identity, abuse, and cruciformity – does ‘being like Jesus’ mean staying with an abuser?

[“Cruciformity” – character shaped in the cruciform and self-giving pattern of Christ]

Two extremes exist today among those answering this question.  One extreme is this:  the biblical mandate to “turn the other cheek,” modeled in the humiliation of Jesus, requires those who are abusive relationships/marriages to stay the course, loving their spouse in a way that “denies self and takes up the Cross” for the sake of the other.  I’ve heard a pastor say this almost verbatim, and wanted to say, “Doesn’t being like Christ require YOU to step in and take the abuse for her?”  

sadA second extreme, however, runs away from the tension of cruciformity, finding a hundred different ways of avoiding the radical demands of the Gospel for one’s life and character.  The most extreme of these options is found in a feminist interpretation (“cruciformity is a uniquely masculine, even misogynistic reading likely injected by Paul”).  There are assumptions there that just don’t fit the data, and moreover, don’t allow the tension in Paul’s theology to be what it is. 

Both extremes are too simplistic and, in my estimation, represent extra-biblical agendas.  In fact, while the two extremes remain polarized and largely at war with one another, I’d like to offer an alternative.  These are thoughts-in-process, and I’m hopeful for feedback, pushback, and clarification from the readers.

First, I’d suggest that cruciformity is at the heart of Paul’s theology, as well as the identity of Jesus.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the energy behind it is found in the Trinity and its self-giving circle of love.  That said, I cannot call cruciform theology misogynistic.  Yet, at the same time, “using” it as a way of encouraging an abused woman (or man, for that matter, though I will stick with the most statistically significant gender) into a supposedly selfless act of staying in relational proximity to the abuser is, in my estimation, criminal.  Self-sacrifice is motivated by love, and an abused woman often has no category for “loving” her spouse selflessly.  In fact, she does so at great cost not only to herself and her own maturity.  And, she fails to hold her sinful spouse accountable for his abuse.  Apparent “selflessness,” in other words, may appear noble, but may not really be loving at all. 

Second, I’d suggest that Jesus (and Paul, for that matter) could live in a cruciform manner is because they had had a “self” to deny.  Let me explain.  It takes having a self first to lose a self.  The reason we celebrate the self-sacrifice of Paul, or Stephen, or some of the early church martyrs is because they a self (a sense of self-identity?, a “stable” self?) and chose to give it away.  Often times, abuse victims have no such life, and no sense of self.  In fact, many were erroneously taught and habituated into believing that they were worth crap, to be blunt.  This is a denial of human dignity, basic to all image-bearers (even if they are “totally depraved,” as a Calvinist would argue).  Remarkably, we hear instances of impoverished people who give up possessions more freely than the rich.  In my estimation, these are examples of people who, though economically poor, are spiritually rich.  But, abuse victims are, by and large, spiritually and emotionally impoverished, and need help from the powerful – those in a position to step in.  The abused have no “self” to give up, because it was absorbed and shattered by the abusive power of others in their lives.  Sanctification often becomes by stepping into the very first stages of identity-formation, requiring the church to take seriously a unique discipleship among those who are abused and powerless.  (This “discipleship,” sadly, often falls to professional counselors who lack theological/biblical trajectories.  And while professional counseling may be needed, the church ought not back away from its primary role in discipleship).      

Third, women who I have counseled need time and space to disconnect in order to reconnect.  Space does not permit elaboration on the virtues and vices of separation, but at least some level of separation is often needed for the abused to gain a sense of perspective and identity, and the abuser to be awakened to his own sin.  This can be a difficult process, and is often confusing for pastors.  As a pastor (and a licensed counselor with a PhD in Psychology), I empathize.  I’ve dealt with counselors whose primarily answer is, “Get the hell out of there” with no larger context for growth, change, and reconciliation.  A significant part of my New Exodus Model of Soul Care is devoted to this shortsighted perspective.  But again, time doesn’t allow elaboration.  It’s important, most of all, to note the significance of a process which affirms the evil of abuse to the victim, shows protection and care, affirms her dignity (without minimizing her own sinful contributions), and instills a vision for life as God intends for it to be lived.  This is hard, and I can attest to the fact that it takes time, time that some pastors cannot handle because they are anxious to see “resolution,” “forgiveness,” and “reconciliation.”  I assure you…I want those things too…but patience is needed.

