Grace (and the abuse of grace) for narcissists and abusers

I live daily with a paradox. On the one hand, grace is audacious, extravagant, immediate, and all-embracing. On the other, grace is painful, reconstructive, surgical, and slow. Grace is the deliverance from Egypt and grace is the long, grueling journey through a blistering wilderness.

I live with this paradox because of the work I do. With my multiple hats – professor, pastor, therapist, spiritual director – I become a conduit of God’s lavish grace, a steward of it, a surgeon of the soul in need of it. And because grace refuses simplification, refuses to be reduced to a get-out-of-jail-free card, we must hold the paradox when we work with particularly complex people.

I’m thinking right now of pastors I’ve worked with over the years whose narcissism was so entrenched in their psyche that lavish grace needed to work itself out over years and years. Some time ago I worked with a pastor whose masks of charm, personal fitness, and a keen intellect propelled him into success, but who was utterly disconnected from his true self. Revelations of abuse and sexual infidelity came as a shock to his adoring flock, many who were quick to say, “Who of us is without sin? Let us forgive as he taught us to forgive.” This pastor’s narcissism, now armed with a new mask of repentance, quickly turned the narrative from his sin to his redemption story, one his flock was happy to embrace.

I recall sitting with his wife weeks after as she struggled. “I feel like God calls me to forgive him, but I can’t help but feel like he gets off the hook and I’m left beaten and bruised. I’ve even had people tell me that I was to blame for his infidelity. Was I?” Mired in guilt and shame, she felt like she’d be failing him and failing the church if she didn’t quickly forgive.

As I sat with the pastor, he had many reasons for his actions – many years without a sabbatical, burnout, lack of emotional support from his wife, a ‘weak’ elder board. He was quick to say, “I failed.” But he never got specific. In one session, I asked him for permission to say something hard to him. He agreed. I offered this to him: “What would it be like to say this to your wife: For years, I emotionally abused you by mocking your effort, your appearance, your faithfulness. I played the part of obedient pastor, but in secret I abused and tormented you. When pornography was not enough to anesthetize away my shame, I intentionally and meticulously groomed women who adored me for back-rubs, blowjobs, and sex in my office, on the floor right next to my desk and our family picture.”

He sat silently, head down, as if it was the first time he’d considered something other than a narrative that would preserve his shiny veneer. I suspect he was weighing his options, as he always did, so very fearful of an ultimate confrontation with himself. He looked up at me, steel-eyed: “Chuck, can I say something to you? What would it look like for you to take the Gospel seriously, to help me gain my esteem back and to help my wife forgive me?”

I’ve had some version of this same story play out about a dozen times with pastors and/or ministry leaders of some kind.

This man needed the grace of wilderness. He wanted deliverance from Egypt and a quick flight over the wilderness to the promised land. He ultimately chose the latter. And he used his story as a real, live grace story.

When we treat grace like a bandaid rather than the major surgery it often demands, we trivialize it. Real transformation is a slow-cook process, especially for narcissists and abusers so hidden from their true selves and so prone to re-configure the masks for the sake of a new narrative and to avoid the pain of self-confrontation. The wilderness of grace is the place where the narcissist’s false self is dismantled, but it’s also the place where the systems and structures that buttressed and supported it are confronted and dismantled.

I sometimes wish I knew more about St. Paul’s three years in the wilderness. Once a murderous moralist, he was confronted by the living Christ on Damascus Road. Something new was born in him that day, but we know that he did not immediately take to the streets to evangelize. Some like to imagine these three years as an intense Bible-study training program. I like to think of them as a time of deconstruction – of old narratives, of the masks that served him in his old life, of an ideology of tribalism and abuse. I imagine that leaving his old life behind cost him dearly – relationships, reputation, income, so much more. When he did return, we know that he still had an edge, that he could be oppositional, that his words of reconciliation didn’t always match his relational style, that he wrestled with his inner contradictions. But he was an honest man – honest about his story, the toxicity of his old life, and his need for grace.

Grace is not about saving face. Grace often plunges us into the depths of despair. It requires the loss of everything that buttressed the old self. As much as we’re culturally conditioned to good, old American quick redemption stories, we’ve got to reclaim a biblical imagination for the wilderness of grace. I’m suspicious of those who are quick to return to ministry, quick to write their redemption story, quick to embrace the adoration of their devoted followers. Those who I’ve seen do the real, hard wilderness work of transformation go away for years, and have no expectations for what will happen. All is given to the surgical work of grace under the care of experienced practitioners.

I reconnected with someone like this not long ago. I hadn’t seen him in years. His ministry fell apart when he cultivated a relationship with an old girlfriend on Facebook, and began secretly meeting with her. He resisted the wilderness of grace, at first. He scrambled to save his marriage and ministry. But he had a wise community. They held him firmly, in painful love, and showed him a desert path. They knew this Facebook affair was just a symptom of deeper unhealth. They held his wife, and didn’t allow her to be gaslit in the process. He completely left ministry, quit social media, and gave himself to the work prescribed for him, which included finding a completely new way to make ends meet. His church entered into a hard season of honesty, as well, mindful of its need not just to grieve but to address what allowed this pastor to slowly spin out-of-control.

