I have noticed something about western Christianity lately. Across all perspectives, from conservative through moderate to progressive, there is an assumption that we all live and always have lived perfect lives. They act as if we are all the family from Leave it to Beaver or from Cosby. Parents are always wonderful, they are never divorced, everybody has plenty of healthy friendships and platonic dating relationships, nobody struggles with addiction or mental illness, unemployment and domestic violence are unknown, nobody is slinging drugs on the street corner or shooting up your street. Therefore, parents are a lovely image for what God looks and behaves like, the Trinity tells us about how God exists in (healthy) relationship, heaven is just like being in church for eternity, and on it goes. They are mystified that their metaphors fall flat.
More than sixty percent of American children experience at least one of ten possible adverse childhood experience or ACE. Around fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, eleven million families (32%) with children under eighteen are single parent families, one in fifteen children are impacted by domestic violence and ninety percent of those children witness that violence – and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite all of this, many if not most Christian teachers and organizations continue to assume that Pollyanna examples based in an almost completely nonexistent worldview speak to anyone. Remember that the Cosby family on television was headed by a serial rapist when everything came to light. If you want to lead with the idea that the love of God is mirrored in the family, you are going to lose more than half of America in the process.
A healthy spiritual life engages reality rather than running from it or hearkening back to glory days that never existed. A healthy spiritual life also addresses real problems in real life, using relevant spiritual teachings that speak to contemporary circumstances. Teaching that God’s love is just like the love of parents when in truth one parent may very well be absent or addicted and the other neglectful simply isn’t helpful! In fact, it is damaging! Much more helpful would be proposing a God who suffers with us when we are transgressed upon and who motivates people to work in the helping professions so children (hopefully) may encounter them when those adverse childhood experiences occur. This would be a good first step, but it is far from adequate. Much work remains to be done as we build religious and spiritual systems that work for the future, but if we don’t do so in a way that speaks realistically to the lives and struggles then our efforts will be in vain.
As someone who lives with chronic pain, I can tell you from my experience that it can be a tremendous spiritual teacher. It can also make you want to eat a bullet. Most of the time, I find I sit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. You might say that if we constructed a scale in which eating a bullet was a zero and experiencing great spiritual insights was a ten, I live my life drifting between two and nine, with rare peaks at ten. In truth, you only get a brief stop at zero, and I don’t think I will ever be there. At the same time I believe it is important to acknowledge the possibility of zero.
I have read a lot of spiritual teaching from the eastern traditions that suggest we can reduce our experience of pain by not allowing ourselves to be attached to it or to resist it. If I am honest, I must admit that I never really understood what either of those things meant until I came up with my own words to describe what I believe they are trying to get at. In my experience, I struggle more with my pain if I believe that I am not supposed to be in pain. In the past I used to believe that I was too young to have this kind of problem, or that it shouldn’t happen to people like me (whatever that means), or some other similar nonsense. I call it nonsense because such beliefs fly in the face of what is. If I am in pain then there is a reason or reasons I am in pain. Therefore, to say that I shouldn’t be in pain flies in the face of reality! I may wish things were other than they are, but that doesn’t change that reality is what it is. If I can drop the idea that things should be different then I can begin the much more important work of dealing with what actually is! In this way, I free myself from the possibility of feeling persecuted or of having been treated unfairly and am freed to live in the present moment. If there is one thing we know, it’s that the present moment in the only moment we can impact.
I would suggest we can apply this reasoning to many life situations we struggle to grasp. If we feel we shouldn’t be pregnant, or bald, or working where we do, the first step to dealing with whatever underlies the issue is accepting that it is, in fact, the truth. If our issue isn’t the truth we can rejoice, because no action is necessary, but if we are bothered by something it is probably true and it is probably exactly how it is supposed to be. Now we can start asking ourselves if it is possible to make a change that will impact our situation.
Believing that things aren’t supposed to be as they are is a kind of denial that our mind creates to help us deal with the unpleasantness surrounding our condition. While denial can help us if we aren’t quite ready to deal with whatever is going on in its fullness, it also can stop us from moving forward if we don’t release it. That is a realization that can help us in many areas of life, if only we will embrace it!