical, sexual and emotional. Sadly they do not mention spiritual abuse in this classification. I feel they ought to have given economic abuse and social abuse (isolation) their own headings, rather than lumping them in the emotional abuse category; sometimes financial abuse is so prominent that it is the first facet of the abuse that victim wake up to. This section would also have been improved if they had put emotional abuse first, and sexual and physical after that, as all abusers use emotional abuse but not all use sexual or physical tactics of abuse.
The Holcombs pose very good questions that will help the victim reflect on her experience:
Do you see evidence that the behaviors were deliberate, controlled or planned? Does he act differently towards you when there are other people around? How has he attempted to stop your resistance to the abuse? [great question!] Does he treat others with respect, while treating you with disrespect? (38)
They give the Power and Control Wheels and talk about the cycle of abuse (39-46). They include vital teaching from Lundy Bancroft: “Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings. The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control.” ( 46) And they talk about male privilege and how domestic abuse is an epidemic (47).
Why some women stay, and the resistance of abused women are addressed well (51-54). I commend the Holcombs for referring to How Women Resist Abuse — a pdf by Calgary Women’s Shelter which I often recommend on this blog, though I would have liked to see that pfd named and extolled in the text, not just in the endnotes. And it was disappointing these important topics were embedded in a chapter titled ‘Why Does He Chose To Abuse?’ as they might be overlooked by the skimming reader.
They honour the victim and encourage her to trust herself more
You are the expert in your situation. . . we know that you will have been doing everything you can to manage yourself and any children involved. An abuser will attempt to totally disempower you and force you to stop trusting your own instincts, we would encourage you to begin trusting your own instincts and when possible seek help. (63-4)
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Violence in the Home is a good article by Justin Holcomb in Christianity Today Leadership Journal (Spring 2015). It gives pastors guidelines about identifying and supporting victims domestic abuse. I had very few concerns about the article, so I would recommend it being shared with pastors and leaders.
Coming soon: aspects of “Is It My Fault?” which in my opinion are not so good
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (Hebrews 12:12-16)
This passage has a word for the churches to whom we are broadcasting our Cry for Justice.
And a word for victims who are suffering abuse from their spouses, families and churches.
First, the word for victims:
14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
True peace in relationship with an abuser is impossible: there is only a counterfeit peace which is obtained (temporarily) by the victim complying with the wicked coercive control of the abuser who constantly sucks and spits out her lifeblood, her dignity, her identity.
If we strive for that counterfeit peace which is no peace, we trade off holiness. We comply with the abuser’s sins against us and our children. If we comply with the Pharisaic church’s legalistic restrictions, on that mousewheel of works-based holiness we die a thousand deaths — our relationship with the Lord becomes attenuated, shrivelled, starved, ghostlike.
Rather than counterfeit holiness,
let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Cor. 7:1)
God has not called us for impurity [such as the impurity of the abuser’s corrupt sexual conduct], but in holiness. (1 Thess. 4:7)
put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor … (Eph. 4:24-25)
… that truth may be something others don’t want to hear. It may be something that people around us may never agree with. But if it’s the truth, we are righteous to speak it.
Now, the word for the church:
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,
Church — men and women who claim to love the Lord Jesus Christ — lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees! There are victims of abuse whose lives are being desiccated all around you. Learn how to support them, learn how to advocate for them. Learn how to honor them. Stand up to the Pharisees and hypocrites and cowards and flabby theologians who enable abusers to exert power and control in the church and the home.
13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.
Teach right doctrine, make the paths straight, remove the pot holes, boulders, ruts and chasms that you have let come into the road, so that abuse victims who have been made lame by their abusers (and by your neglect of road-maintenance) may not be put out of joint but rather healed.
15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
The “root of bitterness” is in the hearts of the abusers, not the hearts of the victims!
What so many people label “bitterness” in the victim is simply the victim’s longing for justice and vindication. Christians: don’t palm victims off by telling them to just put their longing for justice on hold and defer everything to the perfect justice of God which will be delivered in the end. It will. But the church needs to do its part in delivering some justice to victims now — before the second coming!
When the church doesn’t give what it ought to give victims — whatever justice it can deliver in the here and now, vindication and practical support — it stands under the wrath of God. When the church stands by, as most of it currently does, carelessly oblivious to the HORRENDOUS injustice that secular family courts and allied professionals are so often delivering to victims of domestic abuse, the church has forsaken its calling to be salt and light in the earth! And God is watching; his eyelids test the children of man (Ps. 11:14).
