Why I’m glad that I’m no longer a Calvinist…

…and some other rambling thoughts about suffering and stumbling.

I wrote this as a comment on a blog a few months ago:

I wish I had the rest of the day to respond to individual posts. As many of you so eloquently and heartbreakingly described, grief and suffering HURTS. Jesus showed us what true compassion and grief looks like when he wept with his friends over the loss of their brother — even though Jesus knew full well he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Later, Paul would remind Christians to weep with those who weep, to bear each others’ burdens.

And, you know what? Doing that HURTS — not as much as the actual pain of the one grieving, but it hurts to sit with someone in their pain and totally open your heart, allowing their pain to invade your safe little bubble. It’s scary to admit that we don’t have neat, tidy answers to difficult tragedies. It’s scary to admit similarly devastating blows could strike us as well. So we blame people for their own pain in a self-righteous and desperate attempt to promise ourselves that this same sickness, this same tragedy, will never come near us. And, if it does, we will handle it better. We are made of stronger stuff and better theology, so we will never hurt as much as those other people. That’s what we tell ourselves.

I know. I was that person…until my world exploded about 6 years ago, and years of running from pain and being all “praise God, the past is in the past!” came crashing down on me. Thank God that I had left Calvinists and Calvinism behind before then.

There were no easy answers. I did not heal nicely, or neatly, or tidily. It was messy. I stumbled and fell a lot. I sinned — not by grieving or hurting or being a mess, but by actual sins. I met a ragtag group of beautiful fellow sufferers who showed me what true, loving acceptance looks like. The best thing that eventually came out of the evil that Satan intended for me — and he intends evil for all of us because he is all about killing, stealing, and destroying — is that God showed me that he is a redemptive God. Sin and evil and sickness has no silver lining, but God can redeem the worst thing. And the best way he redeemed all that ugliness in my life, all the pain that came to a head in recent years, is that he revealed himself to me as the perfect, loving Father that I’d never dreamed he could be. It was in relationship with him — and some of his representatives who shared his love — that I have been able to walk out my healing journey. (It has felt like stumbling and even being dragged more than walking at times.)

This longwinded comment is to say that I think when we begin to comprehend the enormity and tenderness of God’s love — especially in the midst of life’s ickyness —when we begin to experience how deeply personal and intimate his love is for us, it makes all the difference. The Calvinist view of God is much safer. It keeps God at a comfortable distance. God up close and personal is beautiful and healing beyond all comprehension, but it’s also overwhelming. After all, this is the God of the universe we’re talking about.

My world has been rocked. My heart has been broken. I’ve lost my taste for nominal Christianity. I have no easy answers. Sometimes all I can do is hug someone, pray for them, and weep. And that hurts, even though compassion is a good hurt, a good heartbreak.

That’s what I was running from when I was a Calvinist. I needed a small, safe, understandable, predictable God who provided security and a safe haven from pain and messiness. What I’ve found now is this huge, wild, mysterious, incomprehensible God who has captured my heart, melted and broken it, healed and tenderized it — and turned my world upside down.

I wish everybody could know that wonderful, amazing, magnificent God.

About the smallness of man’s theology 

Recently I was involved in an online discussion of John Piper and Calvinism. I had especially taken issue with something Piper said to victims of child molestation about the abuse they suffered: “And so you try to say there is no sense in which the sovereign God willed that, you will lose God for the rest of your life.”

My first response to that statement was admittedly made in anger:

God did not will my molestation, my rape, or any other of the evil things I suffered in my life — especially not in the sense John Piper says. Is God sovereign? Yes. Are we puppets on a string? No. Missing from all this is the concept of free will, but the hyper-Calvinists don’t seem to believe in that anyway.

This statement of Piper’s makes me angry. Furious, in fact. Because it is a lie from the pit of hell, and I don’t say that lightly. Thank God that I did not encounter this when I was struggling with the whole question of where God was when horrible things were happening to me or to people I care about.

I have NOT lost God. I am closer to Him now than ever before in my life. That includes during my time spent in the Reformed theological camp. I understand God’s love much better than I ever have. I trust Him much better. It is His love that has brought me a greater degree of healing than I ever thought possible in my wildest hopes and dreams.

My life, especially over the past two years, exposes Piper’s statement as a damnable lie. Don’t believe it. Not for a second.

ACK!! I’m so angry that I better stop before I get to ranting.

The next morning my anger and indignation was gone, and I posted this:

I am alive today because God does intervene in people’s lives, and He graciously and mercifully rescued me out of the dark theological quagmire that people like Piper are trapping people into. The God of the Bible is not as small, mean, petty, and easily defined as they claim. He is, to our puny human minds, simply incomprehensible. There is no answer this side of Heaven to the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.

