Rebecca K. Reynolds

Honest Company for the Journey

The Affair You're Trying to Avoid (Part 2) Do No Harm: Consuming vs. Giving

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“Do no harm.”

This phrase is often affiliated with the medical profession, but it applies to a much wider realm. Protecting the trust of the vulnerable is the foundation of every good friendship.

While friendship can involve co-creation, exhortation, belief, humor, and physical support; perhaps the most critical role of a friend is that of a healer. Friendship is our primary context for the long, hard, soul work of growth and recovery.

Yet helping to heal another person can be tough when we are wounded ourselves.

If you are familiar with the book The Five Love Languages, you already know how someone with the language of “affirming words” can feel starved without verbal affirmation. You know how an “acts of service” person can feel abandoned in a home where nobody jumps in to help. You know how a “gifts” person can feel empty and unseen when a birthday is dismissed.

Strangely, many of us marry people whose default for communicating love is entirely different from our own. So today, I want to write about what can happen in a split-language marriage when a lonely soul encounters someone else who naturally speaks their own language.

From what I’ve seen,  this disparity can be particularly difficult for people whose love language is physical touch. Why? Because almost every other love language can be legitimately met in some other platonic way in the culture. We can receive compliments from others. We can spend time with others. We can receive acts of service or gifts from others. All those things can be fulfilled in non-romantic settings if our love tanks are running low. But in adults, the language of touch is reserved almost exclusively for the marital bond.  This means Christian men and women who aren’t held meaningfully by their spouses can walk around in the world with a terrible void.  

(Neglect and cruelty can happen in all love languages, of course, so if this love language doesn’t speak to you, some of the same principles may transfer to your situation. Feel free to write me with examples of your own!)

NEED AS A WEAPON

I was shocked when I realized that certain people intentionally leverage the needs of others as weapons in interpersonal relationships. I don't mean that I am easy to live with--I'm not. I can be obsessive, hyper-emotional, oblivious, and selfish. But obtaining control over friends isn’t something I enjoy. I like strong people who can volley with me.

So when I first started seeing spouses trying to control their mates, I was baffled. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do that in the one relationship that is supposed to run on mutual trust. Yet, sometimes people grow up in homes where they don’t feel safe, so the only way they know to engage is by entrapping another person.

One of my old boyfriends had a dad who told him to always keep women wanting something because dissatisfaction would always keep them coming back. Thankfully, I didn’t marry into that mindset, but it is a strategy too many people carry into the bond of marriage.

The first person I heard describe this in detail was a female—a woman who was profoundly angry with her husband. She was almost giddy when telling me how desperate he was at her lack of physical responsiveness. She said she hadn’t allowed him to be intimate with her for seven years—that it had grown so “bad” he couldn’t even put his hand on her knee without going wild with desire.

She loved that he wanted her. She loved rejecting him. This was power for her.

I knew her husband, saw him flitting around her, trying to meet her every wish. She knew that she had limited his choices to either unfaithfulness (in which he would be the bad guy) or endless and futile attempts to obtain love she wasn’t willing to give. This dynamic was comfortable for her. She felt safe inside of it.

Since then, I’ve heard stories of spouses who were intentionally critical in moments of intimate physical trust, shaming their mates and reducing them to tears.

I’ve heard of spouses who pretended to be oblivious but who were methodically rejecting every physical advance of their mates.

I’ve heard voices quiver when the rejected spouses described cold, obligatory kisses, or nights of sitting next to a spouse who wouldn’t reach out to hold a hand, or crying themselves to sleep in a lonely bed.

This wound goes out into the world with no legitimate means of satisfaction. This wound lives inside husbands and wives who encounter other husbands and wives who are living the same  secret loneliness.

AT THE INTERSECTION OF TWO STARVED HEARTS

In the comments on shares to my last post, I saw several readers get nervous about my nuanced approach to this subject. “I hope she’s going to land this in truth!” Or “She better not excuse sin!” they said.

