Tag Archives: dignity

The “Who am I to God?” of Abuse—From Pawn to Power through the Path of the Cross

IMG_3865I saw another one today. As I passed by on my morning run, she stood on the side of the road waiting for a bus, freshly groomed and tastefully dressed for going out into public. But the beautiful hair and clothes failed to hide her hideously disfigured face, bearing the characteristic pulverized look of someone whose features have been dissolved by acid. What this woman’s story is and how she has survived such a vicious attack on her womanhood I cannot say, but she bears the scars (quite literally) of her abuse for the whole world to see and never forget.

Somehow the sight of her grotesquely marred beauty reminds me of the high-powered civil rights attorney whom I met over dinner in a neighboring country last week. Her scars may not be visible to the human eye, but the lingering effects of childhood abuse continue to haunt her as she bravely battles for a relationship with the God who didn’t protect her. Beyond the ongoing fear of the same thing (or the next disaster) occurring again, she wrestles with the question of God’s involvement in her torment. Was He absent, uncaring, or simply using her distress to create a better story for her to testify to His grace? Even with the last option, she is left with a god who is little different from her abuser, callously using her for his purposes despite the damage it would cause her.

Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive.
For this is what the LORD says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.”
Isaiah 52:1-3

As I wrestle again with the deep theological angst to which abuse gives rise, I can’t escape the story of Jesus’ abuse and the way Scripture repeatedly weaves it through the stories of other abused individuals (and cities, as the case may be). Isaiah calls out to Jerusalem, referring to her in terms of a woman who has been penetrated, defiled, and held captive in fear and shame. He picks up the refrain of her lament (echoed in Psalm 44:11-12), acknowledging that she was tossed out and sold for nothing but also echoing the promise that her redemption will occur in an equally baffling manner.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
Isaiah 52:7,9

And what is this good news that the evangel’s feet so eagerly carry to the bruised, battered woman sitting abandoned in exile? Your God still reigns. He is neither bound by the helplessness that overwhelms you nor heartless towards the tears you are too numb to shed. He is still in control and His reign is one of both sovereign power and of tender compassion.

But how does that news help the one whom He seemed to abandon?

Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness— so he will sprinkle many nations,and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living…

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,and he will divide the spoils with the strong,because he poured out his life unto death…
Isaiah 52:14-15; 53:3-4, 8, 11-12

Isaiah leaps straight from this hope-inspiring call into a gut-wrenching description of the depths of abuse and abandonment that God’s Righteous One would experience. His face would be pulverized beyond recognition; His body stripped, beaten, flayed, and pierced until it could hardly be compared to a human form, much less the glorious image of the invisible God. The wrongness of what would be done to Him would not be protested by His contemporaries. Rather, He would suffer this abuse in silence, betrayed by His friends, ignored or despised by the public, and ultimately feeling forsaken by God.

And yet Isaiah’s description doesn’t stop there. It points forward to the fruit of this Victim’s suffering, the deeply satisfying vindication and glorification that would come as a result of all that He had endured. Perhaps most amazingly of all, that fruit would involve not just His exaltation to the throne of God and the adoringly bent knees of kings and angels en masse, but it would also include the healing, consolation, and exaltation of the broken woman spoken of in Isaiah’s earlier chapter.

By His stripes she would be healed. His suffering would be God’s reply to her agonized questions of who she was to Him. Far from the insignificant pawn or the castoff slave girl that her experience had led her to believe she was, she was the one for whom He would give Himself. He would personally shoulder her grief and take her abuse on Himself. But he would not stop there, leaving her permanently bowed at the foot of the cross having received forgiveness from her sins but still broken by the sins of others.

“Sing, barren woman… “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes… “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

“Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise,your foundations with lapis lazuli. 12 I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.

…no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1-4, 11, 17

Isaiah casts the spotlight back on the desolate woman, calling her forth to sing, to expand her sphere of influence, and to step up into the powerful position that God is preparing for her, too. Just as He will resurrect the Suffering Servant and exalt Him to a position of power and glory, He will turn the woman’s shame into glory, personally vindicating her before her abusers and rebuilding her to a level of beauty and status greater than she ever knew before.

As I zoom out again to the myriad of men and women who have suffered abuse in this world, Isaiah’s powerful prophetic words (many of which have already been so poignantly fulfilled) grip me with a new level of hope and vision. They confront the small-minded comfort to which I have clung, raising my eyes to the vision of empowered enthronement that God has for all of His beleaguered sons and daughters. His goal is not just His glory at our expense. Nor is it a warm blanket tenderly wrapped around trembling survivors. He responds to the pain of our past, the terror of our present, and the despair of our future by personally blazing a path through the same circumstances, but which ends in a radically different destination than human experience would teach us to expect.

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As we follow in the footsteps of our Lord, sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings even as He entered into ours, this path leads us to the splendor and strength that Isaiah called broken Jerusalem to rise up and embrace. This is who we are to God, and this is the destiny for which He has been preparing His suffering servants all along.

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The Suffering Credential

IMG_0307I’m sitting alone in an urbane, international airport, but my mind is still with the rural, northern Nigerian pastors whom I’ve been with all week. Something about these men—their lives, their testimony, and the zeal with which they serve God despite all the odds—commands my respect.

Ironically, one of the themes of our time together was the role of suffering in the life of a believer and, in particular, in the life of a minister. I felt grossly inadequate teaching this particular audience about the spiritually developmental benefits of suffering. Unlike when I present this message to a western Christian audience, my point became less of an exhortation to embrace suffering and more of an affirmation to those who already have. These pastors face the daily threat of their daughters being kidnapped as prize-brides for Muslim men and of their newly converted church members being assaulted or killed by their former communities. Diocesan meetings often concern how they can hide their at-risk daughters or members in each others’ homes as they bear together their heavy financial and safety risks.

Pastor's children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
Pastor’s children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
My affirmation fell on parched soil. Compared to their colleagues in the widely popular prosperity churches (who generally avoid rural, predominantly Muslim areas for their ministry contexts), these humble servants of God feel like losers. Their trousers are ripped from repeated attempts to kick-start their decrepit motor bikes, their wives have to make soap and sell whatever they can to keep food in the childrens’ mouths, and their success rates in church growth have hardly put them on the map.

But I couldn’t help mentally making the comparison between these African church leaders and their Western colleagues, too. They lack the academic credentialing and rigorous theological training that the Western church values as a fundamental qualifier for pastoral ministry. This is not to say their hunger for further knowledge is lacking (it’s anything but), but rather that opportunities to acquire it are rare prizes. And yet their opportunities abound for acquiring a very different sort of ministry credential.

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
…the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

When questioned by the Jews about His own ministry credentials, Jesus pointed to His upcoming suffering. He could have bragged about His personal line with the Father or performed a few exciting miracles. But instead He pointed to the greatest miracle of all: His willingness to suffer for a cause that He valued more than His life. Of course the capstone of that miracle was the fact that He would rise from His suffering, but without death there would be no resurrection.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God…
2 Corinthians 6:3-7

Paul, too, defended the credibility of his ministry by pointing to his own suffering. The validation of his right to speak so authoritatively was how much he had endured for the sake of his message. Yes, the message was truth whether or not its bearer had been persecuted for it, but the proof of its worth and the depth of his ability to deliver it were forged in the fires of suffering. This minister was able to comfort because he had been comforted. He had the right to call others to persevere under severe trials because he had already done the same. The knowledge of his book learning had taken on a third dimension of messy life experience, and that became his leading credential.

As I consider the massive gap between the church in the West and the church in Africa, I think we have much to offer each other. I’m delighted to be a small part of bringing some of our training in Biblical knowledge and study skills to the Global South, as a number of other Western groups and churches are doing. But I think we also need a good dose of what our African and Asian contemporaries have to offer. Their suffering has earned them a right to be listened to and respected. It has also given them insights into God and His Word that we cannot see until we share similar experiences.

We may have more educational credentials. But they far outrank us in the suffering credential. Perhaps we would do well to request their help in our area of need.

The Dance of the Eunuchs

attachmentLunchtime conversations in our home are rarely conventional. In response to a series of questions my children had about bisexuals, trans-genders, and eunuchs, I recently found myself telling the story of the time a gang of eunuchs showed up at our house to dance.

In the region of South Asia where we lived, eunuchs held a despised but critical position in society. Whether by birth or by the hands of men, their condition disqualified them from normal family life. Instead, they were raised by fellow eunuchs who dressed like women and made their living by singing and dancing at the birth of each new baby in the community.

Somehow the idea of hurting sexual misfits is easier to embrace than the reality.

My neighbors had told me stories of these intimidating she-men, how they wielded their power to bless vulnerable infants in order to extract gifts of food, money, and clothes from terrified families. If you didn’t give them what they wanted they could become quite aggressive and even turn their blessing into a curse on your child! So of course when a gang of heavily made up, sari-clad men showed up at our door, I politely but firmly did everything I could to avoid a debacle of dancing eunuchs celebrating the birth of my newborn son.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Acts 8:26-31

But repeating the story these thirteen years later, I’m not so satisfied with my response to them. I’m soberingly reminded of another eunuch who was turned away by people but lovingly pursued by God.

What attracted a sexually-altered Gentile foreigner to even attempt entry into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem is beyond me, especially considering he may have encountered prohibitions against “his kind” in his reading of the Old Testament. Obviously it hadn’t gone well. Far from the soul filling, heart-renewing experience that temple worship was meant to be, this man was leaving frustrated, confused, and empty.

The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Acts 8:32-34

But he hadn’t quit on his quest. A passage of Scripture had gripped his heart, and even the humiliation of having come so far for nothing did not deter him from pursuing it. Who was this Suffering Servant whose description matched his own so miraculously: someone who had been forced to submit to a humiliating “shearing,” who had been deprived of his dignity and right to justice, and who consequently would never experience the social honor or personal joy of being able to have children?

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied…
Isaiah 53:10-11

If there was hope for such a Man, then there was hope for him. Could it be that God would accept this crushed half-a-man after all and turn his degradation into celebration? Was there some way in which God could transform his dried-up, socially cut-off self into a flourishing, reproducing member of a community?

And the good news that God sent Phillip to share was yes to all the above.

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant–to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
Isaiah 56:3-5

This story makes me weep with relief and joy over the grace God would show to a wounded outcaste. And yet where was that compassion when the band of eunuchs showed up at my door?

Somehow the idea of hurting sexual misfits is easier to embrace than the reality. We have come a long way in raising awareness about the injustice that forces many prostitutes into the sex industry and the shame that keeps them there. But how many of us have invited a prostitute over for tea? Similarly, I think we have a long way to go in compassionately seeking to understand the dynamics at work behind people’s aberrant sexual preferences and in reaching out in genuine love.

I detest the way I allowed my fear and discomfort to stand in the way of loving those whom Jesus came to restore.

The good news that God commissions us to share is yes to all the above.

My children asked me what I would do differently now, if I could. I wish I could go back and invite the eunuchs in for a cup of chai and serve them some of the celebratory sweets essential for all such occasions. I wish I could prepare bags of lentils and rice as a thank you gift for their coming (even if I did decline their services). But most importantly, I wish I could look them in the eye and give them the dignity of being treated like any other person on the planet: a loved sinner for whom grace is available.

I may not get another chance with the dancing eunuchs, but I suspect that more opportunities surround me than my eyes (or heart) have been open to.

May God find me worthy in how I respond.

A Prayer for the Persecuted

"Sanctuary" by Cadi Clark
“Sanctuary”
by Cadi Clark
What do rape victims and the persecuted church have in common?

Both have faced the invasion and desecration of God’s Temple. Both have survived atrocities that leave them scarred and damaged. And both are left with some serious questions about why God didn’t protect them from evil men.

Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross echoes through the voices of the Psalms, some in response to national disaster and other in response to personal abuse. This is the same question that I have encountered in counseling sexually abused women and in interacting with Nigerian Christian leaders. The inevitable conclusion their hearts struggle not to feel is that God has somehow forsaken them.

Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed– Mount Zion, where you dwelt. Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins, all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.
Psalm 74:1-3

How can they not take it personally? God’s Word has set them up with certain expectations that they are valuable in His sight and therefore worth protecting. They could even tell stories from the past of how He did deliver and honor them, including their testimony of salvation. But if they are still so precious to Him, then how in the world could He stand by and watch their devastation?

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
74:4-7

What hurts deeper than the physical assaults they have endured is the sense of violation and desecration that remains. Their bodies are no longer their own; their sacred places have been contaminated. The very place where they communed with God has been damaged, hindering their ability to share that intimacy with Him again.

They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!” They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land. We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.
74:8-9

How could God allow that level of destruction? Physical suffering is one thing, but that He would permit such an assault on their souls seems unthinkable. Doesn’t He want to have relationship with them? If so, then why didn’t He draw the line around how far the enemy could go in attacking them?

How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
74:10-11

The spiritual discouragement that settles in seems like it might be the new normal. It seems the enemy got what they wanted after all. Is God really going to let them get away with this? If so, that sends a pretty loud message to His devastated people. He must be angry with them. He must have rejected them. If God won’t act on their behalf, there’s not much point in going on.

But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. …It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.
74:12-17

A brief survey of history reminds them that this isn’t the first time God’s people have faced opposition. And always before He has been the sort of leader who uses His power to rescue, defend, and make things right. If that’s how He’s done it in the past, then surely there is hope that He will do it again today.

Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O LORD, how foolish people have reviled your name. Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
74:18-19

With slightly renewed confidence in their relationship with God, devastated cries of abandonment can shift to bold pleas for help. Their world not longer feels like a safe place and they are still defined by the mockery and abuse that were heaped on them. But if God will acknowledge the depths of their ruin and address it, there is hope that they may yet be restored.

Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long.
74:20-22

After all, they are His people! He is the one who reached out to them in love in the first place and established a relationship with them. They bear His image and His name. Any mistreatment of them is actually an assault on their God. His honor is on the line as much as theirs. Because they are His beloved people, they are His cause to defend and to promote.

May our response to their predicament never give them cause to doubt whether God still cares.

Some of us can relate with this prayer more personally than others, but all of us should join in praying it. Any attack on a part of His Temple is an attack on the whole. So we stand with the battered church around the world in praying for God to rise up and restore them. And we stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters here at home, unwilling to settle for the disgrace that has been heaped on them.

May our response to their predicament never give them cause to doubt whether God still cares.

Does He Even Have a Name?

The story of the Gadarene Demoniac (whom I prefer to call the Gadarene Disciple) became deeply personal for me a number of years ago. This man, whose story had formerly seemed bizarre beyond relevance to me, became a beacon of hope for me and for others like me who have experienced severe demonic oppression. What I love about the way this author portrays him is that she has taken the time to humanize him, to restore the dignity that was so brutally stolen from him by the malice of evil spirits and the ignorance of fearful people. Just as Jesus looked beyond the grotesque form and bizarre behavior to connect with the image of God still alive in him, I pray that we as His representatives on earth will look at others with the same love.

Messy images.

Glorious hope.

Jesus My Healer

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As he (Jesus) stepped out onto land, a madman from town met him; he was a victim of demons. He hadn’t worn clothes for a long time, nor lived at home; he lived in the cemetery.

Luke 8:27

He was somebody before the demons victimized him. We aren’t told his name or what his life was like. But I would like to humanize him if possible. I suspect he was a man of significance; a significance he didn’t even recognize. Oh, it might not have been financial, though it could have been. Maybe it was influence; maybe he was a man that people respected, looked up to, enjoyed knowing. Maybe he had a wife and kids and a nice livelihood that enabled him to provide for them. We aren’t told these things.