The “root of bitterness” is in the hearts of the abusers. Seek it there. The abuser deeply believes in his Own Entitlement. He believes that because he is the man, his woman should do what he wants.* When you challenge his entitlement, when you set boundaries, when you impose consequences for this immoral mindset and behavior, when you withstand him to his face, you will see this mindset exposed: he retaliates (overtly or covertly) in bitterness because he truly believes his thinking is RIGHT. Scrutinize the abuser’s heart, resist and cut through his fog, his red herrings, his blame-shifting, his insinuations that his wife is crazy, unstable, untrustworthy, hysterical, a fruit cake, a nut case. Repel and denounce his claims that *she should submit to him better*, and if she did, all this problem would go away.
16 See to it that no-one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.
— of course, this must mean no-one in the church, not no-one in the world! … fat chance we’d have of stopping sexual immorality in the world!
Bind the strong man. Hold him to account. If he claims to be a follower of Christ but is exercising a pattern of coercive control over his wife, he has despised the Living God and is trampling underfoot the blood of Christ — the very thing which would be his only birthright in the Kingdom of God.
He has preferred a mess of pottage — the power of a domestic tyrant — over any birthright he might have in the Kingdom. His presence in the church defiles many: put him out!
Listen to these words by “John” who is a recovering abuser, one of the rare ones who seems to be demonstrating solid committment to deep-level change, i.e. bedrock fundamental attitudinal and mind-set change as well as surface behavioral change. There is no indication from his account that he subscribes in any way to the Christian faith, but his words here show that by holding onto power and control, abusers are holding onto a mess of pottage.
… what you actually give up when you give up the power and control is virtually nothing — and what you get is immeasurable. You get to be free, to be who you are, to access parts of yourself that have been cut off. You get to have emotional relationships, to be vulnerable; you get great relationships with your kids. You get so much more than what you give up, which is such an illusion.
(from Unclenching Our Fists: Abusive Men on the Journey to Nonviolence, by Sara Elinoff Acker, p. 97-8)
* As we acknowledge in our definition of abuse (see sidebar on the right), sometimes the genders are reversed.
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For further reading:
I read this story about a spoof video depicting abuse that the Cleveland Cavs showed during a time out recently and the statement they issued about it. And, of course, I translated it and wanted to share it with you.
Trigger warning for this video:
During a timeout at last night’s Cavaliers vs. Bulls playoff game at The Q in Cleveland, we ran a 1-minute in-arena video that was intended to be a humorous spoof on a popular commercial centered on a song and dance from the classic movie ‘Dirty Dancing.’ While the video was not intended to be offensive, it was a mistake to include content that made light of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is a very serious matter and has no place in a parody video that plays in an entertainment venue. We sincerely apologize to those who have been affected by domestic violence for the obvious negative feelings caused by being exposed to this insensitive video.
The Cavaliers organization has a strong and lengthy track record of supporting domestic violence-related causes and efforts. We will continue to proudly work with our regional partners at the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center in support of their numerous programs to end domestic violence in our country once and for all.
Translation in bold. Comments in underlined italics.
During a timeout at last night’s Cavaliers vs. Bulls playoff game at The Q in Cleveland, we ran a 1-minute It was just one minute, y’all. Why you gotta squawk about a 60 second video? in-arena video that was intended Our intentions are what counts, not what we actually did. It’s what we MEANT to do. to be a humorous spoof on a popular commercial centered on a song and dance from the classic movie ‘Dirty Dancing.’ While the video was not intended I’ve heard something about the road to hell and intentions. Let’s see, what was it? Oh yes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. to be offensive Darn y’all for not having a sense of humor, it was a mistake Euphemism. Should have said “It was reprehensible” to include content that made light of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is a very serious matter In fact, it’s a CRIME. and has no place in a parody video that plays in an entertainment venue. Abuse has no place on the planet at all. We sincerely apologize to those who have been affected by domestic violence for the obvious negative feelings Darn you and your feelings spoiling our fun. caused by being exposed to this insensitive video.
The Cavaliers organization has a strong and lengthy track record of supporting domestic violence-related causes and efforts. We’ve paid it forward enough that we should get a pass. Look at the good we did. Come on! We will continue to proudly work with our regional partners at the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center in support of their numerous programs to end domestic violence in our country once and for all. Ummhmm
That was not an apology. Apologies name the offense, say it was wrong, say what the offender will do in the future, and I am adding this because I saw it in one of my daughter’s books about how to be a good friend (and in the Bible), the offender then tries to make restitution by asking if there’s anything s/he can do to make it better. Apologies and explanations about intentions cancel each other out. I learned about canceling things out in elementary school.
