“There is no white or black Christianity, no Hispanic or European Christ. There is no purely reformed or purely catholic Christianity in the denominational sense. These categories can never describe what Christianity truly is because they are meant to divide and categorize not unite. Christ did not offer a way of life only for Jews, Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians. He offered an invitation to be one community, a people drawn together because of their love for him and his way of life. Yet, we continue to be one of the most segregated bodies of people each Sunday we gather to worship. We continue to build churches based on ethnicity, race, age, styles of worship, and neighborhoods. We must recapture the unity in love that Christ intended for his community. We divide because we only see others with temporal eyes using temporal vision. When we see with temporal vision we see black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc. Yet, if we choose to see with eternal eyes, eyes opened up to eternal life when we were born again, we no longer see a divided body of Christ but rather the whole Christ. We must love the whole Christ and in doing so we love as a community first and foremost. Lord, give me eternal vision that I may see you in all people and in the temporal world encounter eternal truth, beauty, and goodness.” – Dominick D. Hankle PhD
Something striking fear into most religiously inclined parents is the idea their child will have doubts about their religious faith. The idea that their child may leave the religious tradition they’ve been raised in is terrifying. Before you get upset about adolescent doubts, remember religious doubt is not something tragic but rather for adolescents, it’s actually more like “religious wonder.” This religious wonder is a natural result of further cognitive and social development.
When young people reach adolescents they’re starting to experience the world differently in two primary ways. They’re now cognitively able to understand abstract ideas more profoundly than before and they’re broadening their social experiences encountering people from many different walks of life. Because of these cognitive and social developments the religion of their childhood needs to respond to the new cognitive and social demands. If it doesn’t and remains a “childhood” religion the adolescent will generally fall into three categories. Let me describe these categories below:
The first category consists of adolescents who begin to wonder about their faith but find the faith of their childhood doesn’t meet the new cognitive challenges they’re experiencing. The childish faith they’ve held onto up to this point can’t provide meaning for new experiences they’re having and therefore they conclude it must be mere fantasy. This group simply gives up on any further spiritual exploration because they’re not encouraged to look deeper into what they’ve been taught. They’re never encouraged to explore other possibilities their faith may provide. Sadly, these young people start off like everyone else having a desire to know and develop a strong faith but because their religious and spiritual formation didn’t provide avenues for further investigation it failed them and they walked away from it.
The second category of adolescents includes young people who never question their faith and compartmentalize it so it doesn’t have to engage their new cognitive development and life experiences. Often these adolescents don’t feel safe exploring new questions because they’ve been led to believe doubt and wonder are evil acts used for questioning legitimate authority. By simply swallowing their beliefs without question they never let them grow, flourish, or deepen thus never providing the individual with answers to new life questions. The result is this simple faith becomes a facet of their lives but never consumes it wholly providing meaning in some of the most important life events human beings experience (i.e. death, marriage, childbirth, etc.). To find deeper meaning these young people may seek other sources to meet intellectual needs. Faith is relegated to an almost insignificant part of their lives.
The third group represents the healthiest response to a faith crisis. This group challenges their childhood religion finding new ways to respond to questions emerging from their new life experiences. Their concepts of God, spirit, eternity, death, life, etc. can be explored from a more mature and cognitively developed perspective. They want to know in what ways spiritual truths help them answer questions they have about life, sex, friendship, marriage, etc. Their sense of wonder doesn’t leave them empty causing them to leave their childhood religion nor does it cause feelings of guilt keeping them from exploring deeper faith issues. This group embraces a sense of spiritual creativity empowering their faith and ultimately causing it to develop with them over a lifetime.
So how can a parent facilitate an adolescent’s healthy sense of wonder to experience a deeper empowering spiritual life? First, you must look long and hard at your own faith life. Have you given yourself permission to explore difficult life questions from a faith perspective? Have you merely kept your spiritual life in the “safe zone” refusing to allow yourself to think creatively about spiritual issues? If you haven’t struggled with your faith over the course of changing life situations you may not be able to give that gift to your child. Perhaps you need to spend some time working on your spiritual development, asking questions about tough topics, and not merely buy into the canned answers about life, love, eternity, or God you absorbed over time. Know the core spiritual truths of your faith tradition so you can guide your children appropriately in what is true while still giving them room for exploration.
