Tag Archives: wounded

Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

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.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

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Yours truly.

attachmentWho am I to God?

The question lurked beneath the surface of our long-distance phone conversation. I looked out at the breakers pounding the shore, eroding age-old stone into flimsy particles of sand. That same question again, the one that rarely gets spoken, yet the one that lies just beneath the consciousness of those who are being slammed by wave after wave of suffering.

Am I the apple of His eye or am I simply collateral damage?

Am I the apple of His eye,
or am I simply collateral damage?

I listened to my friend on the other end of the line, trying to make sense of God’s seeming inactivity in the face of his devastating losses. Sure, he had pounded on heaven’s doors begging God to intervene and the worst had still happened. But that didn’t mean that God didn’t care about him. Or did it?

Actually, he was trying to avoid the question, not wanting to run the risk of putting God on the spot. Instead he attempted to appease himself with reminders of the many other godly people who have suffered over the ages: hundreds of parents whose babies were massacred under Pharaoh and Herod, thousands of faithful Israelites who were tortured and killed by wicked kings, and countless other believers who have suffered the loss of homes, children, dignity, and safety throughout the vast story of humanity. God did not rescue them from their suffering. He let it happen as a part of His bigger plan of redemption for the world.

What makes me any more special than the rest of them?

I listened to my friend trying to let God off the hook. It is one thing to talk about His individualized care for each sparrow while perched comfortably within the safe shelter of a family nest. It is another to grapple with His goodness while lying broken-winged and abandoned on the ground.

Being left to suffer doesn’t call our special position with Him into question.
It confirms it.

But as he tried to chalk his sufferings up to being the necessary by-products of a messed-up world which God is still in the process of putting right, my heart broke. Seeing it that way would relegate him to the utterly insignificant category of collateral damage, deemed not important enough to warrant God’s altering “the plan” in order to save.

Who am I to expect any better than this?

O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”
Psalm 3:1-2

Who indeed? Is this all that we are to God? That is certainly the message that the enemy has whispered in my ear, a thousand times over. “You aren’t important enough. He won’t bother.” It slips in nicely alongside the truth that the world does not revolve around me. But before we lower our expectations and slink away from God’s front door, it may be helpful to first ask His opinion.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers… what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
Psalm 8:3-5

Who am I to You? Why would You care about me? You are so big and important—why would You notice my suffering and bother Yourself with my mess?

How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? …Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD will hear when I call to him.
But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
But let all who take refuge in you be glad… Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Psalm 4:2-3; 3:3; 5:11

God’s reply?

A cross-shaped hug.

Adoption papers.

And a personal comforter, the Spirit who wraps Himself around us the way Boaz covered Ruth.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Romans 8:16-17

This is the Spirit who prays for us when we don’t have the words. He reassures us that we really are God’s children, as cherished by Him as His only begotten Son. And He reminds us that the Father is treating us no differently than He did our older Brother. Being left to suffer doesn’t call our special position with Him into question. It confirms it.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Romans 8:31-32, 35-37

Like those merciless waves, trouble and hardship and insecurity and loss pound the self-confidence right out of us. But they also open opportunities for God to prove just how much we mean to Him. Our older Brother’s suffering is the crucible in which the Father proved His love for us. And our suffering is the means through which He persistently prepares us to share in the family heritage.

Far from being the unfortunate side-effect of a barely-controlled cosmic rescue mission, my friend’s trial is the carefully wielded sculpting tool of a master Craftsman. God is wearing down everything that stands in the way of His life-giving love. Of course the process is devastating. Of course it causes him to question who he is to God.

But God’s resounding answer comes back, roaring over the power of the waves:

You are Mine.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12504286
But now, this is what the LORD says–
he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you,
I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
Isaiah 43:1–5

The Gospel for the Abused

What is the good news for a world full of battered women and traumatized men, molested girls and bullied boys? Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins reassures us that one important problem has been taken care of, but what about our other pressing needs? Every day we grapple with our desperate need to be rescued and sheltered, comforted and healed. Does the gospel cover that, too?

“I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” …
Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:6, 11-12

At first glance, the idea of a king coming to conquer and rule doesn’t seem very reassuring. After all, we have already experienced what powerful people do. The mess we are currently in has been caused by their selfish ambition and arrogant oppression. How is one more violent, controlling leader going to solve our problems?

This ruler measures the glory of His kingdom by the way He cares for its weakest members.

