Category: Marriage and Family

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.


Created for Relationships – Why Losing Someone Hurts

relationship-building-process-1-default-splashI’ve already shared with you that people are created in the image of a Trinitarian God and because of that we’re inherently created for relationships. Just as God is understood to be a communion of love so intense that the three persons of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) are one God, human beings are meant to live in relationships so connected to one another that we become one body (Romans 12:5). This inherent need for relationships is supported by psychological research. This research demonstrates people who become isolated from others struggle to survive while those who become part of a community flourish. Positive relationships are a key feature in studies on happiness. A longitudinal study completed by Fowler & Christakis (2008) found that people who have positive relationships with other happy people grow in happiness themselves. Related to our need to connect are the numerous studies demonstrating the negative effects of being isolated from other people. In psychology, being excluded from others is called “social exclusion.” Social exclusion impacts people in the same way physical pain impacts the body, in fact, your brain struggles to know the difference (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). When we feel like we’re being isolated from others, even when that experience is being simulated on a computer by playing a virtual ball toss game, our bodies exhibit the same response as if we were socially isolated by real people (Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000). We begin to degrade physically, emotionally, and mentally. In fact, loneliness is regarded by some researchers to be as harmful to your physical well being as cigarettes, alcohol, and being overweight (Holt-Lundstat, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). The reality is we need to connect with other people. Even Christian monks known as hermits maintain some connection to their communities. While they may live primarily on their own they return to the monastery periodically to get supplies and participate in communal prayer throughout different times of the year. While they are isolated more than other brothers of the community, they do maintain some social connection. People need people.

A key psychological theory regarding the need for human beings to connect with others is called attachment theory. This theory was proposed by John Bowlby and was further explored by Mary Ainsworth. The theory basically states when a human being is born they have an innate psychological need to emotionally attach to a caregiver. This attachment becomes the way in which the child survives because it’s believed to evoke nurturing behaviors from the caregiver. Mary Ainsworth did a number of experiments and found people develop three different types of attachments. A secure attachment, the healthiest of the three, basically forms a sense in the child that it’s safe to explore the world, try new things, and grow in independence because their caretaker isn’t far from them and able to provide them with the security and soothing they need if things go wrong. They are confident their emotional and physical needs will be met. The other two types of attachments are less healthy and reflect a poor relationship between the caregiver and the child. One might develop a very anxious attachment always wondering if they’re cared for by their parent or they may develop an ambivalent attachment in which they become numb to the presence and comfort of another. These attachments are important because they form the foundations for our ability to connect with other people. If we are created for relationships as research and good theology propose then having a secure attachment style is exceptionally important. We want to be able to connect with other human beings and if our emotional style prohibits that we find ourselves isolated and alone. Isolated and alone, as we have noted, is not healthy. Interestingly, recent studies on attachment indicate only about 60% of the people walking around have a secure attachment (Shaver & Hazen). That means 40% of the people in the world are struggling with relationships.

Attachment styles also impact more than human relationships, they can also impact your relationship with God. Many people who have insecure attachment styles project this attachment style onto the relationships they share with God. There are two predominant hypothesis regarding how attachment impacts our relationship to God in the psychology of religion literature (Kirkpatric, 1992, 2005). The first is the correspondence hypothesis in which it is believed if an individual has a secure attachment to their caregiver than this translates into a secure attachment in their relationship with God. The opposite would be true as well; an insecure attachment to a caregiver would imply an insecure attachment to God. The individual would be anxious about whether or not God would be there for them in their time of need or might be ambivalent to the relationship with God. The main proposition of this hypothesis is that the attachment style you develop with your caregiver will correspond with your attachment style to God. The second hypothesis is the compensation hypothesis. This hypothesis states you will seek out in God the attachment that you lacked in your caregiver. The idea is your relationship to God “compensates” what was missing in your relationship with your caregiver.

Both hypotheses have research support and make sense. What will be interesting for the purposes of this book is to look at how our attachment to God impacts our ability to manage suffering and loss. One can already see if we are anxious about how God will care for us because of an anxious attachment style, we may have difficulty drawing spiritual strength and assurance from him. We will explore this further in the book at a later point.

