The Pain of Narcissism, Part 2

Narcissists will destroy your life, erode your self-esteem, and do it with such stealth as to make you feel that you are the one that’s letting them down.

Anonymous

photo by Caleb Woods

Where Does It Begin?

People often wonder where narcissistic behavior began. Was someone born a narcissist or were they molded into one? There are several theories, but no definite cause that is agreed upon by researchers and professionals.

Dr. David Orrison, as mentioned in the last post, is one of many who espouse the idea that parents or caregivers have the greatest influence on creating a narcissist. When hyper-critical and negative words are often spoken into a child who is vulnerable, they require an inner response. For example, “You’re stupid”, You’re weak”, “You’re evil”, etc.). Some children receive those and agree. Some try to compensate; others deny those words. The children who are vulnerable for narcissism hide. The hiders feel the negative input but now try to over-compensate by:

  • Getting attention
  • Becoming popular
  • Being condescending
  • Distracting
  • Being impressive
  • Becoming increasingly controlling
  • Manipulating others

When parents lack warmth, they express little affection, appreciation, and positive affect toward their child, and they show little enjoyment of their child (). In such an upbringing, children might place themselves on a pedestal to try to obtain from others the approval they did not receive from their parents.

photo by Anete Lusina

On The Other Hand…

We’ve probably all known parents who thought their child was God’s gift to the world. Their child was the most talented athlete, the most intelligent in the school…you get it. It is possible these parents were raising a narcissist. When parents have excessive adoration for their child, which sober observation would find no occasion to do, they are creating an environment for narcissism to develop. Consequently, children might internalize the belief that they are special individuals who are entitled to privileges

Furthermore, genetics may play a role in the development of narcissism. However, researchers at the National Institute of Health stated that there is a only a moderate link between parental narcissism and the child becoming narcissistic.

 Parental narcissism…only weakly-to-moderately correlated [with developing narcissism.]. Additionally, even when controlling for parental narcissism, parental overvaluation still robustly and significantly predicted increased child narcissism over time. Thus, parental overvaluation contributes to the development of narcissism in children above and beyond parents’ own narcissism levels.

photo by Odonata Wellness Center

How Did We Get Here?

Relationships with narcissists are held in place by hope of a ‘someday better’ with little evidence to support it will ever arrive. ~Ramani Durvasula

Life is like a fairy tale when you first enter a relationship with a narcissist. They love bomb you, saying all the right things and showering you with gifts.  Once they have won you over, however, all the compliments and gifts come to a halt. Criticism and gaslighting take their place. In fact, it’s so confusing that you begin to question what happened to the person with whom you fell in love.

Most of us begin making excuses for the narcissist. It’s likely he has told us a sob story about his upbringing or another tragic life event. It’s equally likely that we are very empathic…which is why he was drawn to us in the first place. Regardless, a point is reached when we finally realize this person is never going to change…and we must leave the relationship.

photo by Liza Summer

Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome

Stop asking why they keep doing it and start asking why you keep allowing it. ~Charles J. Orlando

There are several signs of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome. The most common symptoms are:

  • confusion and self-doubt
  • guilt
  • fear
  • lowered self-esteem and confidence
  • conflicted feelings toward partner
  • trauma bonding
  • PTSD.

These symptoms indicate that it’s time to leave. However, before you do, you need to make some quiet preparations.

photo by Anete Lusina

Leaving a Narcissist

It’s also helpful to make sure that you get all your legal and financial documents in order. Make sure you have copies of any of the documents you need access to. Make sure you have the keys that you need to have. And, talking to an attorney and an accountant before you announce that you’re leaving may also be helpful.

Don’t try to have a conversation about leaving with your narcissist. It will only enrage him. Conversely, he may attempt to manipulate you into staying with him.

Narcissists are masters of manipulation.

If necessary, have someone with you when you are ready to leave. Keep it short and if possible, keep your emotions out of it.

phot by Alexandr Podvalny

Now That You’re Out

Accept that you cannot change narcissists – you can only change how you react to them and how much longer you choose to invest in them at the risk of your own sanity.

 

Set firm boundaries, including a no contact rule. You must adhere to this because he will constantly challenge it. Arrange for someone to be cc’d on emails or a third party to be with you if you must communicate by phone.

Prepare for retaliation. Some narcissists will retaliate out of hurt and rage. Proactively change all passwords and PIN numbers. Block them from your social media accounts. You’ve likely experienced his verbal and emotional abuse before so, prepare yourself mentally.

Pack away or discard reminders of the relationship. This will keep you from looking back and only remembering the “good old days.” Remember, it was all a sham.

Build a support system. Work on re-establishing the relationships that you were likely isolated from while you were with the narcissist. Those people likely still care about you and will want to help you, now.

If co-parenting, choose your battles carefully. This can be tricky as he will attempt to control every decision concerning the children. Give where you can give, but hold your boundary when it’s something that is important to you for your child. There will be decisions you will likely need to make together.

Seek professional therapy. Anyone who has been in relationship with a narcissist needs the help of a therapist who has experience working with narcissists. It’s very helpful to have someone walk with you as you heal.

photo by Brett Sayles

Christian Marriages

From a Christian context, marriage is an easy place for narcissists to do their nasty work. Spouses feel compelled to stay in the relationship in order to be spiritually acceptable.

Therefore: The intimacy brings intensely painful feelings of betrayal which the victim feels he/she deserves because of foolish choices and can’t escape because of the spiritual expectations of the marriage relationship. We can understand why Christians find the narcissistic marriage such a quandary.

And the Christian is left with no good option. Since the narcissist almost never changes, the spouse can either choose to stay in the painful relationship or leave it and suffer the consequences. Neither choice is desirable. Reconciliation, restoration, honest change: these normal relationship options do not seem to be available in the narcissistic relationship. Added to this is the fact that few churches are educated on narcissism or prepared to help victims.

Although many denominations continue to condemn women for divorcing their abusive, narcissistic husbands, a few are becoming educated concerning domestic abuse. Doctrinal statements concerning divorce should not supersede God’s overarching care throughout Scripture for the oppressed.

God Cares For The Oppressed

Time and space does not permit for me to relate the numerous stories where our Father stood for the cause of the oppressed. Please, never doubt – He deeply cares for the downtrodden and oppressed. Isaiah 10:1-3

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?

Our Father is a God of justice. His Word bears that out over and over again. When abusive husbands attempt to cut off their wives from homes, finances, their reputation, and friends, it reeks of oppression. God is never pleased with that…as the following Scriptures attest.

Psalm 9:9; 12:5; 103:6; 146:7-9;

Proverbs 22:22-23;

Zechariah 7:10;

Isaiah 49:26

Luke 11:42

Your narcissist may have abused you. Your church or friends may have forsaken you. However, our righteous, holy, loving God will never leave you or forsake you.

The Pain of Narcissism

The Narcissist Test

Step 1: Take a moment to think about yourself.

Step 2: If you made it to step 2, you are not a narcissist.

Anonymous

photo by William Fortunato

What is Narcissism?

The word narcissist seems to get thrown around often in the selfie-obsessed world in which we live. If someone is more self-absorbed than the average person, she is quickly labeled a narcissist. However, in the psychological world, the term narcissist doesn’t mean self-love. It’s more accurate to say that people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are in love with an idealized, grandiose image of themselves.

