Suffering and Joy

2 My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. 3 After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. 5 But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.

~ James 1:2-5

Let’s get technical for just one day, deal?

The logic of the passage goes like this: joy is a product of maturity which is a product of endurance which is a product of suffering. It’s important to take a step back and actually consider the logic because a too-quick reading suggests that suffering itself creates joy. Joy is the byproduct of hindsight, after many years of pursuing a certain way of seeing and, at last, gaining perspective. In other words, tests are occasions for joy in the sense that we know tests will lead to some kind of perspective, to wisdom. This is not the same thing as saying you’re happy about tests or suffering, it’s more like saying you hope and trust that there is more to come. Joy, then, is trusting that there is more to come.

The ability to flourish is intertwined with our ability to hope and trust that there is always more to come. God is not yet done.

Joy and Pain

2 My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. 3 After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. 5 But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.

Yesterday we talked about perspective as a component of a flourishing life. Perspective is about recognizing that we have multiple types of experiences available to us at all times, even if one type (i.e., suffering) dominates at a given moment. The passage above talks about joy and suffering simultaneously. That requires perspective.

It’s not easy to talk about joy in a world where there is so much obvious pain. To even voice the word “joy” can seem pollyanna-ish, like an attempt to bury your head in the sand and pretend that heartache is not real. And yet, according to this passage in James anyway, joy can be found amidst suffering. Joy and suffering are not mutually exclusive. There can be overlap. The ability to recognize that is in itself a sign of flourishing. It is perspective.

Perspective is the ability to see that life offers us a myriad of experiences at the same time. When one experience is dominating, it can be easy to block out or ignore other important experiences, and we may miss what’s there. This is part of why it’s important to keep a gratitude journal when we’re struggling.

If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section. More on this tomorrow.

Perspective and Experience

Yesterday I wrote that one aspect of flourishing is the ability to maintain perspective. This means, essentially, that though one type of experience may dominate our lives at a given moment, we acknowledge that it is not the only type of experience that exists or that is available to us. That sounds vague, I know, so let’s deal with an example. Families in recovery often have very tense interactions when they gather together. We see many families in fact who share a house with someone who is in active substance use disorder, and the house is not a pleasant place to be. The fear, the anxiety, the frustration, the anger, the resentment, and the tension can dominate the experience, but they are not the only experiences available to us.

There are ways to find moments of happiness and moments of joy, even if they seem fleeting by comparison at that moment. We can both actively struggle and find breaks from that struggle if we can be disciplined in setting aside the dominate feeling for a moment. One way we recommend doing this is to go to a movie, or go bowling, or go out to eat, without talking about anything serious.

How do you find breaks from your struggles while in the midst of the struggle?

What helps you flourish?

We’re going to be talking about flourishing for a few days. What do I mean by flourishing? I don’t have a good definition, so let me instead point to a few types of things that define flourishing. Flourishing is about acknowledging and accepting our life circumstances. It is the willingness to do difficult things in order to stay faithful to our certain way of seeing (we might call this courage). It is about finding perspective, even when our circumstances are so oppressive that it is difficult to see beyond the darkness of the present moment. It is about pursuing hope, which is the art of living as if God is not yet done transforming his creation.

What would you add to the list?

2019: A Year for Flourishing?

So often in a recovery community we end up talking about suffering. In many ways our sufferings are what drew us towards this community, or what drew us into recovery. It’s important to talk about our suffering because our culture’s superficiality often forces us into silence over our suffering, which leaves us isolated.

And yet…too much focus on suffering leads to unproductive rumination. This is true of us as individuals and true of us as a community. In 2018, we tried to shift away from community rumination. We talked about responsibility, we talked about ways to find hope, we talked about covering each other’s weaknesses, and more.

We’re now in the second month of 2019, and resolutions are, perhaps, beginning to fall by the wayside. I am resolving, though, to try to push our community conversation towards flourishing. What does it mean to flourish? How do we pursue it? I’m going to spend at least a few days of devotionals exploring these things.

If you’re struggling, this does not mean I’m going to leave you behind. It is possible to “flourish” while struggling, though it is a great challenge. I will try to keep the conversation grounded in reality.

God with us

We hope you’ll consider joining us for our Christmas Eve service tonight at 4:00 pm. It’ll be a quiet, contemplative service. There will be a few songs, a partial reading of the Christmas story, a meditative instrumental, and silent prayer.

