"Real Marriage" review: 123-138, "Disgrace and Grace"

[content note: sexual violence and victim blaming]

This chapter was a … struggle. I’ve known it was coming for a while, but I wasn’t certain how bad it would be. It deeply concerns me because if this is how Mark and Grace Driscoll and the pastoral staff of Mars Hill has been counseling sexual abuse survivors I’m horrified, and I’m grieving for all the men and women who have been harmed by their teachings.

There was one section that I didn’t have a problem with, and was encouraged to see– the one headed “Serving and Protecting your Children” on 136-37. She recommends giving children the words they need to describe their abuse, about the difference between good and bad secrets (surprise parties vs. “this will be our little secret”), and assuring them they won’t get in trouble if they relate something that happened to them. She also makes it clear how important it is to believe your children, no matter who they tell you harmed them, and I was grateful for that.

The rest of the chapter, though, was a nightmarish trainwreck and in my opinion is totally irredeemable. Everything she says is not just wrong but actively harmful.

I also think it will be helpful for me to simply allow what she says to speak for itself. Often I get asked why I’m reviewing this book, and this chapter is a perfect example. Grace says some horrific things, but Grace is not alone. She is one evangelical Christian woman among thousands of others and “biblical” counselors who will all tell sexual abuse survivors the exact same thing, and they’ll probably say it in similar ways.

Before we get to that, though, I want to highlight something that I think is revealing:

Was Mark really safe to talk to about it, or would his response cause more pain (123)?

What will happen to our church and our life if they know about my abuse (128)?

The first time I told Handsome about my rape and abuse, it never once occurred to me to wonder if he was a “safe” person. There was not a single second that I was worried if his reaction would hurt me. I was nervous about telling him, but not because I thought he would possibly think of me differently. And this breaks my heart for Grace because her gut knew that Mark’s reaction wasn’t going to be the right one (“Sometimes his responses caused fear all over again” 132); she makes casual references all through this chapter about how Mark had to learn and adapt in order to respond “appropriately,” and she talks about that as if it’s normal.

That is not normal. That is disturbing.

Also, the fact that she was worried about what the congregation at Mars Hill might think tells me that they had not been building a church that was safe for survivors. If a church hears “your pastor’s wife was in an abusive relationship” and reacts with judgment and condemnation, you have not been responsible leaders. Unfortunately, this is a failing endemic to evangelical churches everywhere.

Anyway, I want to spend the rest of the post showing how evangelicals use Christian-ese in order to victim blame survivors.

We wondered if it was really possible to trust each other again … (126) [implying that she had done something by being abused/telling him she’d been abused to be untrustworthy]

I had lived a double life, a pastor’s daughter and wife filled with deception and fear. (127)

That meant asking the Holy Spirit to restore any memories that needed to be brought into the light so I could be cleansed … and it meant Jesus’ righteousness alone had to replace all my old identity of abused, neglected, dirty, and worthless [sic]. (127)

We quickly realized there were large numbers of abuse victims attending our church … Mutual, honest accountability had always felt too vulnerable but it was part of the process I needed to prayerfully participate in. (128) [“accountability” is a term used among Christians that is intrinsically linked to sinfulness; men who struggle with porn have “accountability partners,” many small groups have “accountability times” where they confess sin to each other.]

I finally wanted to put my own sin and shame to death, through Jesus’ death on the cross. (128)

God gave me a few trustworthy women to encourage and exhort me and love me, despite knowing the truth about me. (129)

I never thought [healing] was possible, but that is what repentance and redemption feel like. (129)

To cope with the pain, I initially pretended to be a “good girl,” … without true repentance. (130)

It was an identity crisis [referring to different common coping mechanisms experienced by many survivors] because I wasn’t rooted in Christ. (131)

But we each need a new identity so that we don’t feel condemned by our sin. (132)

I sobbed off and on for hours over the pain of abuse and the conviction of my own sin. (133)

I could give many other examples, but the others need more surrounding context and I’m trying to keep the length of this manageable.

Survivors of abuse– any form of abuse– have not sinned. I don’t know how to stress that any more emphatically. The only person responsible for sin is the one doing the abusing, not the victim. Trusting someone not to hurt you? Not a sin. Expecting someone to be a decent human being? Not a sin. Hoping that your abuser is capable of change and growth? Not a sin.

