Pain: God’s Just-Right Tool

“You know, you’re like the Martha Stewart of kitchen gadgets and tools,” my friend observed as she unloaded our dishwasher. “You’ve got stuff I never knew existed.”  

Cherry pitter

I really do like having just-right tools. I only use my cherry pitter during cherry season, but it’s perfect for the job. I don’t use my electric knife sharpener every day, but when I do pull it out to put a finely honed edge on a knife, it brings joy to my culinary tasks. I love being able to chop up nuts in my food chopper in no time flat—and no mess. Tools like these are a reason I enjoy cooking and baking.

Once as I was using a razor blade holder to scrape paint off the windows on our garage door, I said, “Thanks, Lord, for the blessing of a just-right tool.” I sensed Him say, “Do you think it’s any different for Me? I enjoy having the just-right tool in My hand as well.” At the time I got the impression He was talking about using us as instruments of grace and blessing in His hand, but lately I’ve become aware of a different kind of just-right tool in God’s hand.

Pain.

Physical pain, emotional pain, the pain of trials and suffering of all kinds. Pain is an incredibly effective tool to achieve God’s purposes in our lives: transforming His children into the image of His Son Jesus, tearing down strongholds that keep us from being all that He made us to be, restoring what was lost in the Fall.

No Easy Button

Since God has no magic wand and no Easy button (that’s only for Staples commercials), He has to use other means to accomplish the considerable task of changing people who are far more broken and messy and less than we were created to be, into the people He intended us to be from the beginning.

Some of the just-right tools I have personally seen in God’s hands:

George and Pam (not their real names) found the wheels coming off their lives when they learned their middle-schooler was doing drugs, followed shortly by dealing them. Though they were faithful church attenders, neither of them actually knew Jesus. They were directed to a grace-drenched, gospel-preaching church where they both trusted Christ and everything changed. George told me recently that as he had learned, “Suffering keeps us from the delusion of self-sufficiency. This delusion was my main problem. When the sufferings of my failure as a husband, father and man became crushing, I surrendered.” They are now leaders in several ministries at their church.

Jennifer Clouse’s second battle with cancer, which she shares generously via her blog and her friendships with about a gazillion people. Jen is teaching many people what the grace of humor looks like from inside a cancer diagnosis that moves her closer to heaven every day. Her ability to see God in everything is as instructive as when she stood before women teaching the Word.

Barbara Baker is a missionary in Mexico whose desire to minister to people is far greater than her body’s ability to support it. As her frailty and weakness grows, so do her limitations. When Ray and I visited Barbara and Jonathan in Puebla last year, I saw what happens when the diameter of a spotlight is reduced; it becomes like a laser! Barbara’s physical limitations mean that the things she is able to participate in are that much more valuable, that much more grace-filled. Her light is that much more concentrated.

Holly Loughlin has been fighting Cystic Fibrosis her whole life, which has now reached what used to be the upper limit for CF patients. On her most recent hospitalization, she started daily blogging what life was like for her, and I absolutely loved what she wrote on Day 10:

“The Lord is always in the business of redeeming. Sometimes I see that so clearly here. Everyone gushes about what a great CF patient I am and they are all eager to introduce me other CFers who are struggling because of my hope and outlook and work ethic. But, I wasn't always like this. I went through 3 really rough years where I refused to do anything that had anything to do with CF. I didn't take any pills, do any treatments, or even eat the way I was supposed to. All of those things felt like chains that held me at the mercy of CF. I suffered needlessly and went in the hospital many more times than was actually necessary during those years, but the Lord was gracious and allowed me to survive it. Somewhere around the time I went off to UNT at 18 I realized that CF wasn't something I was going to be able to escape, no matter how I lived and that I had been given a specific set of tools that, if anything could, would help me achieve the goals and dreams I had for my life. I realized that eating, sleeping, doing my treatments and taking my pills were the things that were going to give me the best shot at having a great life.

“I had no idea then how great my life was going to be one day. Some of my dreams didn't come true. I had to give them up because my body just wouldn't accomplish them no matter what I did, but the Lord was so gracious to give me new dreams, better dreams. And here I am 20 years later with the best husband anyone could dream up, a daughter more amazing than I could ever have imagined, and a lot of life still ahead of me. That's our God. He loves to gives His children good gifts. He loves to be called upon. He loves to surprise us when we least expect it. And I'm thankful that He is even now using the folly of those years so long ago to reach out and give hope and encouragement to others.

“I could never have imagined that I would be sitting up in the hospital at this age being the go-to person for giving hope, love, and light to people who are as lost in the weeds of CF now as I was then. I'm so thankful that the Lord has let me live to see this, to be this. I know how much I would've given to have had someone for me like I am able to be for these folks.” 

Daniel and Kelly Crawford received the devastating news that their unborn son Abel had Trisomy18, a genetic condition in compatible with life. Shortly after he was born, they wrote on their blog,

“[W]e’ve been living in this challenging tension since last July… a total inability to control or manipulate an outcome, which forces you to make a decision: we can fall headlong into depression & despair, or we can return to the promises of the Faithful One. 

“So just as we’ve tried to do all along, we want to live out Psalm 143:8 and remind ourselves of God’s steadfast trustworthiness every morning. We want to cling to 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, setting our gaze on our great eternal Hope amidst affliction. And we want to remember James 4:14-15, seizing every precious hour of every precious day and knowing that even you & I are never guaranteed tomorrow.

“God’s sovereignty is something I have subscribed to wholeheartedly for a good long while, but you really ‘put your money where your mouth is’ in these scenarios that truly are out of your hands.”

Their precious little boy lived for 15 days before slipping out of his mama’s arms into Jesus’ arms. The just-right tool of Trisomy18 was what God used to fulfill what the Crawfords confidently told the thousands of people who prayed and wept and followed their story: “The ultimate plan and purpose for Abel’s life (and our life) is to glorify the Glorious One.”  And he did.

And then there’s me.

Advanced arthritis on top of Post-Polio Syndrome means I now need a walker instead of just a cane to walk and stand. Most steps hurt. Two ortho docs have said I will need both hips replaced, but post-surgery rehabbing is questionable when one of my legs is basically worthless. Could this be a just-right tool in God’s hand?

I choose to believe it is. Every day I have the choice to remember and give thanks that a good and loving God is in control. I’ve always lived with a lot on my plate, but He has allowed my “plate” to get smaller. As I upgraded to a walker, I downgraded from a dinner plate to a bread plate. Like Barbara, limitations abound and I have to check with the Lord: what do You want me to do?

I have seen God do some marvelous things in my family through this new challenge. He is good. I may be falling apart on the outside, but my “inner man" is more vibrant than ever, as long as I cling to the truth that God is good.

My new life verse is 2 Corinthians 4:16-18—

Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing way, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/pain_gods_just-right_toolon May 31, 2016.


A Holy Limp

I got polio at eight months old. Every step of my life, I have walked with a limp. It was a source of great shame to me growing up because of people’s stares. And my limp was probably the biggest reason I hated polio and hated how I saw myself, as the “ugly crippled girl.”

One day, as I studied the scriptures, God gave me a divine “lightbulb moment.” As I read in Genesis 32 about Jacob wrestling all night with God, the same Lord who touched his hip, asked me, “Do you see the souvenir I gave Jacob from his night with Me?” Jacob walked the rest of his life with a limp. He had been touched by God and it changed the way he walked.

It was a holy limp.

In that moment, I saw that there was nothing inherently shameful about a limp if God gave one to His beloved Jacob.

Certainly, this doesn’t magically transform a limp into something beautiful and good—after all, it means something is wrong. But God can, and does, bring something beautiful and good out of the limps of our lives.

Over the past few years of walking with hurting people, I have come to see how God uses my limp to connect with those whose hearts are still scarred and limited by the wounds they’ve received. As I wrote to a dear friend who left behind decades of life as a gay activist when she trusted Christ, and who still has to submit her feelings to Jesus every day of her life:

“You know, it’s entirely possible your attractions to women won’t change and you will walk with an emotional limp the rest of your life. . . just as I will continue to walk with a physical limp the rest of my earthly life. But both of us can glorify God in our limping by honoring Him with our choices, as we look to Him to restore us to a perfect future that includes running and jumping and leaping and loving perfectly, on the other side.

“I know that may sound weird, ‘glorifying God in our limping,’ but I think He receives more glory through limping people who are dependent on Him, than healthy people who breeze through life independent of Him.”

Connecting the dots between my physical limp and my friend’s emotional limp encouraged her greatly. Just as I was deeply encouraged by the godly response of my pastor, Todd Wagner of Watermark Community Church in Dallas, to the news that he has cancer in his foot. He wrote to his church family:

”So grateful for the prayers so many of you have offered on my behalf. I covet them for both wisdom in dealing with sarcoma (the cancer affecting my body) but especially sin (the cancer constantly waging war with my soul). There is no greater kindness than your earnest prayer for me. . . . In the coming weeks I will be watching, monitoring, imaging, praying, continually consulting with caring docs, and trusting in a good and sovereign God Who is never asleep. Having to trust my perfect Father with one more thing is no burden—it is a blessing. Anything that reminds me of His goodness and my futility is a gift. Thank you for praying with me… may my every decision honor my King and may my every step—whether with two feet or one, with cancer or without — find me running hard in His way. Pray for my health… but double down on the health of my walk with Him over my ability to walk physically. If He will allow me both I rejoice. If the days ahead allow for only one, I would gladly choose to limp in this life over anything that would compromise my running toward His presence in faithfulness. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)” (Emphasis mine)

Can you imagine how Todd’s last sentence made my heart soar?

But it doesn’t end there. Watermark’s worship pastor, Jon Abel, “plays with a limp.” Several years ago, when mowing his lawn, his lawnmower blade sliced off his finger—his wedding ring finger, which he uses every day as a guitar player. The trauma of losing his finger, with the attendant threat of losing his livelihood, forced him to come face to face with the question of whether a good and loving God was in control. Jon’s godly response to this trial, which is documented in this short YouTube video, is one reason he is one of my favorite worship leaders of all time.

 

I recently learned from my sister—on Facebook, of all places!—that the doctors told my mother I would never walk. Mom decided they were wrong, and worked patiently with me every day, exercising my once-paralyzed leg in the bathtub as she taught me the ABCs and who knows what else.

I don’t know why my mother didn’t tell me this fact, but I do know this: limping means I can walk!

I am grateful for the gift of perspective. Whether it’s my polio-caused limp, or Todd’s possibility of limping from losing a foot, or Jon’s limited ability to play guitar from a once-severed finger, I just know that if God can be more glorified from our limps than from physical perfection, we’ll take the holy limp every time.

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/a-holy-limp/ on November 15, 2013


Headed to the Courtroom

June 18, 2013

Yesterday I was selected to serve on a jury for a trial that is anticipated to last three to four weeks.  The jury selection process was an all-day affair, lasting over twelve hours and creating quite a sense of camaraderie in the process.

I keep thinking about the three major take-aways from this experience.

First, the multiple defense attorneys for the four defendants (thus the long trial) repeatedly reminded us that the American justice system is built on the foundation of “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” And that is a very, very good thing, as horror stories emerge from countries where instant “justice” is meted out in cutting off or crushing limbs of those accused of stealing. And in countries where “mob justice” is part of everyday life. (See my blog post When God Does Nothing About Injustice.)

