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.

 

Moving Beyond Polarization into Mission

I’m moving on.

I’ve spent the last decade-plus in the midst of a sad and frustrating polarization.  In other posts, I’ve talked about it as the Emergent-Resurgence polarization.  It’s the newest episode in a long series of polarization-episodes.  We, Christians, are Academy Award winners in the Polarization Genre.  Best debates.  Best books.  Best blogs.  Best condemnations.  Best wars.  Best schisms.  Best denominational debates.

Recently, I realized that I was being emotionally-tugged into its black hole.  That’s what this polarizing debate does, after all.  It sucks you in.

Anne Rice quit organized Christian religion because of it.  It tires many.  It energizes many others.  Having taught in both conservative and liberal seminaries, I’m aware of both ditches.  But I get too emotionally involved.  I find myself triggered by what seems to me  to be crazy-talk.

I’ve been slowly trying to wean myself of this.  I’ll admit it.  I’m drawn in to the craziness.  So are many of you.  I see the tweets and get the emails, but sadly I’m not often wise or courageous enough to maturely move through and beyond them…

I decided to do my degrees in counseling and psychology not just to figure myself out (that’s almost impossible, and even frightening!), but to better understand the complex and dysfunctional world in which I live.  In my best moments, my calling is clear – to help men and women live more spiritually and emotionally healthy lives, which in turn propels them into mission – into the lives of others with great faithfulness. In my worst moments, I’m tired, cynical, sarcastic, embarrassed of myself and other Christians, and ready to throw in the towel.

In recent days, I’ve plowed back in to the personal baggage of my own life, and seen my own dark recesses.  More importantly, I find myself drawn back to the center – God, in me, whispering the truth – “You are my beloved.” This penetrates through the bitterness and cynicism.  It reveals my own crap, helps me to own it (repent), and propels me to move beyond it.  That’s where I am right now.  

I am deeply troubled by what I see in me, but also what I see around me in both fundamentalist/evangelical circles and in liberal/progressive circles.  I’m grieved by the division.  Jesus said in John 17, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

We are not one.

My deeper passion, personally, is to help men and women heal the dividedness in their own souls.  I really do believe that healing this divideness is a very big key to a more profound healing between men and women.  Throughout Lent, I will be praying through this, blogging about it, and working toward a next book I hope to write that I am calling “The Mission of God’s Beloved.”

Only as we realize that we are the Beloved can we possibly move toward others with compassion instead of caricatures.

I’ll only continue to write as I do the hard work of doing business with my own inner dividedness.  Thankfully, I’m in a community and among people who demand more from me.

The Mission of God’s Beloved…

Let’s reflect on this throughout Epiphany and Lent, and into Holy Week.

it’s the end of the world as we know it, and i feel fine

It’s only hours before Jesus comes back, according to Harold Camping.  It’s prime time for tweeting crazy stuff about the rapture, and waiting anxiously for that first 6:00 deadline in Tonga.  In fact, I was hoping Fuller Seminary would fly Professor Daniel Kirk to Tonga to report from Rapture Ground Zero.  It’s all a lot of fun right now, in fact, particularly for those of us who don’t believe that this is how it’ll all go down in the end.  And, to be honest, we’re all a little embarrassed that, once again, Christians look like freaks living for another world rather than loving and renewing the world God created and called good.

I’m feeling a little nostalgic, though.  You see, Harold Camping is “Uncle Harold” to me.  That’s what my Dad called him, anyway.  30 years ago, I was being tucked into bed to the sounds of Family Radio.  Uncle Harold didn’t sound half as crazy back then.  For a young kid intrigued by the Bible, it was hearing a guru with all the answers.  And then there were the Bible readings they offered, and the stories from Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission, and the haunting hymn “O God our Help in Ages Past.”  It spoke of the “shelter from the stormy blast,” something that resonated with a fearful and sensitive little kid.

Family Radio put me to sleep every night.  Until I woke up to the craziness of Camping’s brand of Gnosticism around 13 or 14 years old, and switched the radio to REM.