There is a common argument among evangelicals, especially “biblical counselors,” that it is important to claim “responsibility for your choices”; very often they frame this in terms of “autonomy,” appropriating feminist vocabulary in order to cloak what they actually mean. In reality, what they’re doing is a logical fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc, more commonly known as “false cause.” Grace argues that because she chose to date her abuser and chose to have sex with him willingly, she is partly at fault for what happened. If she had not chosen to date him, or chosen to have sex with him, the abuse would not have happened.

And, in a ridiculously literal way, that’s true. However, just because the abuse happened after she started dating him does not mean that she was abused because she dated him. It happened because he was an abuser.

In my opinion, there are few “counseling” ideas more poisonous. I spent so many years trying to do this, trying to be “responsible by recognizing what I had done wrong,” not allowing myself to have a “victim mentality,” and all it did was cause agony.

There’s a secondary problem going on in this chapter, most clearly seen in this:

My judgment was clouded once I had sex with someone outside a marriage relationship. The abuse made me feel dirty and defiled, and the lie that I had no value became even more believable. (136)

This is what purity culture does to sexual abuse survivors. I don’t want to say that without purity culture no victim would ever feel “dirty” or “defiled” after being abused. Abuse is intrinsically a deep spiritual, emotional and physical violation and it will cause pain and suffering, regardless of whether or not purity culture exists. However, Grace feels that because she’d consented to sex that her abuse was inescapable (“I was filled with my own guilt from fornicating and told myself if I married him it would cover my sin somehow” 124), and she felt that way because purity culture teaches women that sex– even rape– makes women dirty and defiled.

And she’s clueless that the “lie that I had no value” comes from purity culture, the exact same lie she’s promoting all the way through this chapter.

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  • Gary Eddy

    When I was sexually abused by another as well as introduced to unhealthy sexual feelings and activities as a child I thought it was my fault. That I did something to bring it on, etc. It took adulthood, counseling and pain & sorry to overcome the abuse, to forgive my abusers and start down the path to healthy living in order to get beyond the shame and bitterness my abusers had caused. I have come to a place where I am of help to others and I am known as a safe person in my church community. However people who have come to me an share their abuse most of the time still don’t share everything the first time because of the shame and the voice telling them they had some fault in he abuse. I have found this initially comes from the abuser and then is reinforced not just by “Christians” but by others too. When we have someone we share with who does not shame us again or repels from us we have found someone to value us. I have found there are not enough safe people in this world. Even in secular recovery & support groups.

  • MF

    Sadly, I can’t say that I am surprised. This is just as heartbreaking as when I read Mark Driscoll’s words about Biblical Esther living in sexual sin for being with the King.

  • Abuse victims naturally believe the abuse was their fault. In order to heal and not stay in the pattern of abuse, they need people to come along side them and tell them that what was done to them was wrong and in no way their fault. Shame on Mark and the members of his church who do just the opposite and tell victims they need to repent from their abuse. They experience enough self blame without spiritual authorities heaping additional shame on them. Grace is still in the pattern of abuse. I wonder when/if she will escape from it.

    • Gary Eddy

      Agree with you 100%

  • Samantha, when you say “I was nervous about telling him, but not because I thought he would possibly think of me differently.” I wondered if maybe you could explain in words what exactly did make you nervous? Obviously it is 100% understandable that it’d be a huge deal and make you nervous… but I just think you saying all of the ways Grace’s feelings/interactions with someone she loves aren’t as “normal” as she thinks isn’t quite as… clear and understandable unless maybe you provide some examples of what a healthier relationship dynamic would feel like, where the nervousness should actually be coming from, etc. I mean you say what isn’t right and what you didn’t experience but I’m just curious about what you did feel.

    I feel nervous whenever I come out to anyone as asexual, or discuss my history growing up with an abusive mother who I am no longer in contact with to any family member or friend. I recently did both with my aunt. It’s nothing like the experience of relaying a history of sexual abuse to a current sexual partner though. I have no idea what that would be like. (Because, thankfully, I’ve never been sexually assaulted, and also, on top of all that, I’m asexual and sex-repulsed/not sexually active and plan to remain that way, but that’s kind of beside the point.) I just think it might be helpful if you clarified what the right way for these interactions to go would be, the right way for your romantic partner to make you feel, etc.

    • I was nervous because I wasn’t sure of the timing, if it was too soon. In my particular situation I’m not very good (actually I’m very bad) at reading non-verbal cues and I hadn’t ever been in a healthy significant relationship before, and didn’t know if that sort of thing would have been considered an overshare or TMI at that point in our relationship. It is a big thing to talk about, and if the relationship isn’t close enough yet it could have been weird I guess.

      Turns out he was more than comfortable with knowing and was glad I told him.