But it’s not like that before God. Not a single one of us can protest innocence. Not only is every single one of us a sinner from conception (Ps. 51:5), but God knows every thought we think before we ever act on it. A totally holy, perfect God knows that we may be innocent of crimes before other men, but we are not innocent before Him.

Except that Jesus swapped His perfection and righteousness for our messed up guilt. It’s like the judge coming down from his elevated seat, taking off his robes, and saying to a defendant that was just declared guilty, “I’ll be taking your punishment for you.” Amazing.

My second takeaway is gratitude for the teaching and experience in filtering life through a biblical filter. I am especially grateful for the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17—“The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” All of us potential jurors were strongly encouraged to use common sense, and evaluate carefully everything we would hear. And (not surprisingly), the defense attorneys asked us not to draw any conclusions until we had heard everything. Those could be just platitudes, but since I know that God’s Word said it first, it is my determined course of action.

The third takeaway is the importance of embracing God’s right to put a long trial on my calendar. He is God; He has the right to interrupt my plans and put whatever He wants on my schedule. I had an idea of what I would be doing during the day over the next month, but God had different plans. I choose to trust Him and keep letting go of my impatient, wrong-headed belief that I should get to decide my agenda.

Then in one breathtaking moment, I had a paradigm shift that erupted in a heartfelt “Oh, thank You Lord!”: the realization that this is nothing compared to the way a cancer diagnosis crashes into one’s schedule, with a very different set of unwanted appointments on it. I’m pretty sure my sister Nanci, fighting breast cancer, would swap her chemo treatments with my courtroom dates in a heartbeat.

So the adventure with God continues . . .

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/tapestry/headed-to-the-courtroom


When the Church Is More Cultural than Christian

July 7, 2011

So, I’m reading this excellent biography of Bonhoeffer right now, and I’ve been mulling this question. Well, I guess it’s twofold, really.

Background: You probably know this already, but just in case. In Nazi Germany the German church pretty much abandoned any form of orthodox Christianity in order to fit in with the culture. Bonhoeffer, Niemoller and others formed the Confessing Church as a stand for true Christianity in the face of the cultural abdication of the wider church. Most were either imprisoned or killed for their efforts.

1 – Do you think that the American church is undergoing a similar shift to fit in with cultural norms on a broad scale that could threaten orthodox Christianity (clearly, hopefully, not to the extent of the Reich church, but still, I see some possible parallels)? What do you think are the areas in which the American church is most at risk? Why?

2 – Do you think we have leadership that is taking a stand for orthodoxy in a counter-cultural and true way on the national scene? If so, who?

Yes. The American church acquiesces to the culture in various ways which are detrimental to the Gospel. It’s tricky because it is vital to the Gospel that the Gospel (whose hands and feet are the church) be relevant. Churches which are highly separatist and never adapt to or accommodate culture do violence to the Gospel as well, so it’s tricky. And we’ll none of us ever get it 100% right. Ever. I keep trying to tell God humility is overrated; he never listens.

I think there are two veins in which American churches are perhaps more American than Christian. One is liberal; one is conservative. (Brilliant, I know.) The tendency is to point the finger at the other and overreact for fear of falling into the other’s traps. We’re so focused on not falling into this trap, that we don’t even notice that what we think is a bunker is merely another trap of another sort.

Now to your actual question: What are these traps?
Liberal:
Of course there are the far left examples like: Employing poor hermeneutics which 1) Undercut Scripture as a text which is not historical or literal at all, and 2) justify sin, usually sexual sin such as premarital sex and homosexual sex and the sexually-related sin of abortion. And then there is the slightly more subtle trap of feeling the need to bend over backwards to kiss the keister of Science. Finally, there is the acquiescence of the (pseudo)tolerance mantra of hypermodernism: partly out of fear of being legalistic, partly because it is more comfortable, we succumb to Relativism.

Conservative:
Employing poor hermeneutics which truncate Scripture as a text which is entirely literal (it seems to me that this is a very Western thing to do, but I could be wrong; it could simply be a human thing to do… we feel more comfortable in black and white). Such a lack of hermeneutic leads to overly hard-nosed positions about creation and “the woman issue” among other things. It also leads to, instead of justifying sin, creating an extra hedge of rules so that we can be darn sure we avoid the undignified, socially unacceptable sins, perhaps especially, sexual sin.

And then of course there’s the idea of a Christian America; or that politics can fix every(one else)thing.

Traps for all:
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is probably a problem for both sides. So is materialism of course, privatism and spiritual professionalization—You’d better keep your hands off of my individual rights and my private life… and: spiritual things go in one compartment, which is private and has no business interfering in the public sphere: ie. faith and science and/or faith and business. Professionalization is also quite Western. I love this quote from GK Chesterton’s Heretics:

But if we look at the progress of our scientific civilization we see a gradual increase everywhere of the specialist over the popular function. Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better. If scientific civilization goes on (which is most improbable) only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest.

Professionalization probably also includes running our churches too much like businesses.

Finally, Q number 2: Yes. What’s tricky about this is that one must sometimes be under the radar to be counter-cultural, partly because when you’re counter-cultural, no one wants to listen to you! Eugene Peterson, Tim Keller, NT Wright, Nancy Pearcey, Os Guinness (an outside perspective is always helpful) and the Trinity Forum, Jamie Smith, especially in the area of how we do church and spiritual formation… I’m sure there are others, including my colleagues who are currently working on assessing and addressing this issue of cultural captivity: first creating an Ah-ha moment about our cultural captivity, and secondly, creating a way out of captivity and into freedom.