Somehow the less intimidating images of God as a tender shepherd or a sheltering hen seem more comforting. We latch on to the idea of Him holding us close, wiping away our tears and whispering sweet words of love into our ears. And indeed, this is precisely what He does with His wounded children. But that is not all that He does, because that is not all that He is.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

The news that Jesus is King may not initially strike us as good, because our experience of corrupt, abusive leaders has left us broken and terrified. But considering the kind of king that He is, it is the best news we could hear.

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. The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7, 9-10

For Jewish captives living under the cruel, tyrannical rule of the Babylonians, this news gave cause to lift their heads in hope. Despite their oppressors’ ruthless power, despite their own trembling helplessness, they had a King who was coming to rescue them. His military might was not limited. His political clout was not inhibited. He had heard their cry and was determined to do whatever it took to take down their abusers and to set them free.

But what would He do with them after that? Become yet another domineering, self-promoting leader who used them up to accomplish His own empire-building ends?
How could they know that He would use His power for their good instead of just His own?

Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. …
All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
Psalm 72:1, 11-14

God reassured His people of the kind of King He would be. Sensitive to the needs of His people. Tuned in to the silent cries of the abused. He would use His power to rescue and defend them because He valued them. He would be strong enough to protect, loving enough to care, and faithful enough to follow through.

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
Psalm 145:1, 13-16

And when Jesus finally showed up to establish His kingdom on earth, He fulfilled every one of those promises. He rode a gentle donkey instead of a raging stallion. He confronted the corrupt religious leaders who marginalized His messy people. He exerted His power to drive out spiritual oppressors and to restore traumatized victims. He focused His eyes on the needs of His people. He extended His hands to feed and heal, touch and wash them. And in an ultimate act of servant leadership, He laid His life down to lift their lives up.

As terrifying as it can be to come under the leadership of a powerful king, this King makes it easy. He measures the glory of His kingdom by the way He cares for its weakest members. He satisfies the desires of each of His people because He delights us. In the face of cruel abusers and terrorizing bullies, His superior strength becomes our sure hope. We may feel powerless, but the good news is that our God reigns!

A Healing Friend

“I know it’s a lot to ask, but I need you to believe me. My experience is real. It has redefined my life. I feel alone, because no one else sees it. I feel rejected, because no one else will risk facing it. I need you to take me seriously. I need you to walk this with me.”

David was still struggling to believe it himself. Saul, his beloved mentor, his idolized king, was also his manipulative abuser. After years of living in Saul’s home, fighting his battles, comforting his spirit, and being part of his family, the realization was just starting to sink in that David’s perception of their entire relationship had been a lie. Saul didn’t love him. Saul didn’t care two wits about him. Saul had only kept him close so that could control him, use him, and when that was finished, eliminate him.

A friend’s denial of abuse adds insult to injury.
The blow of not being believed re-opens the wounds of abuse.

This was such a radical paradigm shift that David was still wrestling with his own voice of denial. Hearing the same doubts reflected in his best friend’s voice sent him into an emotional tailspin.

Then David fled from Naioth at Ramah and went to Jonathan and asked, “What have I done? What is my crime? How have I wronged your father, that he is trying to take my life?”
1 Samuel 20:1

As soon as possible, he had come to Jonathan for support. He always felt safe with Jonathan, secure in their friendship and confident that they saw eye-to-eye. In fact, Jonathan was the one who had first warned him that things weren’t right with Saul. If anyone would believe him about just how bad it was and be willing to stand with him through the mess ahead, it would be Jonathan.

“Never!” Jonathan replied. “You are not going to die! Look, my father doesn’t do anything, great or small, without confiding in me. Why would he hide this from me? It’s not so!”
1 Samuel 20:2

Jonathan’s quick denial caught David off-guard. It was the last thing he had expected. Then again, everything in David’s life was turning out to be the opposite of what he had expected. Had Jonathan’s friendship been a lie, too? How could he not see what was now so painfully obvious to David? And yet David recognized his friend’s predicament. The abuser that he was naming was Jonathan’s father. For Jonathan, believing his friend would cost him his father. Accepting David’s veracity would mean affirming his father’s depravity.

But David took an oath and said, “Your father knows very well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he has said to himself, ‘Jonathan must not know this or he will be grieved.’ Yet as surely as the LORD lives and as you live, there is only a step between me and death.”
1 Samuel 20:3

David could hardly control the hysteria rising in his voice. This was a matter of life and death. He had never imagined that his best friend would doubt his word. The wound of being unbelieved would only add to the agony of the wounds from his abuse.

