There have been many highly publicized cases of powerful people (usually men) who have groomed and pressured subordinates into inappropriate sexual relationships. The heinousness of those who used their position of trust and power to gratify their own lusts has rightly been exposed and deplored. The Lord’s sheep must be protected from such wolves who have permanently disqualified themselves from positions of leadership in the church or parachurch organizations.
But do the victims of such sinful sexual aggression/abuse ever have any responsibility? The helpless victim who is raped is completely innocent (see Deuteronomy 22:25-27), as was the case of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. But someone who is pressured to engaged in sexual sin, even by someone who is abusing their power, is responsible to resist (see Deuteronomy 22:23-24) as Tamar tried to do. I am concerned that some, in their quest to expose the abusers, have swung the pendulum too far away from the responsibility of potential victims to resist.
The famous story of Joseph being sexually tempted and harassed by Potiphar’s wife illustrates both how those with power can abuse their authority and how a godly victim of such abuse can resist. It also challenges some of the contemporary narratives by illustrating that while most abusers are men, women can also be guilty of abuse. We also are reminded that false accusations of abuse do happen with devastating consequences to the innocent (Genesis 39:13-20).1Abuse experts tell us that false accusations are relatively rare.
Despicable sexual harassment
While Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife has usually been used as an example of how to resist temptation, it also illustrates how sexual abusers operate. Recently when I listened to a woman describe how she was groomed and seduced by a respected Christian leader, I was struck by the similarities between the leader’s vile tactics and those of Mrs. Potiphar.
- A surprise attack – Pearl Harbor (Genesis 39:6-7). Joseph has already been trafficked as a slave, but because God was with him, he prospered in Potiphar’s house. Along with his success, Joseph was handsome, which apparently attracted the attention of his master’s wife. Suddenly she propositioned him saying, “Lie with me.” This temptation must have been strong because of its sudden and unexpected nature, because it would be flattering for a superior to show such interest in a subordinate, and because Mrs. Potiphar was in a position of power over Joseph. Sexual predators today use similar tactics as they pursue their victims.
- Trench warfare – World War I (Genesis 39:10). When Joseph resisted her initial approach, Mrs. Potiphar spoke to him “day after day.” Some today might say that she was grooming him as she tried to overcome his resistance. In some of the heartbreaking stories of sexual abuse the victim describes being groomed and worn down over an extended period of time.
- A final assault – D-Day (Genesis 39:11-12). Finally, Mrs. Potiphar catches Joseph alone and makes her final desperate attempt to lure him into sexual sin as she grabs him by his cloak. This also resembles the stories women tell of their abuser manipulating them into a vulnerable isolated situation in which he makes his decisive aggressive move.2This also was Amnon’s tactic with Tamar in 2 Samuel 13.
What responsibility, if any, does the victim of sexual harassment and abuse have?
What is the duty of a believer whose purity is under such an assault? I have been troubled by the teaching that if one is a victim then she cannot also be a violator. It is claimed that if one was groomed by a person of power then she is not an adulterer, even if she gives in to his evil abuse of power and trust. But Joseph’s story teaches otherwise. He acknowledges that if he were to submit to her wicked advances, he would be doing a great evil and sinning against God (Genesis 39:9).3Some would label any effort to hold the person who consented to sexual activity with a someone who abused their power responsible for sin “victim blaming.” But Joseph acknowledges that if he had given in, he would have been blameworthy. The fact that he was enslaved (trafficked) and pressured over time would not have been an excuse. God holds us responsible to resist temptation, including that which comes from those who misuse their positions of power, trust, and authority.4Steve Viars addresses this issue in his helpful book Putting Your Past in Its Place where he warns against responding sinfully when we are sinned against and encourages those who are sinned against to respond in a godly, obedient way. And God helps us when we are tempted.
It has been observed that the first impulse of women and children who are being sexually harassed or assaulted is often to remain silent. We should sympathize with those who have responded this way out of fear or other motives. Yet this is even more reason why we need to prepare potential victims to overcome their inclination to remain silent and to actively resist temptation and expose evildoers.
I also acknowledge that the responsibility and ability of the victim to resist may vary according to their age and other circumstances. Far more would be expected of a grown woman who claims to be a mature Christian than someone who is much younger and far more vulnerable.
How should we resist sexual harassment/temptation?
We all will be tempted in various ways. Some of us, like Joseph, may be tempted sexually by those who would misuse their power and trust.5In some cases, the temptation might not be from a person with formal authority over us, but someone who used the power of flattery to draw us away from the Lord. Scripture promises us that God will not put us into situations in which falling into sin is inevitable (1 Corinthians 10:13). Joseph shows us what we must think and what we must do to escape the clutches of temptation.
- Love God — Value your relationship with God above all else (Genesis 39:9b). Joseph can resist the advances of Potiphar’s wife because of his strong relationship with God. He values the delights of intimacy with God more highly than the earthly pleasures she offers him (Genesis 39:2,21 also see Psalm 34:8 and Isaiah 55:1-2).
- Love your neighbor – Sin hurts many people. Joseph respected the rights of Potiphar as we are also to honor all marriages under God (Genesis 39:8-9a Hebrews 13:4 Matthew 19:6). Sin, especially sexual sin, affects many people including spouses, children, extended family, and the church community. It is a great and destructive evil.
- Avoid tempting situations (Genesis 39:10). When Mrs. Potiphar continued to pursue Joseph, he not only refused to lie with her, he also refused to even to be in her presence (see Proverbs 5:8). In recent days, the “Billy Graham Rule” has come under some criticism by those who say that men should not assume that their Christian sisters are out to seduce them (like Potiphar’s wife) and that women may be mistreated or neglected by male leaders who follow such rules. Critics have challenged the practice of some male leaders who refuse to meet with a woman alone or copy their spouses on all texts and emails to women or avoid intimate conversations or physical contact/hugs with ladies. As with many issues, balance is needed. We have rightly been reminded that male leaders are called to shepherd all the sheep, including the females. However, having seen how many godly people have fallen into sin (often believing it could never happen to them – 1 Corinthians 10:12), and knowing our own weakness, discretion is appropriate.
- Flee youthful lusts (Genesis 39:10,12). When Mrs. Potiphar cornered Joseph in the house he ran for his life. When I listen to the stories of victims of sexual misconduct by people in authority, they often will acknowledge that they sensed that something was wrong long before they were pulled into sexual sin. Perhaps they stayed in the relationship because they could not imagine their trusted leader doing evil to them. Or perhaps they were flattered and did not want to give up the attention and opportunities which their mentor could offer them. It is best to quit your job or to leave the church and to expose the abuse, even if it costs you in the short term (Genesis 39:13-20 Matthew 5:29). Joseph’s experience exemplifies Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:22, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”6I quote the entire verse because Paul reminds us of what to “put on” in addition to what we must “put off.”
Christ will help you.
No doubt the pull of temptation can be very strong, especially when the source is someone in a position of trust and power. We have a Savior of whom it is said, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). Though Joseph experienced significant temptations, Jesus was tempted far more.C.S. Lewis pointed out that only the person who has resisted temptation fully knows the full power of temptation,7“Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. … We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.” From C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Book III Chapter 11 not the person who gives in. Jesus resisted temptation to its greatest possible degree and now helps us to walk in his steps as we turn to Him. Finally, when we fall into temptation, He offers forgiveness to all who confess their sins and look to Him for grace (1 John 1:8-2:2).