A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The concept of Grace in “Is It My Fault” by the Holcombs (book review Pt 3)

I have many problems with the way the Holcombs talk about God’s grace. I am sorry to have to say this because I know it will hurt the Holcombs, but this part of their book is a case study in how to wrongly divide the Word of truth.

Note: this is an unusually long post so we are going to give our readers several days to absorb it. We will publish a devotional post this Sunday, but we will not publish a post this coming Monday, May 25th.

1(a). They describe grace as unconditional

Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it. (p. 82)

Whoa! Whose side are they on here? Abusers love the notion that God’s grace and love is unconditional, because it means they don’t have to repent! 

God’s grace and love are not unconditional. God offers unmerited, undeserved mercy to sinners. But the gospel is “repent and believe”; God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Saving grace is not deserved and we don’t merit it by repentance; but without repentance there is no regeneration, no saving faith, no entering the kingdom of God. So when the Holcombs say, “Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it,”  they are handling fine crystal glassware with thick builders’ gloves, and are giving abusers a home in the church.

The Holcombs may protest that they were writing to Christian victims here, not abusers; but that is not good enough. Victims reading their book might easily be triggered by their ‘grace is unconditional’ statement, because their own pastors have unconditionally been ‘extending unconditional grace’ to their abusers — and thus prolonging the nightmare in which the victims are living.

1(b). They underplay or ignore God’s judgement and wrath for sin

God is not standing idly by to watch violence run its course. He will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal and re-creation. (113)

This is cold comfort for victims since the other aspect of God’s response to evil — judgement and wrath for all evildoers who refuse to humble themselves and repent— has not been mentioned. In my opinion, the Holcomb’s speak far too little about the wrath God has for abusers and the judgement that is stored up for them if they remain stiff necked and hardened of heart.

God is a God of grace, not of karma. Karma says you get what you deserve. Grace says the opposite. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve.  . . . A shorthand way of thinking about grace is “mercy, not merit.” God is not interested in punishing you or making you pay. He’s interested in lavishing you with His grace. (81)

Yes; karma is an unbiblical concept. But the Bible does talk about sowing and reaping! And if God is not interested in punishing, then the unrepentant abuser gets off scott free and we all walk down the yellow brick road to the wizard’s house where Hell is magically taken away by the rose coloured glasses he gives us. — Don’t the false shepherds love this doctrine: they can lavish grace on the high-tithing abusers who populate their pews and their elders’ boards!

And “God is not interested in punishing you and making you pay” will be a trigger for victims, because the word ‘you’ points right at them. Pay for what? Be punished for what? Elsewhere in the book the Holcombs say the victim is not to blame for the abuse, but their words here — punishing you and making you pay — seem to be inferring that the victim IS guilty of abuse and she only gets off being punished for it because God gives her grace.

The cross is God’s attack on sin and violence; it is salvation from sin and its effects. The cross really is a coup de grace, meaning “stroke of grace,” which refers to the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering. (114)

The Bible teaches that Christ’s death on the Cross brings us salvation from the eternal penalty of our sin, and sets us free from the power of the devil so we are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to Christ — with the indwelling Spirit to help us resist temptation. But it does not teach that Christ’s death saves us from all the effects of sin. David the adulterer/murderer suffered many consequences for his sin through the remainder of his life. Tamar the victim of rape suffered many consequences for the sins committted against her — and I’m referring to sins plural because there was the rape by her brother Amnon; the connivance of his friend Jonadab in the rape; her brother Absalom’s discounting of her pain and him telling her to keep quiet about it; and her father David’s failure to justly punish her rapist. God’s grace didn’t lift all the effects of the sins that these people committed against Tamar.

The gospel is the announcement that Jesus (the God-man) lived a perfect life, and died in our place, and rose from the dead. Those who trust in the person and work of Jesus receive the good news that God’s “No” went to Jesus and God’s “Yes” is all He will ever say to them. Your sins are forgiven and you are declared righteous. You are an adopted child of God.  (220)

If God only ever says “Yes” to believers, what about how He sometimes chastises his children? God has been reduced to the genial uncle in the skies by the above phraseology of the Holcombs.

Genial Jesus in Heaven with Rainbows and Doves

2. They reductively depict grace as the morale-boosting energy drink for mood enhancement and Christian Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CCBT).

I have no problem with the idea that the Christian walk involves transforming the mind (cognitive change) and transforming conduct and character (behavioral and attitudinal change— fruits of the Spirit); but it disturbs me when I hear the doctrine of God’s grace being spoken about as if it were simply an instrument or prescription to heal the abused person’s wounds.

The Holcombs do this frequently on pp 75-86, i,e., half of chapter five and most of chapter six. This section of the book was by far the most difficult for me to read and analyze. I felt like I was going into a morass every time I tackled it.

Here are some examples; and because this is a long section I am preceding each quote with a mark (~) before I comment on it.

~

Grace is “one-way love” and it is directed at you. This is the opposite of your experience, which is one-way violence. It seeks you out even if you do not deal out any violence in return.
Grace, on the other hand, is being loved when you are or feel unlovable. Grace has the power to turn despair into hope. Grace listens, lifts up, cures, transforms, and heals. To the experience of one-way violence, God brings one-way love. (82)

To assert that the victim’s experience is “one-way violence” is simplistic and unhelpful. Most if not all victims can recall times when their abuser appeared to be loving and showed no signs of violence or abuse. Only when we really come out of the fog and discerningly scrutinize the history do we begin to see that our abuser’s ‘loving’ times were part of the manipulation. And for some of us, that is not so; a few survivors testify that their abuser was indeed truly and consistently loving to them for quite some time early in the marriage, but later he became abusive, perhaps when he backslid into a besetting sin from his past such as alchoholism or porn-addiction.

