Tag Archives: lament

Caught Between Mercy and Need

photo-on-9-7-16-at-12-20-pm-3-1“I’ve already blown it with you, and yet I need your help. How can I ask for another favor?”

For those of us with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, one of the hardest situations to be put in is that of needing help that we don’t feel we have the right to ask for. In a human economy, we intuitively know that relationships work on a system of give and take. And most of us prefer to remain primarily on the giving side, maintaining a healthy balance in our relational bank account so that we don’t have to worry about someday running in the red.

Call it pride, call it pragmatism, but deep down we know that there is a limit to how many times we can come back with the same empty cup asking for more, especially if our track record has little to show for improvement.

And though we know that things are different with God, somehow it’s hard to escape the same nagging sense that we have used up all our wishes. If we’d just won some spiritual victory we might feel more confident to ask for His help, but what about those long dry seasons when all we can look back and see is one failure after another? On what basis can we approach His throne and boldly make another request?

Once again, the Psalms show us the way forward. Compiled in exile by a nation of people who had blown it more times than they could recount, they give us prayers to pray in our moments of triumph and our moments of despair, our moments of life “as it should be” and our moments of “oh my goodness how can I even pray to you?”

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD or fully declare his praise? Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them…
Psalm 106:2-5

Psalm 106 falls firmly in the last category. After its initial statements of thanks and praise, it jumps right into the dilemma the psalmist is facing. Who is worthy to pray before God, whether in accolades of thanks and praise or (more relevantly to the psalmist’s current exilic condition) in indebting petitions for help and deliverance?

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly….
Psalm 106:6

At least the Psalmist is honest enough to go back and tell the story as bad as it really was. Most of his prayer involves detailing just how horribly he and his people have responded to God’s repeated gracious interventions in past. Listing forgetfulness, ingratitude, uncontrolled urges, envy, arrogance, breach of contract, rebellion, and downright laziness on the application form hardly seems the way to win favor from a loan officer, but this is precisely the approach the psalmist takes with God. In fact, it seems to be his strategy in convincing himself that he can again ask for help and in encouraging God to give it.

Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. Yet he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented. He caused all who held them captive to show them mercy.
Psalm 106:43-46

After all, the record showed that no matter how many times (or how badly) they had blown it, God always listened to their cry for mercy. Though their performance was consistently lousy, His response was consistently gracious. That didn’t mean He hadn’t taken them through some pretty tough consequences, but it did mean that He had always relented and restored them in the end. Why would this time be any different?

Where human love runs dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever.

But in addition to bolstering the psalmist’s confidence in God’s track record, praying through the history of their relationship enabled the Psalmist to remind God of what it had always been based on: God’s unfailing love, not His people’s unfailing performance. This was the leg he could stand on when all others crumbled away. This was the firm foundation on which he could base his plea for yet another miraculous intervention.

Praise the LORD.Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Psalm 106:1

Where human love would have long before run dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever. If anything, the more we draw on it, the more it replenishes. I don’t know how long it will take for this simple reality to finally permeate the way I approach Him in prayer. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to my fully believing it is my own pride, insisting that our relationship include my merit as at least part of its basis.

Save us, LORD our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.
Psalm 106:47

But when merit fails and need overwhelms me, I am driven back to my knees as the Psalmist was. Going silent or going shallow in my prayers won’t cut it. Only a full-disclosure of my failings will clear the accounts, making space for God’s amazing grace to once again give me something to sing about.

And it never fails.

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What Are You Doing Here?

sinai“I can’t go on like this anymore.”

The pastor groans on Sunday night; the professional sighs on Monday morning; the defeated mother cries into her washing; the depressed father sobs into his pillow.

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility. I can’t keep shouldering this burden on my own. I just want out.”

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility.”

Elijah had reached the same place. Weary from years of preaching a message that no one took seriously and worn from forever just barely scraping by, he had probably been on the verge of burn-out for awhile. But now fear pushed him over the brink.