It’s seven years later and he looks great. His marriage is healthy. He’s decided to start coming back to ecclesial gatherings, ever under the watchful care of his therapist and a few close advisors, with a tempered curiosity about re-entering ministry. Because so much of the old, addicted self is dead, he doesn’t feel the drive he once did to change the world. He wonders what it might look like to serve a small congregation somewhere, but he’s profoundly attuned to his family’s needs and hesitations about this. Seven years into the work, he suspects he has another seven to go. He’s in no rush. In fact, he’s waking up to a life that is so much more beautiful than he knew before, and little matters more than waking up each day whole and healthy, and loving and being loved by those closest to him. He says that for the first time in his life, he feels like Jesus smiles at him.

He’s a man who has experienced an extraordinary Grace.

 

Too far to fall: The pastor’s worst fear – Failure

Failure. It’s a f-word of pastoral ministry. It’s the worst fear, the deepest dread. “I’d rather be diagnosed with a fatal disease than fail,” one candidate wrote on his psychological assessment. “Failure – that’s just too far to fall,” said another.

I was fired in 2003. It was my greatest vocational humiliation. After serving a church for six years, I was invited into a brief elder meeting after teaching my regular Sunday adult course and told that reconciliation and relationship with the lead pastor would be impossible, that my termination was the only recourse. Sara found out as I walked through the front door of our home in tears. Our two babies were there. We’d recently put a deposit on a new home build. There was no goodbye, no thank you. I was not even allowed to keep my own Rembrandt painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – the one Sara had gifted me after framing it. The prodigal wasn’t being asked to consider a return, I suppose.

It took years to reconcile this – to forgive, to bless that church, its pastor, and the leaders I’d grown to trust and love. But the sting of failure and rejection stayed with me for a long time. I had failed. At least, that’s how I narrated it. It was my worst fear as a pastor. Perhaps, even more bitter for this tender Enneagram 4 was that I felt utterly misunderstood. The short blurb in next Sunday’s program didn’t acknowledge the tears I’d cried for people in that place, the above-and-beyond care I offered, the new initiatives I started, the relationships we forged, the promises not delivered. Never before for me had rage and shame kissed in this way. Image result for shame

Failure.

It’s 15 years later, and the sadness still lingers. Each time a pastoral candidate answers my question “What is the worst thing that can happen to you in ministry?” on a psychological assessment, I hear my own voice in their responses. I hear the terror of potential failure. One pastoral candidate said, “I can never imagine it and I’d never recover from it.” Another said, “It would be so humiliating letting down myself, my extended family, my church.” Still another said that the question provoked so much anxiety that answering it was impossible.

In those days after, I wondered if we would make it. I vacillated between rage and self-contempt. I dreamed of payback. I felt the sting of my Presbytery’s silence in the face of what I considered an injustice. I scrambled to launch a counseling practice, hoping that I’d be able to pay the bills before our severance was done. I had little trust that the God I called sovereign and loving and gracious could hold all of this. My contemplative practices died on that day I was fired, replaced by frantic efforts to do the job God had failed to do for me.

I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. (from Psalm 73, NLT). 

It’s 15 years later. Another young pastor asked for a Skype call this week, and as we talked he said something I hear quite often, “How have you managed to “make it” unscathed in ministry? Everything you do I want to do.” Honestly, I’m not sure who I’d be today without it. What if that first call was a “big win,” in which I was celebrated and sent? What if I wasn’t thrust into a dark night where my smaller box for God was exploded? With what credibility could I have written Finding God in the Wilderness Places (Leaving Egypt)? Would I have gotten the therapy I needed? Been called out on my own stuff?

What if I didn’t fail?

Richard Rohr titled a book Everything Belongs. I turn 48 in a few short days, and while I thought I’d have things figured out at 40, I now know that 50 will not likely deliver either. I do sense that it all belongs, though. Each detour on the journey was beyond my control or prediction. My girls have endured two cross-country moves and seven different houses. I’ve shifted denominations. I’ve been given tremendous opportunities to be at the forefront of new initiatives. I’ve faced shadow sides of me that frightened me.  I’ve chosen to make some unorthodox moves that I sensed would grow me – risks I’m not sure I would have taken without failure.

I titled a little Lent devotional I wrote a couple of years ago Falling Into Goodness. It was my way of theologically reconciling what I’d come to terms with emotionally. God wasn’t at the top of the ladder but in the dust. Jesus wasn’t waiting on the altar with an award, but embracing me as I wept and wept and wept. When I went to places of self-sabotage, I felt a mysterious presence. When I succeeded, I felt gratitude and a decent dose of humility, knowing that I’d fallen so far. As Augustine might put it, “God was more near to me than I was to myself” all along. Or as the father said to the older brother, “Everything I have is yours.” Just breathe. Just relax into the arms of Goodness.

I got a text from a student yesterday who is scared to fail. I wondered how to respond. I thought – maybe experience is our only teacher. I wanted to say something wise, even proverbial. And then, I knew. I had only the words of one deeply acquainted with suffering, a saint of the dust, Lady Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.