Oh Death Where is Your Victory?: Death and Dying in a Time of Crises

Like so many other social institutions in lieu of the outbreak of COVID-19, churches have decided to suspend their services indefinitely. However, churches are part of something that itself is more than just a social institution, for most members of most churches are also members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

As the Church then, a transtemporal, transcultural and transcendent community, this global pandemic presents each of us with a serious question: to what extent do we allow the fear of the reality of death shape our decisions in life? The apostle James had something to say about man’s plans in light of death, and that in a time when the experience of death, and death from disease, was much more commonplace, and much more difficult to prevent:

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (Jas 4:13-17)

Clearly, life and death can seem at times very ephemeral, even arbitrary. After all, what decides who dies, at what time, and under what circumstances? If God is not providentially in control over the course of human affairs, then there are perhaps two options for what determines life or death: either chance, or the human will. But, in a time of viral pandemic, clearly the human will plays a limited role in such a decision. For, as James points out, while we may intend this or that, or plan for “x” or “y,” there seems to be forces at work that are simply beyond man’s control; we can neither facilitate a positive outcome, nor avoid a negative one, despite all our best efforts. When it comes to natural forces, we are struck by our own frailty. When it comes to viruses, or tsunamis, we are out of control.

Either it is in the Lord’s hands, or in no hands at all.

So, that leaves chance. And, if chance is the ultimate arbiter of things, then the age-old philosophical question remains: is it better to exist, or not to exist? Shakespeare put it this way in his play Hamlet:

To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them.

Hamlet’s inquiry rings eternally true: Do we resign to passive suffering and inaction, or do we “wage war” against the tyranny of chance? Can we will pain and suffering out of our daily experience? Can we eliminate it through meticulous planning, positive thinking, and an endless, political process aimed at perfecting the world’s brokenness?

However, both of these options, passive resignation and defiant effort, often end in their own tragedy, and often have ended in great human atrocity, especially if the ultimate purpose of human existence has been gradually forgotten, or expressly rejected. The razor’s edge of balancing virtuous action with maniacal control, presents itself poignantly in times like these. For, if we passively resign to the evil in the world, even the natural evil of disease and disaster, then we sacrifice what we all take to be a fundamental good, namely, the value of life itself. To resign to do nothing in the face of crisis may have a certain mystical or stoic attraction, but all thing equal just seems outright inhuman to give up when there is a real chance to live, and even live well! To lie down and die, is not the answer. Virtue requires some kind of positive action, some response to pain, some alleviation of suffering.

Yet, if we overreact, and try to exert our will over all manner of brokenness and decay in this finite world, we easily fall prey to acting in ways themselves destructive, manipulative, and life-inhibiting. We can become so fearful of death itself, so anxious about crossing over into that distant land, that we engage in tyrannical behavior, enacting draconian measures to prevent death at all costs!

As C.S. Lewis put it so wisely during one of mankind’s most horrible man-made tragedies (World War II), we must see that the greatest evil is not death, but sin and human corruption:

The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil. Nor am I greatly moved by the fact that many of the individuals we strike down in war are innocent. That seems, in a way, to make war not worse but better. All men die, and most men miserably. That two soldiers on opposite sides, each believing his own country to be in the right, each at the moment when his selfishness is most in abeyance and his will to sacrifice in the ascendant, should kill [each] other in plain battle seems to me by no means one of the most terrible things in this very terrible world.

(C.S. Lewis, Why I Am Not A Pacifist)

In this time of great crises, albeit one not a man-made one like war, but due to an illness that is part of the very fabric of a fallen, natural world, Christians must give an answer that walks the fine-line between these two, despairing views of death: one that says we must simply succumb to nature “red in tooth and claw,” and the other that says “we must protect physical existence, even to the point of vicious and tyrannical behavior.” For historical crises like this one, will inevitably raise the questions in all of us: “for what reason ultimately am I here?,” and “in what, or in whom, do I put my faith and hope for the future?”

As the Church, we must then cry out in prophetic overtures that even this virus, COVID-19, is but part of God’s providential plan over all of human affairs, and that it, COVID-19, is subject to the Divine Will, and subordinate to the Goodness of that Will. That Will, the One that determines all things, neither expects us to roll over and die in the face of tragedy, nor does it expect us to solve the problem of death on our own. What that Divine Will wills for us is first repentance, then action; action in faith, and action in love.

For we should fear, but not death, rather we should fear the one who has the power over life and death!

