God promises grace to battle sin and to overcome sin. We believe that God gives that kind of grace to his people. This is not something we deserve; it is not something he owes us, but he gives it anyway. It is undeserved, the overflow of his love for us.
And we long for that grace—the grace to put sin to death, the grace to bring righteousness to life, the grace to be who and what God calls us to be.
God gives that grace, but for some reason—his good reasons—it rarely comes in the form we would prefer. God gives it not in the form we want but in the form we need. We want God to zap away our sin, to instantly and permanently remove it. Those desires, those addictions, those idolatries—we want them to be lifted and to be gone that very moment.
God could do this. He has the strength and the power. And occasionally he does do this, he removes the sin and the temptation to sin in an instant, and it never comes back with the same strength and the same force.
But more commonly God’s grace is not manifested in the instant obliteration of a sin. Instead, his grace is manifested in a newfound desire to destroy that sin. God does not zap away our sin, but gives us a new hatred for it and a new desire to do the hard work of battling it. He does not sovereignly remove it in a moment, but extends grace so we can battle it for a lifetime. He extends grace so we can see continuous, incremental success, knowing our weakness and crying out for his strength. He gives what we need, even if it isn’t quite what we want.
And this, too, is grace. This, too, is undeserved favor from a loving God. This, somehow, must be far better for us than the alternative. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Sexual asssault is all over the news today. Headlines in the United States tell of a long list of woman who have accused Bill Cosby of assault, and tell of college campuses where rape is shockingly common. Headlines in Canada tell of reporter Jiam Gomeshi and his ugly history of sexual violence. It is my sincere hope that these stories spark new and better discussions about the prevalence of sexual assault, how we can prevent it, and how we can respond to it.
Though the incidence of sexual assault is high, the rate of conviction is low. The majority of sexual assault goes unreported and the majority of those who commit sexual assault go unpunished. While the law needs to protect those who are unjustly accused, in cases of sexual assault it seems like the process of law can actually re-victimize the victims. And this helps explain why victims can be so hesitant to report the crime, and why accustations can take many years to come to light. The sin is awful and the aftermath can be excruciating.
Pastor Justin Holcomb has given a great deal of attention to this topic over the past few years, and I recently spoke to him about sexual assault in light of today’s headlines.
The law states that a person is considered innocent until he is proven guilty. Yet in many cases it is very difficult to prove sexual assault simply because it is one person’s word against another’s in a context in which there are no witnesses. Is there a solution to this, where we take seriously a person’s charge of sexual assault, yet while still requiring the burden of proof?
The burden of proof is to determine if a crime has been committed, but we do not need to same burden of proof to determine if we should serve and care for the person claiming that they have been sexually assault.
With regard to the reporting of sexual assault, there are two major issues to consider—false reporting and under reporting. While under reporting is a major concern, false reporting is not. Actually, false reports are quite rare. The figure often used by sexual violence experts for estimating falsified reports is 2 percent, which is a slightly lower rate than other crimes.
It is well established that many victims of sexual assault refuse to go to the police because they know that they will face a grueling and humiliating process of questioning to establish whether they truly were victimized. Is there a way we can take charges seriously, yet while protecting the dignity of those who may have been the victims of assault? Why do so many victims of sexual assault choose not to charge their attacker, or perhaps even to tell anyone else about their experience? Is there something we, as Christians and as churches can do to help people speak up?
According to the FBI, sexual assault is “one of the most under-reported crimes due primarily to fear and/or embarrassment on the part of the victim.”
Given the horrific nature of sexual assault and the shame it brings to victims, it is not shocking that it is one of the most underreported crimes. The fear of intrusive and revictimizing court procedures pre- vents many sexual assault survivors from reporting their assaults. Most sexual assault victims choose not to report their assaults. Factors that keep a victim from reporting the crime include shame and embarrassment, self-blame, fear of media exposure, fear of further injury or retaliation, fear of one’s own family and community response, and fear of a legal system that often puts the victim’s behavior and history on trial.
Research on attitudes toward sexual assault has demonstrated that individuals in our society hold many prejudices about and negative views of sexual assault victims. So, victims often suffer not only from the trauma of the assault itself but also from the effects of these negative stereotypes. The result is that victims feel socially derogated and blamed following their sexual assault, which can prolong, continue, and intensify the substantial psychological and emotional distress the victim experiences. It is clear that negative reactions from family, friends, loved ones, and society have a harmful effect on victims.
Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized in American society, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There is a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. Research findings suggest blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only wrong but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims are being believed and being listened to by others.
Christians can listen to them and tell them, “I believe you. I’m sorry that this sin and crime happened to you.” They can also offer to help: “If you want to report this, I’ll go with you so you are not alone.”
One of the tricky issues related to sexual assault is the issue of consent—consent to participate in sexual activity in general or specific sexual activities. Is consent given one time at the outset of sexual activity, or must consent be given on an ongoing basis? How should we think Christianly about consent?
A key concept in cases of sexual assault is that the victim did not consent to the sexual contact.
Consent is when an individual is freely able to make a choice based upon respect and equal power, and with the understanding that there is the freedom to change her or his mind at any time. To judge whether a sexual act is assault, we ask: (1) Are both people old enough to consent? (2) Do both people have the capacity to consent? (3) Did both agree to the sexual contact? If any of these are answered “no,” it is likely that sexual assault has occurred.
Consent requires communicating “yes” to engaging in a particular act. Consent is not given when one person says “no,” says nothing, is coerced, is physically forced, is mentally or physically helpless, is intoxicated, is under the influence of drugs, or is unconscious. Nor does it occur any time that consent is not explicitly given. Having given consent on a previous occasion does not mean that a person has consented for any future sexual encounter. The law generally assumes that a person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened, or is unconscious, drugged, a minor, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, or believes they are undergoing a medical procedure.
What should Christians know about those who have experienced sexual assault?
While the prevalence of sexual assault is staggering, the only thing more staggering the acute damage done to the victims. As sobering as the statistics are, they don’t begin to speak to the darkness and grief experienced by victims. Sexual assault causes huge amounts of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual pain.
Sexual assault causes harmful psychological effects that are more severe than effects of other crimes. During an assault, most victims feel terrified, fearful, helpless, humiliated, and confused. Afterward, any of these feelings can persist and intensify, especially terror and fear.
The most common psychological symptoms associated with sexual assault were anxiety and fear. Because sexual assault is always traumatizing, victims are three times more likely than non-victims to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, twenty-six times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
Various factors are linked to traumatic distress or feelings of disgrace from sexual assault. These include denial, shame, guilt, anger, distorted self-image, and despair. Victims want and need a clear explanation of how the gospel applies to their experience of sexual assault and its effects in their lives. They need the kind of hope and healing that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide.
In our book, Rid of My Disgrace, Lindsey and I wrote exactly what we wanted survivors to hear in the opening paragraph: “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” (page 15).
While the majority of sexual assault happens outside the context of marriage, sexual assault can also happen within marriage. What constitutes sexual assault within marriage? How should women respond who have been assaulted by their husbands and how should the church help them?
Sexual assault can occur in marriage. As a matter of fact, researchers have estimated that sexual assault occurs in 10–14% of all marriages.
If a woman has been sexually assaulted by her husband, there is likely a pattern of more abuse and constitutes domestic abuse. Lindsey and I wrote, Is It My Fault? to serve women suffering domestic violence and the ministry leaders, families, and friends that serve them.
Sexual assault in marriage is a sin and a crime and, if the wife files a police report or wants church leaders to respond, the abuser must be confronted concerning his breaking of the marriage covenant.
If the church gets involved, this is not a case for couples counseling by the pastor. The wife will not be free to be honest since the abusive husband will threaten her with more violence not to tell the truth.
This type of abuse is a form of oppression that twists God’s good intention of marriage. One scholar puts it this way: “Spousal abuse not only violates an individual victim but also ravages the covenant of marriage itself, affecting families, society, and the community charged with sustaining promises of faithful love.”
Some abusive spouses may use Scripture against their victim by misusing verses such as 1 Corinthians 7:5: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Some wrongly conclude that this verse connotes that the spouse owes her husband by giving her body to him whenever he pleases. But this reading misses that the marriage bed is about giving to one another willingly, rather than through coercion.