Narcissism is a mental health condition that is characterized by a egotistical sense of self-importance. He/she exaggerates achievements and talents. He expects to be recognized as superior – even when there is no evidence supporting it! (Diagnostic Manual and Statistical of Mental Health Disorders, 5th Edition)

People with this disorder have no empathy for others. In fact, they have no problem depersonalizing others, even their spouses, if it benefits them in some way. Moreover, narcissists are willing to use and abuse others to serve the image they have created for themselves. (Dr. David Orrison, pastor, author, Narcissism in the Church)

We are all aware that most teens display narcissistic tendencies, however Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) often presents itself from teen years to early adulthood.

photo by Andres Ayrton

I let him take everything, until there was nothing left for him to take.
― Eleanor Moran, Too Close For Comfort

Sandy Hotchkiss, LCSW, devised a list entitled 7 Deadly Sins of the Narcissist, which I believe will be helpful in identifying a narcissist in your life.

  • Shamelessness – Shame is the underlying factor in all cases of unhealthy narcissism, but they come across as shameless.
  • Shame is processed in a normal manner in a healthy person, however, narcissists have difficulty processing this feeling in a healthy way. Narcissists also tend to inflict shame on other people, a concept referred to as projection.
  • Magical thinking – Narcissists tend to perceive themselves as perfect and flawless. This distorted thinking and illusion is called magical thinking.
  • Arrogance – Arrogance and disregard for other people’s feelings are typical characteristics of narcissism. Narcissists often have a low self-esteem which they try to relieve by insulting or degrading others. This helps to re-inflate their ego when they are feeling deflated or lacking in worth.

Are you thinking of someone you know, yet? Statistics reveal that it’s 75% likely that it’s a male.

photo by Shvets Productions

The List Continued

  •  Envy – Due to their sense of superiority, narcissists may feel insecure when faced with another person’s ability. Therefore, they may try to belittle by demonstrating contempt or be dismissive.
  •  Sense of entitlement –  Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment. They expect automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply may be perceived as an attack on their authority and superiority. A person who disregards their authority is often considered to be a difficult or awkward person by the narcissist, who will proceed to demean them or their opinion, especially in front of others. Defiance can also trigger anger in the narcissist, which is referred to as “narcissistic rage.”
  •  Exploitation – This refers to the narcissist’s tendency to exploit others and show no regard or empathy for their emotions or interests. This often occurs when the other person is in a subservient position, where it is awkward or impossible to resist the narcissist. On some occasions, this subservience is only assumed rather than real.
  • Lack of boundaries – Most narcissists fail to understand their boundaries and recognize that other people are individuals rather than extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who support the self-esteem of the narcissist are expected to always do so, with the narcissist failing to recognize the independence of the other person.
photo by Pexels, Lisa

Since narcissists deep down feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault.” – M. Scott Peck

Covert versus Overt Narcissism

Overt narcissism is what we typically think about when we hear the word. This is the charismatic, boisterous type who must be the center of attention in every situation. These individuals flaunt any attribute they possess – money, looks, career, attractive spouse, etc. In fact, they believe you should feel honored when they spend time with you.

The covert narcissist is less easily identified. There are 10 Signs that may help you identify a covert narcissist:

  1. Extreme sensitivity to criticism – act as if they are above criticism by dismissive, sarcastic remarks
  2. Passive-aggressive behavior – sabotaging, mocking others, giving others the silent treatment
  3. Tendency to put themselves down – but with the goal to receive compliments
  4. Shy or withdrawn nature – People with this type of NPD are deeply insecure and afraid of other people seeing their failure.
  5. Grandiose fantasies – often spend more time thinking about their wild successes than talking about them
  6. Feelings of depression and anxiety – due to their deep fear of failure and unrealized perfectionistic ideals
  7. Tendency to hold grudges – if they feel they have been treated unfairly, they may wait to have revenge
  8. Envy – they are envious of others for what they feel they themselves deserve
  9. Feelings of inadequacy – due to the inability to meet their own unrealistic standards
  10. Insincere empathy – can seem empathetic and compassionate, but it’s usually self-serving and just for show

Covert narcissists can drain the life out of you and make you feel guilty about it at the same time!

Photo by Dziana Hasanbekava

 Scripture and Narcissists

I love what 2 Timothy 3:2-5 says, especially in light of what we have learned regarding the characteristics of a narcissist.

“People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

Writer Jen Grice uses this passage to compare with the nine narcissistic traits outlined in the DSM-5. It’s an interesting read, one which I think you will find enlightening. I did.

Many Christians who study the subject of narcissism, especially in the area of domestic violence, believe that the Proverbs dealing with fools aptly apply. Although the word itself isn’t in Scripture, the characteristics of narcissism are spelled out clearly. Grice deals with a few of those, as well.

One truth is clear throughout the Bible, God resists pride and loves humility. James 4:4-6 (ESV) says:

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The Problem of Pain & Suffering

When pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all. ~ C. S. Lewis

photo by Liza Summer

As we finally begin to welcome a few clear, crisp days of autumn in our area, my personal pain level rises as the temperatures lower. It’s nothing new; fibromyalgia and arthritis don’t like cooler temperatures, despite my love for this season. The majority of us take pain as a personal insult, especially when it becomes chronic. Pain, whether physical or mental, is a problem.

An interruption…and definitely not on the schedule.

There would be various answers if you were to interview a group of people who live with chronic pain or ongoing mental anguish. However, the majority would likely tell you that this type of pain is a game-changer,

a dream-thief,

and a life-stealer.

Unfortunately, for 20.5% of Americans – or 50.2 million people, pain is a daily reality.

photo by Ron Lach

Effects of Chronic Pain

Many studies have shown the far-reaching effects of chronic pain on the body, brain and emotions.

Sadly, chronic pain is often associated with other health conditions such as anxiety and depression, resulting in a low health-related quality of life.

Living with daily pain is physically and emotionally stressful. Chronic stress is known to change the levels of stress hormones and neurochemicals found within your brain and nervous system; these can affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Disrupting your body’s balance of these chemicals can bring on depression in some people.

photo by Cottonbro

Chronic pain can also have long-lasting effects on the brain.

When you have acute pain, your symptoms stop when your injury heals. This happens naturally because your peripheral nervous system stops sending pain signals to your spinal cord and brain.

If you have chronic pain, however, your pain receptors continue firing. With all of the constant messaging, your brain becomes overwhelmed, causing changes in both emotional and cognitive areas of your brain:

  • thalamus remains open to keep routing the pain signals, which can lead to more intense and heightened feelings of discomfort.
  • The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain responsible for managing social behaviors, personality, and emotions. When it experiences excessive activity in response to chronic pain signals, neurons in this region can die, causing this part of your brain to shrink. As a result, you can experience higher states of anxiety, fear, and worry as your prefrontal cortex becomes unable to manage these emotions properly.
  • Your hippocampus is a small structure in your brain responsible for forming new memories, learning, and emotion. Living with long-term pain can shrink this important area, causing increased anxiety and problems with your memory and learning.

Consequently, pain like this can be equated with a deep, dark hole of physical and emotional darkness.

photo by Liza Summer

Emotional Fall-Out

As mentioned earlier, people who live with daily pain, especially severe pain, are highly susceptible to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. In fact, nearly half of the people who see doctors for chronic pain report emotional health problems, as well. Therefore, it is extremely important to address these issues as soon as they arise.

Remember that you are not atypical, oversensitive, or weak for experiencing emotional distress because of pain. These are normal, reasonable responses to physical suffering and its associated limitations.

It’s a vicious cycle. Hurting people see their doctors for pain relief, but fail to tell them of their depression. The undiagnosed depression can lead to lack of appetite, sleeplessness, lack of energy, which all make the pain worse. And so the cycle goes.