As a therapist, my thoughts right now are with families that have been split over this, husbands who have left wives in feverish devotion to getting the word out, little kids who trusted their parents and will be heartbroken when May 21st comes and goes, for those who are gay and who’ve been further traumatized by Camping’s toxic talk about ‘Gay Pride and the End Times’, devoted followers of Camping who will wake up on May 22 confused and despairing, and others who will find some rationalization for Camping’s latest apocalyptic flop.  The media will have a field day with this.  But behind the cynicism will be despairing people, some who even wonder if they were ‘chosen.’

And so, it’s with some nostalgia and quite a bit of heartache that I watch all of this unfold, nevertheless thankful for the security I felt in God’s arms as I fell asleep each night, thanks to Family Radio, to Isaac Watts great hymn

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

That message, I can say with confidence, is enduring.


Love at the Core :: Loving our Enemies

Of the many quotes and Bible verses being tosses around the Internet and Twitter since the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death, one has risen to the top.  It is actually an incorrect quote of Martin Luther King, Jr., but close enough to the real thing to warrant attention (thx to @Merobinaa for this.)  The real quote is just as powerful, and might be dismissed as activist jargon if they were not hauntingly reminiscent of Christ’s words.  MLK, Jr. writes

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” (from Strength to Love)

On September 11, 2001, I tried in vain to call my sister Kathy, who still lives where we grew up on Long Island.  An executive at Motorola, she would often drive into the city to visit her Manhattan colleagues.  When I finally reached her, I was comforted that she was safe, but experienced her tears for friends and colleagues who were lost in the attacks.  We reminisced about our times in the city as kids, and I fought back tears every time I considered going back, which our family did only last year.  It was a very emotional experience visiting Ground Zero.

It’s tough to imbibe the ethics of Jesus.  It’s tough, particularly, in a political climate where words like “good” and “evil” can be tossed around loosely to describe whole nations and even regions of the world.  Bible verses are called upon to justify whatever emotions we’re feeling.  Our very basic and raw desire for revenge is satisfied in the death of one man.  Facebook updates and ‘tweets’ talk of justice and jubilation.  And it’s very, very difficult not to feel even a bit relieved, or perhaps even thankful, that a man who could plot something as evil as the World Trade Center attacks can no longer perpetuate evil.

And then we’re faced with Jesus.  Jesus frustrated the ‘Zealots‘ of his day.  Even Peter experienced this frustration.  A reformed Zealot (or so we thought!), Peter cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant in a seeming act of noble Messiah-security.  But Jesus quickly restored his enemy’s ear, rebuking Peter instead.  This was not merely a Messiah who waxed eloquent about loving one’s enemies.  When his life was on the line, he actually did it.

These things, of course, cannot be easily transformed into political policy, nor are they meant to be.  But the actions of Jesus do get you thinking.  For centuries after Jesus, Christians would succumb to the sword instead of taking up the sword against Rome.  Why?  It makes little sense.  But then again, Paul would remind us that the Gospel is “foolishness.”

And then the inevitable questions come today:

Should I tell a woman who has been emotionally abused in her marriage to love her abuser?

Should I counsel a victim of sexual assault to forgive, or even to turn the other cheek?

These issues require more space, and I’ve written on this before.  However, in this context, they’re worth revisiting, particularly among those who seek to follow Jesus, to become like him, to experience a life of self-sacrificial love.

As I’ve written this short blog series called Love at the Core, I’m struck more than ever by the centrality of love.  And with that brings the difficulty of love.  And it’s times like these that I’m quite happy not to be a politician, translating this difficult ethic into political action.  Sometimes, it’s easier pontificating as a pastor in the blogosphere.  What I do know, today and everyday, whether faced with OBL’s death or with the abusive spouse of a client, is that I’m compelled to wrestle with this ethic of love and forgiveness that Jesus presents.

That, I suspect, will take a lifetime to figure out.  I certainly haven’t figured it out yet.

Love at the Core:: An Illustration

She lost her mother before she was even able to grieve.  You don’t need Attachment Theorists to convince you how extraordinarily significant this loss must have been.  She was just two…barely able to understand.  And this, some might say, is an advantage.  At two, you don’t know any better.  But, everything we know today says something very different.  At two, Mom is your world.  And if Mom goes, so goes your world.