~

Because abuse encourages you to adopt false beliefs — “I am worthless,” or “I’ve done something wrong and deserve to be punished” — you can also develop dysfunctional emotions such as shame and distress. (76)

In calling distress a ‘dysfunctional emotion’, the Holcombs are stuck in the deficit model of victimology. When I’m mistreated, I don’t feel content about that, I feel distressed! Emotions of distress are highly functional — they are warning signs that, very likely, my boundaries have been violated and my human rights ignored.

~

The good news is that reorienting your beliefs can also gradually help your emotions return to normal. Our hope is that the grace of God — which declares you valuable, beautiful and worthy of respect — would be key to dismantling the debilating emotions caused by your abuse and nurturing new, positive emotions within you. (76)

[Trigger de-fuse from Barb.  It was not your abuse, by which I mean — you did not do it. You were not the agent, you were the object of the abuse. Your abuser did it to you.]

Biblically speaking, am I valuable, beautiful and worthy of respect? Or is that just sappy encouragement like the ‘princess’ theology which is so prevalent in parts of the church these days?

Valuable? — does the grace of God declare people valuable and beautiful? Yes and no. Those whom God has chosen, who are born again in Christ, are especially valuable to Him as His adopted children; but if we emphasize our personal ‘value’ we run the risk of encouraging hubris and pride. It’s unwise for me to judge my own value, as that is for God to assess, not me (1 Cor. 4:3). And the value of a believer’s works will be made evident on the Day when a lot of hay and stubble will be burnt up and only truly valuable works will result in eternal rewards for the saved.

Beautiful? I am not beautiful in myself. When God looks on me born again in Christ he sees Christ’s beauty, not mine. My beauty is only because the Holy Spirit dwells in me as a believer, and for that reason I am exhorted not to quench the Spirit and to remember that my body is the temple of the Spirit.

Worthy of Respect?  All humans are worthy of respect as creatures created in God’s image, even though that image has been somewhat blighted and distorted since the Fall.  But I hesitate to say that a Christian, by dint of their salvation, is any more worthy of respect than anyone else on this earth. By asserting that “the grace of God… declares you… worthy of respect”  the Holcombs seem to be building up the self-esteem of the victim at the expense of sound doctrine. The self-esteem gospel is a dangerous distortion and will be the shipwreck of many.

According to sound doctrine, God’s covenant of grace in the gospel does not declare me worthy of respect: rather, it talks about how I am unworthy and undeserving of saving grace. It says I have no merit of my own nor can I earn merit by any effort I may make, but it announces that God has provided forgiveness of sin solely because of the merits of Christ in His obedience to the Law and His suffering the full penalty of God’s wrath for sin. Even my faith is not meritorious; it does not earn me forgiveness — and it does not make me especially ‘worthy of respect’. When I received salvation by the grace of God, I was not made any more worthy than I was before. Salvation by grace does not accrue worth to me, it only makes me grateful for the gift I’ve undeservedly received because of the unspeakable love and unsearchable sovereignty of God.

~

We need to look to the gospel in order to investigate the new emotions that God offers to victims and how they relate to the current emotions victims experience. … This is where grace offers an incredible gift — the gift of refuting faulty thinking and replacing it with God-given truth. What God’s grace can offer you is simply this: it will show you who you are, undistorted. (77).

That’s not bad: ‘refuting faulty thinking’ is a substantial part of our work on this blog.  But look at the example and application they then give (note: there are no typos in this transcription, the awkward syntax is exactly as it appears in p 78 of the book):

To understand how this grace works on practical level, consider this passage from WTS professor Carl Trueman, “Others might tell me that I am a failure, an idiot, a clown, evil, incompetent, vicious, dangerous, pathetic, etc., and these words are not just descriptive: they have a certain power to make me these things, in the eyes of others and even in my own eyes.” In the case of domestic abuse, maybe the problem is also actions. You have had things done to you that have left their mark. You can’t get away from the memory of those things; you feel, deep inside, as though what the abuser has said to you or done to you show you to be bad or worthless, and you can’t break that image.

However, God has the last word — and His word is the one that counts. … God makes an entirely new creature out of the messy raw material that He begins with…

On this, Trueman notes: “But God speaks louder, and his Word is more powerful. You may call me a liar, and you speak truth, for I have lied; but if God declares me righteous, then my lies and your insult are not the final word, nor the most powerful word. Only as God speaks his Word to me, and as I hear that Word in faith, is my reality transformed, and . . . the insult of others, of my own sinful nature, and of the evil one himself cease to constitute my reality.”

Good grief!  Big foot in pothole here! When a Christian abuse victim speaks the truth about her abuser’s evil ways, her abuser — and often the church as well — accuse her of lying. This is a false and cruel accusation: When abuse victims disclose, they do not lie about the abuse, they tell the truth about it — and they get often cricitized and condemned for telling it.

The Holcombs were insensitive to use that quote by Trueman — “You may call me a liar, and you speak truth, for I have lied” —  for it’s analogous to one of the most common slanderous and unjust accusations laid against abuse victims: that she is lying, exaggerating, making it up; that she’s misrepresting what her husband is like!   By using this quote, the Holcombs are going to hurt and trigger victims, rather than help them heal.

Additionally, the victim is likely to read the above passage from the point of view of her abuser. Why? Because while she’s married to this wicked man, and often for quite a while after she leaves him, her head is cabbaged with the abuser. She spends more energy thinking about things from his point of view than from her point of view. (This is one important way she creatively manages risk and walks on eggshells while under his control.)