We remember on this today, and tomorrow, that God entered the world into a set of harsh circumstances. His family was isolated and alone. In a short time the government would begin looking for young Jesus in attempt to thwart God’s plans before they really get moving. In other words, even God in the flesh struggled to find his way in the world, even as we struggle to find ours.

The holidays are often difficult for those in recovery and, on this day, we remind that Jesus was to be called Immanuel, God with us.

God's image is compassion

People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!

~ James 3:7-10, CEB

These verses essentially teach us not to use our bodies (in this case the tongue/mouth) to tear down other people. Why? Because human beings are made in God’s likeness. This is both physical and spiritual.

On the one hand, we’re made in God’s likeness. So, to tear someone else down is to use God’s likeness to do something that is, let’s say, not great. We should be thoughtful, at the very least, about how we’re using the gift that is God’s likeness.

On the other hand, every human being reflect’s God’s likeness in some form or fashion. When we tear another person down, we’re tearing down God’s image. The only way we see God, physically, in this world is through other people. When we tear down God’s image, how is that different from tearing down God?

And so we return to compassion. We do not practice compassion because people are good. We don’t practice it because they are better than they appear to be. We do not practice it because other people deserve it. We practice it because we are made in God’s likeness, as are other people, and we’re doing our best to live up to that responsibility.

When we treat people with compassion, particularly those who do not deserve it, we may even be helping them recognize the ways in which they represent God’s likeness. Perhaps this is a moment of clarity, or spiritual awakening. Who can say? What we can say, is that all of us benefit from compassion.

Compassion, Dignity, and Respect

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

~ Luke 6:32-36, CEB

A few days ago, I wrote about the fact that compassion should challenge us. It isn’t supposed to be easy. That doesn’t mean, though, that we subject ourselves to a lifetime of abuse. It doesn’t mean we’re required to walk through life with no dignity or sense of self respect. It simply means why prioritize compassion beyond what is intuitive. The limits must be discerned with the help of a wise community.

If you know that you will have to be hospitalized due to mental of physical abuse during the holidays, then prioritize compassion to yourself and do not jeopardize your wellbeing simply because it’s customary to spend time with family during the holidays.

On the other hand, don’t use this as justification to get out of something that is merely uncomfortable. If you’re uncle has bad breath, stands too close, and tells too many “guy walked into a bar” jokes, you can probably tolerate that for the sake of your family. Uncles like that are probably lonely, and could use a little bit of the benefit of the doubt.

Do you see the difference between these two things? Compassion is not one-size-fits-all. It takes some work to find the appropriate path forward.

Compassion is a Competition

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

~ Luke 6:32-36, CEB

Compassion, true compassion, forces us to compete with ourselves. Why? Because true compassion does not feel natural or intuitive. It requires us to move beyond what feels good or right in order to live out of our certain way of seeing.

If I say, “Our culture has no compassion,” most people would likely nod and say, “Yes, I agree,” and perhaps even think of multiple examples of types of people who are not compassionate enough (or not compassionate at all). It takes spiritual discipline, though, to imagine the ways in which I (Scott) am not compassionate, to compete with myself.

If we wait to receive compassion before we’re willing to show it…why should we be commended? That’s easy.

Over the holiday season, think on compassion, but do so with discernment. Sometimes compassion means a gracious withdrawal. Sometimes it means avoiding a situation where compassion would not be possible if we showed up. Sometimes it means sucking up our pride for a few hours and being present in an uncomfortable situation.

I can’t say which situation is yours but, whichever it is, chase compassion.

Plan for the worst, Hope for the best

When it comes to difficult holiday events with family, sometimes it helps to have a plan for when things go sour. So often we walk into these events with fear, stress, anxiety, and more, but we don’t have a plan. When things take a turn for the worst, we react. That generally is not a great strategy.

So, in preparation for this holiday season, think about some ways that you can hit the “reset” button within the confines of the types of situations you find yourself in. Is there a way to hide, for instance? Can you sneak off to a bathroom and meditate (or scroll on your phone)? Can you plan to spend less time in a hostile environment? Perhaps you can plan some stock phrases for awkward conversations: “I don’t appreciate it when you talk about me that way and I think I’ll be going now,” is a better choice than “F*** You!”

What kinds of situations do you find yourself in?

How would you like to respond, if you had the option?

