A Tale of Two Devotionals

Every year I receive two Lenten devotional booklets from charities that I support, Food for the Poor and Episcopal Relief & Development. The charities have similar missions to relieve poverty in developing countries, through direct aid and (in the case of ERD) micro-lending and educational projects to help the locals become self-sufficient.

The booklets, though, are quite different. FFP’s cover image is a soft-focus painting of Jesus bowing his head in prayer, while ERD’s is a photo of smiling African women working at their small business. Both booklets start each day’s reading with a Bible verse. FFP follows the verse with a one-sentence personal discipline resolution, such as “I will do something kind for a stranger today” or “I will fast from a meal and spend the time in prayer”. ERD’s daily readings are 2-3 paragraph reports on projects like well-digging in Nicaragua.

Reading these side by side each morning, I have complicated, confused feelings. It’s good for me to have an additional daily practice to meditate on Bible verses, and to keep the poor in the forefront of my mind. Yet I struggle to find anything that speaks to my own spiritual state.

ERD’s happy tales of service projects in faraway places epitomize the liberal mainline churches’ flight from belief in a Savior who is not ourselves. It’s not that these projects are wrong — although distance can dangerously oversimplify the actual benefits and downsides of foreign aid. Rather, it seems to me like an unfortunate narrowing of our spiritual imagination when we transform the church into UNICEF, especially if we’re partly motivated by a wish to dodge theological controversy.

When I hear “Feed my sheep,” I don’t just think of the bottom layer of Maslow’s need pyramid — literal food, shelter, etc. People need to be fed with consolation, defense against injustice, insight into our sins and sorrows, transformative hope. Not only do I fear that the Church of Social Work can’t offer me this food, I am more saddened by the sense that it doesn’t value my gifts, as it doesn’t support my vocation to feed others in these ways.

FFP’s is what I would consider a true devotional guide, giving daily prompts for self-examination and repentance. Here, I can’t blame my discomfort on the church not being church-y enough. This booklet is focused on quintessentially religious concerns. Instead, I’m realizing that maybe I don’t want to become the person that Christianity seems to say I should be.

Take, for instance, the resolution “I will forgive someone who has hurt me”. The only people I’m still angry at are the abusers in my past. They haven’t acknowledged their wrongdoing, let alone repented and tried to make amends. They probably aren’t capable of it, and I wouldn’t be safe spending time with them to find out. Does forgiveness have any meaning in such a one-sided context?

Beyond that, it’s not
conducive to my sanity to be obliged to forgive my tormentors. Sanity
means feeling whatever way I genuinely feel about them at the moment,
and seeing the situation as clearly as possible in all its complexity.
That freedom is the only antidote to the brainwashing I endured.

Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Maybe they’re talking about cultivating a state of mind that doesn’t take offense easily, being quick to forgive irritations and mistakes by people who I know are basically trustworthy, when my reactive ego doesn’t get in the way. But although that’s hard work worth doing, I don’t think the command was meant to be watered down like that. Jesus said “Forgive those who persecute you”, not “Stop glaring at your husband for using the sink when you want to make breakfast, and instead thank him for washing the dishes.”

This forgiveness thing is pretty central to Jesus’s teachings. I want to be honest and not twist the Scripture so that it “really means” what I believe is wholesome and holy. But I also don’t believe that forgiving an abuser is some spiritual ideal that I, in my brokenness, have not yet reached.

I became a Christian because the religion’s understanding of human nature rang true to me. I hope I don’t have to leave because it no longer does.

8 comments on “A Tale of Two Devotionals

  1. Well put, Jendi. I admire all the great work ERD does, but there are aspects of human spiritual life that the liberal humanitarian relief paradigm just can’t address. Fortunately, I think there are some other resources we can tap. I think you might enjoy looking at a book I’m reading now, a new anthology of William Stringfellow’s work (edited by Bill Wylie-Kellerman). It’s in the Orbis spirituality series. I think we ought to do more in TEC circles to retrieve some of the social reform movements that were closely tied to spiritual/ecclesial reform movements — the Wesleyan movement comes to mind, though that might be a little too pietistic for some folks. But I’ve always felt this tension that you write about in many of your posts, and I appreciate that you’re putting it out there.

  2. Andy Winternitz says:

    I tell myself that if I can’t be loving around a particular individual, that avoiding the situation is the best option. I also ask G-d to love for me and to handle things for the best, (often repentence of the offender is included in what would be “best”).

  3. Leah Gregg says:

    I think the tendency nowadays is to turn forgiveness into some sort of therapeutic law onto itself, that will make everything all better. Actually, I think forgiveness may have had more of a socioeconomic focus in Jesus’s day. After all it could only be obtained through the temple which meant an economic transaction. By empowering people to forgive each other Jesus is providing away to circumvent the powers that be. But I don’t think Jesus means by forgiveness emotional reconciliation more like cancelling debts which I guess could have emotional ramifications but its not the main point. (I grew up saying ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’ by the way and still stumble over the older and the new version of the Lord’s Prayer). Bottom line if the forgiveness thing becomes something that makes you feel condemned its not of Christ for you in this context. Maybe it is for others in other contexts but I agree it can be dangerous. One thing I like about Jim Munroes preaching is he never says ‘should’ which is a word which all kinds of churches are too enamoured of.

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    This is so liberating and informative. Thank you, and everyone who’s been commenting with support and positive suggestions. I feel very blessed.

  5. Marcia Ogden says:

    It’s good to question issues re Christianity – it shows growth rather than swallowing all we were told to swallow. Christ tells us to forgive as he forgave: many people have offended him but not asked for his forgiveness, but he died for them anyway. He forgives unconditionally if they ask for it and we are liberated if we forgive as he does. It doesn’t really matter if those who offended us know we have forgiven them or not, but there is such liberation and freedom if we forgive that we can’t possibly experience if we are bound by hate and unforgiveness. It doesn’t mean we forget what they have done to us or that we think it was ok for them to have done it. But if we lay that burden at the cross WE become free! Salvation works in ways we least expect it to.

  6. Jendi Reiter says:

    Marcia, I’m glad you’ve experienced that liberation in your own life, and thank you for wishing it for me as well.

    As I tried to explain in my recent posts on this topic, though, recovery from abuse entails a delayed flare-up of anger and fear, because we weren’t allowed to go through these appropriate reactions when the trauma was occurring. These feelings can’t be rushed through by an act of willpower or prayed away. I don’t hear much acknowledgment of this psychological fact in the standard Christian narratives about the benefits of forgiveness.

    How is Christ present with me in the thick of this agony — not only at some future date when it subsides? These difficult emotions are telling me the truth about what happened to me and that it was wrong. If God is truth, feelings that are truth-signals can’t be separating me from God, can they?

    Could you help me understand what you mean by “forgiveness” in this context? If it’s not something we say to the perpetrator, and not forgetfulness or excusing what she did, how is it actually different from the state I’m in now? What’s the burden I should be laying at the cross?

    For my thoughts about why Christ’s redemptive suffering is unique, and not a model for my attitude toward my abuser, see this post. Thanks for reading, please feel free to continue the dialogue!

  7. Ysabel says:

    Take heart, Jendi! Jesus threw the money changers from the temple, and I doubt that he ever “forgave” them. Turning the other cheek was, given the historical context, as much a statement of defiance as submission. I believe that Christ is with you, because he, too, lived through abuse, as did many of his “people” under Roman rule, under poverty, etc. I’ve just been told about a book called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality… might be good for all of us to read. And no, truth feelings never separate you from God.

  8. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for the encouragement! I’ve ordered the book. Friends, check out Ysabel’s blog at Getting Along With Grief.

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