Secondly, you have to foster a safe environment for your adolescent to explore, wonder, and question the precepts of their faith. Parents often feel threatened believing their adolescent’s questioning of the faith will lead him or her to leave the family’s religious faith. On the contrary, when someone doesn’t ask questions about their religion, seek deeper meaning from their faith, or is afraid to explore doubt, that’s when they struggle to maintain a spiritual life. Doubt and wonder are the mechanisms allowing for cognitive development and faith to engage one another, not the means for an over intellectualism that denies it.
If we have matured in our faith and have provided a safe place for adolescents to express wonder and healthy doubt, what’s next? The answer is simple. Talk with your teenager.
As a therapist, spiritual director, and professor, I’ve found there are two subjects parents seldom discuss with their children. Religious families in particular avoid these topics because they fear the first and assume the other is learned automatically. The first topic is sex. Parents assume their children will just somehow understand human sexuality because the Holy Spirit will fall out of the sky and provide the answers their child needs. Any parent thinking seriously about the wellbeing of their child should be comfortable answering questions about sex when their children begin to ask questions about it. Sex will be a part of their lives and if you don’t help them understand it other less invested sources will. Additionally, instead of waiting for your child to ask questions, parents should initiate that conversation when their children’s bodies mature showing physiological signs of sexual development. Likewise, when children develop cognitively and are thinking more deeply about abstract topics it’s time to talk about spiritual things with them in a more mature way. It’s time to allow your child to explore, wonder, and think about God in new and different ways. We can’t be afraid of young people’s new sense of wonder and doubt, we must allow it to happen and guide them in developing a spiritual life that’s helpful, meaningful, and healthy.
So let me simply say if you want children to grow and mature in their spiritual life be willing to grow and mature in yours. Then, provide an environment where you’re willing to allow your child to explore, question, and wonder about God as well as the faith they’ve inherited. Don’t be threatened, rather assume the posture of a guide willing to walk with them through their questions. Lastly, be willing to talk to your child about their questions. Invest yourself in their spiritual walk and guide them in what’s true, right, good, and beautiful. A child develops an understanding of God by how well you interact with them. Psychologists recognize all human beings develop a “God image”, an emotional experience of God, and the primary source of this psychological experience of God is how parents treat and interact with their children. Your child will come to appreciate God as loving and encouraging intellectual pursuits because you’ve done that for them their whole life. So I encourage you to be a source of love, light, comfort, and wisdom for your child and they’ll grow a deep spiritual maturity serving them until the day they close their eyes only to open them in the next life gazing upon the face of God.
This was a reflection from last year during Lent, I still find it thought provoking today. I just wanted to share it….. Enjoy:
I’m very troubled these days. The Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, the very community in which I’m ordained a priest asked its members to do two things for lent. First, we’re asked to wear a cross in a very visible way so our Christianity cannot be hidden. Secondly, we’re asked to pray for the persecuted Christians in the world. So many of them have died simply because they follow Christ. In the United States we take for granted the freedom to publicly practice our faith. After only four days of doing what appeared to be two simple things I’m troubled with where it has led me.
Reflecting on the persecuted Christians led me to think about the 21 Coptic men who were beheaded by ISIS (This occurred Feb.12th, 2015) . Each one at their death voiced the words “Lord Jesus Christ.” What a powerful witness to the faith! I never thought I would live to see such a display of martyrdom. I’ve always known people were suffering for their faith, but the fact this has been so publicly displayed makes the persecutions very “real.” It has led me to question my commitment to the Christian faith. Do I have the strength to die for the Lord as these men did? We are so comfortable in our American Christian experience bickering over how worship services should look and whether the coffee is warm enough at the cafe in the church lobby that we forget the Christian experience is about much deeper things. We are caught up in sermons reducing the Christian message to lectures about whether or not Christ rose from the dead to those saying our love for Jesus will bring prosperity, wealth, and psychological comfort. What a weak Christianity we embrace…… How lifeless the Gospel is when it’s merely something to entertain those who walk in our churches instead of offering them eternal life by embracing the way of the cross.
Reflecting on these 21 Saints who gave their lives for their Lord causes me to think of how little we give ourselves over to something bigger. So many of us don’t know what it means to transcend our isolated individual existence. As I write this I’m watching the movie “Glory” which portrays the story of an African American union regiment in the Civil War. As I watch the battle scenes I think, “Why would these men volunteer to march into a storm of led fully knowing their chances of surviving are small? What causes soldiers of any generation to charge forward knowing they’re likely to be killed or maimed for life? All I can think is somehow, knowingly or not, they transcend their individual experiences to be a part of something bigger. In some way they overcome their “individual selves” to embrace their “corporate selves.” The soldiers in this movie decided they were part of something bigger and therefore overcame their fear and transcended their individual sensibilities to embrace something bigger.
While I don’t know what these 21 men were thinking as they were being killed, I can imagine in some way they transcended their individual Christian lives to embrace the sense they were part of something bigger. They believed they were part of the body of Christ. Somehow they felt their martyrdom was not an individual experience, but a martyrdom of the whole body of Christ. Their martyrdom is our martyrdom and we must claim it as our own. Regardless if one is Coptic, Greek, Roman, Anglican, or any other flavor of Christianity, we must recognize the body of Christ is being persecuted, not a separate Christian group with which we are loosely connected. This Sunday every church should proclaim the life giving Gospel that empowered these men to proclaim Christ as they died. Churches must cleanse themselves of the weak Gospel feeding the egos of pastors, celebrities, and middle class executives and replace it with one reminding all of us we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. Christians can no longer see themselves as separate islands in an ocean of denominations; they are simply Christians. Christians who are going to their death because they are followers of Christ, the God and savior of all.
Parents of special needs children are special people, plain and simple. As a therapist I’ve worked with families of children diagnosed with autism, mental retardation, or who simply display behaviors most of the world can’t understand. I hate using labels to describe people and the more you get to know the families of special needs kids the more you understand why labels are only useful for the medical world, not the life of these children or the families in which they’re loved. The same can be said of individuals who struggle with physical disabilities. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching these individuals as young adults in a college setting and I’m always struck with how well they work through their particular situation in order to be successful in the class. People with disabilities, mental and physical, often demonstrate what’s best about being human; the fact we’re responsible for writing our own narrative. We don’t have to follow a life story someone else writes for us.
Most people carry around in their heads a life script that describes the projected course of their lives. When we’re 18 years of age we believe we will go to college or some other school to acquire skills for employment, meet someone we can love and then after some time marry, and eventually have children of our own. We believe these children will be healthy, go to school, make friends, and eventually do the same things we’ve done thus establishing a family consisting of mom, dad, children, and grandchildren. It’s the narrative we carry in our heads believing life MUST follow that path. Yet what I often discover when counseling or ministering to people is this storyline frequently changes. Some life event causes the story to take an unexpected turn and the individual sitting in the counseling room struggles to make sense of that shift. In the end my job is to help them rewrite their own narrative so it’s meaningful for them.
People with disabilities and their families have had to write their own narrative from the start. They’ve had to forge a path very different from their peers and create a story allowing them to accomplish things in unexpected ways. Importantly these families have to remain solution focused and advocate for one another and the children they’re parenting. Sure, the disabled may not be able to accomplish the many “traditional” successes other people achieve like working at professions requiring particular physical and mental skills, but they can accomplish many amazing things. Importantly we need to recognize the things they accomplish are not “less” of an accomplishment, they’re as grand a human achievement as any. What matters most is the stories their lives tell continues to speak about the majesty of the human person, created in the image of God, and capable of transcending the limitations this fallen world places upon us.
I’ve discovered it’s important to keep from feeling sorry for these wonderful people. Yes, I recognize the challenges they face and the difficulties they encounter. In particular, I see the self-sacrifice parents make to ensure their children write their own narrative about what life means and how to accomplish the good things God intends for them. If anything, they’re an inspiration about what it means to be a parent regardless of a child’s conditions. Oh if those of us raising children without disabilities learned to love and give as these parents do! No, I don’t want to feel sorry for these people but help them in crafting this new narrative regarding the human condition.