I’m alive today because the real God — the God that Jesus revealed — captured my heart. It turns out He didn’t ordain or will or cause the awful crimes committed against my person, nor did He merely look the other way. He HATED what was done to me, and it was His outrage, His heart for the oppressed, His compassion, His extravagant love, and His wild, scandalous grace that not only saved my life but won my heart.

Calvinism has a ready answer for everything because they believe in a small, easily explained God. I have had to become content with mystery — a lot of mystery — because the God I worship is too immense and great for human comprehension.

He is also a loving Father whose tenderness and intimacy continues to break my heart — in the best of ways. He’s the great, awesome Creator of the universe, full of power and might, powerful beyond all understanding…and He’s my Papa, my Daddy, my Abba.

I can’t wrap my brain around that, but it’s true.

Last night I was furious at Piper. Today I want to weep for Him. If only God would wreck his theology the way He wrecked mine!

Today, my prayer is that you — and each reader of my blog — would encounter the real, living God, in a new and fresh way.

Why it’s hard to believe us

Spend any time around those of us who are sexual trauma survivors, and you will hear account after account of how people — even our own families and loved ones — disbelieved us and sometimes went so far as to take up the side of the predators, rapists, pedophiles, and abusers who perpetrated against us. It is such a common occurrence that, when I encounter the opposite, I am deeply moved. Once when I met parents who stood by their daughter even when others insisted she was just “crying rape”, I was so touched by their family’s story that I hugged them, thanked them profusely, and started crying!

Today I read something that was linked to in the comments on one of my previous posts. It is an open letter from a pastor, a humble admission of his serious error, that says, among other things: “Though I never doubted that Jamin was guilty, I trusted his account of the circumstances more readily and longer than I should have, and conversely I disbelieved the victim’s parents.” He describes the sex offender as, “deceptive and highly manipulative”.

It’s hard to believe us when our perpetrators and predators are accomplished manipulators. After all, unless our abuser was a complete stranger who jumped out at us from the bushes, he first somehow gained entry into our lives, and usually managed to deceive enough people to gain a position of trust. Those who prey on children need to be somewhat accomplished con artists in order to deceive not only the child, but everyone around the child.

We, on the other hand, usually are not skilled liars and manipulators. Furthermore, we are traumatized, and traumatized people don’t always behave in a way that others might find credible, reasonable, understandable, or even likable. We are trying to piece together horrible events, trying to make sense of them, trying to sort them out in our minds, trying to deal with the horror of it all, or perhaps trying to escape thinking about our nightmarish ordeal at all. That’s bad enough, but then there are everyone else’s reactions to what happened to us, and not all of those reactions are helpful or healing. In fact, all too often, the reactions of others only adds to our trauma.

Our abusers, on the other hand, are not traumatized. They seem calm and rational, with a well thought out and plausible-sounding answer to every question. If they are serial predators, they have honed their “act”, and know just what to say or do in order to manipulate, and play on the sympathies of others.

In the immediate aftermath of trauma, we don’t always “make sense” to other people. Our stories don’t always sound believable. Usually we can’t bring ourselves to say much, and what comes out may be a chaotic jumble. We may get things out of order, remember things differently a few days or weeks later, only let a few details out in dribs and drabs, and be afraid to talk about major aspects of what happened to us. We may try to protect our abuser, if he is a family member or loved one. We may feel intimidated into silence. We may be too upset to admit the most shameful aspects of our abuse.

Years after my rape, when I finally told as complete an account of it as I could to my therapist, I halfway expected him to say that it sounded too unbelievable, too weird, too unlikely. I expected questions like, “How bad could it have been if you went to work the next day?” or “What do you mean, you have no idea of the extent of your injuries?” or “How convenient that there are those gaps in your memory!” or “What on earth is that nonsense that you supposedly ‘went away’?” I expected him to poke holes in my story, to cross-examine me as if I were on the witness stand, and to tell me that mine was the fishiest-sounding rape story he had ever heard. I was shocked that he believed me, shocked that he never cast one suspicious look in my direction, shocked that he didn’t try to blame me in the slightest for anything that happened that night.

Then again, he was a therapist. My anguished telling of what had happened to me wasn’t the first, or tenth, or even hundredth sexual trauma account he’d ever heard, and he knew all too well what trauma does to us, even years later.

Pastors don’t know these things, nor do they have the experience and training of my therapist. Ordinary people don’t either. But, unfortunately, many are arrogant and assume they know things that they don’t. They sit judge and jury over survivors and their families and judge us less than credible, because we cannot make them understand. Sometimes they are even joined by other survivors — who have not walked far enough in their healing to have enough empathy and wisdom to do otherwise — who help rub the salt of skepticism and disbelief into our wounds.

