Monday, October 31, 2011

The Incongruity of Suffering

I just posted this on the blog of the Society for Christian Psychology.

One way to understand suffering is through the lens of incongruity. Webster defines  incongruity as that which lacks consistency or harmony. There is, then, an incongruity, a gap or inconsistency, between what we know should be and the reality of what we actually experience. An example might be in the case of a child born with an incurable disease. Parents of such a rare gift ache within themselves, knowing intuitively that this is not the way it’s supposed to be! They also long for a time for their child when his or her body will be made completely whole. The gap in the middle is what we call suffering.

One of the curses of this fallen world is that our sense of worth is bound up with order, affluence and success. We experience the incongruity of suffering when these things are denied us in some form. Things of incongruity (i.e., suffering) are often seen as things to be denied at worst and overcome at best. We are fooled into thinking we are loved and secure when things go our way – when we have enough money to be comfortable, enough affirmation from friends and loved ones, enough success in our career, etc. But as soon as we experience suffering (when these things are threatened), our sense of security often goes out the window. Perhaps it would help us to move toward a new understanding of suffering and how God uses it in our lives to bless us.

If we live in a world where the trappings of affluence, health and wealth come inevitably bound with the deception that our ultimate meaning resides in these things, then the best thing God could do for us is to give us gifts of sufferings that awaken us from their deceptive grip. The goodness of God is not shown primarily in giving us resolution, deliverance and healing in this life; God is most good in giving us suffering because it keeps us awake to our need for ultimate meaning that only he can satisfy. Only suffering and the maddening incongruity that comes with our inability to resolve it, can awaken us to “The Matrix” that this world offers us (particularly in the affluent West). Several conclusions or implications flow from this:

1. Embrace insignificance, confusion and loss as the friend of God given to keep us close to his heart, for he is the Suffering God who is most clearly revealed not in displays of power, wisdom and glory, but in the suffering and ignominy of the stable and the Cross.

2. Jesus said that “the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:16 ESV) If we really believed this then we would actively seek out situations and relationships that exposed our weakness, inability and need. Relish the hidden and insignificant task; cherish the “wasted” grace on those who cannot return it; seek out the margins and not the center, for there alone will you find the fellowship of the crucified. Those in the center have their glory in this life, and it pales in comparison to what will come to those on the margins, the poor in spirit.

3. Throughout the day or week, the illusion of our affluence and control is inevitably exposed through interruptions, troubles and pain. It is made clear that we are not God and that we are not in control. What do we do when this happens? Try harder through prayer and manipulation of circumstances to bring things back to a measure of “control”? Perhaps we try to avoid dealing with it through escape, which vary from the fairly harmless (e.g., a good movie or book) to the extremely toxic (e.g., porn). What would it look like to pause and reflect on the opportunity that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12 – the “gift of a handicap” as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it? This is another opportunity to fellowship with the suffering Christ, who is Lord of all confusion and order. We can go to him at the cross and find peace for our questions (but not necessarily answers).

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Book Review: Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2011)

Spiritual formation and spirituality have increasingly taken center stage in the evangelical world. In recent years, there has been a more concerted effort to ground spirituality in the worlds of biblical truth as well as generating cultural and historical awareness. The recently published Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Zondervan, 2011), edited by Glen S. Scorgie seems to continue this trend.

The work is divided into two sections, a series of 34 “integrative perspective” essays and an alphabetical section of around 700 entries. The logic of this division is clear: to provide a reference work for the work of Christian spirituality that is both concise and comprehensive. These two sections perform this task well. Depending on one’s need, each of these sections can fit a variety of situations.

The authors represent many well known authors in the field of Christian spirituality (e.g., James Houston, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, Ruth Haley Barton, etc.) as well as theology (e.g., J.I. Packer, Clark Pinnock) and Christian history (Justo Gonzalez) and Biblical studies (e.g., Mark Strauss, David M. Howard Jr.). This wide selection of authors provides the work the grounding and breadth it seeks to convey.

My only criticism of the work is the failure to provide an index of any kind. The value of the work would have been significantly increased had there been indices that catalogued biblical, author and subject references. Though one can easily scan the table of contents to navigate the integrative essays, there is no such tool for the alphabetical section.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Fighting the Doom

The circumstances of my life in the past year especially (and the last 10 years generally) have mirrored the lies in my soul to the extent that they are almost always present to my consciousness. They actually dominate the way I see the world. The circumstances of loss, obscurity, depression and broken dreams have not caused this sense of doom as much as provoked it to the surface. Now the call from the Father is to deal with it.

I am in a fight to re-interpret reality using the resources of Christ and the Spirit. The enemies in this case are lies about who I am and what I am worth, lies that are intertwined with my very flesh from a very early age. All this makes them very difficult to overturn (impossible, really, without Christ) and even hard to objectively identify. They are so much a part of my vision that I always assume their reality without choice, without thinking about it.

The tools & categories I am attempting to use to identify and overturn these lies in the power of the Spirit are many, none of which can be very efficient without the help of other people. I rely on a small company of fellow warriors who are broken enough to remain close to God’s resources and are not frightened by my chaos and pain. Without community I would not make it, to be sure. I need to feel the touch and hear the voices of those who love me so that Jesus is “incarnated” afresh beside me.

I just wanted to talk briefly about a couple of these tools & resources here, in the hopes of gaining strength from them once again. They are all manifestations of the mercy of God towards me, to be sure. First, my wife and kids force me to deal with life on a daily basis, the regular “mundane” life of doing things together from chores to adventures. If not for my family I think I would easily sink into the darkness and never re-emerge. They remind me that this fight is worth fighting. Nothing less than my marriage and my children’s futures are at stake.

Second, habits of imaginative readings in the Scriptures are helpful to me. Propositional truth can not seem to penetrate the fleshly sinew of self-protective vendetta I’ve developed over the years. What is required is a more childlike approach, using a child’s tool, the imagination, to re-gain my humanity. Recently I was thinking of the passage in Mark 10:13-16 in this way.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them (ESV).

I imagine myself in this passage being one of the children who longs to see and be held by Jesus. I am prevented by my self-righteous self-hatred, which tries to make me lose heart and go home without trying to get through to Jesus. How the hearts of the children would break, thinking that the “rebuking disciples” must mirror how Jesus felt about them! I love that Jesus was indignant. He got furious over this misrepresentation of his heart for these little ones! Symbolic of the childhood I lost through abandonment, I let myself-as-a-child enter the arms of Jesus and listen for his blessing. Can you hear it? It must sound something like this: “Thank you Father, for this unique and exquisite creation! I love this one as if he were my own son!! Be blessed, child, the Father is very pleased with you!”

I want to live in that place.