In the end I want to say simply this. If you’re a parent of a disabled child or if you’re disabled yourself you have a story to tell the world that’s unique, challenging, but also inspirational. Your accomplishments matter and speak to those who aren’t disabled about the greatness of being human. I work with a woman who has no arms or legs yet everyday she comes to work advising graduate students about their program of study and has a magnificent Christian motivational speaking ministry. You can find information about her here if you like. I constantly learn from her example. I’m encouraged by her bravery, and inspired by her commitment to live her life to its fullest. I have a student who has multiple sclerosis who attends classes at the university. This young man is a top student, fully participates in discussions, is an officer in the on-campus club for our department, and is going to graduate school next year. With the support of his family he is accomplishing more than many undergraduate students accomplish who have no disabilities.
So let me close this brief dialogue with this simple thought. Thank you to all the families of disabled children and to all the disabled individuals who every day show us being human is not so much the condition in life you start with but rather how much we’re willing to transcend that condition and display great virtues like fortitude and courage. In a sense we’re all “disabled” because our human condition is not that which God intended it to be. The fact we all live in a fallen broken world means in some way we’re all struggling to be the very thing we were created to be. Yet it’s you, those writing your own life story about accomplishment that reminds the rest of us who too easily fall into the standard story line that we were meant to be more than we are. God bless you for being inspirational families and people, and God bless you for the great things he will do through you.
Christians have a strange connection with grief. In the first place, death no longer has a hold on who we are which implies grief is misplaced (or so some would say). The scriptures teach the following regarding death:
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
One can also find in the life of the early Christians that death seems to have been something viewed as a mere transition and nothing to grieve about. You get that sense when reading the account of early Christian life below:
“And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another near. “ (Aristides, a second century philosopher describing the early Christian community)
So many times people come to me for counseling because they’re struggling with the death of a loved one. One needs to be careful about grief counseling because grief in and of itself is normal, not abnormal. We don’t want to pathologize someone mourning the loss of a person he or she loved. If grief becomes so intense it impacts someone’s ability to function then he or she might need counseling, but overall a general sense of loss is acceptable and doesn’t require professional help. More than a professional consultation someone grieving just needs time and the loving care of other people. Grief is often best healed through the support of family and friends carrying the burden of the loss together until one can carry that burden alone. Yet for many grieving Christians a more complex emotional configuration emerges because grief is often associated with guilt. You can see how guilt finds its way into a Christian’s experience of grief if you just revisit the above passage from 1st Corinthians and the account of Aristides regarding the Christian life. The question inserting itself into the Christian’s mind through the mourning process is “Why do I feel such a sense of sadness when I know the person who died is in a better place?” The Christian is confused because feeling the need to mourn their loved one contradicts the idea that this loved one is in a better place with Christ. Rather than mourn it seems the logical emotional response should be one of joy and happiness for that individual’s new life with God. The incongruence between how they feel and what they know about eternity causes them to ask questions like, “I must not truly believe.” Another emotion some Christian mourners express is one of feeling selfish. The idea that one’s sadness is a reflection of their selfish need to have the person in their life rather than let the deceased be with God causes the mourner to think they’re being selfish. Grief and mourning for the Christian can be a confusing experience.
Let me share some thoughts with those of you experiencing feelings of guilt, confusion, and grief over the loss of someone you loved. First, mourning is a natural response to the fact you will no longer have someone you cared about in your everyday life for emotional support, companionship, and security. In psychology we talk about “attachments” which are psychological connections we make with people because they meet particular needs in our lives. We all make emotional/psychological attachments and our hope is these attachments will be stable, secure, and provide support throughout the life of the relationship. When that attachment is working well a deep subconscious connection forms making us feel safe and able to be ourselves with that individual. Attachments primarily occur between children and parents but these basic attachments can then be used as a template for attaching to romantic partners, friends, our own children to some degree, etc. They help us form emotional relationships. When death rips that attachment apart our psychological self feels a great sense of pain. You can’t ignore that pain. If you do, you cause yourself even greater psychological dysfunction. Grieving is a way of healing the break caused by death. God created us to have these connections with other people and he created us with a process for healing the breaks that occur when the connection crumbles. It’s not sinful to feel pain and grieve, it is a natural response to a difficult situation.
