“To get at the core of God at His greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least.” Meister Eckhart

“It is only when we have reached the bottom of the abyss of our nothingness and are firmly established there that we can walk before God in justice and truth.” Jean-Pierre Caussade

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Drowning_by_Pretty_AngelI’ll never forget the advice of a counseling supervisor early in my internship.  A client was neck deep in the tumultuous waters of long running addiction.  Together, we’d conceive of ways for him to keep his head above water – strategies to avoid the temptation.  Each week, he’d come back having found some way around our strategy, feeling even more guilty and desperate in his struggle.

My supervisor watched our sessions, sensing my growing futility and desperation.  She knew I had some lifeguard training in my past, and said, “Don’t you know not to let a drowning man grab a hold of you?  You’ll both drown.”

“But nothing we do is successful,” I said, missing the point.  “He just wants to stop sinning.  And my job is to help.”

“Then you’ve missed the point,” she said.  “Maturity is not about not-sinning.  Salvation comes through death.  You need to stop playing your version of ‘God’ and let him drown.”

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The Western church, in large part, has little room for a theology of drowning.  We help.  We give pep talks.  We teach sin management.  We motivate.  Rarely do we provide a context for drowning.

The New Exodus way is through the waters, down into the tumultuous deeps, into death.

One of the difficulties of pastoral and clinical counseling is that most people come for help – to get better, to overcome, to feel a bit more stable, to stop sinning.  Rarely do people come saying, “Help me drown.  Push me under.  I cannot live until I die.”  I find this often in marriage counseling.  A number of years ago, I led a church marriage retreat and called it On the Death of your Marriage. People came for advice.  I came to tell them how irreparably screwed up they are and (as a consequence) their marriages are.  I told them that until they get really honest about the mess they’re in, change can’t happen.  Predictably, half the room left feeling more hopeful than they ever have, for their marriage and for themselves.  The other half left puzzled.

The New Exodus wilderness is where the darkness overcomes the light.  With an abusive Empire behind them and a seemingly unconquerable Enemy ahead of them, the Israelites found themselves where we find ourselves – in wilderness paralysis.  The only thing we know to do is survive, to keep our heads above water.  All around us, well-dressed and smiling pastor-lifeguards try to convince us that it’s not that bad, that we’re not that bad, that human brokenness is just a minor crack in the road.

Prophets and priests and everyone in between
twist words and doctor truth.
My dear Daughter—my people—broken, shattered,
and yet they put on Band-Aids,
Saying, “It’s not so bad. You’ll be just fine.”
But things are not “just fine”! (from Jer. 8, The Message)

Things are not just fine.  But this is why God leads us into a deep waters to drown, a wilderness to die.  The quotes to begin the post tell the story.  Death to life is the pattern.  It is the cruciform pattern – the way of Jesus himself.  God, in this scenario, is in no way distant and arbitrary, insensitive and punitive.  God paved this road with his blood and tears. Saints and mystics picked up on this through Paul’s description in Philippians 2:  Christ emptied himself.  And in our drowning and death, we are emptied – of pride, of self-reliance, of band-aid remedies, of pointless strategies, of boasting in our own resilience, of cheap substitutes for happiness, of self-pity, of desires far-too-small, of faking it in our marriages, of futile ways we’ve used to treat childhood wounds, of religious performances, of a belief that we’re capable of not sinning, of constant theological finger-pointing, of lifeguard-pastoring.

“In my end is my beginning,” T.S. Eliot wrote.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the hungry,” Jesus said.

If this isn’t the case, then growth and maturity is merely about improvement. And if that’s the case, then we don’t need a Savior, we need a coach with a loud whistle and a strict program of self-help.  However, my sense is that along this wilderness road, we do no favors to one another or those we’re privileged to help if we deprive them of the truth of just how broken they are, we are, and the world is.  But consider this, too.  A realistic view of brokenness breeds compassion, not condescension.  It creates a community of broken (but not hopelessly broken!) men and women who need one another, and need a Big God.  We can enter the messes of others if we know we’re a mess.  We become available to others when they see that we’re accessible, not because we’ve got it all together, but because we’re deeply needy too.

At the center of Christian worship is a eucharistic table which proclaims the death and resurrection of Christ, and invites our own journey through death into resurrection.  The celebrant takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the elements.  Likewise, Christ takes us, blesses us, and breaks us so that He might give us to one another, to the world, and to God. Blessed is the broken road, paved with the blood and tears of Christ and each other, stretching forward to the heavenly city “where there will be no more tears.”  Our invitation is to enter in to this story, to die, to drown.  It’s scary.  It’s counter-intuitive.  It’s paradoxical.  And it’s extraordinarily freeing…

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How are you bandaging yourself?  What motivates our self-bandaging?

