Pastor Wade Burleson and I had quite a discussion recently on his blog over his article 15 Words And 15 Seconds That Save Any Marriage. I’m sure those who know me are not surprised that I took issue with what he wrote. In the comments, he was quick to say that it was not intended for abuse victims. This led to quite a discussion, and one that made me sad for the state of the Church, because I think Wade’s perspective is both common and harmful.
In a nutshell, Wade asserts that neither circumstances nor people are the source of our inner trouble or pain. He readily admits that people can hurt us externally, but that ultimately this does not harm us at the level of our inner peace. He pulls this distinction from Philippians 4:11:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
The crux of his argument is what it means to be “content”. Wade suggests that it means we are “self-sufficient” and thus cannot be harmed “internally”. I disagree, strongly. I believe that the idea of being “content” does not mean we are invulnerable to the effects of a sinful and broken world. I do not see any reason to believe that we cannot be harmed.
I do believe that a Christian who has faith in Christ can find encouragement in knowing that his or her soul is safe, ultimate victory is assured, and that our condition before God is clean and perfect. To quote Horatio Spafford, I can find inner joy by recognizing that “it is well with my soul”, even when “sorrows like sea billows roll”. But I do not believe that the “wellness of the soul” means we cannot be harmed. It’s a promise of a perfect future in an imperfect and hurtful world. And that “inner joy” (or the “contentment” to use Paul’s word) I experience doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt. We can have inner joy and inner pain at the same time.
We are not invulnerable to external forces in this world. Not in the present. And asserting that we are can be very damaging to people, because no one is allowed to tell another person being harmed that he or she is wrong. If I say “that hurts”, then it’s part of affording me basic human dignity to believe me. We may not agree on the source of that pain. Indeed, sometimes we blame others for our self-inflicted pain. But, back to Wade’s view, he isn’t saying that the source of the pain is miss-assigned based on the facts of the case; he’s saying that it’s miss-assigned because it’s impossible for another person to harm you on the “inside”. If his perspective is true, then admitting internal pain is always admitting personal failure and we have to be willing confront our failures just to express inner pain. That is not a healthy barrier to place in front of a hurting person.
People who are hurting need to be able to express that pain. They may miss-assign the blame, or they may not even know who to blame, but that is completely secondary to the issue at hand, because until we can acknowledge and be vulnerable about our pain, we cannot address it. As I’ve witnessed people heal from the harm others have inflicted on them, one of the most powerful moments is when they’ve felt free to say “[xyz] hurt me”. So much healing starts here, but it will rarely happen if we return with “[xyz] isn’t the source of your pain”.
The Bible is set in a context of a broken world. It is the redemptive story of humanity that is making its way through a world that is not whole and healthy. That broken world affects us, both by infecting us with sin and forcing us to bump up against the sins of others. Brokenness is a part of life, and we are not invulnerable to it, at least not this side of Heaven. As long as we are in this world, it may harm us. It will harm us. And that’s OK, because we have a greater hope. Contentment isn’t avoiding harm; it’s knowing that the harm of this world will always end up defeated when all is said and done.