Reading Trueman’s words from the point of view of her abuser, the victim will readily imagine her abuser saying to himself (and to any naive people in the church he can twist to his point of view):— “People might tell me that I am a failure, an idiot, a clown, evil, incompetent, vicious, dangerous, pathetic, etc., . . . But I’m not! God declares me righteous! God speaks louder and his Word is more powerful. Your insults of me, your claims about me being evil and vicious and dangerous, are not the final word, not the most powerful word. I’m not an abuser!

The Holcombs have tried to help victims of domestic abuse, but in their lack of understanding, their help is sometimes no help.

3. They say “Disgrace is the opposite of grace”. But is this correct?

The New Testament uses the word “grace” (charis) in various ways. To help you understand my concerns about this part of the Holcomb’s work, I have condensed a theological discourse about the word ‘grace’. The entry “Grace”, by Burton Scott Easton in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, vol. 2 (link) (bolding added) says —

1. The word Charis [in ancient Greek usage generally]
Primarily (a) the word seems to denote pleasant external appearance, “gracefulness,” “loveliness” … (b) Objectively,
charis may denote the impression produced by “gracefulness,” … (c) As a mental attribute charis may be translated by “graciousness,” or, when directed toward a particular person or persons, by “favor.” So in Luke 2:52, “Jesus advanced … in favor with God and men.” (d) As the complement to this, charis denotes the emotion awakened in the recipient of such favor, i.e. “gratitude.” … In a slightly transferred sense charis designates the words or emotion in which gratitude is expressed, and so becomes “thanks”… (e) Concretely, charis may mean the act by which graciousness is expressed, …  “liberality,” … “bounty.” These various meanings naturally tend to blend into each other, and in certain cases it is difficult to fix the precise meaning that the writer meant the word to convey, a confusion that is common to both New Testament and secular Greek.

2. Grace as Power
Naturally, the various meanings of the word were simply taken over from ordinary language by the New Testament writers. And so it is quite illegitimate to try to construct on the basis of all the occurrences of the word a single doctrine that will account for all the various usages. … the very elasticity of the word enabled it to receive still another — new and technically Christian — meaning. This seems to have originated in part by fusing together two of the ordinary significances.

In the first place, as in (e) above, charis may mean “a gift.” … [e.g.] the money given by the Corinthians to the Jerusalemites. In 2 Corinthians 9:8 it is the increase of worldly goods that God grants for charitable purposes. In 2 Corinthians 1:15 it is the benefit received by the Corinthians from a visit by Paul.
In a more spiritual sense charis is the endowment for an office in the church (Ephesians 4:7), more particularly for the apostolate (Romans 1:5; 12:3; 15:15; 1 Corinthians 3:10; Ephesians 3:2,7). So in 1 Corinthians 1:4-7 charis is expanded into “word and all knowledge,” endowments with which the Corinthians were especially favored. In 1 Peter 1:13 charis is the future heavenly blessedness that Christians are to receive; in 3:7 it is the present gift of “life.”

In the second place, charis is the word for God’s favor, a sense of the term that is especially refined by St. Paul. But God’s favor differs from man’s in that it cannot be conceived of as inactive. A favorable “thought” of God’s about a man involves of necessity the reception of some blessing by that man, and “to look with favor” is one of the commonest Biblical paraphrases for “bestow a blessing.” Between “God’s favor” and “God’s favors” there exists a relation of active power, and as charis denoted both the favor and the favors, it was the natural word for the power that connected them. This use is very clear in 1 Corinthians 15:10, where Paul says, “not I, but the grace of God which was with me” labored more abundantly than they all: grace is something that labors. So in 2 Corinthians 12:9, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness”; compare 2 Timothy 2:1, “strengthened in the grace,” and 1 Peter 4:10, “stewards of the manifold grace.” Evidently in this sense “grace” is almost a synonym for the Spirit, and there is little real difference between “full of the Holy Spirit” and “full of grace and power” in Acts 6:5,8, while there is a very striking parallel between Ephesians 4:7-13 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, with “gifts of grace” in the one passage, and “gifts of the Spirit” in the other. And this connection between grace and the Spirit is found definitely in the formula “Spirit of grace” in Hebrews 10:29 …

3. Grace in Justification
This meaning of charis was obtained by expanding and combining other meanings. By the opposite process of narrowly restricting one of the meanings of the word, it came again into Christian theology as a technical term, but this time in a sense quite distinct from that just discussed. The formation of this special sense seems to have been the work of Paul. … the word has abundant use in secular Greek in the sense of unmerited favor, and St. Paul seized on this meaning of the word to express a fundamental characteristic of Christianity. The basic passage is Romans 11:5-6, where a definition is given, “If it is by grace, it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.” … “Grace” in this sense is an attitude on God’s part that proceeds entirely from within Himself, and that is conditioned in no way by anything in the objects of His favor. So in Romans 4:4. If salvation is given on the basis of what a man has done, then salvation is given by God as the payment of a debt. But when faith is reckoned for what it is not, i.e. righteousness, there is no claim on man’s part, and he receives as a pure gift something that he has not earned. … “Grace” then, in this sense is the antinomy to “works” or to “law”; it has a special relation to the guilt of sin (Romans 5:20; 6:1), and has almost exactly the same sense as “mercy.” Indeed, “grace” here differs from “mercy” chiefly in connoting eager love as the source of the act … And, of course, it is from the word in this technical Pauline sense that an elaborate Protestant doctrine of grace has been developed.