Here’s what I think the statement should’ve said:
During a timeout at last night’s Cavaliers vs. Bulls playoff game at The Q in Cleveland, we ran an in-arena video that we never should have. The fact that this video made it through production and all the way to the screen is proof that we all have a great deal of work to do to learn about abuse and its prevention. We are so sorry. This will never happen again.
Domestic violence is a crime and has no place in a parody video that plays in an entertainment venue or anywhere else. We sincerely apologize to those who were subjected to this insensitive video.
The Cavaliers organization has a strong and lengthy track record of supporting domestic violence-related causes and efforts but that obviously isn’t enough. We will continue to proudly work with our regional partners at the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center by actually getting training to know what abuse is and how to prevent it and volunteering in their shelters in addition to doubling our financial support of their numerous programs to end abuse once and for all.
The last scene of the video was the most triggering to me.
Him: I thought you were all in.
Her: Well, I’m all in now. Let’s just watch the game.
Him: I thought you were all in. How dare you have a different preference or opinion from mine. I deserve a mind melded intimate partner!
Her: Well, I’m all in now. I changed my mind. I will assimilate and do whatever it takes to keep us happy. Let’s just watch the game. I’ve lost my identity. I exist to serve you and your preferences. Please be the nice guy I fell in love with the first time we danced to that song. I’ll never wear red again.
How many times have we believed we could change enough to make them not abuse us? How many times have we tried to smooth things over by abandoning our desires and our opinions? This video is not funny and that was not an apology.
Ellie offers a private translation service for those who would like to have manipulative communications “translated.” For more info visit TranslationsbyEllie.
So who really has a high view of marriage? People who insist that divorce is never permissible for abuse, and who therefore say that a marriage can still be a marriage when an abuser spouse is violating the marriage covenant vows every single day? Or people like us who say that those vows must be kept and that a ‘marriage’ where there is abuse is in fact no marriage at all in God’s sight? To those who claim abuse does not destroy/break the marriage covenant, I say that they have a horribly low view of marriage.
Ps Jeff Crippen
I have been pondering the “judge” term as it’s used in our culture. I think we fear committing the sin of judging. But is it the judging we are supposed to avoid — the evaluating a person’s actions and determining if they are right or wrong? I don’t think it is. I think what we should avoid is being haughty when we realize that a person is doing wrong. As I examine myself, I feel this is what is in my head: there is a temptation to feel superior to the person who is in sin. That’s where I feel the danger lies, at least for me. So I often ask people if it’s the judgement we should avoid, or the haughtiness after we gain understanding of the fact that a person is not obeying Christ. Because of this, I use the word haughty in such discussions.
In my advocacy work, these kinds of conversations often come up because as normal healthy neurotics (I am using the term as Dr. George Simon would, at least I hope I am) we fear being judgmental and unforgiving and bitter and all the other things that people accuse us of — that we often accuse ourselves of as we’re learning to enforce boundaries with unsafe people. It took time for me to learn that it isn’t haughty or unforgiving of me to implement boundaries; rather, I implement boundaries because I must be careful, be safe, and because abusers do not have healthy consciences, they are therefore unsafe.
I have forgiven. I continue to forgive. I pray that the abusers I know surrender to Christ. I know that they haven’t and because of that, I enforce boundaries that don’t match what our culture tells us Christian behavior should look like, namely, acting like nothing ever happened. I have been so blessed to read Mending the Soul [affiliate link*] and to have Dr. Tracy’s perspective of praying that abusers will feel shame for what they’ve done and come to repentance. I recognize that most abusers hates shame. I have learned that this is a common behavior among narcissists. One author labels such projection as shame dumping. Ah! The perfect term for it. Great visual. I have seen abusers flip out when ashamed and find a way that those around them should’ve stopped the shame from coming on them. So I know that for them to even feel shame, not dump it on those near them, and really own it will take an act of God. But he is God! And I can pray. Here is the excerpt from Mending the Soul* that I am referencing:
Prayerfully Hand Shame Back to the Abuser One of the most empowering things an abuse survivor can do is to prayerfully hand shame back to his or her abuser. Theologians rarely discuss this concept, but it’s a frequent biblical theme. Biblical writers often asked God to shame their abusive enemies. Most likely, this meant asking God to do two things:
- cause the abuser to be overwhelmed with shame for his or her sin so that they would repent, and
- bring utter destruction on the abuser if he or she didn’t repent.