If I am guilty, then kill me yourself ! Why hand me over to your father?”
“Never!” Jonathan said. “If I had the least inkling that my father was determined to harm you, wouldn’t I tell you?”
1 Samuel 20:8-11

Jonathan was uncertain. He knew his father wasn’t perfect, but it was hard to believe that he was capable of such atrocity. Surely there was some other explanation, some other way to reconcile David’s testimony with his father’s. But he recognized that if he really loved his friend, he would have to consider the possibility that his painful story was true. To deny David’s experience would be to deny their friendship.

Then Jonathan said to David: “By the LORD, the God of Israel, I will surely sound out my father by this time the day after tomorrow! … But if my father is inclined to harm you, may the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I do not let you know and send you away safely. May the LORD be with you as he has been with my father.
1 Samuel 20:12-13

Jonathan started listening to David. He quit trying to smooth things over, quit trying to explain them away, and started seriously listening to David’s terrified, trembling report. He would do whatever it took to verify David’s claims. He would help however he could to get David out of danger, despite the cost to himself.

Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he must die!”
“Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father.
But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him.
1 Samuel 20:30-33

And, as Jonathan would soon experience, uncovering the truth about David’s abuser would cost him greatly. Probing deeper into his father’s relationship with David would reveal the true nature of his father’s relationship with himself. Manipulative accusations. Violent reactions. Now it was Jonathan’s turn to experience pain, terror, and disillusionment. The solidarity of Jonathan’s love for his friend deepened as he shared in his sufferings.

So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD call David’s enemies to account.” And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.
1 Samuel 20:16-17

David was blessed to have a true friend like Jonathan who would walk with him through the messy aftermath of abuse. So many friendships fail to survive this difficult test, disintegrating at the very moment when they are most needed. But a friend who recommits his love in the midst of crisis is a healing friend.

Healing love manifests itself through willingness to share in the sufferings of an abused friend.

True love manifests itself through willingness to share in the sufferings of an abused friend. But when friends and family fail to step up and acknowledge the full horror of abuse, then where else can a desperate, trembling survivor turn?

…but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Proverbs 18:24

His name is Jesus.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
You are my friends, if you do what I command. John 15:13-14

Assaulted but…

If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my refuge–then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91:9-12

“I don’t know how to make sense of this. I thought You were supposed to show up, to protect me from harm. I thought that if I loved You and served You with all my heart, You wouldn’t let anything like this happen to me. I trusted You. I put myself in harm’s way for Your sake. And now look at me…”

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have … defiled his crown in the dust. You have broken through all his walls and reduced his strongholds to ruins. All who pass by have plundered him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
You have put an end to his splendor and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with a mantle of shame.
Psalm 89:38-41, 44-45

Tears ran down my face as my feet pounded the pavement. The physical intensity of running released my pent up emotions, and along with them the agonized cries of my heart. How could I reconcile God’s promises of protection and honor with my experience of being beaten and violated? I didn’t doubt His strength to stop my attackers, nor did I doubt His presence with me as they threw me about and had their way with me. But that left me with a deeper, even more painful question.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?… Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men!
O Lord, where is your former great love… ?
Psalm 89:46-47, 49

Who was I to God? A disposable item, designed to be used up and thrown away? I had been plundered and defiled, broken and discarded. Was that all I was worth to Him? Where was that great love that He had professed for me? I felt more like a sheep handed over to be slaughtered than like a cherished child.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
Romans 8:35-36

A sacrificial lamb. That rang a bell. Jesus had been treated this way, too. Those promises of love and honor and protection had been made to Him, too. Satan had even pulled out that particular psalm to quote to Him, reminding Him that His Father would send angels to protect Him from all harm, even a stone in His path that might threaten His toes.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities… He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
Isaiah 53:5, 7

So why didn’t He? Didn’t Jesus plead with His Father in the garden, begging Him to deliver Him from the evil that was about to happen? And yet the angels didn’t show up. God didn’t intervene. They all stood back and watched as His body was pummeled, His soul was tormented, His life was snuffed out.

The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
Isaiah 50:5-6; Psalm 22:1

If anyone ever had reason to feel unloved by God, to feel completely abandoned by the Father, Jesus did. He subjected Himself to everything that God had called Him to do. He exposed Himself to danger out of loving obedience to His Father. And where did that get Him? Broken. Desecrated. Used up. Dead.

Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me.
Isaiah 50:7-9

And yet God had repeatedly affirmed His love for Jesus in advance. A descending dove. A thundering voice. “My Son. I love Him. I delight in Him.” Jesus knew who He was to God. He knew God would stay true to their relationship, even when it was put through the ultimate test. He endangered Himself because He knew that nothing could come between them. Nothing could separate Him from His Father’s love, not trembling with fear in the garden, not being ripped to pieces by accusers in court, not crying out in abandonment on the cross, not even the silent helplessness of the grave.

“Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Psalm 91:14-16

Jesus endured all these because He believed His story would not end there. He trusted His Father’s love, even when He felt abandoned. He clung to His Father’s promises, even when they seemed forgotten. And sure as the dawn, God came through. The angels showed up to move the stone out of His way. The Most High came down to revive His body, restore His soul, and lead Him to glory.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:37-39

Broken and trembling and messy, I basked in this unfailing love. I drank in the end of Jesus’ story like the parched soul that I was. God had not turned His back on me. And He was not finished with me. Hardship and danger, violence and contempt had certainly taken their toll on me, but they had not succeeded in separating me from His love. Sure as the dawn, God would come through for me, too. He had me by the hand, and He was leading me up the resurrection path to glory.

Romans 8:28-30

Called to Wrestle

I’m a fighter. As a kid, my rebel spirit frequently collided with the older, wiser people in my life. Heated arguments with my big brother, disciplinary sessions at school, corrective lectures at home—all repeated the same clear message: I needed to learn to submit. My insubordinate attitude certainly warranted extra doses of correction, but with such a strong emphasis on submission and obedience, I began to assume that godliness meant being mild and compliant, relating to God and others in submissive surrender. But the story of Israel flies in the face of that assumption.

The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” …
After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.

Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. … Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing.”
Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”
“The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied.
Genesis 25:22, 26; 27:19-20

Jacob had always been a fighter. His pre-natal wrestling matches with his twin brother were a cause for great alarm (and discomfort) for their mother. He came into the world grabbing onto Esau’s heel, stubbornly refusing to let go or be left behind. Throughout childhood Jacob tussled with his brother for first place in the family, conning him of his birthright and cheating him of his blessing. For years he grappled with his cunning uncle Laban over ladies and livestock, eventually emerging the victor with four wives, twelve sons, and a massive horde of wealth.

The spunky, tenacious spirit that God instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him.

But the one superior with whom Jacob had never wrestled was God. Rather, he had been content to maintain a reverent but distant relationship with the One whom he referred to as his father’s God. Jacob had spoken with Him at critical times in his life, but these encounters had usually been initiated by God. For the most part, Jacob’s own cunning and strength had seemed sufficient to overcome the challenges he faced. He appreciated God’s assistance along the way, but so far he had avoided entering into the kind of intense, life-defining relationship with God that his grandfather Abraham had modeled.

Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.” He spent the night there …
Genesis 32:9-11, 13

God was not content to leave it there. He had created Jacob with his fighting spirit, and He wanted Jacob to engage Him full-on. The night came when Jacob felt most vulnerable and helpless. His brother Esau was coming with a band of 400 men, and Jacob, with his many wives, children, and livestock, was a sitting duck. This was no time to get into a fight, and Jacob knew it. He was scared; his strong will was subdued. In desperation, Jacob initiated an encounter with God. This time he had nothing with which to leverage God’s favor; all he could do was humble himself before God and beg for help. If God had wanted Jacob to relate to Him as a mild, compliant vassal, then this would have been the posture in which He met him. But it wasn’t.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Genesis 32:24-26

Dark night. Mysterious man. Hand-to-hand combat. Strange. For once, Jacob had not picked this fight, but he certainly had no intent of losing it. He knew this was no ordinary opponent; he had seen the angels camping nearby. So he did what came naturally: grab on and refuse to let go. Maybe he could manipulate this man into blessing him. God knew he needed it! Day began to break, and the man seemed to grow desperate. Wrenched hip. Staggering pain! But Jacob still refused to back off. The man pleaded for release. Finally, Jacob had him where he wanted him. Or was it the other way around?

