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Why wasn’t Jesus enough?

28 April 2022

To end abuse we need Jesus to help us face our humanity

When news of the misconduct of yet another Christian leader ripples around the world, I always wonder, Why wasn’t Jesus enough? Over my 30 years as a psychotherapist, I’ve had backstage access to the lives of several Christian leaders guilty of sexual misconduct and I’ve noticed two things. First, they already knew how to avoid compromising situations. Knowledge and advice weren’t enough to keep them from falling into this sin.

The other thing they had in common was pain avoidance. Not physical pain, but soul pain.

So what is the connection between pain avoidance and sexual misconduct? I believe pain avoidance does three things. It makes us more vulnerable to compulsive behaviour. It dehumanizes us and others. And it causes us to pass our pain on to others.

Compulsive behaviour

When we run away from soul and heart pain, anything can become a sin – even good things like ministry. It happened to me.

I was a leader of a growing and successful church for 20 years. One day, while rushing out to another meeting, a good friend stopped me as I passed his office.

"Hey, Ron. Got a minute?"

I took a seat and he went straight to the point. "My wife and I were talking about you the other night. We noticed how busy you are, involved with so many in need."

Someone noticed, I thought. Wonderful! Here come the kudos.

"We’re worried about you."

Wait. What?!

"Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, thanks. Everything’s ’."

A lump tightened in my throat and tears filled my eyes. Everything wasn’t okay, and as we talked it became apparent I’d gotten busier and busier to avoid facing it.

Any good thing becomes hazardous when we use it to run away from pain we’re powerless to eliminate. Good things become idols. My idol was people’s approval and it pushed me to compulsively overwork in ministry.

The other thing they had in common was pain avoidance. Not physical pain, but soul pain.

The contagion of dehumanization

Running from pain disconnects us from other internal realities, both the good and the bad.

Social researcher Brené Brown wrote a helpful blog post in 2018 on this. She quotes David Livingstone Smith: "There are very deep and natural inhibitions that prevent us from treating other people like animals, game or dangerous predators. Dehumanization is a way of subverting those inhibitions" (Smith is a philosopher in Maine who wrote Less Than Human, St. Martin’s, 2011).

Then Brown adds her own thoughts:

Dehumanization has fuelled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes and genocides. It makes slavery, torture and human trafficking possible. Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith.

Dehumanizing behaviour is not a new concept. It dates back to the Genesis creation account. When Adam and Eve said no to God, they said no to themselves. They said no to being human, to their God-given limits and needs. They refused to respect them as reminders they’d been created for a relationship of intimate dependence on God and interdependence with others.

When we deny our humanity, we betray our dignity. Taking forbidden fruit feels justified and necessary to satisfy the ravenous appetites that then become our gods (Philippians 3:19).

When pain enters my life, I’m confronted with a choice. Will I own my humanity? Will I accept the limitations, fears and needs that point to the fact I’m not made to be self-sufficient?

Pain transmission

A leader I was working with didn’t believe pain avoidance was harmful to his life and relationships. I asked him if I could use his hand to show him what I meant. When he agreed and stretched it out toward me, I slapped it and made him cringe with pain.

"Hurts, huh?" I said.

He nodded.

"If you could stop the pain by turning off the nerves from your hand to your brain, would you do it?"

"Yeah!"

"So would I, but here’s the problem. When I numb the pain I feel in my hand, I also numb my ability to feel the pain I inflict on others. That’s one reason why an abused child often becomes an abusive adult."

As Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan priest puts it, "If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it."

Problems in the system

In the Brené Brown post I mentioned earlier, she describes the task before us this way. "Because so many time-worn systems of power have placed certain people outside the realm of what we see as human, much of our work now is more a matter of ‘rehumanizing.’ "

Yes, the people placed outside the realm of being human need rehumanizing. But so do the systems of power that put them there. The systems of power component is beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps the following analogy can highlight how crucial it is that this be a two-part process.

Imagine stepping into a deep, muddy puddle with shoes and socks on. You can wash your socks, but if you don’t wash your shoes, it won’t take long until those clean socks get dirty again.

The role of Jesus

When it comes to rehumanizing people, one aspect is learning to face pain, not run from it. This brings me back to my initial question: Why wasn’t Jesus enough for these leaders? Why wasn’t Jesus enough for me?

Enough for what? To help me save myself from pain in my heart and soul?

If that’s all I want, sin, not Jesus, will do a better job – for a time.

Jesus is enough, however, to help me face my pain. If we co-operate with Him, He can help us slow down and tend to the dignity of our humanness.

I’ve seen Jesus do this through His Body, the Christian community, when it cares for a person’s welfare more than their performance.

When I was in that phase of ministry overwork, it would have been easy for my friend (or the system of power around me) to simply applaud my behaviour. Instead, my friend’s compassionate curiosity offered me the permission and the safety to stop.

As I gave voice to my loneliness and fears, my tears of pain became tears of gratitude. I mattered enough for someone to see me. Really see me.

My friend’s love incarnated Jesus’ presence and rehumanized me. It wooed me back home to myself and home to the Father’s heart.

Homecoming. Rehumanizing. A process that’s both painful and sweet. The ongoing process of being freed by Love to be loved and to love.

Ron Pagé is a psychotherapist in Ottawa. The post he refers to is at www.BreneBrown.com/Articles/2018/05/17/Dehumanizing-Always-Starts-With-Language.

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