Thus we recognize, as the authors of scripture did, that Death can have no victory, neither in its actual occurrence, nor in its psychological hold, if we are true believers in Jesus Christ. For death, as Lewis reminds us, is not the worst thing. Far worse than death is sin. Far worse indeed; for sin is eternal death, and that is a death not limited to what takes place only after our hearts fail, and our brains cease to function. That death is occurring every day, COVID-19, or no COVID-19.

In sum, let us as the Church not hesitate to do what we can to fight against this outbreak, to do everything within reason to combat illness, and save human life. However, let us also not put so much faith in our own efforts, and that out of a fear of pain and death, that we engage in sin and vice, in order to prevent that which is inevitable to all of us, us miserable men, and women, who are destined to die. The real question then remains, unto what or unto whom will we die? Unto death, or unto eternal life?

55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Spiritual Formation

A robust vision of Christian education and discipleship is grounded in the pursuit of sacred knowledge, knowledge of God and His activity in the world that can be discovered through various intellectual and spiritual disciplines. In this series we are discussing four main domains of Christian education: Biblical and Systematic Theology, Church History, Spiritual Formation, and Christian Apologetics. In this post, I will look at the domain of Spiritual Formation, which focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

What is Spiritual Formation?

Of the four, foundational domains of Christian education and discipleship we are exploring, the practice of Spiritual Formation is perhaps the trickiest, and most elusive to define. Regardless, that there is a process of spiritual formation for the believer, i.e. a way of becoming like Christ, is not only passively assumed in Scripture, but actively commanded:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

The bold text makes clear we are not just to lead people to Jesus for salvation, but also make them disciples, that is learners, of Jesus’ ways. Moreover, we cannot just tell people what those ways are and then be on about our business. The ways of Jesus are not just intellectual, although they must be grasped with the intellect, they are also practical, sometimes even physical (e.g. consider going to a quiet place, so that you can pray). Thus, we cannot simply remind ourselves over and over of the propositional truths of our faith, e.g. “Jesus is one with the Father”, “Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross makes atonement for our sins, etc. Rather, we must have some personal knowledge of the reality that lies behind these propositional truths, a reality beyond the words of our faith that actually causes transformation in our soul: a transformation in our inner life that in turn shapes our outward behavior. We must “practice” the truth, not just know it in theory. The practice of the presence of God, as Brother Lawrence put it, is the lived experience of our faith. It is when the biblical truth is actualized in our very mind and body.

Spiritual Theology and Personal Formation

John Calvin opens his systematic theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion by addressing two kinds of knowledge that the believer must pursue if they are to come into the fullness of the life of Christ:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For in the first place no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain…Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.

Calvin points out here an intimately connected dynamic between the knowledge of God in Himself (Theology proper), and the awareness of our own self (theological Anthropology). There is double-edged sword that must be carefully balanced when wielded; for, as Calvin points out elsewhere, to have too much knowledge of God, apart from how that knowledge relates to one’s self, can cause one to become sterile, even prideful, in his or her Christian walk. Head knowledge is necessary, but head knowledge that fails to get deep into our soul, and shape our inner life, does little to draw us closer to Christ the Person. As Paul says, this kind of knowledge, akin to the knowledge of the Pharisees, can “puff up” and make us arrogant.

However, on the flip side, knowledge or awareness of the self without a proper knowledge of our Creator, and all the truths that relate to that Creator, can take us down a rabbit trail of self-exploration that ends in self absorption. To introspect without reference to “God knowledge” is to try to do sanctification without the tools necessary to getting us to the right goal, namely, holiness. True knowledge of God, as found in the Word of God, constrains us from thinking too much about ourselves (which can cause pride, but oftentimes also depression), and also guides our formation toward freedom in Christ. In this sense we need both Spiritual Theology, and Personal Formation: knowledge of God, and knowledge of self.

Spiritual Theology

While these two categories may be a bit artificial, some Christians who specialize in this area of discipleship, first define Spiritual Theology, or how the Holy Spirit works in the world, and the heart of the human person. Spiritual Theologians often referenced in the history of this reflection on the Christian life are men like St. John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi, Brother Lawrence, A.W. Tozer, and Dallas Willard; and women like Theresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich.