Fourth, a decision to stay in relationship with an abuser requires significant spiritual/emotional strength.  Some of my clients have chosen to stay.  They have an internal strength and sense of identity (rooted deeply in Christ, not in the devastating “arrows to the heart” from the abuser).  This choice often comes after significant self-assessment in relationship with wise counselors and pastors.  It also comes in the context of community looking in on her well-being.  When or why she should stay is not answered by filling out a checklist, but by working through some pretty heavy questions and with very wise counsel.  

Fifth, staying makes her no more heroic than the women who needs to leave.  One of the tenets of a New Exodus Model of Soul Care is that God meets us at our various developmental stages, not giving us more than we can handle.  Thus, his patience with Israel when they complained shortly after leaving Egypt is developmentally appropriate, while at the same time His impatience and anger with Israel’s complaint much later (post-Sinai) is also appropriate, and not at all a mark of inconsistency in His character.  If anything, it’s a testament to His wise parenting.  What is heroic is when a woman makes a difficult choice, taking the road-less-traveled at great cost to herself.  And, very often, a woman who leaves an abusive man does so at great cost to herself, and finds that spiritual and emotional maturity is propelled from that choice.    

Sixth, a trajectory that does not aim for forgiveness and reconciliation is not biblical.  I’ve lectured on this a lot in recent years, because my sense is that many counselors take their clients to a fuller, richer sense of self, and leave them there.  Doing this puts the client in peril.  In fact, in my experience, it often unleashes an angry man-hating narcissist into the world.  That’s blunt, but its as honest as I can be.  I’ve worked with literally dozens of abused woman, and if I’ve learned anything it is that I do my clients no favors by “terminating” with them too early.  In fact, when they feel like they are ready to go, I’ve been known to say, “No, the really tough stuff starts now.”  This is because I’m convinced that maturity requires discerning the various stages of or manifestations of cruciformity for the person.  Again, it requires too much to write further on this, but begs questions:  What, then, does she do with her ‘righteous’ anger?  How does she move through anger to sadness?  How/when should she re-engage her abuser?  What is a vision for her further growth and maturity?  Again, many churches I have consulted with have few answers to these questions.  There must be a long-term vision that moves toward deeper forms of cruciform living.    

Seventh (and last, for now), the church must act more like Christ.  I’m grieved that when I see pastors who are unwilling to take the hard steps of intervening in abusive situations, but who (from a distance) throw condemning grenades into an already difficult situation (ie. “she’s in sin if she leaves”).  I don’t care if he’s an elder.  I don’t care if he tithes more than anyone.  You are called to be Jesus, and to lay down your life for the weak, helpless, and powerless among you.  I see pastors siding with the powerful over and over again.  I am so grateful, in this respect, to be in a new place and at a new church, distanced from what seemed to me to be an epidemic in the South.  It’s good to see the church being the church here.  I’m being healed, myself, of the sin of cynicism and resignation which was born out of countless examples of pastoral complacency, ignorance, and fearfulness.  Our vocational identity, as pastors, needs to be rooted in the cruciform life of Christ.  That requires us look beyond the behavior (as the Pharisees failed to do), and to have a vision for the widow, the orphan, the prostitute, the abused, the child – those who, by definition, are stripped or impoverished or disengaged from of a sense of identity.  We, the church, intervene, even if it’s dangerous, to rescue, protect, love, support, challenge, or lift up.  My sense is that the Christian church is a laughing-stock to many precisely because we’ve failed in this.  We would do well to look at the example of the early church that practiced this in a way that puts the most powerful and wealthy church in all of history to shame.

