Category: Self Improvement

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.

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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.

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.