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April 14, 2015

When we were in high school, we’d compare notes about everything from boys to menstrual cycles to math homework. Of the six of us girls, five of us were brand-new followers of Jesus. We learned something about walking with him by following each other. For one brief moment in time, we were even all enrolled at the same state university.

When I got engaged, my girlfriends told me I was getting married “first”. We were in the habit of measuring ourselves using each other’s lives as rulers. Though some of the relationships among this sextuplet have faded over the last four decades, it’s a testimony to God’s faithfulness when I contemplate that all six of us are still following him. Some of us first came to him and each other out of homes defined by abuse or addiction issues. Others among us were dealing with the fallout of their parents’ divorces. Our ad hoc spiritual sisterhood was the first glimpse many of us had in what the church could be as we carried each other to a place of safety in Jesus in profound ways during those early years.

I’m grateful for those friendships, as they’ve formed a foundation for every other friendship that’s come into my life since then. Though some of the relationships in this sextuplet have faded over the last four decades, I find myself still marking time by them. We’ve each had children, and have traced our parenting journeys in conversation and prayer with one another over the years. Some of our kids have become friends. Most of us have grandchildren at this point. There have been divorces and remarriages. Several of us have buried parents or other beloved relatives.

Four of the six of us, including Charm and Teri, the pair of identical twins in our group, have lost our mothers to breast or ovarian cancer. In their case, they’ve been caregivers for a grandmother as well as a mother who died of the disease. Charm is a breast cancer survivor as well.

11017475_10152933999218541_7347601526868936099_nEven so, though some of these things have been incredibly difficult, none of them have come outside the expected order in which things unfold in life. Until last weekend.

Last weekend, Teri’s 29 year-old daughter Pam died of Stage 4 breast cancer. (I wrote about her initial diagnosis here). She leaves behind her legacy of faith in Christ in the lives of her young husband and two pre-school age children, as well as her family and many, many friends. She fought the disease like a wildcat so she could squeeze a lifetime of love into the time she had left on earth.

Death tears a hole in us, even when it is the quiet, unsurprising passing of a great-grandmother. But when a parent has to bury a child, as Teri and her husband will have to do this week, it is the most excruciating form of loss there is. It is life out of the normal sequence. Parents are not supposed to bury their children.

When Charm and Teri called for prayer after the doctors told the family there was nothing more they could do except to make Pam comfortable, I had a flashback to the three of us sitting in our Palatine apartment, laughing and talking the night I got engaged at age 19. We three “broke girls” were reveling in the trials and tribulations of early adulthood. A second flashback washed over the first one to the day Pam was born and Teri became a member of the mom club of our group. In a heartbeat, Pam’s lifetime had passed, and she was dying. Out of life’s standard order, and far too soon.

The measuring stick is irreparably broken.

Grief has taken its place. Immeasurable, unbearable sorrow.

 

There is the hope of resurrection, the promise of all tears being wiped away, the proclamation that death has been swallowed up in victory. While these things are true; truer than the sun shining in the springtime sky today, they are also not fully realized yet. What is true of today are Jesus’ tears at the grave of his friend Lazarus. What is true of today is that the One who knows the DNA of their unique grief is there in Houston with my friends right now.

If you’re reading this today, please take a moment and pray for God’s comfort to envelop Pam’s husband Tanner, her children Aubree and Jacob, for her parents and family members. Thanks, my friends.

February 3, 2015

When you’re a parent terrified by the fact that your newborn didn’t come complete with an owner’s manual, you may be easy prey for a door-to-door salesman who magically appears at your house one day with one just for you. When you sign on the dotted line, desperate for a quick fix, it may take years to discover you’ve sold your family into spiritual slavery. That book of answers you bought are really some bloviator’s opinions packaged as facts. Only your holy anger can set you free.

When your life has been given over to someone who promised your parents an iron-clad Happily Ever After, only holy anger can give you the courage to make a break for it.