But human beings are resilient.  I’ve seen severely abused young women become successful traders and managers and entrepreneurs.  That does not necessarily mean that they are successful. Human beings have evolved into expert compartmentalizers.  Some of the most successful young men and women I know stuffed away large parts of themselves very early on, even unwittingly, in order to become the so-called successes they are today.

And so, my client became a success, despite her mother’s death at an early age.  Her Dad’s coping strategy was to extinguish every memory of Mom.  No grieving.  No memorializing.  Soon, a Stepmother entered the picture.  And there were no conversations, photos, or side chats about Mom.  She was gone.  Quite literally.

Many years later, my client comes to me for therapy.  Her presenting problem – depression.  I find that she is a compulsive exerciser.  Her only release is in the gym.  In fact, it is there where she feels.  In fact, in the gym, she and her body become one.  Many years before, I suspect, she disconnected from her body.  She shut down her feelings.  She buried her pain.  But now, exercise brings her life.

When I say to her that exercise is the very place where she feels, she begins to cry.  I continue saying that I think that exercise is where her body feels held, where she connects to something she desperately longs for…the feeling of being held, loved.  She weeps…uncontrollably.  She knows.

Exercise may be her idol.  And sure…she may need to repent.  But what’s really going on?  She is desperate for love.  Mom’s hold daughters.  But she wasn’t held.  And her body is saying what her mind and heart long to say – that she wants to be held, loved, enjoyed, cared for.  Exercise is her entryway into belonging.  Exercise is where she comes alive.

“No one has ever seen that,” she tells me.  She feels known.  She finds a picture of her deceased mother, and places it on her dresser.

She will likely always enjoy running and exercise.  But today she’s begun a bigger journey.  She will grieve.  And pray more deeply than she’s ever prayed.  And she’ll speak to a picture, sitting atop her dresser, of a mother long gone.

And God will hear.  A God who gets to the heart of the matter – Love.

(Note: Whenever I refer to someone I saw for counseling, I am using a mosaic of clients who I have seen, not an actual client.  I cannot violate the confidential relationship counseling demands.)

a heart divided against itself cannot stand – part 1

Appear to be what thou art, tear off thy masks. The church was never meant to be a masquerade. (Charles Spurgeon)

If we’re truly engaged in a modern-day new exodus out of the many enslavements that burden us, through the refining and clarifying fire of suffering, and into the glorious Promised Land of freedom, then there’s much to be excited about.  If St. Paul is right, new creation has already begun.  Eden’s distant echo becomes a real, tangible expression in and through redeemed humans who, quite literally, become walking-and-talking embodiments of a new humanity, participants in the divine life in there here-and-now Kingdom.  This is no pie-in-the-sky religion.  We’re not waiting for Kirk Cameron’s silent rapture, though our balding friends might hope that our new bodies feature Cameron’s full head of curly hair.  No, we’re engaged in the kingdom-come (on earth as it is in heaven) with all of its glorious possibilities.  

But despite the presence of the future, a new exodus reality is that creation still groans, yearning for restoration.  No less, you and I groan.  The voice of lament, we’d think, ought to be a thing of the past, of Old Covenant realities.  And yet, even the saints in heaven cry out in a lamenting groan (Rev. 6) yearning for God’s once-and-for-all restoration.  It seems that all is not yet well.

The ravages of sin are still at play, within all of creation, and within the human heart.  Thus, I begin a series of reflections on the “divided” heart.  It’s a notion found in Scripture, of course, to illustrate the awful pull we feel inside every day.  Part of me wants Promised Land life, yet another craves the predictability of Egyptian enslavement.  My addictions become friends, and when I leave them, I miss their company.  They’ve taken up residence in me.  They are more than a behavior.  They change my brain chemistry, inhabit my physiological responses, and haunt my memory.  As one writer says, “You can take the Israelites out of Egypt, but it takes a long time to get Egypt out of Israel.”  When my heart is divided against itself, I’m like a man who is ill.  Spurgeon wrote:  

