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Entries in suffering (6)


What does powerful connecting look like?

Powerful connecting rarely happens in the Church, or anywhere, for that matter.  Why do we often feel impotent when faced with the deep pain of another?  Should we advise, refer them to counseling, try to listen more attentively? 

What would you say to the following man who is courageous enough to share his anguish with you?

"This was a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my own life.  Everything came crashing down -- my self-esteem, my energy to love and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God...All had become darkness.  Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn't know existed, a place full of demons." [1]

Would you simply try to listen to the man?  Assure him of God's loving presence?  Refer him to counseling? Suggest that God is trying to teach him perseverence?  Expose his insecurities and hang-ups, his false beliefs?

The suffering man in our story, by the way, was Henri Nouwen; a spiritual giant to many who had authored 39 books by the time of his death in 1996.


Failure to connect
Larry Crabb, author of the groundbreaking book, Connecting, says that one reason we fail to connect powerfully with others in a way that could actually heal them is because we often operate with a "Therapeutic Model."  Crabb calls this the "Treatment/Repair" Model, where we attempt to fix what's wrong in the other. In this model,

"The first step, of course, is to figure out what is wrong [diagnosis] and face it, then courageously work through the often long and painful process of coming to grips with the internal damage and learning to approach life in healthier ways [therapy]."

In order to fix what's wrong, we uncover the underlying psychological forces influencing their behavior.  We analyze the hurting person's past, look into underlying patterns and suggest coping mechanisms and re-framing approaches to insure a healthier outcome for them.  The people that offer the most insight become the person's heroes.   Counseling often buys into this model; and though it can often provide insight and suggest more healthy, adaptive behaviors, it may not actually heal the person. Insight may not translate into healing.

Under this find what's damaged--fix what's wrong model, we might recommend that Henri Nouwen see a counselor in order to get at underlying damage, expose faulty belief systems, and recommend treatment for depression. We might even send him Scripture verses to encourage him so that he can believe there's a light at the end of his dark tunnel.  But this model may yield little healing fruit. Crabb points out that, "Our power to influence lives does not come...from revealing to people the details of their internal mess."


What does powerful connecting look like?
Crabb rightly suggests that God does not often use a Therapeutic Model [Find and Fix What's Wrong] in order to heal us.  Rather, God does three things:

1.  "First, he provides a taste of Christ delighting in us -- the essence of connection; accepting who we are and envisioning who we could be."


2.  "Second, he diligently searches within us for the good he has put there -- an affirming exposure; remaining calm when badness is visible, keeping confidence that goodness lies beneath."


3.  "Third, he engagingly exposes what is bad and painful -- a disruptive exposure;" in order to uncover the goodness beneath the mess - "a goodness that is more defining of who we are than our badness...When we look at the bad, we must always be looking harder for the hidden good."    [#3 should happen less as we use the approaches of #1 and #2.]  Crabb adds, "A careful exploration of the redeemed heart does not sink us in a cesspool; it's more like mining for gold in a dirty cave." 

We are not primarily damaged people:  We are foremost saints, gifted with new-hearted vitality and power; a vitality that may be buried beneath a mess, but not subverted by it.


Did help come for Henri Nouwen?
So did Henri Nouwen find any who could help him?  Yes, from an elderly priest who understood how to powerfully connect with him:

"During the most difficult period of my life, when I experienced great anguish and despair, he was there.  Many times, he pulled my head to his chest and prayed for me without words but with a Spirit-filled silence that dispelled my demons of despair and made me rise up from his embrace with new vitality." [2]

Something powerful was poured out from the elderly priest into the broken-hearted younger man; arousing something buried, but alive and strong in Henri.  That power was the quickening life of Christ Himself.

We connect well with others when we...

  • give them a taste of God's delighting in them,

  • relentlessly search for the God-given good urges beneath their pain and mess,

  • refuse our impulses to fix what's wrong; and instead, take our cues from Jesus, asking, "How can I join You as You release what is most alive in me, pouring that Life into them, in order to release what is most alive in them?"