When I read the scorching words of regret at RecoveringGrace.org from parents and adult children who came out of Bill Gothard’s ATI home schooling sect, as well as some of the stories of home schoolers who recount tales of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of parents whose love looked a lot like fear and control, I grieve. We home schooled our three kids for twelve years. Though we were never in any of these camps of the extreme, we were surrounded by plenty of people who were. For better or for worse, these people were our community. It was the spiritual equivalent of second-hand smoke. While I don’t regret home schooling, my husband and I have had plenty of sorrow that we didn’t shut down the influence of these people on our family. We were already swimming upstream from the culture around us. My own fears about our family being even more socially isolated if the Gothardite members and fans exorcized us from their circles kept us in the orbit of their bullying culture. A lot of us who home schooled in the 1990’s swallowed hard and played nice with the bullies, it seemed.

Study of StudyThere is no small irony in this in light of the fact that home schooling was supposed to help our children learn not to be peer dependent. I’ve written about parental peer pressure in the home schooling world here, and about the effect of Gothard and other abusive leaders on the movement here, here and here. As I’ve watched my own kids and the many kids I knew who were home schooled during those years enter adulthood and begin making their own decisions, only a small percentage of them continued on the precise lifestyle trajectory on which their parents launched them. Most do not have horror stories of abuse, but even those home school grads who are committed Christians often have a lifestyle that looks different from the one they grew up with. There are a surprising number of other home schooled kids I’ve known who have chosen to walk away from faith.

Though I didn’t tackle my own home school parental regret in If Only: Letting Go Of Regret, the process of coming to terms with foolish and unwise decisions I wrote about in the book has certainly applied to our home school experience.  I don’t regret our home schooling journey, though there were a few things my 20/20 hindsight would have changed about the academic and emotional resources we used in our house. I don’t regret our heavy emphasis on classical literature, or our focus on integrating our faith into our learning and service to others. I do regret the way we allowed our adult home school and church peers negatively influenced our family, and my husband and I have had lots of healthy, productive processing conversations with our sons as they’ve walked into adulthood. Truly, these kinds of conversations are the job of every parent when their kids become adults and begin to come to terms with the flaws and gifts of their upbringing, no matter where the kids learned to read, write and cipher.

When I read those words of regret at the Recovering Grace site a few days ago, I thought about the essential need for anger as we call out injustice when we’re presented with it:

“In your anger, do not sin…” (Ephesians 4:26)  

Paul doesn’t say, “Anger is a sin”, precisely because the One who made us in his image hard-wired anger into our emotional make-up. It is there to help us respond to injustice as he would. I’ve learned  – and am learning every single day – that not getting stuck in that place of anger, or sinning with it, has everything to do with God’s mercy. I’ve heard some Christians insist that a truly godly response to deep wounds is to zap past anger and go right to mercy. (If you can do this for real, recognize it as a gift of God. However, most people who advocate for this encourage others to deny their feelings, which is a heart-divider of the highest magnitude.) I’m not advocating this approach. I’ve found in my own experience and via regret research that a wounded person needs to access God’s anger over the wrong that has happened in their lives in order to move toward true forgiveness and freedom.

As hard as it can be to hear some of the horror stories, we in the church are called to listen and grieve with them. And we’re called to get angry. Author Elie Wiesel famously observed in Night, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” The sin for us in the church happens in regards to our treatment of victims and survivors only when we choose not to get angry on their behalf. 

 

Image: Flicker via Creative Commons 2.0    

July 21, 2014

I’ve been talking a lot about my book lately in this space. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share its message with you! However, this week, I’m looking forward to highlighting the writing of others.

Today, I want to draw your attention to an excellent resource for those who’ve experienced trauma and/or loss. Love Letters From The Edge (free today only on Kindle!) is a beautifully-written series of letters that gives voice to experience of a trauma survivor – and the way in which God would respond to those words. Twelve weeks’ worth of entries make this book an excellent devotional-style companion – but this is far more than a devotional book. The words come from two authors who have walked long in the valley of the shadow formed by trauma and loss, and can speak truthfully and graciously about the experience.

I had the honor of reading an advance copy of the book and wrote these words of endorsement:

Love Letters From The Edge contains some of the most wise, frank and courageous prayers you will ever read. Those who’ve survived trauma, abuse, or the pain of loss will recognize their own emotions, struggles and questions mirrored in the words of this book. But this is not a one-way heaven-aimed monologue. Shelly Beach and Wanda Sanchez invite survivors into a two-way conversation with the Lord of love. This is the kind of love letter that can speak into the deepest crevices of a hurting heart. Highly recommended.

If you’d like to know more about the book, I’m happy to share a bit of an interview Beach and Sanchez did that tells a bit more about the story behind the Letters:

Give us an overview of Love Letters from the Edge. Why is this book different from others on the market?