Secondly, having feelings of pain and sadness doesn’t imply you have a weak faith and an unbelieving heart. What we know in our minds doesn’t always direct what we feel in our hearts, particularly in a short span of time. Grief is an immediate emotional pain. You can’t just talk yourself out of emotional pain, it takes time. What you believe about the afterlife is a powerful “healing tool” that can be applied over and over again during the healing process. By reminding yourself your loved one is in a better place you use that truth of the Christian faith as a source of comfort over and over again slowly numbing the pain you’re experiencing. We need not question our beliefs or feel guilty because of how we feel rather we can use what we know as an instrument for helping the healing process.
Reviewing the short quote above from Aristides helps us discover there’s more to his idea that “They rejoiced” then first uncovered. Aristides also remarks they rejoiced “as if he were setting off from one place to another near.” That reminds us we can feel sad because our loved one has journeyed to a place we can no longer directly experience them just as one might go on a trip across the world leaving us to mourn them in that way. It’s natural to feel a loss when someone we love travels far from us. However, our loved one is not as far as we might think. Just as the earthly traveler settles in another country leaving us with only the means of a phone call to shorten the distance, our loved one’s travelling to heaven also leave us a way to shorten the distance between them and us. The memories we created in this life allow us to bring them close whenever we need. We can rejoice in the life they lived; loving us, supporting us, and being a great companion, friend, son, daughter, or spouse. Yet that rejoicing doesn’t have to replace the pain we feel, it’s just another tool helping us live our lives without them. Believing in an eternal life where we will see our loved ones again and rejoicing for the times we had in this life with them is a healing salve soothing the natural experience of pain we feel at their loss. Death is the result of sin and we were never meant to experience it. We should grieve the fact in this life we lose those we love to it’s power. Don’t feel guilty experiencing sadness over the fact we still struggle with the effects of sin; that’s a healthy response to a painful situation. However, along with these feelings of pain, allow your faith and joyful memories to cause your heart to sing those very words mentioned in the scripture passage above knowing you will be with your loved one again one day. Sing that hymn reminding us in the end, death is already defeated: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
“Today we gather together, ashes are placed on our foreheads, and we pray. Scripture is proclaimed and we are reminded by our Lord in these scriptures that fasting, alms giving, and prayer are not something done for others to see, but rather something done so we might be transformed to be more like him. We fast to remind ourselves that the good things of this life are simply a foretaste of the goodness of heaven. We give alms to remind ourselves we are merely stewards of God’s blessings and we must share them with others because in doing so we reflect the image of God. And we pray because if we stop praying we forget how to live. All of these things we do more intentionally over these forty days of Lent not to be recognized for them but so that God is recognized in them. Yes my friends, lent has begun and the Christian church now retreats into herself so that she may emerge from the tomb on Easter Sunday to proclaim the good news that Christ is Risen as he said he would!” – Dominick D. Hankle
I am indebted to a blog I read, The Contemplative Monk for reminding me of the three spiritual dispositions important for transforming our spiritual lives. In a brief article published on the website, the spiritual practices of revival, renewal, and restoration were presented as key elements for a well rounded Christian spirituality. As someone providing pastoral counseling and spiritual direction I find these three practices (or as I like to call them dispositions) incredibly helpful when assisting people with spiritual growth. In fact, these three dispositions provide a means for understanding how a spiritual director or pastoral counselor might want to guide the interventions they employee. These dispositions provide a way for assessing someone’s primary means of engaging the spiritual life and are helpful for determining where one might be unbalanced and need correction. All three dispositions are essential for a healthy spiritual life and when experienced together in a balanced way foster fantastic growth and insight.
