Spiritual Self-Defense, Part 1: Acknowledge the Power of Your Actions
Spiritual Self-Defense, Part 2: Know What God Requires
Spiritual Self-Defense, Part 3: Make Your Action Plan
Spiritual Self-Defense, Part 4: Get Ready for War
Spiritual Self-Defense, Part 5: Master Your Biggest Enemy
Spiritual Self-Defense, Part 6: Fight This Fight
We’ve all experienced that moment of panic, that sense of paralysis, after a man just said something or did something to us that crossed the line. We’ve all faced the crisis of, “Was what he just did OK?” …followed by the next crisis of “What should I do? Should I be smooth and pretend this didn’t happen, or should I do something that I feel will be awkward, hard, rude, and uncomfortable for everyone? Should I roll with this, or fight it? Do I have a responsibility to do something? Didn’t Jesus turn the other cheek? What would God want me to do?” And probably the most terrifying moment of all: When we realize the strength we need and thought we had simply isn’t there.
As the hushed subject of abuse is increasingly forced into the open – and as the mountain of sexual abuse and harassment reports grows larger by the day – it’s becoming clear that this problem is both bigger and more wide-spread than anyone wanted to imagine, implicating men in every sphere of society (both secular and Christian). This is not just a threat that lurks far away, in dodgy places where we never go – it’s all around us. And it doesn’t just threaten “bad girls,” “immodest” women, or black sheep who have stepped outside of some sort of “umbrella of protection” – strong Christian women face this evil, even in their own homes and churches. It’s a battle that each of us, at some level, will have to fight. But are we ready?
The truth is, when we look at how many victims describe being frozen in fear, indecision, and confusion, and hear how many recount, “I just didn’t know what to do,” we need to consider that being ready to fight this battle doesn’t come naturally – not even for women who are strong, smart, or morally upright. But what being ready does involve is a subject few seem to want to talk about.
The culture of victim-blaming has been a major culprit in keeping the culture of abuse alive, first by taking the responsibility off of the abuser and keeping his crimes from being taken seriously – but also by creating a fear of honest discussion about whether there is anything we potential victims could or should do to fight against abuse. And it’s important to tread gently here. Victims have already experienced the crushing power of blame-shifting, innuendo, false accusations, and guilt-manipulation; careless suggestions about how victims should handle things can further torment wrongly-tortured consciences, or trigger defense-mechanisms that are extra-sensitive for a reason. It’s a dangerous and sensitive business to discuss the critical question of how to arm potential victims against harassment or abuse, without causing past victims additional pain, or suggesting that any abuse suffered was “their fault” (which is never the case.)
But the people most benefiting from this reluctance to discuss a victim’s power and resources for resisting are, of course, the abusers themselves.
Absolutely the main problem we’re dealing with is the abuse and the abusers – not the things that victims do or don’t do. So why are we not focusing this series on those evils? Why not just tell abusers to stop abusing? Why “add burdens” to possible victims by talking to them about things they could or should do?
Because even victims have been given authority and power by God for responding to evil, and He wants us to use it. And because we each have the power to do a lot more damage to this abuse stronghold than we realize.
Responding to the sins of others is actually a huge part of what the Christian life is all about. It’s not a bug – it’s a feature. And as such, God has filled His Word with practical instruction on how to respond to other people’s sins. God hates the violence and cruelty to women that we’ve been taught to expect as a reality to live with and endure, and He does not call us to accept it quietly. He does not ask us to smile at debasing attention, suffer injustice silently, cover things up, fall down before the wicked, and be ignorant in the face of evil. He has actually given us specific instruction on how to be the kind of person who does the opposite of all these things.
He knows and cares about the specific challenges His daughters face – the power differentials, the physical vulnerabilities, the sexual objectification of women, the systems that allow the strong to prey on the weak without being caught. And while He promises that the sin of our abusers will not go unpunished (Num. 32:23, Isa. 13:11, Prov. 11:21), He has also given us specific instructions for becoming a type of woman and developing a type of strength that can make us devastating to this kind of man. He promises He is with each of us as we walk though this fallen world, to heal our broken hearts and bind up our wounds (Psa. 147:3), but also to strengthen and equip our arms for warfare (Psa. 18:34, Eph. 6:10-20) – which is exactly what this is.
This fact is critical not only to fighting the sexual abuse crisis but also living the robust Christian life in general: Dealing with men who are sinners is an important part of the spiritual battle we’re called to fight. Whether it’s fighting back against creepy, inappropriate attention at church, grooming by a relative, or physical attacks on the street, we should see this as part of the ministry and spiritual warfare of being a Christian, rather than as a defect in His plan for our lives. If we intend to keep living in a world full of sinners, it’s time to arm up for the battle – and ministry – of representing God’s justice and righteousness to them.
Whether we’re still dreading our first bad encounter; we’re in the middle of an uncomfortable relationship; our bodies, hearts, and consciences are wracked over past incidents; or we’re just a bystander agonizing over whether to keep quiet about something we know about… these are spiritual as well as physical battles, and they require spiritual as well as physical strength and preparation.
The whole subject of abuse is vast, complex, and composed of many facets and levels of problems, and this series won’t even attempt to scratch its surface. What we will be focusing on is one specific sliver of the topic: The spiritual side of the battle the average young adult woman faces as she encounters challenges with male friends, boyfriends, employers, workmates, etc. – challenges in which she does have a degree of agency and control, and where her own preparedness can make all the difference.
