Tag Archives: intimacy

Polarization and The Root of our Identity Wars

My children joke that every few years I go through an identity crisis. They aren’t completely wrong. The upheaval of each international move followed by a change in role and community does give rise to a certain identity angst and its accompanying quest for belonging. Decisions over how to dress and what labels to use in introducing myself give rise to the deeper questions of who I am, from where I derive my value, and with whom I belong.

Without the taproot of a secure connection to God, we are unable to relate securely with each other.

The more I look around, I suspect our society is in the midst of an identity crisis. Whether this crisis is the inevitable aftermath of soul-denying modernism or the product of media-induced hyper-connectivity at the cost of local community, the signs are obvious. We are scrambling to stake out who we are, what matters to us, and with which tribe we belong. Issues such as our opinions on health practices, racial narratives, and political parties suddenly define us more than where we live, to whom we are related, or to Whom we belong. Interestingly, it is not enough for us to simply know these things about ourselves. We feel compelled to make sure that everyone else knows them about us and, while we are at it, that everyone associated with us identifies themselves in the same way. Yet our fierce insistence on our labels only reveals how deeply insecure we really are. 

But what is making us insecure? Why is this new form of tribalism suddenly so urgent that it would transcend our former relationships and suck us in to virtual “position” wars? While recently working with a cohort of Christian leaders in Nigeria, we identified displacement, loss of livelihood, and loss of cultural or religious identity as threats that give rise to oppositional identity. This posture of “my identity at others’ expense” comes from fear of scarcity or loss and leads to distrust, division, hostility, and eventually violence. It doesn’t take much to see the similarity between ethnic conflicts in Nigeria and tribal polarization in America. We erect media barriers, dig positional trenches, and lob slander grenades to preserve an identity that we feel is under threat.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will…

I wonder, however, if the real threat is from within. We don’t know who we are, what gives us value, and to whom we belong. Our identity dysphoria leads us to lash out at anyone whose difference exposes our inner insecurity. Untethered from any deeper sense of meaning, value, or belonging, we frantically lash ourselves to those labels and groups which provide the illusion of a stable identity and community.  

His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in 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. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

The human need for a secure identity is primal. Knowing who we are forms the foundation for interpersonal relationships and social functioning. Years ago I took a seminary class on the book of Ephesians while at the same time discipling a group of South Asian women who were new believers in Christ. They had left behind their former cultural-religious narrative and needed a new sense of history, belonging, and purpose. My professor emphasized the major theme of identity in Ephesians, pointing out Paul’s agenda to root pagan-background Greek Christians in a narrative that would hold them together with their Jewish Christian counterparts. That shed new light on Paul’s labelling them as “God’s holy people in Ephesus,” his retelling of the story of their adoption, inclusion, and eternal purpose, his prayer for them to be rooted and established together in love, and his instructions on how to live in community. This was just the sort of identity formation my South Asian sisters needed. They needed a taproot of secure connection to God and each other if they were to flourish.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Perhaps the same could be said of us. Without the taproot of a secure connection to God, we are unable to relate securely with each other. We need His direct, steady affirmation of love for us. We need to know who we are in His eyes and what we are in His telling of our story. This comes as we sit long in His presence, consume a steady diet of His Media, and imbibe deeply of His Spirit. Deepened intimacy with God produces a security within ourselves that will in turn enable greater elasticity in our engagement with others. 

Far from encountering difference as a form of threat, we will experience it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

As I have learned through my many life transitions, identity crises present a beautiful opportunity to return to our Source and deepen our roots in His love. The questions they raise can lift our eyes to the grand narrative from which we derive our meaning and in which we currently participate. If we know who we are, from where we draw our value, and to Whom we belong, we can be open to those around us, able to receive the gifts and absorb the shocks that come through our interactions. Far from encountering difference as a form of threat, we will experience it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.

In 2021 our tribalism is competing with our identity in Christ, threatening to transcend the unity we share as His Church. Among the saints at Ephesus, just as in the Church of our day, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” does not negate our differences; rather it encompasses them, tethering us all to a shared Center. This is the holy common ground on which we take our stand.

…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 1:3-5, 2:18-20, 3:14-18, 4:1-7, 4:13.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: Sex Scandals and What our Leaders Need

I need this.” Reading the recent investigation on claims of Ravi Zacharias’s sexual misconduct, I was caught by the statement multiple women reported hearing from him.  Having worked with Christian leaders around the world, I hear more in those words than a pick-up line. I hear the plea of men and women caught up in the isolation of their ministry success and feeling desperately in need.

