“So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’” (Genesis 32:30)
A large part of my ministry school semester is dedicated to learning and experiencing intimacy with God, particularly in the way we are invited to honesty with the wounds and curses of our past. An intricate part of the Father Heart is that God is in the liberation business, freeing we poor captives from the things that would seek to choke us and keep us bound to the violent patterns of the world, drawing us in to a new reality so that
we may reflect that heart into the very same world that proclaimed death over us.
There is a particular exercise, lead by my mentor and friend Dan Green, that culminates a week of learning to examine, relinquish, and adore that deals with the curses that have been spoken over us since we were children. Now, when I use the word “curses”, don’t take that to the place of witches and voodoo dolls. I simply mean words that were said that became a reality we have since lived under, often because they were spoken by someone we looked up to and sought definition/provision/protection from. Quite simply in the lesson, we divide the whiteboard into two sections; on the left side, we write “Things I Wish I Never Heard”. We invite the Spirit to take the students into their pasts to root out those words that cut them deep, and we ask them to write these memories on the board. “The rocks begin to float,” as Dan is fond of saying. It generally takes a moment for the words to come, but once they do, you’d be hard pressed to get in the way. Curses flow out like bile, one recognition leading to another and another. Faggot. You were a mistake. Bitch. You’re worthless. I never loved you. Bastard. You liked it. (silence). Some are obvious and held in common by many; others seem so painfully personal that you know there is a story there, boiling just below the surface of some seemingly innocuous words.
And the Spirit takes us deeper. It’s astounding, coming to terms with the fact that most of have never been permitted the sacredness of honesty before. We feel like we must diminish or control our reactions to the things that were said to us or done to us, but in doing so we never come to terms with our abuse. Our shame meets our illusory power and we buckle under the pressure of trying to maintain composure. Society, and often the church itself, tell us that we must hide our pain in order to survive. We must not get angry. We can’t demand justice for wrongdoing. We can’t point the finger and say, “you did this to me”. All the while, and single word or touch in our precocious youth sets off a chain reaction of guilt, coping, medication, numbing, and transference. Add to that the expectation to change surface behaviors to “look” more christian (stop looking at porn! don’t drink beer! why are you looking at that girl!) heaps coals upon a head already scorched by guilt. We come to hate ourselves, our community, and God.
The Holy Spirit pierces through our need to diminish or contain our grief. He leads us by the hand into our pain, and asks us to confront it for what it truly was. Even as we lash out and vomit forth what has been bottled up for so long, He is so patient and tender in holding our pain through the process until we get it all out. One particular student came to the realization that his uncle sexually molested him from the time he was eight. He told his parents about it, but they chose to ignore him; they actually kept taking him over to his grandmother’s house, where his uncle lived. We all listened through a baptism of tears as he told us his story. His emotional reaction intensified as he continued to speak what he was remembering. He went from being dismissive, to disappointed, to full on rage. WHAT THE FUCK. WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING. Finally, he stood up, lunged at the board, punched the words he had written that had unearthed this memory, and ran out of the building.
I promptly got up and chased him outside. I found him a total mess, weeping and heaving uncontrollably. All I could do in that moment was to hug him and say “it’s not okay” over and over, barely keeping my own emotions together in it. As the moment passed, I consoled him briefly and we wandered back into the classroom. Immediately, we encountered another of my students collapsed on the floor, convulsing and screaming under the pressure of his own curses. All the other students were surrounding him, holding him and praying as he yelled, “JESUS I NEED YOU! JESUS I NEED YOU!” And what does the first student do? He immediately jumps right in to hold his brother, interceding and lifting him up to the Healer. That, dear friends, is heaven to me. Confounding the powers of darkness.
You see, the first student’s admission brought with it a thick, heavy spirit of truth that unlocked a whole mess of repression in the others in the room. We discovered that of the eight of us, five had been sexually molested as children. Every one of us had been cursed, ground in to the dirt, made to dance and perform, and stripped of our humanity. The uncovering of truth had left us all viciously raw as eventually we moved to the second portion of the exercise on the right side of the board. We wrote “Things I Wish That I Had Heard”. As many times as I’ve walked through this lesson with my students, I am consistently taken by how unfamiliar we are with the language of blessing in our own lives, the real tangible life-stuff. Many of us simply don’t have the experiences to say what we’ve always wanted to hear others say to us. After a bit of prompting, the students were able to throw out a few phrases that they knew were things God was supposed to have said about us from scriptures. No one seems particularly convinced, with the wall of curses glaringly hovering from the other side of the board. After a few more strained minutes, Dan suggests, “how about this?”
You could feel the collective exhale at seeing those words scribbled across the board. Yes, if only. If only someone had said they were sorry. If only someone had taken responsibility for what they said to me. For what they did to me. It’s not so much that we each wanted wrath-as-justice on our abusers, but that we desired mercy, for them and for ourselves. We wanted to be allowed our humanity as we allow them theirs. When I saw those words on the board next to the words-of-death, it hit me like a lead weight. That was the revelation of the cross. I’m sorry. I take responsibility. Jesus took upon himself, not only the sins we have committed, but the sins committed against us by others. Every word, every action, every wound, every moment of neglect and abandonment, he assumed responsibility for our suffering in such a way that we no longer have to live under their oppression. And as I felt the full impact of this revelation in light of the personal histories pain and abuse in that room, I began to weep. It was not fair. It wasn’t fair for him to take that wrath upon himself. He was so perfect, so spotless.
I’ve never been comfortable with this doctrine that insists God poured His wrath upon Jesus at Golgotha. To me, the idea that God is angry with us, and we’re lucky Jesus stepped in to incur his father’s wrath on our behalf seems contrary to the unitive character of the trinitarian God I’ve come to know and be known by. Yet Jesus suffering man’s wrath on man? I understand that. I’ve been on all sides of it. I have been broken under the hatred of another human being, and I have lashed out those very same wounds I have received. As it has been done to me, so I have done to others. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4).
SO. Let’s talk about forgiveness. Let’s talk about what happens when Jesus shows up. Let’s talk about Peniel, and how there were the twenty-odd years before my student encountered God face-to-face, and then there’s been every day since then. Let’s talk about how our lives have been spared, not by an angry god who seeks to hurt us, but by one who shows us our humanity so that we may be blessed.