Wrath -- or Grace?

by Jaye
Copyright © 2005 by Jaye Emrys, all rights reserved

Rev. Paul Eller and the author in 1967.
Rev. Paul Eller and the author in 1967.

          “The wrath of God is allowing the acts of men to come to their logical conclusions.”

          Rev. Paul Eller, spoke forcefully into our heated debate.

          We had been discussing everything from natural disasters to the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah at our church youth camp. Paul was the director. I was sixteen. The camp was run by a strict but not fundamentalist sect.

          Paul was a welcome exception to the ministers who taught divine retribution -- he taught a loving God ready to take us into his arms and comfort us.

          Therefore I was taken aback at his statement.

          My mind gnawed at it for thirty years. I knew he had something, but not the whole of it.

          I couldn't figure out what was missing until I stumbled into a Twelve Step group many years later and began seeing how the controlled chaos of the church itself had warped my developing years. It set me back to realize that that church had warped Paul's worldview, too.

          It is not the God's wrath that sifts out our fates. It's God's Grace!

          Virginia Satir writes in Peoplemaking that there are Five Freedoms to which every human being has a right --

          People able to use have those Freedoms and the Love of God comes in and teach them which actions are worth repeating and which are not. But in the chaos of an unhealthy family or church they are locked into rigid roles, stuck into behavior patterns until their freewill seems ripped from them. At that point, their feelings become bottled up inside. Then God's love is cut off at source and they slowly starve.

          In an unhealthy family, three things can happen.

          First, the parent does things that have to do with what's going on in our own minds, not with what's happening with family members. This is like the Greek Gods who became angry because they had fights on Olympus rather than because of anything men did, and then they took things out on people.

          The first step the Hebrews made in their monotheism was that their God treated people as the people deserved, not based on whim. More on this in a few minutes.

Paul Eller in 1978.
Paul Eller in 1978.

          Scientists put pigeons in a cage and dropped corn grains in randomly. They found the pigeons started repeatedly doing whatever they were doing when the grains came down into the cage, as if the pigeons thought what they were doing caused the grains to fall. Scientist call these birds “supersticious pigeons.” In the same spirit, gamblers can't shake the conviction that carrying a rabit's foot or wearing that old gray sweater was somehow linked to winning big last Thursday.

          In a healthy family, parents give firm but flexible guidance based on the needs of the child. The parent encourages, never shames, the child. The parent explains how behavior A causes consequence B and why it will do it again and again. And then the parent makes sure it does follow it again.

          A healthy God never "enables" an addict. Unfortunately, western society runs its economy on catering to addictive processes -- because addictive processes keep us trapped in a consumer lifestyle. Everything from cola to alcohol to gasoline we use and overuse.

          The only way out is to "rock the boat." To exercise Satir's Fifth Freedom and say "enough, already." That takes a lot of courage, especially if you come from a culture that teaches you not to rock the boat, and you believe that a consequence is God's wrath.

          If a child from a dysfunctional family is lucky, he or she finds a teacher, a scout master, a little league coach -- someone -- who neither lives chaotically nor enables -- someone who offers stability. Someone who says, "Go ahead and think without fear and feel what you feel, and see what is really happening around you and try new things." Often, even if the relationship with that person is relatively brief -- even only a week or so -- the memory of that one person can keep a child going long enough to grow up and get help as an adult. For me it was two people -- one when I was nine, and Paul in my teens. They listened to me. They showed me by listening that I was worth something.

          In addition to someone who cares, we need two things to make it in life -- a map of reality and feedback for our actions.

          When I was younger, I used to move around a lot -- an Army wife.

          When we came to a new town, the first thing we would do after unpacking enough to live was drive around and find out what was where. We needed to know what street took us to a grocery store, laundry, post office, library and theatre. It's the same with behaviors. We need to know where it "takes" us to use a soft voice and kind words as opposed to to yelling. What difference it makes to approaching a person with clenched fists or open hands. What getting drunk means. Not only that, we need a different map for each person we know. We need to know Aunt Mary doesn't like to be joked with but Uncle Ralph does. That it's okay to speak out in a group discussion but not in a lecture. The more subtle, sensitive, and precise our map and feedback aparatus are, the more successful we are in life, and especially in relationships.

          When we learn to ride a bicycle after several years on a trike, the hardest thing is finding out that as the bike veers off to the left, we have to push the handlebar to the left to compensate. It's the opposite of a trike. But once we do that by accident, we get immediate feedback -- the bike straightens out under us -- we have done the right thing. Thereafter, we know how to compensate. Without feedback we would never learn, and we would forever be limited to a tricycle.

    And so it is with life.

          Hebrews 12:6 says that whoever the Lord loves (and he loves us all), he chastens. According to Strong's Concordance, "chasten" in Greek can mean punish but it also means educate and is related to the root meaning nurture. When we think of Jesus and the little children, it becomes plain that nurturance must be large in the mix.

          AsScotty repeatedly told Kirk, "You can't change the laws of physics." But you can find new ways to work within them. Man can't fly -- but airplanes can. Man can't hold his breath very long under water -- but he can live in submarines. These are "doors" in previously blank walls. We can't keep approaching people in one way and expecting them to change how they treat us. Twelve Steppers define "insanity" as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. You want different results, try something new. You may have to try a bunch of new stuff to get the new thing you want, but at least you'll be getting new stuff.

          "Repent" as used in many verses comes from Hebrew "t'shuvah," which means turn back. In other verses, it comes from a completely unrelated Hebrew word, "nacham," meaning to sigh, to be sorry, to repent.  When we both regret what we have done and change our behavior, we open ourselves up for Love and Grace. For -- as the Hindus would say -- a whole new Karma. Or as Jesus would say, our sins are forgiven and all is made new.

          Which brings us to "grace." American Heritage Dictionary gives the theological definition as

“a. Divine love and protection bestowed freely on people. b. The state of being protected or sanctified by the favor of God. c. An excellence or a power granted by God.”
          - American Heritage Dictionary (1994)

          Many pagans (bear in mind that there are many branches of paganism, so what I say may not be true of the branch you know) don't have a concept of Grace as such. They believe that we bring karmic bonds into this life that we can't sever -- but that we can transform. They believe that our purpose in this life is to transform them.

          Which do I believe? I agree with the pagans in one way. If you have ever had a relationship with a person, you carry that relationship with you in your heart forever. Whether you ever see the person again or not, you may worry it over to your death. Wonder exactly what was happening, what the dynamics were. There are two things going on here. There was the actual physical you-and-she events that existed in time and space, that ended when the two of you walked out of the room. And there is the you-and-she-in-your-head. You may never be able to reconcile with her-in-the-room, but you can always work on reconciling with her-in-your-head. Even after she dies. More on that in other articles.

          You work on going from this life with positive bonds. The transformation of a relationship, even the relationship in your heart, can be the most fulfilling thing you ever do in life. The most Grace-filled thing. If there is someone you have trouble dealing with, whether it's someone you used to get along with and had a falling out, or it's someone you've simply hit it off badly with from the beginning, I encourage you to work on transforming it. Jesus said if you bring your offering, and you remember you have something against your brother, lay down your gift and go, be reconciled with your brother, and THEN put your gift on the altar. This is not because God rejects you when you have a beef with someone, but because when you do, you're preoccupied; you don't have the singleness of purpose it takes to approach Deity.

          How do you reconcile, even with the person-in-your-head? Especially with the person-in-your-head?

          First, be willing. The first step in being willing is opening your mind to the possibility that maybe you were both a little right. You had your points of view. You had your needs. Both your needs were valid. Step out of your eyes for just a moment. Let's picture, for example, an argument. "Walk" yourself over and "step" into your friend (or brother)'s eyes and ears, and listen to what you were saying, and how you were saying it. How did you come across? Can you feel how his muscles felt, in the posture he was standing in? Can you feel the tightness in his face if he was scowling? The clenching that made his fist? His heart pounding?

          Second, never, ever forget that what you're imaging is only a guess. You never, ever, know what was actually going on in his head. Sometimes you're not even close. So step into his head and try again. Maybe that fist was trying to hold back tears. Maybe it was trying to keep from taking your hand because he was "just sure" that if he reached out to you at that moment, you'd slap him. Try each possibility on, and see how he'd have felt with it.

          By the time you've run through four or five scenarios, enough that you know you don't have any idea what he was feeling, you are ready for the next step.