The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Genesis 32:27-31

Finally. Jacob was wrestling with God, and God was delighted. He had wanted Jacob to engage Him, to come directly to Him for blessing rather than to sneak it in his brother’s name. But as a result of the new relationship they had formed this night, God had a new name for Jacob: Israel, “he struggles with God.” This name defined the kind of relationship that God was calling Jacob into. It would define the rest of Jacob’s life and the nation that God would raise up after him.

God loves fighters. Yes, He demands our whole-hearted respect and life-long submission, but He did not create us to grovel like slaves. The spunky, tenacious spirit that He instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him. For reasons beyond my understanding, He delights in our gutsy engagement. Like our predecessor Israel, we are called to wrestle with God.

After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.
(which means ‘God, the God of Israel’)
Genesis 33:18, 20

Heard.

Shouting. Calling out. Trying to explain. Failing to be heard. There are times when I feel that I am living out one of those vivid nightmares in which I am trapped and calling out to friends and loved ones, but no one hears me. They are so close I can see their faces as they laugh and interact with each other, but nothing I do can get them to notice my desperate plight. Am I invisible to them? Don’t they hear my silent shouts for help? Despairing and worn out from the effort, I am tempted to withdraw into the background and resign myself to being helpless and alone in my misery.

As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.
Luke 18:35-43

Bartimaeus didn’t quit shouting. Blind, helpless, without an advocate, he sat at the fringe of the crowd calling out. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Who would stop and notice his plight? Who would bring his needs to Jesus? But the people who could have walked with him to healing stopped only to obstruct his efforts. Rebuked. His complaining was disturbing their peace. Silenced. If he kept voicing his needs, they might have to be inconvenienced or get emotionally involved. Despite the callousness of their responses, Bartimaeus refused to quit crying out to Jesus. He clung to the belief that God cared, that His earthly representative would listen and respond. And He did.

You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.
Psalm 10:17

Several of you have written me personally about your own experiences of being trapped and alone in the middle of hardship and grief. I have felt honored that you would entrust me with your stories, the deep, unspeakable sorrows that leave you wounded and vulnerable. I feel, though, that your voices need to be heard by more ears than just mine. What you are suffering is real. It needs to be shared with others who feel like they are alone in similar circumstances. It also needs to be heard by those who want to understand but struggle to. With your permission, I have compiled some of your quotes for all of us to hear.

All these years I’ve felt alone in my physical and emotional anguish. I felt judged for questioning the platitudes of Christianese.

You have given words to things I have been feeling for years. Perhaps these few sentences explain why I no longer feel connected to “the church”… It was not “acceptable” to have the negative feelings I felt and so I stopped sharing those feelings with people who should have loved me through. Love did not compel them to acknowledge or share my emotional realities. I want to feel connected, but don’t have any idea where to start so I just wait…

It is just hurtful when the legitimate heart ache I feel is brushed aside as though it is nothing.
 I guess I find myself withdrawing from people mostly because I have been getting lots of cliches, “God’s got a plan,” type thing. True, yes, He does. I find people minimize the entire situation… “It could be worse.” I don’t really feel like going to church anymore… Is church a place of worship–or performance?

… ‘hurt’ with me…to feel the depth of my pain and not dismiss it as if it doesn’t exist or to have had enough of me/it if I don’t bounce back in a time frame that seems ‘reasonable’… A heart that loves deeply hurts deeply. If we can’t ache and suffer honestly with the body then who can we do it with?

The people who have made me feel most cared for in times of difficulty have been the ones who are willing to really listen, to find out how my heart is, not just the facts of the situation. Really walking with someone through a trial takes time, but we are called to bear one another’s burdens, to lean in and hear them, not rush off to the next thing. I think the Holy Spirit will prompt us as to who needs our care and when, if we are sensitive to His leading.

I think this…we have to WANT to show love in this way…a way that is foreign and uncomfortable to some…

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.
Psalm 116:1-2

Healing Tears

My guts were spilled all over my friend’s lap. I had just admitted to her the full details of the horrific trial that I was still in the aftershocks of, details so deeply damaging that it had taken me a long time to admit them to myself. I hadn’t meant to say it all to her. My recent experiences with other friends had taught me to be afraid of being so open. Would she avert her eyes and change the subject? Would she try to convince me why it really wasn’t that bad? Would she deny my experience altogether or think of me as a lesser Christian because I continued to be so affected by it? Fear of further wounding made me want to withdraw from our friendship, but I just could not continue to bear this much pain on my own.

She wept.

