Suffering is always associated with pain, and what a God-given blessing pain can be at times. Pain is always the “alert” signal that something is not as it should be in our bodies, relationships, spiritual journeys or emotions. For those whose nerve endings fail to register pain there is no sensation to signal any tissue damage, such as burns or abrasions, sprains or even broken bones. Without pain’s alert present our very lives are at risk. Pain is there to remind us that there are limits to our physical and emotional capabilities. There is no room left on Calvary’s cross for those who earnestly believe that their suffering and self-denial is needed to “save” others. By their lifestyles, by their attitudes and words, they appear to be placing themselves alongside Christ. “Once and for all” – that is the message of God crucified for us. None of us are called to be “Messiahs” for no matter how great our need (either subconscious or conscious) for self-sacrifice, or how obsessive this belief may be. God’s gift at Calvary provided healing, forgiveness and wholeness for all of humanity. God needs no more Messiahs.
Potential Messiahs are often those who, as children, have suffered trauma through physical, emotional or sexual abuse and often grew up doubting their own worth. In attempts to be seen as people who are valuable, they set their goals on achieving (or over-achieving) expectations set by others. They tend to care for everyone but themselves and try to pack too many commitments into each day. They feel the pain of others so deeply that it becomes their pain. Though they appear to have the answers for the problems of others, they have no solutions for their own problems. They sacrifice their whole lives for the sake of others. It is as though, because they were starved of unconditional love in their early days, or because the love they were shown by “responsible” adults was twisted and warped, their lives are dedicated to demonstrating unconditional love to others.
Carmen Renee Berry lists eight characteristics of someone caught up in the Messiah trap in her book, “When Helping You Is Hurting Me.” These are:
- Tries to earn a sense of worth by “acting” worthily.
- Lets others determine his or her actions.
- Needs to overachieve.
- Is attracted to helping others with similar pain.
- Experiences difficulty in establishing peer and intimate friendships.
- Is caught in a cycle of isolation.
- Is driven to endless activity.
- Stops when he or she drops.
While any person may exhibit any or all of these characteristics, Messiahs fall into seven groups. These are:
- Pleaser – A person who is always ensuring the smooth running of events.
- Rescuer – One who will drop everything (and everyone) whenever a friend is in need.
- Giver – Someone who over-commits their resources in an attempt to help others.
- Counselor – One who is prepared to hear the problems of others, but finds no one to listen to them.
- Protector – Tries to create situations where others will not ever have to face reality.
- Teacher – Those who try to help groups rather than individuals, and discover that the price of being placed on a pedestal is over-commitment to teach or assist needy groups.
- Crusader – One who sees the ills of this planet and its people and goes out to battle for justice. Found in the forefront of environmental protection groups, they are those who are lobbying against unjust laws, and who question corporate greed. But they are also those who, through over-commitment, experience powerlessness and then exhaustion.
Many of the above attributes may also be found in those whose lives are sound, whole and healed, for they represent love demonstrated toward others. But whereas a balanced person is aware of the need for self-love and self-care to be part of Christ’s plan for our lives, Messiahs continually sacrifice all of their lives to what they perceive as the needs of others. Frequently this results in the break-up of their family life, loss of their jobs, or loss of friends and eventually leaves these people totally drained and feeling impotent.
Often it is not until our pain and suffering become intense that we turn to Christ for help and healing. Those whose childhood experiences have left them with deep-seated wounds which still materialise in their adult behaviour may seek healing of those memories. Healing of past memories is a prayerful counseling tool which can slowly uncover the source of pain, and free the sufferer from these memories. The Holy Spirit provides the therapy of God’s healing power which can unlock the chests in which we have secreted our memories.
Unwillingness to forgive has the potential to cause suffering and illness in our emotions, bodies and spirits. In “The Healing Light” by Agnes Sanford she states that “As we practise the work of forgiveness we discover more and more that forgiveness and healing are one.” The Lord’s Prayer clearly advises us that it is only to the extent of the forgiveness we are prepared to offer others that God is able to forgive us. God offers full and free forgiveness to all, but while we have so much of our emotions and memories focused on what we perceive as injustices, disloyalties, betrayals and hurts, we are unable to receive the forgiveness God offers. We need to empty our hands and minds of these things before we can grasp any of God’s gifts. Lack of forgiveness will eventually manifest in physiological and physical illnesses if we choose to cling to it. Our decision to allow our suffering to continue instead of having it released by forgiveness and love can at best be described as a perverse choice. Sometimes our greatest difficulty is to accept forgiveness from either God or ourselves. Each of us sins, and each of us needs forgiveness at some period in our lives. We refuse to forgive ourselves for we believe we do not deserve a pardon because our guilt (or sin) can only be expiated by self-punishment. Our sense of shame does not allow us to appropriate the price Christ paid on Calvary. We are so focused on our sins we lose sight of our forgiving and welcoming God.