I get why people are nervous. Too many writers who possess the emotional depth to empathize with sexual struggles end up teaching a relativistic morality. They allow WANT to justify BEHAVIOR, assuming that a loving God would never allow his children to live with decades of unsatisfied temptation.

that’s not what I  believe. I’ve read too many books written by people who spent their entire lives wrestling with the desires of their souls, and I know how much richer their books are than the writings of people who have yielded to what "felt right." 

The struggles and temptations we experience on this planet can be some of the most beneficial classrooms of our faith. God uses them to show us things about ourselves that we cannot learn in any other way. True love doesn't try to build escape hatches out of God's hard best.

In fact, Jesus told us following him would involve loss. He said that we would find life through death, and dying hurts. The light yoke that Christ describes, the abundant life that he promises—this isn't a free pass to indulge in sin. Jesus is introducing us to the liberty of the gospel, a Christ-resourced way of living that helps us step out of a greedy human autonomy into an eternal communion.

Gospel levity is about Christ-in-us, not about the “you-do-you” philosophy of indulgence that too many progressive Christians teach. The former leads to life. The latter to devastation.

We don't hear that much, living in a post-modern Christianity. Instead, we often hear Christians describe physical affairs as beautiful. I’ve heard more than one adulterer swear that extra-marital sex was actually an agent of healing in his or her life. But not once in hearing those claims have I seen an adulterer leave the other person more healed.

When two love-starved Christians intersect with one another, their felt needs naturally sit on the surface. This isn’t an intentional choice, it’s more like taking a man who hasn’t eaten for a week into a French bistro. When he’s about to pass out from hunger, would you expect him to concentrate on an exegesis of the book of Philemon, even as the smell of fresh bread wafts through the air?

In a similar way, if a man greeting visitors to his small group meeting receives the hand of a visiting female friend whose husband hasn’t hugged her in a month, even that simple contact may feel delightful.  Her initial wave of pleasure isn’t adulterous… it’s just what happens when someone who hadn’t been loved feels a half second of affection.

What happens next is very important, however.

If the man is intuitive, he may notice when his benign, non-sexual gesture moves the woman. Her cheeks may flush. She might give a slight bend in the knees. She might hold her breath. Some sort of non-verbal clue may show him that he has impacted her.

And what if this man is the same man whose wife delights in keeping him at a distance? What does he feel when he sees this woman's response?

How could she not trigger the question he’s been carrying around forever? "Is it possible that I could actually please someone? Does it really have to be this difficult every day?" How could he not feel a flutter of hope?

This initial tsunami of emotion isn’t about a desire for sex-- it’s about a lonely, rejected man wanting some sort of close,  human connection that isn’t built around strategic rejection.

WHAT IS HEALING REALLY?

Thousands and thousands of lonely Christian couples face this dilemma every day. In the life of a “words of affirmation” person,  the emotional high could appear in a simple compliment that a controlling spouse refuses to give. In the life of a “gifts” person, a cheap, quirky present could show a wife that she is known and seen. In the life of an “acts of service” man whose wife never takes time to help him, the lunch a coworker lovingly prepares could make him feel worthwhile.

You and I work with dozens of love-starved people, and it’s not easy to know how to engage with their wounds without doing harm. Isn’t our first impulse to repeat behavior that seems to give others life? Don’t we naturally want to rush in and fill a gap that would be easy and natural for us when we see someone treated with disrespect or cruelty?

So many affairs in the Christian church begin this way. They don’t begin in sheer carnal lust; they begin in a desire to help. But we walk into danger when we trust ourselves and our natural love languages to heal others instead of walking in the Spirit. Even the best intentions can destroy, when we try to do good on our own.

Even if we see another person grin as we lavish praise upon her, our healing words may eventually cause her harm.

Even if our long hug gives another person’s husband an immediate sense of courage and strength, our embrace may eventually cause him harm.

Even if another person’s wife has been shamed into believing she is unlovable, the sex of another man will hurt her—though his intentions are to help her finally realize that she is profoundly valuable.

We cannot determine the true telos (the end) of our affection by looking at its immediate impact on another person's emotions.