The man of God had plenty to be afraid of. The king was furious after three years of drought for which he held Elijah responsible. The queen had just issued a death-threat after he made a fool of her god and took down all of her prophets. But none of that was really new for Elijah. He had always lived on the edge, recklessly pursuing God’s call no matter what the cost. What eroded the last vestiges of his confidence was his fear of failure.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:3-4

God had entrusted him with the impossible task of turning His people’s hearts back to Him, and now after the cosmic showdown of the century, they still refused to repent. If all his sermons and warnings, even signs and wonders still didn’t convince them, what more would? Zeal for God’s name had worn Elijah out, but that was all it had been successful in doing.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:7-9

Elijah needed a place to regroup, to escape from constant responsibility and ever-present threats. He quite literally ran for his life until he reached the place where he would be sure to find God: Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, had been where his ancestor Moses met God back-to-face. Surely here Elijah would receive some much-needed direction from God on how to deal with His stiff-necked, idolatrous people.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
1 Kings 19:9-10

And sure enough, God showed up. As He had done with the discouraged Moses, He invited Elijah to voice his complaint and engage Him in a back-and-forth conversation .

Elijah’s presenting complaint detailed his frustrated efforts and the people’s persistent rejection of both God and himself. But hidden just under the surface was his respectfully concealed finger, pointing the blame at God for not making things any easier for him. After all, wasn’t Elijah simply trying to follow His orders? Why had God saddled him with such an impossibly difficult burden and then left him on his own to carry it? The weight of responsibility was crushing him to the point that he simply wanted to quit, even if death was the only way out.

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13

God’s initial response came not in a verbal defense, but through a series of tangible experiences that would challenge Elijah’s assumptions about Himself. Elijah’s ancestors had experienced Him here as the terrifying God who thundered from the top of the mountain, shattering rocks and billowing smoke until they couldn’t bear being near Him any more. In fear they had begged for a mediated relationship with Him, one in which the buffer of angelic messengers and a stone-encoded set of rules would protect them from being consumed by His fire.

That approach to pleasing God is precisely what wears us out.

But that approach to pleasing God was precisely what had worn Elijah out. No one could bear the burden of those impossibly heavy stone tablets on his own. No one could successfully fulfill God’s calling without His moment-by-moment support sustaining her from within.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them… The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Hebrews 12:18-21

So God set about showing His servant a new way of relating to Him. His Spirit came not as the forceful wind but as a gentle breath; not as the overwhelming earthquake but as a confidence-restoring whisper; not as the fire that consumes and burns up but as one that consumes and fills. Such an intimate invitation coaxed Elijah out of his hiding place and into God’s presence.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:22-24, 28-29

God’s question came again. What are you doing here? Why have you come back to this scary old mountain? This is the place where fear and distance define our relationship, where rules and performance stand between us. Go to the new mountain where I dwell with my people in intimacy and love, the place where you are neither alone in your struggle nor doomed in your mission.

And this is the same invitation that rings down through the experiences of all who have encountered God in their fatigue. We turn back to Sinai in our performance-oriented relationship with God, shuddering under burdens that He never intended us to carry alone. He invites us forward into the easy yoke of His Spirit, in which His power works through us to accomplish the impossible.

We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

Of course we can’t go on like this anymore. We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

Bridging the Gap: Confessions from a Member of the White Race

attachmentConfession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

These words scroll endlessly down my screen as I read my Ugandan and Rwandan students’ essay submissions from this month’s Spiritual Formation unit. They have been asked to write about the people they find it the hardest to forgive and about situations in which they need to take steps towards reconciliation. My screen is full of stories of betrayal, slander, violence, and theft. But many of these stories are not just about individuals; they involve whole tribes or communities who carry complicated, time-accrued grudges towards each other.

I can sit at my less-than-tidy desk miles away from East Africa and try to mentally untangle the cause-and-effect web of historic animosity between these conflicting groups, but one thing is abundantly clear. At some point, someone from one of the groups has to stop pointing the finger and start admitting where their people have been wrong. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. And leaving it as it is will only result in further segregation, mistrust, and retaliation.

It’s crazy what I can see so clearly in someone else’s country but am blind to in my own! As I read the headlines about ongoing race conflicts in the U.S., I am struck with the fact that the same dynamic is at work. As a white member of the American middle-class, I am wired to think individualistically, to think of my status as something that I alone determine and am responsible for. But my individualistic mindset has blinded me to the fact that I am part of a race, a group of people from whom, for better or for worse, I have inherited my appearance, my social position, my identity, and my worldview. I may not be overly conscious of my race (looking for the Caucasian box on application forms always strikes me as a bit odd), but that is more a testimony to my having grown up with my race being the dominant one than it is to my being color-blind. I can afford the luxury of not thinking about it!