We understand that our predators seem believable and trustworthy. After all, they had to dupe us and set us up before they could betray us. But you will probably never understand how deeply you wound us when you believe them over us.

Please believe us. Please.

And, if you’re reading this, and you have any reason to think that you may have added to a survivor’s trauma by your lack of support, please — in the name of all that is good and holy — humble yourself and apologize. Let your words be a healing balm. You may never know how desperately that survivor has longed to hear you ask forgiveness.

Fake repentance and fake apologies 

It is far easier to hide behind humble-sounding admissions that I am a vile sinner deserving of God’s wrath than it is for me to admit to specific sin — and especially to admit to sin without any attempts to minimize or excuse.

It is also easier to make vague reference to unspecified sins or mistakes in a situation that I handled badly rather than to admit to doing whatever it is that has caused the actual offense. (“Perhaps I could have handled things better.”)

This struggle of mine, this reluctance to confess and come clean, is human nature, but that doesn’t make me any less guilty of refusing to be totally honest and completely repentant.

Years ago, there was a big interpersonal mess at a place where I worked, some of it as a result of misunderstandings, but some of it as a result of gossip and back-stabbing. There were lots of hurt feelings all around, and trust had been shattered. Our brave office manager sat us down to get to the bottom of things and to restore the harmony we had previously enjoyed. As we were airing our grievances and forgiving one another, I was accused of gossiping about something. I was able to deny it truthfully and come out looking like an innocent victim.

The problem was that while I had not, as accused, blabbed Juicy Gossip Item A about the person, I had blabbed closely related Juicy Gossip Item B. Someone less cowardly and more honest would have confessed and asked forgiveness. To my shame, I was not that person.

We all know those infuriating types who, when confronted, will argue like the worst of lawyers. (“No, I did not go to bed with that woman, and I’ve never slept with anyone but you!” — only much later, if pressed, might the truth come out, but even then the adulterous husband will trumpet his truthfulness — after all, he’d never fallen asleep with his mistress — and he will blame his wife for not asking whether he’d had sex in the car or on the couch. But, if she had asked that, he would have denied it because he “thought” she meant another car or another couch. And on it goes.) We may not stoop so low, but we can be weasely in our own way.

The generic apology is just another way of not getting caught, and not admitting to the truth. “I’m a terrible husband and you would be better off without me!” is far easier and far less costly than admitting exactly what one has done. As an apology, it’s meaningless, and it’s a ridiculous show of fake humility. It’s designed to get people off our backs, to shut them up.

When people are upset at me for doing something — or not doing something I should have — I need to listen. If I care about people at all, I shouldn’t turn everything into a court case, demanding impeccable evidence and that the charges against me be parsed precisely in the correct jargon. My concern should be far less about defending myself and far more about healing and reconciliation.

I have a hard time with that.

Recently I was in a conflict with someone. I’d observed them treating someone else in a way that I think is sinful and disrespectful , but I didn’t speak up. (I could come up with a myriad of reasons why, but it probably all boils down to the fact that I’m a wimp.) I was already irritated at this person when they launched into me for something out of my control. Venting is one thing — accusing me of believing and thinking things I don’t is another. I did not react well. I still don’t know how I should have reacted, but I do know that my response was fueled far more by irritation and anger than by love.

I’ve been sorting this out in my mind, and it’s really hard not to excuse my reaction. I want to defend myself! In fact, if I took a poll of people I know, quite a few would say that I showed great restraint. After all, I could have told them off…they had no right to act the way they did…and the stuff they said to me??!!!

But that’s not the way of Jesus.

It is also not the way of Jesus, when someone tells me that I handled a situation abysmally, for me to get all snarky and self-righteous…or for me to beat my chest about what a despicable sinner I am — while admitting to nothing. That’s just the religious version of saying, “Hey, we’re all human. Get off my back!”

It is so much easier to see this in the other person than in myself.

The trouble with empathy

There is a big problem with trying to become a compassionate person filled with empathy for others.

It hurts.

In fact, it will cost us. Big time. We will end up with broken hearts. Our entire outlook on life will change. We will find ourselves identifying with the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the marginalized, the abused, the weak, the very young, the helpless, the broken, the poor, the downtrodden, the messy — the type of people our culture ignores or disdains.

The Bible tells us to “weep with those who weep”. That isn’t a “pink verse”; it doesn’t say, “…unless you are an American man, in which case you can just pretend to be John Wayne and ride off into the sunset, thus avoiding the whole uncomfortable, emotional scene.” If you are some sort of manly man who never cries — or a woman who doesn’t want her mascara to run — you don’t get a free ride. Weep. And, if you can’t weep, because you aren’t compassionate enough or humble enough, pray for God to break you. Trust me, He will.