As a final note regarding our need for relationships, consider that God has demonstrated it is not good for people to be alone (Genesis 2:18). This desire for the “other” is exceptionally important for the human condition. We are drawn toward one another at the core of who we are. In Plato’s Symposium, he provides a speech by Aristophanes that describes how human beings came to have this longing for one another as part of their base nature. Socrates and the other members of the dialogue are discussing love. The story is as follows:

“In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle, and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck, and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backward or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, running on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when we wanted to run fast. Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three; and the man was originally the child of the sun, the women of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round like their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.

At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: ‘Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’ He spoke and cut them in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson of humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the center, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also molded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last; he left a few, however in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state. After the division of the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart: and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, – being the sections of entire men or women – and clung to that.”

Aristophanes echoes the same ideas about the relational nature of human beings found in Genesis (Of course the Greeks at this time did not have the benefit of divine truth revealed in the scriptures). God decrees that it is not good for man to be alone in Genesis 2:18 and then proceeds to create. He creates a myriad of creatures and presents these animals to Adam to see what he will name them. God delights in watching Adam take part in his creative work. God seems to do this to allow Adam to recognize that while he is somehow connected to all of creation he is unique and different from it as well. Adam reaches a point after naming each animal where he recognizes the existential reality that he is alone even in the midst of all God created. Adam recognizes he is incomplete. Then God does something special for Adam. Instead of taking the primordial material used to create the world and form a new creature, God does the following (Genesis 2:21-24):

“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

The Christian discovers in this story that men and women were made for each other and share an intimate and connected nature. The Greek story above echoes the same biblical truth. We long for one another and desire to be together. We seek out our “Other half” and desire to be with another person because at the core of who we are is this communal relational nature desiring other people. We not only desire the general community to be with others, but we also long for an intimate connection with another person. Relationships give us that intimate connection and when they fall apart we suffer. If our significant other is no longer present it feels as if a part of who we are is gone and unavailable. We are like the people Aristophanes describes searching for our other half. If divorce, death, or distance divides us from the ones we love, we feel as alone as Adam did when God showed him all the beauty of creation and yet that beauty was not enough to make him feel complete.

I want to explore our suffering a little more before thinking through what it means to grieve the loss of another person, relationship, or key aspect of our lives. Regardless of the manner in which that loss occurs much of what we have discussed plays a part in the suffering that follows. Suffering as we have previously said is a reality found in this broken and difficult world. That suffering, however, is not merely an emotional experience, but one impacting our whole being.  Stay tuned as we explore suffering from a holistic perspective in the next post.

Loving Others Opens Us Up to Pain

imageLove is indeed a two-edged sword. Love requires us to engage in the life of others in such a way that part of who we are becomes part of who they are and likewise, part of them becomes part of us. It’s an exchange of persons and in that exchange elements of what makes us who we are get given to each other as a gift. This type of existence is indeed essential to who we are. As creatures created to give and receive love, we cannot truly love unless we’re willing to be received by others and to receive them. Our need to give and receive love comes directly from the fact we’re created in the image and likeness of God. For the Christian, God is understood to be a communion of love. That communion of love is an explosive existence in which love so permeates who God is that it pours itself out as a gift in the creation of the world. Human beings, part of that creation, have the opportunity to mirror the communion of love in our relationships with one another. One example of how this looks can be found in the gift of Christian marriage. Christian marriage demonstrates that in the act of a man offering himself to a woman and the woman receiving the man on all levels of existence, the two become one entirely, yet distinctly remain their own persons. Let me clarify how this human act is a direct reflection of the inner life of God.