Good question!

This blog post originally appeared at reneamac.com/2011/07/07/when-the-church-is-more-cultural-than-christian/


What Not To Say When Someone is Grieving

Last week my dear friend Sandi Glahn wrote another boffo blog post about the myths of infertility, which included some of the dumb things people say.

It may be insensitivity or a lack of education that spurs people to say things that are unhelpful at the least and downright hurtful much of the time. I still remember my own daggers to the heart after our first baby died nine days after her birth. And for the past several years, I have been collecting actual quotes said to those already in pain.

So here’s my current list of What Not To Say when someone is hurting:

Don’t start any sentence with “At least. . . .”
• “At least you didn’t have time to really love her.”
• “At least he’s in heaven now.”
• “At least you have two other children.”
• “At least that’s one less mouth you’ll have to feed.”
• “At least it didn’t have to go through the pain of birth.”
• “At least you’ve had a good life so far, before the cancer diagnosis.”

Don’t attempt to minimize the other person’s pain.
• “Cancer isn’t really a problem.” (e.g., Shame on you for thinking that losing your hair/body part/health is a problem.)
• “It’s okay, you can have other children.”

Don’t try to explain what God is doing behind the scenes.
• “I guess God knew you weren’t ready to be parents yet.”
• “Now you’ll find out who your friends are.”
• “This baby must have just not been meant to be.”
• “There must have been something wrong with the baby.”
• “Just look ahead because God is pruning you for great works.”
• “Cancer is really a blessing.”
• “Cancer is a gift from God because you are so strong.”

Don’t blame the other person:
• “If you had more faith, your daughter would be healed.”
• “Remember that time you had a negative thought? That let the cancer in.”
• “You are not praying hard enough.”
• “Maybe God is punishing you. Have you done something sinful?”
• “Oh, you’re not going to let this get you down, are you?” (Meaning: just go on without dealing with it.)

Don’t compare what the other person is going through to ANYTHING else or anyone else’s problem:
• “It’s not as bad as that time I. . .”
• “My sister-in-law had a double mastectomy and you only lost one breast.”

Don’t use the word “should”:
• “You should be happy/grateful that God is refining you.”

Don’t use clichés and platitudes:
• “Look on the bright side.”
• “He’s in a better place.”
• “She’s an angel now.” (NO! People and angels are two different created kinds! People do not get turned into angels when they die.)
• “He’s with the Lord.”

Don’t instruct the person:
• “This is sent for your own good, and you need to embrace it to get all the benefit out of it.”
• “Remember that God is in control.”
• “Remember, all things work together for good for those that love God and are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28 is powerful to comfort oneself, but it can feel like being bludgeoned when it comes from anyone else.)

What TO say:
• “I love you.”
• “I am so sorry.” You don’t have to explain. Anything.

What TO do:
• A wordless hug.
• A card that says simply, “I grieve with you.”
• Instead of bringing cakes, drop off or (better) send gift certificates for restaurants or pizza places.

And pray. Then pray some more. It’s the most powerful thing we can say or do.

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/what_not_to_say_when_someone_is_grieving
on January 20, 2009, and you can read the many comments there.


A Doctor’s Journey with Cancer

When you suddenly learn you might have only 18 months to live, its a good time to sort out what really matters in life.

Last December, Yang Chen, MD, dismissed an aching pain under his shoulder as muscle strain. Five weeks later, as the pain persisted, a chest x-ray brought shocking results: possible lung cancer that might have spread.

A highly acclaimed specialist and medical professor at the University of Colorado Denver, Yang knew the average survival rate for his condition could be under 18 months. He didnt smoke and had no family history of cancer. He was stunned. His life changed in an instant.

I wondered how I would break the news to my unsuspecting wife and three young children, he recalls. Who would take care of my family if I died?

Swirling Vortex of Uncertainty

When I heard his story, I felt a jab of recognition. In 1996, my doctor said I might have cancer. That word sent me into a swirling vortex of uncertainty. But I was fortunate; within a month, I learned my condition was benign.

Yang did not get such good news. He now knows he has an inoperable tumor. Hes undergoing chemotherapy. Its uncertain whether radiation will help. Yet through it all, he seems remarkably calm and positive. At a time when one might understandably focus on oneself, hes even assisting other cancer patients and their families to cope with their own challenges. Whats his secret?

I learned about Yangs personal inner resources when we first met in the 1980s. He worked at the Mayo Clinic and brought me to Rochester, Minnesota, to present a seminar for Mayo and IBM professionals on a less ponderous theme, Love, Sex and the Single Lifestyle. With the audience, we laughed and explored relationship mysteries. He felt it was essential that people consider the spiritual aspect of relationships, as well as the psychological and physical.

Later he founded a global network to train medical professionals how to interact with patients on spiritual matters. Many seriously ill patients want their doctors to discuss spiritual needs and the profession is taking note.

Reality Blog

Now a patient himself, Yang exhibits strength drawn from the faith that has enriched his life. He has established a websitewww.aDoctorsJourneyWithCancer.netto chronicle his journey and offer hope and encouragement to others. The site presents a compelling real-life drama as it happens.

As a follower of Jesus, Yang notes biblical references to Gods light shining in our hearts and people of faith being like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. He sees himself as a broken clay jar through which Gods light can shine to point others who suffer to comfort and faith.

As he draws on divine strength, he reflects on Paul, a first-century believer who wrote, We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.

A dedicated scientist, Yang is convinced that what he believes about God is true and includes information about evidences for faith. Hes also got plenty to help the hurting and the curious navigate through their pain, cope with emotional turmoil, and find answers to lifes perplexing questions about death, dying, the afterlife, handling anxiety, and more.