Be completely honest with your doctors, my friends. Get ALL the help and relief you need.

Another Perspective of Pain & Suffering

But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, p. 83

Truly, when our lives are running seamlessly, we have little need of God. Oh, if we’re practicing Christians, we likely go through the rituals and routines of Christianity, but when we are satisfied with our lives, it’s secretly difficult to think that there is something to surrender to God, isn’t it?

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We “have all we want” is a terrible saying when “all” does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full…”

C. S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, p. 85

At times, the upside-down kingdom of heaven is difficult for us to grasp. In order to shatter our illusion of self-sufficiency, our Father is willing to allow pain into our lives, for it is indeed a bugle call. Notice that I said allow, not cause because there is a vast difference.

photo by Steven Arenas

Why Pain & Suffering?

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I was often asked the “Why” question: Why did God let this happen to my loved one?

I don’t possess existential answers for individual situations, but I do know this with all my being. When sin entered the world in Genesis, Adam opened the door to suffering and death for all of mankind.

Our Father doesn’t cause the pain – that is a consequence of the Fall – but He will use it at times. Furthermore, Jesus suffered and died that He might know personally what we endure. He, therefore, is able to walk with us and comfort us as no other can. When we find ourselves neediest, we are more willing to seek Him.

photo by Karolina Grabowski

Pain, Suffering, and Our View of God

For centuries, non-Christians have used suffering and evil as their argument against a loving God, and Christianity in general. In fact, pastor and author Tim Keller said:

At the heart of why people disbelieve and believe in God, of why people decline and grow in character, of how God becomes less real and more real to us—is suffering.

One common misconception is that our suffering is related to personal sin. This is called retribution theology. However, this theology was for those living under the Mosaic Law, not for those living under the new covenant. Moreover, Jesus corrected this mistaken theology several times, (see John 9 as an example.)

Writer and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright asserts that there are no simple answers to why there is evil and suffering in the world. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, Wright tells us:

…the Old Testament tells us first that the problem of evil begins in our hearts, second that God is sovereign and there is no tidy philosophical answer for it, and third, that God will resolve the problem of evil through his own intervention.

In addition, Wright says the New Testament teaches us:

The New Testament shares the story of a God who does not just stand back from evil, but who intervenes. And yet his intervention isn’t as we might expect. Jesus heals those broken by evil, he seeks out sinners, he confronts those who believe they are righteous…The cross defeats evil, not because it defeats something out there, but because it defeats the grip of evil and death in our own hearts.

I can recall so many instances in the New Testament when Jesus entered into the suffering of the people and comforted or healed someone. He isn’t a God who stands back from us in our suffering and pain.

God defeated evil and suffering through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He will remove evil and suffering totally from our future world, (see Revelation 21-22,) when every tear will be wiped from our eyes forever. That is our future and our hope.

For now, He is Immanuel, God with us – through every trial, in every painful day, even on days when we wonder if life is worth living…

God. is. with. us.

Community: Experiencing Little, Needing Much

We are living in a time when there are more ways to be in touch with one another than any other time in history. Phones, texts, emails, FaceTime, social media, Zoom are all avenues that can keep us connected wherever we are in the world. The personal, near ancient art of letter writing? Practically non-existent. With each deeper foray into the cyber world, culture suffers more from little sense of the community which we need to lead healthy lives.

In addition, and further isolating, working from home is the new normal, thanks to Covid-19. Yet, even before Covid-19, (since 2018), we have been experiencing less community and more loneliness than perhaps ever before.

What is Community – The Bare Minimum?

What comes to mind when you hear the word community? For me, I imagine friends gathered around a table of food, talking, laughing, and sharing life together. I don’t mean in a commune sort of way, but being close enough to genuinely care about each other.

There are several definitions available, depending on whether we’re dealing with a business, health, or non-profit culture. However, the most basic definition of community remains the same:

a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

Additionally, we must have the element of trust if we are to add the warm sense of togetherness for which many are longing. Too long we have lived in, and are continually fed distrust and skepticism. Community is a place where we can go to find a listening ear. Furthermore, we know what we say can be entrusted within our community.

photo by Fauxels

Where to Find Community

Historically, communities were formed around the places people lived. Imagine the 1950’s in America or the UK when most urban families lived in small homes or apartments. These places were called neighborhoods. This is where people usually formed friendships, socialized together and raised their children together.

Technology and jobs moving us around the country changed that. Now, a type of  community can be found in online groups, book clubs, churches, support groups, and so on. However, they all require some basic, key, components to be recognized as a genuine community.

One writer believes community involves four elements.

Our definition, based on our experience is, a group of people existing in a place that shares a purpose, a sense of belonging, and who communicate with each other.

On the other hand, businesses use the term differently. Business leaders seek community in the light of how it benefits their business.

  • Having a community is having a support network.
  • They are a safe space to share knowledge and can foster collective creativity and innovation.
  • Communities offer valuable networking opportunities.
  • Provide opportunity for authentic mentoring relationships

Furthermore, there are education communities, health communities, and I could go on…but won’t.

Photo Tima Miroshnichenko

Benefits of Community

It would be difficult to overstate the role community plays in our state of well-being. Every human being has a deep desire to belong. A healthy community provides that.

Having a sense of community embraces spirit, character, image and pride and is a vital element of a healthy community. It is a feeling that people within the community matter to one another with a shared faith that their needs will be met through commitment and togetherness. Being a part of a community can make us feel as though we are a part of something greater than ourselves.

Moreover, this writer believes other benefits include:

  • support – for you and other members of the community
  • influence – participation in a community can cause one to feel empowered to make a difference
  • sharing – sharing ideas helps everyone grow and gain knowledge
  • reinforcement – can be an effective learning tool to encourage desirable behaviors and provide motivation. 
  • connection – An open bond with new connections is what builds valuable relationships, and gives us a deeper sense of belonging.

There are a few others that you can check out for yourself at the link provided.

photo by Dmitriy Ganin

If It’s So Great, Why Aren’t We All In Community?

Thank you for asking! However, the answer likely has less to do with us than with the culture in which the we live. Western countries such as the United States and Europe, Australia, and S. Africa are considered individualistic cultures. People living in these cultures generally value independence.

Within individualist cultures, people are more likely to “see themselves as separate from others, define themselves based on their personal traits, and see their characteristics as relatively stable and unchanging.” An individualist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are on the “inside,” minimizing the influence of factors, contexts, and people “outside” the individual. Individualists tend to communicate in direct styles—they say what they mean, prioritizing that information is conveyed explicitly and unambiguously. European and “Western” cultures are typically more individualist.

photo by Kindel-media

Collectivist cultures value the group over the individual. Countries with the collectivism culture are Japan, China, Venezuela, Guatemala, Brazil, and a few others.

Collectivist cultures emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual. In such cultures, relationships with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between people play a central role in each person’s identity.

Therefore, we can understand why it is difficult for most of us to wholeheartedly align ourselves with a community. Initially, at least, each of us needs to overcome a hardwired, cultural individualism, which minimizes the influence of others in our lives.

photo by Matthew Devries

Christian Community

Unfortunately, people outside of the Church sometimes think that Christian community means living in a commune on a farm somewhere in the country. For a very small percentage of Christians, that is what it means and I applaud them.

However, for the rest of us, Christian community is simply sharing an authentic life together. It moves us beyond ourselves and our isolation to invest in the other. In addition, it’s more than superficial social contacts that’s called “Christian fellowship.”

Pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote an entire book about community entitled Life Together. It created a deep longing within me for this depth of fellowship the first time I read it. (https://amzn.to/393P4eC)

The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us, (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together).

Indeed, the biblical idea of community can be found in the one another passages of Scripture, which I’ve been taught all my adult life. We find that we are committed to one another because we love one another, John 13:34. We want the best for each other because we are members of one another, (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25.)

Moreover, we need the community of faith to gain maturity in Christ. To underscore this, I’m going to share a list that a professor emeritus from George Fox University believes a community of faith provides.

  • a way to see Christ in others
  • a source of accountability and guidance
  • a place to pray and worship
  • a place to serve
  • a model and witness of Christ to the world
  • ambassadors of God’s love

I encourage you to read the article to see how he explains each point.

What About You?

photo by Dim Hou

I’m an American, thus, an individualist. Add to that a past with trauma, violated trust from more than one spiritual leader and… I get it. Trusting a group to have a sense of belonging can be very difficult for many. However, let me comfort and assure you, when I have experienced genuine Christian community, it is the sweetest thing this side of heaven.

Please don’t give up, dear sister. It is available. Go find it!

A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

 

 

 

Empathy A Sin? You’re Kidding, Right?

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photo by Drew Hayes

Empathy has been getting a lot of press recently, and not in a good way. Past controversial statements by John Piper came to light recently concerning empathy. This occurred amidst the July resignations of staff members from Piper’s former church, Bethlehem Baptist Church, (a church he pastored over 30 years.) The seminary affiliated with the church, and the president which Piper appointed, have also taken a stand against empathy.

In a podcast in March of this year, the president of the seminary, Joe Rigney, even called empathy a sin.

I had to read that a few times. Empathy a sin?

photo by Youssef Naddam

What Is Empathy?

According to pastor and professor Scot McKnight, (author of A Church Called Tov), the naysayers of empathy are distinguishing the virtue of compassion from the potential vice of empathy. (A Church Called Tov, https://amzn.to/3h0TEyK)

The former means to “suffer with” and the latter “to suffer in.” Or, to “feel with” and “feel in.” The former is rational; the latter appears to be less (than) rational, and perhaps irrational. At least in their constructions, it’s OK to suffer with but not to suffer in.

Furthermore, McKnight continues by saying, This may be the most unwise piece of pastoral theology I’ve seen in my lifetime. Pastors without empathy are not pastoring. 

Warren Throckmorten, professor of psychiatry at Grove City College, defined empathy as following:

Empathy is simply understanding the inner world of other people. It is all about being able to relate to them and understand what they are going through. It quite important in human functioning and when absent, is associated with cruelty and antisocial behavior.

Isn’t Sympathy Enough?

Potentially, there are several reactions each of us has when we learn of a life crisis which a loved one, co-worker, or a neighbor is facing. Very recently, we all learned of the plight of thousands of people in Afghanistan who were attempting to flee from the brutal regime who is now in control. Tragically, we now know many of those were left behind to a fate that is difficult for Westerners to imagine. What stirred within you during this event?

A few had apathy. Some felt sympathy. Others felt empathy. Still others felt compassion, but which ones were moved to take some type of action?

I like how Dr. Allan Schwartz, LCSW, PhD, described it in his post discussing the three.

Sympathy carries with it more than a small dose of pity for the other. Of course, the problem with pity is that it strongly implies a superior attitude to the one in pain or need. In other words, it is never helpful to feel sorry for the other person.

Consequently, sympathy feels sorry for the hurting person. However, if I understand him correctly, sympathy feels little more than pity for the one in distress.

Throckmorten’s definition sounds a bit harsh. Nevertheless, in comparison to compassion and empathy, sympathy takes the least action. We may share a feeling with someone, then move onto the next thing on our schedules.

photo by Iluha Zavaley

Empathy & Compassion

McKnight looked to Merriam Webster to define compassion and empathy.

Compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Schwartz sums it up well:

In fact, empathy precedes compassion. Empathy without compassion leaves the individual drained of energy as a result of feeling what the other feels. Empathy occurs immediately and leaves no emotional room between the individual and the one who is suffering. Compassion is more cognitive in nature. There is a sense of self awareness that provides some necessary space between the two people. The empathizer experiences the same suffering with the other, leaving the empathizer overwhelmed. As a result, compassion allows the individual to be more helpful than the individual who experiences empathy alone.

Truthfully, both are necessary  – empathy and compassion. As Schwartz stated, empathy precedes compassion. Without empathy, there would not be compassionate action.

photo by Rodnae Productions

The Fear of Vulnerability

Shane Moe is a marriage and family therapist in the Twin Cities area. He also provides care for trauma survivors, many of whom attended Bethlehem Baptist. He views the empathy-as-sin folks in a different light. Moe looks beneath the theological posturing and sees men who fear vulnerability. Traditionally, vulnerability in men signified weakness.

Revealing emotions is for women. Men are expected to be stoic and tough.

Additionally, and disturbingly, a lack of empathy is a characteristic of narcissism.

There are reasons some of my clients’ family members who exhibit narcissistic traits and who have engaged in consistent patterns of spiritual and psychological abuse toward my clients have been attracted to this ‘empathy is a sin’ teaching (and to this church): It feeds perfectly into their narcissism and psychological dependence upon maintaining power and control.

Sadly, there remain many patriarchic church cultures where male leadership distance themselves from feelings and emotions. Furthermore, they label them as sinful and isolate women, (whom they deem too emotional) who cry for help from abusive husbands. The traumatized and abused find no empathy and therefore, no compassion.

photo by Gus Moretta

Jesus, Our Example

Contrary to this, the New Testament Jesus is frequently said to have splanchnizomai. This word means – to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity.) McKnight paraphrased its meaning as follows:

It means to be moved with emotion and pity for someone in pain and pastoral neglect, and it leads from understanding to actions that help alleviate the pain (like healing, teaching).

Let’s look at just a few of these instances.

Matthew 9:35-38, ESV

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

Matthew 20:29-34, NKJV

Mark 1:40-41, ESV

40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”

Mark 5:18-19

Luke 7:12-13, NKJV

12 And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.

Luke 10:30-33

Our Response

Throughout His time here on earth, our Lord was moved with pity and compassion to take action in assisting those in need of His care. He moved to meet basic needs for food, needs for healing, and miraculous needs by restoring a widow’s son to life. Jesus met people where they were, (empathy) and took them by the hand (compassion) to deliver them to where they needed to be.

In 1 John 3:15-18, ESV, we have a clear admonition from ‘the disciple Jesus loved.’

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Theologians and preachers can quibble over word definitions and etymology until they are breathless. However, no one can argue with the simple truth of the words of Scripture. Furthermore, the example of the life of our Lord Jesus is all we need to know how to care for our brothers and sisters.

Can I hear an Amen?

 

 

 

Five Areas of Abuse, Without Lifting a Hand

Last week we began to discuss how to identify an abuser. I hope the information was helpful for you. Sometimes when we are in the middle of something it’s difficult to see what is happening. Today I want to point out the five areas an abuser uses without ever lifting a hand to strike his victim.

In addition, while you’re reading, I’d like for all of us to ponder what we are allowing to be done to the children in the homes of abusers. Are we perpetuating another generation of pain when we sense something is off or witness behavior that is unsettling, yet we remain silent?

photo by Jackson Simmer

Again, I want to thank Natalie Hoffman for her wisdom and insights, which were gained from 20 years of living with an abusive husband. I am learning so much from her and others in a Domestic Violence class I am taking.

