Beauty and Brokenness – Israel’s story and ours…

We continue the Exodus journey with Israel leaving Egypt.  As I’ve said, their journey is an analogy of ours.  Our own New Exodus journey can be seen as we probe the theological and psychological realities of that first journey.  In this post, we see how quickly a beautiful story can turn tragic…

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The Exodus story, as I’ve said, gives us a window into how we grow and mature as human beings.  It represents the best and worst of the human story.  It represents the beauty and brokenness of life on this side of the New Canaan.  And that dual reality is perhaps no more clear then when this ancient people, so much like us today, accepts the bold challenge of God to take a new road in life, but finds it more difficult than they imagined.

To get this, we’ve got to do a little background biblical work which will be fleshed out more concretely and practically in future posts.  So be patient…this post is a bit longer and more theologically/biblically loaded, but it’s worth getting this to understand our own lives.

Think back to an earlier post – The Womb becomes a Tomb – when I wrote that the Exodus miracle was much like the birth of a baby.  Israel had outgrown its temporary womb, and through the waters it was birthed into new longing, new life, new identity, and new opportunity.  Interestingly, much later in Israel’s history the prophet Ezekiel reflected back on the Exodus story in the same way, writing

4 On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. 5 No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. 6 ” ‘Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” 7 I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels. Your breasts were formed and your hair grew, you who were naked and bare. (from Ezek. 16)

This is a story that would make some people blush.  God portrays His people as a newborn growing into her body, and growing into her identity.  The young infant Israel had found a home in God, and in God they knew security, safety, sustenance, and provision.  The images in this chapter of Ezekiel are vivid.  God begins to speak of the beauty of His growing child.  He sees her growing and developing into the woman she was made to be.  And as she grows into her God-given beauty, it becomes time for her to be taken as a wife to her Bride-Groom – God Himself.  Ezekiel writes

8 ” ‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine.

This ancient picture is that of a marital covenant.  It is God’s invitation to His once-oppressed and despised bride to enter into a sacred relationship of trust, a covenant, a bond initiated by the Bride-Groom Yahweh, the Divine Pursuer and Lover, the Great Rescuer (see Ex. 19-24).  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  But the rest of the story reveals how our hurting hearts resist Love, and how our broken hearts resist the invitation to Beauty.

crying girlLike a newborn, Israel emerged from the womb with bitter tears at Marah (Ex. 15-16).  The great rescue had become, for them, not so much a continual celebration of God’s goodness but a cosmic bait and switch game that left them unsure if the decision to leave Egypt was the right one after all.  The great joy had turned to profound dissatisfaction.  God had ignited their longing and intensified their hunger, but rescue did not bring the satisfaction and delight they longed for.  Their joy in being rescued was tempered by the prospect of journeying through a dry and weary land, and many scoffed at the prospect.  Some even reminisced about life back in Egypt.

I think about the woman I saw for counseling some time ago who was initially so enthusiastic about the new hope she had.  Ravaged by physical abuse and demeaning comments from her Dad as a child, she was just beginning to grasp her own beauty again.  But then a boyfriend rejected her.  And she began doubting what she was learning in counseling.  She was in a fragile, early stage of therapy, and her sense of worth was still unsteady.  Late one night, she drank too much at a bar, and slept with a stranger.  So distraught and hopeless, she called me and said, “I may as well quit counseling.  It’s too hard to believe that I’m worth more.  It’s probably best to go back to what I’m good at – getting drunk and getting laid.”

The analogy comes right from Israel’s story.  When she emerged from Egypt, she was just a child.  Her longings were not yet mature.  Like a patient Father God provided for her needs, and reminded her of her beauty, and asked her to hang in there with Him.  He gave her food to eat when she began to grumble.  He provided for her in terms that are described as motherly.

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15)

As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.  (Isaiah 66:13)

As Ezekiel says, God raises His children in a way that brings forth the beauty which was buried in their oppressive Egyptian womb.  But God is also sensitive to the developmental needs of His children.  As they emerge from Egypt and begin to grow into their new identity, God brings them to the place where His covenant of love will be confirmed, and the marital vows will be taken.  He brings His Bride to Sinai – a moment that can only be described as the best of times and the worst of times.

Ezekiel’s imagery, once again, is vivid.

8 ” ‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine.  9 ” ‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign LORD.

This picture encapsulates the covenant confirmed in Exodus, and elaborated on in Deuteronomy.  It compels the reader to consider this as a defining moment of new identity and new life for Israel, God’s bride.  She has emerged through the birth-waters of the Red Sea, and is now ready for the rights and responsibilities of a marriage covenant.  She has been given a second chance at Eden.  The imagery is ripe with Edenic beauty.  And she has been given a task once given in Eden – to be the visible glory of the one God for the sake of the world.  Her beauty will tell the world who God really is.