But for American blacks, especially in my beloved South, race is something they are never allowed to forget. The days of slavery and legal segregation may be past, but (often not-so-subtle) snubs, derogatory comments, and biased treatment from people of my color serve as daily reminders that they are not only different but also despised. Media-coverage of incidents of unfair police treatment and spiteful hate-crimes has only recently brought to white awareness what has been the ongoing reality for American blacks: that they are still treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and that even the “nice” whites hold pre-judged assumptions about the intentions and moral character of the black race of which they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

I could throw up my hands in defense and exclaim: “I’m not a racist!” But even if I could honestly claim that I have never avoided the seat next to a black stranger in a subway or clicked my automatic-lock button as I drove by a hooded black man at night, the inescapable fact is that people of my color have perpetuated the ongoing divide between whites and blacks. I may not condone their actions, but they still represent my “kind.” And until enough people from my race go out of their way to demonstrate a message to the contrary, their message of hatred, mistrust, and division will stand as a representative banner over us all.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, …then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Philippians 2:1-7

As uncomfortable as it is for me to suddenly discover myself on the side of needing forgiveness rather than being the one asked to give it, I recognize that this is exactly the position I need to adopt if true reconciliation is ever to take place. If a few people can represent my race with their hateful comments and violent actions, then can I not step into the gap they have created and verbally acknowledge the wrongs of my people, both past and present? I may not be guilty, but we are. And beyond guilt, I feel a profound shame over this aspect of my cultural inheritance.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, …. 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.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, 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.
Ephesians 2:14-16; 3:17-4:3

So it’s my turn to practice what I teach. Lay aside my rights. Promote others’ interests over defending my own. Take up Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and humbly do what it takes to break down the barriers of hostility between groups of people for whom He died. If that means listening sympathetically to the hurt and frustration of my black brother, then I consider it a privilege that he would be willing to open his heart to me. If it means confessing the ways in which racist assumptions have influenced the way I think and asking my black friends to help me see life through their experience, then I can only pray that they will find me worthy of their trust.

Confession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

We’ve got long way to go. But thanks be to God, we’ve got a great Mediator already on the job. May His Spirit reign in all our hearts, bringing peace that defies history and love that surpasses human understanding.

Beheaded Children?–When the Imprecatory Psalms Are Suddenly Relevant

My children and I just looked at internet photographs of an Iraqi child’s beheaded body. Why would we expose ourselves to such horror? Because it is really happening. Because to carry on as if it were not happening would be to perpetuate the crime. Because even the ground cries out for us to acknowledge and respond to the shedding of innocent blood.

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

But having stared such atrocity in the face, what do we do with our newfound awareness? My son comes back into the kitchen teary–eyed, asking me what he can do about it. Send money to a charity? Write a letter to a politician? Our profound sense of horror is slowly replaced by a deep sense of helplessness. When faced with the reality of such unspeakable evil in our world, evil that at this moment is overpowering people no different than we, how do we even begin to pray?

“Lord, have mercy” runs through my mind again and again as I scroll through the footage of severed heads and gunned-down bodies. But what about the gunmen in the pictures, gloating over their fallen victims? My son asks the question that I am already thinking:

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

How can I think of mercy for those butchers while the aftermath of their carnage stares me in the face? They aren’t sorry. They plaster the evidence of their brutality all over the internet, boasting in their conquests, delighting in the devastation they have caused.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

All of a sudden the imprecatory psalms start making a lot more sense to me. No wonder they cry out for God to remember the atrocity these victims have endured. No wonder they recount to Him just how horrific it was. And no wonder they demand His judgment on the perpetrators.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Psalm 137:4-6

How can we sing happy praise songs while our brothers and sisters are being slaughtered or running for their lives to different lands? If we forget their anguish, we may as well forget our own souls. There is a rightness to remembering, to allowing unresolved atrocity to interrupt the peaceful humdrum of our otherwise undisturbed lives. It is an expression of our true humanity, a reflection of God’s image within us that says, “This is not O.K.”

Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Psalm 137:7

But we can’t just leave it at that. Awareness without action makes our souls sick. So we take our angst to the street, pounding on God’s door until He does something about it. “Remember what they did! Look at how bad it was! Take action, O God. You are the Judge of the world. Come down and make this right.”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9

But what exactly do we want Him to do? Decapitate their children, too? Repay them blow-for-blow for all the crimes they have committed? That doesn’t seem very Christian of us. Nor does shrugging off genocide as if it isn’t really a big deal. There must be some way to turn the other cheek while holding on to justice.

God will intervene in a way that compromises neither His justice nor His mercy.

The solution to that is beyond me. Thankfully, it is not up to me to arbitrate divine action. This is one of those moments when I am relieved not to be God, because I can’t be impartial. I can vent my unreserved outrage and my vindictive anger to Him, trusting His ability to act as both righteous Judge and merciful Savior. He can find a way to extend mercy while upholding justice. I think of the way He dealt with Saul, one of the original Christian killers.

So I repeat my prayer, “Lord, have mercy. Bring them down to their knees in repentance.”

But lurking underneath that hopeful request is the dark reminder that not all sinners repent. We cheer when the penitent Peters get re-instated, but we also breathe a deep sigh of relief when the hard-hearted Judases finally get what they deserve.

“One way or another, Lord, bring them down.”

My youngest daughter breaks into my reverie with a solution that resonates with my heart, if not my head.

“What if all the Christians in the world just made their own army and marched into Iraq to beat off those bad guys?”

I chuckle, wishing the world were that simple.

But has God not intervened in similar ways in the past? It may be that He will use our political lobbying and social awareness raising to change the outcome of this crisis. It may be that He will bring deliverance to His people through international military action, as He did in response to the Holocaust.

And though I don’t know what the Judge will do, I know what we can do. We can join in the lament for our Iraqi kin. We can beg Him to change the hearts of their oppressors. And we can swamp Him with petitions through fasting and prayer, asking Him to send in an army to protect His people.

Who knows? It could be the kind that comes marching through the treetops.

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.

What Can Wash Away My Shame?

“How can I go on living in this defiled body? If my body is the temple of God’s Holy Spirit, how can He bear to dwell in it, either? I am ruined, and I can’t escape. My dwelling place is tainted, but I can’t leave it. So here I am, desolate, defiled, and trapped. Is there no way out of this perpetual nightmare for me?

O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
Psalm 79:1

Strangely enough, the cries of the Israelites following the invasion of Jerusalem mirror the cries of the raped or sexually violated following the invasion of their bodies. Their city had been their holy refuge, the place where they could freely meet with God. They had guarded its purity and celebrated its beauty. But now it lay in ruins, devastated by forces that they had been unable to resist.

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.
Psalm 74:4-7

With their status so fundamentally altered, they were left with no other recourse but to cry out to God, narrating the details of just how awful it had been. Enemies had invaded their sacred space. Dirty men had come pushing in, taking what they wanted and leaving behind nothing but a desecrated wreck. Their beauty was tarnished. Their purity was ruined. Their glory was gone. And there was nothing they could do to bring it back.

We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.
Psalm 74:9

Could God even want them anymore? Would the Holy One turn His back on His spoiled inheritance? How long would they be left like this, a ruined, has-been heap?

God doesn’t plan to restore our former glory.
He is at work to increase it.

But God’s unconditional love was not repulsed by their ugliness. His great compassion was not hindered by their impurity. He didn’t pretend like everything was fine, nor did He cast them off as tainted goods. Instead, He acknowledged their desolate condition and came near to restore them.

“Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. …You will forget the shame of your youth …
Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.
Isaiah 54:4, 10-12

In time He moved the hearts of foreign kings to help them rebuild their city and its temple. The healing process was long and arduous, with plenty of setbacks and obstacles along the way, but with God’s help they persevered. Brick by brick the walls took shape. Stone by stone the temple rose out its rubble. But even with their external beauty restored, their internal glory was still missing.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Isaiah 61:2-3

Finally, God Himself showed up. For years His defiled city had carried on, physically functional but spiritually a shell of her former glory. Now it was time for His Spirit to return, to cleanse her of her shame and to fill her with glory greater than she had to start with. He entered her gates riding on a donkey. He cleansed her temple with zealous intensity. He healed her wounded, comforted her mourners, purified her unclean, and honored her despised. And in the end, He gave Himself as a cleansing sacrifice, His blood as a purifying flood.

You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
Isaiah 62:3- 5

Though that city has been remodeled as the Kingdom of God and its temple rebuilt with the living stones of His Church, it stands as a testimony of hope for all who have experienced the desolation of sexual defilement. The story does not end with us in a ruined heap, desecrated, broken, and abandoned. Though the healing process is long, painful, and at times so slow that it seems to be moving backward, God is at work increasing our glory. He is purifying our desecrated bodies and rebuilding our devastated souls. As hard as it is to believe at times, He will one day rejoice over us as an integral part of His beautiful bride. Where we end up will be better than where we started.

Beauty for ashes. Robes of righteousness for rags of shame. This is our inheritance, because He is our God.

A Righteous Response to Rape

Desolate: empty, alone, grim.