When we talk about spiritual revival the essence of this disposition is one of being awakened to the presence of God through our relationship with Jesus Christ. While many Christians experience revival at some point in their lives, it often gets tempered and takes a backseat to other experiences. Yet revival is something we always need. Revival is the evangelical experience that God is real, active, and present in our lives. If someone engages in spiritual direction or pastoral counseling feeling numb to the active presence of God it’s our role as counselors and directors to help the client rekindle his or her spiritual relationship with the divine. While there are a number of interventions experienced counselor and directors can employ what’s most important is recognizing the client’s spiritual sleepiness and reigniting a fire in his or her soul so they may be intentional about spiritual living.
Renewal is a disposition in which the Christian is experiencing the fruit of the Holy Spirit actively working in his or her life. Someone may deeply experience the presence of God but struggle in regards to how it’s lived out in one’s life context. This is when the counselor or director helps the individual understand how God can use the client’s gifts for kingdom building activity. Sometimes we’re captivated by the sense of God’s presence in our lives and we’re not sure what to do with it. This is when we need renewal, the process of being transformed into active agents of God not merely someone enamored with the divine presence. Good directors and counselors recognize it’s important to motivate their clients to become living icons of God not merely people who dwell in the divine glory. The spiritual disposition of renewal is meant to be active, much like the Holy Spirit is active in the world constantly renewing creation. It’s what balances the contemplative experience of revival and compels us to be transforming agents in the world.
The third disposition is restoration. Revival brings the presence of God to the front of our conscious experience, renewal makes us active agents of God through the use of our gifts and talents for kingdom living, but it’s restoration that provides the shalom of God. We’re broken people in a broken world and while knowing God’s presence powerfully and actively renewing the world through our own renewal are key elements of the spiritual life, restoration is what heals us and make us whole again. We need that oasis of restoration to take time to reflect on who we are, how we need God in our lives, and to heal from the wounds sin impresses upon us. Without restoration we’re nothing more than hyperactive God loving people on a track for burning out like a shooting star across the midnight sky.
Each time someone comes into my office, I take the time to assess if the individual shows a lack of or an excess of these three dispositions. Revival, the evangelical sense of God’s presence and the desire to live a devout Christian life, renewal, the empowered sense of the Holy Spirit compelling one to be a transforming agent in the world, and restoration, that reflective experience of the holistic peace must be present in a balanced way for spiritual thriving. They’re like three spiritual streams; streams of living water poured into our soul. When we drink abundantly of all three we have a deep living relationship with God. If we can help others do the same we help them develop balanced holistic spiritual lives. I encourage anyone in pastoral ministry to find ways to facilitate these three dispositions in a balanced way for those who come to them for counsel.
The Article from The Contemplative Monk about Revival, Renewal, and Restoration can be found here.
“You can never change a person’s heart by merely telling them how they should live and what they should do. Advice giving shuts people down because you arrogantly assume you know what they need and all the conditions of their life that led them to the place they are now. If you want to change someone’s heart learn to love them where they are now and see how the relationship develops from that point forward. That’s not easy to do though, because it means you have to learn to love someone who disagrees with you, lives differently than you do, and has a set of their own well formed opinions and ideas. Even more frightening, you may find by establishing a relationship with them your heart may change as well. That is the gift of being in ministry. The willingness to be vulnerable loving others and learning to care for people regardless of where they stand often means your own transformation along with theirs. Always take what is good, holy, true, and beautiful with you and share it but be ready to discover it even in the midst of those different from you.” – Dominick D. Hankle PhD
The spiritual life is one of paradox. We see the use of paradox in the bible in verses like Matthew 10:39:
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The Bible is full of these expressions. By using paradox what’s said in the Bible transcends our intellect and sinks into our souls. We understand the deeper truths they convey because paradox disarms our critical thinking processes forcing us to think in a fresh new way. Phrases like the one above in Matthew force us to ask questions like, “In what way do I need to lose my life for the sake of Jesus?” Spiritual paradoxes are powerful ways to get people to think more richly about God’s truth.