          Second, wait. This is crucial. If you've put your heart into uproar with step one, you may be rarin' to go out and get on with reconciling, but you are likely in no condition to have the dispassion needed. You may get thrown into feelings the exercise brought up at a wrong word. Worse, you might get thrown into the ones of the actual argument. Let the feelings sift.

          How do you sift them? Journal. Draw. Paint. Sculpt. Write a song. Talk them out with a counselor or Twelve Step sponsor -- but do yourself and the other person involved a favor -- only talk them over with someone with whom you have a relationship bordered with confidentiality. Someone who understands that role and accepts it and carries it out with integrity. This process can take a few days to several months -- maybe even years, depending on how fast you process and on how deep the breach was between the two of you. It also depends on your basic personality -- how fast you're able to assimilate change. And sometimes your feelings don't change for years and then transmute overnight. Boom, one day they're different. Things have been sifting underneath, or you get one crucial insight that clicks and you see it from your opponent's point of view. You suddenly find out your tyrant of a father had been beaten all his childhood by his own father. You see him in your mind, trying to get out of sight before he started to cry, a scrawny ten-year-old.

          When you're finally ready to reconcile with your friend, make an effort to find out what his life is like before approaching him. Will injecting yourself into it help or hurt? I recommend using the least invasive technique possible if you're not sure how your overture will be taken. A letter over a phonecall. Let him decide over a period of hours or days whether to respond or not. It's hard, but it's fair. When I decided to open contact with my ex after his second wife died, I included my e-mail and mail room address in the sympathy note. Four months later, I got an e-mail from him. By that time, I had almost forgotten I had written him! And yet, it was exactly the perfect time, and the healing has been miraculous. We had not spoken or written -- in fact, I had been so afraid of him I had explicitly asked his family not to tell him where I was -- for twenty-two years. It turned out he had been as afraid of me as I had been of him. Things had happened that neither of us have figured out, but that each had thought the other had done -- some third party gremlins that we'll probably never trace down.

          Years ago, a minister told me I deserved whatever I got from God for telling a very dysfunctional guy where I lived. When I left this minister's church, and churches in general, I took only Jesus with me. Just his words. They played over and over in counterpoint to what Paul Eller had said. I knew I was a sinner. But I also knew Jesus accepted the woman at the well. It was not the wrath of God, but the Grace of God, that brings our works to their conclusions! Without consequences, we would never be able to learn from our mistakes!

          It was my turning point.

          I got into therapy. At the same point, I also started looking for a "map" to God.

          Problem was, the one I'd been told was the only one hadn't worked. I'd tried it for 15 years, and it had failed miserably. Mainstream Christianity. Protestantism of nearly every ilk. I think the only thing I hadn't tried was churches that worshipped standing on their heads.

          I had another seven years before I found the right "underpass."

          I met someone who talked about his Inner Child.... My reaction was, "You may have an inner child, but I guarantee you, I don't!" I can't remember when I've been so defensive about something.

          He said, "Yes, you do. Everyone does." But later he loaned me a book. And then another one. And another one.

          As I came to know the wounded child inside, I pictured an enormous spillway, the cement tube at the side of Hoover dam where the water in flood stage spills over to relieve overfill. The day I was at the dam, there was only a tiny trickle of water in the bottom, and that's how the trickle of God-love was. The love had always been working between God and the child. The blockage had been between the child and the adult me. I had felt cut off from God because I had cut myself off so completely from that immature part of myself. The message had been all my life, "Act your age! Grow up! Don't be a baby!" It had been self defense! I had left her behind just as fast as I could! When I started opening up the spillway, letting more "water" through, both upstream between God and the child, and between the child and "me," things started popping!

          It's a heady feeling, letting the water into the spillway. The channel is fifty feet across and can let 200,000 cubic feet of water through a second -- the actual, physical one at Hoover Dam. 200,000 cubic feet per second of "God" is a lot of love. A lot of grace.

          As I changed my behavior, Grace came into my life. A little at a time. A trickle at first. I'm still working on that 200,000 cubic feet/second.

          Paul Eller is gone now, but he changed the world. I was not the only one he went apart with and listened to, because I saw him sitting with others throughout the camp weeks. I'm betting he helped them.

          Blessings on you, and on your house.

  1. American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition Version 3.6a. Copyright 1994 Softkey International Inc.
  2. Satir, Virginia (1998). The New Peoplemaking Los Altos, California, U.S.A.: Science & Behavior Books.

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