WALKING IN THE SPIRIT IN A BROKEN WORLD

Simply admitting reality here can be so powerful.

If we can identify what is actually going on inside ourselves, we may begin to see that we aren’t always being the pure givers we think we are—but that we are secretly trying to satisfy ourselves while believing that we are being caregivers.

We also have to believe that God sometimes has a plan for people we love that requires them to walk through pain. I don’t mean that a man or woman should stay in an abusive marriage; after counseling leads to continued abuse, I think there’s a place to draw the line. But the answer to abuse isn’t sin. Being hurt by a greedy spouse doesn’t give us a free pass to engage in an illicit relationship. A cruel spouse may justify a divorce--but cruelty does not justify adultery. And this can be very, very difficult for us to believe when we love someone has suffered for a long time.

But a true friend comes alongside pain, empathizes deeply with the reality of suffering, and helps the other person continue to believe that God has a plan for his or her life that is built upon faith, not reactivity. A true friend co-believes that God is good and that he will do good, even as our friends face the trials God has allowed them to experience.

This is some of the most painful love I have ever had to give my friends. I am a rescuer, and I’d rather feel pain inside my own body than watch others hurt. Yet this gentle, tender companionship—offered without severe judgment or platitudes—is the companionship Jesus desired when his disciples slept as he agonized in the garden. It's lonely to be broken. And when you help a friend who is fighting the battles of “Not my will but Thine,” you are kneeling in union with something profoundly holy.

In mixed-gender friendships where potential romantic energy is present, loving the wounded will involve resisting expressions of love that would immediately medicate pain but ultimately hurt more than help. This restraint may feel cruel or heartless, but it’s a great kindness to the vulnerable.

Your work here begins in honest prayer--some of the most honest prayers you have ever prayed. You ask for insight into your own motives. You pray for wisdom in how to do ultimate good to a hurting person. You walk trusting God to love your friend more than you do.

God sometimes shows us practical ideas for assistance that don’t tempt or destroy in these situations. Often these ideas will take people closer to Jesus instead of deeper into ourselves, and this can feel a little lonely on our end. You haven't failed if you experience this loneliness. In fact, it might mean you have succeeded.

CONSUMING VS. GIVING

C.S. Lewis, Sayers, and others, often wrote about a dark form of love that consumed its object. This selfish obsession tried to own, use, and control instead of helping another free soul toward its eternal end.

A lot of times, giving love isn’t as immediately satisfying as consuming love. It's tough to assist without strings attached, and overflowing from God’s resources can lead others to embed themselves more deeply in Jesus than in us. It’s a whole different way of living, counter-intuitive in a culture that seeks ultimate healing in human romance.

If God isn't real--if He doesn't have a good plan for our friends--this way of doing things foolish. But if He is a benevolent Father who is working ultimate good for those we love, being selfless with the wounded trust of a true, hurting friend is the most beautiful offering we can give them. If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, giving them to Him is even more beautiful than giving them ourselves.

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

But could a God like that be good? (Part 1)

 
 Photo by Lisaleo on Morguefile

Photo by Lisaleo on Morguefile

The fiercest and most common objections I hear about Christianity aren’t scientific or historical but moral.

Millions of dollars are spent on faith-based training programs trying to argue that the Bible wields academic heft in a post-Enlightenment world, but the real crux of modern atheism doesn’t quiver before the intellectual force of the Scriptures.

Very simply, most atheists don’t like the God of the Bible because they think he isn’t moral. They think God is narcissistic, savage, inconsistent, moody, sexist, racist, and primitive.

I’ve met few Christians who are able to empathize and engage with this barrier. They shake their heads and say that atheists “just don’t get it.” They slap on a platitude. But for the most part, Christians aren’t sure how to respond to the argument that if the God of the Bible is real, he’s not the sort of leader modern humans should trust.

God has allowed this barrier to impact people I love deeply, so I’ve not been able to dismiss it like some Christians. Even if I apply childlike trust to my own faith, my heart still reaches back to plead for those who cannot believe so easily. The Lord has kept me in a strange and difficult place—a place of loving him while also understanding why friends are angry about how they perceive God.