4. Special Uses 
A few special uses of the word may be noted. … the special blessing of God on a particular undertaking; …  “that which deserves the thanks of God,” i.e. a specifically Christian act as distinguished from an act of “natural morality.” “Grace for grace” in John 1:16 is a difficult phrase, but an almost exact parallel in Philo … may fix the sense as “benefit on benefit.”

But the tendency of the New Testament writers is to combine the various meanings the word can have, something that is particularly well illustrated in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. In these two chapters the word occurs 10 times, but in so many different senses as to suggest that St. Paul is consciously playing with the term. Charis is the money given to the Jerusalemites by the Corinthians (8:19), it is the increase of goods that God will grant the Corinthians (9:8), it is the disposition of the givers (8:6), it is the power of God that has wrought this disposition (8:1; 9:14), it is the act of Christ in the Incarnation (8:9; contrast the distinction between “God’s grace” and “Christ’s act” in Hebrews 2:9), it is the thanks that Paul renders (9:15). That all a Christian is and all that he has is God’s gift could have been stated of course without the use of any special term at all. But in these two chapters Paul has taught this truth by using for the various ideas always the same term and by referring this term to God at the beginning and the end of the section. That is, to the multiplicity of concepts there is given a unity of terminology, corresponding to the unity given the multiple aspects of life by the thought of entire dependence on God. So charis, “grace,” becomes almost an equivalent for “Christianity,” viewed as the religion of dependence on God through Christ. As one may think of entering Christianity, abiding in it, or falling from it, so one may speak of entering into (Romans 5:2), abiding in (Acts 13:43), or falling from (Galatians 5:4) grace; cf. 1 Peter 5:12. So the teaching of Christianity may be summed up as the word or gospel of grace (Acts 14:3; 20:24,32). So “grace be with you” closes the Epistles as a sufficient summary of all the blessings that can be wished Christian readers. At the beginning of the Epistles the words “and peace” are usually added, but this is due only to the influence of the Jewish greeting “peace be with you” (Luke 10:5, etc.), and not to any reflection on “grace” and “peace” as separate things.

I would have had no problem if, when they used the word ‘grace’, the Holcombs had made it clear that they confining their meaning to

  • almost a synonym for the Spirit, and
  • the religion of Christianity viewed as the religion of dependence on God through Christ.

But they don’t confine their use of ‘grace’ to just those meanings. They also use it to mean ‘grace in justification’. And because the justification sense has “a special relation to the guilt of sin” (as Easton explained above) their words can be heard by victims of abuse as pointing to their own guilt — and thus seem to echo the abuser’s accusations that the victim is the guilty one and the blame all lies with her!

Having laid that groundwork, let us go back to the Holcomb’s book:

We like to look at healing from abuse through the lens of grace because we’ve seen so many victims who identify with disgrace. … Your emotions are to be taken seriously and listened to. They are powerful revealers of what you believe about God, yourself, your experience of abuse, others and the world. And when you better understand these emotions you are better able to take control of and shape them according to what is most beneficial for you. This emotional understanding can help you on the journey from disgrace to boundless grace. (75-6)  [emphasis added]

The resurrection of Jesus has also launched new creation and the coming of a new heavens and new earth where disgrace will be replaced by grace, anxiety will give way to peace, and despair will be banished. (90)  [emphasis added]

The Holcombs are not entirely off-beam when they say that the victim is burdened by a feeling of disgrace. But they assert that ‘the opposite of disgrace is grace” (82) and by ‘grace’ here they are referring to God’s grace, not the forebearance type of grace which Christians are exhorted to give to one other. (“Give her grace, dear, she’s had a hard time.”)

I submit that it is misleading and confusing to say disgrace is the opposite of grace. If there is an antonym to ‘the grace of God’, it would be ‘the judgement of God’, particularly the judgement God has for the unbeliever — the unregenerate person who is dead in sin and outside Christ and will therefore be eternally judged for his sin. ‘The grace of God’ and the experience of disgrace are not simple opposites of each other.

The Holcomb’s aphorism: The opposite of disgrace is grace — the grace of God may be heard as an insult by a Christian victim. How? The Holcombs say the victim feels dis-grace and in order to heal she needs ‘the opposite of disgrace — the grace of God.’ If she needs God’s grace, we might easily infer that she doesn’t yet have it. If the kind of grace she does not yet have is the grace of justification, it follows that she doesn’t have saving faith, she needs to be born again, she is unregerenate, she is dead in sin and hasn’t yet entered the Kingdom of light. And the Holcombs do not carefully guard against the reader drawing this conclusion. The result is a potential insult to any woman who is in Christ and who has been abused by a hard-hearted husband.

Now, this may not be how all victims hear it, but some will. I heard it that way. I don’t know how typical my response is for Christian survivors of abuse, but I can guess that if I hear it as a patronizing insult, some others will also. As Easton points out, an elaborate Protestant doctrine of grace has been developed from the technical Pauline sense ‘the grace of justification’. Because that doctrine is so elaborate, and because we in the conservative evangelical church are so well schooled in it, I unblinkingly interpreted the Holcomb’s use of ‘grace’ to mean ‘the grace of justification’ — and felt aggrieved when I heard them implying I was not regenerate and needed to be born again!

The opposite of disgrace is grace, the grace of God” is an aphorism that cannot be found in the Bible. Probably the Holcombs coined it thinking it would help victims, but if it is capable of an offensive interpretation, it should not have been coined, let alone used in the context of abuse.

Furthermore, I think it presumptuous to assert that victims feel disgrace. In my experience, victims rarely use the word ‘disgrace’ to describe their experiences. Rather, they say they feel confusion, bewilderment, self-doubt, shame, guilt, outrage, anger, grief, and above all, fear. And they say they have been despised, denigrated, disbelieved, belittled, held in contempt and shunned. And — when they are well out of the fog — they may say they were stigmatized.

By putting so much emphasis on  the word ‘disgrace’ the Holcombs have unwittingly enabled mis-attribution of blame to the victim.

When talking about abuse, the word ‘stigma’ is a much more useful word than ‘disgrace’. Abused people do not feel stigma as a mere subjective emotion or negative self-concept from which they will be healed ‘when their faulty thinking is refuted’. No; stigma is a fact. Not only did their abusers stigmatize and besmirch them; in many cases the people in the church stigmatized them too. The word stigma makes it clear that other people were in the wrong. It cannot be construed as something wrong with the abused person, it conveys that something was wrong with the stigmatizers — the abuser and with the weak-kneed/ignorant bystanders — all of whom mistreated the abused person by stigmatizing them.

Side note: I am aware that the Holcomb’s titled their earlier book Rid Of My Disgrace based on Tamar’s words when she was resisting Amnon’s demand that she fornicate with him: What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? (2 Samuel 13:13 NIV).  I’m guessing the Holcombs chose to use the NIV there because it was convenient for their ‘grace is the opposite of disgrace’ coinage. A quick search of other versions on Bible Gateway shows that 29 versions have ‘shame’, whereas only nine of them use the word ‘disgrace’. Hmm.

And in the phrase my disgrace, the possessive pronoun can infer that the victim is wrongful: that she’s brought the disgrace on herself. I believe the translation ‘where could I get rid of my shame’  would be more authentic to the experience of victims, and less potentially offensive to them. All that is needed, with that translation, is to gently point out that the shame is FALSE shame, imprinted on the victim by the abuser’s assaults and lies, and, as false shame, it can dispelled by the truth that the victim is not to blame — the shame needs to be prayerfully handed back to the abuser.

Be that as it may, the whole grace/disgrace opposition strikes me as having appeal as a soundbite, but woefully insufficient for theological and semantic accuracy.

And even if a victim does identify with the word ‘disgrace’, it is unwise to tell a Christian victim who has any depth in her theology that what she needs to understand and grasp is grace, the grace of God. This is the kind of (unthinking) arrogance in Christian leaders and counselors that we commonly find: they assume they know what the victim needs, how she ‘should’ think, and how she needs to change.

As I noted above, the Holcombs are not telling the church that it ought to extend grace to victims by being gentle with them while they recover from trauma. No; the Holcombs are telling victims what they need and what will help them. By telling readers that the victim needs the grace of God in order to obtain healing for her feeling of ‘disgrace’, the Holcombs could inadvertently inflate the self-conceit of many pastors and leaders by confirming them in their arrogant belief that they know what the victim needs and they have the right to tell her what she should focus on and what she ought to be doing.

The opposite of disgrace is honor, esteem, and respect

Let’s look at this from the point of view of plain English. In English, lists of antonyms for disgrace rarely include the word ‘grace’. The most common antonyms of disgrace are honour, esteem, respect. 

In my observation and experience, a victim typically needs honor, respect and esteem from those around her because she has been dishonoured, disrespected and disesteemed by her abuser.

A victim usually also benefits from interaction with other recovering victim/survivors so she can identify and know that she is not alone.

Honor, respect, and esteem from others, and opportunities to share with other survivors: these things will be balm to her aching heart. They will help wash away the trauma and shame and grief she has experienced, and thus free her to be gently healed by the Holy Spirit, in His perfect timing and gentle hands . . . not the rough fisted hands of the pastors and counsellors who have her all worked out (if only she would comply and fit into their little box).

In my experience, speaking generally, a victim also benefits from explanatory biblical teaching that accurately dismantles, refutes and eradicates the false doctrines, biased interpretations of scripture, and false guilts under which she has been trapped and imprisoned, all the ‘shoulds’ that are laid on victims, some of which are:

  • forgive him regardless; if you refuse to forgive him when he says he’s repented, you’re the bigger sinner
  • do not gossip (talking about your husband’s wickedness is gossip)
  • do not judge, think no negatives about others
  • you can and must lead him to the Lord by your prayer and gentle demeanour
  • submit to your husband (unless he asks you to do something extreme like group sex and then you must refuse nicely, in submissive tonalities)
  • marriage is momentary, so suck it up
  • you must not take a brother to court
  • if you divorce you will sin —  ‘God hates divorce!’
  • go to couple counseling or comply with the Peacemakers (trademark) program

Victims do need help and allies in the church. But victims just as much or even more need sound theology (like we all do!)

Some people may protest that I am making too big a deal of the Holcomb’s hermeneutic on grace. After all, the Holcombs are advising victims to leave their abusers — so they are much better than many other Christian authors! They are allies of victims, not opposers of victims.

However, we need to bear in mind that we all need sound theology and that impure theology is very dangerous. Scripture tells us that the Father will not allow the devil to pluck any of the elect from Christ’s hand; but at the same time, we don’t over-spiritualise that and rest on our backsides because of it. We try to learn and teach complete un-alloyed truth about the gospel. That is the thing which will guide people and most assuredly keep people in Christ unto the end.

I believe the Holcombs have an inadequate idea of grace and what they teach about it is dangerous. Therefore, even though their book may be of some help to targets of abuse, it will not help them the whole way because it mis-handles the doctrine of grace.

I strive to see God’s perspective in this. Yes; God must surely be glad if victims are helped to get free of their abusers by a book like Is It My Fault?. But ultimately, what is most important?