This book is different from most others because it gives a voice to the hurting by expressing their suffering and pain in letters to God. Those who have been traumatized and deeply wounded by life often feel like it’s unspiritual to express anger, frustration, and questions to God. The church can sometimes make us feel guilty for doubting and expressing honest feelings. But God wants us to bring our questions, doubts and anger to him. The psalms show us that in our deepest pain, loss, and suffering, we’re to cry out to God. Those cries aren’t always wrapped up in polite phrases.

But God sees us, knows us and loves us when we are experiencing our deepest despair. His love never changes based on our emotions or actions. Love Letters from the Edge allows women to know that they are not alone in feeling pain and frustration and that God loves them relentlessly. It is a more than a book of devotions or meditations: it is a conversation between a broken, hurting daughter and her loving father.

Why is post-traumatic stress disorder an important issue for women and the general population to understand? Why should the church be talking about it?

Trauma can be simply defined as “any experience that overwhelms the brain.” The “overwhelming” part of the definition means that a chemical wash shuts down half of the brain and “traps” the experience on one side, so the person cannot file the experience with a beginning, middle, and end as other experiences are stored. Approximately 8% of the general population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. 10% of women will suffer from PTSD in their lifetime. PTSD can be caused by medical trauma (cancer, cardiac symptoms/treatment, spinal surgery, invasive procedures, miscarriages), natural disasters, the separation of adoption (parent or child), sexual or physical abuse, violence or threat of violence, caregiver stress, job-related stress (law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, social workers, etc.), military service, and many other situations common to life.

The simple truth is that someone you know is suffering from trauma and may not know it or understand the symptoms. In inner cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, the rates of PTSD are higher than for the military returning from Afghanistan.

Women in particular can suffer in silence and isolation for years with escalating symptoms and not understand why. The church needs to work to create greater understanding of brain illness in general as part of overall health and stewardship of our bodies and caring for one another. We need to understand what people with PTSD feel like and how to better help them cope with their symptoms and seek effective treatments.

Can you give an overview of PTSD—what it looks like and what it feels like? And how does PTSD impact people of faith?

Very briefly, traumatic experiences affect the brain’s ability to file experiences in the proper sequence in memory and within the other contexts that our brain creates. This means that people who develop the symptoms of PTSD often live with many symptoms that the brain uses to cope with the disconnections.

Symptoms include addictions, eating disorders, self-abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts, dissociation (zoning out or “going away” to cope with overwhelming environments and triggers), avoidance of situations or people or places that remind them of the traumatizing event), loss of interest, isolation, fatalistic thinking, panic or anxiety attacks. Those with PTSD can also experience physical problems such as chronic headaches, nausea, body pain, and other symptoms.

Most people with PTSD feel great shame. They often struggle with their symptoms and addictions for years and seek treatment after treatment with the feeling that they may never be able to overcome their particular addictions or behaviors. If they are Christians, they feel further shame because they feel these behaviors are “wrong.” They may have experienced the judgment of those who believe that Scripture, healing prayer, and faith are sufficient to overcome their symptoms.

However, it’s important to remember that the symptoms of PTSD are the result of a physical, bio-chemical response in the brain. Treating only the symptoms (addictions, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, etc.) of PTSD without treating the trauma itself is much like treating the symptoms of cancer (nausea, pain, etc.) without treating the actual cancer itself. Churches are often helpful in providing programs that treat the symptoms of trauma without understanding how to treat trauma itself.

Who’s your audience for this book, and what qualifies the two of you to write about these issues?

Our audience for this book is a woman who’s experienced overwhelming pain or suffering in her life and has struggled with symptoms of PTSD or in her faith or someone who wants to understand hurting women better or who provides spiritual counsel or therapy to broken women.

To learn more about Beach and Sanchez’ ministry, PTSD Perspectives, click here.

 

June 16, 2014

Last week, Leadership Journal magazine posted an article penned by a youth pastor who groomed, then sexually abused a girl in his youth group. He is now in prison for his crimes. The anonymous article was saturated with a self-pitying tone,  some horrifying reframing of his sin (statutory rape is not an “affair”), and a stunning lack of concern for the young woman upon whom he preyed. It took a couple of very intense days of social media activity by those infuriated by the platform given to a semi-repentant sexual predator before the editors acknowledged that a few edits could not redeem this terrible piece. They removed it from the site late Friday afternoon. Mary DeMuth wrote a helpful summary of the situation here if you’d like to read more about it.

