Children of a Suffering God

An anonymous author over at The Guardian has this to say about childhood abuse:

The experience of abuse is powerfully defiling – your wellbeing is shockingly outraged. These experiences are often internalised and lead to overwhelming feelings of shame, self-loathing, worthlessness, fear and disgust. Early abuse cripples your sense of self and blights your capacity to trust. Often the only way a child can make any sense of the situation is by assuming they are doing something wrong. That they are somehow to blame. This is, of course, inaccurate. The survival mechanism of self-blame often means that anger churns and boils beneath the surface. It’s difficult for a child to develop confidence in the world if an adult – a grown-up who is not just physically huge in comparison, but also in terms of resources, status and significance – chooses to victimise them in this way.

The author also says something very profound here about something learned in while in a support support group:

At first, we all blamed ourselves for the abuse, but gradually we learned to apportion appropriate blame. The blame for abuse always lies with the abuser, never the victim. We found it easy to be compassionate with each other, and then it became easier to extend compassion to ourselves. For all of us, I think, it was the first time we felt truly understood. Truly cared for and supported. Those women saved me.

I don’t know if I communicated well in my book, but I struggled with some very similar.

The hardest person I’ve ever had to forgive is myself — who was I that people would do to me what they did to me? Especially at Citrus Elementary, where the abuse and the tormenting enveloped me. It’s something that still lingers in the background, as I deal with my current situation. It’s hard enough being out of work, and it’s worse with the nagging sense that this might be all my own damn fault and the world is right to throw me away. After all, two bishops and two ELCA committees have clearly said I’m not good enough. They’ve passed a harsh judgement, they have condemned me as a sinner, and have cast me into outer darkness, and they’ve never really explained why.

And sometimes I think — if I could only be a different person, someone not me, or maybe even a better one, I would be accepted, and I could belong. I don’t think that often anymore, but it is something that does come to me every now and again.

I don’t beat myself up much about it though — I have come to realize that I’m not 10 years old anymore, and the people I met at seminary (God bless you, you know who you are) who struggle with similar things have helped me understand I am not alone. But this is a struggle. And I think it’s better to be brutally honest and open about that then to pretend otherwise.

This matters because if, as Christians, we worship a suffering and crucified God — one we tortured and murdered — then we cannot simply set the abused aside as if they have nothing of value to tell us. Or that they should be people permanently under the care of those who are “normal.” We have something to tell the church about suffering. I know the church doesn’t want to listen — it has no time for real suffering. Only the idea of suffering.

(Bourgeois virtue cannot accept any moral value in suffering, much less a suffering God.)

This is one of the great problems of the liberal and progressive church; it valorizes suffering theologically but does so only from the position of a spectator, viewing from a superior, detached post, because in practice the liberal church believes in the promise of modernity — that suffering is an aberration, something to be defeated and conquered through science and progress. But how can you believe — truly believe — in a God who suffers while, at the same time, seeking to end all suffering? While marginalizing and excluding those who have suffered?

5 thoughts on “Children of a Suffering God

  1. Zen paradox for the day: If we could be better than we are, we wouldn’t be as good as we are.

    ***

    Bourgeois virtue wasn’t originally so suffering-phobic. Far from it. In the days when every family had 6 to 12 children or more if they could, childhood was more like boot camp – a harsh introduction to the world of work. Before the late 1700’s, many people couldn’t (or claimed they couldn’t) remember their childhoods at all. It probably just blended into early adulthood. Then came Wordsworth et al, who idealized childhood as a world of play and innocence – kind of a mean thing to do when the death rate among children was still so high. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that the term ‘teenager’ came into common use. Then, by the late 50’s, teenagers had money to spend, and the unions wanted to delay the entry of new bodies into the work force. Voila: youth culture. And the feeling was mutual. The young loathed the world of work of their fathers. From the NY Times about presidential candidate Bernie Sanders:

