Tag Archives: theology of suffering

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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When My Faith Hurts My Children

IMG_1608“But what about your children?”

The question came from a concerned friend in the congregation last year as we presented our past work and our upcoming move. His well-intended question jarred a deep insecurity in me, resurrecting an unresolved tension that I have lived with since the Lord first called us to this pilgrim life as a young couple.

3 Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. 4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

I remember wrestling with the Lord over this issue seventeen years ago as my husband and I first began the process of packing up and moving to the place God was leading us to serve. As I counted the cost involved, the Spirit moved me to joyously lay down my rights, my comforts, my proximity to family, and even my life. But as I looked down at the swelling bump growing within me, my heart froze with fear. What about this little one? What if something horrible happened to her because of my choice to serve God in what we already knew would be a difficult, possibly dangerous place?

Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: 6 He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.

The Lord’s answer to me then was something I have had to keep returning to ever since. “They are not your children. They are Mine. If this is the life to which I am calling you, then it also the life I have planned out for them. Remember that I love them more than you ever will.”

I confess that my faith in this area has been severely tried. In those early years I watched my babies burn with dengue fever and lie listlessly overcome by typhoid, driving me to cry out helplessly on their behalf. I mourned their lack of clean air, open playgrounds, and nourishing community. And yet through those years I also watched the Lord preserve their lives and nurture their growth in beautiful ways, both despite and because of the circumstances in which they were growing up.

16Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; 17 for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.

Aware of the unique challenges our children faced because of our lifestyle, my husband and I devoted ourselves to compensating for their losses. We threw ourselves into lighthearted family rituals and rigorous home education, seeking to shelter our children from the intensity and pain that constantly weighed on our bodies and souls. Of course no amount of dancing around the kitchen or bedtime tickles could cover the terror of seeing their father repeatedly carry their unconscious mother out the door in a panicked rush for the emergency room. Nor could our attempts at levity and a positive spin on things protect them from the terror of seeing their mother violently attacked, from the trauma of yet another emergency evacuation, and from the loss of yet another home and community.

18 The blameless spend their days under the LORD’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever. 19 In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.

In the years that followed I mourned my own inability to be the super-mother I had prided myself on being. Though the zeal and vitality with which I had formerly engaged my children was gone, I prayed that God would compensate for my brokenness by providing for my children what I could not. As my Good Shepherd led me through the valley of darkness and back out to the green pastures of healing, I saw Him mothering my children through the other nurturing adults He brought into their lives. Mentoring aunties and uncles, proactive music teachers and prayer partners, and doting grandparents (both natural and surrogate) stepped in to guide, teach, nurture, and provide for my children. Humbling as it was, God strengthened my faith through His faithfulness to my children.

The funny thing about faith, though, is that it always has farther to go.

The funny thing about faith, though, is that it always has farther to go. So when one of those nurturing adults raised the question about our return to South Asia, of course my heart sank. Were we being reckless and irresponsible as parents to take our teenagers out of the relative security they had found and back into the place where life was so uncertain? Stories filtered through my memory of embittered young adults whose faith in God and relationship with their parents were shattered by similar experiences. Were we ruining any hope our children might have of becoming healthy, well-adjusted adults by heeding our Master’s call?

Despite all we can do to alleviate, comfort, and support, trying to eliminate the source of our children’s hardship would ultimately mean trying to buffer them from God.

With trembling hearts my husband and I put our future on the table for family discussion. Bitterness and pain, fear and faith all reared their heads as we talked about what we felt God leading us to do. Little incentive readily presented itself for why these teens should give up their lives to follow their parent’s calling, and yet that is what they chose to do.

23 The LORD makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; 24 though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand.

In the year that has followed, we have had ample opportunity to hold our breath and cry out in despair, “Lord, where is your goodness for our children? How will you reward their faith?” We have walked with them through dark valleys no child should have to endure. One has faced the traumatic rupture of the buried fear and pain from her past, bravely fighting for life itself, while another has quietly born up under the culture shock symptoms of a perpetually upset gut and an isolated social life.

25 I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. 26 They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing.

As parents, we see our children bearing the brunt of our life calling, a cross we never intended them to have to carry. We want to step in and do whatever it takes to protect them from this pain. But despite all we can do to alleviate, comfort, and support, trying to eliminate the source of their hardship would ultimately mean trying to buffer them from God. The fact is that they, too, are participating in the sufferings of Christ. Whether they signed up for this or not, He has chosen them for the noblest of human callings: to know Christ both in the fellowship of His sufferings and in the power of His resurrection.