Jordan Aumann, a Catholic theologian, gives a concise definition of Spiritual Theology in his book of the same title:

Christian spirituality is therefore a participation in the mystery of Christ through the interior life of grace, actuated by faith, charity, and the other Christian virtues. The life that the individual receives through the participation in Christ is the same life that animated the God-man, the life that the Incarnate Word shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit; it is, therefore, the life of God in the august mystery of the Trinity. Through Christ, the spiritual life of the Christian is eminently Trinitarian.

That is a definition of spiritual theology that Evangelical Protestants should have no problem accepting. It is thoroughly biblical and historical. However, as Evangelicals, there are some aspects of some forms of Spiritual Theology that must be appropriately scrutinized, and, as always, subjected to the clear teachings of the canonical Scriptures. Spiritual Theology is related to, albeit different than, both ascetic and mystical theology; categories that also in themselves are not foreign to an orthodox Christian life, but that can, like Scripture itself, be handled or engaged in carelessly. Ascetic and mystical theology not anchored in both the Word of God and the Church’s long history of orthodox doctrine, can open one up to false teachings, or experiences that might lead one astray from the truth of the Christian faith.

In this sense, like any part of our faith, we must be wise about how we do Spiritual Theology. Good spiritual theology will never abandon the need for God’s grace, the primacy of faith over works, and the centrality of the person and work of Christ. Further, we must realize that much spiritual theology has been done within the confession of the Roman Catholic Church. As such, while there is much we can glean from Roman Catholics who have written on Spiritual Theology, there may also be theological doctrines of the Roman Catholic church entailed in a spiritual theologian’s views that may be at odds with our Evangelical understanding of Scripture and authority.

Thus, for the Evangelical Christian to engage in Spiritual Theology is to focus on the work and presence of the Holy Spirit as we read Scripture, repent of our sins, give God adoration and praise, entreaty God for help and assistance, and thank Him for all we have, and all we do not have. As one of the great, contemporary spiritual theologians, J.I. Packer, points out, Spiritual Theology is essentially about God’s power toward us, and our “keeping in step” with that power. However, this is not something mechanistic, as if we can access God’s power through some magic formula, or through some set of rules. God is a person, so to know and partake of His power is only possible through the quality of our personal relationship with Him. And that means desiring to be with God, so that we can be more like Jesus.

That said, some Spiritual Theologians that we can readily embrace, at least in part, are: St. John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence, St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas a’ Kempis, and Hans Urs von Balthasaar (who called Spiritual Theology “kneeling theology”), Martin Luther, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oswald Chambers, A.W. Tozer, J.I. Packer and Dallas Willard.

Personal/Spiritual Formation

How our theology affects our inner life and ultimately our outward behavior can be called spiritual or personal formation. This is really just another way to speak about our sanctification, but sanctification has often seemed to be the more nebulous part of our life in Christ, in contrast to salvation. Our sanctification has to do with formation, or as Dallas Willard put it:

The human spirit is an inescapable, fundamental aspect of every human being; and it takes on whichever character it has from the experiences and the choices that we have lived through or made in our past. That is what is means to be ‘formed.’

Ultimately our Master is Jesus, and we must learn from Scripture what He taught us, so that we can be formed by both the Word and the Spirit, and not just by our life of choices and experiences. Also, ultimately, the Divine Agent that does the work of forming our soul is the Holy Spirit. But, there is a cooperative (or concursive) action that occurs in this forming process. So, while God is always the person who enables and brings about any real change in our soul, it is attested both in creation, and through Scripture, that God also allows us to participate in that very work of transformation. In this participatory act of opening ourselves up to God’s Spirit, we practice the Spiritual Disciplines so that we can experience God’s work in our life. In doing this, we inevitably begin engaging in the cultivation of certain spiritual virtues. It is in virtue of these virtues that we become like Christ, the man who is the summum bonum of the moral life, and the ultimate goal of our hard-fought journey. Paul speaks of this process in terms of the athlete (1 Cor 9:24-26).

Willard goes on to highlight the importance of allowing our souls to be cultivated by the Holy Spirit, saying:

In today’s world, famine, war, and epidemic are almost totally the outcome of human choices, which are expressions of the human spirit…[and] Individual disasters, too, very largely follow upon human choices, our own or those of others. And whether or not they do in a particular case, the situations in which we find ourselves are never as important as our responses to them, which come from the ‘spiritual’ side. A carefully cultivated heart will, assisted by the grace of God, foresee, forestall, or transform most of the painful situations before which others stand like helpless children saying ‘Why?’