What are some specific ways we can minister to those who have suffered sexual assault? What are things to avoid?
Thankfully, this is a common question, so Lindsey and I made a list. If you are a loved one, friend, or pastor serving a victim of sexual assault, here are some suggestions on how to best care for that person.
- Don’t minimize or deny what happened to the victim.
- Listen. Don’t judge or blame the victim for the assault. Research has proven that victims tend to have an easier adjustment after abuse or an assault when they are believed and listened to by others.
- Do not to ask probing questions about the assault. Questions like this can cause revictimization. Follow the victim’s lead and listen.
- Let the victim know the assault(s) was not his or her fault.
- Reassure the victim that he or she is cared for and loved.
- Let the victim know that he or she does not have to manage this crisis alone.
- Be patient. Remember, it takes time to deal with the crime.
- Remember that each sexual assault victim has different needs. What may have been beneficial for one person might not work for another.
- Empower the victim. Refrain from telling him or her what should be done and from making decisions on the victim’s behalf. Present the victim with options and help him or her think through them.
- Encourage the sexual assault victim to seek medical attention.
- Encourage the victim to talk about the assault(s) with an advocate, pastor, mental health professional, law enforcement officer, another victim, or a trusted friend.
- Fight on behalf of the victim against the lies and challenge the myths and misconceptions about sexual assault.
- Take care of yourself. As a support person, you need to be healthy in your caregiving role.
- Learn what to say and what not to say.
- Avoid placating statements as an attempt to make the victim feel better.
- Take time to notice where the victim is in the healing process and do not rush him or her through it. Help the victim keep moving through it at a pace comfortable to him or her rather than trying to force progression to a different stage immediately.
If you are a husband or a wife who is supporting your spouse through the effects of sexual assault, here are two specific suggestions:
- Encourage him or her to tell a trusted friend or friends. It is a good idea for the victim to have a broad support base, as it can be exhausting if the supporting spouse is the only one involved. You won’t always be available to talk, and at times it can be easier for a victim to talk to someone of the same sex about certain dimensions of an assault.
- Don’t ever press or whine for sex or intimacy.
If you are a parent or guardian who is supporting a child through the effects of sexual assault, here are two specific suggestions:
- Advocate for your child. This means pursuing justice by calling the police and finding a good counselor who knows how to deal with the sexual abuse of children.
- If the assault occurred because of your negligence, apologize to your child and ask your child to forgive you.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to say: “Yes, I’ll pray about that.” And it’s the easiest thing to neglect. The list of all the things I’ve said I’d pray for but then forgotten about would stretch from here to next year. So I’ve started to say, “No, I won’t pray for you.” I am still not entirely comfortable with it, but I think it’s the right thing to do.
We recently had someone—a stranger—call the church to ask for prayer. She called out of the blue one morning, from a phone number far away. She said she was feeling sick and needed people to pray for her. Every day for the next six months. “Can I count on you to pray for me?”
For one of the first times in my life I felt total freedom. I said, “I am going to pray for you once, but I will not pray for you every day. I will not pray for you for six months.” I explained that I have my own church to care for, and that I need to pray for those people. I asked about her church and she told me where she attends. I recognized it as a good church, full of people who pray, and pastors who care. I explained that God expects her church to care for her, and her church to pray for her, and that calling all the churches in Toronto and asking them to heap up prayers for someone they don’t know may be little more than superstition.
I thought I got through to her. But a week later the phone rang again and it was the same woman. She had obviously forgotten to scratch the name of our church off her list. I reminded her of what I said last time and told her that I was not praying for her anymore. She hung up on me.
I once spent a couple of hours with a small group of people and a well-known pastor whose voice goes out on the radio and who has listeners around the world. He is a man of prayer, and one who battles against the easy “Pray for me!” He understands that some people think his prayers are especially powerful because he is a celebrity; he understands that some people have disobediently distanced themselves from the local church and are now looking for someone, anyone, to pray for them; he understands that some people are superstitious toward prayer. So he told how he learned to say “No.” Even better, he learned to say, “I will pray for you right now but then I expect you to go to your local church and ask them to pray for you.” He prays immediately and prays once, but no more.
