“Bless Them” or “Bring Them Down”?

From childhood I have sung and prayed the Psalms, reveling in the words that they provide me for worship, for intercession, and for the soul-baring expression of my deepest struggles to God. Their ability to capture the essence of my messiest emotions and turn it into relationship-building prayer causes me to return to them everyday, using their words to shape my prayers. But sometimes as my soul sails along one of their pristine highways of praise it suddenly collides with a dark, imprecatory wall.

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:44-45

How do I pray along with psalms that ask for bad things to happen to my enemies? I thought I was supposed to ask God to bless them, not bring them down. How can praying for my enemies to be ashamed and dismayed possibly fit with God’s command for me to love them?

Make them like tumbleweed, O my God, like chaff before the wind. As fire consumes the forest or a flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm.
Psalm 83:13-15

But as I look a bit deeper, I discover that not all of these imprecatory psalms are vengeful. While some clearly do call for pretty nasty retaliation (Wishing our enemies’ children to be dashed against rocks is quite out of bounds for those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus’ teachings and example), others are asking for something quite different.

They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, O LORD; they oppress your inheritance. …They say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.”
Take heed, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise?…Does he who disciplines nations not punish? Does he who teaches man lack knowledge?
Psalm 94:4-10

In these, the psalmist is asking for horrible things to happen to his enemies so that they will repent and change. The problem is that these people think and act as if there is no God, as if He will not judge them in the end for what they have done. But the psalmist knows better. By faith, he knows that, left on this trajectory, they will eventually run into the wrath of a just God and be eternally judged for their actions.

Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD. May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace. Let them know that you, whose name is the LORD– that you alone are the Most High over all the earth.
Psalm 83:16-18

So in a moment of loving compassion, he asks God to intervene in his enemies’ destiny. Scare them. Shame them. Break them. Humble them. Do whatever it takes to teach their minds that You really do notice and will call them to account. Do whatever it takes to turn their hearts back to You before it is too late.

Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law; you grant him relief from days of trouble, till a pit is dug for the wicked.

Let a righteous man strike me–it is a kindness; let him rebuke me–it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.
Psalm 94:12, Psalm 141:5

The psalmist knows from personal experience that it often takes a pretty heavy blow from God to set him straight. He has learned to embrace God’s discipline in his own life, to see it as a blessing instead of a curse, because it saves him from greater harm and it prepares the way for his greater good. He is asking nothing for his enemies that he would not also want for himself.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 7:12

And that is where love fits back into the picture. In asking God to discipline our enemies, I think it is possible to fulfill the law of love on the deepest level, asking God to do for them what we would want Him to do for us. Clearly we need to keep close tabs on our own hearts, evaluating whether this is a prayer born out of love or out of revenge. But it is a prayer that we can wholeheartedly join in, especially as we progress through the multiple stages of forgiveness.

You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you.
Psalm 86:5

It scares me to think of the consequences that my “enemies” may face if they remain unrepentant. When I seriously consider the day they will stand before our righteous Judge, I cringe and beg Him for mercy. I suppose this is an encouraging sign of the work of His Spirit in me, expressing itself in another layer of forgiveness towards those whose wrongs against me remain unconfessed. If our final reconciliation is predicated on their repentance, then I eagerly pray that God will do what it takes to bring that about. Even more, I long for the day when my enemies will turn and run into our Father’s forgiving embrace.

Bring them down, Lord, so that You can bless them.

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Trauma from the Inside Out

Aftershocks. The first few times they came, they shook me to the core. Was it happening again? My mind knew it was over, that I was safe, but something else inside me was screaming otherwise.

Safety no longer meant the absence of danger;
it meant the presence of God.

I lived in a state of perpetual high-alert, anticipating the next round of terror at any moment. The attacks had caught me off guard the first time around, helplessly overwhelmed. Never again would I be caught like a sitting duck, oblivious to the danger all around. At the slightest touch of my T-shirt to my neck, I would be bolt upright in bed, ready to fight off the hands trying to strangle me. At a sudden brake in the car, my adrenaline would startle into high gear, ready in an instant for fight-or-flight. And a chill… well that was the worst. It signaled to my body that the threat had already succeeded in bypassing my defenses, that all I could do was crumple and moan and beg for mercy.