Whatever his life was, it wasn’t anymore. Whatever his influence may have been, it was no more. The…

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Antidote for a Servaholic

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Every once in a while I need to stop and take an upside-down theological exam. I’m not talking about a written checklist or statement of faith. I mean the sort of life evaluation in which I check my principles by my practice. How does my lifestyle betray what I truly believe?

If I am brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m a servaholic. I find my kudos in working hard in service to God. I eat, sleep, work, and pray the Kingdom, finding it difficult to rest until it has come on earth as it is in Heaven. Who would fault me for that? And yet when I examine the assumptions that drive much of what I do, I see how very off I am in my understanding of what God wants of me.

I feel more comfortable waiting tables at the party than chilling out with the guests.

I am surprised to discover it of myself, but I am the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I don’t resent all those younger brothers who have taken God for granted and have blown their time and resources on pursuing worldly pleasure. I know well enough that those pleasures would never satisfy me and I am delighted when they come back to the Father whom I love and serve.

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
Luke 15:28-29

The older brother and I share a different problem. We are afflicted with a faulty perception of ourselves and of the Father whom we serve. Without realizing it, we keep turning ourselves into His slaves instead of His sons. We singlehandedly shoulder the burden of all that needs to be done for Him, unintentionally stiff-arming Him from sharing it with us. We wear ourselves out doing for Him what He never intended us to carry alone. No wonder His yoke seems demanding and His burden anything but light.

I run into this the most when I try to stop and have fun. I can’t. I don’t know how to. I know how to work. I have learned how to weep with those who weep. But in a world of unmitigated suffering and unfinished tasks, I am at a loss when it comes time to party with those who rejoice.

As a slave I may surrender my body,
but as a son I surrender my heart.

So when my Father invites me in to celebrate with Him, I balk outside the party. Like Martha, I feel more comfortable waiting tables at the party than chilling out with the guests. But that is not where He is content to leave me.

” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”
Luke 15:31-32

God doesn’t want me as His slave. That’s not why He adopted me. What pleases Him is not my productivity nor my righteous rule-keeping. It is my sharing with Him all that He has and all that He is. He is not a rigid task-master, smiling only after the full harvest of the kingdom has been brought in. He is my Father, inviting me to run into His arms and be a part of His happiness just as all the younger brothers are.

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “”Abba”, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

…But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
Galatians 4:6-9

A part of me still hesitates. What if I get so relaxed in simply enjoying my Father’s party that I become lazy and presumptuous? Don’t I need some controls to keep me on task in the work He has given me to do?

But when I examine my hang-ups a little closer, I realize that they all have to do with control. As a slave I may surrender my body, but as a son I will have to surrender my heart. God is raising the stakes on our relationship. Can I trust His Spirit to govern me from within or will I still insist on my own rigid self-management?

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
Galatians 3:3

O foolish child that I am! Why would I want to remain in this exhausting, never-ending servitude? Why would I resist the invitation to come in and enjoy the good things my Father wants to share with me?

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. … When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
Luke 15:22-25

So what is the prescription for a recovering servaholic? I think I need to observe 40 days of anti-Lent, a season in which I practice a daily dose of pleasure. The point is not to try to have fun apart from the Father, a mistake which both younger and older brothers tend to make. Rather I want to daily set aside time, resources, and space to enjoy something with God.

God liberates His servaholic child
with an invitation to celebration.

Good-looking clothes. Delicious food. Beautiful music. Frivolous dancing. These are the things that the Father prescribed for both of his wayward sons.

Frolics in the sunshine. Lazy moments of lying around. Extra cream in my coffee. Reading a book just for the fun of it. This is the sort of celebration that He is inviting me into, as well.

Who knew pleasure could be a spiritual discipline?

Sweeter than Revenge

nail-in-handWhat’s wrong with wanting revenge? Isn’t revenge merely the fair response to injustice, a way of affirming the value of the person who has been wronged? When our dignity has been violated, we need something to restore it. Without revenge, we are left with the message that we are worth no more than the way we were treated.

And yet Jesus calls us to forgive.