These seven thoughts are preliminary, and I invite your thoughts as I look to define these things more clearly, and publish them in time.  I wish I could be more precise.  I would caution those who want clear examples, noting that situations differ and motives are harder to discern.  It’s because of this that I believe we default to more simplistic behavioral categories which relieve the tension and messiness.  Yet, as pastors, if our desire is to avoid tension and messiness, we’re in the wrong vocation.

the spirituality of the city – #4 – on grief and the urban church

The city is a place where pain cannot be avoided.  Read a Wendell Berry book and you’ll learn how rural pain is hidden behind pretense.  Live in a suburban community and you’ll see not-so-manicured lives behind manicured lawns.  Live in a city, and you’ll have fewer places to hide.  In fact, the broken (often with outstretched hands) may find the exposure they get within the city to be their only hope of sustenance.    

It is to the open doors of the church that we’ll often see addicts flock on a San Francisco Sunday morning.  This is something I never saw in my time in the rural midwest or the southern suburbs.  To the open doors come the delusional, the destitute, and despairing.  But through these doors come 20-something singles who came to the city seeking a new start, often from families mired in pain.  Through these doors come affluent businessmen whose wealth cannot buy a peaceful night’s sleep.  Through these doors come pastors whose stories contain pain, loss, and misunderstanding.  

The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written much on grief, especially in its ancient context.  He writes, “Israel unflinchingly saw and affirmed that life as it comes, along with its joys, is beset by hurt, betrayal, loneliness, disease, threat, anxiety, bewilderment, anger, hatred, and anguish.  The study of lament may suggest a corrective to the euphoric, celebrative notions of faith that romantically pretend that life is sweetness and joy, even delight.  It may be suggested that the one-sided liturgical (charismatic) renewal of today has, in effect, driven the hurtful side of experience into obscure corners of faith practice or completely out of Christian worship” (The Psalms and Life of Faith, p. 68).  

Rouault Crucifixion

It is because of this the urban church cannot help but provide a space for lament – public grief.  To be sure, there are alternative contexts like therapy, and daily I see men and women who privately grieve in this place.  But the magnitude of urban pain demands a liturgical context for grief.  It is a demand that is ancient, yet paves the path for faithful postmodern engagement with the pain of the world.

Just this week, I sat with a woman in therapy whose process was much accelerated by the honesty of the pastor.  Indeed, several crucial implications result:

1.  God is safe:  The implicit communication when churches practice public lament is that God is safe.  In a culture where tv preachers declare the anger of God against (it seems) all who do not look like them, this liturgical practice communicates a clear non-verbal – God is alright with your mess.  In fact, He invites you to speak it.

2.  Grieving is an act of the faithful:  In a time when (it seems) faith = a happy life, the message sent by the liturgically lamenting church is “Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  For goodness sake, even the saints who have died in Christ lament, crying out, “How long!?” (Rev. 6)

3.  Real joy emerges from faithful grieving:  Again, Brueggemann is helpful noting, “The Psalms have the abrasive effect of dismantling the old systems that hide the well off from the dangerous realities of life.  It is a key insight of Freud that until there is an embrace of honest helplessness, there is no true Gospel that can be heard.  Until the idols have been exposed, there is no chance of the truth of a true God.  It is telling that these Psalms use the words “pit/Sheol/waters/depth,” for in therapy, one must be “in the depths” in order for there to be new life.  Freud has seen that the utter abandonment of pretense is the prerequisite to new joy.”

Urban churches can lead the way in these things precisely because the city is a far more difficult place to hide pain than the suburbs or small town.  To be sure, not all urban churches do this.  Many are fortresses that point to the problems “out there.”  However, a rich and theologically robust spirituality of the city counters the narrative of denial, repression, and resistance, and invites honest helplessness before the face of God.  