Wisdom for the Holidays

Good friend, take to heart what I’m telling you;
    collect my counsels and guard them with your life.
Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom;
    set your heart on a life of Understanding.
That’s right—if you make Insight your priority,
    and won’t take no for an answer,
Searching for it like a prospector panning for gold,
    like an adventurer on a treasure hunt,
Believe me, before you know it Fear-of-God will be yours;
    you’ll have come upon the Knowledge of God.

~ Proverbs 2:1-5, Message

The goal for us, at all times in life, is to live out of our certain way of seeing to the best of our ability. Sometimes there are constraints on that ability. In ideal circumstances, let’s say, I may have the potential to be 100% compassionate. Under stress, maybe the max number is something more like 50%. We don’t need to live in fear of God or shame of ourselves because we aren’t able to reach 100% compassion under stress. We’re better off realizing that 50% is the best we can do and then brainstorming how we get to that number (as opposed to tumbling down to something like 10%).

Perhaps if you spent less time with your family, you would be more likely to reach 50% compassion (or loving or gracious or merciful or whatever), than if you spent more time with them. So often we think being loving and compassionate is giving people whatever they ask for, but, sometimes when we give people everything they ask for we lose the ability to fully display our certain way of seeing. If boundaries help us get closer to our “max number”- then why not consider implementing those boundaries? Everyone wins.

Scapegoating and Forgiveness: Part III

We're carrying on a conversation from the past few days, feel free to get caught up before reading this one.

Empathy for offenders (when and where it's possible) begins with seeing ourselves as we truly are: people who are just as capable of creating offense as receiving it. Unfortunately, this is not something that can be taught and learned, it can only be discovered. Sadly, we tend to discover this truth only when we find ourselves on the outside of a group, banished, with no false group identity to protect us from seeing ourselves as we really are (this is, again, Girard's thought).

When we recognize the truth about ourselves, then we recognize that there is no great divide between ourselves and other people who cause harm (even, perhaps, our offenders). Now, again, I'm not suggesting there is no moral distinction between a victim of rape and a rapist but, I am suggesting that, over the course of a lifetime, all of us cause harm and are capable of much more. If we discover this about ourselves, then we don't see ourselves as people above wrongdoing.

The goal in viewing ourselves as wrongdoers is not to shame ourselves for being wrongdoers but to simply see ourselves accurately and to discover exactly how much grace and love we receive from God (and, hopefully, community). We do not need to see ourselves only as wrongdoers but as people who miss the mark, people who struggle to live out our certain way of seeing. This is what allows us to empathize with others. We recognize our struggle, and that means we can recognize that others struggle as well. Most people do not get up in the morning with the intention of ruining people's lives. There are, of course, exceptions, but most people cause harm because they are struggling. This means they are not so different from ourselves.

Side note: Of course we’re not going to empathize with every offender and we do not need to empathize with every offender. However, it never hurts to learn to view ourselves accurately and to find a more nuanced perspective on the world in the process. In this case, we discover that we are not only victims of our offenders. Our identity can be much larger, if we can see ourselves accurately. Learning to see that offenders have an identity beyond their offenses is a tangential benefit.

Scapegoating and Forgiveness: Part II

Scapegoating is s a way of placing all of the blame for a given set of circumstances on one person (or relatively few people) even though blame is always, always, always more complicated than that. The act of banishing gives the remainder of the group a false sense of security because we believe, for a time, the source of our conflict has been discovered and resolved. But it does not stay resolved, because we did not locate the true source of conflict.

According to Girard's theory of Mimetic Desire, the true source of conflict is ourselves. In other words, each person is capable of violence, harm, or wrongdoing. Each person on this planet is capable of destroying lives. Not everyone does, but we certainly have the capacity to. Recognizing this truth about ourselves removes the Scapegoat Mechanism as a possibility. Why? Because we recognize that we can’t blame one person for a problem that exists within each member of the entire group. When we recognize the truth about ourselves we find empathy for the scapegoat, knowing that scapegoating is just one more false strategy we pursue in life.

Now, this is not a way of saying that every victim and every offender are moral equivalents. That is most certainly not the case. It is more about how we see ourselves and how we posture ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. If we see ourselves as entirely innocent, as entirely pure, as only a victim of circumstances, then we will struggle with rage, we will struggle with resentment, we will lack empathy, we will be rigid, we will be isolated, and likely more.