The story led me to do a little reflection about the collateral damage caused by a youth leader’s sexual sin. I’m thinking here about those who were not directly affected by the actions of a predatory leader: the rank-and-file youth group kids.

In my forty years of being a part of the big “C” church, sexual sin by leaders has pot-holed my journey:

  • A lead pastor with a porn addiction eventually had an affair with a congregant.
  • A twenty-something youth leader on the fast track to the paid position of youth pastor in our church had a “friends with benefits” relationship with another young woman who was over 18 – and was secretly dating one of the youth group girls at the same time. 
  • A youth pastor at a nearby megachurch had sexually abused a number of young men in his charge over a period of several years. When his sin was about to be exposed, he killed himself. We had the parent of one of the young men this predator had abused in our small group in the year immediately following the suicide. 
  • Another youth pastor had a history of forming sexually-charged, boundary-crossing unhealthy relationships with adult and youth group kids alike. He stayed justthisside of physical affairs, but left a trail of chaos and confusion  in his wake. 
  • I mentored a young woman who had been sexually abused by her cousin, a youth pastor.

My husband was in church leadership at two of the congregations where some of these events unfolded. He was involved as an advocate for a survivor at a third. Those little bullet-points on the list above have taken an inordinate amount of our time and emotional and spiritual energy through the years. Either we have a stunning knack for choosing especially messed-up churches or this is happening in too many congregations. Debate about the former can wait for another day. The latter, however, is ugly reality.

In the midst of dealing with the exposure (usually in the form of denial, denial, denial, victim-blaming, and more denial on behalf of the two-faced youth pastor), the focus stays on the parties directly involved. Additional effort goes toward messaging about the situation for the congregation and, in some cases, meeting with with legal authorities. In the case of a youth pastor’s moral failure, a flurry of meetings about the situation with the teens and their parents are scheduled once the leader has been removed. The goal is to “normalize” things as quickly as possible.

The question no one asks is: Normalize to what? The way things used to be before the sin of the youth pastor was exposed?

Things weren’t ever “normal”. In each of the four cases of a youth pastor’s sexual sin with which I’ve been personally involved, the dynamics of the group were warped by the youth pastor’s secret life. In two cases, the teens in the group long suspected there was something going on between their fearless leader and one of the kids because of flirting, favoritism, inside jokes and moments of inappropriate physical connection between the pair. In the other cases, the youth pastor was working so hard to keep his other life under cover that he tended to be reactively hard-line in the way in which he talked about sex and behavioral rules.

Some youth group kids don’t seem to be affected much by this stuff. They show up to see their friends and glean a few truths about God in the process. The behavior of the adults in charge doesn’t matter much to them. Other kids may suffer with some disillusionment as a leader they’d idealized as a model version of a Christian turns out to be an idol with feet of clay. Or they’re confused. The main course in terms of teaching in many youth groups is about developing healthy relationships with a side of sexual purity (or visa versa). That focus can give some kids the impression that this is the main thing God cares about. Having a leader fall in this area sends the message that the whole faith thing is a hypocrite’s game. Still others struggle with their outsider status in the group, because the weird sexually-charged dynamic between the leader and his prey injected an additional layer of insider/outsider vibe on top of the usual peer group pecking order of teens. Could God want them when his representatives have cool kid favorites?

I’d like to suggest that the urge to get back to normal as soon as possible, while understandable, may not be spiritually healthy in the long term. The leader’s sin warped the atmosphere and relationships among all in the youth group for a long, long time before his sin was exposed. Our experience has taught us that doing some hard-core excavation backwards through time in order to discern how the character of God was misrepresented through the leader’s teaching is a necessary part of pastoral care for the teens in the group – and few leaders have the emotional energy to deal with it after dealing with the mess of a leader’s exposure. Correction and redirection without overreaction to the leader’s sin can help re-form a healthy image of God in the group. We’ve also discovered that prayer for all the kids who’ve been in a youth group led by a leader involved in sexual sin needs to last for a long time; much longer than the water park outings and short-term mission trips “return to normal” would suggest. A warped leader’s sin makes a giant millstone an honorary member of an entire group of people – a youth group, a church.