28 For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones… 34 Hope in the LORD and keep his way.

Psalm 37

While I have experienced the sweet fruit of living out this sort of radical faith and wouldn’t trade it for anything, I struggle to exercise it on behalf of my children. What if they don’t make it out the other side? What if God doesn’t come through for them as He has for me? In response to my wavering faith, the Lord once again speaks to my soul, “Be still. They are in my hands. Watch and see the good things I am doing for them. ”

And I can already testify that He is.

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.

Beyond Disillusionment

Patty Toland, a friend and co-worker, recently sent me her story of wrestling with God through devastated dreams and deep disillusionment. The complete article was originally published under the title ‘The traps to destroy’ in an anthology entitled “Beyond the Edge.”

1981 was the year that God clearly called me into missions. So I terminated my classes at a secular university and began studying Bible and Mission. I was sure God was leading me to work in Africa among a tribe that had no church and worshipped evil spirits. Twelve years later my dreams became real as I stepped off the plane into hot, humid, lush, green West Africa. My anticipation and joy were almost insuppressible. Little did I know that seven months later I’d fly out of the country for medical treatment and be told I probably could never return again due to poor health.

Suddenly the whole world for which I was living swirled around and around, leaving me in questioning darkness. “God, where are you? Why can’t You overcome it? Why did You lead so clearly, then seemingly pull the carpet out from under my feet? How can I go on when all my hopes and dreams have been dashed?

Then the journey through my internal battles began, starting in darkness and confusion, then gradually being trapped by unbelief, anger and bitterness. I began to think God had brought me all the way to Africa just to dump me there. I neither felt, saw, nor sensed His presence. I searched for Him, longing for a word, a verse, or some small feeling of assurance, yet heard nothing. I did have a kitten and a co-worker who comforted me, but not Him. He remained silent. I was incensed at His apparent inability to be a true Father as the Bible portrayed. Not until one year later did I slowly begin to recognize that He had manifested His presence to me through my co-worker and even the kitten. He was physically with me through them! I wanted Him in a supernatural way and missed Him in the ordinary and natural.

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
“He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.”
Psalm 50:14-15, 23

At one point while lying in a hospital room, I read the Word out of sheer boredom and loneliness. It said to offer up a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and that He would be glorified. Feeling my bitterness of spirit rise up and giving in to what I knew wasn’t the Truth, I chose to declare audibly to God, “I have nothing to be thankful for.” I waited for an impending lightening to strike me dead (which I would’ve welcomed as being the most merciful thing He could’ve done) and instead gently heard, “That’s why it’s a sacrifice.” It had never occurred to me that the cost to whisper thanks in my bitterness and anger was worth more to Him than years of thanks during the easy times.

The cost to whisper thanks in my bitterness and anger was worth more to Him than years of thanks during the easy times.

As time went on and improvement in my health was not apparent, all that I believed about God and the Bible were shaken to the core. I realized my faith was shallower than the depth of my circumstances. Capitalizing on that was the Enemy, seeking of course to finish off the last morsel! I knew it was a battle for my mind.

“But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
Job 23:8-10

I knew the only way to give God a fair chance was to at least read the Word again from the beginning to end, allowing it to seep into the sparse cracks in my thinking that were still slightly open to Him. To read the whole Bible from a bitter, angry state of mind is quite a challenge as there are no givens. My theology was revamped as I saw how much the Bible spoke of suffering and testing rather than how much He wants to bless us and make us happy. Even Job looked all over and couldn’t find Him, but was still convinced that God knew where he was and that when God was done testing him, he would come forth as gold. I wasn’t that convinced, but was intrigued that even Job couldn’t sense God’s presence.

The entire health battle lasted 9 years and I realize that the tool of struggling physically has brought stripping … There is a deeper spiritual well from which to drink that brings true abundant life in Him. The drops I’ve tasted are sweet and I wouldn’t trade them. I wasn’t able to say that during the deepest part of the trial, but as He healed my spirit and I looked for His will above mine, a whole new freedom was released. … As a result, it has brought me into a whole new life – a deeper one in God and His fullness that I otherwise would not have known.