The Bible chose this word to describe what became of a godly woman when she was sexually abused. Not “overcomer,” not “unshaken,” not even “rejoicing in affliction.” Just desolate. Broken. Used up. Tossed aside. Devoid of feeling, of beauty, of future, of life. The walking dead.

Extreme external reactions are mere reflections of ongoing internal realities.

Tamar hadn’t always been that way. Once upon a time she had been beautiful and regal, strong, well-spoken, and wise. She had walked the palace halls with dignity and grace, confident of her position and secure in her place. She had worn the elegant clothes that fit her station as a pure young woman, an honored daughter of the king. And she had spoken up with self-assured boldness when someone tried to treat her in a manner less dignified than she deserved.

David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.

“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”

“Don’t, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.
2 Samuel 13:7-14

How could she have seen it coming? Amnon was her brother. She had trusted him. Their father had trusted him, too. After all, he was the one who had sent her to take care of Amnon when he claimed to be so ill. She had been there out of compassion for her brother, out of submission to her father.

What could she have done differently? She had behaved as modestly and appropriately as she knew how. She had only gone into his bedroom when he asked because he seemed too weak to get up and eat. Even when he grabbed her and she realized what he intended to do, she had kept her wits about her and tried to reason with him not to do it. She had resisted such demeaning treatment of herself, fighting with all her bodily strength when her mental strength had proved inadequate. But at the end of the day, none of that had been enough. She had failed to stop him, and now she was ruined.

Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”
“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”
But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of here and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her.
2 Samuel 13:15-18

Spoiled. Tarnished. Fundamentally altered. Despite her best efforts, completely against her will, her status had been changed. Her body was defiled. Her self was degraded. As a righteous woman, her soul recoiled from the idea of impurity and evil. And yet it had entered her, even if by force. It remained with her, long after the deed was done.

She was wearing a richly ornamented robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.
Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.”
2 Samuel 13:18-19

Torn robes. Ash-smeared face. Loud weeping. Public ranting. Tamar’s external reactions were merely reflections of her internal reality. Her body had been treated as if it were shameful and worthless, and her soul had gotten the message. Marred and broken on the inside, she could hardly go back to the life she had known before and pretend like everything was fine. She couldn’t be silent and spare others the horrific details of what had happened to her. She couldn’t dress her body up or treat it as if it were deserving of honor. And she couldn’t smile and socialize with her family and the others who still belonged to the club of the spotless and good.

What would become of her? Who could love her anymore? How could she live with herself? Where could she ever get rid of her disgrace?

And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.
2 Samuel 13:20

These are the heart-rending questions that any sexually exploited person, Christian or not, is left to grapple with. Simple answers and quick fixes won’t make them go away. Surface remedies only drive the issues deeper underground, stranding abuse survivors alone in their struggle. Tamar needed to be allowed to express her anguish, to lament what she had lost, to enact her body’s debasement, to hide in self-imposed exile, and to wrestle towards true resolution. She and those of us like her need to be listened to, not silenced; protected, not pushed; accepted, not conformed; and loved, not turned away.

Confessions of an Abuser

Preying on the vulnerable, exploiting the faithful, manipulating the loyal, harming the weak: abuse in any of its many forms is utterly despicable, a violation of God’s image within His people and a frontal assault against Himself. But what happens when an abuser repents? What does it look like when someone guilty of such heinous crimes confesses their wrongs and wants to be forgiven? Incredibly, we have been given access to the personal diary of a repentant abuser.

God receives the confession of an abuser.

David was guilty of all of the above, and worse. He had done the unthinkable with one of the women in his congregation and had tried to cover it up with the “accidental” murder of her husband. Full of justice and righteous indignation, God had confronted David with his crimes and pronounced him guilty. What recourse was left for this convicted abuser? Where could he go from here?

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1–2

God had always been his refuge in times of crisis, but this time God was his judge, not his defender. This time David was the perpetrator of evil, not its victim. Turning to God would mean getting closer to his accuser. David knew how God dealt with the wicked. How often had he prayed down God’s judgment and vindication on others? Terrified. Defenseless. And yet David also knew that God was his only hope, the only one who could rescue him from himself.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Psalm 51:3–4

And so David flung himself at God’s feet, with no grounds for appeal except for God’s compassion. No excuses, no avoidance, no self-defense. He openly admitted just how wrong he had been. He grieved over how deeply he had offended God and acknowledged that God had every right to be angry with him. He affirmed God’s ruling: God was right, and he was wrong.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Psalm 51:5–6