If we see ourselves for who we are, there is the possibility that our hearts will crack open, even if it's ever so slightly, and we will discover a state of acceptance. We will find that, while life is not fair, the world is not out to get us. There is a big difference between those two things.

More on these last two paragraphs tomorrow.

Scapegoating and Forgiveness

Rene Girard developed a very popular theory for societal behavior, generally referred to as Mimetic Theory. It goes like this. People learn through imitation. We learn to imitate behaviors (obvious), but we also learn to imitate desire. I learn to want what you want. Think about keeping up with the Jones’: My neighbor wants a Porsche, all of a sudden I want a Porsche. That is mimetic desire- it is wanting what other people want- not just doing what other people do. Because we all learn to desire what everyone else wants, humans are inevitably in competition with one another. This causes conflict and chaos. The only way we’ve found to deal with the conflict and chaos is to find someone to blame and to remove this person from the society (or group). This is called the Scapegoat Mechanism.

So, in an addicted family system, it’s easy to blame the substance use disordered person for all of the family’s problems and to banish this person from the family. On a societal level, it’s easy to blame immigrants for economic problems if we aren’t doing well financially, and banish them from the country.

You get the idea. It's a way of thinking about complex problems as if they were simple so that we don't need to find a complex solution. Simple solutions are always preferable. The problem is, they are only solutions if they actually solve the problem they are meant to solve.

When it comes to forgiveness and resentment, we may look for simple solutions when complex solutions are the only ones that will address the heart of the matter.

More on this tomorrow.

Seeing ourselves as we are

I know I have not lived a perfect life. I know all the things someone could accuse me of doing, some of which would lead to heaps of shame thrown in my direction. I know not only what I’ve done but what I’m capable of doing. We’re often capable of doing quite a bit more than we think (in a bad way).

Because I understand the depths of me, I do not feel that I occupy the moral high ground in my relationships. Because I do not have the moral high ground, when someone harms me, it is because they are similar to me, and not because they are different.

Because they are similar to me, I have the capacity to see the offenses done to me as part and parcel of life lived around (and with) other humans. This does not mean I don’t get my feelings hurt, or that I don’t get angry, or that I don’t want revenge, etc. It simply means that, with some distance, I can find some level of empathy for my wrongdoers (even if it’s not very much, and even if it takes many years and many miles to get the distance I need).

Learning to see myself accurately, as a person who has caused and will cause much harm, opens up in me the knowledge that I live in need of God's grace. When I live in awareness of that, it is harder to gang up on others and heap shame upon them. I don't live in that space all the time but, when I do, it's for the better. Seeing our own need for grace can open up the possibility of forgiveness when it otherwise might not be there.

More on this tomorrow.

Practicing Repentance: Part III

From yesterday:

Acts of repentance drive us further apart because, when we repent in our culture, we have confirmation that the wrongdoing took place, which means our anger is justified, which means we can ramp up our wrath and our shame and whatever else.

This is a grave mistake. It is a good thing when someone confirms a wrongdoing has taken place. Why? Because this is the very thing that confirms the victim’s story, a rare win when most accusations fall on deaf ears. When a victim’s story is confirmed, there is an opportunity for justice to happen. For this reason, repentance can represent the good on several fronts.

It can, theoretically, draw victim and offender back together and offer their relationship hope for a second act (or third act or fourth act). It can offer the offender hope for a new life beyond their former destructive ways of living. Let’s not forget- so often people find themselves trapped in a cycle of wrongdoing in part because they do not believe they can transcend the pattern itself.

Offenders need hope for themselves in order to stop offending. Should they stop, this would be good not just for themselves but for all possible future victims as well. It is good both for the offender and the people around the offender as he or she moves forward in life. And, lastly, failing those first two things, repentance creates the possibility for justice when such a possibility might not otherwise exist.

When someone is willing to repent and confess, be careful in how you respond. That confession may just be a good thing for all involved.

Practicing Repentance: Part II

While it’s true that our culture cares neither for wrongdoers or confessors, as we said yesterday, we also live in a narcissistic culture where it is completely normal for wrongdoers to find clever ways to avoid blame, or to appear contrite, or to victim blame, etc. These are complicated times. I am not suggesting that every appearance of repentance be met with mercy, but I am suggesting that the ability to earnestly repent is a good thing, though it may not solve the problem (depending on the scope of the offense and the relationship between the victim and the offender).