Denial of Responsibility

I mentioned last time that this is the #1 sign of an abuser: nothing is EVER their fault. However, there are subtle ways in which he denies. For example, he will:

  • Minimize – ‘You are so sensitive!’ ‘Why do you make a big deal out of everything?’
  • Justify – ‘My phone died, so it’s not my fault I couldn’t call you.’ ‘I got stuck in traffic! What could I do about that?’
  • Mutualize blame – ‘We BOTH need to change. We BOTH have problems.’
  • Blame shift – ‘If YOU hadn’t made me so mad, I wouldn’t have (drank, hit the wall, watched porn, etc.)
  • Project onto her – blame her for doing what he himself is doing; EX.: having an affair, hiding money, etc.

Deception

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to realize and accept that your spouse tells lies and half-truths very convincingly. In fact, he tells them so well that sometimes he begins to believe them himself!

Akin to this fact, usually an abuser leads a double life. For example, he may be a revered leader at your church and in the community, but indulge in child pornography at night. (See the story of Rev. Jimmy Hinton and his Pastor father, who was later revealed to be child molester.)

Gaslighting is a third area of deception, which is especially harmful to their victim’s mental health. (A marriage counselor needs to be very alert to this.) Gaslighting is repeatedly denying his victim’s reality. For instance, he promises to do something for her, but doesn’t do it. After a time, she brings it to his attention. He then heatedly denies that he ever made the promise.

This scene plays out so often that the spouse begins to doubt her sanity.

Photo by Carolina Heza

Inability to Empathize

Interestingly, an abuser cannot join his partner in any pain or rejoicing. He is actually offended when his spouse is experiencing an emotion that doesn’t match his own. On the other hand, if he can gain something from her behavior, he has the ability to mimic empathy.

In keeping with any narcissist, an abuser puts his own interests ahead of hers, (another reason why he cannot empathize with her needs.) He is sullen when she is happy and chronically unavailable when she needs him.

Photo by Fuu J E

Desire For Power and Control

Abuse, itself, is about power and control. It’s never about the bruises inflicted. Furthermore, if an abuser’s theology supports a power control model of male and female relationship, he will claim greater power and leverage as ‘God’s design.’

An abuser may not control his partner at every level, but he disrespects any boundary she attempts to have. In addition, she is never allowed to say no to him without consequences.

Photo by Anete Lusina

Mind Control

From the beginning, an abuser seeks out a sensitive person, a woman who is a people helper. He will mirror her qualities to entice her. However, after they marry, his genuine qualities will be revealed and he will use her qualities against her. Soon, she won’t know the man with whom she is sharing her life.

This man will withhold praise while criticizing and demeaning her. In public he will speak highly of her unless she dares to challenge him or speak against him. Then his rebuke will be will be swift and brutal.

Consequently, a victim learns to doubt her own judgments. In addition, to save herself the pain of repeated humiliation, she will back down when he speaks his opinion and/or changes the narrative of a conversation.

Without counseling, even after she leaves him, his voice will be in her head for a long time.

Remember – abuse is a cycle. The bad behavior and the good behavior are both in play to keep his victim guessing. It also serves to keep her under control. For instance, he may take the kids to the park after he exploded in rage at the ‘messy kitchen.’ Another example: he may bring her flowers after he humiliated her in front of a friend.

Photo by Aaron Burden

The Bible and Abusers

If you have been in a conservative church for very long, you have heard a sermon on Malachi 3:16 along the way.

For the Lord God of Israel says
That He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,

Therefore take heed to your spirit, That you do not deal treacherously.

That was the New King James version. This and earlier versions have been used for decades to force women to stay in abusive marriages. However, newer translations carry a completely different implication than earlier translations.

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her,[a] says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” ESV

The fact is, God hates oppressors of any kind. The type of oppressor he is addressing in Malachi is the husband who decided he wanted a new wife simply because he was tired of the old one. Unfortunately, this meant she would be destitute.

God was not pleased with this scenario. In fact, He hated it.

God hates injustice and oppression both inside and outside the people He calls His own. Isaiah and Jeremiah are full of incidents of God’s wrath at His own people for oppressing the needy or weak among them. (See Isa. 10:1–4; 30:12–14; Jer. 6:6-8; 9:6–11.)

God hates abuse of any kind.

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” (Proverbs 6:16-19)

Sounds like someone we’ve been describing, doesn’t it?

Does that sound like someone you want to be friends with?  Or someone who is a healthy person with whom you want to be in any relationship? Does it sound as though God approves of this type of person??

What Now?

If you recognized your marriage or relationship in this blog, you have some decisions to make. None of them will be easy. However, I pray for your courage to move forward to safety. There is hope…always, there is hope in Jesus and the truth of His Word.

I have included a relationship test by Leslie Vernick, which may further help you see more clearly your status in your marriage/relationship. It might be easier if you can print it out.

You’ve likely felt isolated for a long time. Perhaps you have sought help from a pastor or friend before to no avail.

This time can be different. You do not have to do this alone.

Natalie Hoffman’s organization, Leslie Vernick, Give Her Wings – all provide assistance for women (Christian and non-Christian) in abusive relationships wanting to leave. There are likely Christian counselors in your area, but make sure they are familiar with domestic abuse.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

National Dating Abuse Hotline 1-866-331-9474; 866-331-8453; OR

TEXT: loveis to 22522

Toxic Christian Relationships

photo by Mitch Hodge

There is an intriguing story in the book of John. You’ll find it in chapter 8:1-11.

Now [a]early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear, (NKJV).

Picture the scene. Jesus in the temple, teaching his followers and those who were curious. Suddenly, the religious leaders burst in with a nearly (or completely) naked woman and thrust her before Him. Moreover, she is accused of adultery before Jesus and the crowd.

There are so many problems with this scenario.

The scribes and Pharisees gloated over this humiliated woman because they believed that Jesus would have to agree with them. Otherwise, He would be going against the Mosaic Law. On the other hand, if He disagreed with them…then He must be a fraud!

However, as is often the case with abusive men, they told a half-truth. Actually, if they were interested in following the Law, it required the death of both the man  and the woman. The Pharisees were conveniently silent with that information.

photo by Sora Shimazaki

Whose Responsibility?

So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers[j]of yours? Has no one condemned you?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

Clearly, Jesus quickly assessed the situation. He saw the toxic dynamic of men placing the weight of their agenda onto a woman. In addition, He knew who needed to own the responsibility at that moment…and it wasn’t the woman before Him. (Please note that He did admonish her not to continue in her sin.)

Jesus simply waited until the scribes and Pharisees realized they had responsibility for their own sin. The men had no right to place the burden of their hidden, personal sins onto the woman, (i.e. judging, conniving to trap Jesus, lying about the Law, using another person for their own benefit.)

Then, in love and mercy, Jesus sent the woman on her way.

Unfortunately, the number one characteristic of abusers is denial of responsibility. It’s nearly impossible for them to take responsibility for their behavior.

Where Does Abusive Behavior Begin?

Each of us have met people with varying levels of emotional maturity. Some “never seem to grow up,” while others were “grown before their time.” We know that abusive behavior is often learned in the home, whether by witnessing abuse or experiencing it. In addition, Bob Hamp, counselor and owner of Think Differently Counseling, (www.TDCounseling.com) said, The backbone of emotionally healthy development is the movement from dependence to independence to interdependence.

Ideally, parents begin early to train their children toward independent thinking and feeling.