My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked; for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger.
Psalm 55:2-3

Words escaped me. I couldn’t describe what I was experiencing. The attacks raged on inside me, even in the absence of a perpetrator. My body was my prison, with an invisible recording continuously running those nightmarish experiences through my consciousness. I cooked meals, I bandaged scraped up knees, I chuckled at children’s made-up jokes—all on auto-pilot, always distracted by another reality going on at the same time.

My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.
Psalm 55:4-5

Usually I could suppress it, choosing to push it to the back of mind so that I could function as a responsible adult. But sometimes it just wouldn’t stay there. Moments when I relaxed my guard and allowed myself to enjoy my surroundings. Experiences that overwhelmed the rigid control I maintained over my mind and body. A migraine. A belly-laugh. An intimidating relational encounter. A fun, chaotic gathering. And then the terror would take over. The horror would overcome me.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest–I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
Psalm 55:6-8

I would search for a quiet, safe place, away from concerned eyes, away from bewildered questions. The strong walls of my own control had crumbled, and I needed a shelter in which to hide until the sobs and shakes had past. Usually that shelter became my own arms, wrapped tightly around my curled up body in an attempt to hold it all together. Sometimes it was the arms of a trusted other, strong enough to face my storm, safe enough to hold me in the midst of it.

But I call to God, and the LORD saves me. Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. He ransoms me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me.
Psalm 55:16-18

But through the ups and downs of that tumultuous season, God became my dearest refuge, my closest circumstance. He alone could hear the cries of my soul, too deep for words to express. He alone could see the battle raging within me, far beyond my ability to analyze or direct. I clung to him like a drowning soul to a life-raft. And He never let go.

Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall. But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me, I trust in you.
Psalm 55:22-23

Gradually safety took on a new meaning for me. It no longer meant an absence of danger. For months and years to come, those threatening memories continued to return and haunt me. But I had experienced a Shelter so nurturing, so strong, so true that I wasn’t afraid anymore. I could weather those storms, sure to the core of my being that I was safe in His embrace. My world still felt like a dangerous place, but safety meant that He was holding me. In those arms I could finally let down my guard and rest.

Challenging Forgiveness

“How can I forgive her if she hasn’t said she’s sorry?” My son looked at me with his penetrating blue eyes, his sincere question about his sister unwittingly peeling a scab off my past.

How can I answer him when I haven’t yet resolved this issue myself? My mind instantly brings up the faces of people whose actions and words once wounded me so deeply that I still wince at their memory. What continues to hurt is not what they said or did, but the outstanding fact that they have never acknowledged that it was wrong.

Have I forgiven them?

If forgiveness means that I have completely forgotten their mistreatment, that I carry on our relationship as if it never happened, then no. I have not done that. I’m not sure how I could relate freely with those whose words and actions damaged me so deeply, not to mention radically redefined our relationship. The truth is, I don’t entrust myself to them, not if they haven’t expressed remorse or at least evidenced a desire to change.

Is it unforgiving of me to hold back, to maintain a bit of physical and emotional distance between myself and them? What is it that God is asking of me when He tells me to forgive?

Forgiveness has many appropriate manifestations, each determined by our current stage of relational healing.

Not to hold Joseph up as a perfect life model, but I think his story lays out an excellent example of what forgiveness looks like in the different stages of relational healing. His brothers had stolen from him his identity, his dreams, and his whole life as he had known it. Their betrayal cost him everything, including the ability to trust himself to them again.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”
Genesis 41:51

But even in a state of woundedness, Joseph did not harbor a grudge against his brothers. Rather than feed on memories of how horrible they had been, he simply tried to forget them. Though that was not an adequate long-term solution, I think it was an appropriate form of forgiveness for that stage of their relationship.

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them.
Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: …Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth.
Genesis 42:7, 14-16

When God brought his brothers unexpectedly back into his life, Joseph did not seek revenge. Nor did he immediately run into their arms and pick up where they had left off. Joseph kept his distance and his anonymity, allowing himself the time and space to ascertain if they had changed. Instead of shutting himself off from them forever, he demonstrated another layer of forgiveness by creating opportunities for them to prove themselves worthy of his trust.

