So many times at the drop-in we run in the church where I volunteer I have been talking to someone who is caught in an impossible cycle.
They were abused as children, which continues to give them mental health problems.
Because of the mental health problems they can’t get work.
Because they can’t get work they are very short of money.
Because they are short of money they can’t pay for the counselling help they need to help relieve their mental health problems (the six sessions of CBT the NHS offer is woefully inadequate when people have had significant past trauma). And round you go.
Add in your choice of drugs or alcohol, debt or housing problems, a criminal record or a past littered with broken relationships (or any combination of the above) and you have a situation that would make anyone feel helpless. And certainly as one listening to the tale of woe you feel helpless.
And yet we say we have a gospel which brings salvation, which brings healing for mind, body and spirit. And we usually summarise it by saying ‘Jesus died on the cross for your sins’. But somehow that little sentence seems so woefully inadequate when faced with the kind of issues the person at the drop-in is facing. They are sinners, yes, as we all are. But so much of their situation is also because they have been sinned-against. What happened to them as children forever damaged their ability to trust, and gave them a poor model on which to base future relationships. They are also sinned-against by a society that doesn’t fund mental health services properly, a country that has too little affordable housing and by the drug pushers and loan sharks who have exploited their vulnerability.
Just saying ‘Jesus died for your sins’ won’t do as the gospel for these people.
And if the gospel we are preaching doesn’t connect with these people, I suspect it’s not the gospel that Jesus preached, because he would have been right there with them in all their struggles.
So which bits of the gospel do connect?
To find out, I recently spent some time interviewing tenants of a Christian housing project and those who worked with them. It became very clear that there were three questions that those who had been homeless were asking to do with faith. These were critical questions for them; if they weren’t addressed our gospel wouldn’t connect.
- Am I worth it?
- Where was God when I was abused?
- Can I trust you… and therefore can I trust your God?
Am I worth it?
‘Am I worth it?’ is a question that comes out of a sense of shame. It is a question about the value of one’s being. Someone who has been abused has had their sense of the value of who they are profoundly damaged. Telling them that God says they are a sinner who needs forgiveness is not a helpful opening line. Way before that they need to know that God is someone who can be trusted. Someone who values them because he made them.
Where was God when..?
The question of how there can be so much suffering in the world with a God who is all-powerful and all-loving is such a challenging one, and it is important to be able to say that we’ll probably not know the real answer to this until the end of time. It’s important to be able to say you don’t know what to say in the light of something as awful as child abuse. To sit with the terrible reality and not try to jump in with answers.
But what we can say is that God knows what it is to suffer. That Jesus was stripped naked and humiliated and tortured. He stands in solidarity with all who have suffered. He understands the shame they feel at not being able to defend themselves. He grieves over the brokenness of his world.
(There’s a brilliant summary of the issues around suffering here if you want to read more)
Can I trust you..and so can I trust your God?
This question can only be answered by living it out. By addressing physical and emotional needs as well as spiritual ones. By being utterly reliable. By continuing faithfully to support someone however badly they behave. By having clear boundaries and keeping to them. By being fair and unprejudiced. By being prepared to go the second mile. By keeping confidences. By making sure our walk matches our talk. Always. We are modelling the behaviour of the God we profess to follow. That’s a tall order.
Only after all that can we talk about the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins.