When Life Sucks

Americans buy more self-help books than any other kind of book. There are a lot of good reasons for it. Self-improvement and problem solving are some of the goals we all strive to achieve and when someone says, “I know how,” it’s worth paying attention.

But sometimes life, well, life just sucks, and our problems can defy solution, even with the help of others. Then the limits of a self-help culture become apparent. Yes we can? No, in fact, sometimes we can’t:

  1. The wheelchair is not going away.
  2. You were shamed and abused. The past cannot be altered.
  3. The job is gone. It’s not coming back.
  4. The terminal diagnosis is just what it says, “terminal.” It’s the last, life-ending word from science that has no more answers.

As good as they can be, self-help strategies are about managing losses and points of pain. They are not about confronting the absolute limits of life, the places where things never snap back into place and can’t be fixed.

When we confront those limits the spiritual choices that should have been obvious all along force themselves on us. How can we respond?

  1. We can allow despair to take hold and lose hope.
  2. We can buy another book, find a new guru.
  3. We can bank the grief and limp along.
  4. We can hold our breath waiting for the therapeutic strategies to snap back into place.

Or, we can give ourselves to God in the middle of the loose ends and shattered dreams.

Will life be different from the dream we were building? Yes. Will there be real losses or less than we hoped? Yes. But life is not about physical perfection and material prosperity. Life is about a journey into God, and what matters most is our capacity for intimacy and companionship with God—whatever the circumstances.

Contrary to what some critics of it have said, the Christian life is not about pie in the sky by and by. And, contrary to what a few preachers with painfully fixed smiles seem to imply, God is not a cosmic vending machine. Christian life is about a courageous, faithful giving of ourselves to God in the midst of life’s broken, dog-eared existence.

As a dear friend of mine who has spent decades of her life in a wheelchair puts it, “Some of us are differently-abled, the rest are temporarily-abled.” Any portrayal of the Christian message, then, that suggests otherwise betrays the message itself and exposes all of us despair. There are times when life simply sucks.

Where, then, does therapy take its place in the life of the church?

To the extent that therapy’s categories allow us to understand ourselves more fully, it can be very helpful. Therapy can help us name and manage forces that often defeat us spiritually and don’t fall easily under the label of “sin.” But as useful as they are, therapeutic strategies can neither touch our deepest needs, nor provide the vocabulary to explain them.

A young man who sought me out for spiritual direction years ago had found an AA group that made his sobriety possible, but (as he put it) “I need more. I neither know who the ‘higher power’ is in my life, nor what that ‘higher power’ might want for me.” To help people like this the church must own and use its own language for God, the meaning of life, the nature of the human predicament, and the spiritual dimensions of healing.

There are two places to begin…

Read the rest of this article from Fred Schmidt’s weekly column, The Spiritual Landscape, here.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.

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  • http://www.wctube.com/ wctube

    good post :).As a dear friend of mine who has spent decades of her life in a wheelchair puts it, “Some of us are differently-abled, the rest are temporarily-abled.” Any portrayal of the Christian message, then, that suggests otherwise betrays the message itself and exposes all of us despair. There are times when life simply sucks.