Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Conservative Redux: My struggle to find an answer in suffering.

I was shoveling snow this morning and when I took a break, I noticed the numbers of my neighbor’s houses: 24, 26, 22…it was the last number that struck me. That was the age I first became a Christian.  I have wonderful memories since that time and several blog posts would be needed to write on the ways God has changed me to be a better man, husband, and father. However, one negative thing I recall was my deep committed self-assurrance in the face of suffering, especially my insensitive words toward hurting people. Some of those memories are quite horrific: I remember saying to a girl in a bible study who likely struggled with major depressive disorder that medicine was useless (she pleaded for help in the group and conveyed suicidal thoughts). I told her depression was big because her faith was small. I told an anxious teenager who struggled with stage-fright  to “get over it and trust in Jesus.” The worst memory of mine was saying to a grieving parent a year after the death of her son that if she continued to weep and be depressed, it could mean she was worshipping an idol. These were my patterns. My foundation was that the Bible was a counseling manual and was sufficient to offer a reason(s) for every difficult situation: Grief? BAM, here’s the answer, Romans 8 seemed appropriate. Depression? “Sure, let me quote you a Psalm.” Anxiety? “That’s easy. Just believe and God will heal you.” Looking back, it was a natural response because it was an ingrained response. I needed control, and fundamentalism—or “bible-onlyism”—provided me with answers to difficult circumstances.

One troubling memory is that of people in the church, especially some in higher authority, seemed to praise me for saying those things. Let me clarify, what I said during those circumstances came from my mouth and no one else’s. I'm not here to write another post on how the church is awful and we should move on from traditionalism toward some form of self-esteem-deism. No, I take full responsibility for my words: “Every small word,” Jesus says, “will be accounted to you in the day of judgment.” However, no one rebuked, corrected, or challenged me when I said such things; if anything, my system encouraged it. When I first became a Christian, I didn't know what to say to a grieving parent, or how to comfort an anxious teenager, or how to help someone overcome depression. But, my particular system provided me tools (more like ammunition) for offering answers to suffering people; yet, isn’t that ironic? My harshest words were toward people who were vulnerable. Not to self-assured-bullies—if anything, I often felt compelled to nominate them as leadership material. Not to the dying, I had to make sure I spoke “gospel-centered” words to them in case they died that night. Not to the intellectuals, I was taught to disregard them as pagans because their presuppositions were not Christ-centered. The harshest words of mine were toward the saddened, the anxious, the confused, and the fragile. 

Now, sixteen years later and still a Christ-follower, I’m asking, “Why?” Other than the fact I was still quite immature. The only sense I can make is that suffering people were the only threat to my system and demanded an automatic response from scripture. This was the threat of Job’s friends, who knew scripture better than anyone at that time: they could handle him for a week or so, but once he uncomfortably exposed his grief and despair, they became uncomfortable because it poked holes in their system and they verbally attacked. Like Job's friends, my threat were Job-like people: people who exposed me to what they were feeling at the time and in their darkness, made me uncomfortable because I didn't have an answer for them. Which, was uncomfortable because no immediate answer meant either I didn't know the Bible or they didn't. If there wasn't an answer, that would conclude the Bible was insufficient; which, couldn't be the case because I was taught the Bible always provides answers and if they're struggling to find an answer, it was my responsibly to figure it out or help them find it. Sermons and lessons were often apologies (defenses) on "how to give an answer" and help people figure it out. If it came out rude, well I was to confess my sins, but expect to be rewarded for my bravery. But looking back, this system was not teaching people on how to grieve, but how to offer people pity. Nietzsche believed that pity was the worst insult you could give because it creates a sense of self-righteousness. I believe he was right. When you offer pity, you're not doing it for the person, but for yourself, so that your conscience is not harmed when you go home. Pity is a way people manipulate God to reward themselves, not an act of kindness toward the individual. Looking back, I was very good at pitying people.

Does this still go on? Yes. I look around and this threat-perspective toward suffering people continues within many circles. When I hear of a friend whose child has a terminal disease receive a rebuke for his anger because he was “questioning God’s providence,” when I hear of a divorced woman isolated from others in her bible study because there was no adultery involved in her divorce, and therefore her divorce was labeled “unbiblical" (regardless of the fact there may have been abuse); or when I hear of a young man struggling with clinical depression and subtly told, “You don’t believe the gospel enough.” I’m not only asking “why,” I’m left baffled and confused on why these self-proclaimed biblical-counselors are continuing to offer their harshest words toward the vulnerable. When I said those words years ago, I was considered “bold,” “audacious,” and “intrepid;” and even though I take responsibility for my words, they were a natural response from an ingrained system: a system uncomfortable with suffering people.

Today, seminaries continue to nominate inexperienced people to achieve an M.Div. and in three years, send them off to be a pastor. This is unfortunate because pastors are likely going to give ingrained responses to suffering people—just to survive as a pastor. Many newly-appointed pastors have confided their frustration at how ill-equipped they are to answer those suffering in their congregations. Earnest young pastors, who dearly love their people, want to say the right things. But, as a counselor I can tell you, suffering people often don’t need answers because an answer will never comfort them. If they had one, would that provide solace? Rather, hurting-people need our ability to grieve with them and not pity them. How do we accumulate those skills? One-way is to go through the school of suffering, but this school can’t be forced because it doesn't have an admission application. Another way is to utilize people within the church and community who can offer this compassion. Who are they? They are the people who are curious in every difficult situation. They are secure in people's grief and are not uncomfortable when they’re weeping. They’re not offering timelines to “get over it” and they stay away from models that will help people within the church/community because they acknowledge that even though they’ve gone through something similar, they’re quick to point out it’s not the same and cannot be predicated to an A-B-C/1,2,3 format.

Looking back, I’m no longer bitter toward myself nor toward others. I used to apologize for my kind of fundamentalism, but I don’t anymore because it brought comfort to where I was at the time. I needed it, but after seeing and experiencing personal depression, anxiety, heartache, slander, and the death of a parent and friend, I needed to move on from the simple answers and explore God’s “mysterious and sweet providence,” as William Cowper says.  

Today, counseling in the church has gotten somewhat better and more open to mental health, but many issues still seem to automate a response of, “That must be an idol” or “You can have anxiety for this long, but over time, we need to focus on sinful patterns in your life.” Those issues may demand those eventual responses, but they should not be our automatic and cookie-cutter reactions to them. Mystery was looked down upon in my fundamentalism, but we need to abandon our quick, predictable diagnosis and offer each person empathy within the harsh mystery of suffering. I ask, “What will it take for a generation of some fundamentalists to stop their cycle of insensitivity?” Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.” In my early years, it seemed right to prevent them; all for the sake of “serving Jesus”: and that’s not only baffling, it’s troubling. Which means that maybe my biggest prayer should not be for God to give me words, but for God to grant me the ability to shed tears.   

“God, grant me to cry with my friend. Amen.”

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