It is a disease of a vital region—of the heart; a disease in a part so vital that it affects the whole man. The utmost extremity of the frame suffers when once the heart becomes affected, and especially so affected as to be divided. There is no power, no passion, there is no motive, no principle, which does not become vitiated, when once the heart is diseased. 

broken glassAs we take up this idea, I’m going to talk as much as a psychologist as a theologian.  There’s plenty written on sin, but far less on the psychology of the divided heart.  If the Gospel has something to do with bringing shalom into broken places, then the divisions within the heart are no less important than the divisions God wants reconciled among Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, Hutus and Tutsis, Arabs and Israelis, or abusers and victims.  Further, I want to go so far as to suggest a therapeutic (or soul-care) approach to restoration that takes the division within seriously, and moves beyond behavior-modification or sin-management into a kind of internal reconciliation process that (like all other reconciliation processes) takes time.  For some strange reason, we still seems to think that sanctification is instantaneous, and we quickly become frustrated with our own continued brokenness and the brokenness of others.  But, if the image within was really shattered in the Fall, then the work before us is time consuming, difficult, and even painful.

That said, I’m neither interested in pop-therapeutic approaches that over-simplify and trivialize real growth, nor therapeutic suspicion which seems to demonize any attempt at self-care (something which, incidentally, goes radically against Christian tradition and Scripture), and which makes its own over-simplistic statements like “Christianity is not about self, it’s about God.” Both extremes will find fault with my approach.  If so, just stop reading now.

If you’re excited to delve into what I think might be a very stimulating journey through both Scripture and what I sense is a very new and cutting-edge approach to soul care in modern psychology (something called “Internal Family Systems Therapy”), read on.  We’ve got a lot to talk about.

From Kleenex Theology to Messy Spirituality: The Biblical Invitation to Honest Lament

I don’t do suffering well. In fact, I despise suffering. My daughter’s tears bring out the worst in me. My first thought is “How do I fix this?” It’s easily translated in to pastoral care or clinical counseling. “What should I say? How can I help?” I’ve been habituated to respond to suffering with answers.

It’s because I despise suffering and its nasty side-effects that I take a kind of twisted pride in how well my community, my church, and my nation deal with suffering. We seem to be so civil about it. A slight tear brings out the Kleenex, and suffering is wiped clean. (Suffering can be wiped clean, incidentally, in scented Kleenex or Kleenex with aloe.) We’re domesticated sufferers. Our churches acknowledge suffering only as something true faith can mitigate; we deny its reality, and in doing so evade the possibility that we might have to dive in to uncivilized grief, grief with tears that cannot be quenched.

And it is with a degree of arrogance that I watch the Nightly News, shaking my head at the very uncivilized displays of communal lament among the “ancient peoples” of the mideast. Poor souls…they look so miserable as they march through the streets, wailing with fists raised at their impotent deity. If only they would embrace my form of civil suffering…my Kleenex theology…then they might not subject themselves to awful displays of raw and uncontrolled emotion. Poor, uncivilized souls.

Of course, the secret truth is that I admire them. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s true. I long to lament in a way that releases me to surrender as Jacob was released at Peniel. I long to join the ancient cry that was rarely private: “How long, O Lord…” I long to abandon my sanitized Kleenex theology for a messy one, one that even allows saints already in heaven to lament before God (Revelation 6), one that acknowledges the paradox of God incarnate crying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In other words, I long secretly to know the ancient art of crying our prayers before a God who doesn’t offer fast food fixes, but who enters my pain in order to know me, and I Him. That sounds like biblical faith. And more and more, I’m convinced it is.

Honest Expression

“If I would have wanted my pain theologized away, I would have gone to Job’s friends.” So said a very wise, very wounded client of mine early in my clinical counseling internship. She was incapable of such wisdom, or so I thought. I was the wise one, the expert, the one in the cozy leather chair with a hand stroking my beard, looking the part of clinician. Her comment struck me dumb. She needed Jesus, one who would leave the comforts of heavenly bliss to engage suffering face to face. Instead, she got a theologian, a medical doctor of the soul, applying theories, making generalizations, testing cures. I had failed her. But she had the courage to speak.