If this was the end of a movie, we’d leave the theaters with a tear in our eye and a feeling of relief.  But Sinai represents more than a joyous wedding and a happily-ever-after.  Dempster (2001) says rightly that “Sinai, not Egypt, is Israel’s largest roadblock to Canaan” (p. 101).  How is this so?  How can this marriage covenant be anything but gloriously freeing?  In fact, Sinai reveals to us not only a heart that deeply desires intimacy and union with God, but a heart that simultaneously resists that union and rebels against the One who initiated it.  Sinai’s commands to give glory to God alone, embodied in a host of commands and instructions we read throughout the Pentateuch reveal God’s desire to be in a committed, monogamous relationship.  But as we read the instructions at Sinai, we cannot help but think, “Isn’t this a bit too restrictive?  Can’t we play the field a bit?”  Again, Ezekiel tells the story well.

15 ” ‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his.  16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution. Such things should not happen, nor should they ever occur. 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 18 And you took your embroidered clothes to put on them, and you offered my oil and incense before them. 19 Also the food I provided for you—the fine flour, olive oil and honey I gave you to eat—you offered as fragrant incense before them. That is what happened, declares the Sovereign LORD.

Sinai is a glorious time, a wedding of God and Israel.  But it also reveals the fickle heart of a people unwilling to enjoy God’s Edenic union.  It reveals the heart of a people whose memories fail them and whose longings betray them.  We see this vividly as Moses ascends the mountain, and returns to find that impatient Israel could not wait for him – they had formed for themselves another god, another lover, a cheap substitute, a golden calf (Ex. 34).  Ezekiel writes, “In all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, kicking about in your blood” (16:20).  In other words, God’s people failed to remember the Great Rescue, becoming enamored with substitutes that simply do not compare to Yahweh.

Sinai, in other words, reveals not only the depth of our desire for intimacy, but the deep desire for self-sufficiency which emerged out of the original sin of Adam and Eve.  A C.S. Lewis once said, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved, we are…rebels who must lay down our arms.”  Dempster (2001) is right to say that Sinai, not Egypt, is our biggest obstacle to reaching the Promised Land.  If we thought slavery in Egypt was bad, slavery to our own sin is even worse.  How quickly Beauty can disintegrate into brokenness…

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Can you relate to the woman I mentioned in this post?  Have you felt God’s love but experienced your brokenness as so deep that it was hard to hang on?

This post focused a bit more on the biblical story, but hopefully you can begin to see echoes in your own ‘New Exodus’ journey.  What are some of these echoes?

While we’ll flesh out what it means that “Sinai, not Egypt, is Israel’s greatest roadblock,” can you begin to see already how our own self-sabotage can play out?  Can you feel and do you experience the anxiety and insecurity of life in your own wilderness?  Can you see how easy it is to turn to other forms of security, and forget the Great Rescue of God?

How is your own life a picture of this tension between beauty and brokenness?

I will be with you – the shape of God’s relational engagement

In this series, I’ve been exploring the Exodus narrative as a window into the spiritual and emotional journey.  In this post, I explore the third lesson learned by God’s intervention (along with Moses!) among the enslaved Israelites – I will be with you.  (The first lesson can be found here and the second lesson can be found here.

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The third piece of wisdom that we can derive from the exodus story speaks directly to the importance of relationship.  It is accented in God’s repeated reminder to Moses: “I will be with you.”  Moses, in turn, becomes the living embodiment of I will be with you to the Israelites.  In fact, the presence of Moses is so synonymous with the presence of God that when Moses ascends the hill of Sinai, the people quickly become fearful and turn back to idolatry.  The human heart longs for connection.

I will be with you. In the midst of our pain, there may be no more important words spoken.  In fact, words sometimes get in the way.  Presence alone is required.  Job found this out the hard way when his theologian friends met him in his pain with a doctrinal rebuke.  “Friends should have a despairing man’s back,” he told them, “but you’re not there for me, choosing instead to correct me rather than being with me in my anguish” (Job 6, my paraphrase).  What we learn from this portion of the Exodus account is that in our places of grief and powerlessness, God does not condemn, correct, or condescend.  Rather, He extends compassion.