A final note:  I suspect that as the West degenerates, as the myth of progress flounders, and as the false reality of social and  economic stability crumbles, society will once again look to spirituality for answers.  Churches that live in denial will have no language for lament, and (as Paul Regele argues persuasively in The Death of the Church) will offer deeply unsatisfying answers and practices.  In these times, the urban church can serve the wider body well by providing it with a liturgy of grief, a way of participating in an honest and ultimately hopeful postmodern improvisation of the ancient way.  With the Cross and Resurrection at its center, the story of both grief and joy can be told and the practices of both lament and praise invited.  The spirituality of the city, therefore, is not merely a matter of living more meaningfully in the now, but engaging an uncertain future with wisdom.        


theosis and neurosis

I was excited to receive Michael Gorman’s new book in the mail – Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Theosis, and Justification in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology.  That’s a mouthful.  But it’s another piece in a puzzle that impacts all of us.  It takes a stab at the question: “I know God, but how do I experience Him?”  

It’s also a relevant question for all of you who are looking at us (“Christians”) from the outside with the very real and accurate observation that we don’t live out the love that we preach about.  The bumper sticker says that we need to put “Christ” back in “Christmas,” but I suspect we need to put “Christ” back in “Christian.”  And perhaps that is why Gorman has written a book with a mouthful title.  While we’re often fighting over who’s in and who’s out, we’re not becoming Christ, not inhabiting Christ, not being formed in Christ.  That’s theosis, after all.  It’s becoming, as one early church writer put it, “little Christ’s.”  It’s about entering into the world and engaging it, rather than keeping it at bay and critiquing it.  

We, Protestants, have done a fine job of alienating Catholics over the years, but it is the Catholics (and sometimes even more, the Orthodox church of the East) that get this better than anyone.  The “way of the Cross” is at the heart of it – a journey through the dark wilderness night of suffering into the light of resurrection.  It’s a dark night, as the 16th century Carmelite Reformer St. John put it, that strips us of false attachments – to money, power, pride, reputation, relevance, sophistication, ego, acceptance, and more.  It’s “dark” precisely because it’s difficult, and even humiliating at times.  Who wants to be stripped of all that has formed their identity?  We’ve all done a pretty good job mastering the identity that we suspect is most appealing to the world around us…to our family or spouse, our employer or church.  The way of the Cross sounds ludicrous.

red pillHowever, my conviction over the past decade of doing counseling and teaching seminary courses and pastoring is that theosis is vital for the recovery of a Christianity that means something to us, and means something to a watching world that often laughs at us.  It’s about participating in the life of Jesus, not just watching from the sidelines.  When you watch from the sidelines, you’re more interested in analyzing what’s wrong with everyone on the field.  When you watch from the sidelines, you’re more apt to throw theological grenades at those who are, perhaps, not as theologically sophisticated as you.  When you watch from the sidelines, you’re less inclined to engage the messy realities of every day Christian living.  You’ll critique every play, mock the inadequacies of the players, and question the strategy, all while getting fat and happy on the junk food of theological arrogance and pharasaical elitism.  I know.  I’ve failed at my junk food diet for years.  I’ve been a benchwarmer for years.  

But from the vantage point of the player on the field, theosis requires engaging in the messy, every-day realities of living and loving.  In fact, it requires an even more risky self-engagement, as you recognize and then do battle with your own tendencies to disassociate, disengage, and disconnect from reality.   This is why Jesus used an array of disconcerting images about living like Him.  The images, in total, portray life as far more risky, dangerous, messy, unpredictable, and unselfish than we’d like.  To become rich, we choose poverty.  To experience happiness, we walk through the valley of lament.  To receive mercy, we give it.  To be satisfied, we empty ourselves.  To find ourselves, we lose ourselves.  It’s radical engagement with ourselves and with the world.  The psychological equivalent of disengagement, on the other hand, is denial.