Acknowledging the Agency We Do Have
The nitty-gritty of where a victim’s responsibilities begin and end are a scary thing to talk about, because it seems so close to the line of victim-blaming. When the rubber meets the road, though, remaining fuzzy on where our responsibilities stop and start only keeps us from doing everything we can, and makes us feel guilty over the things that were not our fault. Was I responsible for what happened to me because I didn’t stop it? Am I just partly responsible? What if I tried to stop it? What if I didn’t? What if he says I was “asking for it”? Is my complaint against this person legitimate if I also made some mistakes?
This is where God and His Word can really set a victim’s imprisoned mind and conscience free.
While uncertainty over these things can paralyze or torture us, rock-solid certainty of what God requires of us and our abuser is what gives us the clarity to be able to recognize, call out, and fight back against their sins with full strength. To know precisely what we ourselves are guilty or innocent of, so we can say “no” to the guilt-manipulation, blame-shifting, victim-blaming, and false guilt that men would use to control us. To take full responsibility for our own actions in the moment, knowing exactly what God requires us to do. And afterward, if we did make mistakes, to be able to own and repent of them, so that we can move forward in our lives free of the burden of guilt, and with peace and confidence in our forgiveness in Christ.
Was This Partly My Fault?
So what is and isn’t a victim’s responsibility? Determining culpability is a complex thing, but we make it much more so when we speak in terms of someone being “partly” or “wholly” responsible, as if responsibility for a crime is something that can be broken into parts – his and hers. For example: Bryan is pushing his girlfriend Emily’s physical boundaries. Emily says no, I don’t want to do this. Bryan pushes harder. Emily finally gives in, but reluctantly. Afterwards, she’s furious and devastated and blames him for forcing her. Bryan says, What are you talking about? You were going along with it the whole time, and besides, look how you were dressed. Don’t try to tell me you weren’t asking for this. It was half your fault; don’t you go trying to get me in trouble like you’re some victim here.
Bryan obviously believes the breakdown of blame is 50%-50%. What will Emily believe it is? 80%-20%? 95%-5%?
Let’s first look at what God says about Bryan’s share of blame. Bryan just overpowered a girl into committing fornication, which – whether by physical, psychological, or emotional force – is both a sin and a crime, according to biblical law (Deut. 22:25-29). And he holds the responsibility for every single thing he did, 100%. Giving in to lust: guilty (Matt. 5:27,28, Jas. 1:14-15). Deciding to commit sexual sin: guilty (1 Cor. 6:18-20, 1 Thess. 4:3-5, Heb. 13:4, Eph. 5:5). Enticing someone else into sexual sin: guilty (Luke 17:1-2, Prov. 2:15-19).
Bryan also had a lot of positive commands in regard to his relationship with Emily which he totally failed to obey: to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness” (2 Tim. 2:22, Col. 3:5, Mark 7:21-23, Gal. 5:24, 1 Thess. 4:7, 1 Pet. 2:11), to exercise self-control (1 Cor. 9:24-27), to not deliberately put temptations to sin in front of others (Luke 17:1, Rom. 14:13, Rom. 14:21), to provoke those around him to greater holiness (Heb. 3:13, Heb. 10:24,25, 1 Thess. 5:11, 2 Tim. 4:2), and to treat Emily as a sister with all purity (1 Tim. 5:2). These responsibilities did not change, no matter what outside pressures, circumstances, or temptations assaulted him. There was nothing Emily could have done to reduce Bryan’s responsibility in any of these things to less than 100%.
Few understood this concept better than Joseph in the book of Genesis. Even when Potiphar’s wife was literally asking for it, she did not decrease the amount of responsibility Joseph had to obey God. Instead of saying, “Now, Mrs. Potiphar, I’m not that kind of a guy, and I wouldn’t be doing this if you hadn’t been asking for it!” he said, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph knew his own sin of adultery with her would be 100% his fault… just as her own sin of adultery with him would be 100% hers. Her wickedness in deliberately providing the temptation wouldn’t cancel out his wickedness in giving in to it.
If we want to respond like a Joseph, first we need to banish from our minds the visual image of a culpability pie chart that divvies up the blame in any incident that involves two people. If there are two people involved, what we are talking about is two pies: two realms of responsibilities before God, with each person bearing 100% – not 50%, not 25% – of the responsibility for everything inside his or her own pie.
So if Bryan is 100% guilty for each of his sinful actions, where does that leave Emily?
The first thing Emily needs to do is be able to rightly separate her areas of responsibility from Bryan’s. Only then will she be able to recognize and respond to his sins with full moral authority; only then will she be able to say “no” to his guilt-manipulation and blame-shifting over things that weren’t her responsibility; and only then will she be able to truly own and repent of anything she actually did wrong (if anything), so that she can move forward in her life with complete peace of conscience.
Just to be clear: Blaming her for even a fraction of what Bryan did would be victim-blaming. Saddling her with the responsibility to keep Bryan from sinning would be victim-blaming. But pointing her to her own responsibility, power, influence, resources, and agency to respond rightly to what Bryan did is victim empowering. Empowerment comes when we take full responsibility for all the things that are in our power, and that’s the first step to playing our part in tearing down this stronghold.
Read about Emily’s responsibilities in the next article: Spiritual Self-Defense, Part 2: Know What God Requires