I learned from him, and feel the freedom not to pray. I feel the freedom not to pray because I cannot pray for everyone and everything. God has given me spheres of responsibility and a finite amount of time. I have to use the best and the bulk of my time to care for those people who are closest to me—my family, my friends, my neighbors, my church. One of the ways I care for them is by praying for them. But since there is much more to my life than prayer, I have to use that prayer time well, giving it to those matters and those people I am most responsible for. And that is what I attempt to do—to pray earnestly and repeatedly for the people I am responsible for, and to allow others to pray for the people they are responsible for.
I am quite sure it is better this way. It gives me an opportunity to teach people about prayer, it gives me an opportunity to model prayer, and it keeps me from saying I will do what I will not and cannot do.
Hold on! Is it a book about prayer? Another book about prayer? Is there any possible way we can benefit from yet another book on the subject of prayer? Tim Keller’s Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God answers with a decisive yes.
Now here’s the interesting thing. There is not much new in this new book. As Keller says, the best books on prayer have already been written. So instead of pursuing novelty (see The Prayer of Jabez or The Circle Maker or a thousand other books) Keller looks to the past, to the deep wells of Christian history, and draws heavily from Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, and Edwards (and, in more recent history, Edmund Clowney). He understands that any new insights on prayer tend to go farther from rather than closer to biblical truth. Instead of looking for new secrets to discover or keys to unlock, Keller looks for fresh ways of saying those old things. Again, there is nothing profoundly new in this new book, but that is its strength, not its weakness.
Keller begins his book in an interesting place—the tension between two kinds of prayer. Christians tend to describe prayer in one of two ways: communion-centered or kingdom-centered. Communion-centered prayer is “a means to experience God’s love and to know oneness with him. [Such authors] promise a life of peace and of continual resting in God. [They] often give radiant testimonies of feeling regularly surrounded by the divine presence.” Kingdom-centered prayer “sees the essence of prayer not as inward resting but as calling on God to bring in his kingdom. Prayer is viewed as a wrestling match, often—or perhaps ordinarily—without a clear sense of God’s immediate presence.” He opts to discard the either-or view and will not drive a wedge between the two. Prayer is both conversation and encounter with God.
This is not to say he advocates the kind of prayer you might find among the Roman Catholic mystics whose books remain so popular today. In fact, he pushes firmly against mysticism, against meditation as being an emptying of the mind rather than a filling of it, or against rapturous but mindless prayers. But still he leaves plenty of room for true communion with God, and for the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit who may bring Scripture to mind and cause us to understand it better in those times we are prayerfully meditative. Even as he teaches these things, he leans on the Reformers and Puritans.
As I began to read, I had thought that Keller’s purpose in the book might be to try to resolve the mysteries of prayer. Over time, though, I came to see that this is not the case. There is much about prayer we cannot understand and may never understand on this side of eternity (and perhaps even after). Keller peers into these mysteries, but he does not attempt to resolve them. He understands that prayer will always be difficult and never over-promises, never lays out a plan that, if followed, will supposedly bring guaranteed or overwhelming results. We can grow in our understanding of prayer and our skill at prayer, but we will never solve it, and will never pray perfectly.
One particularly interesting aspect of the book is Keller’s definition of prayer. Few books on prayer pause to actually define prayer, but Keller gives it his best shot. Prayer, he says, is a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God. This accounts for the universality of prayer—all religions, and very nearly all human beings, pray. They pray because they have some knowledge of God through his creation. But as God awakens the hardened hearts of his people, Christians are now able to pray on the basis of much greater and much more specific knowledge. Thus, for the Christian, “praying is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him.”
Early in his book Keller critiques most books on prayer as being “primarily theological or devotional or practical, but seldom do they combine the theological, experiential, and methodological all under one cover.” This is what he has attempted to do, and it is exactly what he has done, as displayed in the book’s five parts: Desiring Prayer, Understanding Prayer, Learning Prayer, Deepening Prayer, Doing Prayer. He has written a winsome, well-rounded book that leads through theory and into practice. It is one of the strongest books on prayer I have ever read and it receives my highest recommendation.