With perhaps less than 18 months to live, Yang Chen knows whats most important in his life. He invites web surfers to walk with me for part, or all, of my journey. If Im ever in his position, I hope I can blend suffering with service while displaying the serenity and trust I observe in him. Visit his website and youll see what I mean.

© 2008 Rusty Wright


Starting Over: Facing the Future after Significant Loss

Written by Rusty Wright

February 13th fell on a Tuesday that year, but it seemed like my unlucky day.

My wife of twenty years was divorcing me; it would be final in two days. February 1, my employer had shown me the door—on the twenty-fifth anniversary of my employment. Now, on February 13, I was in my physician’s office getting test results. Unaware of my difficulties, he asked, “Have you been under stress recently?” Perhaps he was assessing my emotional state to help him gently ease into the difficult subject he was about to address.

He said I might have cancer.

That evening, a longtime friend called to encourage me. As we spoke, I felt the weight of my world crashing in. Would the haunting pain of spousal rejection ever end? Where would I work? What of my life’s mission? Would life itself last much longer? I wept into the phone as I struggled to make sense of the swirling vortex of uncertainty.

Relationships, work and health absorb our time, energy, memories and hopes. Ever had a fulfilling relationship turn to ashes? Maybe you’ve excelled at work; then a new or insensitive boss decides your services are no longer wanted or affordable. Or perhaps your health falters. Your parent or best friend dies suddenly of a heart attack or perishes in an auto wreck.

What do you feel? Shock? Grief? Anger? Desires for revenge or justice? Discouragement and depression? How do you cope with the loss, and how can you start over again?

Over dinner, a new friend told me he had lost both his parents in recent years. “How did you cope?” I inquired. He related painful details of their alcohol-related deaths. I listened intently and tried to express sympathy. “But how did you deal with their deaths?” I asked, curious to know how he had handled his feelings. “I guess I haven’t,” he replied. Painful emotions from deep loss can be difficult to process. Some seek solace by suppressing them.

My wife lost her father, then her mother, during a five-year span in her late twenties and early thirties. Focusing on her mother’s needs after her father’s passing occupied much of her thought. After her mother’s death, she felt quite somber. “People who always were there, whom you could always call on for advice, were no longer around,” she recalls. “That was very sobering.” Over time, the pain of grief diminished.

How can you adjust to significant loss and start over again? I certainly don’t have all the answers. But may I suggest ideas that have worked for me and for others along life’s sometimes challenging journey?

Grieve the loss. Don’t ignore your pain. Take time to reflect on your loss, to cry, to ask questions of yourself, others or God. I remember deep, heaving sobs after my wife left me. I would not wish that pain on anyone, but I recommend experiencing grief rather than ignoring and stuffing it. This tends to diminish ulcers and delayed rage.

A little help from your friends. During divorce proceedings and my rocky employment ending, good friends hung close. We ate meals together, watched football games, attended a concert and more. A trusted counselor helped me cope. A divorce recovery group at a nearby church showed me I was not the only one experiencing weird feelings. Don’t try to handle enormous loss alone.

Watch your vulnerabilities. In our coed divorce recovery group, I appreciated learning how women as well as men processed their pain. It also was tempting to enter new relationships at a very risky time. Some members, not yet divorced, were dating. Some dated each other. Attractive, needy divorcés/divorcées can appear inviting. After each group session, I made a beeline to my car. “Guard your heart,” advises an ancient proverb, “for it affects everything you do.”{1}

Look for a bright spot. Not every cloud has a silver lining, but maybe yours does. After my divorce and termination, I returned to graduate school and saw my career enhanced. My cancer scare turned out to be kidney stones, no fun but not as serious. I met and—four years after the divorce—married a wonderful woman, Meg Korpi. We are very happy.

CNN star Larry King once was fired from the Miami Herald. “It was very difficult for me when they dropped me,” he recalls. King says one can view firing as “a terrible tragedy” or a chance to seek new opportunities.{2}

Cherish your memories. Displaying treasured photos of a deceased loved one can help you adjust gradually to their loss. Recall fun times you had together, fulfilling experiences with coworkers or noteworthy projects accomplished. Be grateful. But don’t become enmeshed in past memories, because the time will come to. . .

Turn the page. After appropriate grieving, there comes a time to move on. One widow lived alone for years in their large, empty house with the curtains drawn. Her children finally convinced her to move but in many ways she seemed emotionally stuck for the next three decades until her death.

Significant steps for me were taking down and storing photos of my ex-wife. Embracing my subsequent job with enthusiasm made it fulfilling and productive. Consider how you’ll emotionally process and respond to the common question, “Where do you work?” Perhaps you’ll want to take a course, exercise and diet for health, or develop a hobby. Meet new people at volunteer projects, civic clubs, church, or vacations. Consider what you can learn from your loss. Often, suffering develops character, patience, confidence and opportunities to help others.

Sink your spiritual roots deep. I’m glad my coping resources included personal faith. Once quite skeptical, I discovered spiritual life during college. Students whose love and joy I admired explained that God loved me enough to send His Son, Jesus, to die to pay the penalty due for all my wrongdoing. Then He rose from the dead to give new life. I invited Him to enter my life, forgive me, and become my friend. I found inner peace, assurance of forgiveness, and strength to adapt to difficulties. Amidst life’s curve balls, I’ve had a close Friend who promised never to leave.

One early believer said those who place their faith in Christ “become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!”{3} Jesus can help you start all over with life itself. He can help you forgive those who have wronged you.

As you grieve your loss, seek support in good friends, watch your vulnerabilities, and seek to turn the page. . . may I encourage you to meet the One who can help you make all things new? He’ll never let you down.

