Divorce, language use, suffering and substitution, in “Is It My Fault” by the Holcombs (Pt 2 of book review)

[June 13, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]

Here is what troubled me in the Holcomb’s book Is It My Fault? Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Abuse in regards to:

  • divorce
  • their wording and definition of domestic abuse / violence
  • suffering, suffering for sin, and in particular, whose sin
  • Jesus our substitute: what Jesus substitutionally bore on our behalf

(I discussed the good points of the book in Part 1 of this review)


I am happy to report that the Holcombs say, “We believe separation or divorce to be an option in abusive relationships.” However I was greatly disappointed because they only said that in parentheses; and the context in which they said it would confuse and guilt victims. Here it is in context, from the section where the Holcombs were talking about Jesus and Women.  I have not emended this paragraph in any way, it is exactly as it appears in the book:

Jesus took scandalous stances on issues related to women. Witherington comments: “Jesus’ rejection of divorce outright would have offended practically everyone of His day. [We should add here that we believe separation or divorce to be an option in abusive relationships.] Further, Jesus’ view that the single state was a legitimate and not abnormal calling for those to whom it was given, went against prevailing views….It is this teaching which made it possible for women also to assume roles other than those of wife and mother in Jesus’ community.” Witherington adds, “That Jesus did not endorse various ways of making women ‘scapegoats’, especially in sexual matters, places him at odd with other rabbis, though doubtless even many Gentiles would have thought that Jesus’ rejection of the ‘double standard’ was taking equality too far. Further, we do not find any negative remarks about the nature, abilities and religious potential of women in comparison to men on the lips of Jesus…. ” (98-9)

(The endnote cites the source of their quote from Witherington — Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus.)

The problem is that the Holcombs chose to quote Witherington’s assertion that Jesus rejected divorce outright. Given that the Holcombs say they believe divorce IS an option (so they don’t share Witherington’s view that Jesus rejected divorce outright) why on earth did the Holcombs think that was a helpful quote to use?

Anyone who has compassionately counseled victims of abuse ought to know that Christian victims of abuse are desperately perplexed about the doctrine of divorce, and they are often afraid to even contemplate divorcing their abusers, because they do not want to go against what Jesus “seemed” to say. Surely the Holcombs have some understanding of the torture-of-conscience Christian victims go through about the doctrine of divorce? So why did they use that quote? Didn’t they know the quote would wrongly intensify the uncertainty and paralyzing fear in the victim’s conscience? And how on earth did they imagine that by putting their own view (that divorce is an option) in parentheses, it would smooth it all out for victims?

Victims need clear and substantial explanations about why and how the Bible says they are at liberty to divorce for abuse. Maybe the Holcombs didn’t feel they wanted to do that in their book, but they need to know that victims do not take well to little statements on divorce for abuse being given in parentheses. The parentheses, and the single off-hand sentence like the Holcombs gave, seem to minimize and hand-palm our intense, excruciating dilemmas of conscience regarding divorce.

The Holcomb’s insensitivity on this issue of divorce is shown elsewhere too. They say (102) that “Paul also agrees with Jesus regarding matters of divorce (see, for example, Mark 10:11-12 and 1 Cor.7:10-11)” — but YIKES! — the two scriptures they cited are passages that are frequently used to claim that divorce is always a sin and divorce is not permitted for abuse! By citing those two passages, the Holcombs have stung victims and have raised doubts about the sincerity of their own (parenthetical) assertion that they believe divorce IS an option in abuse!