“In need of what?” their admirers may wonder. Beyond fame, fortune, and following, these leaders evidence amazing riches in God’s wisdom and power. If that isn’t enough to satisfy, then what is? Yet so many leaders end up enmeshed in immorality and scandal that news of it is hardly more surprising than that of another dip in the stock market or sighting of a hurricane. Unsurprising, yet damaging, those whose lives they influenced are left to grapple with doubts over what was real and what was not. 

Henri Nouwen, who served in the L’Arche communities founded by now-disgraced Jean Vanier, identified the conditional nature of the world’s love as a source of enslavement, particularly to those in its limelight. Gifted leaders who perform well are elevated to hero status, with the caveat that they consistently meet and exceed expectations. “These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them.  …It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.” 

Ours has become a culture in which leaders are either sanctified or vilified, with very little room for being human. We are familiar with the idea that power corrupts, but we fail to recognize how our image of leaders undermines their capacity to live as beloved children of God, made of weak flesh and in need of ongoing nurture.  This in no way excuses their indecent behavior or abuse of power, nor does it downplay the devastation of broken lives and disillusioned communities left in their wake. But there are multiple forces at play driving good leaders to end up in bad places. To the extent we can recognize and work to change these, we can alter the increasingly familiar narrative of fallen leaders and discredited ministries.

Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses.

Sex scandals among leaders are as old as the Bible.  David’s abusive treatment of Bathsheba fits the pattern perpetuated among leaders from Seattle to Sri Lanka. Taken at face value, his public statement of confession (Psalm 51) reveals a heart that did not intend for things to end up where they did. But the toxic mix of unquestioned authority and pedestalized isolation led this otherwise godly leader to seek his next “high” in the wrong place. For the many like him, fanfare as addictive as a “Like” button can combine with a dizzying height of social expectation to create a lifestyle fueled by a perpetual adrenaline rush. Add to that long work hours, constant travel, and the pressure to perform, and it is no surprise that the Davids of our time suffer from a deep inner hunger.  Their souls are starving, and the quickest “bite” they can grab is a shoddy stand-in for true intimacy, not to mention one of the very lambs they have devoted themselves to shepherding.

Leaders are responsible to safeguard their flocks, their families, and their souls. Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses. Thomas à Kempis’s words, penned long before the invention of global media, point to the need for leaders to regularly step back from the microphone, to abstain from social dialogue, and to engage in guided soul-searching: “No one can safely appear in public who does not enjoy seclusion. No one safely talks but he [she] who gladly keeps silent. No one safely rules but he [she] who is glad to be subordinate.” 

Our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be

But we also have a role to play in safeguarding our leaders. Paul repeatedly requested the loving engagement of the communities that he led, disclosing his weakness and begging their prayers. Whether or not they invite it, our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be. 

That is what our leaders need. Our leaders need us to be Samuels and Nathans who mentor and supply needed guidance, Jonathans who provide intimate friendship and peer support, and Abigails who intervene and call forth the best in them when we see danger ahead.  Only then can we work together to put an end to the blight of scandalous shepherds and victimized sheep.

The Gain in Pain

“What is the benefit of my having this cancer?” My mother voices the question we have both been struggling with over the past few days together. I look over at her weak, post-operative body and wonder why she has to go through this. What is being accomplished through her pain? Where is the value in her suffering, or for that matter, in the suffering of the abused, the poor, the sick, or the relationally miserable?

Suffering deepens our bonds with God and with each other.

When I consider the suffering of the young concubine who was tossed out the door by her cowardly husband, gang-raped to death by a violent mob, and then carved up and distributed to the twelve tribes of Israel, I want to shake my head in disgust over such horrific, unnecessary suffering. What was the point of her going through all that? And yet God’s response to her suffering compels me to take a second look at its significance.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 22:7, 15-16

Jesus entered into her experience. Hundreds of years later He completed her story, walking through the same experiences of rejection, betrayal, physical and sexual abuse, and brutal, unjust death. But the night before He was slaughtered as the Passover Lamb, He explained the significance of His own death with a ritual that re-enacted hers.

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” …
“You are those who have stood by me in my trials.”
Luke 22:19-20, 28

Body broken into pieces and distributed to the twelve. Blood poured out in the place of others’. A solemn charge to remember His sufferings. A sacred call to walk with Him through them.

Jesus communed with that unloved woman by sharing in her suffering. In turn, He invites us to commune with Him by sharing in His sufferings.

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:26
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…
Philippians 3:10

Each time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we relive His experience, and in so doing we enter into deeper relationship with Him. Each time we ourselves suffer, we are afforded the opportunity to walk a mile in His shoes, to be further bonded to Him through shared experience.

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
2 Corinthians 1:5, 7

Temptation. Exhaustion. Loneliness. Rejection. Physical pain. Emotional distress. Each time we experience these, another layer is pulled back in our understanding of Jesus, in our ability to truly know Him. And as His sufferings overflow into our lives, so does the comfort of increasing intimacy with Him. We share in His sufferings and He communes with us in ours. But the cycle of fellowship doesn’t stop there.

