Suffering and the Heart of God

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Diane Langberg has been a counselor for 40 years. She’s seen things most people can barely imagine: the aftermath of genocide, rape, sexual and emotional abuse, mental illness, and debilitating physical disease. These have pervasive affects not only on victims but on those around them and the wider society.

In her new book, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, Langberg says the church’s greatest mission field in the 21st century is trauma. Trauma is extraordinary, she says, “not because it rarely happens, but because it swallows up and destroys normal human ways of living.” We have a choice. “We can flit from one cause to another or, like Jesus, we can leave our place of comfort and enter into the suffering.”

We, the church, Langberg says, must become representatives of God to suffering people. ByFaith asked Langberg to tell us more about this mission field and how we enter into it.

In Chapter 1 you say that trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the 21st century. Could we start with a definition of trauma? And could you explain why it is such a fertile mission field?

Trauma occurs when suffering overwhelms normal human coping. Those who are victims of such things as rape, domestic violence, child abuse, trafficking, the violence of our inner cities, and war are often traumatized humans. They live with recurring memories of atrocities both witnessed and endured. The memories infect their sleep, destroy their relationships and capacity to work, torment their emotions, shatter their faith, and mutilate hope. The wounds of trauma are not visible; their effects are. If we look out unflinchingly on God’s world today we will see thousands upon thousands who live with violence in the home or on the streets. We will see humans trafficked like slaves for sex and for labor. We will witness soldiers and civilians terrified from the wars, others from natural disasters, and the major worldwide crisis of a throng of refugees fleeing trauma only to find it again in the journey and in the camps. The total number of those suffering from trauma is staggering.

People who are suffering long for help and comfort. It is an open door for the church to bend down, like her Lord bent down for us, and enter into the great traumas of this world with real help and companionship and comfort. As we do so, we will begin to see, like Israel of old, the trauma wilderness in which many dwell, the Valley of Trouble, becoming a door of hope (Hosea 2:14, 15). The church of Jesus Christ is called to bring light to dark places, love to damaged souls, and truth about who our God is — He who entered in so that we might know Him and be like Him. Trauma worldwide is a call to God’s people to become like our Savior, who was love stooping to the uttermost depth to deal with the poison of evil in this world and in men’s hearts. Such work often opens the hearts of people to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. It did for us.

You describe the way many Christians turn away from trauma and sometimes “flit from cause to cause.” By doing so, you say, we choose complicity; we refuse to enter in. How so?

Entering into the life of another under good circumstances (such as marriage) is a challenging cross-cultural experience in many ways. We cannot, if we want a good marriage, be the center of our own lives. There are now two, and learning that duet requires a good deal of listening, understanding, patience, and laying aside our preferences, our family-of-origin ways, our little “must haves” so that we learn to know the other so well that we can love them generously and meaningfully. It is, if done well, a thing of beauty and a great sanctifier! Entering into suffering and trauma is similar. Think of walking alongside a tormented vet or abuse survivor. They have pictures in their head we would not want to see on television, let alone live through. They are afraid, they do not trust, they cannot think clearly, and they will not be better next month or even likely by next year. Human beings cannot suffer things we were never meant for and bounce back. It requires a long, steady obedience to our God to walk with traumatized lives. Such work is not so we will feel good about ourselves or have compelling stories to tell. It is simply humble service to the victims for the sake of our Lord whose humble service was for those crushed by sin and death. When God’s people refuse to go into suffering, they align with the perpetrators who saw their victims as insignificant and unworthy. When God’s people refuse to go, they also abandon God, for that is the way He went.

Growing up, you learned a lot from your father’s long-term illness. One lesson was that “We are not to respond passively. We are not to sit back and let evil, sin, suffering, or the Evil One have its way. We are called to do battle.” How do we do that?

We have been clearly told in the Scriptures that suffering is part of life in this fallen world. Most of us work hard to push that truth back and live as if it is not so or will not be for us. When it comes it can take the breath away and certainly rock the foundations of a life and a family. It brings into question the assumptions to which we have clung, and it can disable faith. Doing battle means facing and speaking truth rather than the deceptions we might prefer. Yes, he is sick; yes, it is progressive; yes, he will die. So many seem to cling to pretense at such times. We are called to truth. We also must do battle with our previous assumptions, e.g., if I live well everything will be fine; if I honor God I will be safe. God does not want us deluded about the illness or tragedy or about the state of this world. We must seek Him in the mess and bring our hard questions before Him. Where are you? Are you still good? I am afraid.