God within himself is a communion of love. There are three distinct persons within the Trinity. The Godhead consists of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each of these are distinct persons, they are not one person wearing three separate masks, but rather each is a divine person of his own. However, Christianity does not see three Gods, rather it understands that these three divine persons, consisting of the same divine nature pour themselves into such a relationship of love toward one another that the three are one. We do not have three Gods, we have one God. Likewise, a married man and woman become one in their entirety in their mutual exchange of marital love. A man leaves his family and clings to his wife. In marriage that clinging is more than just a physical act, it involves giving his whole self to his wife. That’s what makes marriage unique, anything else is just sex. For a person to give themselves holistically to another means they give their body, mind, emotions, relationships, and spiritual selves to the other. We are more than a body and mind, we are wondrously created as incarnational creatures made to transcend the physical world while still being a part of it. This is what a man offers his wife when he clings to her ( Genesis 2:24). He tells her, “My body is yours, my thoughts are with you, my relationships with others are formed and directed toward your well being and mine, my emotional life is connected to yours, and ultimately my spiritual life and yours are now one.” This gift of self is received by the wife and in a like way she repeats back to him those same words. In this way, the two become one flesh and from that union, humanity participates in the creative acts of God by having children and being leaven and light to a dark world transforming it to be an act of praise and worship to God.

For this to happen love must bind people together. Marriage is not the only institute in which human beings are drawn together. By our very nature as Christians, we recognize we are a community of love when we gather together. We are told we are the body of Christ, a mystically united group of people that become the very presence of Christ (1st Corinthians 12:12-14, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 3:6, Colossians 1:18, etc.). Love is the blood that flows through this body and the Christian community gathered together is again an incarnational expression of the triune God present in the world. Love pulls people together.

Because we are innately created to give ourselves to others we must be vulnerable to them. Love requires us to give ourselves over to another human being with some level of abandonment. In love, we communicate to another soul that we are theirs, that they have access to our emotions, and that we are in some way united with them. Loving someone is giving them access to the most profound parts of who you are. It’s intimacy at a deep level. Research on love has shown there are 12 core characteristics constituting love (Fehr, 1988). All these characteristics are factors leading to the experience of intimacy. These core attributes are trust, caring, honesty, friendship, respect, concern for the well-being of others, loyalty, commitment, acceptance of the other person, supportiveness, a desire to be with the person, and a real interest in one another’s lives. When we love someone we’re saying to them I trust you; I allow you to care for me and I believe you to be honest with me. We are saying to them I know you’re a friend who cares and respects me and someone who is interested in my well being. We are telling them they’re someone we long to be with and are inviting them into a deeper level of intimacy with us. Intimacy is believed to have four key features (Hook et al, 2003). These key features are affection for the other, personal validation, trust, and self-disclosure. Intimacy is the way we go deeper and deeper into one another’s soul. This level of depth and this level of openness is summed up in one word. That one word is “Vulnerability.” To love another person is to make ourselves vulnerable and give them access to the very core of who we are. Being vulnerable means being open to the potential that this relationship can cause us pain.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts and the topic being discussed was human emotions. One of the people they interviewed was an anthropologist who lived with and documented the Igorot people of the Philippines. The podcast was mostly about how this anthropologist captured the essence of the various emotional experiences of the community. What captured my attention was his description of the Igorot word for love. The word they use actually translates into something like “I hurt for you.” That definition struck me because of how it uniquely captures the many dimensions of love in such a concise way (The podcast is “Invisibilia” produced by NPR).

When we think about romantic love we think about an all-consuming passion for the other individual. That passion causes us to “hurt” for the other person because we just can’t be with them enough. Yes, this feeling will dissipate over time but it’s a very real feeling for those initially in love with one another. This hurt is part of the romantic experience but if the relationship matures, that hurt transforms into something other than unbridled passion. The hurt doesn’t go away, rather it becomes a different kind of pain we experience for the other person. It becomes empathy and compassion. While we may not feel the hurt of longing associated with the absence of our romantic lover, we certainly hurt for them when we see them struggle in life, suffer from an illness, or experience disappointments. We hurt for them because we love them and this love causes us to be uniquely connected. Painful longing for one another, birthed from romantic passion now becomes compassionate sorrow, a pain experienced by two souls that have somehow become entwined with one another. As the relationship continues the hurt for one another does as well. This love that hurts for the other continues to be a part of our experience when the ones we care for pass away. This isn’t the pain of romantic passion that can’t be quenched nor is it the pain we feel as compassionate and empathetic partners journeying through life together. This is the pain of emptiness one feels because the person they loved is no longer with them. The Igorot people have beautifully captured the holistic experience of love by associating that word with the definition “I hurt for you.”

It would be easy to twist this idea into something ugly. Someone might argue this association of hurt and love perverts the idea of love into this concept that to truly love someone is to cause them pain. However, if you look closely at the way the definition is stated that’s not what’s being said. The phrase is not “I make you hurt” but rather “I hurt for you.” It’s pain I feel because of an empathic sense of love I have for you. It’s a sense of empathy and compassion I have for your situation because we are connected together in love. In the end, it’s the sense that because you’re gone I’m no longer with you and I miss you. Passionate Love is the connecting force drawing human souls together. It matures into companionate love that intimately connects people with one another allowing them to share one another’s pain. And in the end this love leaves us with hurt, reminding us when the one we love leaves us, we’ve lost the presence of a good friend. Love truly is complex and requires us to be vulnerable to one another. Vulnerability sometimes means we hurt for those we love.

A researcher I enjoy reading who studies human love is Helen Fisher. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist who has done extensive work in understanding romantic love, the many psychological, sociological, and biological features of it, and how it grows into other forms of love and impacts our lives. She and her fellow researchers have found romantic love is very similar to being addicted to drugs such as cocaine and other opioids. In fact, they note that many of the same brain systems (Ventral tegmental area, caudate nucleus, insula, prefrontal cortex activity, nucleus accumbens, etc.) activated through the addiction process are activated when someone falls in love. This also means when we lose someone we love the pain is much like the pain an addict feels when they’re denied the drug they crave. When someone does not reciprocate the romantic feelings we share for them, and particularly when they once did share them with us and no longer do, we go through “love withdrawal.” In fact, the brain once again reacts in ways associated with severe painful experiences. To quote Dr. Fisher:

Brain activations coupled with romantic rejection occurred in several regions of the brain’s reward system. Included were: the ventral tegmental area (VTA) associated with feelings of intense romantic love; the ventral pallidum associated with feelings of attachment; the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate associated with physical pain, anxiety and the distress associated with physical pain; and the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex associated with assessing one’s gains and losses, as well as craving and addiction.
She later notes several of these regions are correlated with cravings in cocaine addicts and those who abuse other types of drugs. Romantic love means making oneself vulnerable to what could become an addictive habit with negative consequences. However, it can also mean becoming vulnerable to one of the most profound experiences of love a human being can have. When love goes well, Romantic love presses itself into the same brain systems that create attachment love. Attachment love creates that deep emotional connection we have with other human beings, the very thing we were created for! What Dr. Fisher has discovered is how deeply the need to connect with others resides in our very body and how vulnerable we make ourselves to others when we fall in love with them. This connection is not just limited to romantic love. We will see throughout this book attachments are an essential part of numerous types of relationships.

Love comes at a cost. We must give ourselves away to someone else and become vulnerable to their human frailties if we are to really fall in love. At times that means being hurt by them and sharing their pain. It also means when they leave us, whether it’s because they’ve died or they wanted to leave the relationship, we suffer. Yet to suffer for love is worth the cost. I’ve never met someone who spent decades in a loving marriage say they wish they never met their spouse while grieving for them after they’ve died. I’ve never met an adult child mourning their deceased parent wish they never had their mother or father (At least not one who shared a loving relationship with their parent) in their life. I’ve never had a parent tell me they wish the child they lost in an accident or from a terminal disease was never born. Of course, these thoughts reflect the feelings of people who lived in a loving relationship, but even those who had poor relationships with a parent, child, brother, or sister deep down mourn for those connected to them, even if that mourning is for what the relationship could have been. Sometimes the mourning starts years before the physical death when the relationship fell apart, but it’s a still a type of mourning. We mourn the loss of others because we were created for relationships and that’s something we need to discuss further to answer the question of why we suffer.