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
Colossians 1:24

Our suffering becomes a bridge that spans time and space, connecting Jesus’ past ordeals with others’ current misery. As we live out His experiences, we incarnate Him before the people around us. Through us they witness His sufferings on their behalf, and through us they receive His comforting love. And in the process we bond with each other in a deep, meaningful relationship, one that we will share with Him and each other for eternity.

So as I watch my mother hunched in pain, as I witness the scars on her body, I see a bitter-sweet story playing out in front of me. Pain leading to comfort. Agony leading to glory. Her suffering is connecting her to Christ. His suffering is being completed through her. This doesn’t downplay her struggle or alleviate her pain, but it does infuse it with a profound significance. Her suffering is allowing her to participate in the divine, to be brought into perfect unity with God. Sacred suffering. Holy communion.

Finding the Line

Having ridden the swinging pendulum from a polite but distant relationship with God to one that is more familiar and unreserved, it is easy to forget that God has boundaries. There are lines that He maintains around His glory that even we are not allowed past.

David discovered one of those lines by crossing it. He had come a long way in his relationship with God, too. From starry-eyed shepherd boy singing beautiful poetry, to traumatized warrior begging for relief, to jubilant king exalting his Benefactor, David had learned to walk intimately with God through the ups and downs of life. He had become confident in God’s unfailing love and bold in approaching His throne in raw, uninhibited prayer. Laments, complaints, requests, questions, thanks, praise: the full range of human emotion and relational interaction flowed freely between David and his God.

So David assembled all the Israelites, … to bring up from there the ark of God the LORD, who is enthroned between the cherubim–the ark that is called by the Name. They moved the ark of God from Abinadab’s house on a new cart, with Uzzah and Ahio guiding it. David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals and trumpets.
I Chronicles 13:5-8

The climactic moment of their relationship came when David finally became king over all Israel and established his throne in Jerusalem. The crowning touch was to be united with the ark of the covenant, the footstool of God’s throne and the actual place where His glory dwelt. David called all of the people together to participate in this momentous occasion. More glorious than a royal wedding, this procession was bringing God home to live in their midst.

When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God.
1 Chronicles 13:9-10

Joyful singing. Jubilant music. Exuberant dancing. Burning anger? Devastating blow! The procession ground to a halt. David was in shock. One of his men lay dead next to the ark, struck down by God. David was angry. The man had merely been trying to steady the ark on the jolting cart! Did God really have to be so extreme about protecting His glory?

Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah… David was afraid of God that day and asked, “How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?” He did not take the ark to be with him in the City of David.
1 Chronicles 13:11-13

The day was ruined. David wasn’t so sure he even wanted God so close by, after all. What had happened to the God who was always on his side, always on hand to listen to his prayers and to help him in his struggles? Why hadn’t He cooperated with David’s plan and made their big day a success? Disillusioned, angry, and scared, David left the ark behind and returned home alone.

Our God is both tender friend and consuming fire.

It would take three months of reflection by David and re-affirmation by God to overcome the polite distance between them. David had to come to grips with a God who welcomed him into a warm, loving relationship but who still maintained distinct boundaries around His holiness. He had grown so comfortable in his relationship with God that he had forgotten to take God seriously. God had given specific instructions about how He wanted His ark to be transported, and He would not tolerate even the most intimate of His friends ignoring them.

“It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the LORD our God broke out in anger against us. We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way.” … So the priests and Levites consecrated themselves in order to bring up the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel. And the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the LORD.
1 Chronicles 15:13-15

Once David cooled down and realized where he had gone wrong, he had a decision to make. Was sharing a close relationship with God worth the risk? As he had witnessed, close proximity to God could bring extraordinary blessing or phenomenal disaster. Sobered but undeterred, David once again led the crowd in approaching God’s holy presence, but this time according to God’s terms.

Now David was clothed in a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and as were the singers, and Kenaniah, who was in charge of the singing of the choirs. David also wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouts, with the sounding of rams’ horns and trumpets, and of cymbals, and the playing of lyres and harps.
1 Chronicles 15:27-28

Wild dancing. Loud shouting. Blissful abandonment and exuberant worship accompanied by purified priests and prescribed offerings, ordained carriers and organized worship. This kind of procession held together the tension of spontaneity and order, of familiarity and respect. And God was pleased to bless it.

Intimacy and reverence are not mutually exclusive. We have a God who is both tender friend and consuming fire. He invites us into a full-on, open relationship, but also maintains a distinction between Himself as God and us as His people. A line does remain between us, but it serves to magnify our marvel over a God who comes close in holy communion.