If that doesn’t occur, these children learn to constantly look outside themselves for success, affirmation, and fulfillment. Furthermore, they usually grow into dependent adults who:

  • have an inability to face consequences for personal behavior
  • cannot manage conflict
  • have trouble with differing thoughts, emotions, opinions of others

Many become addicts, abusers or serial adulterers. They have internal pain, but unfortunately, lack the resources to meet them…and no longer possess a desire to do so. Therefore, they look to outward methods to soothe it.

In addition, they use a position of power to assign responsibility to their victims to carry the weight of their sins, emotions, or daily responsibilities, (Bob Hamp.)

Covert Agreements

Surprise! Abusers find victims who do have the resources they need! This person was likely groomed in her own family of origin. She may meet a financial need for the abuser, but most often it’s emotional, as well. Usually, the victim is an empath. She’s caring, and understanding; surely she can meet his gnawing inward needs.

This is the ideal person to carry the abuser’s pain, and believe me, before long, she’s carrying all of it.

Therefore, the two unconsciously enter a covert agreement:

(Abuser) You will meet all my emotional needs, and anything else I can think of. (Victim) I’ll be fulfilled by being the most amazing helper who will change this poor man.

Remember, the victim never sees herself as a victim, (until she’s completely burned out, that is.) She just wants to help him. If she could just do more to change him – perhaps she can fix him or…soothe her own fear.

Furthermore, abusers don’t see themselves as abusers. They think they may have a little problem with anger, (or porn, or alcohol…) that only gets worse when she doesn’t do her job. Of course, her job consists of meeting all of his needs when he needs them…and always being understanding and forgiving of him…

every. single. time.

photo by Yan Krukov

Abusive Christian Relationships

We began with a story of self-righteous religious leaders using their power to exploit a woman’s personal sin, merely to prove their point to Jesus. Consequently, as difficult as it may be to acknowledge, we are aware that religion has had harmful elements since the beginning of time.

With that in mind, is it such a big leap to realize that there are Christian marriages where women are being abused? (I use the term Christian here loosely.) I realize that sometimes men are abused, too. However, the vast majority of the time when abuse is present, whether Christian homes or not, the victim is a woman.

Actually, the doctrine in Conservative Christian circles, makes it easier for abusers to blend in. Contrary to the example of Christ, far too many in fundamentalist leaning churches continue to see women as second class citizens of the Kingdom of God. This feeds directly in to the ego of an abuser, who sees his victim as someone who lives to meet his needs.

For an example, look no farther than a recent article about a schism at Bethlehem Baptist, John Piper’s former church.

photo by Karolina Grabowska

Christian Abusers

According to Natalie Hoffman, writer and educator regarding domestic abuse, you can’t tell an abuser by his cover. To outsiders, he can appear shy and gentle or charming and gregarious. However, these are a professing Christian abuser’s core beliefs. At home, they are revealed as follows:

  • Women follow men
  • Women cause men to trip up
  • If rape happened, there had to be witnesses or it wasn’t rape
  • Women cannot give feedback unless it’s done in a meek and quiet way
  • A wife cannot have personal boundaries
  • Grace is only allowed for men
  • Women must die to themselves, not men
  • If a woman stands against her husband, she is against God’s will
  • If there is not peace in the home, it’s the woman’s fault
  • When a husband says he’s sorry, a wife owes him a clean slate – 70×70!

You can easily see the distortions, but these are deep-seated beliefs an abuser lives by. He expects his wife to live by them, too.

Next week I’m going to talk about the 5 areas of abuse. None include him lifting a hand, but all inflict pain.

Until then, keep in mind that Jesus did not condemn the woman thrown at his feet. Conversely, He was gentle, kind, and forgiving toward her. His judgment was toward the religious leaders.

The heart of God has always been tender toward victims of injustice.

Please know – You are loved.

 

 

 

 

 

Lament: Another Way To Deal With All The Loss

 

photo by Liza Summer

Like you, my family hears news every few days of friends who are being impacted by the Delta variant of Covid-19 or some other tragedy. A mom in her 40’s died from Covid-19. A teen is fighting for his life. One local family lost their 6 year old to a rare form of meningitis.

How do we deal with all the grief and loss we have experienced in the past eighteen months?

It just keeps piling up…like the bills from lost jobs and higher prices due to inflation.

photo by Nathan Cowley

What is Lament?

Mark Vroego, the author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, (https://amzn.to/2VWbTNY), explains that we enter the world wailing. Truthfully, tears and sorrow are part of being human. Yet, lament is more than crying.

But lament is different than crying because lament is a form of prayer. It is more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God.

Furthermore, more than a third of the Psalms are laments. Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations is entirely written as a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. In addition, Jesus lamented in the Garden at the end of His life.

Ultimately, lament is based in trust in the character of God. It is a form of praise and prayer with the intent of drawing close to God in times of great suffering and pain.

photo by Cheron James

Steps of Lament

To be honest, the practice of lament is not natural for us. Why? According to Vroegrop, because every lament is a prayer, a statement of faith. Moreover, we are also wrestling with the paradox of suffering and the promises of God’s goodness.

Taking our direction from the Psalms of lament, let’s look at the main elements of a lament.

  1. Call on God – We don’t direct our words to our pain, our suffering or our enemy, but to God. Examples: Psalm 13:1; Ps. 22:1; Ps.77:2-3
  2. Tell Him your complaint – be honest and open about your anger, frustration, or pain. Ps.3:1-2; 57:4; 86:1, 14
  3. Request help from God – be clear in your request. Ps. 6:2-4; 25:2, 16-17; 28:1-4
  4. Express trust or praiseThe destination for all laments is an affirmation of trust in God. Gut-level, honest prayers provide a pathway for hurting people to move through their pain. Laments are not cul-de-sacs of sorrow, but conduits for renewed faithPs. 6:8-10; 28:7; 57:7-11

To make it easier to remember, let’s break it down into four words:

  • turn
  • complain
  • ask
  • trust

To pray in pain, even with its messy struggle and tough question, is an act of faith where we open up our hearts to God. Prayerful lament is better than silence. (Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy.)

photo by Inzmam Khan

Avoidance of Lament

Sadly, during times of trial, we often turn away from God rather than toward Him. The circumstances of our lives feel overwhelming. We don’t understand why this thing is happening. In anger and frustration, many sink into silent despair.

Despair lives under the hopeless resignation that God doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, and nothing is ever going to change. People who believe this stop praying. They give up. (Vroegop, pg. 32)

Actually, I think our reasons to turn away in times of pain go even deeper. In 1993, Dr. Larry Crabb wrote Finding God, (https://amzn.to/3xL8e2Y). In the book, Crabb pointed out that our natural inclination is to doubt God’s goodness. Like Adam and Eve, deep within, there is a gnawing kernel of belief that God is holding out on us. Therefore, when suffering enters our lives, many rage against God for not doing enough to protect us from it.

Perhaps God isn’t a good God, after all.

However, that false belief is completely contrary to what the Bible tells us. Throughout Scripture, God invites us to bring our complaints, our sorrows, and our pain before Him. The Psalms, in particular, are full of examples. In Isaiah 1:18, God invites Judah to a conversation, in spite of their sin: Come, let us reason together. He often pleaded with Israel to return to Him so He could restore them.

Silence before God will kill your soul. Therefore, we do not need to fear lament. Run to Him; pour out your fear, your anger, your pain. In addition, pray your questions and your struggles. He invites it.