What Willard is essentially saying is that a well-formed soul, one formed by the work of the Holy Spirit, will not only not be the source of war, strife, pain and suffering in the world, but will also be able to display the fruits of the Spirit, the life of Christ, in the midst of war, strife, pain and suffering, and that in such a way as to show the non-believing world that stands clueless before evil and suffering like a child, who Jesus Christ really is, and why He is worth knowing.

In other words when the world smacks us in the face, will be return the favor, or will we bleed the blood of true righteousness, like Christ?

Conclusion: A Necessary, but Tricky Area of Knowledge

Spiritual Formation is necessary to the life of the believer. It is where we come to know God intimately as He relates to our own personal life, our own story, if you will. Without spiritual growth we stagnate in our emotional maturity, and in the kinds of virtues God has called us to live into (see Galatians 5:22-26); as well as avoiding the vices that are common to our flesh (see Galatians 5:19-21).

However, Spiritual Theology and Formation, like any other Christian discipline or pursuit, has its pitfalls, its “gray areas” of which we must be aware. Spiritual theology not rooted in Scripture can devolve into syncretism, or personal mysticism. This is to be avoided. As such we must be wise about our engagement in spiritual theology, and the spiritual disciplines that coordinate with it.

In sum, however, there are many resources for us to grow in this area. Great men and women of Christ have paved much of the way for us to learn and grow in our personal knowledge of Christ. Good spiritual theology accompanied by a passionate and persistent desire for prayer and virtue can not only help us break out of sinful habits, and aid in our efforts to react Christ-like to the attacks of the world, it can also open us up to a greater understanding and more profound experience of the Lord our God.

Surviving Suffering: Part III- Spiritual Acts

In two earlier posts I spoke about some practical aspects of suffering as a follower of Christ. I wrote about how placing ourselves in the right kinds of spiritual environments and surrounding ourselves with the right kind of people when battling suffering can help us to victory. Then I spoke about uniquely sensitive times that manifest themselves when we are enduring pain and suffering. In this post I address the kinds of activities we can engage in to help us embrace our own pain and sorrow as co-sufferers with Christ (Phil 3:10-11).

To embrace emotional pain in its fullness, yet not to lose ultimate faith in God, or ultimate hope in His plan, is the existential core of the Christian life. It is the life of the Christ follower most profoundly actualized. Paul says it this way:

But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things…My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death…

Philippians 3:7-10

“I have suffered the loss of all things,” and “My goal is to know Him…and the fellowship of His sufferings.” Let there be no doubt about suffering then, for this is entirely perspicuous. But, Paul is not the only one to tell us directly that to suffer is to in some way come to know God more fully. Jesus Himself says that it is through our pain that we will know His ways:

If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it.

Mark 8:34

Now, it may be possible that these verses have become hackneyed in our eyes. Perhaps they seem tread-worn or trite to those who have heard them for the umpteenth time at home or church. Alas familiarity does not affect veracity. Familiarity doesn’t diminish or change truth values, nor does it alter meaning. Familiarity does not amend what these passages actually refer to, or mitigate the phenomenology of the experiences that they entail. For the reality of suffering is coming, if it is not already here- here with me, and here with you. So, what should we do about it? What do we do when that particular suffering that is particularly yours, or particularly mine, truly arrives?

Prayer and Suffering

The sooner we embrace the reality of our suffering, the sooner we can pray rightly about what we are experiencing. In embracing suffering we acknowledge first that it is in accordance with God’s permissive will that this suffering has been allowed. This association also entails that the suffering is against God’s perfect will, meaning that it is neither authored by God, nor somehow some kind of non-suffering in disguise. Cancer, divorce, murder, injustice are all inherently bad things. But, suffering, nor any particular instance of it, is not random, and while not desired, it is purposeful. Further, within the context of God’s ultimate plan for the world and His chosen people, it is also by design. Purposeful pain and suffering by design, all within the broader context of God’s providence for the entire salvation of the world; this is our starting place as Jesus people. This is the context we must have, lest our suffering begin to appear pointless.

Second, and regardless of who coined it, this phrase rings true (this saying is trustworthy): “A faith gone untested is a faith that can be little trusted.” If you know you truly are a son or daughter of the living God, then you must also know that pain, although having no intrinsic value, is always an opportunity for growth in spiritual strength and spiritual wisdom. Pain, and the endurance of pain, will become that which will make you trustworthy in the eyes of others. The noble endurance of pain is the most poignant mark of true Christian saint. Therefore, one part of pain’s purpose is simply this, your continued growth into becoming a saint among saints.