“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.'” (Luke 17:1-3)

Have you or your kids been affected by a youth pastor’s sexual sin? What prayers or practices were most helpful to address the confusion and hurt among the kids in the group? 

* * * * * * *

If you are a survivor of clergy abuse, your story matters. There is help, healing and and possibly a measure of delayed human justice available for you. One organization that has served as a clearinghouse and connecting point for survivors is the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Their resources reach far beyond the clergy abuse that has occurred within the Catholic Church. Another organization focusing on abuses within the Evangelical world is GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse within the Christian Environment)

 

March 21, 2014

I can count on one hand the number of adults I’ve known who have not had to work through some level of hurt, neglect, abuse, or emotional disconnect they’re carrying with them from childhood. Even the most well-intentioned, fully-present parents don’t always get it right with their kids. (Hand raised.) However, the notion of children forgiving mothers and fathers whose issues suffocated their ability to parent those children responsibly may seem both excruciating and foolish. Unforgiveness can seem to function as a form of protection for children wounded by their parents.

Leslie Leyland Fields understands the temptation for an adult child to hide within this shield. In her book Forgiving Our Fathers And Mothers: Finding Freedom From Hurt And Hate (Worthy, 2014)*, she writes:

…I kept hearing the commandment, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ (Exodus 20:12). And I wondered as I thought about my apathetic father, How do I honor this man? The questions came as a deep puzzle to me, as it did to all my siblings. But I was not so cut off in my hurt I did not know how many others were in the same dilemma. So many other daughters and sons, regardless of age: middle-aged adults, young adults, teens. Does ‘Honor your father’ apply to us, I questioned, those of us who have been hurt and deceived and abandoned by our mothers or fathers, or even both? Surely if they are dishonorable, we need not honor them! We’re off the hook. Neither did I care to forgive my father and all that had been done in the rooms and houses of my childhood where he sometimes sat and walked – and walked away from.

Fields tells the story of seeking to reconcile her relationship with a father who had abused, neglected, then abandoned his family years earlier – for her own sake, and, eventually, even for her dying father’s sake. Though he was incapable of reaching out to her, Field was acting in response to another Father who’d pursued her with his forgiveness.

We are a found, forgiven, celebrated people. This is not about our mothers or fathers right now. This is about us. What’s been done for us. Who we really are. The God of Everything has come after us – and whether we’re still in that far country or we’ve turned back, there is only one true home, one real freedom: in our Father’s house. Whether we’ve been in His forgiving embrace yet or not, it is there waiting for us. Where will we find the strength, the courage, to forgive? It is here. We can forgive others because we are forgiven. Of everything.

Nine heart-breaking, healing chapters allow readers to accompany Fields on the complex journey through the process. Make no mistake – this kind of forgiveness is a process. Chapter themes include avoidance; confession; humanizing our offender; connecting fully with our own experience of hurt; facing bitterness; connecting with God’s forgiveness; choosing to honor people, not dishonorable behavior; creating a new family legacy; and extending forgiveness along with forming healthy boundaries in order to seek God’s higher calling.

At the conclusion of each chapter, counselor Dr. Jill Hubbard offers thoughtful insights and reflection questions designed to help readers apply the concepts to their own situation. At one point she notes, “Though we describe a process here, and this book follows a certain chronology, it’s important to know there is no prescribed exact order to our healing. Forgiveness often does not follow a nice, predictable path lifting us out of our pain. It can be messy at times, as we circle round and round our same issues. It can take time, depending on the depth of what must be forgiven. Remember that our feelings, all of them, are part of our process and that anger and protest are part of our healing too.”

I know a number of people who’ve simply shelved the pain of their relationships with their parents, choosing to treat those relationships as unchangeable components of earlier chapters of their lives. Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers is an invitation to move beyond that uncomfortable truce with the pain of our past toward greater emotional and spiritual liberty. One of my favorite quotes about forgiveness comes from Dr. Louis Smedes who said “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” Fields’ wise, honest, accessible book is a wonderful companion on the journey toward the freedom that comes from the process of forgiving. Highly, highly recommended.

 

*I received a copy of the book from the author, but the price I didn’t pay did not affect my assessment of the book. I would buy this book, and hope you will, too.  

