You’re Not Suffering Unless I Say So

wagging_finger_cartoonOf course, many of us wouldn’t think to tell people this. We might actually consider uttering these words to another person rude and presumptuous. And yet, I find that this sentiment runs rampant in Christian circles. How? When we attempt to validate another person’s experience according to how we see it or what we think is a valid reason for suffering.

Just watch what happens when you encounter a person who equates suffering with something you don’t understand. We’ll minimize it and then do the comparison game. You know, that’s where we highlight the real sufferers. We’ll say things like, “well at least you’re not in situation X”. Or “I can’t believe that person is complaining about Z or Y”. What might have been more direct is to say “I don’t see how you think that is suffering.” Or we’ll invalidate their experience somehow through some trite cliche.

Or we’ll measure according to these pre-determined reasons. We’ll allow suffering for certain things, like death, but not for other things. We make the the determination what is valid or not.

Why is it incumbent on us to determine how another should feel about something? Where do we get the right to validate another’s experience? Because that’s precisely what we do when measure their suffering according to our own meter.

I don’t know why we do this. Perhaps it is pride, a lack of compassion or just disconnection from our own humanity. Actually, I think a lack of empathy might be at the core. Empathy recognizes that you may not be able to relate to another’s pain but have the ability to put yourselves in the other’s shoes. Empathy puts aside our own perspective according to our own experiences and recognizes that if someone hurts or feels shame, there is a reason for it. Continue reading

The ‘All Things’ You can do through Christ

man standing on rockPaul wrote to the Philippians

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly  that now at length you have revived your concern for me . You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, and abundance and need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13)

I don’t know about you, but I have frequently heard that last line used in reference to some herculean task that needs to be done. Juggling too many balls in the air? Need to raise funds for that upcoming mission trip? Have to achieve a big project at work? Don’t worry, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.

As nice as these sentiments sound, they unfortunately miss the context of what Paul is addressing. Note first, that he is saying this in reference to contentment in circumstances.  Another observation concerning the context of this passage is that Paul refers to tangible needs being met, specifically financial needs.  Reading further in vv 14-18, his specific reference relates to ministry support though certain there can be application to individuals as well. But there’s something else here I think gets often missed. Christ gives strength through whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, whether it is flourishing or in need.

I don’t think anyone would complain about prospering and otherwise times of abundance. But when you are in need is a different story.  While Paul refers specifically to financial circumstances in ministry, I think there is an application for the loss and/or deficiency of various needs. It could be that you are unemployed or underemployed and unsure how the financial gap will be met. Or maybe you have been knocked out of the career loop or been demoted. Or maybe you lost your house or other material blessings or taken a hit in same way in ministry.  Such losses can be devastating, especially when it impacts your reputation and can make you feel underachieving or unaccomplished. Continue reading

The Unhelpfulness of ‘God Always Answers Prayers’

If there’s one thing that can be said of many Christians, is that we hate tension. Now some are more comfortable with it than others. But on the flip side, a disdain for tension can drive us into Cliche Land, where we resolve the tension with trite, but unfortunately not well thought out, sayings. One prime example of this is “God always answers prayers – yes, no or maybe”.

Now, what is typically meant by this is that you will either 1) get the answer you were expecting; 2) get the opposite answer with a denial or 3) Get a maybe…Stop! Would a maybe be the same thing as not knowing?

man praying at altarAnd that’s exactly why such a response to someone wrestling with unanswered prayers is not helpful. The reality is that until we know definitively, there is a period of time for which we have no idea what that answer will be. I actually think that “no” is not really an answer either, as I wrote about here. But as for the not knowing, I am often reminded, both in my own struggles with unanswered prayers and hearing of other accounts of the not knowing, that such a period can extend for a really long time.  It’s a long time of waiting…a long time of hoping…a long time of discouragement…a long time of not knowing.  Nothing will trivialize that struggle more than someone saying, God always answers prayer, with yes, no or maybe. Would you tell that to the childless woman who wants nothing more to be a mom and has suffered multiple miscarriages? Or to the parent with the wayward child who has drifted away for years? It’s kind of insulting when you think about it. Continue reading

Holiday Perfection and the Necessity of Christmas

christmas tree_warpedThe corner of my apartment where the Christmas tree goes does not allow for one of those full, perfect looking Christmas trees. In the past, I’ve tried to get that perfect tree but found that the hassle was not worth it and it would be better to get a narrow tree. Besides, I don’t like managing a big tree so transport is important also. Well, in my quest to obtain a low-cost, narrow Christmas tree, I ended up with something a bit more marred than I was comfortable with. When I first saw that big gaping hole at the bottom, I figured that against the corner you wouldn’t be able to tell. Of course I was wrong and the imperfection was very visible.

christmas tree_fig plantIt reminds me of a couple of years ago when I tried to cut corners by decorating our silk plant (fig tree as my son teenage son calls it) as a Christmas tree. Honestly, I laughed so hard at the results at this upside down Christmas tree and of course my son made fun of it. It was far from the picture of Christmas tree perfection that we want to display to the world.

Ah perfection…

I don’t know what it is about holidays that bring out our need to have this picture perfect model of the holidays

Perfect family photos

Perfect holiday decorations

Perfect gift giving

Perfect family gatherings

Perfect church festivities

Perfect, perfect, perfect Continue reading

Cleaning the Hurt?

nativity-starIt’s no secret that holidays can be a hard time for some. Whether its from broken relationships, disappointments, family dysfunction, regret from the past or just plain loneliness, some will experience hurt. Of course, it’s not just at the holidays although they tend to highlight it. Let’s face it, no one wants to hurt emotionally or psychologically.  There is nothing pleasurable about pain and our desire is to remove it far from us as possible. We live in a very therapeutic culture. Billions of dollars are spent each year on self-help tools, psychologists and other fixes to make hurt go away from our history, mistakes, present realities or future fears.

Christians are not exempt. Having just spent this past semester in a biblical counseling class, it reminded me of how fragile and complex is our humanity and how much the raw stuff of life truly impacts us, even if we want to deny it. There are various tools at our disposal to aid with getting over the areas in our lives that have caused hurt and in some cases, even harm.

But, it strikes me that Christians can become so intent to remove any traces of hurt in their lives, that the sanctifying process is actually hindered. We can spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fix ourselves in order to live a life that’s pleasing…to us, so that we feel good about ourselves. Making peace with your past turns into a creation of peace in the present so that we don’t have to experience hurt in our lives and get rid of those pesky little triggers that catch us unaware.  By doing so I wonder if its possible that we remove the very thing that God works to grow us deeper in our faith and Christian walk. Continue reading