      • Thanks so much for the answer. 😉 That all makes a lot of sense and is very understandable.

        • It’s also understandable if someone feels ashamed about what had happened– I was fortunate that I’d processed what had happened to me enough to not struggle with that … but even if I was feeling ashamed, I would have had absolutely no reason to write something like “Handsome’s responses later caused me more fear.”

          • Of course not. The fact that Mark can read that his wife did, and not feel utterly mortified, is appalling.

          • Tim

            I agree with what you’re saying about how it’s “understandable if someone feels ashamed”. I think part of what’s confusing to us as sexual assault victims is that we tend to conflate guilt and shame which are really two different things.

            I feel guilty when I know I’ve done something that I shouldn’t have done. But I feel shame when I’ve been exposed. I could feel guilty shame if I’m exposed in doing something wrong. But I could be entirely innocent of any wrong-doing and yet someone could disclose something about me *without my consent* (something about my appearance, my identity, my health, my history, my sexuality, my beliefs, etc. – the list is long but it’s comprised of information that I think of as belonging to me to disclose or not at my discretion) and that exposure can cause me to feel shame. Laws recognize a legitimate right to privacy, and we feel violated when our privacy is violated.

            Sexual assault is a complex crime. It it a physical violation, but it causes mental and emotional harm as well, and one aspect of the mental and emotional harm is the violation of our sense of privacy. We are shamed because some intimate knowledge of ourselves has been taken from us without our consent. Feeling that response may seem irrational (to feel shame even though we’ve done absolutely nothing wrong) but it is at the same time entirely normal. And it’s even very normal to be reluctant to go to an authority about the assault because reporting sometimes means, again, being compelled to disclose personal information that we think of as private. Who we are or what we’ve done doesn’t make us guilty in any way, but being compelled to disclose without our consent is painful and feels like a re-violation.

  • The guilt framework you’re discussing here – it isn’t only a subconscious problem in victims. I can’t use names, but someone I love was raped repeatedly, for years, and specifically instructed by his rapist that it meant he was filthy, worthless, and no one would want him, because now he had had sex. He was Mormon; it’s different than your evangelical setting, but so many of the societal pressures are identical. And in that culture, we are taught that the only sins worse than sexual ones are the murder of innocents and the witting denial of God. My beloved friend thought he was going to hell for being tortured and raped.

    As a child.

    I cannot express how strongly I believe we must change how we teach children about sexuality. And how much I appreciate articles like this that bring awareness about broken cultures. Sadistic bastards like my friend’s rapist father love taking advantage of the flaws. The sooner we correct them, the safer everyone will be.

  • And that’s when the book went flying across the room. Biblical counseling isn’t employed to help the hurting; it’s used to push a fundamentalist agenda. Shame. They make a mockery of the gospel.

  • I recently ended a friendship with someone from a previous church I belonged to who kept trying to tell me she had to repent for bringing abuse upon herself. She believed it was her immodest clothing choices that brought it on, and I couldn’t listen to that kind of self-flagellating talk. No matter how much I tried to convince her of exactly what you said here – that only the abusers are at fault – she insisted otherwise, which was unhealthy for me, making me wonder what *I* did to cause my own abuse with my ex. Yet would these people feel a need to repent if they were mugged instead?

  • Crystal

    This book is TERRIBLE. You need to know I learn so much from you when you write, especially on issues like this. I also want to ask, which chapter’s the one with non-consent issues? If you haven’t read it already, hang on to your hat (I haven’t but I know some of the content). I bet it’ll be a shocker!

    Kind regards from Crystal

  • This is truly sad. Being abused is not a sin, the person has been sinned against. WTH I don’t even……

  • I have a copy of the book Mars Hill put out on healing from sexual abuse. It’s not written BY Driscoll, so obviously it’s a statement of the more wide-spread problems that this kind of thinking has.

    It starts out with a dissection of the story of Tamar. It did not handle the story well.

    At all.

    And it goes weird from there.

    And that’s why Samantha’s right. These beliefs are bigger than one person. They’re wide-spread and pervasive.

    But even if it was isolated? It’d still be heart breaking. *sigh*

  • I just don’t understand how even a conservative christian could read a chapter like this and think “Gee, this all makes sense, and is totally okay and fine!” Anyone who thinks purity culture is just a harmless quirk, well, this is the result. This kind of shit bothered me even back when I was still drinking the kool-aid. The victim blaming and the “accountability” nonsense, so transparently outrageous. It is so awful that they collectively feel obligated to support garbage like what’s in this book.