June 22, 2010
Bearing Our Burdens
Healthy Faith Gives Voice to Pain, Fear and Loss
By Paul Mullen
When Nancy’s husband was diagnosed with leukemia, their lives were devastated. Multiple, accumulating demands spawned a nearly unbearable burden. Her religious faith and upbringing, as important as they were, left her ill prepared to deal with the onslaught.
The emotional pain of seeing her husband suffer was compounded by fears of the unknown. Anger brewed at the threats to their security and the utter lack of control. Untold stress resulted from trying to maintain the household while navigating a complex medical system. Lurking in the sea of sadness was anger at her husband for leaving her to cope alone.
Nancy, an active member in her church, turned to her faith to cope with the assault on her spirit. She and the church prayed fervently for her husband to be healed. When church members visited Nancy and her husband in the hospital, they marveled at how she seemed buoyed by her faith. With a calm demeanor and apparent sense of control, she was the picture of grace under fire.
Nancy’s husband became progressively worse. He was moved to an ICU unit and put on a ventilator. When the physicians said his prognosis was grim, Nancy and her church continued to pray for a miracle. A week later, she was asked to consider removing the life support and allowing him to die. Standing by his bedside, Nancy collapsed in a seizure.
I visited with her several times in her own hospital room. She began to pour out her heart, sharing closely guarded thoughts and feelings. “I’d prayed so hard for my husband to be well, but it seemed like the harder I prayed, the sicker he got. I was confused and afraid.
“I thought I was supposed to be a tower of strength, a witness of faith for my family and church family. I thought if I believed God without doubting, and kept my faith from wavering, that He would answer my prayers. When the church members came by, I knew it made them nervous if I wasn’t doing well. So I pretended that everything was all right.
“But underneath, I sometimes wondered if my prayers were doing any good. I secretly wondered where God was and whether He cared. I felt angry and disappointed with God. Mostly, I felt ashamed for feeling that way. But the harder I tried to push the feelings away, they stronger they got. I think that’s maybe why I had the seizure.”
With spiritual support focused on empathy, honesty and compassion, Nancy gradually felt permission to embrace her authentic feelings. She fully experienced the depth of pain and sorrow. Over time, the intensity of her anticipatory grief subsided. When her husband died a few weeks later, she went through a process of normal, healthy grief. She emerged with a stronger and more resilient faith, with a deeper connection to Christ than she had ever experienced before.
Nancy and her church had done the best they could to cope with the harsh realities of pain, suffering and loss. Like all of us, they just needed some help along the way.
In the face of overwhelming anxiety, our religious coping efforts often take an unconscious turn toward emotional denial, suppression or repression of our honest feelings. What is adaptive in the immediate aftermath of tragedy can become maladaptive if it lingers. What appears to be a healthy faith, holding our fears and pain at bay, can work against us in unhealthy ways – physically, emotionally and spiritually. The anxieties of church members who want to offer support can add to the dilemma.
How people handle emotional pain in the face of the harsh realities of life is central to healthy adaptation. When our faith reinforces denial and suppression, the physical, emotional and spiritual outcomes are usually negative. Prosperity theologies, with an emphasis on positive thinking, can heighten the denial.
Candace Pert, a neuroscientist and expert in mind-body medicine, observed that while positive thinking may be helpful, it becomes harmful when the truth of how you honestly feel is avoided. “Undigested emotions” create stress in the body and increase vulnerability to disease.[i] David Spiegel, a Stanford psychiatrist, wrote, “Adapting well to a situation does not require that a person maintain an upbeat or rigidly positive attitude. Ventilation of negative emotion … helps patients acknowledge, bear, and put into perspective their distress.”[ii]
Lamentations expresses a similar theme from a faith perspective. Israel was torn apart at the seams following the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile. The author arranged many of the poetic verses into acrostics, where each line began with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The intent was to express the full range of emotions in the nation’s suffering and grief – from crushed hopes and anguish to renewed faith and hope as Israel remembered God’s mercy and power.
James Hollis wrote, “Life is a series of gains, but it is also a series of losses; failures to grieve loss and disappointment openly, honestly, will rise again, as unbidden ghosts from their untimely burial, through depression … or captivation by the mindless distractions of our time. Failure to incorporate loss into our lives means we have not yet accepted the full package life brings to us. Everything given is also lost… Jung challenges us: ‘Real liberation comes not from glossing over or repressing painful states of feeling, but only from experiencing them to the full.’”[iii]
I remember a mother and father’s great courage in experiencing loss to the fullest when their young child was killed in an accident. Active church members, they had turned to God immediately after the accident in effort to bring order to the chaos. Initially, they were sustained by faith and the support of their church family.
However, within months they came undone in a season of “spiritual disorientation.” They cried out to their pastor, “Why did God let this happen? Why would God want to hurt us like this? Where is God? Does He care? Is He even there? Are we losing our faith?” Walter Brueggemann[iv] and Logan Jones[v] wrote well of the importance of embracing, rather than denying these questions.
The pastor managed his own anxiety well enough to listen without denying the pain of life’s most poignant questions. After a time of silence, he said, “I’m so very sorry…. You’re not losing your faith at all …. Grief has times of peace and tremendous pain on the way to healing – a time when you’ll remember with more joy and less pain. But not right now. God completely, fully understands – like He did with David, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Jesus on the Cross.”
Some time later the parents experienced a “new orientation,” in their spiritual lives, as God began transforming the darkness into hope. They were able to say, “We have a much clearer sense of God’s presence in our lives. Our faith is deeper than before the accident. We’d give anything to have our child back, but with God’s help, we’re making the best of life that we can.”
The package of human experience brings pain, fear and loss to all of us along the way. As we entrust to God our authentic voices, giving expression to the whole range of human emotion, God can transform the ashes of despair into renewed hope. Spiritual wholeness emerges in the context of courageous, honest, healthy faith.
[i] “The Research of Candace Pert, Ph.D. Your Body is your Subconscious Mind. Mind-Body Medicine becomes the Science of Psychoneuroimmunology.” Healing Cancer: the Latest Research in Mind-Body Medicine 14 June 2010 <www.healingcancer.info/ebook/candace-pert>.
[ii] “Healing Words: Emotional Expression and Disease Outcome,” Journal of the American Medical Association 14 April 1999, Vol. 281, No. 14, p.1328 – 1329.
[iii] James Hollis, What Matters Most. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.
[iv] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
[v] Logan Jones, “The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow,” Journal of Pastoral Care Spring-Summer 2007, Vol. 61, Nos. 1-2.
— Rev. Paul Mullen, Ph.D., is director of Church and Community Relations at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, NC.
Please site Baptists Today, Paul Mullen and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.