In God’s ironic grace, my failure was the gateway to her renewed journey of Hope. She had spoken, and spoken honestly, not only to her counselor but to a minister, a spiritual leader, much like the ones responsible for beating hope out of her for so many years. The child of a pastor, she had known only spiritual platitudes and proper ways of interacting. She had known only a Gospel of principles for better living. Never challenged to use her voice, never encouraged to speak her doubts, never engaged by people willing to wade in her murky waters, she lived a lonely, isolated life. Referred by her pastor, her presenting problem was “depression.” Categorized, isolated, marginalized and referred to professionals for help, she had begun to believe the message her church was feeding her: “You’re too messy. When you get better, we’ll invite you back in to ministry.” In the months following, she learned to lament and not be ashamed of it. In offering her desires to God in tears, she found new hope released in her soul. She began to see the world in color. However, her journey required a path of validated suffering.

Job needed friends to engage the pain, not interpret the pain. Job needed friends who would join in the chorus of lament, not offer the secret prayer to a life of blessing. Job needed what Henri Nouwen calls “Wounded Healers” to enter the pain with him, but he had friends who were “Healed Wounders.” Blinded by their own comfort, security and sense of well-being, they arrogantly jabbed at Job, attempting to come up with a rational explanation for the mess at hand. Job lamented before God, not only because he had been subjected to terrible trouble, but because his friends had failed him. “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends,” Job cried, “but they’re as undependable as intermittent streams.” In the end, Job is commended for his honesty. His theologically correct buddies are scolded for their insensitivity.

Ordered Messiness

I like how Barry Webb describes the Book of Lamentations: Ordered Messiness.

Biblical lament, much to the relief of the “Healed Wounder,” is not ultimately chaotic. To the contrary, biblical lament has a beginning and an end. While the middle may be messy, while it may seem to go on and on without relief, lament, properly understood, rests finally in the Sovereign hand of God. Eugene Peterson echoes Webb when he describes the form of Lamentations as a series of 5 acrostics (much like Psalm 119), literary patterns that travel the alphabet slowly, in meticulous detail, from beginning to end. Lament begins at aleph and ends at tau, proceeding with careful detail and extraordinarily honest expression through each letter. 5 times in 5 distinct poems the writer revisits his pain, most often in communal expression, with a brief interlude for private weeping. The writer’s intent is clear…every detail of pain is important. Suffering cannot and should not be wasted on quick fix alphabet dances that deny proper expression. Acrostic was used as a memory device, as Peterson points out, emphasizing that every jot and tittle of suffering be remembered and experienced.

Suffering, as both Webb and Peterson note, is also historical. Pain’s roots are in concrete experiences, not abstractions. The Lamentation cry is rooted in a historical event, the terrible judgment of God through Babylonian exile in 587 BC. Christ’s lament, likewise, embraced Gesthemane’s reality and the inevitability of crucifixion. The martyr’s cry of “How long, O Lord” not only challenges contemporary, ‘pie-in-the-sky’ descriptions of heavenly bliss, but adds a final exclamation point on the biblical reality of suffering. Even those who have left the toils of earthly labor look down upon injustice and evil and cry out with ancient words of lament. And once again, their lament is not an abstraction, but a response to real-life, historical suffering. Lament requires reality, and reality invites tears.

Thus, the message of Lamentations is that the denial of lament is the denial of reality. Interestingly, neurosis is often defined as the denial of reality. Perhaps, providing a context for lament might be a way to alleviate the neurosis of a culture that feeds on un-reality, false reality, and virtual reality. Perhaps, too, this provides a challenge to the church that works hard to keep lament on the margins. The church might be just as guilty as contemporary culture of avoiding reality, choosing instead fanciful and imaginative “perspectives” and “attitudes” born out of a Kleenex theology. Sadly, the church that denies lament, referring the wounded to ‘clinical care’ only to be returned to the body healed, buries its head in the sand of false reality. That is not to diminish or question the important role of clinical counseling as a ministry among and for Christians. That is to say, however, that too often, the pastor’s counseling referral is due to his refusal to walk through the timely and messy acrostic of suffering from aleph to tau, and perhaps also to his fear that corporate lament in worship does not produce the kind of growth explosions that un-real methods do. However, the grave danger is this. In denying the opportunity for an embrace of lament, we miss a Christ-formed life of pain-sharing, compassion, incarnation and Gospel-healing. We miss the opportunity, in other words, to become more like Jesus.