This article first appeared in Answer magazine 14:1 January/February 2007. Copyright © 2007 by Rusty Wright. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Notes

1. Proverbs 4:23 NLT.
2. Harvey Mackay, We Got Fired!…And It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), pp. 150-153 ff.
3. 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT.

Copyright © 2007 Rusty Wright


Paris Hilton and What We Want

Paris Hilton. Paris Hilton. Paris Hilton. Paris Hilton. Paris Hilton.

Please excuse the repetition, but I want this article to score highly in Google searches.

You see, Google Zeitgeist, the mega-search engine’s report on its most popular search topics, says the heiress scored number one on 2006 Google News searches. The report presents a glimpse of the “spirit of the times,” giving clues to websurfers’ interests.

In news (yes, I said “news,” not “entertainment”) searches, Paris beat Orlando Bloom, cancer, and Hurricane Katrina. Borat and Hezbollah topped “Who is” searches. Among U.S. searches for “Scandal,” the Duke Lacrosse episode took three of the first four slots.

What else do people want to know about? Google’s top-ten lists in various categories include MySpace, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Britney Spears, Paul McCartney, Pamela Anderson, Reggie Bush, and Clay Aiken.

Why do celebrities and entertainment rank so high? Perhaps it’s the desire to connect with something larger than ourselves. Maybe boredom explains some celebrity obsession. And don’t rule out diversion.

For some—maybe many—daily life ranges from harried to overwhelming: soured relationships, job conflict, financial pressure, health distress. Diverting focus can ease your troubled mind, at least temporarily.

Of course, everyone needs mental and emotional breaks. Diversion can be a healthy coping mechanism—until it becomes obsessive. Then it can lead to denying reality, perhaps obscuring genuine wants and needs.

Suppose we had a mind/heart/soul reader to discover what people really want once their basic physical needs are met. What would we find? Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s renowned hierarchy of basic needs includes safety, love, esteem and self-actualization.{1] Perhaps our soul reader would detect desires for acceptance, thriving personal friendships, peace of mind, health, security.

Maslow also realized that several profound fears—including the fear of death—trouble humanity.{2} Our soul reader might find that people also want an answer to death.

Anthropologist Ernest Becker argued in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death,{3} that much human behavior can be explained by a deep desire to deny death’s reality, to repress “the terror of death.” No wonder. Which would you enjoy more, right this minute: contemplating your own death and its aftermath . . . or reading, exercising, web- or channel surfing, conversing, partying, working, shopping, etc.?

If we don’t have a solution to fear of death, we can invent ways to avoid thinking about it. Alas, attractive and even worthwhile pursuits can become enslaving. Amassing the most “toys”; rat-race schedules; obsession with career, job, education, sports or even friends can insulate people from facing their own mortality.

The biblical book of Hebrews presents a similar analysis of the human dilemma, reasoning that people “have lived all their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.” {4} It claims that Jesus died to “deliver” people from this slavery so they might connect with God in time and eternity.

It seems morbid to always be thinking about your own death. But could avoiding it altogether constitute unhealthy denial? Could excessive focus on certain pursuits become risky diversion from life’s real issues, like personal meaning, personal worth, fulfilling relationships, and what Sigmund Freud called “the painful riddle of death”?{5}

Could obsession with Paris Hilton and her Google Zeitgeist pals conceal deep longings, insecurities and fears in individual websurfers and in society at large?

As the esteemed British philosopher and rocker Sir Mick Jagger famously counseled, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime . . . you just might find you get what you need.” {6} A friendly question for my fellow websurfers: Is what you want, what you need?

Notes

1. A. H. Maslow (1943), “A Theory of Human Motivation”; Originally Published in Psychological Review, 50, 370-396; at http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm, accessed December 28, 2006.
2. Abraham H. Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (Penguin Books Limited, ©1964 by Kappa Delta Pi and ©1970 [preface] The Viking Press), Appendix A, “Religious Aspects of Peak-Experiences,” items 8 & 14; at http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/lsd/maslowa.htm, accessed December 28, 2006.
3. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997; original copyright was 1973).
4. Hebrews 2:15 NLT.
5. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961 edition; James Strachey translator and editor; original work was published in 1928) 19.
6. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (songwriters), “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Lyrics at http://rollingstones.com/discog/index.php?v=so&a=1&id=124; accessed December 28, 2006.

Copyright © 2007 Rusty Wright


Freudian Slip

His “True Enemy”

In 1937, shortly before World War II, a Jewish doctor had a colleague who urged him to flee Austria for fear of Nazi oppression. The doctor replied that his “true enemy” was not the Nazis but “religion,” the Christian church. What inspired such hatred of Christianity in this scientist?{1}

His father Jakob read the Talmud and celebrated Jewish festivals. The young boy developed a fond affection for his Hebrew Bible teacher and later said that the Bible story had “an enduring effect” on his life. A beloved nanny took him to church as a child. He came home telling even his Jewish parents about “God Almighty”. But eventually the nanny was accused of theft and dismissed. He later blamed her for many of his difficulties, and launched his private practice on Easter Sunday as (some suggest) an “act of defiance.”

Anti-Semitism hounded the lad at school. Around age twelve, he was horrified to learn of his father’s youthful acquiescence to Gentile bigotry. “Jew! Get off the pavement!” a so-called “Christian” had shouted to the young Jakob after knocking his cap into the mud. The son learned to his chagrin that his dad had complied.

In secondary school, he abandoned Judaism for secular science and humanism. At the University of Vienna, he studied the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and carried his atheism into his career as a psychiatrist. Religion for him was simply a “wish fulfillment,” a fairy tale invented by humans to satisfy their needy souls.