So, I want to try to talk about this issue with respect for those who disagree with me. I want to try to explain why (at least some) atheists have such a hard time wanting to engage with the God of the Bible. And I also want to share a couple of thoughts about how I’ve processed their honest apprehensions.

1. Atheists believe the the God of the Bible is inhumane.

They have heard bits and pieces of the Old Testament— verses about mass slaughter, the stoning of homosexuals, and punishing women who were raped. They have read verses that condone slavery and advocate for treating females unequally.

While Christians tend to say, “But that was the Old Testament!” it’s very difficult for someone who isn’t all that familiar with the Bible to see how 1300 years of the Mosaic Law fit into a larger narrative context. To someone who doesn’t understand how many years the Bible actually spans, or what the different covenants communicated, the words of Deuteronomy and Galatians seem to hold equal weight.

2. Christianity has lost cred because of misapplications of the Bible.

If atheists are confused about Biblical interpretation, they have good reason. Over the centuries, a great many so-called Christians have yanked random verses out of context to try to gain cultural power. Biblical verses have been misapplied to support American slavery, the abuse of women and children, wicked political leaders, and cruelty toward the desperate. Just as satan used the Scripture during Christ’s temptation in the desert, wicked men have quoted the Bible while promoting darkness.

Before we get all defensive about this and say, “Yeah, but those teachers weren’t legit!” we need to think seriously about how trust works. Aristotle taught that ethos (personal credibility) was far more persuasive than logos (facts) or pathos (emotions). Jesus taught something similar when he explained that bad fruit falls from a bad tree.

To ask people to immediately embrace a belief system that (in their view) has proven cruel is unrealistic. Jesus warned us about the impact of false religion, and our society is now facing the consequences he told us would come. Grave damage has been done, and it’s probably going to take a lot of time in the company of real faith to even begin to repair those wounds.

People who have been deeply disappointed in religion need to test the waters, need to push on the walls, need to shake the foundations. That’s not just because those people are weak—it’s because they’ve been exposed to a false version of Christianity that hasn’t held to its core.

3. Even the New Testament can be morally confusing to the modern reader. It would be different if every baffling verse were packed away in the pre-Christ books, but even in the epistles, we find passages that provoke the modern, humanistic conscience. Beautiful commands to feed the poor, die to self, and serve the weak are juxtaposed alongside commands for women to keep silent in the churches and for slaves to obey their masters.

Concepts like predestination and hell feel profoundly unjust. Atheists ask, “How could a mortal resist the plan of God? And why should a soul face eternal consequences for a temporary choice?”

4. Perhaps even more offensive than all of these things is God’s determination to require faith of a society that worships empirical proofs. Modern America doesn’t build temples to gods made of wood and stone, but we have idolized an epistemology built upon the reliability of human perception. Despite the inability of empirical science to provide primary proofs—despite its ultimate reliance upon presuppositions built upon blind faith, a weakness even the founders of empiricism openly acknowledged—modern academia feels no qualms about demanding secondary proofs. Any deity who fails to jump through these hoops is deemed a bad sport.

I believe the Bible is true, and I believe that God is good. But I also understand why questions like these catch in the throats of the atheists of my time.

It’s hard for me to write this next bit, but I also think it’s pretty important. Sometimes what’s called “faith” is really just a lack of empathy.

I don’t mean that everybody needs to become a melancholy, cynical doubter. Not everyone is wired like that. But a lot of people who call themselves Christians aren't just pragmatic--they are fundamentally selfish about their own faith.

They have checked off the salvation box, and those who haven’t don't really keep them up nights. Once they’ve signed the dotted line on their own fire insurance, they move on to accumulate as much wealth and happiness on this planet as they can, huddling in groups with people who agree with them, and not caring all that much who makes it out with them in the end.

The politicization of the American church has exacerbated this problem. The we/them mentality has helped us divide the world into good guys and bad guys. If we are honest, a lot of Christians are truly more concerned about LGBTQ rights than they are about LGBTQ souls. A lot of Christians are truly more concerned about protecting the free market than they are about helping the poor. A lot of Christians are truly more passionate about proving their liberal family members wrong online than they are about where those family members will spend eternity.