Their third and perhaps most egregious passage on divorce is the paragraph which comes in the section ‘How to support women in their avoidance of suffering’:

Marriage is a covenant; divorce is the breaking of that covenant. When a man chooses to be abusive, he breaks the covenant. An abusive man forfeits the right to remain married unless the woman wants to stay married. If his wife chooses to divorce him she is making public his breaking of the covenant, and this does not go against what the Bible says about divorce.1 It is the abuser who must be confronted concerning his or her breaking of the marriage covenant, and ‘Victims need to know that leaving is well within their rights as a child of God.”1  (137-8)

[Note: there are two endnote references in this paragraph which I’ve marked here as asterisks1. In the first one, the Holcombs approvingly cite three authors who argue that abuse is grounds for divorce: Craig Keener, David Instone-Brewer, and David Clyde Jones. In the other they cite Ron Clark’s Setting the Captives Free as the source of the quote “Victims need to know that leaving is within their rights…”]

Why do I think this paragraph is a blooper when I would agree with so much of it? Because of the ‘ouch’ factor in “divorce is the breaking of that covenant.” As the Holcombs make pretty clear in the rest of that paragraph, abuse breaks the covenant, and divorce is merely the public and legal result of the fact that the covenant has been broken by the abuser. The paragraph would been wonderful if they had just omitted “divorce is the breaking of the covenant” from the first sentence. As it stands, however, the paragraph resembles so many other crazy-making double messages to which victims of abuse have been subject — from the church and from their abusers. And as such, it will be a major trigger for many victims.

Why the Holcomb’s didn’t realise this confounds me. I guess it is just part and parcel of the way the doctrine of divorce and the issue of domestic abuse has been so greatly misunderstood and so wrongly handled for centuries in Christendom. Maybe the Holcombs are only partly out of the fog. Or maybe their publishers pressured them to soft-pedal the divorce topic.

They use the terms ‘violence’ and ‘physical abuse’ too frequently

They say the term ‘domestic violence’ means more than just physical violence, that it covers emotional abuse; but on the first page they use the word violence six times and the word abuse only once. Then on the first page of chapter one (21), we read:

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 can 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.

That paragraph would have been far better if the final word has been ‘abuse’ rather than ‘violence’. I understand that the Holcombs are using the term ‘domestic violence’ in the sense used by DV practitioners, but that is not their audience: their avowed audience is primarily victims. Many victims have great trouble with the term ‘domestic violence’ because they think it doesn’t apply to them, since their abuser has never hit them or beat them up.

“He’s never  hit me, so I don’t think I’m really a victim of domestic violence,” is what victims so often say when they are just at the cusp of becoming aware that their partner has been abusing them for months, years, or decades….

Especially at such an early stage in a book, the high frequency use of the word ‘violence’ will put off victims of abuse who have not been physically assaulted, or who have suppressed the assaults from their memory in order to survive. Victims whose abusers have not used physical violence find it hard to identify with the words ‘violence’ and ‘physical abuse’. They think, “He hasn’t hit me, so what this author is saying doesn’t apply to me.”

Their definition of domestic violence is:

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)

This is a pretty good definition, although I would have preferred they said ‘falsely blame’ or ‘falsely accuse’ rather than just ‘blame.’  Why? Because abusers love to accuse their victims of abuse. When a victim — rightly — rebukes her abuser for his bad behavior, he could turn this definition around and say to whoever he can recruit as his allies, “She is blaming me for what I did. Therefore she is the abuser!”

I’ve put this in the ‘not so good’ list because I think the book would have been much improved if the Holcombs had not taken so long to get to the good definition above. They only got to it in chapter four. The Holcombs do explain along the way, before they get to the definition quoted above, that physical violence does not have to be present for it to be abuse (22, 39). But in my view they should have arrived at their substantive definition earlier so as not to lose readers.

And it was only in that definition (and in the discussion of sexual abuse on page 36) that they used the key word ‘coercive.’ If you are wondering why that is a key word, let me explain. Leading secular domestic violence professionals all agree that ‘coercion’ is a key word because the coercive nature of most of the abuser’s tactics can hardly be emphasized enough. Any ‘innocuous’ behavior can become abusive when it is used strategically as element of coercive control.