Asking God to utterly destroy an unrepentant abuser is not an unchristian prayer. Abuse victims experience tremendous injustice, but God is a God of justice. Humans long for justice and innately rebel with the cry “That’s not fair” when they don’t receive it. In fact, the Bible tells us that the prospect of God’s bringing full and final justice on the heads of unrepentant evil people is what allows us to endure injustice in this life without becoming bitter (2 Timothy 4:14; 1 Peter 2:23). Christians are not to seek revenge, not because it’s an inappropriate desire, but because they don’t have the power or the authority to properly exact justice on abusers. Paul admonished the Roman believers not to take revenge on their enemies but to let God do it for them (Romans 12:19). His retribution on evildoers will be perfect and inescapable. Thus, it’s biblical to pray that our abusers will be filled with shame so that they may repent and that they’ll be punished and destroyed if they do not. Practically, abuse survivors can apply this principle by writing down the name(s) of their unrepentant abusers. They should then regularly pray over the list, asking God to engulf these individuals with shame so that they will repent, and to bring divine judgment on them if they do not repent. Tracy, Steven R. (2009-05-26). Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Kindle Locations 1756-1770). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. (For additional thoughts from our readers regarding this quote, you may want to visit our post, Thursday Thought – Prayerfully Hand Shame Back to the Abuser – which also focuses on this quote.)
I find this advice more comforting than Piper’s improvements to the Golden Rule and the Lord’s Prayer. First of all, I find it much easier to pray for the eternal souls of my enemies/persecutors/irritating people in my life than the temporal physical needs in their lives. Are there really people who pray that God will prosper their enemies here on earth but neglect to pray for their souls? I suppose it’s possible. I’ve never met them. And then there’s the whole guilt-mongering aspect of Piper’s instructions. This advice of Piper’s is bondage to targets of abuse because he doesn’t acknowledge the pain the abusers have inflicted and God’s wrath against them because of it. For a guy who tweets about God’s judgement falling on the masses in the midst of some of the greatest tragedies of modern time, he sure seems to ignore God’s judgment against wicked when it comes to individual abusers. So I pray for abusers. I pray that God mercifully helps them to feel shame and then to take that shame to the Cross, not to their targets. And I pray that I won’t feel haughty in this, that I will walk in God’s grace and embrace the God given sense of justice, of right and wrong, that helps lead us all to acknowledge and honor Him. It’s not wrong to judge between right and wrong. It’s healthy and honoring to our Savior. And it’s merciful to sinners when we call sin SIN. Participating in minimizing sin is cruel. Call it sin. Avoid haughtiness, not judging.
*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:3-5)
All of us love fairy tale endings. Movies that end with “and they all died and the bad guys took over the world, THE END — don’t leave us with a good taste in our mouth. For those who are in Christ, the Bible promises a happily ever after. But in this present life, in the fallen world in which we live, happily ever after with audiences cheering because the evil empire has been defeated forever are not very common.
I believe that one of the reasons abuse victims are so frequently rendered injustice by their family, friends, and churches, is because in the minds of most people “happily ever after” is something like everyone saying they are sorry, hugging and shedding tears, and living in perfect peace. And that scenario, I suggest to you, is so rare in abuse cases as to be almost fiction. Rather, happily ever after is getting free of that non-marriage to the abuser and getting him completely out of one’s life. That is happily ever after, but somehow most people just don’t get that, especially in the Christian church.
We forget just how evil and hard the heart of the wicked can be. Consider Noah. There he was, building an ark and thereby preaching a sermon for 120 years. God’s patience waited all that time. Did man repent? No. One hundred and twenty years the Word of righteousness went out, but to no avail. There was no happily ever after, at least in the Hollywood sense of the phrase. Man’s heart was only evil continually, and violence filled the earth. That is the heart, and violence is the fruit, of the heart of the abuser — particularly the kind who wears a “Christian” disguise.
We are very selfish and self-seeking if we insist that an abuse victim remain in bondage to the wicked. Why do we do that? Because we want to write the script. We want a happily ever after. It warms our hearts. And that, I believe, is one reason the church can be so cold to a victim who comes forward, reports the abuse, and takes steps to get free. We want these scenarios to end with the Hallelujah Chorus. The reality is that we can sing that chorus when we see that real justice is effected upon the wicked and for the oppressed. We will sing it as well on that Day of the resurrection when the wicked are judged once and for all and the righteous stand in glory in the New Earth and Heavens. And we won’t be singing because every marriage was preserved. We will be singing praises to the Lord because justice was brought once and for all upon the evil ones, who we will never see again.