Empathy doesn’t alter what the Bible teaches about holiness. Compassion doesn’t turn us into moral relativists. But these traits can expose our idols and show us that sometimes we have minor gods standing between us and the Pearl of Great price. Sometimes we think we are worshipping Jesus when really we are just trying to save our own skins.

I’m writing this post as a political conservative and as an orthodox Christian. I hold to old creeds and confessions and to inerrancy. Making room to care about the questions I see atheists asking hasn’t undermined my faith in Jesus.

The church is spending so much energy trying to convince the unbelieving world that the Scriptures are true, but perhaps the church needs to talk less about this and more about real heart of the matter--how the unconventional God of the Bible could possibly be good.

I’ll try to spend some time over the next few weeks unpacking my thoughts on that. For now, this post is too long already.

The Smell of a Dead Monk

Father Zossima is the kind old monk in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov.  He’s similar to Bishop Myriel in Les Mis, an otherworldly sage who has learned to live out the gospel in a radical way.

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Father Zossima is also the beloved spiritual mentor of Alyosha, the hero of the novel and the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers.  Aloysha is only twenty, and he’s a novice in the local monastery, so he trusts Father Zossima wholeheartedly, agreeing to follow whatever instruction the old man gives. Because Aloysha’s biological father has been distant for most of his  life, it’s easy to see why this young man gravitates toward kindly, paternal affection.

Father Zossima is also a local celebrity, known for spiritual access to healing and prophecy. It’s widely suspected that the old man will be sainted when he dies, so when his earthly life finally draws to a close, the townspeople grow to a frenzy. Expecting miracles, they bring family members who need healing to his coffin.

Yet at this critical moment in the novel, something terrible and unexpected happens—something which shakes Alyosha’s faith. Father Zossima’s body begins to decay.

At the time, tradition taught that a true saint’s body wouldn’t decompose—that it would even release a perfumed sweetness into the air. Yet within hours—even sooner than most—the scent of real, human death fills the room.

Several monks who had been jealous of Zossima’s fame and admiration seized this opportunity to mock and deride him. Soon, their whispers grew to open verbal hostility, and finally a hateful monk enters the mourning room to lambast the dead father as a false teacher.

Alyosha’s naïve young heart breaks.

He had not only loved the old man, he had lived inside a bubble of spiritual idealism, believing a string of religious fairy tales. When reality didn’t match his expectations, Alyosha was spiritually undone, overcome with doubt, devastated that all had not gone as he expected.

I read this section of Karamazov after midnight last night. I read because I couldn’t sleep because I was worrying. Though God tells us not to fear, I was afraid.

Beside me, my husband groaned in his sleep. He hurt his back pretty badly yesterday, and of all the times that injury could have happened to our family, this is one of the worst. Yesterday was our first day of switching to a new insurance with a new deductible, and after several nervous hours of Googling bulging and ruptured discs, I was trying to decide whether he needed an MRI.

For some of you, hits like this never seem to stop. There’s always one more kink in the happily ever after.

Even if you’ve never believed in the prosperity gospel, the theological promises of movies like Facing the Giants get into our bones. In the back of our hearts, we still expect faithful resignation to be blessed in visible ways. The follower of Jesus will coach the team to winning the championship, snag the new pickup truck, get the baby, and look at last around at his mortal life and find that all is well.

Some stories of faith certainly look like this, but in others, the blessings of God may smell more like a dead monk. That’s because God knows what each of his followers needs (truly needs), and his love allows different challenges for different Christians. He knows that coming face-to-face with deep disappointment can be critical to the maturity of faith.

As Alyosha comes to terms with the smell of death in his mentor, he faces,  “a crisis and turning-point in his spiritual development, giving a shock to his intellect.” Perhaps you’ve lived out a similar shock—perhaps you know what questions rise when we realize that God’s behavior does not fit into the tiny boxes we have made to hold Him. These moments of reorientation may be painful and bitter, and we may weep for days when we face them. But like Alyosha, they can also grow us up.