    “The Revolution Is Life Versus Death,” in fact, was the title of an article he wrote for The Vermont Freeman, an alternative, authority-challenging newspaper published for a few years back then. The piece began with an apocalyptically alarmist account of the unbearable horror of having an office job in New York City, of being among “the mass of hot dazed humanity heading uptown for the 9-5,” sentenced to endless days of “moron work, monotonous work.”
    “The years come and go,” Mr. Sanders wrote, in all apparent seriousness. “Suicide, nervous breakdown, cancer, sexual deadness, heart attack, alcoholism, senility at 50. Slow death, fast death. DEATH.”

    Ah nostalgia! This was before some boomers a decade later reinvented the 80-hour work week at tech startups, paid mostly in promises of an eschatological IPO.

    But most people didn’t work in such places. And they wanted ‘ideal’ childhoods for their 1 to 2 children, and ideal outcomes, in the form of respectable adults, who would maintain the illusion of an ideal life in an ideal world – a perfection almost within reach, and surely soon to be attained, if only troublemakers would shut up about serious problems close to home. Worrying a little about faraway problems is okay – whales and rain-forests and even ‘global’ warming – it looks good on the resume.

    After a couple of generations of such attitudes, we have a happily-ever-after dominant culture, which fiercely denies radical evil and death.

    From Psalm 49:

    Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd,
    and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
    Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
    But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
    for he will receive me.

    Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
    when the glory of his house increases.
    For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
    his glory will not go down after him.
    For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed
    — and though you get praise when you do well for yourself —
    his soul will go to the generation of his fathers,
    who will never again see light.
    Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.

    And if we are upright and ransomed, it is by the virtue of only one man, the anointed, and by the mercy of God.

  2. I’m still maintaining many more people suffer in bourgeois America than is often reported. I live here, so I feel somewhat qualified to say that. Management is not erasure. That being said, Christ did heal people who suffered, especially those who suffered outside of the community. Wanting to be well is not a bad thing.

    • Fair enough. And true enough. After all, an end to suffering is a prophetic promise as well. I think the better thing to say would be this: mistaking Modernity’s promise of material abundance and progress for the eschatological promises and acts of God in Christ. Which the liberal church most certainly does.

  3. There is a scene in some Sherlock Holmes story (don’t know which one) in which Holmes and Watson are passing (by carriage or train?) a succession of prosperous-looking houses in a beautiful countryside. Watson remarks how delightful it must be to live here, and Holmes cautions him. He knows from experience as a consulting detective, he says, that these respectable facades hide some of the foulest crimes and cruelties. I read these stories in my pre-teens; that scene is one of the few which remain (fairly) vivid in my memory.

  4. Hi Charles,

    Nice post. There are quite a few scriptures that say God cares for the widow & orphaned & that the real Sabbath or fast, is one of the heart. God doesn’t want us to escape this suffering, which is part of the human condition, but to rise above it & use it to make us “truly human” in the sense He was.

    God is in the midst of it even though our perception is darkened. When God appeared to Job out of the whirlwind, I imagine it was the whirlwind of his suffering.

    Tonight while I was at a Taize meeting, a middle aged woman came in, went to the front of the church & started praying & weeping. It sounded like she had been sexually abused & turned to alcohol. One of the guys invited her to come & sit with us. She prayed with us after our prayers. We hugged her. I hope she comes back & that we can ease her suffering with our love for God.

    I guess the crucial thing about suffering is that it demands unity. When one suffers, things are stripped back to the extent that the only thing we have is each other. Maybe this is a path to make us conform to Christ’s wish in John 17. A deeper suffering strips one further back so that the only thing you have left is God. The trick here is to understand God’s transcendence of humanity (bit of a mystery here) otherwise it becomes tempting to blame God for the horrors we may face.

    As to your worth in the ministry, remember a, “prophet is never welcome in his home town”… I think this is your formation period. Be patient.

    Cheers

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