We also do battle with the dehumanizing nature of illness and tragedy. We give respect and honor to one created in the image of God no matter how clouded that image becomes. Even when a body is so broken that it is entirely dependent on the care of others or a mind is basically gone, we are called to give dignity to what remains, for it still houses one created in the image of our God. The enemy would keep us deceived and pretending. He would have us fear taking our grief and doubt and suffering to our God. He would have us think that if we had loved God more we would not suffer. He would have us treat the suffering one with impatience, disgust, and humiliation or, at least, distance. There are many of God’s children who are bathing sick bodies, emptying bedpans, smiling at faces that no longer recognize them, and singing to them when they no longer know the words, entering into trauma stories and caring for someone else’s “throw-away” child. They are doing battle against the ravages of disease and tragedy, and our God is glorified.

You explain that, “We blaspheme the name of Christ if we pretend that the evils of genocide, the rape of little children, or the events of a massive earthquake are less than they truly are.” Can you explain?

As Christians we are called to righteousness. You cannot have righteousness without truth. All sin is a lie; a crooked thing. Righteousness declares the truth — not just about good things but also about evil, sin, and suffering. Sometimes the most righteous thing is the facts about evil; facts that need to be named and to which we are called to respond. To pretend that an affair or hatred of others is a little thing is to deceive ourselves and others. Deception is what the enemy does. To turn away or minimize the rape of a child or ignore genocide is a failure to live in truth. It is, therefore, unrighteous. Also, in reducing evil to little or nothing we fail to see the work of Christ on the cross in truth. There is no evil He has not borne. He carried incest, genocide, war, and trafficking — all of it. Our “little” bit of pornography or “slip” in an affair has wounded Him grievously. When we speak of God’s redemptive work, we are speaking about a sacrifice that covered unspeakable atrocities, such as incest or genocide. We are also speaking of a sacrifice for things we, at our peril, minimize.

If we are His righteous servants, we are to see and speak truth about the wonders of His grace and mercy. We are, as light in this dark world, to “expose the deeds of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). The God who sees calls His righteous servants to also face the horror of sin from His perspective, whether it is on a massive scale or hidden in our hearts. Righteousness measures and declares the truth.

When we deal with suffering people, you tell us that we become the “representative of God. Our words, tone of voice, actions, body movements, responses to rage, fear, failure all become ways that the survivor learns about God.” That’s a heavy responsibility. How does such a mindset help us? And how, realistically, do we represent God?

One aspect of the answer here is an understanding of what suffering does to humans. If you live with someone full of cancer or battling chronic pain, you know that suffering reduces a person. It lessens all of their capacities, not just physically but also mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. They become less themselves. That is just as true for unseen wounds as it is for physical diseases. It is true for a combat vet, a rape victim, an incest survivor, a domestic violence victim, or a survivor of war. They may look fine, but the mind and heart wounds run deep and affect them profoundly. If we attempt to enter into the life of someone who is reduced, limited, or altered by their suffering we must reduce ourselves as well. That is in fact why we are quiet in a hospital room. For those suffering trauma, fewer words, quiet voices, patience, and pausing so they are not overwhelmed is vital to our entering in so we do not bring further harm. In doing so, we are following our Savior who was made flesh, greatly reduced from His eternal glory so as to enter in and become like us. It is, in fact, Christlike to reduce ourselves in the face of another’s suffering. And then, when sufferers are slow to speak, slow to listen, or slow to change, our responses are to also be like our Incarnate Savior’s toward us. It is in part how those who are suffering begin to see, in the flesh, a bit of who our God truly is with His creatures when they are reduced, overwhelmed, helpless, or slow. We bring Him to them by who we are with them in their worst places.