So, the earlier we embrace our pain as part of God’s redemptive plan, the more readily our prayers become effective prayers, prayers that are reflective of what we know is true about God and how He works in the world. Any notions of God as the great candy man in the sky, or ultimate genie in the bottle, will immediately collapse once we realize the depth of the reality of pain and suffering that a sovereign God allows us to endure, and that he permits to accompany us in this life.

But, this does not mean that our prayers become sanitized or sanctimonious once we accept this fact. Quite the opposite, they become like the prayers of the Psalmist, on the one hand like this:

There is no soundness in my body

because of your indignation;

there is no health in my bones

because of my sin.

For my sins have flooded over my head;

they are a burden too heavy for me to bear.

My wounds are foul and festering

because of my foolishness.

I am bent over and brought low;

all day long I go around in mourning.

For my loins are full of burning pain,

and there is no health in my body.

I am faint and severely crushed;

I groan because of the anguish of my heart.

Psalm 38:3-8

“For my loins are full of burning pain.” Well, there it is, that is real prayer, is it not? But, on the other hand, there is also this:

I waited patiently for the Lord,

and he turned to me and heard

my cry for help.

He brought me up from a desolate pit

out of the muddy clay,

and set my feet on a rock,

making my steps secure.

Psalm 40:1-2

Burning loin pain and feeling like one needs rescue from a deep pit are and always will be the paradoxical experiences of those who follow Christ through suffering. Loss, then gain, lostness, then rescue. Where the difficulty usually comes in for the majority of us is the time in between the two states. It is the time of “patient waiting” that often overwhelms us. It is the “how long, oh Lord” that crushes us.

However, while the world often sees such prayers as desperate last resort, an act one generates when all natural means are exhausted and human hope lost, for the Christ-sufferer prayer is not that at all. Fervent prayer is not a last-ditch attempt to get some new deal from God. It is quite different than that, even if we naturally pray as such, i.e. it is natural to pray that our circumstances would change for the better, after all Christ prays the same way in Gesthemane.

However, fervent prayer for the Christ follower in the midst of great loss, especially persistent fervent prayer over a long, sustained period of loss, just is the concrete expression of authentic Christian faith. It is where Christ-likeness takes shape. It is where the character of Christ is placed upon the co-sufferer, as we are united in our experience of suffering for the Good, for the True, and for the Beautiful. Prayer is the primary locale, the physical and psychical location, where the structure of our soul, our soul’s very ontology, is transformed into something that will be glorious when revealed in all its fullness. It is here, in painful and honest prayer that your soul becomes something other than what it once was. Here is the chance at a more authentic sainthood, here the opportunity for a holiness not of this world, here, in prayer, the moment of transformation. Suffer in this place, and you will know Him. Run, and you will miss Him.

Charity and Suffering

So, if prayer is the first act in the life of the co-sufferer with Christ, and the most transformative one, then what is act two? Act two must be the outward expression of that very inward transformation. Thus, the second act of the Christ-sufferer is to exercise, to practice, and to exert all that has been learned through pain, and this by pouring out wisdom and love in the service of others. In other words, the sufferer now becomes the healer to others who are suffering.

Tragically, those who have suffered, but who have failed to become healers through the acceptance of their suffering, are often the most pitiable of all, since their pain not only remains with them alone, but is left untransformed. Pain not transformed through the acceptance of God’s will and the co-suffering with His Son is often expressed in ways that cause more pain into the world, not less. Untransformed pain generates more hurt, it doesn’t mitigate the hurt already there. Untransformed pain is an embittered pain that seeps out in unsavory ways, rather than exploding in acts of charity, and joy.

Untransformed pain is ugly. Transformed pain, glorious. Thus, for those whose soul is shaped according to Christ-shaped suffering, it becomes clear that others, that the world itself, will benefit from their Christ-shaped pain. Pain that has been transformed begins to heal the world around it, and when we see it, we rightly know its beauty.

In short, the co-sufferer in Christ has two main spiritual acts to her suffering: first, prayer, the kind of prayer that transforms the soul through the embrace of purposeful pain that has a design behind it. And, second, the act of charity, the act of expressing transformed pain out into the world, which then becomes a healing ointment to those who are bleeding out, a light to those in dark places, a hand reaching down into the pit.

Childhood Trauma, Social Justice and The Tragedy of Guilt Transference

I’m of the opinion that the culture we find ourselves in, the culture of social justice “warriors,” snowflakes, safe spaces, gender sensitivity training, “perceived” realities, and “felt needs,” is often, but not always, the result of one group of people (call them the “victim group,” or VG) who in their childhood years were, in some very real way, abused or neglected, and, in carrying that sense of abuse or neglect into their adulthood, these VG people have literally lost the ability to give people they meet as adults the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intentions. 

Now, take another broad group. Call them the “non-victim group” or NVG. Those in the NVG did not experience childhood neglect or trauma, at least not in any egregiously damaging way (no one, after all, is claiming to have had perfect parents, or a tragedy-less life). But, let’s assume that adults in the NVG group were sufficiently provided for in the four cornerstones of any healthy childhood: they felt physically and emotionally safe, they felt personally valued, they were taught that life has a purpose and told that they have the capacity to accomplish that purpose, and they were modeled hope, in that things usually turn out for the best (even if they don’t).

Before I continue, however, I need to make two qualifications to these generalizations. First, not everyone in the VG will necessarily have experienced childhood abuse or neglect. There are other reasons one might be motivated to identify with a VG, some more noble (e.g. there is real social injustice), some quite ignoble (i.e. there is notoriety to attain). One example of the former might be Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s affiliation with the Civil Right’s Movement of the 1960’s. For sake of not wanting to sling mud I won’t mention any examples of the latter, but simply let your mind run free and in seconds I’m sure you will think of one.

Second, I am also not saying that everyone in the NVG has had a childhood free from abuse or neglect. Some folks who find themselves in the NVG as adults have overcome incredible instances of abuse or neglect, and that overcoming is itself a defining feature of their identity of non-victimhood.

That said, however, it seems to me that many people who often feel themselves the victims of offense, folks who tend to be hypersensitive to common talk, or micro-body movements, or even to the lack of hearing the “right words,” or receiving acknowledgment either verbally or through body language, are not really victims of the person or persons they are in immediate contact with, i.e. those in the NVG. Rather, as victims of someone from their past (usually a parent), someone who truly is guilty of abusing them, but whose abuse cannot be addressed directly by the victim (either out of fear, or distance, or some other factor), VG members simply transfer the anger aimed at the real abuser and ascribe intentions based on that anger to the NVG person with whom they now have direct contact (e.g. a colleague in the workplace, or classmate at school, etc.).

One of the best literary dramatizations of this tendency to transfer guilt from a real offender to an innocent one is found in Charles Dicken’s classic Great Expectations, where Mrs. Havisham, the paradigm example of a jilted lover, dedicates her entire, miserable life to one single-minded mission: carrying out vengeance not against the particular man, Compeyson, who actually did the jilting, but against any man, in this case the unfortunate Pip, who happens to cross her path (via the lovely Estella).

Thus, if this relational dynamic of VG people accusing, often without remorse, and usually without evidence, those in the NVG is not stopped either by producing the actual facts of the matter (something which tends to only happen in courtrooms and with expensive lawyers), or, better yet, through “strong” Christian love found in a church setting, then there will be a persistent and persistently devastating dynamic of people who have not been abused or neglected as children (at least not egregiously so) being unjustly accused, and, these days, even socially and economically ruined, by people who have been abused, but whose abuse happened in the past, and at the hands of another. 

In short, happy, well-adjusted people get screwed over because they fail to undo what has been done to someone who is a victim, but not their victim. Moreover, those of us who are happy become recipients of the same “Pipian” injustice, while Compeyson continues to get off scot free, and Mrs. Havisham descends deeper and deeper into bitterness and contempt. If such a dour relational dynamic is not alleviated within the safe confines of a Gospel-filled, Spirit-empowered church, then it will be hell for the saints, but heaven for the lawyers. Lord help us all!

“Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:4-6)

Surviving Suffering – Part II: In the Morning When I Rise…

In my last post I discussed some ways to handle suffering in the Christian life. There I discussed the kinds of people, places, and things we should surround ourselves with when experiencing hard instances of pain and serious suffering. Here, I want to consider more carefully the idea of time as it applies to our experience of both. What I am interested in is not so much how long a particular instance of suffering lasts (which can often be impossible to predict), but actual times of day and how they are experienced in the life of the faithful co-sufferer with Christ (Phil 1:29, 3:7-11).

