Sunday, November 21, 2010

Snow White, Prince Charming . . . and When Bad Things Happen to Good Christians

This is a recurrent theme here at Christian Monist. This time the provocation was a conversation, which I was having over at IMonk. The position I want to expound on is somewhat divergent from Jeff’s original point, about (the merits) of being a fool for Jesus. So the chain of thoughts went like this. I asked the question, how does one know the difference between being a fool for Jesus and being an idiot (not a positive trait) for Jesus? Jeff’s answer was that the fool for Jesus is being called by God. So I asked, how does one really know if they are “called by God” because there have been many people who thought they were called and/or who convinced others they were called by God . . . but in the end did some horrible things or had terrible outcomes.

The answer to that question was that we Christians we have the Holy Spirit and it was implied that this sets our thinking apart from the non Christian. I will expound (with good intentions but without the answerer’s permission) that would mean that we have a supernatural ability which supersedes the normal human frailties of misjudgment, psychological factors, misinterpretations and etc. It would be like having an antenna inside and the Holy Spirit fine tunes that antenna to the will and voice of God. Maybe another example would be how dogs can hear sounds that humans can’t. Thus Christians have an ear to God’s will which mere mortals don’t.

There is nothing outrageous to those statements. I would say that most Christians consider Jeff’s points deeply woven into the Christian narrative . . . but not all of us.

The last point of the discussion was an illustration of how we Christians can be assured that we know God’s will by following a particular formula. It consists of; A) reading the Bible, B) seeking godly counsel, C ) prayer and D) waiting to see if the door opens. I am very familiar with that formula because this was the same one that we used in the Navigators. I taught a workshop using that formula at conference and years latter I taught a Sunday school class on the same. On top of that, the very last phase of a decade-long process of becoming Navigator staff, was doing a serious of really intense Bible studies. One was almost a whole year (spending many hours a week) on “The Calling of God.’

Now all of this was hunky dory until I started to notice some disturbing trends. It was hard to spot them at first. It is where “good Christians” (meaning very sincere and diligent people, who wanted deeply to follow God’s will) followed the “discovering God’s calling, or will” for their lives with great skill. But then, the calling or action ended in disaster. As I mentioned on IMonk, these situations are quickly swept under the Christian carpet. The situation falls into that area I was speaking of recently about Christian weirdness. Where reality doesn’t mesh with the idealized Christian narrative and then it is erased as if it had never happened.

Now that my introduction has eaten up all my time and your attention span, I realize that I will have to continue this thought on subsequent postings. But before I leave, I want to illustrate this with a real life situation. I have many of my own failures to draw from, but I feel like I’ve shared them all before. So I will pick one that happened to two friends of mine during my Nav days.

A man was involved with our Navigator group, whom I will call Jim. Jim had just finished graduate school and the time was right for him to find a wife. People in the Nav ministries in those days didn’t date. They just decided it was time to get married then would go through this tedious process of determining God’s will for their perfect soul mate.

While Jim was a friend of mine, I will tell the story through the eyes of his eventual wife, Karen. She is the one for who this narrative failed.

Karen was a “godly” woman in another Navigator ministry. She was very, very sincere. She, as we used to say, really loved the Lord. She (like all of us Navigators) also had her eyes on being a career missionary (we all did because we considered a career missionary as the highest position on the spiritual hierarchy).

Jim and Karen met at a special conference (I know it sounds odd now) that was sort of set up as a mass match-making endeavor by the regional Navigators. Singles, who were in the position to consider marriage (meaning having graduated from college and had jobs) were invited to a weekend at Columberland Falls State Park. During that weekend there were a lot of “spiritual” activities, such as hours in prayer and workshops, but also a square dance and formal (so-called romantic) dinner.

Jim and Karen started corresponding. Karen liked Jim. Jim liked her too, so it seemed. Jim was a “godly man” and had a heart or missions. Karen wanted, and I mean sincerely wanted, a Jim Elliot-type of husband, and Jim seemed to fit the bill. He had studied medicine and wanted to be a missionary in the Philippines (having already spent one summer there).

Jim started to talk marriage. Karen met many times with the Navigator staff women to talk this over and to seek Godly counsel. All of them gave her 100% support for marrying Jim. She did a long Bible study over several months, trying to determine God’s will for her and Jim. All the verses she studied seemed to be God talking directly to her . . . Jim was the man. Then she entered a period of prayer and fasting for several weeks (fasting one day a week).

The last “fleece” which Karen was waiting on, was to see what God was doing in Jim’s heart. Then one night he called and to her surprise, he proposed. Karen raced to the two Navigator staff women’s homes. She told them what had happened. They confirmed that this had to be a “God thing,” no question about it. Karen called Jim back and said that she would marry him.

The brief engagement was nothing short (in Karen’s eyes) of a fairy tale. Here was the man she had always wanted and God certainly had brought him to her. She was ecstatic.

Before I flash ahead a few years, I will comment that Jim seemed like a great guy to me too. We were pretty good friends for about a year as we were in the same graduate school program. The only odd thing I ever noticed was a casual comment he made once about which porn shop was the best. I assumed it was some kind of strange joke (because if any of us Navigators ever visited a porn shop, we certainly wouldn’t talk about it unless we were weeping and gnashing of our teeth.) Another time I was with Jim and he ran into some of his non-Christian friends. They commented that Jim really knew how to party. Again, I thought that was odd (we Navs never “partied”) but I didn’t think much about it at the time.

So Jim and Karen had their Snow White and the Prince wedding at huge Evangelical church in Knoxville, Tennessee. All the Navigator staff were there with glowing smiles and to give their blessing of this marriage . . . literally . . . “made in Heaven.”

To make a long story short, the honeymoon period ended and Karen started to sense some oddities about Jim. She lived in denial for a couple of years. Time went on and they still talked of going to the mission field. They had a little girl, then a little boy. A couple more years passed. I knew, through Jim, that they were experiencing some “sexual difficulties” in their marriage and Karen wanted to seek counseling.

I lost touch as I went to the mission field. But, the bombshell hit a few years later when Karen caught Jim sexually molesting their six year old daughter. Karen was devastated. She forced Jim to go to counseling. During which, it came out that Jim had a second persona. He had been habitually molesting children (mostly relatives) since he was about 12. He was addicted to child porn and didn’t seem to be repentant. He hung out with other pedophiles in his other persona.

Karen’s fairy tale marriage seemed to have drifted into a nightmare. She divorced Jim. Then, suddenly, in her pain, she started to get hints from her spiritual leaders (mostly church people now, although she was still loosely involved with the Navs) that, besides Jim being an evil man, that SHE had done things wrong too . . . not listened to God carefully about marrying him. Karen became very disillusioned as her daughter continued to suffer tremendously from the abuse. Had she missed God's obvious will, you know, her internal Holy Spirit antenna for truth? So, was it her fault? Or, was God some time of cruel jokester? None of it made any sense to her . . . but, "for the sake of the Gospel" she had to push her story and feelings under the rug so no one would find out that all Christian fairy tale weddings don't end in bliss.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is so well written and so very very true, especially how the non-fairy-tale endings are shoved under the rug. When the formula doesn't work, it doesn't cause us to re-evaluate the formula. It just means we dump that person or family and spend our time with the ones who will support and encourage our beloved formula.

It's not really about God at all, if you think about it.

M

jmj said...

Just fixed about 6 typos. Hope you got the meaning around them. There are probably more. But I think there are a lot . . . a whole lot . . . of people who have had to deal with these types of "failures."

Justin said...

MJ,

I just went back and re-read your exchange on iMonk. The responses to you remind me of Jeremiah 7:4 -- This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD! You are right, no one wants to hear how the formula fails.

This is perhaps the most maddening thing to me about Christianity, this cognitive dissonance and hiding behind mantras. It boils my blood because the conversation is over before it even starts. It's nothing but evidence that the whole enterprise is a fraud.

It's things like this that push me ever closer to the cliff of my growing agnosticism.

jmj said...

Justin, again my point is to create daylight between the dysfunction stuff that exist around us in the man-made "Christian" world and true Christianity. My agnosticism found its most hospitable climate, in the place where the dishonestly flourished unchecked. For me, the more honestly I try to live, the more confident I am that there is a true-truth within Christianity that many miss.

Sixwing said...

Whoa. Way to blame the victim, saying she "didn't listen to God enough." (To clarify: not you, OP. The people you're writing about.)

In fact, thinking about it, there seems to be a strong thread of victim-blaming in many of your stories.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, victim-blaming is a very important tenant in that world.

I did it myself, many times. It wasn't intentional---it's just what you are taught to do. If the formula doesn't work, it must be the person's fault! You are just sure of it, because, hey, the 1-2-3 formula for solving all life's problems comes straight from God (and to question the formula is to question God), so since God is infallible...it must be the person's fault. They didn't follow the formula right. They didn't try hard enough. They didn't do their morning devotions often enough. They aren't praying enough. Something, anything, but one way or another, we will find a way to blame them.

And in so doing, we become like the Pharisee, the priest and the publican, hurrying along the roadside, ignoring the poor beat-up victim of robbery because we are busy doing the "work of the Lord."

And the beat goes on...

M

Dana said...

Over at iMonk, Jeff said: "Our wicked hearts were part of our old man. In Christ, all things–including our hearts–are new. We are new creations if we are in Christ. That is the key: Being in Christ. Walking in the Spirit. Being in Christ. Neither one is part of living according to this safe, convenient world."

To me, this is what 12-steppers describe as "magical thinking". As in, once one makes the transaction with God ("acceptsJesusChristasyourpersonalLordandSavior") it is magically not possible to sin any longer; one has arrived at the end. That interpretation also satisfies 21st century Enlightenment-based systematic, formulaic thinking, combined with the tendency to want instant results.

But what I've learned is that coming to God is the beginning of the process for us. Otherwise, why would Paul have had to tell us to work out our deliverance and healing (soteria) with due consideration and care ("fear and trembling")? And at least since N.T. Wright and his examination of the emergence of Christianity from C1 Judaism, we have to be very careful that we don't read things like the passage Jeff cited anachronistically, missing the point -as he and so many others have done with this one. I've seen plenty of that among very well-intentioned and well-educated Christians, as well as other sorts of Christians. The bible is a wondrous gift, and some things in it are perfectly clear, but like any other text it requires interpretation. It often actually does not interpret itself; we often interpret it to get what we want; interpretations of it are often used to manipulate.

Some sincere Christians, after having followed all the rules as you describe and yet coming to a bad outcome, can't admit they were wrong because somehow they think the bad outcome reflects on God even more than on themselves; they have to "save God's face", so to speak. Also, it's not ok for most American Christians to grieve, not only about death, but about bad outcomes, misunderstandings, missed opportunities, any number of things.

Finally, I'd be willing to bet money that if the "problem spouse" were a woman rather than a man, all other things being the same, the man would not be blamed for his "failure to discern". IOW, the on-the-ground theology of many Evangelicals leads to the woman being blamed no matter what.

Dana

Johan said...

Ah ... some years ago I had to make a decision career wise (I was thinking of applying to work for a christian organization, and had just received the application forms). I didn't know what to do and sat down to listen to God. I became frustrated because there was no answer forthcoming. I rose and walked to another room. Then the following words came in my mind, crystal clear: "God is not an oracle. He guides in the process."
I recognized that I had used God as an oracle, instead of acting and believing God would guide. So I sat down with the forms, and found that I was asked to sign on a few things that I had absolutely no intention of signing on (Like the agreement to not talk about controversial subjects ...).
These last months I'm trying to take initiative in another part of my life - and again I asked God what I should do. And the impression I got was that the only thing I could do was to take the next step and see what would happen. Not what I had hoped, but I think it's real: the only thing we can do is act according to our best wisdom and trust God to be present in the process of becoming ...

Johan

jmj said...

All those were great comments.

Would things have been different if Karen was the messed up one? I don't know. Food for thought.

I know that Tom, the guy that led me to the Lord, also had a fairy tale marriage. Years latter, his wife left him. I don't know what the issues were as I wasn't close to them at the time. But, I do know that Tom had personal issues (as we all do). He was a very "spiritual" person, very dominating in conversations. He had told his wife that God had called them to get married (she was way above him on the looks scale if you know what I mean).

But after she left him, Tom sent out a newsletter to all his Christians friends to pray for his wife because she had succumbed to the influence of Satan. I think most of us were able to read between the lines.

We were taught God the oracle and the Bible as a book of charms. Really. If God could speak, magically, to me during my quiet time, using a verse that had absolutely nothing to do with the topic (usually something about a donkey) then it does become a book of charms.

I had a wise person say to me once (I just can't remember who) that "Determining God's will for your life" is where you decide what you really WANT to do, then you go through a lot of mental and spiritual gymnastics to make it look like it was something that God wanted.

Blaming the victim? Am I being redundant in my theme? Maybe. I will try to refocus when this topic is over. But I do think that is what we are left with when things go wrong. We can't blame God ( and that's what it looks like if we just report a failure).

Wanda said...

So many women fall into the:

"Marry the Prince Charming so you can REALLY serve God" lie.

Or the:

"He looks like a challenge but I can do all things through Christ including meet the needs of this Man o' God" lie.

Breaks my heart for I see it continue even today.

Thanks for talking about it.

Anonymous said...

Been a long time since I wanted to comment on this...

I know that Tom, the guy that led me to the Lord, also had a fairy tale marriage. Years latter, his wife left him. I don't know what the issues were as I wasn't close to them at the time. But, I do know that Tom had personal issues (as we all do). He was a very "spiritual" person, very dominating in conversations. He had told his wife that God had called them to get married (she was way above him on the looks scale if you know what I mean).

i.e. "WOMAN, SUBMIT!" He came, he saw the looker, he conquered (by "God Hath Revealed" con job), he dominated (always Right, always On Top, always God's Special Anointed), and the resentment built in the little woman until one day she snapped. I've seen that "Godly" dynamic in action, and it ain't pretty. (The example I saw, she regressed into widdle girlhood and devotions devotions devotions instead of "Take Your God (and YOU) And Shove It!")

But it reminds me of something else, something told me by a Wiccan (yes, a practicing Witch) years ago -- her (negative) opinion on "love charms" or "love potion" magickal workings. (Yes, wrap your mind around that -- a Witch with professional ethics.)

(From memory) "They don't work. You're FORCING them to fall in love with someone. Any working that does that has to mess with their emotions on a very deep level. And you can't keep it up forever -- eventually, the charm controlling their emotions will break and you'll get a reaction. And when it breaks, it flips into its opposite, from total blind love to total blind hatred. Hatred of the very one your magick forced them to love."

Stripped of the Witchcraft terminology, I wonder if what happened with Tom and his wife followed the same dynamic, just his "love charm" witchcraft to force his will on hers had a Christianese coat of paint.

(Don't know if I should ask this, but how did you ever get married in an environment like this? (Answer in private email if you want.) Seems to me such "God Saith" con jobs were the only way to land a Nav chick; otherwise, it doesn't sound like a very friendly environment to meeting and bonding to the opposite sex. Add the anti-sexual, anti-emotional sexual pressure cooker of "Doing the LORD's Work" (and nothing else), and I'm surprised more "Godly Snow White/Godly Prince Charming" crap like you related -- as well as more extreme closet sexual behavior -- didn't happen on a regular basis.)

Headless Unicorn Guy

Anonymous said...

Been a long time since I wanted to comment on this...

I know that Tom, the guy that led me to the Lord, also had a fairy tale marriage. Years latter, his wife left him. I don't know what the issues were as I wasn't close to them at the time. But, I do know that Tom had personal issues (as we all do). He was a very "spiritual" person, very dominating in conversations. He had told his wife that God had called them to get married (she was way above him on the looks scale if you know what I mean).

i.e. "WOMAN, SUBMIT!" He came, he saw the looker, he conquered (by "God Hath Revealed" con job), he dominated (always Right, always On Top, always God's Special Anointed), and the resentment built in the little woman until one day she snapped. I've seen that "Godly" dynamic in action, and it ain't pretty. (The example I saw, she regressed into widdle girlhood and devotions devotions devotions instead of "Take Your God (and YOU) And Shove It!")

But it reminds me of something else, something told me by a Wiccan (yes, a practicing Witch) years ago -- her (negative) opinion on "love charms" or "love potion" magickal workings. (Yes, wrap your mind around that -- a Witch with professional ethics.)

(From memory) "They don't work. You're FORCING them to fall in love with someone. Any working that does that has to mess with their emotions on a very deep level. And you can't keep it up forever -- eventually, the charm controlling their emotions will break and you'll get a reaction. And when it breaks, it flips into its opposite, from total blind love to total blind hatred. Hatred of the very one your magick forced them to love."

Stripped of the Witchcraft terminology, I wonder if what happened with Tom and his wife followed the same dynamic, just his "love charm" witchcraft to force his will on hers had a Christianese coat of paint.

(Don't know if I should ask this, but how did you ever get married in an environment like this? (Answer in private email if you want.) Seems to me such "God Saith" con jobs were the only way to land a Nav chick; otherwise, it doesn't sound like a very friendly environment to meeting and bonding to the opposite sex. Add the anti-sexual, anti-emotional sexual pressure cooker of "Doing the LORD's Work" (and nothing else), and I'm surprised more "Godly Snow White/Godly Prince Charming" crap like you related -- as well as more extreme closet sexual behavior -- didn't happen on a regular basis.)

Headless Unicorn Guy