As the tears spilled silently down her cheeks, all my carefully restrained emotions came bursting out. Up to this point I had walked around as if in a dream, carefully reporting the facts as if they had happened to someone else. I had been incapable of releasing the tidal wave of emotions that were crushing my spirit from within. My friend’s response informed my soul that it was finally safe. Her tears gave me permission to cry.

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 though it.”
John 11:3-4

Jesus comforted His friends in the same way. Mary and Martha’s world had been rocked by the sudden loss of their brother and all the stability, protection, and love that he had provided. Their minds where reeling with the shock; their hearts were broken by the truth. Lazarus was gone, permanently and finally gone. Jesus knew better, but He didn’t say so. He made room for their pain, listening tenderly to their agonized questions and engaging them in their sorrow. He did not repeat the line about God having a good plan, even though it was true. He did not interrupt their grieving process with a quick fix, even though He could.

He wept.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at this feet and said, “Lord, if you had ben here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, LORD,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
John 11:32-36

Sincere, heart-broken tears, flowing down the face of God. The Almighty, weeping. Why? Because those He loved were weeping. Because He is not the kind of friend who stands far off, afraid to be affected by our pain. Because what His friends needed right then was compassion, not answers or solutions. Jesus’ tears communicated His love in a way no words or miracles could. This time, Jesus healed the sick in heart through tears.

Jesus healed the sick in heart through tears.

Jesus cries for us for when can’t cry for ourselves. His plans for our suffering and His power to overcome it don’t preclude His tears for us in the midst of it. For some reason I have yet to understand, He values the process of our grieving too much to resolve it prematurely. When we weep with those who weep, we enter into their pain the same way God enters into ours. Our tears offer a healing balm, the tangible evidence of God’s compassionate love.

He bore our grief and carried our sorrows. Isaiah 53:4

Lamenting Lessons

“I feel so distant from you. My life is a living hell, and I can’t escape it. Miserable. Alone. Overwhelmed. Relentless trials. Ruthless people. I’m not sure I can go on living like this. Disconnected from everyone else. Cut off from you. Why don’t you listen to me? I feel like you don’t care. Don’t you want me to be whole? You are the one in control of my life. You are the one who is ruining it. Darkness is a better friend to me than you are. I don’t understand. I feel like you’ve betrayed our relationship, but I don’t want to quit on us. So I’m telling you how I feel and asking you to answer me.  Yes, I’m complaining, but I‘m complaining to you! I won’t pretend that everything is fine between us, but I want it to be. I’m going to keep telling you about it so that we can work this out. Listen to me!” (my paraphrase of Psalm 88)

O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88

How do we pray to the one who is wounding us? How do we relate to the God who is orchestrating our mess? We can pretend like it’s not really Him. We can focus on His goodness and live in denial over the pain He brings. Or we can get angry and withdraw. We can turn away and refuse to communicate with Him. But neither of these responses will bring reconciliation to our damaged relationship. Neither will bring resolution to the wound festering within our own soul.

We understand the need for conflict resolution within human relationships, but conflict resolution with God is not really that different. It requires honesty, open communication, and dogged perseverance. It takes unswerving commitment to the relationship and a willingness to wrestle back and forth until both parties emerge heard, understood, and re-united.

Laments are conflict-resolution prayers. They are gutsy refusals to quit on our relationship with God or to settle for a polite, distant co-existence with Him. When we read the whole Bible and not just the nice, tidy parts, we run into lengthy sections of messy people screaming out their anguish to God. Unspeakable horrors. Irreverent feelings. Dangerous questions. All the things that would shock the stockings off our Sunday school teachers, brought right into God’s presence and laid out in the form of a complaint before His holy throne. Are we really allowed to be so bold? With all that is on the line, we can’t afford not to be.

Laments are gutsy refusals to quit on our relationship with God.

Thankfully, God not only allows us to lament, He teaches us how to do it. The Psalms and the prophets provide excellent models for how to voice our complaints to God. He even provides the words ahead of time for His people to use in their hour of despair. When Jesus cried out His agonizing question to God on the cross, He was merely borrowing the words that had been provided for Him centuries in advance through the Psalms.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22:1-2

Whether we borrow the words of Scripture or come up with our own words to express the agonized cries of our hearts, we are following in good footsteps. Lament has long been the prayer of the faithful. We could use some lessons in this lost art.

Teach your daughters how to wail: teach one another a lament.
Jeremiah 9:20