Jessa challenged me last night that I haven’t written about any difficulties in my relationship with Martin! It is of course the struggles and weaknesses we share that endear us to one another rather than the satisfied glow of wellbeing and triumph. How many of us have been in awe of seemingly god-like leaders and role models, unaware of the journey they have been on to reach their pinnacle? I hate reading a lot of ‘powerful’ Christian autobiographies for that very reason – they provoke my sense of failure when I compare my own experience with such ‘successful’ people. One book that broke that rule was Jennifer Rees Larcombe’s autobiography of her life and spiritual journey, Journey into God’s Heart: a true story of a life of faith, through incredible tragedy and failure. I hope I can be half as honest as she has been! And of course we must not forget another good source of true stories which reveal warts and all – the Bible itself – with such likely characters as David the adulterer, Moses the murderer and Paul the torturer being completely transformed by the grace of God!
The days of putting others on pedestals is over: it has created idolatry and celebrity envy in both the world and the church – and at the same time society gloats when the mighty fall: witness the media frenzy surrounding the court case of the IMF boss and his ‘trial by the press’. We all hate being patronised or others acting in a superior or judgmental way, ‘holier than thou’: that was never Jesus’ way. We hate hypocrisy, cover-ups and injustice… and He hated and criticised that too!
When even church ministers and leaders – who definitely should ‘know better’! – fall publicly in some sex or money scandal of course we are shocked and scandalised. But I wonder if we hadn’t put them on pedestals in the beginning, isolated them, looked up to them, expected them to be superhuman, maybe they would have been able to share their needs and struggles earlier on and get some help and been better safeguarded by accountable friendships and community. Paradoxically, we must ‘walk in the light’ to have our sins covered (1John1v7). But how to do that while maintaining dignity, privacy and protection for those around us?
I love what Henri Nouwen wrote about sharing the struggles of our lives with others: ‘No minister can keep his own experience of life hidden from those he wants to help’. I certainly agree with that – it’s what this blog is all about! But he also goes on to balance this in counselling that when we put our ‘wounded selves’ in the service of others we must be careful to avoid ‘spiritual exhibitionism’ or narcissism that simply displays the pain as a kind of badge – an ‘I know just what you’re going through because I go through it as well’- a mutual wallowing in suffering. And yes, that is a challenge for me too – to know what to share and what to keep secret. Because although this is my story, its not an attention-grabbing exercise to make me look good (!) but about the positive and redemptive message of my life from which others can benefit and be encouraged.
Nouwen says we need ‘a constant willingness to see our own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all people share’. I find that one of the most helpful things I can do is see my journey as part of the bigger picture. This helps me get things in perspective and context and not be totally sucked into self-pity or self- aggrandisement. Compared with mothers in Haiti or Sudan my life is a picnic! However the pain I do go through helps me identify with others’ sufferings, for which I am grateful: it is an intercessory act.
So ‘the sharing of pain takes place not as a stifling form of self-complaint, but as a recognition of God’s saving promises’ and ‘the announcement of the wounded healer is that the Master is coming – not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery has passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place, but right here where we are standing’ *
So Jessa, I won’t deny that my marriage like any other long-term relationship, has had its ups and downs – especially in the early years! – and any wisdom I can share with you and Sam as you are starting out certainly doesn’t come down from perfect people sitting on high who have everything happy and sorted, but out of a painful journey of commitment and choices made over the years. We have learned the hard way that anger, whether expressed or buried, never solves anything and learning to communicate and understand one another is a life-time work. Every friendship, every meaningful relationship has these challenges to negotiate if it is going to last: forgiveness is always the key – along with the choice to put the other person first and believe the best of them.
As Rob Bell says, Love Wins
*All quotes by Henri Nouwen from Circles of Love