Lament, the Most Hopeful of Things

“Do everything without complaining or arguing,” St. Paul once wrote. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” It’s amazing how we pluck verses like these out and use them as evidence that the day of lament is over and the day of rejoicing has come. St. Paul wrote these words in a letter to the Philippian church, the same letter in which he laments over his long and continuing earthly pilgrimage, the same letter in which he calls “suffering” a gift from God along with faith, the same letter that plainly identifies the reality of his culture as “crooked and depraved”, the same letter that invites the cruciformed Christian to follow the downward path of Christ to humility, suffering and even death, for the sake of knowing Christ. St. Paul, in other words, was not at all afraid of suffering. His hope came in the embrace of it.

Lament is ultimately hopeful. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? The person sitting before you is weeping and wailing about his pain, and it is supposed to produce hope? There, of course, is a fine line between complaining and lamenting, but too often we dismiss the baby with the bath water. Dan Allender says that one who laments often looks like a grumbler or complainer, but that biblical lament is nothing of the sort. Instead, lament contains in itself the possibility of extraordinary hope, restored desire, a changed heart. Lament is, at its core, a search for God. It is not a search for answers. It is not an invitation to fix an ailment. Rather, lament enters the agony with the recognition that it might not go away for days, months, even years. And yet, the lament carries with it the hope that God will eventually show. Dan Allender puts it this way: “Lament is a search – a declaration of desire that will neither rest with a pious refusal to ache, nor an arrogant self-reliance that is a hardened refusal to search.”

Of course, you won’t know the hope of lament if you don’t risk walking through the valley. But we need not venture in to the valley alone. We journey with a host of biblical witnesses, and hopefully, a community of faith and friends more dependable than Job’s. The biblical model for lament, whether in the Psalms, Lamentations, Job, Jesus, Paul or the saints in heaven reflects a rugged heart born for a risky, but incredibly rewarding, journey Home. The cry of lament, as Allender writes, is the deepest and most honest cry of the homeless person. Our journey is no different than the saints of Hebrews 11 who, by faith, kept on their sojourn because their hope was in a heavenly city. In other words, we walk in familiar company, men and women who longed deeply for God’s presence in times of trouble, people thrown to the lions and hung on crosses and beaten mercilessly for the sake of the Kingdom. Our hopeful lament is caught up in the universal cry reaching up in to the heavens, even among the saints. God has given his community permission to lament. In fact, he has given his family permission even to make their complaints known to Him. Psalm 44 and Psalm 80, for instance, bring accusations before God that send chills down the spine:

You have fed us the bread of tears

You have made us drink tears by the bowlful

You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors. (Ps. 80:5-6)

However, we speak with the confidence that our complaint will be heard, contained, validated, listened to, and ultimately bring about a change in our circumstances. Like Jacob, our wrestling leads to surrender, deeper relationship, greater trust, a heart made soft by its honesty before God. It is a sure indication that we are fully alive human beings, says Barry Webb, open to the full possibilities of God’s wild and risky involvement in our lives.

This wild trust, this openness to surrender, is precisely how God brings about radical transformation in the hearts of sinners. But it is a transformation that takes time, that is often un-remarkable, that doesn’t change the facts and circumstances of life very quickly. Lament without a quick fix or a happy principle to mitigate it is lament that is ugly and un-productive to modern, ‘results-driven’, western Christians. However, the gift to be patient and engage suffering not to fix or make sense of it, but simply to experience it before the face of God honestly, is a gift that stirs the deepest hope, the hope of the saints, the hope of the very un-broken, tear-free world to come.

He Will Wipe Away Every Tear

God is not in the business of quenching hope. His way, however, often is the longer, harder road through rough wilderness terrain. The oft-quoted proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” speaks of the reality of life in the now. Suffering is just plain sickening. I hate to see it. I hate it for myself, and I hate it for my friends. It angers me, and it causes me to jump-start quick cures to get through it. I almost always have a better plan than God’s, but His wisdom wins the day.