Discomfort of Lament

The full-throttle cataloguing of pain sets the context for the call for God to remember. However, it has been my experience that many Christians are uncomfortable with the tension of the long rehearsing of pain combined with the appeal to God’s grace. We tend to hush the recitation of sorrow. However, restoration doesn’t come to those who live in denial… (Vroegop, pg.144)

As a culture, we have become strangled with an oversized political correctness that has leached into the Church. Unfortunately, we have mistakenly placed the nice pc language onto God and His image. However, a read through the Old Testament or Paul’s letters to the churches would soon relieve us of that notion.

Jesus wasn’t nice when He threw the moneychangers out of the temple. Nor was Paul gentle when he wrote of the sexual sin in the church of Corinth in 1 Corinthians chapter 5.

As a result of our distorted beliefs concerning God, the raw language of lament is uncomfortable to those who see Him as unapproachable or unconcerned. Lament invites boldness, questions and honesty about everything we are feeling. Therefore, lament is challenging if you’re not accustomed to being genuine with God or others concerning your thoughts or feelings.

In fact, despite our societal love affair with violence in entertainment, we don’t know what to do with people who are truly suffering or grieving a loss. Moreover, we would rather they simply move on as quickly as possible due to our discomfort.

What if, instead, we offered the valuable gift of talking to God about their pain?

photo by Liza Summer

The Gift of Lament

Lament is seeing and trusting that God enters our pain with us. It is, as Vroegop wrote, the song we sing in the space between pain and promise. At times, it is a raging song. At other times, it is a song of sorrow and tears.

I have sung these songs in times of pain and darkness. Sometimes those songs lasted for weeks, months. Thankfully, my Father never left me, but rather held me close and let me, metaphorically, beat His chest in anguish. In the end, however, I know He is who He says He is…whether I understand it all or not.

What about you? Will you lament your losses?

 

Family and The Roles We Play

A dysfunctional family is based on three main rules:

  • Don’t trust;
  • Don’t tell;
  • Don’t feel

Mom and Dad: We need either one or the other to be missing physically or emotionally. Usually, this unavailability is due to drugs, mental illness, gambling, or work-aholism. Take your pick; the behaviors and symptoms are basically the same.

Photo by Bastien Baillot

Families and Our Need For Balance

A week seldom passes that I don’t encounter or learn of someone who has family drama, trauma or pain. It can be as grave as an abusive spouse or a chronically ill child. For others, the situation involves a family member with a drug/alcohol addiction or explosive anger that keeps the family walking on egg shells. Family members are required to play roles to maintain a measure of balance any time one member of the family consistently requires more attention or care than every other member.

Because families require a stable equilibrium to feel safe.

For instance, picture a baby mobile hanging over a crib. Each arm hangs evenly balanced. If someone placed a weight on one arm, it would naturally put the mobile off balance. Similarly, in families, when one member requires all other members to accommodate their needs, the family system becomes out of balance.

Consequently, it’s the unconscious job of the other members to put things back into balance.

Unfortunately, in some cases, the imbalance cannot be avoided, such as in situations of critical or chronic illness. Sometimes, the situation can be used as a learning experience for other members of the family. In healthy families, children can learn what sacrificial love looks like.

Families are always seeking homeostasis or balance. When one or more family members are struggling to self-regulate in appropriate ways, regardless of the reason, other family members may unconsciously step into these dysfunctional family roles as an attempt to rebalance the family and to avoid self-reflecting on their own painful or stressful experiences and emotions. Know that no family is perfect, and there is always room to work towards healthier family dynamics.

Families and Roles

The study of family roles began with psychotherapist Virginia Satir, known as the mother of family therapy. It was later adapted by Claudia Black, Ph.D. and Sharon Wegscheider Cruse in their work with families of alcoholics.

Subsequent study has clearly shown that almost all families have role assignments in varying degrees. Typically, the parents have the greater influence over which role the children will be assigned.  These roles most often are imposed on children at an early age. Although they are formed subconsciously by the parents and children, there can be great rigidity. Children can also assume roles.  The more chaotic and disorganized the family, the more rigid the roles become.  More often than not, the children cooperate with the role assignments.  The underlying message to the children is the family needs them to play that role in order to function and manage stress.  In times of crisis, the roles become even more pronounced as the family members attempt to negotiate the crisis.

The Roles We Play – The Hero

It’s important to understand the roles assigned to us in childhood because, unfortunately, we often carry them into adulthood. So, let’s take a look.

Usually, but not always, the oldest child is assigned the role of hero.

Their goal in life is to achieve success, however that has been defined by the family. Consequently they must always be “brave and strong”. The Hero‘s compulsive drive to succeed may in turn lead to stress-related illness, and compulsive over-working. In addition, they learn at a young age to suffer the sadness of a parent and become a surrogate spouse or confidante.

Characteristics of the hero are:

  • successful
  • leader
  • self-disciplined
  • perfectionist
  • fear of failure
  • inability to play or relax
  • need to be in control

Sadly, this child often feels immense pressure to succeed in order to continue to make the family look good. Unfortunately, the long-term effect likely will rob the hero of the ability to experience emotional intimacy in future relationships.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is the child most likely to show up in a counselor’s office as the identified patient. He/she is the opposite of the hero and is generally (and wrongfully) blamed for all the family’s problems.

The scapegoat cooperates with the assignment by acting out. He may do poorly in school and be a risk taker and pleasure seeker. In teen years, he may develop an addiction.

In fact, the scapegoat is the only one who is being honest about the problems within the family and is crying for help. Other characteristics are:

  • Creative
  • less denial, greater honesty
  • leader, but in wrong direction
  • self-destructive
  • irresponsible
  • underachiever
  • defiant/rebel
  • inappropriate expressions of anger

Moreover, those in this role often experience difficulty connecting with others on a genuine level and may self-sabotage.

The Lost Child

Look in the back of the room (or in her room) to find the lost child of the family. It’s likely this child has withdrawn there to feel safe from a conflict brewing. Additionally, she doesn’t want to take a chance of being the one to cause a conflict. She is a loner who may feel ignored or neglected, but doesn’t want to draw attention to herself.

Other characteristics:

  • independent
  • flexible
  • follows without questioning
  • quiet
  • easy going
  • unable to initiate
  • fearful of making decisions
  • lack of direction
photo by Austin Pacheco

The Mascot

Everyone loves a clown and the mascot is happy to provide the family with a laugh when tensions become high. They’re the funny one who makes jokes that facilitate denial or minimization of the real problems. However, internally, they are often anxious and fearful.

Although the mascot has great social skills and seems carefree, in reality, they are in a lot of pain.

Remember, some of the greatest comedians came from some of the most dysfunctional families. Constant joking is another form of self-medication to ease the pain. Instead of taking drugs to mask their suffering, mascots can keep the endorphins running high with smiles.

Other characteristics are:

  • sense of humor
  • flexible
  • attention seeker
  • immature
  • difficulty focusing
  • poor decision making
  • distracting
  • able to relieve stress and pain
Photo by Sarah Chai

The Enabler/Caretaker

We will find an enabler/caretaker within any dysfunctional family system. Furthermore, the enabler often appears to outsiders as a martyr. This role is typically fulfilled by a spouse (or parent). Unfortunately, children have also filled this role when a parent abdicates their parental responsibilities and the child is parentified.

You often see this role in a family where the functioning of (one of) the parent(s) is impaired in some way, i.e. mental illness, substance abuse or a medical disability.  This child will attempt to function as the surrogate parent. They worry and fret, nurture and support, listen and console.  Their entire concept of their self is based on what they can provide for others.