Rembrandt - The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt - The Return of the Prodigal Son

Compassion is a powerful word.  Among its various meanings as used in Scripture, it invites us to “suffer with” another, to enter in to another’s pain, to be moved by another, and to extend gracious love to another.  Of course, Jesus enters into our brokenness in the New Testament.  And the third person of the Trinity – Spirit – is a continual embodiment of God’s I will be with you love and compassion.  But God is no less compassionate in the Old, as Exodus shows.  Moved to compassion, He met the enslaved Israelites in their grief, rescuing them in the paradigmatic event of all of Scripture – the Exodus.  Later, the Jesus-rescue is equated to a New Exodus.  God’s heart is for the weak, the needy, and the enslaved, and His method is not theological rebuke but pastoral engagement.

Soul care begins here.  It does not end here, as we’ll see.  But, for those of us who long to be friends and counselors to those in need, our greatest hurdle may be simply learning to be with another. Selena brought her close friend Allie into counseling with me several years ago, hoping that together we’d fix her friend’s anxiety and depression.  The problem was that Selena ran the counseling session, saying things like, “You need to stop worrying, Allie.  God has all of the hairs on your head counted.  Right, Mr. DeGroat?”  How am I supposed to respond to that?  Finally, I stepped in, asking Allie, “Is what Selena is saying helping you?”  Allie looked at Selena with a fear of disappointing her, but courageously said, “Selena, I don’t need your advice.  I need you.”

I will be with you.

The lessons learned among the Israelites in Egypt are vital for today.  However, they are not a prescription on how to help people.  Rather, they set the shape and tone of growth, maturity, and healing.  Something of how God deals with the Israelites ought to trickle down into our own hearts and communities, shaping the way we interact with others, and shaping the way we grow ourselves.  God’s priorities, as we’ve seen, focus on three main things – getting honest about the problem, seeing a vision for life as it was meant to be, and being with a person in their pain.  These are the lessons for Israel in Egypt, for an enslaved people straining to maintain even a shred of their Edenic dignity.

And these are lessons for all of us, because we have all – to some degree or another – been wounded in life.  None of us had perfect parents.  Few of us can claim that we’ve been untainted by peer pressure or a break-up or early exposure to pornography or a bully’s words or being left out or failing an exam or not making the team or being wrongfully blamed by a parent.  And then there are large numbers of us who have known something more severe – an emotionally abusive parent, a condemning pastor, a sexualizing uncle, an unfathomable betrayal, or a parent’s death.  Life sometimes conspires against us.  We don’t choose it.  Rather, pain seems to choose us.  And it’s for this reason that the three lessons of Egypt are so pertinent today.  God meets us right where we are, getting honest about what has happened, stirring in us a longing for more, and staying right with us in our pain.  The shape of His care informs our own care, for others and for ourselves.  There is a time to confront sinful patterns and self-destructive strategies, as we will see.  But God begins in compassion and with love, something all of us desperately need at times.

I will be with you.

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What do you need relationally when you are in pain?

Think about a time when someone tried to “fix” you in the midst of your own pain.  Now, think of a time when someone was with you, not to fix you, but to be with you.  How did it feel?  Was there a difference?

How does the view of God in this lesson contrast/differ with your own experience of God?  Do you experience God judging you for being in pain, or loving you in the midst of your pain?

Get busy living

In this series, I’ve been exploring the Exodus narrative as a window into the spiritual and emotional journey.  In this post, I explore the second lesson learned by God’s intervention (along with Moses!) among the enslaved Israelites – get busy living! (The first lesson can be found here.)  The next lesson will be explored in a post to come.

In one of my favorite moments of the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne finds himself wrongfully imprisoned, teetering on the brink of hope and despair.  He realizes that, at the most basic level, his future boils down to a simple choice, as he says, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”  I would not be surprised if Moses said something very similar as his fellow Israelites grappled with their own future.

Get busy living. Sounds easy, but what if we’ve lost sight of life as it was meant to be?  For some of us, slavery is soul-consuming, eroding all signs of life.  We need a picture of the good life from someone else, someone who can see what we can’t see.  Martin Luther King, Jr. did this in his I Have a Dream speech.  For the enslaved Israelites, God had a dream, and His dream – poetically conveyed in images of a land flowing with milk and honey – awoke the hearts of His battered people.  Counselors and pastors and spiritual directions, among others, are called to be soul visionaries for the helpless, as well.


You see, bondage steals away the memory of the past and the hope of a future.  God’s people had lost sight of their Edenic past, and had stopped hoping for a restored Eden full of life and love.  Tragically, pain and powerlessness cause us to become locked in the present.  Bill and Diane came to me for marriage counseling.  Married 15 years, they had been in and out of counseling for about as long.  Diane cut to the chase in the first session, saying, “We’ve been through this marriage therapy business over and over again.  Neither one of us have much hope left.  In fact, we know very little except survival.”  The depth of the present struggle had stolen any vision of life as it once was in the bliss of their honeymoon, or life as it was intended to be in its poetic beauty – “the two shall become one.”  They were stuck in a hopeless present.

