Category: Suffering and Healing

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.

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.