Therefore, the enabler falsely believes they must keep the family going at all costs. As a result, the caretaker has no concept of boundaries.

Oftentimes, this person will make excuses for their loved one’s behavior, lie to keep the person out of trouble, lend them money, and unknowingly enable their loved one’s addiction. This typically leads the enabler to lose their sense of self, neglect their own physical and mental wellbeing, as well as develop depression and anxiety due to the stress associated with codependency and enabling.

The caretaker may keep the family balanced, but it is in an unhealthy way. Moreover, it prevents the family from facing the truth and moving toward healing.

Keep in mind that the caretaker acts out of anxiety that the family will fall apart and they will subsequently be unsafe, alone, unlovable, rejected, etc.

Additional characteristics of the caretaker are:

  • compassionate
  • empathic
  • giver
  • inability to receive
  • denies personal needs
  • high tolerance for inappropriate behavior
  • fear of anger or conflict
  • anxious
  • highly fearful
  • hypervigilant
  • false guilt

Giving Up The Roles

Although none of us asked for the roles assigned to us in childhood, too many of us carried them into adulthood. Furthermore, the characteristics have likely effected past and current relationships. It’s never too late to seek help for laying down those false narratives and become a true version of yourself.

In addition, as I have mentioned before, know that you are fearfully and uniquely made by our God. Even the hairs of your head are numbered by the Lord of all! Therefore, we have no need of roles to play.

Our primary role is the one our Father designed for us – to live life fully and bring honor to His Name.

 

The Ugly Nature of Spiritual Abuse

A few of decades ago, my family sat under a pastor who was a wonderful teacher of the Bible. However, sadly, he became more controlling as his tenure increased. It was gradual, and like a frog in water that comes slowly to a boil, we almost didn’t jump out in time. In fact, our eldest eventually left religion completely.

This is the ugly, insidious nature of spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behavior in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it.

Indeed. Trusting spiritual leaders continues to be a challenge for members of my family, despite earnest effort to do otherwise.

Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse

There are several lists of characteristics available, so I am borrowing from a couple and condensing them. Furthermore, if you have been in this painful situation, you could likely add one or more aspects to the list.

  1. Abusive leaders have a distorted view of respect. They forget the simple adage that respect is earned, not demanded or granted.
  2. Abuse of power is always at issue. Abusive leaders misuse their authority to coerce people to do what they want, all in the name of God.
  3. These leaders push performance-based religiosity in order to ‘please God’; they mandate attendance at all church functions.
  4. No one knows the unspoken rules until they break one, i.e. don’t question the pastor; don’t talk about church problems.
  5. Abusive leaders label as rebels anyone who questions him or his policies.
  6. Exhibits black and white thinking
  7. Use exclusive language: “We’re the only church following Jesus.”
  8. Create a culture of fear and shame, often using Scriptures about not touching God’s anointed.
  9. Buffer him/herself from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader or protecting the church they have built.
  10. There is often a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism and pride.
  11. Abusive leaders are often a narcissist.
photo by Samuel Martins

The First Step To Recover From Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is talked about mostly in psychological terms. But there is also a spiritual dynamic to it—a dynamic of the spirit. Spiritual abuse is not just something that comes about in a spiritual way…[it] is like physical abuse, which is not something that comes only in a physical way. When physical abuse happens, something physical is hurt. And when spiritual abuse happens, your spirit gets hurt. And that has long-lasting consequences.

photo by dnk-photo

Unfortunately, the first step to healing from spiritual abuse is removing yourself from the church or organization where it is occurring. However, choosing to leave one’s spiritual community or, in some cases, one’s entire set of religious beliefs, can lead to post traumatic stress symptoms. We are seldom prepared for the loss of security we had known.

And nothing prepared us for the loss of our complete friend group who remained part of the church we exited.

Staying, however, will only cause further anger and bitterness. It’s OK to be angry for awhile; God gave us emotions for a reason. Nonetheless, remaining in the situation could eventually direct those feelings toward God. About now, finding a counselor or someone to talk to would be very beneficial because these wounds are deep.

They are not going to simply disappear.

photo by Karl Frederickson

Next Steps to Healing

Grieve…the loss you are experiencing is akin to a death.

No one told my husband and I that we should give ourselves time to grieve the loss of our friends, the comfort of our ‘home church’, or the investment of 25+ years of our lives to this body of believers. Consequently, the grief continued to bubble to the surface for decades afterward, triggered by various situations.

While we grieve, we need to give ourselves permission to rest. Rather than resting, my husband and I were remodeling a home we had just purchased. In addition, we were dealing with grieving teens who had lost their youth group, and seeking to find a new church, thus a new church visit every Sunday.

We were exhausted. Therefore, our recovery took much longer.

In time, forgive the abuser(s). I’m going to be honest here. This. Was. Very. Difficult. For. Me.

Maybe because I erroneously thought forgiveness was a once and for all transaction, as with Jesus for me. I repeatedly felt guilt if I saw the abusers in public and felt the pain and anger rise up, again.

Thankfully, in time, I learned that forgiveness is 70 X 7, Matthew 18:21-22, ESV. Each time I was presented with the sin of the past, by God’s grace and mercy, I chose to forgive. This freed me from bitterness. It will free you, too.

photo by Joshua Eckstein

Learning to Trust Again

When trust is violated at a spiritual level, it creates an extreme hardship on the abuse survivor to trust anyone in a religious leadership capacity, again.

I think that recovery from spiritual abuse is in some ways the most difficult of recovery journeys. One reason is that the person who has the greatest potential for helping us recover from spiritual abuse is the person we feel most alienated from….

Let me explain that a bit. When someone gets physically abused, they don’t necessarily distrust the Department of Social Services. The abuser wasn’t acting as a representative of the Department of Social Services when they abused the person. Similarly, when a woman gets abused sexually, she doesn’t necessarily distrust the person from the women’s shelter who offers to be helpful… In the case of spiritual abuse, however, there is always a major problem with the “agency” that is specifically “designed” to be helpful: God. The fear is that if you go to God, you will get hurt even worse than you have already been hurt. Spiritual abuse always does damage to our relationship with God…It’s a wound of the spirit. It’s a wound right down at the core of who we are.

Three decades later, my husband and I continue to struggle with trusting spiritual leaders.

photo by Allen Taylor

God’s View of Spiritual Abusers

Be assured, God doesn’t look with favor at shepherds who abuse their flocks. For example, in Jeremiah 23:1-4, Jeremiah pronounced woe on the evil shepherds who had driven their people away. Their harsh ways and fearmongering had scattered the flock, but God would restore His people, again.

In the New Testament, Jesus spends nearly an entire chapter of Matthew berating the Scribes and Pharisees for their abusive leadership. In Chapter 23, Jesus pronounces woe after woe upon them because of their hypocrisy and the high standards they set for others, but not themselves.

Paul addresses false teaching in several of his letters. For example, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul begins in verse 6 expressing his astonishment that they could turn so quickly to desert him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. 

As Paul noted in verse 9, if anyone attempts to distort the gospel – Christ alone through faith alone – by adding other conditions, let him be accursed.

That, my friend, is how God looks at spiritual abusers.

Is there room for their repentance? Always.  Do they repent? Not often.

I’m not pessimistic about recovery for anybody, for anything. I’m hopeful. That’s why I do what I do. But I am aware of the track record and of how difficult it is for spiritually abusive people to see what’s real and to change that pattern.

God, have mercy…for us all.

The truth is, however, even at our lowest point, we were never alone. God was with us; we were not forsaken for a moment.