Sadly, people in bondage often do not and cannot envision life any differently.  We get acclimated to our chains of slavery.  We get used to being abused.  We become habituated to food, possessions, or relationships that we put in the position of Redeemer, hoping-beyond-hope that this will make us feel better.  I see it every day in the lives of ordinary people who ought to be living for more, but who are settling for less.  C.S. Lewis said it well in his oft-quoted sermon in The Weight of Glory. He writes, “When infinite joy is offered us, [we are] like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slums because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

This is where soul care can feel like warfare.  Evil is committed to a sinister purpose – the destruction of dignity in God’s image-bearers.  It speaks, “Surely you don’t think God will free you from this?  You know this is as good as it gets.  So, get used to it.  The bread and water of Egypt is far better than the hunger and thirst of the wilderness.”  Parts of us that have resigned to a life of survival and slavery believe this lie.  We’d be much safer (or so we think) choosing the predictability of bondage than the risk of freedom.  Old habits die hard.

In the first sessions, counseling can be a tiring and spiritually draining thing.  I’ve watched as an abused woman chooses to let her husband off the hook simply because the disruption to her life, the questions from her church, and the blowback from her abuser would be too much.  I’ve seen under-achieving men leave my office with a hunched head saying, “God might want more for someone else, but never for me. I’ll always be a loser.”  It’s war, and it’s painful.  And those of us doing the counseling sometimes hear the same voices: “Chuck, why are you doing counseling anyway?  It doesn’t help.  No one ever really changes.”  War is hell.

But, Moses listened to the voice of God.  And it became louder and louder until he was convinced that the smaller and more sinister voices led to further slavery, not life.  Moses began to believe that life could be better, and that God might pave a desert highway back to Eden.  We hear the same voice from Jesus in Luke 18 and Matthew 20, as He asks the most fundamental question that can be asked:  What do you want?  He has, of course, a deeper hunger and a deeper feast in mind than our smaller desires sometimes allow.

Finally, many people wonder, “Why does God’s voice sound so judgmental and life-killing, at times?”  My belief is that God’s voice will never sound like this.  It’s best, in these moments, to check in and see whether or not this inner voice that sounds like God might just be the lingering voice of an angry parent, a demanding coach, or a gloomy pastor.  You see, God may say hard things and require bold risks, but never at the expense of your heart.  God’s invitations offer life, though the path is often paved with suffering.  The invitation into a wilderness journey is frightening, as it was for Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings. But God’s parenting always draws us up and into life, not down into slavery, though we get scraped knees and broken legs along the way.  Discerning the voices may be hard, but when you begin to recognize the consistent and life-giving tone of God’s voice, the journey becomes a delight.

God comes to the Israelites not with a stern indictment (How did you get here?) or an impotent jab (If you’re getting out of this mess, you’re getting out on your own.)  He comes asking, “What do you want?”  And His poetic and glorious vision of desire-fulfilled is nothing but the most grand picture of the good life anyone could image.

If you believe in a world of good and evil, angels and devils, then you’ll agree that life can feel like war, at times.  What particular life-killing messages are you vulnerable to?  Write down some of these messages.

What are specific triggers in your life, whether internal or external, which activate these life-killing messages or sabotaging voices?

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  God’s voice offers rest, love, and compassion.  Try listening in to the compassionate and loving voice of God, through Jesus.  If needed, listen in to His voice in Scripture (Isa. 40; Isa. 51:1-16; Isa. 66:7-14; Jer. 31:31-34; Rev. 21-22).  What is his vision for you?

Getting honest about life in Egypt – abuse, denial, and soul care

In this series, I’ve been exploring the Exodus narrative as a window into the spiritual and emotional journey.  In this post, I explore the first lesson learned by God’s intervention (along with Moses!) among the enslaved Israelites – get honest, and take your painful situation seriously!  The next two lessons will be explored in subsequent posts.

The first piece of wisdom we can draw from the early exodus account is that God, through Moses, makes it clear that Egypt represents something devastating, a tragic roadblock on God’s highway to the good life.  In the infamous plagues, Moses is showing what happens (with vivid ancient animation!) when bad people attempt to mess with God’s good creation.  The plagues represent this animated object lesson.  In full color, the witnesses see God’s grand display of un-creation.  It’s a wake up call not just to Pharaoh and the Egyptians but to the Israelites, too.  It’s God saying, “Wake up, Israel!  Bondage is not merely a minor inconvenience.  It’s un-creation.  It’s the greatest obstacle to you becoming who you were meant to be!”  Moses, like a good counselor, draws a line in the sand and declares the ugly truth of Pharaoh’s abuse, manipulation, and slavery.