I notice a tendency today to skirt past the reality of suffering. We pride ourselves in being a people who can quickly move past our grief, as we experienced in the September 11 attacks, to regain our pride and status as world superpower. While mourners cry their uncivilized tears on the other side of the globe, we apply our best science to eradicating the need to lament ever again. And isn’t it ironic? Don’t we do this in our churches, as well? Don’t we position ourselves in ways to eradicate suffering and maximize progress?

Upward mobility has become not only the mantra of a consumer culture, but of churches that believe bigger is better, that pride themselves as “healthy” churches rather than “broken” churches, that sell a Gospel of feel-better spirituality. Incarnational ministry is a rare thing these days. In fact, we call smaller churches that focus on pastoral care and spiritual formation the “dying churches” of our day. These churches often contain the walking wounded, the financially destitute, the spiritually needy. You don’t build churches on the backs of these folk. But it is precisely these folk that Jesus came to and lived among. The comfortable didn’t meet Jesus on dirt roads. Lepers met Jesus. The poor met Jesus. The homeless reached up from their beds of sand to touch the corner of his robe. The Gospel is offered to those weak and frail enough to cry out for strength outside of themselves.

Isn’t this the hope of lament? Isn’t lament far less scary if we view it as our divinely inspired and ordained way of communicating deep heart desires to a God who can do something about it? Rather than theologizing lament away, or finding ways to contain it, might we “lean in to it”, as Eugene Peterson remarks, in a way that brings about personal and communal transformation? Might we take the example of the heavenly martyrs who called upon God to act?

In St. John’s apocalyptic history of the world, The Book of Revelation, God does respond with force and fury to the enemies of His people. The Satanic trinity of dragon, beast and false prophet are, once and for all, thrown in to the lake of fire. God’s wilderness-wandering people are vindicated, saved, and prepared for their heavenly betrothal. The weary Bride, tainted and tarnished from her long journey through dark valley of self-indulgence, and the rough terrain of persecution, is now readied for eternal glory, fitted in her pristine white wedding dress for her heavenly Pursuer and Rescuer. Gently wiping away her tears, He speaks to her words she has longed to hear: “There will be no more weeping or mourning. Isaiah’s prophecies have come to fruition. No more death, no more pain, no more struggle. You’re mine, and I’m yours, eternally. Lament no more.”

The end of the Story is a happy one. The Gospel is for those who love comedy, tragedy, and a good, true fairy tale, as Frederick Buechner loves to say. In Revelation 21, the scene shifts from epic battle to unimaginable glory and ecstasy. The Bride is given back her lost Eden, the paradise-city she remembered only in her dreams. C.S. Lewis reminds us that the first Eden has always existed, if only in our memory, urging us own to lives of holy desire as we search out our Paradise-Home. The Bride gets all she has ever desired, and much more. Her ancient lament, raised to God not as an angry fist of rebellion but as an impassioned complaint rooted in desire, is heard, received and acted upon. Her Groom has come to the rescue. And now, eternal happiness.

The Glory of the Gospel is that our lives, our worship, and our relationships need not end in a minor key. The kingdom Hope is the dominant tune, albeit thrown off-key by our trials and tribulations. The minor key of lament is an important reminder that we’re not Home yet, and an invitation to sing songs that reflect our deep hearts and truest struggles, knowing always that our long-suffering Savior will win the day.

So, lament. Join the chorus of ancient voices in their universal cry. Speak honest words to a God who does not fear a complaint born in desire, but actually responds to it. And by all means, live. Pain, as CS Lewis says, is God’s megaphone to call us to be awake, and the awakened, passionate life is a lot better than the false realities our neurotic and fearful world has to offer. Lean hopefully in to lament, and be honest with those who don’t lean with you. The wintry valley of suffering will eventually lead to green pastures, tall-snow capped mountains, and a sunrise that will break through the darkness to a final chorus of praise.

Copyright Chuck DeGroat 2005