By his deepest disappointment, by this brutal blow to the crux of his security and idealism, Alyosha faith was strengthened. Because of the pain of a lost ideal, his belief was given a "definite aim.”

As I prayed this morning, I felt the onslaught of challenges facing our family. I prayed for direction. I prayed for sustenance and for miracles. I also prayed for the ability to worship God in rooms that reek of death.

On June 8, a team of scientists from Oxford published research addressing the Fermi paradox, the gap between our expectation that life exists somewhere in the universe and our inability to find it. This study concludes that we cannot find extraterrestrial life because it doesn’t exist.

Since I haven’t seen the Bible specifically negate the possibility of alien life, this has never been a major theological battlefield for me. I’ve always trusted that an infinite God could have simultaneous narratives running in different solar systems (or even in different dimensions). I’ve supposed that if he did have something like that going on, all narratives would one day fold together into a lovely story he knows we can’t comprehend with tiny mortal minds.

I haven’t obsessed about it, of course; I haven’t actively believed that life did exist elsewhere. I’ve just held the possibility loosely. I’ve let what God left unsaid remain mysterious.

So, it was strange to read the Oxford study and consider the thought that humans might actually be alone in the universe. I stopped to really think about that--we could be the only beings anywhere with souls. In all of this everything that goes on seemingly forever, our capacity for worship could be unique.

Maybe this won't hit you like it hits me--astronomy and I have kind of a "thing" going, and we have for a while. It’s more of a romance than an academic passion. I’m one of those weirdos who cries real tears when NASA releases new pics of Jupiter and Pluto. Star nebulae give me goose bumps. As a baby, my first sentence was, “The moon is in the sky, Mr. Hall.”

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I have felt reverent awe for God’s artistry in the heavens every since I can remember, a sense of being pressed down to my knees by the all-I-am-not, a compression like gravity. The created order is so beautiful, so extravagant... I’m tempted to use the word “magical.”

Without that Oxford study, assuming that we could possibly be alone in all of this feels audacious. History has slapped the hand of the small-minded church too many times. My faith is post Copernicus, post Galileo—I don’t have geocentric impulses.

And yet, here is science telling me that we could be alone.

I wasn't expecting to be taken so seriously by my Creator.

What if He really did make all of this--the dimension of time--the capacity for sentience--the ability to praise--all poured into a handful of creatures placed on one tiny, tumbling rock? What if our hymns are the only hymns besides those songs the angels sing?

The circumstances which seem so grave to me--the challenges that make my belly quiver and my knees shake--readjust in light of this possibility.

My pain and fear are portals in all of space and time, and even when I face the smell of the decomposition of my theological fairy tales, I still stand before the God who was, and who is, and who always will be.

Here in the silence of the created order, I can speak trust to Him. I can yield to Him. Among all the cold rocks and the fiery gasses of all of creation, I have been given the capacity to hold my arms wide before all his mysteries and confess:

I did not see you lay the foundation of the earth.
I did not determine its measurements.
I do not know how its bases were sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy.

I did not see you shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
I was not there when you made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
saying “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed.”

I have never commanded the morning since my days began,
or caused the dawn to know its place.
I have never changed its surfaces
l like clay under the seal,
or dressed the earth like a garment.

I have never entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep.
I have never seen the gates of death or the gates of deep darkness.
I cannot comprehend the expanse of the earth.

Only by your hand, do I know the way to the dwelling of light,
because you are the Light of the World,
and amid all of the lesser lights of all You have made,
you, Great Light, have come to give light to me.

While a soulless Jupiter storms, while distant stars implode, while the red dust of Mars holds low in a lifeless hush, while no-man of the moon paints every grass tip silver, I can recline upon Jesus.

No matter what happens in my life, He is worthy. Though the good, dead monk reeks, Christ remains a center which cannot be shaken. And He has given me a voice that is able to praise Him. Thanks be to God.