Their discussion of suffering

Psalm 22 is expounded in chapter 12. This chapter is not so good. They quote “social justice advocate Marie Fortune” on the victim’s questions “Why do I suffer in this way? Where is God in my suffering?” (162). The quote itself is not bad, but the Holcombs could easily have made their case without quoting from Rev Fortune. Fortune is the founder of FaithTrust Institute, an interfaith organization; she is openly lesbian (proof: link 1, link 2) and has liberal theology. By the Holcomb’s quoting Fortune, it could suggest they endorse her liberalism and sexual ethics. It was particularly unwise of their publisher, Moody Press, to let this go through, since Moody is historically a Bible-based, conservative group.

After quoting Fortune on suffering, the Holcombs say —

Certainly, easy answers and platitudes cannot speak to the answer for the “why” of suffering. But perhaps the cross can. Because whatever pain and suffering you are experiencing right now, Jesus has also faced. He knows intimately the depth of desperation you are feeling. But this is the crucial difference: He suffered so that you wouldn’t have to.  (163) [Emphasis added.]

And they make a similar statement about Christ’s crucifixion in their Final Word:

Jesus knows your sufferings. Jesus experienced violence at the hands of his own people.  ….Jesus endured the cross because of His compassion and love for you. He endured it so that you would be spared.  (180) [Emphasis added.]

Yes, Christ knows what it is to suffer abuse and persecution, and the victim can derive comfort from knowing He can empathize with her out of His personal experience. It would have been fine if they made that point and left it at that. But by adding “He suffered so that you wouldn’t have to,” and “He endured the Cross so that you would be spared,” the Holcombs have in my view put their foot into a victim-blaming pot-hole.

Foot in pothole

What do the Holcombs mean when they tell the Christian victim of abuse: “Jesus suffered so that you wouldn’t have to”?

They surely can’t mean that Jesus suffered to stop abusers afflicting their targets. Jesus’ suffering on the Cross patently hasn’t yet stopped abusers from continuing to abuse. Abuse will only cease when God winds up this present world like a scroll on the Day of Judgement:

….the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly….the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

But according to his promise we [those who are born again, forgiven in Christ] are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  (2 Peter 3:7, 10, 13)

Perhaps in telling the Christian victim of abuse, “Jesus suffered so that you wouldn’t have to,” the Holcombs meant to undo the self-martyrdom edict that is some victims’ minds — their belief that they ought to stay and suffer under the abuse because their suffering will be redemptive for the abuser. That is a not uncommon belief among victims, because many Christian leaders have mis-taught the doctrines of suffering and redemption and how to respond to evildoers. But if the Holcombs wanted to undo the martyrdom knot in the victim’s mind, it would have been better if they’d unpacked the subject more, by articulating and contrasting both the wrong doctrines that led to the knot, and the right doctrines that undo it.

But rather than unpacking that, they merely said, “Christ suffered so that you wouldn’t have to” — a saying which typically means “Christ suffered for your sins.” Your sins. But why allude to the victim’s sins, when the suffering for which the victim need consolation is due to the sin of the abuser against her?

It seems to me that the Holcombs have (perhaps unwittingly) said something that ascribes (mutualizes) the sin of abuse to both victim and perpetrator. This is just wrong.

Similarly on page 124, at the end of what would have otherwise been an excellent treatment of scriptures about deliverance and salvation from violence, they cite two verses which I found (in that context) jarring and cutting of the victim:

What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body that is subject to death  (Romans 7:24)

Who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age  (Gal 1:4)

By including those two verses in a list of scriptures about deliverance from violence and abuse, the Holcombs have amalgamated two things that need to be articulated very separately when speaking to victims of abuse:

  1. salvation (deliverance) from danger from others’ sins against us, from the violent circumstances in which we find ourselves
  2. salvation from our own sins.

The Bible repeatedly proscribes the amalgamation (mixture) of disparate elements (Lev 19:19; 2 Cor 6:14-16; James 3:9-10; 1 Cor 10:21; Matt 6:24; Rev 3:15-16). Forgive me as I state the obvious to make my point. The Holcombs are writing for the Christian victim of domestic abuse. Since she is a Christian, God has imputed her sin to the sinless Christ. But God does not impute the sin of one sinner to another sinner. God does not impute the sin of an abusive husband to his wife, the woman he has been targeting as his victim. God does not say to this woman (trigger warning):

Take comfort, you are to blame for your husband’s abuse of you —  but don’t worry (Pollyanna smirk / smile) Jesus died for those sins so you won’t have to suffer God’s punishment for them.

