Sexual Assault: Disgrace and Grace
The number of occurrences of sexual assaults is staggering. At least 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. More staggering than the prevalence is the damage done to the victim. The effects are physical, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Sexual assault is not just rape by a stranger with a weapon. Most victims (approximately 80%) are assaulted by an acquaintance (relative, friend, dating partner, spouse, pastor, teacher, boss, coach, therapist, doctor, etc.). Sexual assault also includes attempted rape or any form of nonconsensual sexual contact. This post is written to sexual assault victims, not about them. 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. Nobody had the right to violate you. You were supposed to be treated with dignity and respect. You are not damaged goods. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. Healing can happen, and there is hope. While all of this is true, you may still feel the effects of the sexual assault—disgrace, a deep sense of defilement and filth that is encumbered with shame.
Disgrace vs. Grace
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 sexual assault and listen to victims tell their story is a refusal to offer grace and healing.
To your sense of disgrace, God gives grace. He restores, repairs, and re-creates. A good short definition of grace is “one-way, unconditional love” (Paul Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life). This is the opposite of your experience of assault, which was “one-way violence.” One-way love does not avoid you but comes near you, not because you earned it but because you need it. It is the lasting transformation that takes place in human experience. One-way love is the change agent you need. You need something to change regarding the internal pain you are experiencing. The experience of sexual assault frequently causes a victim to ask two questions: How can I be rid of my disgrace (2 Sam. 13:13)? How can I receive grace? The answer to both questions is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Bible begins with creation in harmony, unity, and peace, and it ends with a restored creation. In between these two “bookends” unfolds the drama of redemption. Salvation was needed because of the tragedy of human rebellion that resulted in disgrace and destruction. 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.” Jesus is the redemptive work of God in our own history, in our own human flesh. Victims can more meaningfully celebrate the victorious resurrection of Christ when they can identify with the horrendous victimizing of the cross. Jesus was the recipient of violence that mirrors much of what victims experience (shame, humiliation, silence, betrayal, pain, mockery, travesty of justice, loneliness, etc.). His suffering and death were real and brutal, but there was a resurrection after Good Friday. The cross is both the consequence of evil and God’s method of accomplishing redemption. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that God is about redeeming, healing, and making all things new.
Justin and Lindsey Holcomb are the authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.