And we, counselors, often call that neurosis.  Carl Jung once said, “Our world is, so to speak, dissociated like a neurotic.”  What he observed was not only individuals who escaped reality through a myriad of virtual realities, but saw a world mired in systemic disengagement, addiction, disassociation, and virtual reality – (all before the advent of video games and the internet!).  Neurosis eats away at theosis.  It tells the heart, “Don’t take that risk.  You might get hurt.”  In doing so, it erodes a sense of Christ-like vulnerability which leads us to more intimate relationship with our fellow humans.  Neurosis, at its heart, is de-humanizing.  Theosis, on the other hand, is radically humanizing in the sense that it invites to become who we were meant to be, found in the cruciform God – Jesus.  

It also has many relevant applications for those of us who are “professional Christians.”  Neurosis avoids theological engagement through theological conflict.  Theosis requires theological engagement through self-giving love, dignity, and respect.  Neurosis makes everyone an enemy.  Theosis turns the other cheek.  Neurosis leads to cynical detachment and fear-based alarmism.  Theosis invites vulnerable (yet wise) incarnation into the dangerous and messy realities of life.  Neurosis self-protects.  Theosis self-empties.  

Of course, there would be much to spell out as to what this looks like and how it manifests itself, particularly among those who have been abused (…because self-protection would not only be the wise thing, but the most godly thing to do).  But this big-picture construct between theosis and neurosis puts words around a choice between “two roads that diverge in a wood.”  Neurosis, of course, is a word that speaks of psychopathology and sin, but theosis marks out the path toward health, freedom, and full humanity.  In the movie The Matrix, it was the choice between the red pill and the blue pill.  And perhaps God, like Morpheus in the movie, says to us:

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”    

Theosis is the rabbit hole of Christ-habitation, to full humanness, to a life of risk, adventure, and joy.  Take the red pill.

the spirituality of the city – #3 – intersections of grace

Everywhere you go, you can’t help it.  You see it in a thousand different ways.  A middle-aged woman gives up her seat for a senior.  A young hispanic man creates his work of art, loading a deli sandwich with salami, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, and his favorite dressings, all with a smile from ear to ear.  A CEO holds an elevator for a raggedly-dressed man.  Three strangers car pool to work, striking up a conversation about how uncomfortable, yet how surprisingly fun, it can be to drive to work with a new person every day.  

These are the real intersections of the city.  They exist not so much on a map, but in relationships.  They could not happen driving solo to work, or opening a garage via remote control and pulling in.  They are randomly-inevitable happenings.  Each day I’m excited to see what new adventure will unfold.  

Most of us work hard to eliminate these things.  Progress, we imagine, is owning our car, achieving independence, becoming self-reliant.  But in the city, the sheer volume of people in a limited space invites engagement.  Sometimes, it leads to frustration and impatience.  But quite often, it leads to surprising acts of human goodness.

Now, that’s not a phrase you hear often from a Calvinist.  People are bad, we’re told.  Expect the worst, and if you get the best behavior, assume the worst motives.  And I’d agree.  This is a mad, mad world.  Adam Smith may have invented Capitalism, but Hobbes told the truth about it – people won’t act in the best interests of the other, because it’s contrary to human nature.  

Whether out of bad motives or out of some innate and Eden-born remembrance of life-as-it-was-meant-to-be-lived, people I meet every day defy the laws of human nature.  Perhaps, when we’ve earned enough to achieve self-reliance, we become a bit callous toward our neighbor, even if we attend church and tithe every week.  Perhaps, the poor-in-spirit are those who, acting contrary to human nature, make the best of their interdependent existence.  Perhaps, the man in the wheelchair who lets 3 high school students get on the bus before him knows something I don’t know.  

We, Christians, with our Jesus-fish-bumper-sticker and our Testamint candy and our leather-bound NIV’s are often pitiful exemplars of Christ-like self-sacrifice.  I’d much rather get home than give up my spot on the bus.  I’d much rather get up the elevator rather than hold the door for the incredibly slow elderly man who works on the same floor and takes the same elevator.  Calvin was right when he said that Christians lack “sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate.”  Yet, somehow living in the city is forcing me outside of myself.  While professors in seminary lauded Wendell Berry’s rural life, I’m finding that Berry’s vision of relatedness, common humanness, interdependence, and more is a fit for life in the big city.  Against my self-reliant impulses, it is teaching me neighborly love.