Though it might sound like an exegetical stretch, I’m convinced this is what God is saying to the broken men and women I meet with every day.  Often through the Moses-like voices of friends and counselors, we’re awakened to the reality of un-creation in our own lives.  In my counseling courses, I’ve often told my students that we have the privilege of calling evil what it is, even when others have shut their eyes and ears to the truth.

Now, counselors are often accused of dramatizing things that are not really that bad.  More than once, I’ve had a pastor call me after referring someone for counseling saying, “When I sent Joe to you, I just wanted him to be able to cope a bit better with the job loss.  But he told me you’ve got him looking at his childhood abuse!”  Listen, I’m sympathetic.  I do believe counselors have the tendency to over-dramatize.  However, I see a bigger issue.  People have a tendency to under-dramatize the extent of their problems.  We simply don’t want to see how hurt we’ve been, or how broken we are.

Thus, those of us who find ourselves in painful and broken places need to take it seriously and get honest about it.  And in some cases, we need to see the extent of how we’ve been hurt or victimized more seriously.  Deb illustrates this.  She was sexually abused on two occasions by her stepfather.

“It wasn’t that bad,” she told me.  “I probably asked for it, anyway.”

I responded, “Deb, you were 3 years old!  You didn’t ask for it, and he shouldn’t have done it.  I’m so sorry that happened, but you need to know – it was NOT your fault.”

Now, Deb needed my voice to amplify the extent of the abuse, to reflect back to her the reality of the evil perpetuated.  Let me be clear, though, especially to those who’d quickly respond, “But this only creates victims and fails to invite Deb to take responsibility for her self-sabotage since.”  The Exodus narrative eventually navigates to Sinai and sin.  But, in Egypt, the focus is on Israel’s slavery at the hands of a monster.  The narrative gives us permission to focus on the sin done to us.  This is an especially important principle for those of us who tend to want to tie a counseling session in a neat theological bow, rather than respecting a very human process which is often less tidy and more messy.

Those of us who practice this delicate art of soul care need wisdom in our practice.  We need to learn the art of animating the extent of the problem without needlessly over-dramatizing.  We need to be able to speak courageously and honestly when we see legitimate bigger problems. We’re not looking to make mountains out of molehills.  We are, however, compelled to put a voice to acts of “un-creation” when we see them.

humantrafficking1Every day, countless numbers of young women are enslaved by Pharaoh-like sex traffickers.  But if this seems too distant to those of us who have the means to avoid these harsh realities, consider some examples from the middle-class families I’ve seen for counseling over the past 11 years.  Consider the young kid seduced by the teenage paper-boy.  The little girl raped by her biological father for years.  The kindergartner fondled by his grandfather until he was in third grade.  The middle-schooler seduced by her youth pastor.  The young Mom raped by her masseuse.  And, the boy cornered by his coach, and made to do inexplicable sexual acts.  These are all examples of un-creation, real acts of evil perpetuated on people of all ages requiring clear acknowledgement.  Any attempt to minimize or deny (“Oh honey, he didn’t mean to”) only perpetuates the evil, further sabotaging the soul’s chance for life and redemption.

Lesson 1 in Egypt – Let’s get honest.  Call evil what it is.  Take the risk of speaking truth even if some call it “over-dramatizing.”  Take your woundedness seriously.  Anything less is a denial not only of our own narratives, but a denial of the master narrative that makes sense of our broken lives.

the new exodus – life in prison & the band-aids we apply

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy finds himself imprisoned among men who have lost the ability to dream about life outside of the prison walls.  Yet, he is a relentlessly hopeful man.  If you’ve seen the movie, you were likely moved to tears when, at the end, Andy’s relentless efforts to chip away (ever-so-slowly!) at freedom are revealed.   Not unlike the Israelites in Egypt, he had a dream of a beautiful place and a noble purpose.  That dream fueled his relentless quest for the better life, the land flowing with milk and honey.  It is this hope that must grasp our hearts if we’re going to make it through the Red Sea, and get on the way to our Promised Land.

prison“Bondage” or “imprisonment” characterizes the reality of a woman in depression, a man in a mid-life identity crisis, a teenager who cuts, or a married couple that lives as roommates.  It’s true of most people who walk through my door for care.  Life isn’t working.  Relationships are failing.  Purposelessness reigns the day.  And hope seems silly.  In fact, people who come for counseling are not often looking for hope; rather, most simply want relief from pain.   And most counseling strategies are aimed at just that.

