The Dominoes That Fall After Disappointment...
One of the hardest things about community is that the weakness of one person tends to impact the weakness of another. John Donne once wrote that “no man is an island,” and we tend to think about that in terms of interdependence. Yet it’s also true that we stand like a line of dominoes, primed to fall from the impact of another person losing his balance.
Last year one of my close friends left decades of selfless conviction to chase what felt good. I understand why that decision was made, and I tried hard not to be condemning. But inside, I was devastated, mostly because it made me so lonely to watch. I was in the middle of trying to make some hard choices of my own, and I hadn’t realized how much strength I was getting from the teamwork of two friends trying to hold to what was good and true.
My friend is smart and knew how to justify choices that defied God’s commands with spiritual-sounding language, but I didn't have the strength to argue much. I felt like the floor was gone under my feet. Deep down, I knew those excuses were wrong, but hearing them come from someone I had once trusted to walk with me broke me. I couldn’t get oriented. I wondered if everything I knew was a lie.
Disappointment isn’t like this for everybody. I’ll admit that part of the problem here was my fault, because I tend to love and trust a very few close friends too deeply. I expect a Band of Brothers sort of camaraderie, strugglers dragging one another across enemy lines and back again.
This week I’ve been reading Shusaku Endu’s book Silence, learning about the torture Japanese Christians faced in the early 1600’s. In the part of the book that I was reading tonight, a winsome priest who had been courageous, clear, and influential has been reported to have abandoned the faith after being brutalized. It is painful to see how this single apostasy affected the body of Christ. Consequences of this one breakdown rippled outward from Japan into Europe.
As I think about areas in which I have abandoned faith, and as I think about how the abandonment of people I love, I see how Christ’s description of the church as a body is true. One part of us cannot be hurt without the others hurting in some way as well. What happened in Japan happens to all of us; the story is universal.
After a significant relational trauma happened to our family a few years ago, I remember having two strong thoughts in that first wave of my shock. My first thought was, “Am I even going to survive something this terrible?” (I thought the betrayal might kill me physically.) My second thought was, “This is too powerful. I can’t stay strong in my beliefs through the aftershocks. That means the traitor not only stole part of my life from me, he also stole part of myself from me.” I could feel my own imminent failure rolling in like a tsunami after an earthquake.
For a few months I fought hard to do the right thing. But over time, the pain got the better of me and I shattered. I gave in to rage. I despaired. I shot off into emotional and spiritual rebellion, looking for some sort of respite. I said things to God I wish I could take back. Years and years worth of sorrow accumulated into a single terrible season of doubt and fury.
So now I am left with a second wound. I not only know what horrible thing the traitor is capable of, I also know that I am capable of being a traitor as well.
Remember in Lord of the Rings, in the Mines of Moria, how the dwarves dug too deep and awoke the nameless fear from the core of Middle Earth? This is what trauma did in me. I saw what lurks in the reactive side of my nature, and because of that, I fear myself now. I see what a monster I can become.
Once you have lived through a really hard season, it’s hard to ever relax completely again. You find yourself drawing and redrawing maps of the past, trying to crack the code so you can avoid pain like that in the future. So, I regularly find myself trying to cycle back and understand the chain of events that led to that dark time.
But every time I try to outline the mistakes made, I swing between two extremes: blaming others and self-hate. When I see how false friends were, I grow furious and want to demand an apology. I want justice. When I see how false I was, I fear God cannot love me, and I despise myself for being so weak. I want to hide behind fig leaves.
I don’t mean these emotions are theologically sound, but humans are affective creatures as well as rational and spiritual beings, and feelings still tend to come, even if we know better. So these two defaults return to me again and again, and I have to fight them with truth or they will consume me.
But the strange thing is, when I’m looking for a single point of blame in another person, I can’t seem to land in one spot. The weakness of one man points back to the weakness of another. I go back another generation (“He had a lousy father”), or zoom out to another relationship (“She’s never had a husband who loved her”). The more I know about the stories of the people who have hurt me, the more I see how the dominoes that fell on me have a source far away in time and space.
And when blaming myself something similar happens. I see how a divided heart in my 40’s began in a lack of gratitude in my 30’s. I can trace that back to the haughty pride of my 20’s, then see the roots of young adult hubris in the self-indulgence of my late teens. Before long, I am remembering the sins of my early childhood and seeing how those first bad decisions led to decades of infection in my character.
The secular world would say this sort of analysis is superstitious, unnecessary, damaging. Progressive Christianity would sing a similar song, saying that I need to just quit beating myself up and focus on love large scale. But I’ve tried taking both of those for an answer, and they simply don't help very long. I’m guilty. Other people are guilty. Those are facts. Together, we’ve kind of made a mess of things.
It’s weird when my own experience points to what orthodoxy has been teaching for 2,000 years. Evil entered the world and spread like a virus. It caused an avalanche of consequences. It hurt people who hurt people, and that damage continued to spread exponentially until our whole world is full of wounded wounders.
But God looked down on this massive domino disaster and said, “You’ve gotten yourselves into an awful lot of trouble. You can’t stop it, can you? You might be able to avoid one collapse or another, but this is too complicated, and it’s already hitting from too many different directions. I’ve got to provide a way for healing that allows for a chain reaction of disasters.”
His forgiveness doesn’t deny the problem. It looks at what people who hurt me did and acknowledges the wrong done. He looks at my reactivity and what it exposed and says that was wrong, too.
Then He says, ‘My grace is sufficient for you. My grace is sufficient also for those who have hurt you.”
This is difficult for me to accept, especially after all the work I’ve done (and redone, and redone, and redone) looking for a cause. I’ve strained so hard to find specific blame, because I’ve believed that if I could only find the core, I could get some sort of control. I could either demand an apology, or realize that I need to run and hide forever because I am unforgivable. Both of those efforts are about me trying to save myself.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” Her statement reminds me of Paul’s recounting of the thorn in his flesh, how he begged for it to be removed and then was ashamed when it was not. And yet, through this very lack of strength, Paul was able to understand that goodness was a Person and not just a system of operation.
God’s answer to Paul was not a struggle-free life, among people who would never abandon or disappoint him, or in a body that never abandoned or disappointed him. God's answer was: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." And here Paul stopped dissecting himself and everybody else. He simply said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.” He knew that when he was weak, he was strong.
That’s the beauty of the honesty Jesus offers. No pushing truth to the side. No blaming. It steps outside of all that chaos and say, “Where there is weakness, God is strong.” For the desperate, for the exhausted, for the guilty, for the unfaithful… what answer could bring a deeper sigh of gratitude and love than this. We are borne despite ourselves. Hallelujah.