It strike me as more than curious that in several of the Psalms the suffering Psalmist is explicit about his feelings at a certain time of day, especially the morning time:

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my request before you and wait expectantly.” (Psalm 5:3)

The NIV translates the Hebrew here as “morning,” but other translations, like my well-worn HCSB Soldiers Bible, translate it as “daybreak.” Daybreak–that in between time when night is subsiding and the sun is just about to penetrate the now morning sky–a spiritually and emotionally sensitive time to be sure. Monastic traditions call this time matins, or “belonging to the dawn.” It is a time for prayer, normally a time to rejoice over the end of the long night vigil, a moment to praise the newborn day.

Surely this twilight period would be a time to greet a new day in cheerful rejoicing; to gather our thoughts, thank God for the breath in our lungs, and prepare for a day of fruitful labor, or grateful play. A short prayer, a quick run, a good coffee, and then off to do what God has called us to rightly do.

However, for the faithful sufferer, the prospect of a new day can be daunting, if not outright despairing. Purpose and meaning can seem faint, if not wholly absent. The world can seem uninteresting and without content for the one who feels lost. Indeed, for the mournful one grappling with thick emotional pain, as the dawn breaks questions can flood into a mind still half asleep, questions that overwhelm the soul: “What’s the point?,” “To what end?,” and most dreadfully, “And why does any of it matter anyway, why does it matter at all?”

In the early morning, when the right brain still engulfs the left, when dream and abstraction are not clearly distinguishable from concrete realities and practical reasons, the sense of wrongness, the brokenness of creation, the knowledge of things being the way they should not be, these can flood into the heart; a sort of existential waterboarding. It can be hard to breath, and the chest can feel heavy. Crushingly heavy.

How really can we worship at a time like this!? Indeed how might we pray, when the morning does not bring us joy, but sorrow, and fear? But, the Psalmist is not unaware of this reality, and the pain that has gripped him through the night is still fresh before him. He relates to us, and we to him:

“I am worn out from my groaning. With my tears I dampen my pillow and drench my bed every night. My eyes are swollen from grief; they grow old because of all my enemies.” (Psalm 6:6-7)

But, all is not lost. For, as our Psalmist also knows, this is a time that our God Himself has ordained to come to us, to all of us who love Him. This is the time when, in the pain of a daybreak, we meet our God in faith:

“But I will sing of Your strength and will joyfully proclaim Your faithful love in the morning. For you have been a stronghold for me, a refuge in my day of trouble.” (Psalm 59:16)

For, to rise from a bed of sorrow, from your bed of sorrow, to stand up and begin another day, your day, is itself to act in the faith of the Risen Christ, and to stand in His strength. To face exactly that hopelessness, your hopelessness, and to do so with but the most modest degree of hope; this is the simple act of faith that we see in the life of our Lord Jesus and in the lives of His people. It is the faith of Paul and Perpetua, of Slessor and Stein, for morning is truly the time of the saints, the time to rise up and squarely look at the day, to look at the day the Lord has made.

So, to move our body up and out of our slumber, out of a bed that feels like tomb, is to move into the life of the resurrection; to walk forward, one step…then another, is to press deeply into the love of God; to acknowledge that time passes and that He is sovereign and that all will be well, is to become like Him who suffered first, to be with Him who suffered most. To greet the morning in prayer in the midst of tragedy– this is not only to know the Man of Sorrows, but to be like Him.

And, in this act of rising, we know we are not alone. We are not alone because something new has happened, something amazing has happened:

“But Mary stood outside facing the tomb [early, while it was still dark], crying.” (John 20:11)

“Woman,” Jesus said to her, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Supposing He was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you’ve removed Him, tell me where you’ve put Him, and I will take Him away.”

Jesus said, “Mary.” (John 20:15-16)

Thus, the act of faith of the sufferer in Christ, this simple act of waking in the morning, of getting out of bed, of facing the dawn; it is not an act of despair, nor is it one without hope. For in that hour of matins, in that twilight of the rising sun, in that moment of prayerful worship, it is then that the Son will meet you, shine upon you, and say your name.

“Everything exposed by the light is made clear, for what makes everything clear is light. Therefore it is said:

Get up, sleeper, and rise up from the dead,

and the Messiah [the Christ] will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)

So, fellow Christ-sufferer, rise up and let Him shine upon you! Rise up and let Him call you by name! Rise up and let Him shine on you! Despite your sorrows, despite your pains. Rise up!