Sitting with people in these places can be difficult.  I’ve found myself listening to many stories of bondage and imprisonment over the years.  I’ve sat with a pastor and his wife who were complete strangers to one another.  I’ve mentored seminary students who were trapped in the dark cavern of sexual addiction.  I’ve watched powerful businessmen cry like babies because of their utter emptiness.  I’ve ached for stay-at-home mothers who haven’t had even a few hours of un-interrupted rest in years.  One man stated it bluntly:  “prison sucks.”  Deep down, no one wants bondage.  Yet, many of us tolerate it.

Yes.  The reality that most of us have chosen to stay in bondage.  We’ve made Egypt palatable.  We’ve learned to live in the dead marriage.  We’ve accepted the decade long depression.  Despite our best efforts, we’ve gone back to the dead-end addictions and idols that have long been our oppressors.  I see it on counseling “Intake Forms” all the time, as people answer the question “How long have you experienced this problem?” with “as long as I can remember.”  Sometimes I’ll ask what kept them from addressing the issue earlier.  “Life just got busy,” they might say.  “I guess I just accepted that this is the way life is,” one woman told me recently.  Egypt became home.

What do you do with someone in this kind of bondage?  How do you help?  Sadly, many of the ways that we try to help amount to bandaids over wounds that require surgery.  Think about the many ways that we try to help:

  • “It does no good worrying about it.”
  • “Try to remember all the good things you have!”
  • “Just get back into Scripture regularly and you’ll feel better.”
  • “When life throws lemons, make lemonade.”
  • “Rejoice in the Lord always!”
  • “Maybe there is a lesson to learn in it.”

While there may be truth in some of these things, they often fail to speak deeply to someone in pain.  I’m reminded of Job’s response when his friends failed to consider his great need.  “My friends are as undependable as intermittent streams…who have proved to be of no help” (from Job 6, NIV).  Sometimes we spend our time trying to fix people instead of listening carefully to them.

The prophet Jeremiah tried to get this message across to a hard-hearted generation of Israelites who had abandoned the “ancient paths” (Jer. 6:16, NIV) for the quick fixes and brief therapies of the day.  Even the most respected among them – the pastors – had bought into a theology of pain minimization and management.  Eugene Peterson’s translation is priceless:  “Prophets and priests and everyone in between twist words and doctor truth. My people are broken—shattered!— and they put on Band-Aids, saying, ‘It’s not so bad. You’ll be just fine.’ But things are not ‘just fine’!” (Jer. 6:13, MSG).  The NIV translation is just as clear: “They dress the wound of my people as if it were not serious.”  Indeed, in countless places God seems to indict those who fail to minister to the broken.  God’s heart, it seems, is with those who are too broken to put themselves back together.

So, consider this:

What is your prison, and how have you made it palatable?

How the “band-aids” of friends, family, or pastors only added to your stuckness?

How and why have you chosen to stay stuck?  How does life in Egypt “work” for you?

the Womb becomes a Tomb

“I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of the land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey.”  Exod. 3:8

Our hearts are fickle.  The good things we desire are often the very things that enslave us.  So it was for the descendants of Jacob who settled in the Egyptian land of Goshen, desiring safety and security in the midst of famine and uncertainty.  The Israelites certainly did not go to Egypt seeking slavery.  Indeed, in the days of Joseph, Goshen must have been a sight for sore eyes and a promise of sustenance for hungry hearts.  The road-weary Israelites had found a place to settle, and this place proved to be very desirable in many respects.  Moses writes, “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that they land was filled with them” (Ex. 1:7, JSB).  Indeed, these were the very blessings promised in Eden.

But alas, we know the rest of the biblical story.  Indeed, we know our own stories.  We know the times when we reached for one piece of chocolate only to eat the entire box, one glass of wine only to drink the bottle, one kiss on the first date only to find ourselves engrossed in passion, or one “yes” to a request only to realize that we’d gotten in way over our heads again.

What we know of the Exodus story is that the Garden-grown desire for security made God’s people ripe for security’s twisted step-child, slavery.  What we know is that the Garden-grown desire to be fruitful and multiply became, for the Israelites, their greatest accomplishment and most frightening peril.  This is the way life goes, it seems.  When we think we’ve found that thing that will satisfy, it can so quickly enslave us.  Can you think of an example in your own life?