As David examined himself in God’s presence, his understanding of himself became increasingly humble. He was deeply flawed. In fact, he came to realize that he had always been flawed; he had never been above such depths of depravity. Of course God held him to a high standard of integrity and righteousness in all of his dealings, both public and private. But that was beyond him, apart from God’s help and intervention.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Psalm 51:7–10

David lost all confidence in himself, but he gained a greater hope in God. He had blown it, but God could make it right. He was tainted, but God could make him clean. He was ruined, but God could restore him. He was faulty, but God could re-create him.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Psalm 51:11–12

God could do all that for David, but the outstanding question was: would He? David had seen what happened to Saul, his abuser, when God had confronted him in a similar way. God had stripped him of his honor, rejected him as a leader and, worst of all, removed His Spirit from him. The memory of Saul’s tormented face was fresh in David’s memory. Terrified of being abandoned by God, David begged God not to leave. All he could do was plead for God to save him, to restore him, and to keep his heart and mind in the right place from now on.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16–17

David knew he had no leverage with God, no way to obligate Him to put his inexcusable actions behind His back and restore him to leadership. He couldn’t bribe God with extravagant offerings; he couldn’t appease Him with sacrificial service. All he could bring to God were his brokenness over what he had done and his deep desire to change.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
Psalm 51:13-15

If God would accept these, if God would restore him, then David wanted nothing more than to use his failures to aid him in helping fellow sinners discover God’s redeeming grace. He would not cover up the abuses he had perpetrated; he would allow his weakness to be shown so that the incredible extent of God’s love could be put on display.

David recorded his failures and fears, his laments and longings for God and all the rest of us to hear. His prayer of confession not only models what a righteous response to personal sin looks like, it also holds out hope for all abusers who grieve over the damage they have caused others and the pain they have caused God. God receives the true confession of an abuser. He welcomes all who come to Him with a contrite heart. And as the story of David goes on to show, He uses broken leaders to build up His church.

Giving Up with a Fight

If God took from me everything on earth that I most cherish—my husband and children, my home and community, my health and security—could I still rise and bless His name? I used to periodically ask myself this question, using it as a litmus test for my heart’s posture towards God. Was He truly on the throne of my heart, or was I holding on to anything else more tightly than to Him? In moments of abandoned worship, I could wholeheartedly answer yes. At other times the question would make me shudder, suck in my breath, and confess that no, my heart was not oriented towards Him in such total surrender.

True relationship calls for a fight;
true love results in surrender.

It struck me recently that I have not asked myself that question in a long time. Perhaps this is because in the years since I last asked it, I have experienced many aspects of that hypothetical worst scenario, and by His grace, I love Him more now than ever. But this discovery also made me fear that I have grown so accustomed to wrestling with God that I have forgotten how to surrender. How do these two postures fit together in how I relate to God?

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Mark 14:32-34

Jesus embodied both wrestling and surrender during the hours leading up to His worst scenario. Like His ancestor Jacob, He stayed up all night wrestling with God over the outcome of the next day’s events. Jesus knew what was coming. He had been preparing for it and preaching it for a long time now. But that didn’t take away His shear dread at the thought of actually going through with it.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba”, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Mark 14:35-36

Sleepless night. Anguished cries. Hot tears. Bloody sweat. No, God! Don’t make me have to bear this. It’s too hard, too much. Spare me! I don’t want to go through with it. Won’t you let me off the hook?

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Matthew 26:42-44

Through the night Jesus called out these candid objections to His Father. All was not well with His soul, and He did not pretend otherwise. He would not lie down and rest, He would not back down, He would not stop wrestling until God answered Him.

But even as He voiced His protest to God, Jesus affirmed His willingness to surrender. With each round of stating His will, He also declared His desire that God’s will would ultimately prevail. Here was a wrestling match between two contestants with opposing wills but united hearts. Their clash in desire did not undermine their deep love for each other or their mutual commitment to each other’s honor. And not for a minute did Jesus let go of the submitted respect of a son to his Father, a servant to His Master, a man to His God. More than anything else—even more than His very life—Jesus wanted God to win. But that didn’t stop Him from wrestling in the meantime.

Jesus’ exemplary prayer unmasks our false dichotomy between grappling prayer and serene surrender. What does God want of us? To argue our case heatedly and pester Him persistently until He answers. To love Him wholeheartedly and surrender to Him fully after He does, even when His answer is no. True relationship calls for a fight; true love results in surrender.