Remember, the victim has been in anguish of conscience for a long time – “Is it my fault?….like my husband has told me it is?” The abuser’s claim that he is the victim and she is the abuser gnaws at her. “Maybe he’s right?!” Since she’s been tied up under heavy guilt by the abuser’s blame-shifting, she may hear “Christ suffered so that you wouldn’t have to” as implying that “Christ died so that you wouldn’t have to suffer the penalty for the sin of abuse.”

But she has not committed the sin of abuse!

….Do you see how the Holcomb’s wording can play havoc with the victim’s mind? How it can tighten the knots that the abuser has tied, rather than loosen them? Thus, for all their benign assurances that the victim is not to blame and the abuse is not her fault, a victim may interpret these two statements by the Holcombs as casting blame on her.

I am sure the Holcombs didn’t intend these statements to cast blame on the victim, but it grieves me that people say things like this without being aware of how hurtfully their words can come over to victims.

One last word on this: The saying “He suffered so you wouldn’t have to” may be meant to comfort Christian victims who believe God has ceased to love them. But if a Christian victim is thinking “God has rejected me. He has abandoned me, so He must not love me,” and we countermand her belief by telling her, “God does love you; He died for you! God loves you so much that he endured the Cross so you would be spared!” — she may feel she is being admonished yet again. She may feel that we are speaking to her like her abuser scornfully speaks to her (trigger warning): “Your ideas are wrong! Just like so much else about you is wrong! You are one giant mistake and you don’t deserve to even breathe air or take up space in this world!”

A better way to respond to such a victim, without validating or confronting head-on her belief that God doesn’t love her, is to validate her feelings and experiences. Help her realise how much and with what complexity of tactics she has been abused, and how her feelings of despondency and hopelessness are healthy responses to being targeted by a malignant, covert-aggressive person. In other words, elucidate and honour her responses to the abuse.

Their discussion of what Jesus substitutionally bore on our behalf

It seems to me that the Holcombs have more or less cut and pasted their (inadvertently?) victim-blaming language from their previous book to this book.

For their previous book which dealt with sexual abuse, the Holcombs have stated (source [This link is broken and there is no replacement. Editors.]) that they chose the title Rid Of My Disgrace because of Tamar’s words to Amnon in 2 Samuel 13:13, where, in the NIV translation, Tamar says, “What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace?….”  

The following is from page 21 of Rid of My Disgrace (click on READ SAMPLE in the following link):

….Jesus Christ was killed, not for revenge but to bear her [i.e. Tamar’s] shame on the crossg and to offer her a new robe of righteousness to replace her torn robes of disgrace.h How Tamar felt after the assault, described in verse 19, is shockingly similar to what Jesus experienced leading up to and during his crucifixion.i Jesus entered her pain and shame as Tamar’s substitute to remove the stain of sins committed against her, and he rose from the dead to bring her healing and hope.

The message of this book is that the gospel applies grace to disgrace and redeems what is destroyed….

g.   Heb 12:12.
h.   Isa. 61:10.
i.   He was betrayed by a close friend, abandoned by his other friends, mocked, beaten, publicly shamed and humiliated, and he felt abandoned by God (Psalm 22 and Matt. 27:45–46);

Yikes! Red Alert: Potentially victim-blaming, doctrinally muddled mess!

The Holcombs say Jesus bore Tamar’s shame on the Cross. But if it’s Tamar’s shame, the reader might think it’s due to Tamar’s sin (not the sin of Amnon the rapist). In what might be an attempt to correct that interpretation, the Holcombs say “Jesus entered Tamar’s pain and shame as Tamar’s substitute to remove the stain of sins committed against her.”

