When people come to therapy, they are typically hurting. This hurt feels emotional, but it often goes deeper than that, it is spiritual. Part of the experience of pain is asking about the pain itself. Why am I experiencing this? Am I alone in this? Difficult experiences such as loss, grief, or depression often lead us to start asking these existential questions; more than just wanting to get through the pain, we wonder how we ought to relate to our own pain.
I’ve been on a journey grappling with how God relates to suffering for as long as I can remember. The same questions I’ve asked to myself many times, I now hear from clients, whether spoken or felt. I feel the question as I empathize with their pain. Who was caring for them in their pain? When they were young, alone and hurting, or being hurt by someone they love, did anyone see their pain? Why did someone they love do this to them? Where was God when they were hurting?
I have had the honor to serve clients from many different backgrounds; some believe in God, some do not, and religious and spiritual practices have varied. However, the human heart hurts and questions all the same.
Whatever the client’s religious or spiritual orientation, they are on a journey with their own pain. I think of the body of Christ; when one part suffers we all suffer. We bear each other’s burdens, and God abides with us in the suffering. Yet, the language of God may be triggering to people, considering how God has been appropriated to serve dehumanizing causes.
The song New Portrait by KB speaks well to the issue of how humans graft their cultural, political and ideological perspectives onto God, causing immense harm. The song depicts the suffering inflicted upon an entire people group in the name of God and eloquently explicates how he grapples with this himself as a Black Christian. Stating facts of history and from the lens of liberation theology, he reclaims the name, identity and purpose of Jesus, the purpose of God of the oppressed.
How can an African like me get the vision
When these preachers owned slaves
But taught that freedom was Christian?
Christ of the culture, Christ to the vultures
Committed genocide with a cross and a holster
Christ of America, Christ of the system
That is not my Savior, that’s a politician
Yes, He did arrive, yes, He was alive
Brown Middle Eastern, definitely wasn’t white
Died as a criminal from the hood part of town
What can I say? Yes, He is God
No, He never married, He never had any wives
But committed His life to a interracial bride
Yes, He did rise days after He died
God of the oppressed, even in it, He still thrives
From the womb to the tomb to the throne
You can go to the moon but you can’t hold to His bones
Nobody owns a saint, portraits are all failing
He made us in his, Da Vince returned the favor
But He is still risen, He is still risen, He is still risen
Over the guns and supremacists, over all the division
Over the wicked intentions, the real One is livin’
–excerpt from New Portrait, by KB
I weep every time I hear this song because it encourages me so deeply. The pain that we feel as humanity, as ethnic groups, and as individuals is real. The trauma and heartache we have caused one another (often tragically in the name of religion) is staggering. We have politicized the hopes of our souls, we have torn love from Love, and created our own conditions for suffering and division.
Love is essential, and as humans we do our best. Babies require love, and if they don’t receive it, they can experience neurological damage. Children need love and acceptance to grow and develop into healthy adults. Parents love their children with dedication and sacrifice, giving them back what was given to them. Partners, families, friends, and neighbors all choose to love one another. We love in community. We love imperfectly; we often corrupt the idea of love on both the systemic and familial level because we humans are so imperfect. Yet we can choose to keep loving through all the pain.
We are not alone in our love. We have our connection to the Loving God or spiritual being and we have each other. Opening yourself up to the work of dealing with pain and the meta-questions about the pain itself is hard. It is a profound act of self-love, an opening of receptance to divine Love. It is an act that is necessary to grow and heal. Emotional and spiritual work is difficult. I believe it is worth the effort.
Therapists are not saviors. They will not make the pain go away, but a good therapist will listen well, empathizing and abiding with you in your pain, helping you do that deep soul work. As you learn how to accept fear, acknowledge pain, and move forward in hope, you can begin taking steps along your own path of healing.