We also don’t get to decide who is worthy of our compassion, and what circumstances are deserving of our tears. The Bible doesn’t say, “Weep with those whom you have questioned thoroughly to make sure they didn’t somehow contribute to their own misfortune; otherwise brush them off and walk away…or you can self-righteously condemn and blame them for all the ways in which you think they messed up and brought tragedy on themselves.” It doesn’t say, “Only weep for what is a big major deal to you, and tell the people you think are whiny crybabies to suck it up.”

Jesus identifies with our weaknesses — even when we are being vile and rotten sinners. Even when we are being wimpy. If we claim to be His followers, what makes us think we can be so stingy and withholding of our empathy, love, and compassion?

If we really want to be like Jesus, it will cost us everything. We will eventually end up meek, lowly of heart, and well acquainted with grief. We will anguish over our inability to bring healing to every broken heart and to set every captive free. We will weep over the Jerusalems in our lives. We will share in the fellowship of His sufferings. Our lives will be poured out like drink offerings.

The good news about empathy is that it brings healing to others in a way that we may never know or comprehend. About five years ago, I went to my first retreat for women survivors of sexual trauma. There were three men there who profoundly impacted me because of the way in which they conducted themselves. Most of us had never experienced having men serve us — I mean, really and truly serve. They didn’t make a big deal and announce they were serving us. They were too humble for that, and neither wanted nor expected anything in return, because their motive was unselfish love and compassion. They didn’t “serve” by leading us, exercising authority over us, teaching us, telling us what to do, monopolizing our time and attention, or taking on roles of prominence and prestige. They just cared for us. It was so sweet and so genuine — and an aspect of godly masculinity that few of us had encountered before — that it was one of the most healing aspects of the retreat.

God gave one of those men some special words of encouragement for me during a meeting, and I was thanking him for it afterward. He knew next to nothing about me, and knew absolutely nothing about my life story, other than what could be assumed by the fact that I was at a retreat for sexual trauma survivors. As we stood outside in the Oklahoma sun, God gave this man a sudden flash of additional insight, a glimpse into a part of my identity that I kept hidden. At first I tried to argue with him…no, I’m not that…but he was right. Then he said, “What happened to you was so…” and he described my rape with a word that I had never dared speak aloud, except in those early months and years after the rape, when I would stand in the shower every morning, head leaning against the hard tiles, weeping, weeping, weeping, and those very words — oh, God help me, it was so … — those words would come out in muffled, anguished cries from the deepest, most wounded part of my soul. Years later, this man I had just met was saying, “That’s why it hurt you so much.” And he was right.

Then, with my permission, he hugged me oh so carefully, and he leaned his head down towards mine and whispered in my ear in a choked voice, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry they did this to you. I am so sorry.” And this big strong man, this man who didn’t really know me but who chose to identify with my pain and anguish and devastation — he wept for me. I felt his tears fall on my shoulder, like the most precious, healing gift. He knew. He understood. And he wept.

I want to be like that.

The best part of asking God to give us hearts of compassion and empathy is that we get to know Jesus more as we participate in His healing work, and as our hearts break for the very things that break His heart. That’s our reward…to know Him. And He is so worth it, every tear, every heartbreak. The people we love are worth it. But He is our greatest reward.

There is, however, one terrible dark valley that we have to walk through first, and it’s the real reason we run from empathy. We know, deep down inside, that eventually we will be forced to identify with, to allow ourselves to feel, the very pain we have caused others. We won’t be able to weasel out, if we choose the way of Jesus, if we heed His voice. We won’t be able to say, “Oh, she was being overly sensitive”, “He needs to man up and stop overreacting to every little thing,” “I was just venting”, “She provoked me”, “I was under a lot of stress”, “It wasn’t that bad”, “Yeah, but what about what he did to me?” “Wait, I can explain!” “I thought I was doing the right thing!” “I had no idea!” Our excuses will turn to ash in our mouths. Our lies will be exposed. Our attempt to minimize and deny will condemn us. We will end up face down on the floor, weeping, what have I done? what have I done? oh, God help me, what have I done? 

Weeping with those who weep is all the more devastating, and all the more necessary, when we are the cause of their weeping.

There is a prayer I am too afraid to pray: “God, please show me how I have hurt others, so that I may ask forgiveness.” I am still too cowardly to face the entire truth. I don’t think I could bear the full experience of that pain…and the knowledge that I inflicted it. God help me.

At the same time, I need a tender heart, a loving heart, a compassionate heart, a broken heart. And those in my life need me to have it…for their sakes.