Simplicity and the Spiritual Center

spiritual essaysThere’s a famous quote by G. K. Chesterton that says, “There are two ways to get enough: one is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” His words carry a great deal of wisdom for our culture. If we’re to grow spiritually, we must grow in simplicity. To grow in simplicity means more than keeping things uncomplicated, rather it’s a spiritual disposition allowing us to see things more clearly in the complications of life.

As a therapist and spiritual director, I often encounter people focusing on the peripheral areas of life instead of the core values and ideas that allow us to live as Christians. In a wonderful book called “Freedom of Simplicity” Richard Foster demonstrates how a Christian can embrace a life of simplicity. One of the practices he proposes is living from what he calls “The Divine Center.” Living from the Divine Center is simply making God the very heart of all we do. It requires conscious effort and intentional execution in our daily routines. Foster describes it like this:

I hope you understand what I mean when I speak of living out of the Center. I am of course referring to God, but I do not mean God in an abstract theoretical sense, nor even God in the sense of One to be feared and revered. Nor do I mean God only in the sense of One to be loved and obeyed… I thought that serving God was another duty to be added onto an already busy schedule. But slowly I came to see that God desired to be not on the outskirts, but at the heart of my experience. Gardening was no longer an experience outside of my relationship with God – I discovered God in the gardening. Swimming was no longer just good exercise – it became an opportunity for communion with God. God in Christ had become the center.

By making God the center of our lives we know very quickly when we’re focusing on the complications of life rather than the simple heart of our existence. Service to God is not just an added duty we perform in our ministry rather it’s a permeating disposition in everything we do. When we live from the Divine Center we recognize when we’re doing too much or too little. We recognize when we’re filling our lives with too many possessions and activities instead of allowing the tasks we have at hand and the things we possess to be encounters with the divine. We know when our lives are expressing Christian simplicity when they’re filled with Shalom, that unique word for peace. The word Shalom is not as simple to translate as we think. Shalom means more than peace. The Hebrew word often is translated to mean completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord.

The question to ask yourself is how often you live from the Divine Center rather than being pulled and pushed by what the rest of the world tells you is important? If you want to live simply the first thing you need to do is embrace Christ and make him the center of all you do and have. Possess Christ before anything else and you’ll have everything. Be intentional and ask yourself before engaging in any activity or purchase any item this simple question, “How does this allow me to live more fully for God?” If your answer gives you a sense of Shalom as described above then it’s probably a spiritually healthy thing to embrace. If not, it’s probably best to remain with Christ as you are and continue to enjoy the Grace he pours into your life with what you have and do. To possess Christ is to possess the fount of life and there is nothing more a person requires than this treasure.

If you liked this short essay and would like to read more you can purchase my book here.


The Tough Choice of Forgiveness

9781532605680It was a warm June night and like most Wednesday nights at numerous churches across the country people were gathering for prayer and Bible study. For years, this gathering was uneventful but on this night a white man named Dylann Roof entered the church and sat quietly pondering his next move. He was welcomed by those in attendance and even claimed because of their kindness he was reconsidering his violent intentions. Unfortunately, the evening didn’t end in peace, Dylann pulled out his gun and killed nine people including the pastor Clementa Pinckney. Dylann killed without discrimination in regards to gender or age, he was only interested in killing people because they were black. His disdain for African Americans and feelings of hatred motivated him to pull the trigger on his weapon again and again. Among the dead were Sharonda Coleman-Singleton a 45-year-old mother of three and a high school track coach. Cynthia Hurd age 54, a librarian at the public library for 31 years. Tywanza Sanders, a young 26-year-old graduate of Allen University in Columbia. Tywanza died trying to save his 87-year-old aunt Susie Jackson who was also killed that evening. He told Dylann to shoot him and leave his aunt alone but reports say Dylann said it didn’t matter he was going to kill everyone anyway. After he killed Tywanza he eventually shot Susie Jackson. Tywanza was the youngest victim to die that night and his aunt the oldest. This story is beyond tragic and unfortunately not the only of its kind. Think of the many lives lost at the hands of so many terrorist attacks around the world. As I write these very sentences I’m reminded just yesterday, November 13th 2015, terrorists killed and held hostage numerous people in Paris France. Stories of genocide in countries across the globe, murders in local communities, and abuse and neglect in families are not short in supply. The question is, if any of these events happened to you or someone you love could you forgive the perpetrators? The answer has to be yes. Why does it have to be yes? Because if it’s no, then we’re trapped in a cycle of hatred and self-defeat giving the demons in hell something to celebrate. They rejoice with every act of vengeance and self-loathing that terror and violence inflict on the survivors of trauma. If we can’t forgive people, we’re forever held captive by the traumatic experiences they’ve inflicted upon us.

The most moving words of forgiveness I’ve ever read came from the families of the victims killed that night at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Washington Post published an article on June 19th by Elahe Izadi called “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness Delivered to Dylann Roof by Victims’ Relatives” which captured the exemplary Christian spirit of forgiveness this community incarnationally represented to Charleston and the world. Here are some of the things these hurting wounded people had to say to the man who killed those they loved simply because of the color of their skin:

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. … May God have mercy on you.” – Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders

“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.” – Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.” – Wanda Simmons, Granddaughter of victim Daniel Simmons.

If you’re like me you hear these words and say to yourself, “I’m not sure I could be that forgiving.” I understand. Forgiving someone appears to be a monumental task when someone killed a person you love through a senseless act of violence. But believe me, you can forgive people who do these terrible things. The surviving relatives of these victims aren’t superhuman, they’re superheroes of forgiveness. These are men and women just like you and me. That’s comforting and scary at the same time. It’s comforting because it means you and I can choose to be forgiving people. It’s scary because it means just like these ordinary people we might find ourselves needing to forgive someone who acted in the same way as Dylann Roof. The important lesson to learn from these brave families is we can be forgiving because forgiveness is a choice. Like love, forgiveness is more about choices than feelings. When we choose to forgive someone, we must learn to behave and think in a particular way that impacts how we feel about the situation. Thinking, feeling, and behaving are intimately connected. I know many of you reading this are saying, “Just choosing to forgive someone doesn’t make me feel like I forgave them. Because I don’t feel like I’ve forgiven them I must not be a forgiving person.” Yet, this first choice to forgive is indeed an important step in the process. The choice to forgive and then acting in a forgiving way leads to feelings that come with being a forgiving person.

Is there a way to reach that heroic place where we can forgive those who have deeply hurt us in so many ways?  I believe there is and in the next few posts, I hope to share that with you.  If you want to read the whole book I wrote on this subject yourself you can find it here.

The Emotions Found in Normal Grief.

Lone Woman, Widowed, Divorced, or Lonely, Contemplating Grief, Sadness, Depression

Psychologists struggle to define the term “Normal.” Any behavior at some point, in any given culture, as bizarre as it may be, can be considered normal. For example, in some cultures, it’s normal to cover your whole body in clothes except a small portion of your face if you’re a woman. In Saudi Arabia, this is considered a normal way to dress. You go to the beach like that, you walk in town like that, and you travel in public that way. The culture in Saudi Arabia has determined this is normal behavior. In the United States, dressing this way, particularly at the beach, is not considered normal. In parts of rural China, children learn potty training in public areas. They’re permitted to relieve themselves wherever they are even if it’s in a public setting, and that’s considered culturally acceptable. Children who relieve themselves in public in the United States would be considered deviant at best. What’s acceptable as normal in some cultures isn’t normal in others. Because of this, the idea of normal behavior can sometimes be elusive. Even with our current topic, we have to ask ourselves, “What is normal grief and what does it look like?”

The area of psychology that deals with pathology is often referred to as Abnormal Psychology. In general, most abnormal psychology textbooks define a behavior or mental experience as abnormal when it meets the following three criteria. The first criteria one must meet if they’re describing a behavior as abnormal is that it deviates from the norm. Deviating from the norm is a statistical means of describing the fact a behavior, emotion, or mental experience manifests itself (Or doesn’t manifest itself) in a way that is not descriptive of the general population. When we say a behavior is abnormal we’re saying it deviates from what most people feel or do given a particular situation. If most people in a population experience a mood range between sad and happy and you seem to experience sadness in a more profound way, that emotional experience may be “abnormal” and considered clinically depressed. The second criteria necessary to categorize something as abnormal is that a behavior or psychological experience causes the individual difficulty adapting to life’s basic requirements and demands. When someone is so sad that they struggle to get out of bed, go to work, make a living for themselves, and pay the rent, the sadness is not normal. It impacts their ability to function on a day to day basis. Someone who believes exposure to the most minimal amount of sunlight causes cancer and therefore only lives in darkness has a belief that impacts their ability to function in life. People who maintain these beliefs are believed to have abnormal thoughts. The third criteria required for calling some behavior or psychological state abnormal is that the individual experiences personal distress. If what you’re doing, feeling, or believing causes you personal distress, it’s an indication it may be abnormal.