  • Being freed from an anti-spouse is a blessing that is temporal.
  • Being freed from sub-biblical ideas of the gospel is a blessing that possibly has eternal implications and benefits as well as temporal ones.
  • But being freed from an anti-spouse will not ultimately help the abused if the abused end up in Hell because they’ve swallowed a false gospel and believe themselves to be Christians when they are not. And as we know, false gospels can be very very subtle.

Sadly I think the Holcomb’s teaching on grace is subtly and dangerously off course. Perhaps they do not realise this, but why does Justin Holcombe teach at a seminary if he does not properly understand the Bible’s teaching on grace, or, if he does understand it, cannot adequately convey it in his published words?

Final thought

1 Peter 5:8-10 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

Sadly, the Holcombs never quote this passage, and yet to my mind it’s the most appropriate passage containing the word ‘grace’ which we can offer to a Christian victim of abuse. For it sets forth this truth: After we have been nearly devoured by the adversary —  by abusers who oppose God and are under the power of the devil — the God of all grace restores, confirms, strengthens and establishes us.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Links to Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 4 of this review. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

For word-lovers (logophiles)

‘Disgrace’ is a word with a wide range of uses in English. Disgrace (noun) can be incurred by one’s own actions, or it can fall upon one by the disfavour of another, through no fault of one’s own. As a verb, it can mean to BE a disgrace or shame to, or to CAST shame or discredit upon.

Disgrace (definition)

noun:

  • the state of having lost the esteem of others
  • the condition of shame, dishonor
  • loss of respect or reputation, loss of honor, ignominy
  • a shameful person, thing, or state of affairs
  • the condition of being strongly and generally disapproved
  • something that brings disfavor or discredit: your handwriting is a disgrace.
  • exclusion from confidence or trust: he is in disgrace with his father 
  • the state of being out of favorcourtiers and ministers in disgrace.

transitive verb:

  • to bring shame or dishonor on
  • to deprive of favor or good repute;
  • to treat or cause to be treated with disfavour
  • to deprive of favor or good repute
  • to bring shame upon; be a discredit to
  • to bring or reflect shame or reproach upon
  • to dismiss with discredit; rebuke or humiliate: to be disgraced at court.

Antonyms of grace (link): cruelty, hardness, harshness, implacability, justice, penalty, punishment, revenge, rigor, severity, sternness, vengeance.

More antonyms of grace (link): blemish, coarseness, crudeness, cruelty, defect, deficiency, demerit, disvalue, drawback, failing, fault, flamboyance, flashiness, flaw, garishness, gaudiness, glitz, gracelessness, grotesqueness, grotesquerie, hardness, harshness, hindrance, hurdle, impediment, implacability, inelegance, interference, justice, kitsch, minus, negative, obstacle, penalty, punishment, revenge, rigor, severity, sternness, tastelessness, tawdriness, unseemliness, vengeance, vulgarity.

14 Comments

  1. “But being freed from an anti-spouse will not ultimately help the abused if the abused end up in Hell because they’ve swallowed a false gospel and believe themselves to be Christians when they are not. And as we know, false gospels can be very very subtle.<===This is where I find myself.

    I have been using the truths you've written about in order to get away from my husband who has been abusive. *Using* being the key word. I have NO idea if God actually wants me to.

    When I asked Pastor Crippen, "How can I know if I'm really saved" he asked me, "Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness?" The answer is, "No". And even now it is even worse because coming to Christ must be only because I am repenting of being a sinner and not because I fear the divorce my husband wants and is ready to execute.

    • I have been using the truths you’ve written about in order to get away from my husband who has been abusive. *Using* being the key word. I have NO idea if God actually wants me to.

      Dear 7stelle,

      Does God want you to believe truth? Of course he does. God is light and truth. He wants us to use truth and to apply truth to our lives. Truth displease a lot of people (those who prefer darkness to light), but it does not displease God!

      It may feel weird and awkward and unfamiliar to use the truths that we articulate at this blog to get away from your husband, but that doesn’t mean you are being selfish or self-serving. Nor it is wrong to apply those truths to get away from your husband without having had a *personalized, sign or word from God* that He wants you to do that.

      When Biblical precepts (truths about how to live godly lives) are told us explicitly in the Word, we can rest assured we can apply them to our lives without waiting from a personalized green light from God. Some pentecostal, charsimatic and ‘holiness’ streams of Christianty emphasise waiting for that magical personalized green light from God before one takes steps (especially steps of change) in one’s life, but that seems to me to be super-spiritual, superstitious foolishness.

      Now, I know that abuse victims are wise to assess their risks (e.g. leaving versus staying: each pose risks) but that is different from supersitious waiting on God for the green light to do what he had already clearly told us to do in his Word.

      Am I hitting any marks here? I’m not sure. Put it aside if it’s not hitting the mark of where you are stuck right now. . .

      If it feels weird and strange to be applying the truths we articulate on this blog to your life, that only points to how much wrong teaching you have imbibed and been brainwashed into in the past.

      Imagine a person who from birth has had physical distortions of her body, some of her muscles are taut all the time and that means her posture is bent out of shape and her head is twisted to one side and some of her fingers are clawed permanently. Then imagine that by some wonderful medical intervention, her severe muscular contractions are relieved and removed and she is able to have normal posture and her body can move in all the normal range of movement that healthy bodies can move in. Wouldn’t such a person feel weird? Wouldn’t she feel that her body was ‘out of shape’ and she was doing things that were ‘wrong’? I think for quite a while she would feel that. Her brain had been accustomed to the distortion, and so when the distortion was removed, her brain said “That’s not normal!”

      Is your experience somewhat like that ?

      If so, I suggest you allow and coach your brain to get used to the new normal, the healthy normal, for it is a much more Christlike normal. 🙂

      God came into the world so that we may have life and life abundantly.

      When I asked Pastor Crippen, “How can I know if I’m really saved” he asked me, “Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness?” The answer is, “No”.

      Actually, I suspect that when you answered “No” to Pastor’s question, you were answering that from the part of your brain that thinks the distorted body is normal. Would I be right there?

      And even now it is even worse because coming to Christ must be only because I am repenting of being a sinner and not because I fear the divorce my husband wants and is ready to execute.

      I’m not sure I understand what you meant there. If you want to explain, do so, but if you want to let it go unexplained, that’s fine. 🙂

      • 7stelle

        Actually, I suspect that when you answered “No” to Pastor’s question, you were answering that from the part of your brain that thinks the distorted body is normal. Would I be right there?

        –I don’t know for sure, I believe I was answering from I have no God-imparted desire for the things of God.
        I read this and I find it true of myself:

        As long as I “invite Jesus into my life” I can maintain my essential self-centeredness. Jesus may be an important part of my life, adding a wonderful new dimension, but I’m still in control. The gospel of Jesus Christ summons us to something far more radical: it seeks to save us from ourselves, to convert us, to turn us toward God so that He can take his rightful place at the center of our lives. Without that conversion God is only a means to an end, a utilitarian god whom we keep on hand to satisfy our wants. (From the book, “The Power of Realistic Thinking” by Donald W. McCullough )

        I’ve been reading yesterday and today: “Alarm to the Unconverted” by Joseph Alleine. And find myself agreeing to the evidences of not converted, then find no true heartfelt turning. I tremble at what I read, but so does the Devil. I suspect it has something to do with a soul tie to my parents (and my daddy died not too long ago) and to where I grew up. I think longing to go back was due to the fact I basically ran away from having to have to care of them for when they grew old. And then when I married and my husband treated me badly all I could think about was going there. And just in general I was emeshed with my family of origin. I cried for the guy in the Bible who wanted to go say good-bye first to his parents; I identified with it.

        Me: “And even now it is even worse because coming to Christ must be only because I am repenting of being a sinner and not because I fear the divorce my husband wants and is ready to execute.”

        Barb: “I’m not sure I understand what you meant there. If you want to explain, do so, but if you want to let it go unexplained, that’s fine.”

        —I don’t trust my reason for coming to Christ, because I am experiencing so much fear with being on the verge of divorce my motives for coming aren’t right.

        Please pray for a true conversion.

      • Hi 7stelle, I tweaked the format of parts of this comment by putting some of it into block quotes. I’ve my block quotes are inaccurate, please let me and TWBTC know and we’ll re-tweak them.

    • thepersistentwidow

      “How can I know if I’m really saved”

      The Gospel is a proclamation to sinful people that they are made righteousness due solely to the redemption that Christ has bought us. It is not due to anything we have done. It is not subjective. It is outside of us coming from God and objective.

      To be saved, we hear the Gospel and believe it. Believing the Gospel brings a change within us…a desire to please the Lord for this gift of salvation. It doesn’t start within us, but outside of us.

      The Holy Spirit gives us faith to believe. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:4-10

      The fact that you are concerned about being a Christian is proof that you are one because a carnal person would not have that care. I suggest that whenever you wonder about this you look to the Gospel and remind yourself that you believe that Jesus died for your sins. Think more about him and less about yourself and you will experience great relief.

  2. Greater Glory

    It is amazing how you bring such clarity to the haziness. Thank you.

    • thank you, Greater Glory. As I said in the post, it was hard to untangle what was wrong with their concept of grace. I knew, instantly I read it, that it was wrong, but to put in words WHY it was wrong took a lot of thought and research. I thank God that he has given me the time and capacity in my life to grapple with difficult ideas.

  3. Savedbygrace

    And even now it is even worse because coming to Christ must be only because I am repenting of being a sinner and not because I fear the divorce my husband wants and is ready to execute.

    Dear 7stelle
    there are many struggles in resisting abuse and seeing through the fog, I think it’s great that you are grappling with the issue of How can I know if I’m really saved? because as Barbara was saying, the one thing we all need is a strong and lasting foundation, not only for this life but that will see us through to eternity as well.
    I think there are a multitude of reasons and life circumstances that result in people ‘coming to Christ’ – that’s how God’s Spirit works, leading us to come to an end to our own ‘resources’ and knowing that we need rescuing, and yes in the midst of all this we realise our sinfulness and God graciously gifts us with the desire to repent and open ourselves to the love of God that we see in Jesus dying on the cross, punished for our sins so that we can be free. We then become children of God (John 1:12).
    Paul writes in 1Corinthians 2:12 “..we have received the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us”.
    So being a Christian is more about a whole new identity than anything about ‘feeling worthy’ or ‘trying to be good enough’ or ‘being or feeling religious’.
    One of my favourite verses is from 2 Corinthians 5:17
    “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone , the new has come!”
    I love it that in Jesus we have a fresh start:)

    I hope this helps-
    another aspect that I have clung to over the last year : when faced with the sad reality of shattered trust in my marriage, and feeling very much in a ‘who can I trust? crisis, I read in a devotional ‘you can trust the man who died for you’

    None of us knows what the future holds but we can know who holds the future and walk into it hand in hand with Him.
    praying for peace and joy in believing for you 7stelle x

  4. Jeff Crippen

    This grace business is an all too frequent tune we hear when abuse takes place in the church. Forgiveness, reconciliation and one of the most favorite – redemption.

