Over at Reformation21, Carl Trueman provides an initial assessment of the testimony of Elizabeth Smart, who argues that abstinence teaching made her awful ordeal even worse. Trueman astutely notes the troubling implications of this, both as an argument in the public square and reflective of ongoing cultural shift/decline in America. Of course, the pastoral angle is also crucial. Smart was reared with a Mormon abstinence teaching which was devoid of a Christian doctrine of sin and grace: this misses a coherent delineation between personal pursuit of sin, and abuse suffered unwillingly at the hands of others. Understanding these doctrines and delineations is desperately needed in the face of not only personal sin, but also when we are sinned against.
One helpful response to rape comes to us from church history. In the fourth century, Augustine wrote his famed City of God, shepherding Christians through the collapse of the western Roman Empire and answering pagan critics of Christianity. As a pastor, Augustine addressed the realities Christians faced in his generation: physical violence and emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of invading barbarians. While the similarities may seem few, our own generation might not be much different. In North America, a generation in rebellion against God has produced similar barbarism of violence and sexual deviance from within the culture. Men and women, ignoring the Triune God whom their forefathers worshipped, pursue the same idolatry of self, with its reckless disregard for God and neighbour. The pressures on Christians in Augustine’s day were so intense that he was compelled to publicly address rape.
Some of the Christian women in his day were tempted to think that it was better to commit suicide than suffer sexual abuse. Augustine points out that if this were legitimate, then suicide ought really to be normative upon conversion, as a means to avoid all future sin. But this is not at all the case–he notes that suicide is a grievous sin, it is the sin of murder, an ultimate act of selfishness, to commit suicide. It is not an act of legitimate self-defense, but rather an offensive act against God, oneself and our neighbor. Speaking to those contemplating suicide, Augustine warned Christians against the temptation to take their own lives in situations of duress and temptation: “by a special intimation from God Himself, the fountain of all justice, whoever kills a man, either himself or another, is implicated in the guilt of murder.” Noting that some Christians claimed that it was “greatness of soul” to actively end one’s own life rather than be forcibly brought into “sin”, Augustine disagreed: “If you look at the matter more closely, you will scarcely call it greatness of soul, which prompts a man to kill himself rather than bear up against some hardships of fortune, or sins in which he is not implicated.” Augustine states that in any situation we find ourselves in, we may not sin ourselves in an attempt to avoid the sin of others.
But then what about rape and sexual abuse? Augustine counsels the abused:
“Let not your life, then, be a burden to you, you faithful servants of Christ, though your chastity was made the sport of your enemies. You have a grand and true consolation, if you maintain a good conscience, and know that you did not consent to the sins of those who were permitted to commit this sinful outrage against you. And if you should ask why this permission was granted, indeed it is a deep providence of the Creator and Governor of the world… Nevertheless, faithfully interrogate your own souls…”
Augustine draws these suffering Christians to see that where they did not consent to sin, even where they suffered abuse, they were not sinning, and did not commit sin: “[they] sinlessly suffered the violence of their captors.” They remain pure and chaste, despite the heinous offenses committed against them. Augustine notes that like the suffering of other hard providences, even these sorrows can work together for good for the Christian, being turned for growth in grace.
But, what about those who have suffered rape and sexual abuse, but became sinful–lusting themselves– in spirit in the midst of it? Augustine also pastorally engages here, noting that where some may have walked in steadfast purity through suffering, others may fail; some have themselves sinned in the midst of the offense being committed against them. Augustine defines this not as a matter of physical sensation, but rather of the response of heart and mind. Where an individual looks back on sexual abuse and sees what concerns them as sin of their own in the midst of it the answer is found in the same place as the answer for any sin not committed in a situation of duress: it is in coming to Christ, confessing sin, and receiving afresh his free grace, his full forgiveness.
In Christ the sinner receives new purity, new chastity; washed and cleansed from all sin, and robed in the white robes of His righteousness. This gospel of grace is what Mormonism rejects; this gospel of grace is the only answer to our own sin and the misery of living in this fallen world. For all believers who have suffered sexual abuse and bear its scars, healing in Christ is not only possible now: one day it will be total and complete, when God will wipe away every tear and take away every pain (Rev. 21:4).