Given these three criteria, people may rightly say someone in a state of grief is experiencing something abnormal. Grief causes them distress and it might even impact their ability to function on a day to day basis. Some grieving people can’t leave their home, weep constantly, and may even believe they can still “sense” the individual who died. Doesn’t this imply grief is abnormal? The best answer one can give based on these observations is maybe. Let’s think about that first criteria, the fact a behavior or experience deviates from the norm. Is it outside the norm to demonstrate these behaviors if someone we love has died? Do most people think, behave, and act this way when someone they love is no longer a part of their lives? I believe everyone experiences grief in a very unique way, but I also think we can generalize enough behaviors to say if someone is experiencing grief these particular behaviors, actions, emotions, and thoughts are probably within the range of normal. Many psychologists have come to the same conclusion. Some of the typical human experiences associated with grief can be categorized as emotional experiences, physical experiences, behaviors, and thoughts. Let’s look at what these normal experiences are so you can understand what a normal state of grief looks like. To do that, we need to understand how grief impacts us emotionally, physically, relationally, cognitively, and also spiritually.  For now, we will explore the emotions associated with grief.

Emotions are difficult things to understand. Psychology itself struggles to pin down emotional experiences, what leads us to have them and what allows us to process them. Sure, we understand neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin all have a place in creating and regulating emotions. We can discuss the role the amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system impacts emotions and actually helps us encode emotions with our memories, but we struggle to understand the emotional experience in a very precise way. Part of the difficulty faced when trying to precisely nail down an emotion is the fact it seems to transcend merely “psychological” processes and ties into the human experience holistically. In psychology we talk about three main components that make up and emotion. There is the behavioral component which deals with the outward expression of the emotion. This might include facial expressions, movements and gestures. The second component includes the physiological component. This is the physiological arousal that emerges when the autonomic nervous system gets involved in the experience. These two components of an emotion are the reason why sadness can actually cause us physical pain. The third component of an emotion is the cognitive component. This is when we use our cognitive appraisal system to determine which emotion we are experiencing and how intense it is.

This holistic experience of emotion is important for us to remember because when an individual is suffering from being in a state of grief they are not simply dealing with a mental experience, they’re dealing with an experience that touches a number of parts of their being. Emotions are in a sense transcendent and permeate our whole existence. They’re often treated with suspicion and that’s because we have come to value pure reason over emotion. However, if we were nothing more than rational creatures we would lead a very cold and dry existence. Emotion provides color to a world where reason is nothing more than the black and white patterns in a coloring book.

Having said all this about emotions, what might be considered a normal emotional expression when in a state of grief? The first and most obvious is sadness. People who grieve are sad. In fact, we would think it very strange if someone who is grieving was elated and filled with joy. If we continue with the premise we are created for relationships when one of those relationships is severed by death we experience emotional pain. Pain is not something normal people take joy in, they’re sad. This sadness can be overwhelming at times because we’re struck with a deep understanding that the relationship we enjoyed with the individual who died will never be the same. We will not have this individual’s physical presence with us again to enjoy. Whenever we lose something we have enjoyed, drawn strength from, felt comfortable with, and found comfort in we become sad. Sadness is indeed something that comes along with grieving. We will address what this mood state and others are like a little later in these essays but for now, remember that being sad is quite acceptable and reasonable when grieving.

Another emotion someone experiences is guilt or self-reproach. Many times when someone dies we think we could have done things differently or changed the situations around their death to keep them from coming to their end. Wives may tell themselves, “If only I had cooked healthier meals my husband would not have died of a heart attack” or sometimes we tell ourselves, “If only I would have gotten her to the hospital quicker she may have lived.” Guilt finds its way into our hearts because we believe in some way we could have stopped what is sometimes the inevitable. One also can imagine when a loved one commits suicide how it impacts us. The guilt one experienced believing somehow they didn’t help the one closest to them can be overwhelming. I had a client who was a therapist himself who came to see me because he was experiencing complicated grief. He would find himself breaking into tears at some of the most inopportune times. His brother had committed suicide about four years previously and he somehow convinced himself because he was in the mental health profession he should have been able to recognize what was happening with his brother and stopped it. His guilt was overwhelming. We also have heard of something termed “Survivor Guilt.” In these scenarios we feel guilty because we have survived a tragedy when someone we love or care for didn’t. Many military men and women feel this when they survive an encounter with the enemy and their friends are killed in battle. They struggle with the fact they are able to return to their family when their friends who fell in battle cannot and are leaving a family in distress. Guilt makes its way into a multitude of scenarios.

