In her latest book, Redeeming Power, Diane Langberg talks about what happens when people define their Christianity in terms of what church they belong to – the system they serve. When this system does not protect those who have been abused, wronged, or mistreated, then fails to listen to the victim, Jesus is not honored. For Jesus is the one who came for the weak, the lost, and the damaged.
I was raised in the church. At seventeen years old, with a pregnant girlfriend, I approached the youth pastor of the church my family was attending at the time. It was the first time I ever went directly to a pastor for help. This pastor heard my story. Then he leaned in, looking at me, and said: “Matthew, you have to understand that what you have done is a sin. Tomorrow, at the youth gathering, I want you to get up in front of everyone and confess to the group what you did.”
I didn’t know any better, so I did. What I remember about that night is that no one came up to me to offer me support or comfort. No one said a word to me. But by lunchtime the next day, at least fifteen different people had approached me, many of whom I didn’t know, and asked “so, is it true that your girlfriend is pregnant?” At some point soon after that, I concluded that I was okay with Jesus, but that I wanted nothing to do with His followers. That lasted for eleven years.
Langberg writes early on in Redeeming Power: “My journey into the world of trauma began with one victim of abuse who, in tiny increments, courageously shared her story with me. I asked questions and worked hard to listen carefully. I became her student and a student of many more – humans created by God, his own artwork, wounded and damaged. I sat with people and learned to say, in essence, ‘Teach me what it is like to be you.’” (x)
Looking back, how different might my experience have been if I had even been asked a single caring or searching question? In retrospect, this personal experience has given me an irreplaceable and valuable perspective on what it looks like to be mistreated by a system that exists to provide, at least in name, some form of sanctuary.
Many of the clients with whom I have sat as a counselor have struggled with the wrongs done to them, especially when done in and by the church. I can honestly understand why some have responded to the hurts they have experienced by walking away from the church. Again, I was there.
How can we separate who God is from what “His people” do or have done? First, one might ask if this separation should even exist. Does it make sense? I think of Jesus turning to Peter in John 6, asking him, “Are you going to leave, too?” Peter’s response is one of my favorite Bible passages: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In Redeeming Power, Langberg writes, “Our responses to the vulnerable expose who we are. This is an important principle to keep in mind as we consider the use – and misuse – of power.” (4) One thing we know about God – one thing that must be true – is that God never misuses or abuses power.
However, isn’t this the very thing that the vulnerable victim of abuse does not know? Isn’t this the thing that so many people have a tough time coming to terms with? How does a God who never abuses power have so many followers that do? And how come God doesn’t do anything to stop it?
This is one of the central questions Langberg attempts to address in Redeeming Power, and in my assessment, she does a fantastic job. Redeeming Power is rich with Biblical citations and real-world examples. Langberg is a practicing clinician with a rich well of experience, especially when it comes to working with victims of trauma and spiritual abuse.
She consistently maintains the theme of the importance of Christlikeness, and the importance of recognizing this, and not theological knowledge, charisma, public speaking ability, popularity, or power in any form, as the best test of whether someone should be trusted or followed. One can say they follow Jesus and love God, but how are they at loving others, especially if that other is a true “other” from a different race, creed, or ideology?
As a counselor, I appreciate the position of power that counselors have, and I take it seriously. During my first year of graduate training in seminary, I took part in a Christian intensive group where the leaders were a pastor and an apprentice leader.
Both the pastor and the apprentice believed that they were helping me and the other members of the group by confronting what they saw as inconsistency and sin. It was an awful experience, and it should not have been. I went into that weekend hopeful for change and left it more hurt and confused than when I began.
These leaders should not have been leading. When I pushed back against their repeated suspicions that I was hiding something, one of the leaders looked me right in the eyes and told me to “tear down the f—ing wall.” I did not feel safe, so I did not open up, which led these leaders to push harder. I learned how not to counsel from this experience.
When we look to Jesus in John 4, with the Samaritan woman at the well, we see Jesus being both loving and direct. Jesus confronts the woman with her faults, but in such a way that the woman runs back to her village to get other people to come talk to him! Although confronted, the confrontation was safe and loving. Jesus was consistent in thought, word, and deed, and calls us to the same. But we cannot do so without being utterly dependent on him for change.
Protecting and helping the vulnerable is an expression of who God is. This is one of the reasons I love being a counselor. Another reason is that I am taking part in change, one person, one relationship, one encounter at a time.
Langberg repeatedly drives the point home that we, all of us who follow Jesus, counselor or not, reflect Christ’s nature and participate in the redemption of creation by engaging, listening, learning, loving, and fighting for the vulnerable, one relationship and encounter at a time.
Langberg ends this wonderful book with this statement: “May we, the church, be known as those who, in likeness to our Lord, use the power he grants to expose evil and protect the vulnerable.” Indeed, I pray that it is so.
If you are looking for someone to sit in the dust with you, someone who has in many respects “been there,” I would be honored to meet you, hear you, and take part in our healing. But if we never meet, please consider reading this book. It has been a gift and a joy to me, and I hope it will be the same for you as well.
“Crashing Waves”, Courtesy of Dan Stark, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Heaven’s Throne Room”, Courtesy of Ian Stauffer, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Waves on Rocks”, Courtesy of Lucas Davies, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lightning Strikes”, Courtesy of Jonathan Bowers, Unsplash.com, CC0 License