The Israelites did find a land of blessing and did grow in number, but their numbers became a threat the new Egyptian Pharaoh who set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor (Ex. 1:11).  Indeed, the Israelites knew from their stories and traditions that Goshen was never to be a permanent home, but they settled, literally and figuratively.  And as they settled, security became slavery.  Their numbers grew and became a threat to their former friends and hosts, prompting Pharaoh to gain control through captivity.

Among the many who have seen the Exodus narrative as a guiding story, Jewish mystics have long seen it as paradigmatic for the soul’s journey to freedom.  In these writings, Egypt plays a central role both in its deceptive appearance as a space for growth, and its decisive role in enslaving the Israelites.  The metaphor that embraces this dual reality is that of a womb.  The womb, of course, is a place for a baby to grow and be nurtured, a place of security and sustenance.  But a womb is not a permanent home.  For a baby at full-term, it has become a constrictive place where growth is no longer possible.  So it was for the Israelites in Egypt.  Frankel (2003) notes that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, suggests meitzarim or “narrow straights,” referring to a tight and constricted space.  Just as the womb becomes an inhospitable place for a baby at full-term to grow and thrive, so the once-fertile land of Goshen in Egypt became an inhospitable place where the Israelites could no longer grow and prosper.  The womb, in other words, has the potential to become a tomb.

How familiar this is for so many of us!  Every time someone walks through my door for pastoral care or counseling, their unique story resonates with this larger story.  “How did I get here?” they ask.  “I was happy.  Things were going well.”  So often, people who come to see me for care tell a story that echoes the biblical story.  Things that ought to be blessings have become curses.  A marriage is dying.  Food has become an obsession.  Sex has become an addiction.  In other words, what could have been good has become bad.  It’s a story as old as Genesis 1-3, and yet unique to each person’s narrative.

1565646496_5a6fcbcb93Egypt is this once-good place gone bad.  It’s a place where we have become cut off from our God-given identity in creation.  It is not a place where we can thrive.  It is not a place where we can grow.  It is not a place where we can live, really live. Struggling people who have been there describe it as such.  They report feeling stuck, trapped, enslaved, depressed, anxious, dying, hopeless, or abandoned.  People in these places have been habituated to their Egyptian shackles over a long period of time, and it’s tough to get them un-shackled.  The mystics used the word “attachment” to describe a soul’s enslavement to something.  In Latin, “attachment” translates “nailed to.”  Today, we use the word addiction, which derives from the Latin root for “dictator.”  No matter how you slice it, our own personal Egypt’s are not places where we can grow and flourish.

Many who have found a spiritual home in Egypt came, like the Israelites, because it offered the promise of life.  I counsel many women who have been abused in the past and now find themselves in difficult and abusive marriages.  More often than not, these women found in their husbands a place of refuge.  One woman said, “He rescued me.  I was the hopeless little girl, and he was strong and confident.”  But the husband’s strength and confidence can, in some cases, turn to control and domination.  Another woman added, “My husband seemed like a good Christian man but became a monster behind closed doors.  I thought he was safe, but found that he was anything but safe.”

It is interesting to note that Pharaoh’s agenda was so much like the agenda of many of these abusers – control, power, twisted authority.  Further, Enns (2000) notes that Pharaoh’s agenda was creation-reversing.  God’s creation-blessing of progeny was being crushed by a man who feared seeing Israel thrive.  Pharaoh’s abuse was a creation-destroying work.  In enslaving the Israelites, he was seeking to thwart not only their growth, but to destroy their identity.  Just as Genesis 1 starts out with God creating and revealing human identity in image-bearing, so Exodus 1 starts with God blessing His chosen people.  But things quickly change because of the creation-destroying work of a tyrant king who cannot stand God’s glory being revealed in humanity.  The contrast between a benevolent Father-God and an abusive tyrant cannot be more clear.

If the first chapters of the Book of Exodus reveal anything to us about our spiritual geography, they reveal the heart of a God who seeks to find us in the midst of our enslavement, and rescue us in order to see us become what we were made to be – heirs and co-heirs, kings and queens, vice-regents of creation.  Through a series of plagues and miracles which demonstrate God’s command over creation, Moses and the Israelites march out of the darkness of slavery into the marvelous hope of new creation.   Likewise, it is imperative that we listen to those who come to us, like Moses, calling us out of our places of enslavement.  Our very lives depend upon it.  I see pastors and counselors and spiritual directors and even good friends as playing this very important role in people’s lives.  Like Moses, we become desert guides to those experiencing oppression, inviting them as Moses did to dream of freedom.  Exodus chapters 4-6 are a Counseling 101 course, a picture of one man painting a picture of re-creation, and inviting an oppressed people to long for a better life.  What we learn from the spiritual geography of Egypt is that God meets us in the place of our pain, our struggle, and our oppression, and invites us to long for something new.  He does not shame us.  Rather, He whets our appetite for new life.  Ignited by redemptive longing, we have the courage to leave behind our lives of slavery and enter into the journey God has for us.