Calvin also said, “ Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun.”  I’m a case study in Christian selfishness.  But each day, God surprises me with visions of the poor in spirit.  He loves them, the Gospels tell me.  Tidy theological categories don’t work in these places, but faith in the person and work of Jesus does.  

I suspect Calvin had to get that long beard trimmed every so often.  Perhaps he took a 16th century Genevan bus to the barber.  Perhaps he saw his often feeble love of neighbor revealed in the kindness of one-to-another along his route.  I know that I’m entering a new week hoping, with the Spirit’s help and God’s grace, to live up to my puny capacity for grace and beauty and love and selflessness.  The prayer of Jesus invites the kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.”  May my life be a little vision of God’s kingdom-come to a watching world.  May I be alert to the intersections of grace I see and experience among my urban neighbors.

A New Exodus Model of Soul Care – Chapter 1a

Chapter 1:  The Big Picture – An Exodus Story for Today

hands-pot A disciple asks the Rabbi, “What does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’?  What does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”  The Rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day the heart breaks and the words fall in.” 

(from “The Politics of the Brokenhearted,” by Parker Palmer)


Most of you know about the first Exodus.  You’ve read the story, watched the movies, and memorized the plotline.  It’s Sunday School 101.  It’s the greatest story ever told.  And it’s ancient history.

 Or is it?  I’m convinced that the journey Moses took along with a band of slaves is more than ancient history.  I’m quite certain, as you’ll see, that it is our journey too.  Think about it.  Have you ever found yourself longing for freedom from some kind of bondage (a substance, a bad relationship, an obsessive way of thinking, depression, anxiety)?  If so, you know the perils of Egypt.  Or, have you known the hope of ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘trying a little harder’ only to fail again?  Then you’ve known the futility of Sinai.  Perhaps you’ve felt abandoned by God, or afflicted with unbearable suffering?  In this place, you’ve gotten a taste of the wilderness God’s people encountered long ago.  Suffice it to say, most of you know the road from Egypt to the Promised Land well.  You know its high mountains, and you know its dark valleys.  You just have not heard your journey described in these terms.

 One Puritan guide who was familiar with this journey offered a prayer that describes the joys and perils this journey.  He wrote

 Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.

 I love this prayer, because there is an acknowledgment of a journey involving a hard struggle.  And the New Exodus way is, to be sure, a way of struggle and suffering. 

It assumes that the way down is the way up, and that the road of downward mobility actually leads to glory.  Indeed, this is counter-intuitive in today’s culture.

 Now, for some of you this might raise a red flag.  Many of us have been taught that faith leads to victory.  Popular authors sell books promising blessing to those who commit their way to the Lord.  And we buy them, because (truth be told) we’re all looking for something to give us quick relief for life’s pain.  I was sitting with Laurie several years ago when it dawned on her that her bookshelves were lined with popular writings on the successful Christian life.  She had tried to find the answer to her depression for a decade or more, but she said to me, “I feel like they’ve only set me up to fail, and feel even more low in the end.”

 The New Exodus way is paradoxical precisely because it requires suffering.  As I often tell my classes, if God wanted the Israelites to avoid the wilderness, he would have given them the miracle of a helicopter in order to fly them over it.  But we’re all looking for helicopters.  In fact, it’d be strange if we liked pain and craved suffering.  Even Jesus said in the Garden of Gesthemane, “Lord, if it be your will take this cup of suffering from me.”  This is a natural response for all of us.  It’s why a good portion of Scripture is taken up with lament and complaint.  The problem is that, despite our complaints, God doesn’t give us a helicopter to fly over the wilderness, but invites us to find Him in and through it.  

(…this is NOT the end of chapter 1…stay tuned…)