It is difficult to conceive of a particularly Christian version of forgiveness or repentance under such circumstances. It is assumed, in the Christian tradition, that forgiveness and repentance are restorative and rehabilitative both for individuals and communities. In other words, these are actions that necessarily bind us together rather than tear us apart. Such a view is not modeled for us anywhere in our culture, and only rarely in the church.

Acts of repentance drive us further apart because, when we repent in our culture, we have confirmation that the wrongdoing took place, which means our anger is justified, which means we can ramp up our wrath and our shame and whatever else.

What can we do about this?

Practicing Repentance: Part I

We live in a culture that is completely clueless about how to handle wrongdoing. Our only responses (at least, publicly) are shame and wrath, and we pour them out by the truckload. In fact, we treat wrongdoers who confess in exactly the same fashion as wrongdoers who “deny ’til they die.” In other words, it’s just as bad, if not worse, to confess to wrongdoing as it is to simply be caught in the act (or accused) because we will shame you both for the wrongdoing and the confession. Given the level of outrage we muster for those who are caught in the act, one might logically assume we would appreciate finding someone brave enough to confess that they “got it wrong” and, hopefully, desire to seek a new way of being in the world as a consequence of what they have discovered about themselves. If you assumed that, though, you’d be wrong.

We do not appreciate confessions nor do we appreciate the spoken desire to change. Our response to confessions and the beginning of an amends is generally this: You didn’t confess enough, or you didn’t use the correct combination of words, or you’re attempting to steal a victim’s thunder, or you’re being disingenuous, or you’re silencing a victim, and so on and so forth. However the confession is framed, confessions are never good enough for us. Under these circumstances, why would anyone confess? Why would anyone repent? Why would anyone make amends? There is no good reason to do so.

Side note: When it comes to repentance, we do not, in fact, need a good reason to do so other than the desire to reflect God’s call to love and to do so through living in truth and attempting to compensate those we have harmed (by whatever means are available to us). Yet, at the same time, it’s easy to see how quickly repentance can be de-incentivized with the appropriate level of negative reinforcers.

More on this tomorrow.

What do we do with our feelings?

We’ve talked a lot about the fact that forgiveness is not primarily an emotional effort, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

What do we do with our feelings, then?

Seek out the appropriate level of care that best fits the context of what you’re dealing with. Feelings can be handling in a support group. They can be explored in a meaningful friendship. They can be examined with and by a skilled therapist or a spiritual advisor. There are plenty of ways in which to go about processing and dealing with our feelings and emotions. Just because they are not the focus of our forgiveness work does not mean there is nothing we can do, nor does it mean there is nothing to be done. It simply means that forgiveness is forgiveness and feelings are feelings and dealing with them requires different kinds of work (though there may be overlap, of course…it’s not hard to imagine forgiveness coming up in a therapy office, for instance).

Let’s deal with each in the appropriate context.

Forgiveness: Insiders and Outsiders Part IV

Is it demanding repayment to remove myself from relationship with someone?

If the relationship was an outside the community relationship, then things get a little complicated. Are we talking about a complete stranger? Are we talking about someone with whom you have negative history and baggage? Are we talking about an acquaintance with whom there is no particular baggage or trauma?

I'll go in reverse order. If there is no baggage or trauma, then we have an opportunity to model God's love through addressing the issue with love and compassion and seeing how the other person responds. They may very well become an "insider" if they respond well.

If it's an outsider with whom you have enough history to know that conversation about harm caused will only lead to more harm, then it is best to do nothing. It is in these situations where we are not obligated to explore forgiveness (because we've followed Jesus' recommended order of events and the person has become an outsider through being obstinate). Withdrawing from relationship may even be best for all parties, particularly if we're tempted to get revenge.

You see, what concerns me most with outsider relationships is not so much being emotionally withholding or withdrawing but the act of seeking revenge. Maybe most of you would say that you've never really tried to get revenge. If so, good for you. That is a legitimately good thing. If you have traumatic forgiveness situations with outsiders, and you have not sought revenge, then you have not demanded repayment. As far as this theory of forgiveness is concerned, you have forgiven. Even if you have no relationship.

That seems so counter-intuitive when we've spent so much time thinking that forgiveness is all rainbows and butterflies and happiness and joy. The reality is, forgiveness is far messier than that, particularly when we're talking about life's deepest traumas and tragedies.