Pay attention, this is tricky. Despite using the phrase “the stains of sins committed against her” they didn’t unscramble the rotten egg. It is still a mess. It’s wrongly dividing the Word.

Update: June 13, 2022, Editors’ note: About three years after this post was written, Barb wrote this post after a discussion with Ruth Magnusson Davis and Sam Powell on the phrases “Jesus became sin” and “Jesus became sin for us. The correct phrasing is “Jesus became a sin offering”.

Here is the truth:
On the Cross, Jesus became sin — not shame, not pain, but SIN.

Tamar bore no guilt for the sins committed against her, and it’s foolish to say that on the Cross Jesus entered her pain and shame as her substitute. Why would Tamar need a substitute for her pain and shame? She was not guilty of the sins which caused her pain and shame. Jesus bore the penalty for Amnon’s sin of sexualized assault, not Tamar’s sin of sexualized assault!

But of course, in Amnon’s contempt for God he wasn’t interested in the offer of grace and forgiveness from the Messiah, the promised sacrificial lamb who would make substitutional atonement.

The Holcombs have handled the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement very badly. So badly, that for all their good intentions they have added to the muddy flood of victim blaming which is awash in the church.

Yes; the abuse victim can find comfort in knowing that Christ understands her suffering because He was abused, and He is very tender with bruised reeds. But the victim doesn’t need a substitute for the pain and shame she suffers due to others having sinned against her.

Rather, the victim needs validation, empathetic resonance and compassion for her pain and shame — something which the church rarely gives, but which Christ (and many other abuse survivors) bestow on her in abundance.

[June 13, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to June 13, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to June 13, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to June 13, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (June 13, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]

* * *

Posts in the “Is It My Fault?” review series

Part 1:  The good points of “Is It My Fault” by Justin & Lindsey Holcomb

Part 2: Is this post.

Part 3: The concept of Grace in “Is It My Fault” by the Holcombs

Part 4: More confusing messages in “Is It My Fault” by the Holcombs

Related post

Prayerfully hand shame back to the abuser

8 thoughts on “Divorce, language use, suffering and substitution, in “Is It My Fault” by the Holcombs (Pt 2 of book review)”

  1. Thank you for these reviews of this book. I read the first post on the good points, and read part 3 and then backed up to 2 in my email box….I had to stop reading the reviews. Too many triggering points. I won’t be reading this book, that I do know!

    1. Hi JenniBear,
      We didn’t mean to overload the readers with both parts 2 and 3 today. Part 3 was accidentally published and will be officially published on Friday. So feel free to take your time reading and absorbing the information. And especially if they are triggering for you – definitely set them aside as needed. In fact, we will not be publishing a post on Monday so readers have plenty of time to digest the material.

  2. The portions you quoted read like they are trying not to make anybody mad.

    Uncertain sounding trumpet.

  3. I had to read that first quoted paragraph thrice to follow the line of thinking, and I was (and am) still confused as to its ultimate point. I stopped at this sentence on the third time ’round: “Further, Jesus’ view that the single state was a legitimate and not abnormal calling for those to whom it was given, went against prevailing views. . .”

    Were there not, however, women of Jesus’ day who weren’t (necessarily) homemakers, wives and mothers yet not disregarded by society? I think of Anna, the prophetess, who was in the temple when Jesus was brought there as a baby. If she were not accepted by the temple leaders I suspect she wouldn’t have been allowed to stay there. (And in Jewish history, there was Deborah the judge. Later, after Jesus’ death, Lydia the seller of red-purple cloth. In Moses’ Day the orphaned sisters who petitioned for their fathers’ land rights and won.) In other words, just because the majority of society in that particular day were married with children or even lived a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that it goes against prevailing views on any given matter.

    I follow your point related to the couched view of the authors (snuck in as an aside) that divorce in their view is acceptable in cases of abuse. I think that particular paragraph just jumps around a bit much for me and I found it hard to follow or understand the point.