 [1]  The Inner Voice of Love:  A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, Henri Nouwen

[2]  Our Greatest Gift, Henri Nouwen

All other quotations from Connecting, by Larry Crabb.



How do others respond to your suffering?

The best way to respond to another person's suffering is at an emotional level, not a rational one.  Respond to emotion with emotion. [1]  I don't mean that we fake an emotional response, or become overly dramatic or animated as we acknowledge their anguish; but rather, we learn to hear with our hearts, rather than dispensing prescriptions. 

How a person handles your pain will tell you about their view of God.

When sharing our heartache with others, most of us get a corrective response.  Here's what the Corrective Response sounds like:

1. "Here's what the Bible says about that; now just believe it." 

2. "Here's my experience and how I handled pain:  You should adopt my attitude."

3. "You're over-reacting or too sensitive.  It's not as bad as you think it is."

[It may, in fact, not be as bad as they think it is, but telling them so isn't likely to improve their situation or perspective.]

The negative impact of the Corrective Response:
The fallacy here is that reason cannot always heal; and will often make the suffering worse.   And reason is a cheap substitute for entering into another's suffering:  It takes more energy and love to "weep with those who weep" than offering a rational [and clinical] response to their hurt. 

The collateral damage of the corrective response is one of dismissal, which quickly becomes shame:  Because your heartache isn't taken seriously,  your suffering is leveled as an indictment against you because you're too weak, too faithless, or too sensitive to handle the situation well.  Or, so go the assumptions about you.

Suffering is not faithlessness:
Often times, the corrective response is built upon the assumption that your response to pain indicates a lack of faith.   The truth is, that while your "flesh may be weak" and faithless; your good and noble heart is not:  Your new heart may be growing in trust, but it was equipped with the same confidence in the Father that Jesus himself held onto.  "Christ in you" means that there is a very deep part of you that still trusts, despite your very real feelings of abandonment.

Don't see pain as necessarily a lack of faith.  Emotions are not always reliable indicators of a person's true inner strength; especially when they themselves are overwhelmed and can't see their own hope and resilience while its buried beneath the rubble.

The positive impact of responding to emotion with emotion?
1.  Responding with emotional empathy opens the sufferer up to the healing presence of God.

2.  Responding with emotional empathy give the listener permission to be taken seriously, especially when something challenging may be needed to be said at a later point in time.  Without empathy, the listener doesn't have permission.

3.  Responding with emotional empathy makes the listener a safe harbor for a broken vessel. 

We can learn to ask: What is my friend experiencing? 

  • Fear?  
  • Betrayal?
  • Futility? 
  • Loss?
  • Forsakenness?

Learning to respond to emotion with emotion, particularly the emotions the suffering person is drowning under, will help us serve as an advocate rather than as an advisor; a companion rather than a courtroom judge; a compassionate healer rather than a clinician.

[1]  Intimate Life, Intimate Life Ministries


C.S. Lewis on what makes the enemy so nervous...

My good friend and ally, John, and I were noticing that just about everyone we know -- especially people on the front lines of Jesus' mission to rescue hearts -- was in deep pain or entrenched suffering of some sort.  It's almost uncanny that so many of our allies are suffering;  and it can't be explained away by, "Well, everyone goes through something now and then:  that's just the way it is."  [That sounds a bit naive to me.]

John brought up the following reference from The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.  Uncle Screwtape, the elder devil, is telling his nephew the very thing that makes evil itself nervous:

“Sooner or later he [God] withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives.  He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish…He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice.  He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand…Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending,  to do our enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” 

― Uncle Screwtape.  From C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

  •  "..to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish." 

  • "Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending,  to do our enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

If you've ever read my blog or my book, you'll know that I've never been one to advocate robotic duty or heart-less obedience; and I'm not sure Lewis is either here.  At first blush, this may paint a rather unfavorable view of God, but note the following:

  • Lewis does not say that God has left the creature – but that in our “conscious experience” it seems that way. 
  • He also doesn’t say that he takes away his presence in these times, but only his hand – so that we can walk when we didn’t think we could; or at least in a strength and capacity we have not ‘till now walked. 
  • It also doesn’t say that we have been forsaken, only that the creature "asks why he has been forsaken,”  given the agony of his experience.