Studying forgiveness leads us into a world of spiritual paradoxes. The Scriptures are full of references to the reciprocal nature inherent in the forgiving life. Let me provide you with examples so we can look more closely at this interesting spiritual revelation:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)
These passages imply God will forgive us only to the degree we forgive others. If you’re like me, the idea God only forgives me as I forgive others is uncomfortable and makes me think a great deal about the nature of God. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” causing us to wonder, “Is that all God will do, is forgive me as I forgive?” Because forgiveness is not something that comes easily to me I begin to wonder about the forgiveness I have from God! Is God only as forgiving as I am? I’m a broken struggling human being and God only forgives me in the manner this broken soul can forgive others? On the surface that sounds very troubling.
To wrap our minds around this we need to think about the nature of God. Most theologians argue God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful. We saw that when we described why only God could be perfectly just and merciful at the same time. If we’re saying this all loving God only forgives us in the same way limited forgiving people can than there’s an inconsistency in our understanding of the nature of God. Yet scripture is teaching us something about the reciprocal nature of forgiveness we can’t ignore.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta addressed the 1982 graduates at Thomas Aquinas University with the following words:
“And this, the joy of the presence of Jesus, you must be able to give wherever you go. But you cannot give what you don’t have. That’s why you need a pure heart, a pure heart that you will receive as a fruit of your prayer, as a fruit of your oneness with Christ. And a pure heart can see God. And if you see God immediately — immediately — you begin to love one another. That’s all Jesus came on this earth to give us, that good news: “Love as I have loved you; love one another as I have loved you.”
In this spiritually packed address Mother Teresa unfolds a beautiful mystery about the spiritual life we need to ponder given our present topic. Just as an all loving God extends an overabundance of love for us to experience he also extends an overabundance of forgiveness. However, just as being loved means accepting that love from God so does being forgiven require us to accept that forgiveness from God. How do we accept the forgiveness and love of God? By accepting Jesus, the incarnational expression of God’s love and forgiveness. Then, as we receive this love and forgiveness we extend it to others. Mother Teresa states it very plainly, “You cannot give what you don’t have.” When God says he only forgives us as much as we forgive others he’s reminding us any limitations we experience in forgiving exists because we haven’t accepted the abundance of forgiveness he offers. To be a forgiving soul I need to understand how completely God has forgiven me. This is why it’s important to reflect on our failures. We don’t reflect on failures to become spiritual masochists, rather we do so to understand the great love and mercy God extends to us by meeting us in our broken fallen state. When we see how far we are from God we appreciate how far he stretches himself to be with us. We are deeply loved and deeply forgiven. Receiving that gift allows us to forgive ourselves. We’ll talk about that more later, but for now understand we must forgive ourselves as a result of the great love and forgiveness God pours into us so we can love and forgive others.
God is not limiting his forgiveness because we limit ours. God is teaching us the manner in which we forgive others is a direct reflection of the manner in which we receive his forgiveness. When we ask God to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others” we’re not asking for our reward. We’re asking God to help us understand the more forgiving we are toward others is a direct reflection of our acceptance of his forgiveness. You cannot give what you do not have; powerful words in relation to love and forgiveness. When we have Jesus Christ in our lives and really understand the depth and breadth of that relationship, we can forgive and love abundantly. Reflecting on our struggle with forgiveness and love helps us recognize the difficulty we have in receiving love and forgiveness from God.
Think about this for a moment. Your spouse or significant other comes home and tells you they’ve been having an affair. What do you do? Or worse yet, maybe you found out accidently by catching him or her out with someone else. Fear, disappointment, betrayal, and a number of negative emotions overpower you and it seems as if your whole world is collapsing around you. Is there any chance of recovering from such an awful experience? The truth of the matter is yes, there’s always hope your relationship can survive an affair but it requires a significant amount of work. Let me help you understand how you and your partner can recover from infidelity.