This psychiatrist was Sigmund Freud. He became perhaps the most influential psychiatrist of history, affecting medicine, literature, language, religion and culture. Obsessed with what he called the “painful riddle of death,” he once said he thought of it daily throughout life. His favorite grandson’s death brought great grief: “Everything has lost its meaning to me…” he wrote. “I can find no joy in life.” He called himself a “godless Jew.” In 1939, he slipped into eternity, a willful overdose of morphine assuaging his cancer’s pain.

What factors might have influenced Freud’s reaction to Christianity? Have you ever been discouraged about life or angry with God because of a major disappointment or the way a Christian has treated you? In the next section, we’ll consider Freud’s encounter with bigotry.

Anti-Semitism

Have you ever observed a Christian acting in un-Christlike ways? How did you feel? Disappointed? Embarrassed? Disgusted? Maybe you can identify with Sigmund Freud.

When Freud was about ten or twelve, his father Jakob told him that during his own youth, a “Christian” had knocked Jakob’s cap into the mud and shouted “Jew! Get off the pavement!” Jakob had simply picked up his cap. Little Sigmund found his father’s acquiescence to Gentile bigotry unheroic. Hannibal, the Semitic general who fought ancient Rome, became Sigmund’s hero. Hannibal’s conflict with Rome came to symbolize for Freud the Jewish-Roman Catholic conflict.{2}

In his twenties, Freud wrote of an ugly anti-Semitic incident on a train. When Freud opened a window for some fresh air, other passengers shouted for him to shut it. (The open window was on the windy side of the car.) He said he was willing to shut it provided another window opposite was opened. In the ensuing negotiations, someone shouted, “He’s a dirty Jew!” At that point, his first opponent announced to Freud, “We Christians consider other people, you’d better think less of your precious self.”

Freud asked one opponent to keep his vapid criticisms to himself and another to step forward and take his medicine. “I was quite prepared to kill him,” Freud wrote, “but he did not step up…{3}

Sigmund’s son Martin Freud recalled an incident from his own youth that deeply impressed Martin. During a summer holiday, the Freuds encountered some bigots: about ten men who carried sticks and umbrellas, shouted “anti-Semitic abuse,” and apparently attempted to block Sigmund’s way along a road. Ordering Martin to stay back, Sigmund “without the slightest hesitation … keeping to the middle of the road, marched towards the hostile crowd.” Martin continues that his “…father, swinging his stick, charged the hostile crowd, which gave way before him and promptly dispersed, allowing him free passage. This was the last we saw of these unpleasant strangers.” Perhaps Sigmund wanted his sons to see their father boldly confronting bigotry rather than cowering before it, as he felt his own father had done.{4}

Jews in Freud’s Austria suffered great abuse from so-called Christians. No wonder he was turned off toward the Christian faith. How might disappointment and loss have contributed to Freud’s anti-Christian stance?

Suffering’s Distress

Have you ever been abandoned, lost a loved one, or endured illness and wondered, “Where is God?” Perhaps you can relate to Freud.

Earlier, I spoke about Freud’s Catholic nanny whom he loved dearly, who was accused of theft and was dismissed. As an adult, Freud blamed this nanny for many of his own psychological problems.{5} The sudden departure–for alleged theft–of a trusted Christian caregiver could have left the child with abandonment fears{6} and the adult Freud with disdain for the nanny’s faith. Freud wrote, “We naturally feel hurt that a just God and a kindly providence do not protect us better from such influences [fate] during the most defenseless period of our lives.”{7}

Freud’s daughter, Sophie, died suddenly after a short illness. Writing to console her widower, Freud wrote: “…it was a senseless, brutal stroke of fate that took our Sophie from us . . . we are . . . mere playthings for the higher powers.{8}

A beloved grandson died at age four, leaving Freud depressed and grief stricken. “Fundamentally everything has lost its meaning for me,” he admitted shortly before the child died.{9}

Freud’s many health problems included a sixteen-year bout with cancer of the jaw. In 1939, as the cancer brought death closer, he wrote, “my world is . . . a small island of pain floating on an ocean of indifference.”{10} Eventually a gangrenous hole in his cheek emitted a putrid odor that repulsed his beloved dog but attracted the flies.{11}

Like many, Freud could not reconcile human suffering with a benevolent God. In a 1933 lecture, he asserted:

It seems not to be the case that there’s a power in the universe which watches over the well-being of individuals with parental care and brings all their affairs to a happy ending. On the contrary, . . . Obscure, unfeeling, unloving powers determine our fate.{12}

Freud’s suffering left him feeling deeply wounded. Could that be one reason he concluded that a benevolent God does not exist? Do you know people whose pain has made them mad at God, or has convinced them He doesn’t exist? Intellectual doubt often has biographical roots.

Spiritual Confusion

Hypocritical Christians angered Sigmund Freud. The deaths of his loved ones and his own cancer brought him great distress. His loss and suffering seemed incompatible with the idea of a loving God. So what did he think the main message of the Christian faith was?

In the book, The Future of An Illusion, his major diatribe against religion, Freud outlined his understanding of Christianity. He felt it spoke of humans having a “higher purpose”; a higher intelligence ordering life “for the best”; death not as “extinction” but the start of “a new kind of existence”; and a “supreme court of justice” that would reward good and punish evil.{13}

Freud’s summary omits something significant: an emphasis on human restoration of relationship to God by receiving His free gift of forgiveness through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for human guilt.

Discussions of the biblical message often omit or obscure this important concept. I used to feel I had to earn God’s love by my own efforts. Then I learned that from a biblical perspective, no one can achieve the perfection necessary to gain eternal life.{14} Freud’s view of Christianity at this point seemed to be missing grace, Jesus, and the cross.

