This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Dear survivors of abuse,
What happened to you was not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not deserve it. You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. Nobody had the right to violate you. You are not responsible for what happened to you. You are not damaged goods. You were supposed to be treated with dignity and respect. You were the victim of assault and it was wrong. You were sinned against. Despite all the pain, healing can happen and there is hope.
While you may cognitively agree that hope is out there, you may still feel a major effect of the abuse—disgrace, a deep sense of filthy defilement encumbered with shame.
Disgrace is the opposite of grace. Grace is love that seeks you out even if you have nothing to give in return. Grace 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.
Disgrace destroys, causes pain, deforms, and wounds. It alienates and isolates. Disgrace makes you feel worthless, rejected, unwanted, and repulsive—like a persona non grata (a “person without grace”). Disgrace silences and shuns. Your suffering of disgrace is only increased when others force your silence. The refusals of others to speak about abuse and listen to survivors tell the truth is a refusal to offer grace and healing.
To your sense of disgrace, God restores, heals, and re-creates through grace. A good short definition of grace is “one-way love.”1This is the opposite of your experience of assault, which was “one-way violence.” To your experience of one-way violence, God brings one-way love. The contrast between the two is staggering.
One-way love does not avoid you, but comes near; not because of personal merit, but because of your need. It is the lasting transformation that takes place in human experience. One-way love is the change agent you need for the pain you are experiencing.
Unfortunately, the message you hear most often is self-heal, self-love, and self-help. Abuse survivors are frequently told some version of the following: “One can will one’s well-being”2or “If you are willing to work hard and find good support, you can not only heal but thrive.”3 This sentiment is reflected in the famous quote, “No one can disgrace us but ourselves.”4
This is all horrible news. The reason this is bad news is that victims of abuse are rightfully, and understandably, broken over how they’ve been violated. But those in pain simply may not have the wherewithal to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” On a superficial level, self-esteem techniques and a tough “refusal to allow others to hurt me” tactic may work for the short term. But what happens for the abused person on a bad day, a bad month, or a bad year? Sin and the effects of sin are similar to the laws of inertia: a person (or object) in motion will continue on that trajectory until acted upon by an outside force. If one is devastated by sin, a personal failure to rise above the effects of sin will simply create a snowball effect of shame. Hurting people need something from the outside to stop the downward spiral. Fortunately, grace floods in from the outside at the point when hope to change oneself is lost. Grace declares and promises that you will be healed. One-way love does not command “Heal thyself!” but declares “You will be healed!” Jeremiah 17:14 promises:
Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved,
for you are my praise.
God’s one-way love replaces self-love and is the true path to healing. This is amazingly good news and it highlights the contrast between disgrace and grace, or one-way violence and one-way love. God heals our wounds. Can you receive grace and be rid of your disgrace? With the gospel of Jesus Christ, the answer is yes. Between the Bible’s bookends of creation and restored creation is the unfolding story of redemption. Biblical creation begins in harmony, unity, and peace (shalom), but redemption was needed because, tragically, humanity rebelled and the result was disgrace and destruction—the vandalism of shalom. But because God is faithful and compassionate, he restores his fallen creation and responds with grace and redemption. This good news is fully expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and its scope is as “far as the curse is found.”5 Jesus is the redemptive work of God in our own history, in our own human flesh.
God’s one-way love replaces self-love and is the true path to healing.
Martin Luther describes this good news: “God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead. . . . He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace.”6This message of the gospel is for all but is particularly relevant to survivors of abuse because you know too well the depths of suffering and the overwhelming sense of disgrace. God applies grace to disgrace and redeems what is destroyed.
In the gospel of Jesus Christ, God demonstrates that he is for us and not against us. Everything we have as believers has been granted to us because of what Jesus has already done for us. God’s blessings are freely yours in Jesus Christ. Now and forever. All by grace. Grace is available because Jesus went through the valley of the shadow of death and rose from death. The gospel engages our life with all its pain, shame, rejection, lostness, sin, and death. So now, to your pain God says, “You will be healed.” To your shame God says, “You can now come to me in confidence.” To your rejection God says, “You are accepted!” To your lostness God says, “You are found and I won’t ever let you go.” To your sin God says, “You are forgiven and I declare you pure and righteous.” To your death the gospel says, “You once were dead, but now you are alive.”
Because of his finished work, anyone who trusts in Jesus Christ can have this comfort in life and in death:
That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.7
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s steadfast love that endures forever. Despite all the pain, healing can happen and there is hope.
Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
- Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 64.
- Marjorie Suchocki, The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum, 1994), 149.
- Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, Beginning to Heal: A First Book for Men and Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 5.
- This quote is attributed to Josh Billings, Henry Wheeler Shaw, and J.G. Holland.
- This line is from the hymn, “Joy to the World.” Isaac Watts, Joy to the World! the Lord is come! (1719). This hymn reminds us that the gospel is good news to a world where every aspect of the cosmos and our existence in it is twisted away from the intention of the Creator’s design by the powers of sin and death.
- Martin Luther, The Seven Penitential Psalms, 1517, as quoted in Day by Day We Magnify Thee: Daily Readings (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1982), 321.
- The Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 1. ccel.org/ creeds/heidelberg-cat.html.
Justin S. and Lindsay A. Holcomb are coauthors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.
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