 

December 26, 2013

The recent uproar surrounding charges of plagiarism swirling around some of Mark Driscoll (click here and here) has nearly obscured another story that may have even greater implications for the church – and, ironically, maybe even for Driscoll’s future publishing endeavors. While the late John Howard Yoder’s name is less familiar to mainstream Evangelicals than Driscoll’s, this recent story about how Yoder’s publisher will include a disclaimer on all of his books may reverberate long after Driscoll fades from memory.

Other than excerpts of his work in the books and blogs of a few academics I follow, I haven’t read Yoder’s work for myself. His work has helped those academics grapple with the Anabaptist understanding about what the Bible has to say about power and nonviolence. I have appreciated the way in which Yoder’s perspective has broadened the thinking of these individuals.

For all of his intellectual brilliance, he was a man of deeply flawed character who abused a number of women from his position of power. His brilliance rationalized those actions by relying on the notion that a spiritually-mature man could engage in intimate, “healing” physical touch just this side of intercourse with a woman, insisting that this contact wasn’t sinful if he didn’t feel lust prior to or during the contact. He managed to repackage his own needs and appetites by deconstructing Scripture with his well-trained mind while insisting that his more evolved spirituality was the reason he could give his non-sexual luvin’ to his cross-gendered friends. He was a peacemaker, after all.

Well, except for the sexual assaults.

As these things usually do, it took years for the rumors of his abuse to come to light, and for the victims to discover that they had plenty of company. Shortly before he died in 1997, Yoder affirmed that he’d uh, probably crossed a few non-blurred lines and went through some sort of formal restoration process with his home church. None of the women he’d assaulted received an apology, nor was there any sort of counseling or financial renumeration follow-up offered them as far as I could discern. (If you know otherwise, please email me, as I’d be happy to correct this statement if I missed something.)

Now, after years of discernment meetings and discussion, Yoder’s publisher, Herald Press, will be publishing a disclaimer, acknowledging his history of sexual sin while continuing to commend his writing to readers.

While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

                                              (From the Herald Press disclaimer statement)

At this point in the story, since the perp has been dead for 16 years, I think this is probably a good start. It underscores that there is a difference between baby and bathwater. While there is now no way for those who were abused by Yoder with their allegations, it would be a nice gesture if either his publisher or his denomination offered to pay for counseling for anyone with a credible abuse account. Perhaps I’m being a bit idealistic with this suggestion; I am assuming that few would go to the trouble of coming forward at this point with a false account in order to score some counseling. At this point, those most in need of help may have already sought it. In Yoder’s Mennonite tradition, turning the other cheek is core to following Jesus, so it is possible that many of his survivors have processed what he did to them. Maybe a half of handful of the dozens of victims would ask for help. Maybe only one. But that one deserves the dignity of compassionate care. Her life has been altered by the selfish actions of this man.

Which brings me to what the Herald Press statement says to me. If Yoder was still alive and had been found guilty, a responsible publisher would pull the books no matter how good his ideas are. But the decision for Herald Press to continue to publish Yoder’s books with a disclaimer communicates to me that in this life, he got away with his sin – and gets to have the final, published word. Character is disconnected from message, which is a textbook description of hypocrisy.

What do you think? Should publishers continue to print the books of those who’ve confessed to sin (as Yoder did at the end of his life) or been caught red-handed in the act? Does a disclaimer make a difference?

 

 

March 20, 2013

What appears to be pristine theology, presented in user-friendly form, may in fact be a deadly assault weapon.

A young friend was struggling with how to trust God as she faced infertility. She didn’t feel as though the Ladies Bible study crew at her church would be the best place for her to process her questions and emotions. I suggested we read a book together – something that could shape our conversation and our prayers. I offered four titles addressing the subject of trust, a couple of which I’d read, and a couple of books I hadn’t read but knew as study standbys from my days working at the Trinity International University bookstore, back when the school had a bookstore.

My friend voted for one of the books I’d never before read, Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts which has been in print since 1988. I have some trusting-God issues, too, so I imagined the book would be a great encouragement to both of us as we worked through a couple of chapters at a time over breakfast.