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:21, 23-24

Joseph may have seemed harsh and unyielding, putting his brothers through the tests that he did. But his goal was true restoration, not revenge. Like God so often does with us, he graciously set them up for a re-match. Another round of jealousy-inducing favoritism, this time towards Benjamin. The recurring offer to throw their little brother under the bus to save their own hides. But when they pleaded for Benjamin’s life, offering themselves in his place, Joseph knew that they had changed. He knew it was finally safe to come out of hiding.

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Genesis 45:1-2

Deep springs of pent up emotion burst forth as Joseph made his startling revelation. That emotion could very well have been anger or bitterness. But Joseph’s tears manifested the forgiveness that had been working its way through the layers of his heart all along. Tears of grief over his freshly-awakened pain. Tears of sorrow over the years of lost relationship. And tears of relief and delight over this wonderfully unanticipated fresh start.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.
To each of them he gave new clothing, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five sets of clothes.
Genesis 45:4-5, 15, 22

Joseph did not wait for an apology or an explanation. He already knew their hearts. He threw himself on his brothers, hugging and weeping over each of them like the prodigal son’s Father. He did the explaining for them, welcoming them back into fellowship and soothing away their fears. And he demonstrated the extent of his forgiveness, bypassing probation and jumping straight into extravagant provision. New clothes. New inheritance. A land for their families to settle in right alongside his. A relationship restored.

…”‘I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”
When their message came to him, Joseph wept. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? … So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
Genesis 50:15-21

But the reconciliation process wasn’t finished yet. Nor was Joseph’s healing. Years later, after the death of their father, fear prompted the brothers to finally apologize for what they had done to him. It had been a long time in the coming, and in many respects Joseph had moved on, not expecting to hear it, but their apology hit the spot. A fresh round of tears. A healing opportunity to verbalize his forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status,
a heart posture than a court verdict.

I look over these layers of development in Joseph’s story and begin to conceptualize forgiveness in a new way. Maybe forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status, a heart posture than a court verdict. Maybe what God is calling me to is to desire and work towards reconciliation, even if it is not a current possibility. Short cuts won’t get me there. Faking it won’t work. But persistently loving those who hurt me opens the door for God to bring about true restoration, one that neither compromises my wholeness nor denies God’s grace.

So how do I forgive those who haven’t said they are sorry? I pray that, just as He did with Joseph’s alienated brothers, God will write them back into my story. And I wait with open arms.

Reclaiming Stolen Identity

“In the beginning there was faith—which is childish; trust—which is vain; and illusion—which is dangerous.

We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinah’s flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of God’s image.

That was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals.”
(Elie Wiesel, “Preface to the New Translation” of Night)

These words from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel catch the breath in my throat. How is it that someone can so eloquently define the bedrock of my identity and in the same breath rip it out from under my feet? On the other hand, his candid statement leaves me wondering how can someone endure such atrocities and still honestly hold onto any sense of sacred identity?

“Those moments… murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.”

One of the most devastating features of trauma is a profound loss of identity. Traumatic experiences steal away all sense of security and certainty, all assurance of who we are and what we can expect of God.

From childhood Elie had embraced his sacred identity as a chosen one, someone special to God and destined for a life of significance because of his relationship with God. But witnessing the brutal slaughter of his mother and sister, being separated from his father by a gradual, tortuous death, and enduring the unending atrocities of concentration camps stole that identity from him. His body was eventually set free from unspeakably dehumanizing brutality, but his soul remained its captive.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. …
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never.”
(Elie Wiesel, Night, pp. 43–44)

I read this heart-rending declaration and I mourn Elie’s profound loss, so deep that it forever devoured his very identity. Is this the inevitable outcome for any survivor of such thorough devastation? What hope is left for life after trauma?

Faith in God may be the source of our ordeals. But it is also the solution.

So I turn back to the Bible and compare Elie’s story with his ancestor Joseph’s. How is it possible that he survived his years of inhuman enslavement and dark captivity and still came out the other side with any sense of sacred purpose, any transcendent personal identity?

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:3-5

The critical difference I find in their accounts is that Joseph’s relationship with God survived the fire of trauma.

Like Elie, Joseph’s childhood identity was deeply rooted in a sense of being special to God, of having been destined by God for some great purpose within his family. But his brothers’ brutal betrayal stripped him of those distinguishing robes and embroidered dreams. His master’s heartless disposal branded him as an unwanted object, a worthless commodity. And his unyielding cell walls and iron-hearted chains pressed a message of total abandonment by God deep into his soul.

The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. …
But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.
Genesis 39:2, 20-21

But unlike Elie, when Joseph looked back and retold his story, he could still interpret it through eyes of faith. God had gone with him into slavery, blessing his work so that his master would treat him well. God had held him close in the dungeon, setting him up so that his captors would go easy on him. And God had come through for him in the end, providing him with a captive audience and the interpretive key for Pharaoh’s dream.

“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.
Genesis 45:8

For Joseph, faith in God may have been the source of his ordeals. But it was also the solution. God may have led him into the unspeakable horrors of trauma, but He also carried him back out the other side. True, Joseph could never return to the innocence and lightheartedness of his youth. Most of his former identity was lost and gone forever. But the very core of who he was remained. He had always known that he was God’s. Despite the atrocities of his captivity, despite the seeming abandonment of the grave, that relationship never died.

Sadly, Eli Wiesel’s relationship with God did.
“I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger. “
(Elie Wiesel, Night, pp. 68)

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
1 Peter 1:6-9

I resonate with the struggles of both of these men, though I could never claim to have experienced trauma as severe. The trauma God allotted me rattled my certainty in His love for me to the core. In its wake I rehearsed my own story, crying out to God in desperation to tell me who I was anymore, begging Him to reassure me of who I was to Him. But because I was able to take that agonized question to God, I could finally receive His deeply assuring answer.

In the beginning, when life was rosy and the future secure—
I was His.
In the middle, when life was hell and death seemed the only escape—
I was His.
In the present, while I still watch to discover what new creature He is raising up from the ashes—
I am His.
And in the future, come what may—
I will be His.

Editing Childhood

“What’s the point of going back? I don’t want to get stuck in the unpleasant memories of my childhood. I just want to get over it and move on.”

I sat across the picnic table from my friend and witnessed the conflict raging within her. Her mind wanted to be in charge, to determine what she thought about God and how she felt about herself. But her heart just wouldn’t cooperate. It kept sending her mixed messages: “God loves you. How could He? You are valuable to Him. Impossible! I’m unlovable, nothing but a worthless failure.”

As we picked together through the earliest memories of her life story, it became readily apparent to me where those messages were coming from. A terrified little girl, frantically attempting to sweep away the broken leftovers of her step-father’s drunken rage. A deeply impressionable child, consistently failing to prevent his destructive anger, forever falling short of being able to protect her mother from its violent effects. But try as she might, she couldn’t fix the problem. She couldn’t be good enough to pacify her step-father, couldn’t perform well enough to earn her mother’s love.

The scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

Those messages of inadequacy and un-lovability were so deeply lodged in her soul that no amount of mental discipline or right theology had managed to root them out. But God was not content to leave them there. Just as He had done with countless others who came before her, He was taking her through the agonizing process of digging down through the layers of her life, unearthing the painful memories that she had kept carefully locked away and bringing her face-to-face with the damaging experiences that continued to define her.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Genesis 41:51-52

Joseph had been just as resistant to this process as my friend was. He didn’t want to remember his childhood, the constant insults of jealous brothers, the sick family dynamics of competing mothers and treacherous sibling relationships. How could he enjoy the memory of his father’s overt favoritism when it had only made things worse for him with his brothers? How had that love protected him in the end when their jealous rage cost him all but his life?

The one stable relationship that had carried him through his tumultuous childhood and trying adulthood was the one he still shared with the invisible God. God had heard the abusive messages that his brothers assailed him with and had countered them with His own dream-time messages of affirmation. God had seen the indignity of his slavery and had shown up to make him successful in all his work. God had felt the isolation of his imprisonment and had kept him company through his darkest days. And in an unprecedented turn of events, God had raised him up into a completely new life, complete with a new name, a new family, a new community, and a new job.

When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger… Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” …
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:6-9, 21-24

Joseph had no desire to go back. But the one element of his past that he most wanted to avoid, God brought to meet him. Face-to-face with the brothers he had spent years trying to forget, the pent up emotions of his childhood came bursting forth. Under the layers of his power suit and prestigious position, his picture-perfect family and charmed social life, Joseph was still that traumatized little boy, desperate for his brothers’ acceptance, helpless in the face of their betrayal. The most successful man in Egypt broke down and wept.

Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.
Genesis 43:30; 45:1-2; 46:29

But Joseph’s tears were not an unproductive reversion. They were a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of his past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of his present to be made whole. He needed to hear his brothers’ confession, to see their distress over the pain they had caused him. He needed reassurance of his father’s love, evidence that the members of his family had learned to relate to each other in tenderness and compassion. Convinced at last that it was safe, Joseph was able to re-engage those relationships whose proximity had caused deep wounds, but whose absence left a deep hole.

Our tears are not an unproductive reversion. They are a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of our past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of our present to be made whole.

Sadly, not all of our painful memories find such happy resolution. My friend’s relationship with her mother continues to be characterized by criticism and rejection. But pulling back the curtains on her past has allowed her to see herself for who she really is: a child deeply loved by God, even in the midst of being horribly treated by her family. Even more, it has allowed her to experience her truest Father’s unconditional acceptance and adoring love in ways she never could before.

Damaging childhood memories cannot be erased. But revisited under the expert guidance of the Holy Counselor, the scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

The Death of Dreams

Joseph sat in his grave, remembering his former dreams.

Once upon a time he had dreamed of greatness, of being honored and approved of by his family. It hadn’t seemed such an unreasonable dream at the time. After all, he had been his father’s favorite, the firstborn son of his beloved Rachel. With the physique of a superhero and the mind of a sage, Joseph had had every reason to dream of a rosy future.

LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.
Psalm 16:5-7

He had been certain that God favored him too. Why else would He send him such hope-inspiring dreams? Sheaves of grain bowing down before him. The sun, moon, and stars paying homage to him. The message had seemed so clear then. God had great things in store for his life, position and prestige beyond his wildest dreams. Even his father felt threatened by the obvious meaning of his dreams. Joseph was surely destined for a life of greatness.

But nothing was the way it had seemed.

I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
Psalm 16:8-10

Rough hands. Brutal blows. The spiteful, sneering faces of those he had trusted. The cold, hard betrayal of those nearest to him. His knees hit the bottom of a deep dark pit. His whole life flashed before his eyes. Was this the end? Surely they just meant this as a cruel joke. Surely they would not abandon him in this grave or allow his flesh to rot in this hole.

A rope from above. The light of day. Resurrection of hope, only to be dashed again. Twenty pieces of silver exchanged for his life. Was this all that he was worth to them? Chains of slavery fastened to his soul. Was this what would forever define him?

When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.
Genesis 39:3-4

A fresh start in Egypt. The favored attendant of a prestigious master. This wasn’t exactly the kind of greatness that he had originally imagined, but Joseph threw himself into making the best of it. Competent and hardworking, trustworthy and unbelievably successful, he quickly rose to the top of the service chain, his master honoring him far above the normal status of a slave. Past dreams forgotten, present chains overlooked, Joseph accepted his new identity. He might not be the favorite son of his father any more, but at least he was secure in his new position as favorite servant of his master.

But even that was not the way it had seemed.

Trauma leaves us in the dark, devoid of all the certainties on which we based our past, bereft of all the dreams towards which we oriented our future.

Harsh accusations. Sickeningly familiar chains. Triumphantly betrayed by his jealous mistress. Angrily turned on by his beloved master. Was this the full extent of their relationship? After years of loyal service, wasn’t he at least worth a fair trial? Joseph found his body once again thrown into a deep dark pit, his soul once again abandoned to the grave.

But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”
The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
Genesis 40:14-15, 23

Left with nothing but memories of the past, his former dreams came back to taunt him. He vaguely remembered a time when he had assumed that his life would be one of security and comfort, when he had actually aspired to honor and greatness. How could he have been so naïve as to believe that everything turned out good in the end for the righteous? Any last shreds of those ideals were cruelly crushed as he was once again used and forgotten. The clang of the prison door behind Pharaoh’s cupbearer sounded the death-knell on Joseph’s last dream.

The death of our dreams gives rise to God’s.

A black curtain of hopelessness shrouded his soul. The dark wall of an empty, meaningless future barred his way, mocking any attempts to imagine his way around it.

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck.
Genesis 41:41-42

Joseph’s dreams had died. But God’s dreams for him were finally ready to be resurrected. Little could he know the dream God would send to Pharaoh, the position of fame and power that he would be appointed to, or the ways in which God would fulfill each one of his former dreams beyond his wildest imagination. His father’s multicolored robe replaced by Pharaoh’s finest linen. His dream of bowing sheaths fulfilled by his brothers’ kneeling plea for grain. His vision of being adoringly surrounded by a family of celestial beings finally realized with the incredible relocation of his whole family to Egypt.

Trauma leaves us in the dark, devoid of all the certainties on which we based our past, bereft of all the dreams towards which we oriented our future. But the death of our dreams gives rise to God’s. The removal of our plans makes room for His. As bewilderingly futureless as the post-traumatic prison may seem, it is a gateway to a greater glory on the other side. The grave will give way to new life. Our dead dreams will be resurrected into newborn realities.

Legal Aliens

Passing through U.K. customs and immigration recently, I witnessed a scene that redefined “identity crisis.” A young, middle-eastern family was pulled aside, frantically searching their many documents for whatever evidence they could muster that would convince the authorities to allow them in. Their young son sat waiting in a wheelchair while his parents helplessly pled their case with the security guard. Children’s hospital records, a scheduled follow-up appointment, legal travel documents: all fell short of gaining them entrance apart from an acceptable nationality or a valid visa.

Remembering my alien status humbles me, reminding me that I have no more right to belong than anyone else does.

I felt the weight of their rejection as I produced my dependent’s residence card and, after answering a few simple questions about my husband’s work, was casually waved through. What was the difference between us? Both of us were aliens here, yet I had immediate acceptance because of my relationship to someone else. The contrast in our life situations got me thinking about my identity.

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:12-13

The fact is that I’m an outsider. Years of crossing borders and living as a foreigner have made me deeply aware of the privilege of belonging. What locals take for granted, I cannot; so Paul’s writings about being aliens and strangers from God hit home with me. Fear of rejection. Anxiety over fitting in. Constant awareness that we live by others’ leave, a permission that can be rightfully revoked at any time.

The Syro-Phonecian mother felt it as she begged Jesus for a share in the crumb benefits that fell under the citizens’ table. The Samaritan woman resented it as she argued with Him about access rights to God. The Ethiopian eunuch struggled under the weight of it as he returned home, painfully aware of his exclusion from God’s house.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Ephesians 2:14-18

But thankfully, God’s immigration laws have changed. He has made a way for everyone to gain entrance into His kingdom. Jesus tore down the walls, opened the borders, and called out an invitation for all to come in. Medical conditions. Unemployment. Criminal record. Dodgy connections. None of these disqualify us from access to His realm, if we have a relationship with Someone on the inside. Jesus’ blood provides us with the dependent card that we need to clear security.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…
Ephesians 2:19

Experiences of exclusion make an invitation to belong all the more valuable. They also turn the tables on any sense of entitlement or superiority I may have over others. Remembering my alien status humbles me, reminding me that I have no more right to belong than anyone else does, whether that citizenship is in the kingdom of God or in a particular country on earth.

…even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”
Romans 9:24-25

As I listen to Christian reactions to the waves of immigrants seeking to gain entrance here in the U.K. and across the sea in the U.S.A., I wonder if it wouldn’t help us all to remember our true identity as aliens. We are quick to recall that we are aliens in this world, but somehow we forget that we were once aliens to the nation of God’s people, too. We have become legal citizens in His Kingdom only through the sacrificial kindness of its primary Resident. We did not deserve the insider status granted to us, nor do we have any ongoing claim to it apart from His grace. That grace does not come cheaply, nor does our citizenship come without requirements (which we consistently fail to meet), but that doesn’t stop God from welcoming us into His community.

Now we as Christians get the opportunity to live out this gospel before others in an imminently tangible way, to reflect His love to the nations who are rapidly becoming our neighbors. After all, isn’t that the commission extended to all naturalized citizens of His kingdom?

Body Interrupted

Mind over matter. Reason regulating emotion. These mantras defined how I approached my life, until it was interrupted by trauma.

I certainly hadn’t anticipated the events that overpowered my body. The fact that they happened to me was a harsh enough reality to deal with. But what I never would have expected was the way they continued to overwhelm my soul.

During the months following the attacks, I kept encountering reactions within myself that I just couldn’t control or make sense of. The neckline of my T-shirt brushing against my throat would send me into a cold panic. The slightest body chill would cause me to curl up into a tight ball and shake violently. A hearty laugh with old friends quickly dissolved into body-wracking tears. The adrenaline rush of an adventure park transformed a fun family outing into a personal nightmare, leaving me curled up on the backseat of our car moaning and sobbing uncontrollably.

The nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I control this? This was not the way that I wanted to feel or behave, but no amount of will power could make it stop. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, the nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

Somehow I felt that as a Christian, I should be better equipped to deal with trauma. Shouldn’t the indwelling of God’s Spirit enable me to be more self- controlled than this? How could my train-wreck of emotions and their obvious effect on my physical frame bring Him glory? Messy and desperate, I searched His Word for any sort of precedent for what I was experiencing.

And I found it. Many of God’s servants had faced overwhelming circumstances, ones greater than what their physical and emotional frames could handle. Elijah hid away in a cave and begged God to let him die. Joseph wept uncontrollably. David struggled to find words that could express his anguish. And Daniel took to his bed and stayed there for a season, unable to move or function despite his pressing responsibilities.

“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.
I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.” …
As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. “Son of man,” he said to me, “understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.” While he was speaking to me, I was in a deep sleep, with my face to the ground. Then he touched me and raised me to my feet.
Daniel 7:15,28; 8:17-18

What surprised me most about Daniel’s story was the source of his trauma. Daniel was no physical or emotional wimp! Refusing orders. Confronting executioners. Delivering treacherous messages. Facing down lions. He had repeatedly stared death in the face, unflinching in his resolve to honor God. Yet when faced with visions from God too glorious and terrifying for any mortal to comprehend, Daniel crumpled.

I, Daniel, was exhausted and lay ill for several days. Then I got up and went about the king’s business. I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding.
Daniel 8:27

The limits of his mortal frame had been exceeded. Daniel had seen and experienced things beyond his emotional ability to cope, and that trauma manifested itself in very real physical symptoms. The brave soldier physically incapacitated. The steadfast counselor emotionally undone. Despite the strength of his character, despite the depth of his faith, Daniel was rendered temporarily useless by the force of trauma.

There are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences.

Clearly, Daniel’s post-traumatic symptoms were not evidence of some weakness that he should have been able to overcome. They were a testimony of the enormity of the burden God had entrusted him to carry. But what I could readily see and accept in Daniel’s story took me a bit longer to apply to my own.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:15-16

I had to come to grips with the fact that my mind is not fully my body’s master, that there are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences. I found solace in the company of my spiritual ancestors, reliving their stories with newfound understanding. But even more I found solace in the God who knit us all together.

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:13-14

God knew my frame when I could not make sense of it. He had designed its limits and He had ordained experiences for me in which they had been exceeded. For much longer than Daniel’s “several days,” I continued to be a physical and emotional mess, but at least I was God’s mess. Like a child’s broken toy, I laid myself in my Father’s hands, trusting that He could fix what was broken. And in time He did.