This is the New Exodus:  It’s a rescue from the constriction of a womb that is no longer viable for us, becoming instead a tomb.  It’s a journey from slavery to freedom.  It’s a story of a God whose heart beats not for ugly and life-destroying things, but for good and spacious things:  “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of the land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8).  The question for us is:  Are we up for the adventure?

Think of something that you feel “nailed to” right now – a relationship, a self-image, a habit, a substance, an extreme emotion.  What was its original allure?  Take some time to reflect on how it has become so powerful and enslaving?

Frankel calls Egypt a tight and constricted place.  How do you experience the constriction of your own attachments?

Name your enslavements/attachments/addictions?  Now, for each one, step back and reflect on the good thing that you long for which has become twisted.  (For example, a woman I know found herself so addicted to Facebook that she’d have a physiological reaction when she was away from it for several hours, worrying anxiously that she missed something.  She later discovered a deep longing to be known, seen, and heard…)

Reflect on how you might step back for a time from the thing that enslaves your heart, and simply feel the longing beneath it.  As you do this, journal about the emotions it brings up.  (For example, the Facebook woman gave herself a week away from it, and when she felt the stab of longing simply let herself descend into a reflective time about her longing to be known.  God filled that empty space, and she was able to re-enter Facebook from a new emotional place…)

New Exodus: Memories of Eden

We begin a new series which will journey through the Exodus narrative as it relates to spiritual formation, soul care, and human maturity.


“In the end is my beginning” (T.S. Eliot, East Coker, Four Quartets).

One of my favorite poets, David Whyte, never tires of reminding his readers that innocence always precedes (and ought to always pervade) experience.  For Dorothy, before the tornado it was a quiet day in Kansas.  For Frodo and Sam, the Shire preceded Mordor.  For Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, the safety of Professor Kirk’s house preceded the battle for Narnia.

And before the Fall, there was Eden.

light 3Eden represents a place of security, satisfaction, and innocence.  It is a kind of womb, providing just the right environment to thrive.  And despite our best attempts to theologize away innocence, we cannot seem to rid our minds of Eden’s blessed memory.  Before original sin, Henri Nouwen reminds us, was original blessing. C.S. Lewis anchors human desire in Eden’s relentless heart-pang.  Hope emerges from a heart that believes that it was made for something more.  Irrevocably stamped on our humanity is God’s image, anchoring us in our original vocation to rule and relate on the King’s behalf.  Hidden beneath the depravity of experience is a relentless reminder of human dignity and original innocence.

And not even the Exodus story, with its narrative of slavery and salvation, can begin without Eden’s memory.  One of my favorite commentators on Exodus, Pete Enns, reminds us that Israel was brought into Egypt, of all places, to thrive.  Exodus 1:7 could very well have been lifted from the first two chapters of Genesis:  But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (ESV).  Wow.  Egypt itself offered tastes of Eden’s happy memory.

In fact, Jewish scholars have pointed to a tradition which viewed Egypt as a kind of womb which grew too small for the growing child Israel.  Though safe and secure for a time, she would not ultimately thrive in Egypt’s cloistered confines.  Though a reach, this Jewish tradition of thought, at the very least, recalls the important fact that Moses told his story in such a way as to emphasize original blessing before tragedy.  In this sense, Old Testament commentators have noted that Exodus 1 is a story of new creation.

This New Exodus paradigm for soul care and spiritual formation that I propose, then, is anchored first and foremost in creation. This Edenic anchor reminds us, time and again, how the world was meant to be.  As theologian Cornelius Plantinga notes, all brokenness that precedes after the Fall is thus a “vandalism” of the original blessing and “shalom” of Eden.

Without this anchor, sin and struggle make the headlines of the New Exodus story.  With this anchor, longing and hope characterize the human journey from its Egyptian enslavement to its Edenic union.

What reality anchors your story?  Has the difficulty of your experience dimmed your memory of Eden?  Or can you sense, beneath the pain, an inkling of holy desire which reminds you of the way life is supposed to be?

Perhaps you’ve experienced an “Egypt” – a place of slavery – which originally seemed to be a blessing.  Many good things can become enslaving – relationships, food, sex, ministry, work.  Can you see what you originally longed for in the thing that now enslaves you?  What good thing did you first desire?