For the longest time I have been struggling with how to hold these two together. Asking a woman who has been beaten or raped to forgive her abusers seems to me to add insult to injury. Requiring a man who has been maligned or berated to turn the other cheek seems to me to reinforce his degradation. What happened to affirming the dignity of the image of God within each person? Isn’t it right to defend that image?

And yet forgiveness means giving up our right to revenge.

Heartfelt forgiveness is no more a matter of one-time, personal choice than emotional healing is.

I suppose my hang-up over the common Christian assumptions about forgiveness is that they seem to deny the value of the person who has been hurt, to overlook the need for their worth to be reaffirmed. Having personally struggled with the profound shame that follows abuse, I can’t accept the trite answer that forgiveness is simply choosing to forget about the hurt. If only it were that simple! But heartfelt forgiveness is no more a matter of one-time, personal choice than emotional healing is.

So I am left with the question: How can a damaged person forgive while still holding on to any scrap of self-worth? In my heart I’ve known that revenge isn’t really the best way to re-establish damaged dignity, but at least it is a start. Revenge solves the problem with corresponding negativity. But is there a positive way to receive the affirmation we so desperately need?

And once again, Jesus leads the way in showing how it is done.

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Psalm 22:6-10

Talk about a degraded image of God! At the end of a lifetime of criticism and questioning. After an eternal night of being tortured and molested. Pulverized. Victimized. Ridiculed. Rejected. In the midst of agony and mockery on the cross, He neither sought His abusers degradation nor gave in to His own.

Jesus could forgive those who tore Him down because His Father kept building Him up. Descending doves. Assuring affirmations. Repeatedly the Father had reminded Him of how valued He was, firmly establishing Him in His status as God’s beloved Son.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Colossians 3:12-13
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us…
Ephesians 4:32-5:1

And these are the same affirmations embedded in the multiple texts that call us to forgive. Dearly beloved children. Cherished people. God is not calling us to let go of our worth; He is leading us to assert our position as His kids by responding to others the way He responds to us. Forgiveness based on our relationship with Him is not further degradation; it is proof of our glorification.

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:19-21

And lest we worry that in embracing this higher call our abusers will somehow get the message that the way they treated us was OK, our Father reassures us. He will make sure we are avenged. In the meantime, we get the pleasure of exercising our freedom from being defined by how others treat us. We get to repay their evil with good, their cruelty with kindness, because we know who we are to God.

Forgiveness based on our relationship with God is not further degradation;
it is proof of our glorification.

Healing from emotional wounds takes time. Forgiveness does not come easy nor is it achieved overnight. But I have found that as I grow in my security as a treasured child of God, my need for revenge is steadily dropping away. Instead I find myself increasingly consumed by a greater desire: to receive and reflect my Father’s love.

Sweet revenge. Sweeter love.

Remember.

What does Holy Week have to do with abuse? Everything. Meditating on Jesus’ experience of abuse illumines the path of healing from our own experiences of abuse. It also invites us to enter into a deeper, more significant relationship with Him.

Painful memories. Violent memories. Memories that won’t go away and leave me alone.

Voices that reverberate through my mind. Undermining questions. Devastating accusations.
“How dare you go against us! Who do you think you are? ”
“You son of a devil. You are nothing.”
“Liar! No one cares about you. Where is your daddy now?”
“Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?”

He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. Lamentations 3:13-16

Sensations that travel through my body. A gentle kiss on my cheek. The harsh blow that followed. Cold chains on my wrists. Hot welts on my back. Wet spit hitting my face. Dry thorns piercing my scalp. Blows and more blows. Split lip. Pierced hands. Gasping for breath. Struggling to survive.

I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.” I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Lamentations 3:17-20

Experiences that stay with me. Betrayal. He was one of my trusted friends. Denial. He was my best friend. Mockery. No one came to my defense. Violation. They took off all my clothes, molested me, and strung me out naked for everyone to see. They stripped away my glory, leaving me defiled, degraded, and desolate.

My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the LORD looks down from heaven and sees. Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Lamentations 3:49-50; 5:1

Look on my pain, oh God! Remember all that I have been through. I won’t stop bringing it up until you acknowledge the wrong that was done to me. My body was broken. My spirit was crushed. My scars continue to bear witness.