Emotions, like all aspects of being human, are both helpful and hurtful.  Sin has impacted how we express them, how we understand them, and the behaviors they elicit.  Christians are not untouched by the way sin taints our experience of emotions.  We must, however, come to terms with them, accept them as part of the healing process, and allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify our emotional experience.  In the next few posts, we will explore how we can do that.  For now, take this with you to ponder.  You may be hurting and grieving the loss of someone you love.  You are not alone.  You have a God who entered into that suffering himself and is with you presently.  He is big enough to receive whatever emotional pain you want to express to him and loving enough to not let it hurt him or cause him to walk away from you.  Don’t deny your emotions or try and “sanctify” them yourself.  Instead, allow Christ to be present to them with you and weep together.  He wept for his friend Lazarus, he will surely understand and walk with you as you weep the loss of one you love.

Grief, Mourning, and the Christian

GettyImages_644299178.0Psychology, a science exploring human behavior and mental experience is interested in understanding why we do what we do, feel the way we do and think about things in particular ways. Psychology is also interested in helping people who suffer. In a previous post, I presented you with the ideas associated with attachment theory to demonstrate our social nature and need for others. Attachment theory is a seminal theory for understanding what happens when we can no longer be in a relationship with someone who provided us with important emotional support because of their death or some other form of separation. We make strong emotional connections to other people, particularly those responsible for our care, safety, and nurturing. While John Bowlby believed this connection is grounded in survival needs, theologically we might argue this connection forms between people because we are social creatures needing to connect to others. Again, that was addressed in the previous post.

In psychology, terms are immensely important. Up to this point, we’ve been talking about psychology in pretty general terms. In this chapter, we’re going to talk about a particular type of suffering called grief. While the words grief and mourning are often used interchangeably, there are distinctions we need to make in order to talk about the psychology of grief more accurately. When we talk about grief we’re talking about an individual’s subjective experience related to the death of a loved one. People “experience” grief. When we say someone is grieving we’re implying they’re experiencing a particular “state” of bio/psycho/social existence. Additionally, we cannot label grief as pathological. People who grieve are not necessarily in need of professional psychological help. I have often seen concerned family members ask their loved ones to talk to a professional shortly after someone dies. That’s not really necessary for most people. People in a state of grief are experiencing normal, or to use a more clinical term, “uncomplicated” grief. Uncomplicated grief is the way we psychologically heal the emotional wound caused by the trauma of losing someone incredibly important to us. You can think about it in the same way you understand what your body does when it’s healing from a physical wound. The soreness you experience is part of healing. Grief is the same as that sore experience your body feels when trying to heal from a physical wound. Grief after the death of someone you love and are deeply connected to such as a spouse, child, or parent is normal.

Having said that, there are times when grief can become pathological. Psychologists call pathological grief “complicated” grief. It is a type of grief that continues to impact an individual’s life to such a degree that they’re incapable of participating in their daily life routines. Yes, there will be a period of time in which someone experiencing grief is not able to go about their daily business, but after some period of time, it’s expected they will begin to engage life more and more as time goes on.

Uncomplicated grief is resolved effectively by a process called mourning. While grief, both complicated and uncomplicated is the subjective experience that follows the death of someone you love, mourning is the process one undergoes to facilitate the healing. It’s this process psychologists help people with because when mourning is completed appropriately people heal. When it’s not, people remain in a state of suffering

As we continue to explore suffering through these blog posts I am going to turn my attention on how we mourn, what happens when we can’t mourn, and how we deal with this complicated grief.  It is difficult for those of us as Christians to mourn at times because we tend to believe our mourning is in some way a betrayal of the belief those who die in Christ live more fully with him in paradise.  But this is not the case, and in fact, because we are human beings like all other human beings, we must honor the means God gives us to overcome grief and that way of overcoming grief is indeed through mourning.

Why We Suffer – A Christian Response to a Tough Question – Part 2

quote-suffering-if-it-is-accepted-together-borne-together-is-joy-mother-teresa-57-1-0159I have mentioned suffering can lead to spiritual growth and I want to elaborate on that some more. Even Buddha’s experience discussed above led him to grow spiritually, yet he did so without the light of the Gospel and therefore his spiritual growth was incomplete. We cannot deny spiritual growth can result from suffering if one allows themselves to work through it. The reason suffering can lead to spiritual growth is that it reminds us of “ultimate” things.

Every week I celebrate the Eucharist. After one of those celebrations, I had a conversation with a good friend about a number of spiritual topics the scripture readings provoked that day. My friend mentioned the fact we fear or at least prefer to avoid those things considered “ultimate.” His words were profound! We discussed why people fall into spiritual sleep, a kind of numbness in which they grow comfortable with their spiritual “status quo.” My friend explained he believed it happens because we avoid the ultimate nature of things. Ultimate things are like playing poker and someone asks you to show your hand. We don’t like it when that happens, particularly if we aren’t holding a winning hand. Suffering reminds us of the ultimate nature of things. It reminds us not just that life and its pleasures are temporal, but that in the end there is an ultimate reality we must acknowledge. My friend indicated he realized that profoundly when he suffered a mild cardiac event. There is an ultimate reckoning we must acknowledge that becomes immediately clear to us when we suffer.

Think about the things we consider ultimate. Death is ultimate and if we ponder its reality we’re forced to change how we live! When we recognize how short life is we certainly don’t remain complacent taking it as it comes. We make it count. Our “bucket list” becomes more important than the daily grind. Anything in life that’s “ultimate” forces us into one of two positions. The first is to brush it off. We avoid dealing with it and psychologically dismiss it. For example, what happens when you’re told you need to eat better and exercise? You like to eat, drink, and celebrate, but the doctor just told you if you don’t change your lifestyle you’ll die. The first thing most people do is avoid seeing the doctor altogether. If we never go to the doctor, we never hear the bad news. If we do see the doctor and get a bad report, we immediately justify our behavior. We tell ourselves we deserve that extra piece of pizza, or that our relatives in Europe lived on beer and pretzels so we can do the same. We say we’re going to start a new exercise program tomorrow to make up for our poor eating today. In short, we psychologically avoid the ultimate result of our lifestyle choices. However, if we face this ultimate reality straight on we are forced to make serious life changes. If we don’t, cognitive dissonance forces us back into denial. When faced with a serious illness we’re required to change our way of life so we can thrive and live well. We become radically different. This same process applies to our spiritual life. Suffering is a way we’re reminded living in this broken world is not just temporal but requires a particular response. Suffering and crisis situations are opportunities for healthy change found in spiritual growth.

Suffering has a way of forcing us to think about the meaning and purpose of life. When suffering leads us to understand the ultimacy of our situation because someone close to us has died, we find ourselves struggling with an illness, or an important relationship has ended, we naturally want to know “why” this happened. It is the catalyst for change, and hopefully, that change will be positive. Suffering should cause us to find people to love and love them. Find people to forgive and forgive them. Find people in despair and show them hope. In short, live, don’t sleep through life. In the end, the ultimate question you’ll ask yourself as a result of any suffering is am I loved and do I love others enough. This ultimate set of questions leads us to the third thing suffering does in the Christian life. It draws us together in community in order to be helped and to help others.

If indeed suffering is part of the human condition and cannot be avoided what is the Christian response to suffering in others? How can we process suffering? The simple answer is other people. We have already demonstrated because of our need to love, be loved, and connect with other people, we will potentially suffer. The paradox is in that suffering the companionship with others heals us. Suffering draws us together. The Christian realizes they are not alone in their suffering, even when it feels that way. We are one body and that one body suffers when any member of it is in pain. I once heard someone say, “When one Christian bleeds we all bleed” and in my experience that has been the case a number of times. Here is an example from the writings of Aristides, a Greek Philosopher from the second century who was giving an account of how Christians lived:

“And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”

Suffering is a mechanism in this broken world that allows God to be manifest through the grace-filled acts of Christians. In this way, suffering is a mechanism for spiritual growth. It causes within the Christian a nagging prompt of the Holy Spirit to go and be with the one who suffers supplying whatever relief he or she can. Even if that relief is merely being present with them so they know they do not suffer alone. One can sum up suffering in the Christian life from this quote by A.W. Tozer:

“Slowly, you will discover God’s love in your suffering. Your heart will begin to approve the whole thing. You will learn…what all the schools in the world could not teach you – the healing action of faith without supporting pleasure. You will feel and understand the ministry of the night; its power to purify, to detach, to humble, to destroy the fear of death… You will learn that pain can sometimes do what even joy cannot, such as exposing the vanity of earth’s trifles and filling your heart with longing for the peace of heaven” (Tozer, 1977, p 122).

I’m not saying we want to desire suffering or that God takes great joy in our suffering in order to make us love him more and grow spiritually.  I am simply saying that suffering, like all of life, can be a means for us to grow and become more profoundly aware of the mystery of this life.  In the end, we must find ways to love one another more profoundly and when one of us suffers there is no greater time to choose to love them at a difficult vulnerable time.

Why We Suffer – A Christian Response to a Tough Question – Part 1

quote-the-deep-meaning-of-the-cross-of-christ-is-that-there-is-no-suffering-on-earth-that-dietrich-bonhoeffer-56-84-66Sometimes we ask ourselves, “Do we really need to be so sad over a temporal loss such as a marriage or the death of someone we love since we’re really made for heaven? Is it even proper for the Christian to grieve over the death of someone when the truth is they will be in heaven with us for eternity? Should we spend so much time trying to get over a broken marriage when the truth is I have Jesus who makes me complete? Why spend so much time processing this temporal pain?”

Whether we admit it or not, temporal pain does have implications for eternal purposes and to ignore it is to miss a great opportunity to grow spiritually. I’m not saying we should want to suffer for spiritual growth, but suffering can give us a greater sense of meaning and purpose if we process it in a healthy way. First, suffering reminds us our temporal life is just that, temporal. No matter how hard we chase pleasures found in worldly things, they cannot stop our suffering. Suffering is a part of living in this broken world. All religions deal with suffering in some way but as we have established, Christianity provides a unique way to understand suffering.

A Christian response to suffering touches the very core of human experience, it doesn’t transcend that experience by providing hyper-spiritual or cognitive philosophies to dismiss what we feel. In the book “Competent Christian Counseling” the authors explain suffering in the Christian life in the following way:

Life is not a question of whether or not we suffer; that is a given for everyone born on planet Earth. The more crucial question is how we respond in the midst of suffering. The reality of heartache and hardship should not lead us to the false and twisted belief that God causes suffering. Since we cannot escape distress in this life, we are better off finding a way to live with it, finding meaning and redemption through it (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002).

The reason we suffer is a direct result of the fact we love in a disordered and improper way. In Genesis chapter three we read about our disobedience to God and how it reflects the improper exercise of our free will causing the harmonious structure of creation to be fractured. Our desire to be more than God made us vulnerable to the lies of evil encountered in the perfectly constructed reality of Eden. Our disobedience destroyed our access to paradise. Yes, God could have created a creature that only did as he asked but that would mean the creature itself could never truly love him since love requires an act of free will. God gave humanity that gift of free will fully knowing the ramifications of its misuse. When we did misuse our free will (Which we still do) the world became something it was not intended to be. Human beings did not love God first, one another in selfless acts of love, or care for creation in a responsible way. When you read Genesis chapter three you find the answer for why there is suffering in the world. We suffer because disordered love destroys relationships, people, and creation. It separates us from God – We are exiled from the bliss of being aware of his continual presence. Disordered love separates us from one another – We see other people as objects to fulfill our needs and desires, not fellow creatures on a shared journey of living Godly virtue in service to one another. Lastly, disordered love causes us to make created things into idols taking the place of God and to be used as an endless supply of material things to fulfill our selfish desires, needs, and entertainment. Suffering occurs because we have elected to break the harmony of God’s creation.

It’s important to recognize our personal sin causes suffering in our lives and the lives of others, but so does a general condition of sin which accumulates in our reality simply because the world is broken. Sin perpetuates itself on people and creation. Someone hurt by another person doesn’t learn what love truly is and perpetuates that hurt on others. The land is stripped by one community to meet their energy needs and another community hundreds of miles away suffers when mudslides kill thousands of people living in the path of destruction. Illness, natural disasters, and a myriad of other problems may not be caused by one person’s sin, but these maladies do exist because all the brokenness in this world accumulates and bursts forth wherever it can.
While I have been proposing that God uses suffering in a way that leads us to spiritual growth, I caution the reader to note that I’m not proposing God desires us to suffer in order to grow spiritually, but only that suffering exists in this world because we have elected to be disobedient to him. God, in his infinite mercy and grace, can use this broken condition to reveal himself more profoundly as the God of love, peace, mercy, healing, and strength when we most need it. Later in this book, we will look at meaning making and how critical moments of crisis and suffering can become powerful moments of growth. In a very dark time in my life, a wise friend showed me God can use the difficult and painful events in our lives for a greater purpose and path to peace. He said to me, “Always remember Dominick, God writes straight with crooked lines.” Suffering is the crooked lines in which God delivers a message of love to us.

To summarize what has been said this far, suffering in the Christian life reminds us of the temporal nature of human existence. Its root is in the fact sin has entered the world and at the heart of sin is its divisive nature. Sin divides us from God, one another, creation, and finally from our very selves. We are separated from our bodies in death because of sin. Other religions attempt to understand suffering and often write it off as nothing more than an illusion, but the Christian recognizes it for what it is, a reality found in a world that is not as it was intended to be.

Next week in part 2 we will dig a little deeper into answering this important question.

Suffering Hurts You All Over

dreams.metroeve_suffering“A Holistic Creature Loves and Suffers Holistically” – Dominick D. Hankle PhD

Suffering, like all human experience, tends to get compartmentalized into one area of human existence. We think of suffering as being purely emotional and therefore only impacting us emotionally. That’s a real problem because human beings are not compartmentalized creatures, we are holistic creatures in which one facet of human life impacts the other. We can’t isolate emotional pain or joy from its impact on other areas of living. We have to recognize people are complete units consisting of bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and spirits. An impact in one area impacts the others. This holistic experience of human life reflects some key ideas of how Christianity views people.

The Christian religion is a sacramental or if you prefer “incarnational” religion. It’s not a religion of hyper-spirituality in which there is an overemphasis on the spiritual nature of things over other areas of human existence. Christians fought against the Gnostics and Neoplatonists to ensure creation (Our physical world) is recognized as “good” and essential to human flourishing. Christians find in the created order an importance equal to that of the spiritual realm.

Psychological anthropology defines the human person from a psychological, biological, and sociological perspective. This helps psychologists understand the complexity of human thinking and behavior. Physiology, cognitive processes, and personal relationships are factors contributing to what human beings think and do. It also reminds us that the experiences we have are not isolated to one facet of human existence. A number of Christian academics have broadened that anthropological definition to include the spiritual dimension thus advocating for a bio/psycho/social/spiritual model for understanding human behavior, particularly in regards to psychological abnormality (Yarhouse, Butman & McRay, 2005). In addition, secular psychologists such as Len Sperry (2012) have advocated for a spiritually oriented approach to psychotherapy demonstrating a continued need to include a more holistic approach to understanding human beings. This more holistic approach implies healing can be facilitated for emotional pain by helping the client explore relationships with others and caring for his or her physical health as much as exploring emotions in a therapy setting. I’ve advocated for a similar model, but instead of lumping emotional aspects of the human person into the general psychological category I expand the psychological describing human experience as more of a bio/cognitive/emotional/social/spiritual/ model, separating cognitive aspects from emotional ones. Emotions transcend the cognitive and physiological aspects of human experience, therefore, I believe they require a separate category for consideration (Hankle, 2012).

All of this is to imply people consist of bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and spirits and that when something happens in one area of their existence it impacts the others. You can’t just isolate joy or pain in one area, it impacts all of them. When you’re sad it impacts how you feel physically, the things you think about, your interactions with other people, and your transcendent spiritual life. Your whole being experiences sadness. Because of that, suffering impacts all of who you are as well. If you’ve ever been so depressed or sad and said you can feel it in your stomach, you know what I’m talking about. Emotional pain is often described as having “A broken heart” to reflect the physical nature of the emotional experience. When we talk about suffering we often say things like “My spirit is troubled”, reflecting the holistic experience of struggling. All of this is to remind us when we suffer and grieve the loss of a loved one, a marriage, or any other tragedy, we suffer holistically. This is important to remember because when we begin talking about healing we’re going to do so from a holistic perspective. The idea that grief therapy works best by talking with someone about your emotions and healing only your emotional life is somewhat limited and reflects a very reduced view of what it means to be human. Grief is holistic and an important aspect of healing from not just the death of a loved one, but also the loss of a number of things. Before we move on we need a deeper understanding of grief, loss, and healing to broaden our understanding of what it means to suffer from the loss of someone or something important in our lives.  We will do that in the next post.  For now, understand that when we suffer we do so with everything we are and that’s why grief is so crippling.