What makes the foul ones nervous?  When an ally of Jesus keeps getting back up, refusing darkness the opportunity to gloat, and continues in desire-less plodding to carry hope into the Babylonian lions' den.  Or to reach Mordor where the one ring will be swallowed in fire forever.  Only then can Frodo go home.  And for such a time as this, to face-down the king who has enslaved her people, exposing the plot, setting off a redemptive sequence in history that far outstrips Esthers diminuitive status.

"Take heart...for I have overcome the world."  And because you are his ally, you are overcoming the world as well."



VideoBlog: "Developing a Steady Confidence" --Jim Robbins


Developing a steady confidence. Lessons from a Navy Seal

Before his grueling Navy Seal training, Eric Greiten, author of The Heart and the Fist, got into the boxing ring.  He trained with a much more seasoned boxer and his coach, and this is his account of the first days of his training for the ring.

When we finished our day's work, I went into the locker room and took off my new gloves and my new hand wraps.  I held my hands splayed in front of me and looked at my knuckles.  The skin was torn from punching on the heavy bag.  Scar tissue would start to grow soon.  But for now, I savored blood on my hands, the small cut on my lip, the soreness in my jaw.  I had begun to earn the strength that comes from working through pain and it felt good.  I filled the sink with hot water and sank my hands.  When I pulled my dripping hands from the water, hints of fresh blood came to the surface of each knuckle.  ...I was becoming stronger and I liked it.

Deciding to enter the strict and discipled training of a professional boxer, Greitens says he needed to test himself:

" ...I needed to live through something hard and real to become better."    He noted that the other, more seasoned boxers had "a sure sense of how to walk in the world.  That was something I wanted - the steady confidence that comes from passing through tough tests." 


That "sure sense of how to walk in the world...that steady confidence" will often only come with bloody knuckles, cut lip,  and the wind knocked out of us.  But the strength will come, too.  When seasoned through suffering, a fighter can then handle opponents that once would have beat him silly.



The irrational hope of suffering

Many of my friends, and even my own family, are going through exceptionally hard times these days.  We're wondering why God seems to be indifferent, almost callous.  God seems to treat us in a way we'd never treat our own friends and family.  My wife and I are questioning every major decision we've made in the last 2 years, wondering if God's promise was a joke.

Would you allow your son to feel abandoned?  You're daughter to experience unrelieved pain?

I'm pretty good at trusting God when I know what he's asking me to risk.  If I'm unmistakeably hearing his counsel, I know he intends on rescue in one way or another.  But when I can't hear a thing - no direction, no counsel, no One ... It is then that trust is forced into a deeper place:

Will you trust me when you hear nothing -- when the knock on the door isn't answered.  When the storehouse is barren.  When the promise feels like a slap across the face?

I'm learning that the only way to move from a theology of hope and trust, to a quake-proof, threat-defying confidence is to let it play out.  Remember:  things are not always what they appear to be.  Our assumptions about what is going on may be inaccurate.  We need to let this play out so that the confidence Jesus had in the bow of the boat being bullied by wave and wind becomes ours.  We need this trial so that the goodness of God's heart - deeply for us -  can be exposed:

There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home.  - John Stuart Mill

This isn't a stone-hearted dismissal of loss and pain, the kind of unaffected counsel Job's friends offered him.   Rather, know that I'm heart-sick at the level of suffering some of my dear friends and those closest to me are experiencing.  My own family feels tossed about like a dog's chew toy --  Daily rage against unanswered prayer, tears wept as I stand behind my house hunched over in abandonment.  

Then there are the fleeting moments of ever-increasing strength.  A growing noble courage I don't think I've ever felt before. 

My hope is being coaxed, hardened and honed because of the suffering, and not in spite of it.  I don't want to cower before every threatening cloud.  I don't want to be tossed about by every wind:  but I will be unless I allow this chapter in the story to summon a strength that is becoming indominable, not fooled by circumstance and reason.

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