    As Barbara points out here, these wonderful meaty, good news of the gospel terms are seriously distorted nowadays in a way that guilts victims who sense a call for justice is needed, and empowers the wicked who are all too ready to fake “repentance.” Writers of “repute” with the aid of publishers “of repute” have been feeding Christians a diet of this stuff for decades now and it is time to put a halt to it all.

    When a Holy Spirit urge within real Christians calls for justice, and these celebrities in Christendom retort that such a call is bitterness and unforgiveness, we must no longer permit them to get away with that nonsense. And that is what Barbara is doing here in the book review series.

    While this book by the Holcombs is certainly not one of the worst by any means, it nevertheless contains serious errors regarding grace and related doctrines that need to be corrected by the authors. The Holcombs will hear nothing but praise from us if they will acknowledge those errors, correct them, and thereby help victims even more.

  5. standsfortruth

    Thank you for this post Barbara.
    I felt validated reading this as i saw the subtle substitutes more clearly as you compared them with Gods Word.
    Victims have been gaslighted and sold lies so much throughout their lives, that they need clarity in a big way to navigate safely through the fog of all the abuse, to escape into the clear of truth.
    Anything short of interpreting Gods word accurately has the potential of aiming the victim off course again.
    If there was a “like button” in each section throughout this post I most certainly would have been hitting it along the way.

    When i was deep in the fog of abuse, (before I knew about ACFJ) one of my coping strategies was to “dissociate acts of maliciousness” from my abuser,” so i could continue to be functional in my life.
    Otherwise if I allowed myself to acknowledge this intentional abuse towards me, once it happened, I could not fuction.
    Although this “dissociation stradegy” often worked to get me through my days duties, when I went to sleep at night, the reality of the abuse came back to trouble me at night.
    One of the books interpretations of grace, “the mood enhancer” brings back memories of how i used this dissociation stradegy that only allowed me the temporary escape.

  6. Anon

    Wow, thank you for such a detailed and rigorous analysis. I really hope that not only the Holcombs, but all other authors/pastors/leaders will take note of the points here. Heartfelt and honest feedback is a rare and valuable gift that doesn’t often come by. We like to hear what we want to hear, but it is what we miss (often by a mile) that makes us effective where we would have failed. I’m often wondered if there may come a time where survivors/advocates throw their hands in the air, not just out of exasperation of not being heard, but also out of sheer fatigue of having to repeat the same things over and over again.

    There’s so much I want to highlight and affirm, but I would end up highlighting most of the article. Like Standsfortruth, I also wish that there was a like button for different segments.

    But if I had to highlight my favorite part, it would be the following:

    As I noted above, the Holcombs are not telling the church that it ought to extend grace to victims by being gentle with them while they recover from trauma. No; the Holcombs are telling victims what they need and what will help them. By telling readers that the victim needs the grace of God in order to obtain healing for her feeling of ‘disgrace’, the Holcombs could inadvertently inflate the self-conceit of many pastors and leaders by confirming them in their arrogant belief that they know what the victim needs and they have the right to tell her what she should focus on and what she ought to be doing.

    And the part I find a bit yucky?

    We like to look at healing from abuse through the lens of grace because we’ve seen so many victims who identify with disgrace. … Your emotions are to be taken seriously and listened to. They are powerful revealers of what you believe about God, yourself, your experience of abuse, others and the world. And when you better understand these emotions you are better able to take control of and shape them according to what is most beneficial for you.

    I’m sure the authors were well-meaning, but the impression I get is that they presume that victims don’t take their emotions seriously, and therefore do not know what they believe about God, themselves and their experience of abuse, etc. While that may partly true, it makes presumptions about me when they don’t know my situation, which is reminiscent of the treatment I typically get in church. Y’know the stuff – single mom, oh yeah, you must be like this and like that, and you need this type of ministry. The other rather small but significant point is that while emotions reveal our beliefs, our beliefs have been shaped by the experience of abuse. It is part of the dynamic of abuse that we have a certain worldview. Those beliefs don’t cause or maintain the abuse, they are products and symptoms of abuse. Tackle the abuse and those beliefs start to change. The focus must be on stopping the perpetrator’s abuse.

    On a rather similar note, these authors are not too dissimilar from other authors or preachers when they invoke the grace of God to dampen/silence feelings of unworthiness. I have often wondered why it doesn’t seem to work with individuals who perpetually feel depressed and low in self-esteem. It seems that God made us to get those messages ingrained and do their work to lay a foundation of self-worth in childhood. Any messages given as an adult doesn’t trump those messages, because they are filtered through those original messages. To undo those original messages takes a lot of work (including realizing that adults lied and were wrong) and to a certain extent, adults may have to learn to live never “feeling” the same sense of self-worth but know anyway, in the mind, that they can live their lives in the truth and grace of God.

    • Thank you, Anon!

      your lengthy comment is very much appreciated by the post writer who write extraordinarily lengthy posts 😦 🙂

      • Anon

        I prefer reading a thorough analysis to a half-baked one, so keep them coming! Sometimes, it’s just difficult trying to condense what you’re trying to convey without being misunderstood.

        If there was a take-home message that I wished Christian leaders in general would take to heart, it would be something once claimed by Lundy Bancroft: You cannot solve a problem by adding to it. If victims are disempowered, and if abusers consistently tell victims that they need to be told what to do, then you can’t empower victims or solve the problem of abuse by reinforcing the abuser’s message. Stop presuming to know what the victim’s needs are, and how your interpretation of the Bible applies to them, at least not without checking things out with victims. If that feels like I’m telling people in authority what to do, and if that feels down-putting, well, I suppose that’s what being told what to do feels like!

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