Two years after he wrote The Future of An Illusion, he seemed to have a clearer picture of Christian forgiveness. He wrote that earlier he had “failed to appreciate” the Christian concept of redemption through Christ’s sacrificial death in which he took “upon himself a guilt that is common to everyone.”{15}

Freud also attacked the intellectual validity of Christian faith.{16} He objected to arguments that one should not question the validity of religion and that we should believe simply because our ancestors did. I don’t blame him. Those arguments don’t satisfy me either. But he also felt the biblical writings were untrustworthy. He shows no awareness of the wealth of evidence supporting, for example, the reliability of the New Testament documents or Jesus’ resurrection.{17} His apparent lack of familiarity with historical evidence and method may have been a function of his era, background, academic pursuits or profession.

Perhaps confusion about spiritual matters colored Freud’s view of the faith. Do you know anyone who is confused about Jesus’ message or the evidence for its validity?

Freud’s Christian Friend

Freud often despised Christianity, but he was quite fond of one Christian. He actually delayed publication of his major criticism of religion for fear of offending this friend. Finally, he warned his friend of its release.{18} Oskar Pfister, the Swiss pastor who had won Freud’s heart, responded, “I have always believed that every man should state his honest opinion aloud and plainly. You have always been tolerant towards me, and am I to be intolerant of your atheism?”{19} Freud responded warmly and welcomed Pfister’s published critique. Their correspondence is a marvelous example of scholars who differ doing so with grace and dignity, disagreeing with ideas but preserving their friendship. Their interchange could well inform many of today’s political, cultural and religious debates.

Freud’s longest correspondence was with Pfister. It lasted 30 years.{20} Freud’s daughter and protégé, Anna, left a glimpse into the pastor’s character. During her childhood, Pfister seemed “like a visitor from another planet” in the “totally non-religious Freud household.” His “human warmth and enthusiasm” contrasted with the impatience of the visiting psychologists who saw the family mealtime as “an unwelcome interruption” in their important discussions. Pfister “enchanted” the Freud children, entering into their lives and becoming “a most welcome guest.”{21}

Freud respected Pfister’s work. He wrote, “[Y]ou are in the fortunate position of being able to lead . . . [people] to God.”{22}

Freud called Pfister “a remarkable man a true servant of God, . . . [who] feels the need to do spiritual good to everyone he meets. You did good in this way even to me.”{23}

“Dear Man of God,” began Freud after a return home. “A letter from you is one of the best possible things that could be waiting for one on one’s return.”{24}

Pfister was a positive influence for Christ. But in the end, so far as we know, Freud decided against personal faith.

People reject Christ for many reasons. Hypocritical Christians turn some off. Others feel disillusioned, bitter, or skeptical from personal loss or pain. Some are confused about who Jesus is and how to know Him personally. Understanding these barriers to belief can help skeptics and seekers discern the roots of their dilemmas and prompt them to take a second look. Examples like Pfister’s can show that following the Man from Nazareth might be worthwhile after all.

Notes

1. Much of this article is adapted from Russell Sims Wright, Belief Barriers and Faith Factors: Biographical Roots of Sigmund Freud’s Reaction to the Christian Faith and Their Relevance for Christian Ministry, unpublished M.Th. dissertation, University of Oxford (Westminster College), May 2001.

2. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900. In James Strachey (Gen. Editor/Translator), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volumes IV and V (London: Hogarth, 1953-1966), pp. 196-197. Subsequent references to this Standard Edition are here abbreviated “S.E.”, per professional convention.

3. Sigmund Freud; Ernst L. Freud (ed.); Tania and James Stern (translators), Letters of Sigmund Freud 1873-1939 (London: Hogarth, 1961[1970 reprint]), pp. 92-94.

4. Martin Freud, Sigmund Freud: Man and Father (New York: Jason Aronson, 1983), pp. 68-71.

5. Sigmund Freud, Letters 70 (October 3-4, 1897) and 71 (October 15, 1897) to Wilhelm Fliess. In S.E., Volume I, pp. 261-265.

6. Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901. In S.E. Volume VI, pp. 49-51.

7. Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood, 1910. In S.E. Volume II, pp. 136-137; quoted in Ana-Maria Rizzuto, Why Did Freud Reject God? A Psychodynamic Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 241-242. The bracketed word is apparently Rizzuto’s.

8. Ernst Freud, Lucie Freud, and Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, eds., Sigmund Freud: His Life in Pictures and Words (London: Andre Deutsch, 1978), p. 220.

9. Sigmund Freud, Letters of Sigmund Freud, ed. Ernst L. Freud, trans. Tania and James Stern (New York: Dover, 1960 [1992 unaltered reprint of 1960 Basic Books edition]), pp. 343-344.

10. Max Schur, M.D., Freud: Living and Dying (New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1972), p. 524.

11. Ibid., pp. 526-527.

12. Armand Nicholi, Jr., M.D., “When Worldviews Collide: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud: A comparison of their thoughts and viewpoints on life, pain and death,” Part One, The Real Issue 16:2, January 1998, p. 11.

13. Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961 edition of the 1928 work), pp. 23-24.

14. Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 1-5.

15. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961 edition of the 1930 work), pp. 99-100.

16. Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion, p. 33.

17. See, for instance, Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999).

18. Heinrich Meng and Ernst L. Freud, eds., Eric Mosbacher trans., Psycho-Analysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister (London: Hogarth Press/Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1963), pp. 109-110.

19. Ibid., p. 110.

20. Nicholi, loc. cit.

21. Meng and E. Freud, op. cit., p. 11.

22. Ibid., p. 16.

23. Ibid., p. 24.

24. Ibid., p. 29.

 

©2003 Probe Ministries.