Resentment is another source of pain and suffering. Resentment is defined as bitterness or ill-will, being indignant or aggrieved. Once again it is our choice whether we will hold fast to the memories of pain, and replay them again and again in our minds. We can become so fixated on the pain and suffering that reason flies out the window. Our focus narrows into a pinpoint of pain – acute and agonising pain. In this state of absorption we are unaware, or in denial, of the possibility of our healing. We are living in a shadow world, one where the past has been frozen in time, one where there is no hope of a bright tomorrow. Resentment is also linked closely to our unwillingness to forgive. Our ears become deaf, and our eyes blind to the words and hands of Jesus reaching out to relieve us of these burdens we have carried so long. This self-absorption is not the self-love or self-care of which Jesus spoke; instead, like a cancer, it eats away at our inner peace, and twists our judgements and conclusions.
Anger is an emotion we all experience, but anger which explodes like a land-mine, destroying all in its path, harms all involved especially ourselves. Even more insidiously does anger, hidden behind masks of convention, which waits its chance to plan revenge for insult or injury. Anger which we internalise – swallow rather than express – has been the cause of many digestive ailments. Our metabolism becomes disrupted, food either becomes unappetising or our chief source of comfort. While we are unwilling to take time to examine the cause of our anger, to learn if there is any truth in statements which have been made, or just reason behind actions which have been taken, we allow anger to eat away at our peace and our relationships. Sometimes statements which cause us the most pain are those which expose truths we have not been prepared to face and rectify.
When we encounter crises, be they loss of reputation, a terminal prognosis, relationship failure, bankruptcy, betrayal by friends, employment redundancy with subsequent loss of income, death of friends or family members, threatened exposure of either an illicit affair or financial misappropriations, often our first reaction is panic. We hurt. Stress builds upon stress. Our emotions become frayed and often we are traumatised. We seem to have lost control of our lives, there is no longer any sense of security or continuity, our self-esteem is destroyed, we want to give up, and in fact many do choose to opt out of life. At these times often our only choice is how we choose to react. According to C. Welton Gaddy in “When Life Tumbles In” we can choose to avoid facing our problems by denial, rationalisation, repression, displacement, projection or by reaction formation. Escapism is no answer to our problems, escapism has nothing to offer except fantasy. Fantasy will not permit us to bring all our problems and trials to Jesus.
As Christians – and this article was written for those of us who acknowledge Christ as our Redeemer and Lord, we know the forgiveness offered by God and know of the reconciling grace which we have appropriated. Yet, though we are Christ’s, we are still subject to the trials of this world and to the insecurities of our own personalities. We may not be responsible for the external circumstances which we experience, but we are always responsible for the way in which we react to those circumstances. We may choose to hold fast to those experiences and actions which are causing us enormous suffering and pain or we may choose to seek Christ’s help and healing. If we look beyond ourselves we will see a whole world which needs to experience love, forgiveness, and healing. So often it appears that the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community see themselves as a totally oppressed and suffering people, wearing “Pity Me” or “Poor Me” hair-shirts. We are oppressed, but we are only one of a vast number of minority groups of oppressed people. The plight of women in Arabic countries has recently been exposed in the words of reporter Barbara Walters just returned from Kuwait. Several years ago, prior to the Gulf War, she noted that in typical Islamic fashion women walked ten feet behind their husbands. Nowadays they walk several yards ahead of their husbands. When Ms. Walters exclaimed how marvelous this was and sought an explanation of this role reversal, the Kuwaiti woman replied, “Land mines.” Our intrinsic worth to our society is not measured by our value as potential triggers for land mines. No matter how irrational and unloving are the verbal thrusts against us, no matter that sometimes we will encounter those who are so frightened of us that they would put an end to our lives, in our society we have more value than many in other societies. As witnessing Christians we carry the truth of the Gospel, the Good News of the One who suffered in our place. Light-bearers for God, we are needed as healed and transformed people. We who have known judgement and have relinquished the anger, fear and pain this has caused are needed to look on a world and its people without having the need to judge. We who have known the suffering misunderstanding brings are asked to offer love, and to listen with understanding and patience. We who have been rejected are called to stretch out our hands with compassion to those who are hungry, tired, homeless and lonely, to offer them encouragement, support and practical assistance.
The power of God, that power to heal and restore, can be found everywhere. Prayer is the key to accessing this bright stream of love. Prayer for ourselves and for those who have harmed us is inseparable. Prayer for the world and its people is but one method of sharing the burdens of one another. When we are willing to seek healing of all that ails us, we will truly reflect the radiance of Christ. In “Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching” Arthur John Gossip concludes, ” I don’t think you need be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail; and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely. But we have a wonderful God. And as Paul put it, what can separate us from His love? Not death, he says immediately, pushing aside at once the most obvious of all impossibilities. No, not death. For, standing in the roaring of the Jordan, cold to the heart with its dreadful chill, and very conscious of its rushing, I too, like Hopeful, can call back to you who one day in your turn will have to cross it, ‘Be of good cheer … for I feel the bottom, and it is sound.'”
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.