I really wanted to like Allender since Dr. Coffield said he was one of his favorite authors. But I found him difficult to read – all the way to the end. Like [John] Eldredge, he uses parabolic, poetic language to express himself in prose. I’ve been reading so much theology, it seems I would enjoy a change of pace, but I didn’t. However, once I got past the elusive, non-concrete “desire,” the “embrace,” the “dream of hope,” the “dance of love,” and the “wildness of God.” I was finally able to understand the thrust of his theme. And it’s great!
God’s perspective on pain and suffering, says Allender, is different from ours. It is the rare person, he says, who anticipates pain, let alone embraces it on arrival. We must learn to live in this fallen world with God’s perspective “from above” while living here below. God would lead us on a healing journey through this evil world, but we often stray from the path, missing out on the redemption he has in store for us in this life. Healing, he says, is not “the resolution of the past,” rather, it is “the use of our past to draw us into deeper relationship with God…”
We should consider the path of suffering a sacred journey, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Pet 2:21). We mistakenly believe that all pain “ought to be relieved,” and think something is wrong when it is not. We should not try to escape, but to embrace the pain. I think of Jesus, who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, considering its shame of no consequence, because he knew it to be the will of his Father. If God intends for us to learn from our suffering, then in trying to avoid it, we are missing something very important, the righteousness and peace that result from it. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12.11). The following quote seems to get at the heart of the issue, “If we are closed to sorrow, we will also be closed to true joy.” Jesus endured the sorrow to embrace (there, I did it too!) the joy set before him. My own life has included a flight from the pain of childhood. I chose, at some point, to shut down many of my emotions (except anger), to no longer feel, or at least to no longer admit feeling. I rejected what seemed to me to be my mom’s overly emotional nature. She alternated from happy and loud to angry and loud. It was embarrassing! I learned to be stoic from my dad. My wife and a few close friends loved me enough to break through my stoicism and helped me learn to feel. Though it has been difficult, as I have opened up to sorrow, I have also experienced joy. Allender confirms my experience, “Most of us make our inner world off-limits to even our most intimate companions or spouse, because to open our heart is to reveal the confusion, disgust, arousal and shame within…Instead, we remain alone.”
Because we live in the time of tension between Christ’s cross and his coming again, we must wait in anticipation. Yet, as Allender asserts, it is a time of ambivalence, a time of tension. “When we lose hope, we stop remembering and telling stories that arouse our desire and anticipation. Our thoughts become narrow, focused on loss rather than on what will one day be sure and true.” Losses suffered in my adult life that have resulted in depression have been due to a loss of hope. I became so mired in the losses of the “here and now” that I have lost sight of the “not yet” of Christ’s return. As Allender says, “Hope focuses not on circumstances, but on Christ’s coming and the redemption of our character.” “Hope is not the absence of sorrow but a refusal to allow powerlessness to silence our cry or to shake our confidence in God.”
In our work as church musicians before coming seminary, my wife and I had lost desire. We had given up on the church, on the leadership, and on God. But not completely. There was still a flicker of hope, a flicker of the knowledge of God’s love. We believed that he was using this pain to push us out of the nest. Allender says, “It is desire that creates our future. And it is desire that draws us to love…” “Love is the most profound risk of life.” We risked packing up our children and all our belongings to find hope and love once again. And we have not been disappointed. “The great discovery of the healing journey is that in getting a glimpse of God we see our past, future, and present from the perch of an eternal now.” “The healing path takes us beyond self-discovery to God-discovery.” We have discovered, once again, the goodness of God, not because we no longer have pain. In fact, we have experienced intense pain since we’ve been here. But through repeated suffering, somehow we have discovered the faithfulness of God and hope for the future.
Allender concludes by showing that God’s healing path is not self-serving. It involves relationship with and service to God and others. “The healing path does not lead directly to healing, but to engagement…into relationship with him…also to service for him.” He says, “I exist for God and his purposes, not my own.” As we become more like Jesus through suffering, we are able to reach out to others has he did. “Our calling is to become more human, more like Jesus Christ…to be more in awe of, more willing to risk entry into the stories of others.” I find it difficult to enter into conversation. Allender seems to do it so easily. “The goal of a redemptive conversation is…to comprehend what the other loves.” This requires vulnerability on my part, a willingness to take risks that I would rather not take. Finally, Allender suggests that we seek to lead others onto the healing path not alone but in community. He challenges us to band together in entering the lives of others and to do so in non-traditional ways and places – in bowling leagues, coffee shops, food banks and wherever people gather. This banding together is also to risk pain because we can’t control the people around us any more than we can control God. We will be hurt once again by those we would join as we work together in redemptive community. Yet, Allender contends, we must “move together into a world of betrayal, powerlessness, and ambivalence for the sake of more stories, more awe and gratitude, and more God.”
A reading response originally written for Dr. Jim Coffield, Introduction to Counseling, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, November 2003.