At the same time, a truth I did not see for some time became stunningly clear to me as the years went by. God is always working both sides. I am not just present to sufferers so that they can receive comfort or grow. I am there because God is exposing to me where I am unlike Him so that I can run to Him and have Him teach me where I am wrong and what He would do in me to make me more like Himself. It is a principle applicable to all of life. All God’s people are called to Christlikeness. Our failures in that area, which are many, teach lies about who He is and damage both us and those with whom we interact. Typically, humans react in painful situations with attempts to change the other person or the circumstances. So I attempt to get my spouse to change, or traffic to go faster, or a colleague to act differently. And certainly we do at times need to speak truth in (some) of those places. However, they are ever and always a place to get on our knees before God and bring Him what the situation reveals about us, asking Him for more of Himself so that we might represent Him more accurately to others.

Chapter 13 is a heartbreaking discussion about sexual abuse in the church. In your experience you’ve seen so many examples where sexual abuse is covered up to protect “God’s work” and where secrecy was employed “for the sake of the church or the mission.” What’s behind those rationalizations? And how should we react if we’re involved in these discussions?

I fear many of us have confused Christendom with Christ. We equate Christian institutions and organizations with the Son of God. They are not the same. Christendom is not even the same as the true body of Christ. Jesus Himself told us that. He said there are tares among the wheat, wolves among the sheep, and whitewashed humans posing as believers — sometimes in leadership. We long to be comfortable somewhere, to fit in, to feel at home, and so we let ourselves think Christendom is safe and fail to see and assess and discern. Instead we listen and follow, or we remain silent. Many poor sheep have unknowingly followed a blind guide and landed in a pit. Christendom, like all institutions or organizations, tries to protect itself. If you doubt that, just expose a case of child sexual abuse by a leader and watch what happens. Christendom has used Scripture to support or hide slavery, racism, domestic violence, and other cruelties our God hates. I fear Christendom today has become less interested in truth and more interested in power and protecting that power. Many have acquired fame, money, status, reputation, and kingdoms. At the same time we are steeped in pornography, marriages are failing in large numbers, the next generation is turning away, and we tolerate leaders in our organizations and pulpits who feed off the sheep. We have had a lot of recent headlines about Christian leaders and Christian systems that look nothing like our Lord. Christendom is not Christ.

Many years ago I learned about a youth pastor who had sexually abused two girls in the church. The leadership was sending him away to another church in a different state. In my conversations with them I was told, “Diane, he made a mistake. He is very gifted and we do not want that mistake to ruin his ministry.” They protected the youth pastor and the institution of the church. Like the abuser, they did not protect the sheep in their own congregation or in the church to which he was transferring. And sadly, they also did not care for the abuser, as they failed to deal with him in truth, thereby leaving him in his sin. His sin against God’s lambs became a mistake in judgment, and that is something we all make, so it only needs a new start; not truth, repentance, and care for the lambs. This dynamic often happens when child sexual abuse, pornography addictions, embezzling, clergy sexual abuse, or relentlessly arrogant and demeaning leadership are present in the church. The truth will “hurt” the church, and so it is excused, covered up, or given an innocuous name. Such actions protect the institution, not the name or true body of Christ.

Covering sin is never protective. It is the equivalent of ignoring a lump in your body. The disease receives no treatment and will spread. It is a failure to properly care for the one who has sinned, the wounded, and the larger body. Sadly, such things occur to “protect the church” or because “he is my friend, and I know him inside out” (though Scripture says we are so deceptive we do not even know ourselves) or “to preserve the gifts of the individual that are good for the church.” People go silent because no one wants to “hurt” the church. And indeed, truth will hurt, as does treatment for a lump in the body. But as G. Campbell Morgan said, “Sanctuary is a place having no complicity with the evil that makes sanctuary a necessity.” God’s people must not be seduced by the allure of Christendom and must learn not to heed the so-called Word of God when it is used to sanction something utterly unlike Him. I pray we will know Christ so well that we can discern what is unlike Him no matter the seductive or religious garb it wears.

Diane Langerg, Ph.D. is globally recognized for her work with trauma victims. She has trained caregivers the world over in responding to trauma and to the abuse of power.

1 reply
  1. Sydney Segen
    Sydney Segen says:

    “Suffering reduces a person. It lessens all of their capacities, not just physically but also mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.” Thank you for knowing this and sharing it. The longer I live with PTSD, the more true this becomes.

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