His hands held my body. His love governed my soul.

Patriotism Revisited

I’m probably the worst person to ask about patriotism. With a Jamaican-American husband, a teenaged daughter who recently delivered a rhetorical speech on the evils of nationalism, a bagpipe-blowing son who is deeply disappointed over being too young to vote in Scotland’s upcoming independence referendum, and a youngest who still defines her national boundaries by the walls of whatever building we currently call home, I am pretty mixed up. For years I have felt a growing schizophrenia in myself over the question of loyalty to a particular country.

On one hand, I come from a military family and grew up in a military community, populated by men and women who have devoted their lives to serving their country with sacrifice and excellence. Love for them inspires me to love my country.

My neighbor is the person next to me. My obligation is to the nation with which I am connected, whether by birth or by residence or by media awareness.

On the other hand, I have spent most of my adult life abroad, living among and serving people of other nations. I have come to identify with their concerns and causes so fully that I often forget that I belong to somewhere else. Love for them compels me to love their countries.

But when there is a conflict of interest, whose side do I take? What does patriotism look like for a Christian?

Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
2 Kings 5:2-3

I am not alone in this dilemma. The Scriptures abound with examples of dual allegiances and competing loyalties. Often those who found themselves in these tricky positions were there apart from their own choice. For the Jewish slave girl who served Naaman the Syrian, the fact that her master had invaded her nation, killed many of her people, and carried her off as a captive did not stop her from legitimately caring about his needs. In fact, her compassionate attempt to help him find a cure for his leprosy almost resulted in another war between his nation and hers!

Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground.
“You have saved our lives,” they said. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”
Genesis 47:23, 25

Joseph, another slave expatriated against his will, served his Egyptian masters so well that he effectively consolidated their political and economic position as a superpower. It would have been one thing to faithfully but passively do what Pharaoh asked of him. But Joseph carried out his duty with such excellence that soon he had all of Egypt and its neighboring nations, including his own, literally eating out of Pharaoh’s hand.

Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.
Daniel 6:3-4

Perhaps the clearest example comes in Daniel, noble patriot to his own country but dedicated servant to another. Carried off as a prisoner of war to Babylon, he never left behind his loyalty to his God or his people, but nor did that hinder his faithfulness in serving his conquering kings. Administering justice. Managing the economy. Interpreting dreams. Giving wise political advice. Daniel’s faithfulness to God compelled him to work hard for the cause of the country in which he had been planted, despite its status as his own country’s mortal enemy. And in time he, like Joseph and like Esther, was able to use his insider status to help his own people at a critical moment in their history, in a pivotal “such a time as this.”

Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men…
Matthew 22:21, 39-40; Ephesians 6:5, 7

As I look at the life examples of these godly people, I see how they were each marked by the love that Jesus calls us all to exhibit towards our neighbors. I imagine Jesus’ instruction to pay taxes to Caesar rattled the patriotic pride of His fellow Jews. Assist the foreign oppressor in his rule of their nation? And yet that is precisely what He was telling them to do, twined with the perspective that everything done in love for others is ultimately done in service to God.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. … But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. … “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Luke 10:29-30, 33, 36

And this leads me right back to my question about patriotism. To whom do I belong? To whom am I obligated to love and serve, sacrifice and submit? I suppose the answer lies in Jesus response to the expert Jewish lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Interestingly, Jesus laid His finger right on the man’s patriotic bias by telling a story with a Samaritan hero. An unwelcome immigrant held up as a model of civic duty? But Jesus‘ point remains the same.

My neighbor is the person next to me. My obligation is to the individual whose needs I am aware of, the community whose dynamics I play a part in, the nation with which I am connected, whether by birth or by residence or by media awareness.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 2:19; 4:16

This Fourth of July I will celebrate the land where I was born, the country that so many of my loved ones have sacrificially served. But my love for the people of America does not eclipse my love for the people of the nations in the rest of the world. I am American, with all the pride and shame that comes with the history of my nation. But first and foremost, I am a member of the body of Christ, part of the holy nation that spans every political border and ethnic divide. To that I wholeheartedly pledge my allegiance.