I get a fair amount of email. Some of it is a blessing and quite encouraging. Some not so much in either category. But the ones that break my heart are the e-mails from wounded and deeply discouraged people who have been devastated by life, the church and especially other churchgoers. I try to be encouraging. I try to offer perspective. But I wish I could do more. I wish I could help those battered and limping follower travelers find the abundant life that I wrote about recently.
An email from a pastor has been weighing heavily on my heart and mind. He was deeply discouraged and ready to give up his ministry. I suggested that he read the book TrueFaced because the practical theology drawn from Romans helped me recover from my own church wounds. I had hoped that the book would resonate with him as much as it did with me. Recently he responded.
I did read the book. I have to say I struggled with it. I agree in theory but one of the main groups of people that have nailed me most is the let go and let God, being and not doing, grace is the only word in the Bible, people. They aren’t all that gracious. I don’t mean to disparage the book or you. I felt bad that I felt that way during my reading of the book. He had good things to say. I just heard most of it through the mouths of some of these people who have hurt me. It’s not that I disagree, it’s that this brand of folk who have nailed me say similar things and yet never once in my experience with them did it ever ring true in their actions.
His response sent me out walking and praying and thinking. I had hoped that my words and the message of the book would begin to turn his spirit. And I felt a gentle message stirring in my heart as I walked.
Be patient. Encourage. Love. It is my timing and not yours. You were not ready to receive this message when the wounds were fresh.
I thought about my journey and I realized that the well-known theory of the five stages of grief applied to my healing. You have likely heard of the model introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”. The stages are known as the “Five Stages of Grief”. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I realized that I had to go through those stages to get to the point of healing. Hopefully I can shorten the stages significantly as I mature in Christ and trust who He says I am. But I hope it helps those of you going through this difficult process to know you are not a failure if healing takes longer than you hoped.
How did the stages play out for me? I will give the secular example followed by the spiritual parallel.
Denial: Secular – “This can’t be happening.”
Spiritual – “How could a Christian do something like this? How can they read the Bible, hear teaching, go to Bible studies and then act like this? I don’t understand how this is happening!”
Anger: Secular - “Why me? It’s not fair!”
Spiritual – “I have given so much of my time and heart to this and now these so-called Christians have ruined it. How could you let this happen God? How can the church let these people do this? My blood pressure sky rockets everytime I think of them worshiping on Sunday and talking about me and others on Monday.”
Bargaining: Secular – ”I’ll do anything, can’t you stretch it out a few more years?”
Spiritual – “God I feel so guilty that I feel this in my heart. Maybe if I study harder, pray more and get deeper in the Word you will bring reconciliation and forgiveness. When I get better and do more for you I know you can make this better.”
Depression: Secular – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”
Spiritual – Pretty much the same. I reached the point where I simply got tired of striving and trying so hard to feel better and make the situation better. And then, to quote the very non-spiritual Bill Murray character in Stripes, “depression set in”.
Acceptance – Secular – “It’s going to be OK.”
Spiritual – It took me a long time to get through the denial and a particularly long time to get through the anger stages. Does that make me a “bad Christian”? Maybe. But I am, at least, an honest one. I went full force into bargaining and doing all I could to become “godly man” so that this could get fixed. But there was one huge problem. That was all about my effort. I hated the depression stage most of all. It wasn’t the sleep on the couch and watch Judge Judy kind of depression. It was the very sad feeling that this was not really working and probably would not work. I still believed in Jesus but maybe the best there was to this existence was hanging on until heaven. I was still functioning but really tired and spiritually dry. That is when the message of the book TrueFaced poured the jolting bucket of grace over my parched soul. I was ready. Ready to believe that I could do nothing about my sin. Only God could. I began to understand my identity in Christ and how God saw me. I accepted who I was and I accepted that those other people were also flawed saints who sometimes sin (some more than others). And I began to heal.
I also realized that not everyone is ready in my tidy little Dave Burchett world to received this message. My friend wrote this in his note to me.
I want to believe that people can get along with grace and love but I haven’t gotten there yet. I’ve seen glimpses, enough to keep me hopeful, but man, I’ve been hurt.
I get that. Been there, done that and hated the t-shirt. Jesus gets that too (probably not the t-shirt part). But if I can say one thing with every ounce of hope that I can muster it would be this. Grace is real and true and no matter how much people misuse and abuse His Word and that wonderful grace word it is still true. I am praying for my friend to process his stages of hurt in his time and God’s time and be healed. I am praying that he will really trust what God says about Himself. I am praying that my friend will believe who God says he now is because of Christ. I will quote again the wonderful definition of the abundant life communicated so well by my friends at Leadership Catalyst.
“The abundant life is comparing God’s character, faithfulness and ability with my particular circumstances and believing that God’s character trumps my circumstance.”
I am just learning to trust that truth after all of these years. Slow learner? You bet. But I am learning nonetheless.