Justin and Lindsey Holcomb. Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence. Chicago, IL: Moody, 2014. 240 pp. $14.99.
As we sat in the school auditorium where our church meets, I could feel my wife seething beside me. Our pastor had come to a crucial text in one of the Gospels—Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As we listened to him strongly (and faithfully) teach what the Bible says about marriage and divorce, Emily became increasingly agitated—not because of what was said, but because of what hadn’t been. What about women being abused?
Many assume the Bible’s teaching on divorce is too simplistic to deal with such issues. Bad counsel based on incomplete teaching leaves many women (and men) feeling trapped with nowhere to turn when their spouses begin to spiritually, psychologically, physically, or sexually abuse them. When the abuse somehow becomes their fault in the counseling session. When they’re too ashamed to say anything at all—or don’t even know if it “counts.”
Whose Fault Is It?
My wife’s anger was birthed from experiences in both her childhood and adolescent years, and her empathy for several friends who have experienced abuse in their marriages. If we will offer meaningful hope and encouragement to those suffering from domestic violence, we need to know what the Bible says to them.
This is why books like Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence are so necessary. From its opening pages, the Holcombs, who also co-authored Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault (Crossway, 2011), offer a compassionate and biblical look at the problem of domestic violence, beginning with five words victims need to hear: It is never your fault.
No matter what kind of abuse you have experienced, there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you think that makes you deserving of it. There is no mistake you could have made and no sin you could have committed to make you deserving of violence.
You did not deserve this. And it is never your fault.
You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. You are not damaged goods, forgotten or ignored by God, or “getting what you deserve.” (21)
These truths should be obvious, but for someone in an abusive relationship, they’re anything but. And I’m not sure how obvious they are to some of us who aren’t. For example, we tend to look at marital problems and try to figure out how to divide responsibility equally between spouses. While some measure of “shared blame” is certainly warranted in most relationships, we need to be careful to not apply this assumption too broadly. Sometimes, it really is the problem of just one person—and in the case of domestic violence, in whatever form it takes, it is always the abuser’s fault.
Although a bit of a loose example, consider the shootings in May in Santa Barbara, California, when 22-year-old Elliott Rodger stabbed three people to death, shot three more, and left 13 more injured before killing himself. Why did he do it? Because “girls have never been attracted to me,” he said. What surprised me wasn’t that Rodger placed the blame for his yet-to-be-committed crimes on women, but that some online commenters seemed to agree—saying that if he wasn’t a virgin, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
Yeah. Someone actually said that.
What Is Domestic Violence?
Keeping this background in mind is especially important when you consider how tricky it can be to develop a concrete definition of domestic violence. You need one broad enough to capture the full spectrum of abuse without leaving all readers paranoid they’re either being abused or are abusers themselves. Here’s the Holcombs’ definition:
Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner. (57)
Despite being a little clinical, and maybe a bit lawyer-y, this definition is strong. I believe the key word here is pattern. An abuser isn’t necessarily someone who says something stupid and hurtful once (again, if that were the case, we would all be abusers). An abuser is someone who makes an intentional behavior of it. Sinful and hurtful words must be dealt with, but we ought not label the one-time offender—depending on the nature of the offense—as being guilty of domestic violence. (There’s no such thing as being just a little stabby.)
What Will God Do About It?
The first several chapters of the book offer necessary definitions and categories readers may lack; beyond a definition of domestic violence, they may not know what the cycle of abuse looks like, or what types of personas exist among abusers—all of which the Holcombs provide. But the strength of Is It My Fault?really comes through when they turn to the Scriptures to show readers what God says about this issue. They display a God who “hates abuse, viewing it as sinful and unacceptable” (107), and who “delights in rescuing the oppressed (2 Sam. 22:49)” (108).
This testimony isn’t always easy for us to believe, though. In their day-to-day circumstance, many suffering abuse struggle to see God at work. They cry out asking for the Lord to deliver them, just as David did many times in the psalms. But it’s the tension we all face. Suffering and pain are real, but deliverance is real, too—even if it doesn’t come when or how we wish it did. Despite how it may seem at times, “God is not standing idly by to watch evil run its course. He will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and recreation” (113).
I appreciate how the Holcombs hold this tension in their reflections on selected psalms. They don’t offer a pat “God’s in control,” though that would be easy to do. Instead they dig into the reality of the pain, the difficulty of the circumstances. But they don’t leave us there. Instead, they redirect despair to hope, showing how we can be confident that God’s deliverance will come.
This, arguably, may be the most vital practical takeaway for readers (aside from the helpful action plan in the appendices). When the darkness won’t lift, we need the hope that God isn’t ignoring our circumstances. That God is at work, even when we can’t see it. That his promises are still true—and because his promises are true, hope cannot be extinguished.
What Will We Do About It?
Is It My Fault? will provoke some strong feelings: anger that abuse happens at all, perhaps the temptation to seek vengeance, a longing for Jesus’ return and the coming the new creation. I hope it reminds readers that none of us can stand by when abuse occurs in our homes or in our churches. In those situations, our goal should always be to bring hope into the darkness of abuse. To humbly, earnestly, and uncompromisingly call perpetrators to repentance and let them endure the consequences of their actions. To offer compassion to victims and let them begin some form of healing, all the while holding out the promise of the final restoration Jesus will bring when he comes to wipe every tear from our eyes.
This is what victims of abuse need and, by God’s grace, it’s what we can offer if we’re willing.
Aaron Armstrong is the author of Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty (Cruciform Press, 2011). He is a writer for an international Christian ministry focused on caring for the needs of the poor, serves as an itinerate preacher throughout southern Ontario, Canada, and blogs daily at Blogging Theologically.