  4. Thank you for such a deep, and thoughtful analysis of yet another empty well. The worst sort of deception is that which is sandwiched between truths. It goes into the belly with real food and works its internal poison on the inner man, often its victim doesn’t know why her stomach hurts or she gets sick or her spirit atrophies in hopelessness.

    There are individual paragraphs that could be developed into an entire book. It would have helped these authors to have a panel of abuse survivors, raise the concerns you mention here. I heard a sermon one time that had every red flag waiving alarm screaming protection system in my body going off. It looked perfectly reasonable to every one else, after all there were god words and Bible verses. Yes, incorrect doctrine or terminology that is going to in some way enable perpetrators while invalidating their victims is a very, very big deal.
    A wise friend said “an abuse survivor is sensitive to the scent of abuse, even if others aren’t, and they should be heard”. Those who raise alarms risk harassment guised under the accusation “you are so judgmental, or bitter (said by judgmental people that think Christians should be blind to emperor nakedness).

    I’m in a relationship with family members that endorsed my abuser in their silence to it, that benefited in large and small ways economically and socially by keeping the abuser on a pedestal. I’ll hear about grace and forgiveness, about moving on, and not being judgmental, about mercy and lovingkindness toward the abuser. But I will never hear nor will they understand the more they silence me by having a religious policy in which the abuser was never called into account nor received consequences, in a structure where it is paramount that I remain silent, my anger grows. The anger at being silenced. The anger at watching that which is evil be called good. and the good (my discomfort, and rage, and persistence that I be heard) called evil.

    When I worked with a rights organization I realized that anger over abuse was a sign of growth, a sign that health was coming back, it was a tiny flame of life to nurture not to extinguish. Those who misuse the term grace (applied to the evil and not their victims) extinguish the flame of hope for those whose voices have been long denied. I’m sad when those without real lived experience become the so called experts” while not listening to those with lived experience who in fact, are the experts of recovery from abuse.

    1. Prodigal, thank you so much for this! I’ve rephrased some of your words a bit and will be sharing them on our FB page. Here’s my rephrasing:

      Anger over abuse is a sign of growth, a sign that health is coming back, it is a tiny flame of life to nurture not to extinguish. Those who misuse the term ‘grace’, by applying it to the evildoers while covertly or overtly judging the victims, extinguish the flame of hope for those whose voices have been long denied. I’m sad when those without real lived experience become the so called “experts” while not listening to those with lived experience who in fact, are the experts of recovery from abuse.

  5. Barb is absolutely spot on. I know for a fact that victims I know would have not engaged with a book that addresses violence. A light might have gone off if they had seen the word “abuse”.

    Your point about getting the definition right is also often missed. How many times have abusers twisted definitions to their own advantage? How many times have victims been convinced by their twisted logic because the abuser has legitimately quoted a professional definition?

    Your closing sentence:

    Rather, the victim needs validation, empathetic resonance and compassion for her pain and shame — something which the church rarely gives, but which Christ (and many other abuse survivors) bestow on her in abundance.

    is absolutely spot on as well! I don’t think it’s just the Holcombs (who have done an admirable job tackling this head on), but most authors, speakers and leaders make the mistake of victim-blaming, without meaning to. To bring this to light is not to put them down or pick on their efforts, but to point out that the church is adding to the burdens and suffering of victims when they do so.

  6. O dear this is going from bad to worse.. 😮 I’d welcome a trigger warning from beginning to end! How can the authors even think they are going to help the abuse victims at all with this horrible confusion?? If ever there is someone who needs clear-cut and validating truth it is the victim of abuse, certainly not more abusive tactics in the form of muddled pseudo theology.
    How can they throw everything in the mix: the sin and responsibility of the abuser and the shame and pain of the target, and Jesus bearing our sins on the cross and paying the penalty for them?

Leave a comment. It's ok to use a made up name (e.g Anon37). For safety tips read 'New Users Info' (top menu). Tick the box if you want to be notified of new comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.