Just a few pages into the book, I found my hackles rising:

“…many Christians are also buying into the philosophy…that God is good but not sovereign. One Christian writer, for example, speaks of her pain as being utterly frustrating to God and gives thanks to God for being her devoted, caring, frustrated heavenly Father. Faced with the dilemma of how a loving, sovereign Father could allow her to experience such agonizing pain, she found relief in the belief that God was indeed frustrated about her pain, shedding tears with her, even as a mother may weep at the suffering of her child.”

Never mind that the fully human and fully divine Son of God not only knows how to make humans, but to be human, thus empathizing with us in our weakness. Never mind that Jesus wept over both personal loss and corporate sin. Never mind Bridges’ lack of compassion for those who are unable to stuff their questions into his fatalistic application of the theological truth that God is indeed sovereign. I don’t disagree with that truth, but I do disagree with Bridges’ ultra-Reformed application of it.

In it, praying for healing – or much of anything else – appears to be a non-starter, except as a means of beating our emotions into submission. “Wrestling” with issues like natural disasters appears to mean “It’s OK to feel bummed, but you’d better disconnect from those emotions after…uh…a fairly short amount of time perhaps best determined by the amount of media coverage the event is receiving in order to return to the Truth, which is, that God is Sovereign. Please drive around to window two with your exact change. Have a nice day.”

To question beyond that point is to dishonor God: “…just as God’s will is to take precedence over our will…so God’s honor is to take precedence over our feelings.” In a discussion about how the sovereignty of God is at work in the wicked actions of others, Bridges writes, “Is someone ‘out to get you’? That person absolutely cannot execute his malicious plan unless God had first decreed it…if God permits it, it is because the ungodly action is part of God’s plan…”

Forests have given their lives in service to books fueling the debate about what the sovereignty of God is, and how malleable his will may or may not be. You and I can swap Bible verses on the subject until we’re blue in the face, and we will not resolve the question. At some point, we have to surrender to the fact that we flesh-bound, limited humans can’t comprehend the mystery in these questions. I like to think Jerry Bridges would completely agree with me on that, though we would have arrived at this destination via two wildly different routes. Suffice it to say, I am not in Jerry Bridges’ theological camp.

I share my reactions to Trusting God in this space because it didn’t take me long to discover that the ideas presented in the book have left some serious wreckage in their wake. After reading a few chapters, I figured I’d query my corner of the internet world with a tweet a couple of weeks ago. “If you’ve ever read Jerry Bridges’ ‘Trusting God’, could you please message me? I have a couple of questions for you. Thanks!” One theologian told me that she appreciated the book because its Reformed perspective on the issue was stronger on theology than therapy. I told her in response I was troubled by Bridges’ stunning lack of empathy for his readers.

And then I received a series of emails from two people who reported that the book’s content had done deep damage to their trust in God. The first wrote,

“At the time (I first read the book upon my pastor’s recommendation), I was comforted with a sense that the world wasn’t out of control, and that no one was in charge but God, if that makes sense.” She referenced the spiritual and sexual abuse she’s experienced in her life, then said, “That would mean that He ordained/approved of/sent (the abusers). In the end, Michelle, that makes him a Monster god, and I have had to go through a MAJOR faith shift…coming to atheism in monster god…to begin to love again the True God, who does not authorize rape or abuse or injustice. That’s Satan, not God. Let’s don’t get the two confused…”

The second person’s reaction from a young ministry wife, was even more visceral. After the death of a beloved child, a friend offered to go through Trusting God  with her in hopes of comforting her. Instead, she wrote, “…the book made me desperate to hide my other children from the sovereign God I was supposed to be trusting.  The anxiety I felt was crippling and I’m just now getting to a point where I can even talk about it.”

Now we can debate whether these responses have anything to do with the book, but that’s not the point. The point is that our ideas have consequences. I am a layperson with a healthy respect for the work of (some) theologians and teachers. Part of that healthy respect means reminding these people – and myself as a writer! – that our pronouncements of theological truth had better be couched in humble recognition that ideas presented with prideful certainty and systematic slicing and dicing of Scripture in order to support a thesis statement we ourselves generated has consequences. In the case of Bridges’ book, a basic tenet of Christian belief, that God is sovereign, became an assault weapon due to its harsh, ungracious tone and an over-reliance on one set of supporting Scriptures and a neglect of engaging those that contradict or challenge those ideas.

Have you ever read or recommended a Christian book – a “classic”, like Trusting God – and found that it left decidedly non-redemptive pain and confusion in its wake? How so?

 


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