Our society (and even our churches) creates little space for the way we’ve talked about.  What is scary about moving in this “way of Jesus”?

Have you experienced church or community where this Jesus-way is lived?  Respond to this blog with stories.

7 thoughts on ““Drown me in your waters”: Why hope doesn’t float

  1. Thanks for this, Chuck. I’ve experienced the freedom that comes from drowning and being made alive in Christ, and can attest that transformation, not management leads to overcoming sin. God bless.

  2. Thank you Dr. Chuck. I’m new to your blog and excited to hear more about the new exodus. I’ve spent this year thinking about the exodus narrative and what that means for us. It seems that the starting point in drowning theology is remembering that God has rescued us from Egypt by the Passover Lamb (which you may be saying but again I’m just starting to learn from you). Would you agree? The idea of the red sea and baptism as being part of our death to bring so many new pathways to understanding the meaning of our own baptism because I most of my thoughts on baptism keep that event at a moment in time and space.

    What does this emphasis do for you in speaking to Christians about their baptism when your church (RCA) talks about baptism being a covenant symbol of circumcision? Please don’t read that question as a low blow…I’m still trying to work through the views on baptism.

    Grace and Peace- Tom

    1. Tom,

      I agree completely. In fact, in my tradition we’ve (sadly) devalued and de-emphasized this very, very important conceptual backdrop to New Testament baptism. You are getting at one of the reasons why the Exodus story is so important to me, and (I believe) to a fuller and richer conception of our incorporation into Christ. Let’s keep talking…


      1. Thank you for your reply. The one part of my study of the exodus that has lacked is the purpose of the wilderness. I’ve known that more attention was due to the wilderness so I’m glad that I’ve found your work (thanks to one of my professors at RTS- Dr. James Coffield.

        You may get to this at another date but I’ve always considered my journey as going between exodus and canaan. That I start with redemption and enter into obedience (canaan) by the Holy Spirit’s leading and power as he goes before me and wins the battles. It seems that Pentecost teaches that as the role of the Holy Spirit in the Exodus narrative. At what point does the conquering of the promised land come into the picture for you? If you are going to get to it later, then I can wait…

        Thanks again. Tom

  3. AMEN AND AMEN…how many times have i tried to rescue a drowning client, friend, or family member? and yes, they do pull you under with them…quick route to severe burnout! Thank you for writing this, for indeed, it is only in knowing our truly desperate our hearts are that we learn how the living water rushes in to carry us on that current of great hope, based only on the fact that a Loving Savior died and rose for someone like me!
    Hey — are you going to address Miriam’s story in this new series you’re doing? (Because i’m getting ready to use her to talk about faith and flight thereof and i’m curious what direction you might take with this prophetess who misspeaks.)

  4. Before going through this process of becoming a counselor, I had found to appreciate the Bandaging on my heart. But now to be in this process of pulling back some of them and allowing the pain of the wilderness to sink it. I have decided that suffering SUCKS! but if I am not willing or wanting to walk through my own suffering/wilderness I can not call clients to that journey, OUCH that stings too.
    That GOD wants to bless me and break me will never cease the tension that brings to my soul.
    Getting ready to drown over and over and over.

  5. Hi Chuck,
    Just wanted to know… how do you know after re-living through some pretty horrific abuse from the past, that gets played out in the present tense(delayed onset, complex ptsd). How do your know that God is not the God in my mental anguish? In this scenario, is in no way distant and arbitrary, insensitive and punitive. How do people like me get that? I mean I read St. Augustine’s definition that God is all goodness and light in Him no darkness at all (City of God, 4&10 and Confession, 4&6). Like Paul’s arguments they are well thought out and seemingly flawless, perfect for Greek debate…). But how does one flesh out, sort of your beleifs in the face of well something like childhood sexual abuse? I guess what I am saying is that at some point or another your can give both historical and rational explanations for why but, the gospel must at some point reach us at the viceral level…. so you say the cross. Bravo… yes of course…

    How in the world does one get the gospel to reach at a heart level where it is felt. Just how do you do the cross over? Yes, Christ crucified… got it, three tenses of salvations, I understand… how does one get that into the heart? Got a heart- head problem here… ugh yes like a faulty mind-body connection. So there is12 inches from my head to my heart for me (with a sh*t load of trauma from early childhood and adult ) it is now 12 miles. Honestly, I get stuck! Like all the theology in my head trying to get that to the hardened heart or perhaps the super dissociative heart. Got the full DID thing here. sorry for the big questions here. Guess tonight I am stuck and searching

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