First, its important to understand infidelity occurs more often than one might think. That certainly doesn’t justify it, but with the glorification of cheating found in most television shows and other media outlets the negative impact of infidelity has been ignored. According to a 2011 study by Mark, Janssen, and Milhausen about 20 to 25% of men and 10-15% of women cheat on their partner by having sexual relationships with someone else. And if you understand there are a number of other “types” of infidelity, you find this number is smaller than what actually occurs. For example, the above study is only identifying infidelity as something occurring when sexual activity is involved. But infidelity can take on three forms of behavior according to most psychologists. The first type of infidelity involves a sexual relationship but no emotional connectivity. Men tend to look for these types of extramarital encounters. They’re merely interested in a sexual encounter, not establishing a psychologically intimate relationship with someone else. Another type of infidelity occurs when a strong emotional connection develops with someone besides your spouse but there’s no sexual activity involved. Women tend to participate in this type of infidelity more so than men. After all, for most women, the more important element of any relationship is the emotional connection. Sex is a means for women to facilitate the emotional element of the relationship, the physical element is secondary to the emotional connection. If she can have the emotional connection without the sexual element she can often be quite satisfied in the relationship. I’m not saying sex is unimportant for women, but rather it generally is pleasurable because of the emotional connection she has with her partner. Lastly, there’s the type of infidelity involving both an emotional and sexual component and this type of infidelity is experienced equally among men and women. So when we talk about figures on infidelity it’s often only in the context of a sexual relationship ignoring the emotional component. Because of that, the numbers are probably higher than reported.
When a couple experiences the trauma associated with infidelity a number of emotions emerge. Betrayal as noted above is one emotion, a sense of hurt and disappointment is also associated with infidelity, and the feeling that trust is lost forever contributes to the pain caused by the affair. There’s also a strong desire for justice; the sense you’ve been wronged and deserve satisfaction for the pain you’re feeling cannot be ignored. Yet, for many couples there’s a desire to recover the pieces of the broken relationship and undo what has been done. It just feels like it’s impossible and the hope we might have for healing shrinks in the ocean of emotions we experience. Well, there is hope, but it requires plenty of hard work individually and as a couple to overcome the brokenness infidelity causes. Here’s what a couple needs to start doing to recover:
- Any contact with the individual outside the marriage involved in the cheating has to stop. The couple must focus on one another; the offending partner cannot continue any type of relationship with the person they were cheating with if things are going to improve. While that sounds like an obvious course of action you might be surprised how many people don’t do that, particularly when the infidelity has been purely emotional. Many people think some type of relationship can continue with that person and the wronged partner should understand why. The reality of the situation is your connection with the other person has to just end.
- The couple needs to be patient recognizing there will be good days and bad days during the healing process. There will be moments when the wronged partner feels the pains of injustice and betrayal and needs to express that pain. Then, there will be days when hope allows you both to see a light at the end of this painful journey. The important thing is to be patient as you both come to terms with what happened. The partner who had the affair must remember the pace of healing is established by the wronged partner. The person who cheats often wants to talk about what happened and get past it, but the affair can only be discussed when the wronged partner is ready.
- If you’re the partner who had the affair you need to consider why the affair occurred. Was there no emotional attachment to your partner? Are you addicted to sex or pornography? What is it about your current relationship and your own psychological and spiritual condition that caused you to go outside your relationship for emotional and sexual satisfaction? Then, when the the time is right, you need to share what you discovered about yourself that led you to cheat.
- Both partners have to take responsibility for healing the relationship. You need to make psychological space for one another and recognize the relationship is something you both have a responsibility to nurture. It’s something bigger than your own individual needs and requires sacrifices from both of you.
These four steps are important for healing from infidelity but in the end research has identified one key element producing lasting results for the couple. A study done in 2014 by researchers at the University of Missouri found couples who experience infidelity were able to save, and in fact experience greater satisfaction after the affair, if the partner who was wronged truly forgave the other partner. The ability to exercise forgiveness on the part of the one partner helped the couple experience something called post traumatic growth. Post traumatic growth is a type of growth that develops strengths to not simply correct previous weaknesses, but to create stronger relationship bonds moving forward.
For those of you struggling to rebuild your marriage after an affair there is hope. If both of you want to have a strong relationship its possible to grow from the effects of infidelity, but it requires a new commitment and willingness to explore what didn’t work in the past and over come those past weaknesses. Ultimately, the wronged partner needs to exercise forgiveness, something I talk about a great deal in my workshops and retreats. It is my hope you come through the storm of infidelity and capture a new sense of love and respect for one another. For that to happen, both of you need to make the choice to heal.
If you want to read some short reflections on starting the forgiving process try these links below: