I am often quite concerned by some of the language used in the Christian tradition in dealing with pain from our past and/or ineffective coping mechanisms that we may have developed along the way that have caused – and continue to cause – us pain. People talk about “repenting” and “conversion” which are English words attempting to get at the New Testament notion of “metanoia” – a Greek word meaning “change of heart.”
As an aside, I don’t much like to play word games. I know some preachers who do like to play work games, and they always remind me of a comic who was popular in the 1970s named Ray J. Johnson. If you don’t know his work, check out this link and you will never look at those preachers the same way! But I digress…
So it’s seems that what people are after is metanoia, change, transformation, but it sounds a whole lot more like what they are trying to do is amputation! Here’s an example of the kind of language and imagery I am talking about: “…he repented from his position in the flesh and took up his position in the gift of Faith.” In other words, these people believe they have managed to sever some bad experiences and coping skills because God has lopped them off like an army barber shaving the heads of new recruits, and now they will no longer be bothered by them. I hate to say this, but they are fooling themselves and it is going to come back to bite them because what they are really doing is dressing up denial with some pretty religious language and hoping it will work out differently – but it can’t, because except for short-term use denial is pretty unhealthy.
The funny thing is that Jesus never encouraged denial or amputation of any part of ourselves. He said, “Go, and sin no more,” not “Go, and pretend it never happened!” In fact, he often called people to remember their past as a path to healing judgmentalism. Consider “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” These are calls not to forget or repress the past, but rather to learn from it so we can heal and more on as a fully integrated person! If we had a lousy childhood it won’t do us any good to pretend we popped out of the womb at age eighteen – what we need to do is understand what happened, allow ourselves to feel the pain and learn how the experience has shaped us for better and for worse (I have never encountered a totally good or totally bad experience) and then decide how to move forward through integrating the experience.
I have long believe that this kind of thinking is why so many powerful conversion experiences that happen in rehab are short-lived. Some well-meaning person tells the addict in the depths of withdraw that all they need to do is turn their addiction over to Jesus and Jesus will just take care of it. Who wouldn’t sign up for that plan, and who wouldn’t be mad as hell when they learned it doesn’t really work that way? Jesus doesn’t take away the shakes or the dry heaves because we need to integrate those experiences, too, in order to have a chance at lasting recovery. When Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it fully, I don’t really believe he meant the way he was going to accomplish that was by cutting off bits and pieces until we felt better!
The problem is that we don’t do a very good job separating person from behavior. Partners in relationships that end often see the other partner as mean-spirited or worse because their relationship ended, but we would do much better to see each other – and most of all ourselves – as doing the best we can to cope with our own life experiences. Sometimes the things we do are quite skillful and effective, other times they are not as skillful and effective – but we need to see those actions as distinct from the person taking the action. When we make mistakes, we need to see our choice as less than ideal but our selves as doing the best we can with the information and skill set we have to work with. What stable person would knowingly make a bad choice?
As we move through this period or spiritual and religious reformation, I believe it is absolutely essential that we do so in light of sound science, medicine, and psychology. We need to look at those things in our spiritual past that no longer hold water in light of advances in knowledge and set them aside – not as bad or wrong, but as no longer fitting given our new insights. It wasn’t bad to believe those things, but it would be profoundly unskillful to continue to believe them in light of new information. We have to be courageous enough to hold our beliefs gently so as not to strangle them and instead allow them to grow and blossom. We also need to agree to put away our bone saws – there won’t be any amputations on the menu today!