But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you… You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry … in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more. Psalm 10:14, 17-18

But even in the midst of my unresolved pain, I have hope. I look to you, because I know you will make it right. You saw all that they did to me. You heard all that they said about me. And you will vindicate me. Into your hands I commit my spirit.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death. Mark 14:61-64

I cling to the truth that you will you will give back all that has been taken from me. You will rectify my wounds. You will heal my memories. You will give me the spot right beside you, with even greater dignity and honor than I had before. And you will show off my glory for all to see, both to shame those who degraded it and to delight those who revel in it.

“… do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19 “…and you will be my witnesses…” Acts 1:8

But even as I wait on you, I want friends who will be part of the process. When they remember my suffering, they validate my experience. When they speak the truth about me before those who doubt or question, they restore my honor. When they praise me with their lips, they bless my heart.

In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
Revelation 5:12-13

Whose Side is God On?

This true story says it best…

Pregnant. Battered. Alone. The woman was running away, but to what? Her whole life she had been controlled by others. Sold into slavery as a girl. Carried off to a foreign country by strange owners. Forced to have sex with an already-married man. Bearing his child, but only to have to give it over at birth. Now violently humiliated by his jealous wife. She couldn’t take it anymore; she had to escape. But she had nowhere to go, no one to help her.

As the miles dragged on, her mind whirred towards the future. Who was she anyway? She was a possession, her identity completely bound up in those who owned her. Apart from them, she was just a runaway slave, the baby within her a bastard child. What future could she possibly hope for? What would become of her, of this child within her? Frazzled and shaken, she pulled off the road into a rest area.

A soothing creek ran undisturbed by the side of the road, its peaceful gurgle a welcome relief from the turmoil in her soul. She sat down to rest in solitude. But she had not gone unnoticed.

“Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”
Genesis 16:8

Her heart plunged into her stomach. She had been seen! Who had come all this way in search of her? An angel! She should have known better. Abraham and Sarai were important people, very special to their God. She was carrying their baby; she herself was their property. Of course He would never let her get away with running away from them. He was on their side. He was here to protect their best interests. Was there no one out there to protect hers?

Broken and helpless, Hagar didn’t even try to resist.

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.”

Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”
Genesis 16:8-9

Naturally, God was on their side. They were the righteous ones; she was the one who was out of line. After all, she was the one who had let her pregnancy go to her head. She was just a little slave girl who had gotten cheeky with her mistress, thinking that perhaps now that she was carrying Abraham’s child she should be treated with a little more respect. Who had she been fooling, thinking that she deserved to be treated better? God would probably say that she had brought Sarai’s abuse on herself with her uppity attitude. God had made her their slave, and God was here to make sure she stayed in her place. Hagar resigned herself to her fate. Who could argue with God?

God was not there to condone her leaders’ actions. He was there because she had been wronged.

But the angel wasn’t finished. God was not there to condone her leaders’ actions. They may be His chosen people, but that did not give them the right to treat her the way they had. She, too, was His creature, made in His image and loved by Him. He was there because He had noticed her plight. He had seen her misery, and He was moved to act on her behalf.

The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”
Genesis 16:10

Had Abraham and Sarai’s God just promised a future for her? Her descendants? This was the kind of promise that He made to important people like them, not to insignificant slave girls like herself. This must just be an extension of the covenant God had already made with Abraham. It couldn’t be meant for her, personally.

The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Genesis 16:11-12

Incredible! God was doing this for her. He was making this promise to her, speaking directly to her with the same honor and dignity that He would later bestow on Hannah and Mary, the maidservants of the LORD. A promised son, named in advance by God. Prophecies about his future, his significance, his role.

Why would the God of her abusers do such a great thing for her? Was she really so valuable to Him that He would stand up for her and make restitution for the wrongs she had endured? But He had promised He would. He had seen her. He had come near to her and honored her with this rare glimpse of Himself. Hagar responded in faith.

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
Genesis 16:13