In 1933, a young pastor and a historian walked through the countryside of Germany, just beyond the city of Finkenwalde. They talked about the experiment this young radical pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had begun in his discipleship community. There were rumors the program was too intense, too spiritual, and there were fears for participant burn out. As they climbed to the top of the summit, they looked out below them to the vast military machine of the young Reich.
If the German war machine were to be defeated, it would mean a new kind of discipleship that was stronger than the soldiers marching below “like so many ants…You have to be stronger than these tormentors that you find everywhere today.” (Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 2014)
Jon Tyson, in his book Beautiful Resistance: The Joy of Conviction in a Culture of Compromise, calls this “Beautiful Resistance” the idea that THIS must be stronger than THAT. The faith of Bonhoeffer’s disciples had to be greater than the pull of patriotism and loyalty to the German politics of the 1930’s.
I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately. This idea that THIS: our faith, our hope, the Gospel message of grace, forgiveness and freedom, must be greater than THAT: our shame, our guilt, a societal message that we are unforgivable, unlovable and worthless.
A lot of our friends in the recovery community talk about taking that initial drink or drug and realizing that the side effect was oblivion. It was an escape from shame or trauma, from the impossibility of being alone with themself. Sitting consciously with their pain was too burdensome, and it seemed a small price to pay to drink or drug and become someone entirely different.
In a way, that oblivion, while short lived felt like a moment freed from the captivity of a broken reality.
Picture a nomadic tribe seeing a cloud along the horizon and excitedly saying to one another “Could that be the Israelites? The nation that escaped from captivity in Egypt?” And as they hurried to catch up instead of rejoicing they heard grumbling: “We’ve been brought out to the desert to starve? Manna every day? We should be back in captivity where after making bricks all day at least we got to eat dates and honey!” (I’m paraphrasing.)
Sometimes there is a certain safety in captivity, a predictability. You know the routine: you wake up, you make bricks and think about how trapped you are, how much you hate clay getting stuck between your toes, the first thing you’ll do on the other side of captivity…and then in a weird way there’s almost a comfort to going home and knowing you’ll do it again tomorrow.
I’m speaking from experience.
I was trapped in captivity in the shape of anger and bitterness for a very long time. I’ve spent years trying to get to the root of it, but I think more than anything, this is my struggle, my heart was set on anger and so I became angry. I was prepared for bitterness and so I dutifully cultivated it when it showed up.
Anger became a comfortable habit and it was the place I returned to when I was tired, hungry, lonely or sad. I wasn’t in “Egypt” right away. The journey into captivity was an intentional journey. I chose path after path to walk further into Egypt, until I lost sight of the way back, and then I made metaphorical bricks, daydreamed about freedom and went to bed only to repeat the cycle over and over again.
Freedom felt unknown and scary. Who would I be without my anger? In a weird way, anger had become a coping mechanism, when the emotions felt yucky in any way I could just find a handy scapegoat and explode. At the end I would experience equal parts shame for my out-of-control anger and relief for the outpouring of pent-up emotion. That was my solution.
A friend of mine once asked how I could live like this if I was a Christian? That’s a good question. I don’t think anyone wakes up one day and says to themself: “Hmmm, you know what I want to do? Cultivate a lifestyle of terrible choices that leaves me feeling inadequate, ashamed and unlovable!” I think it’s a slowly building military machine. It’s one ant finding the cookie and then left unresolved the ant colony moves in and takes up residence.
So, what do we do when we’re trapped?
Usually, things that are trapped become hopeless. The etymology of the word “haggard” means a “trapped adult bird.” I get that. I’ve been that bird.
In freedom and captivity, the songs we sing are incredibly important. Do we cultivate anger, or do we bring a “sacrifice of praise”? Do we cultivate bitterness, or do we thank God, the author and the perfecter of our faith?
For me…the songs came after repentance. I had to make a few phone calls and ask for forgiveness. I had to realize that there was something I valued in the muck and the mire of my anger and if I wanted freedom, I had to be willing to get out of the pigsty and make the journey back home.
The cool thing is that God always runs to us with open arms. But another cool thing, is that we, the people of God get to posture that joy of the Father and run towards each other…and I think THIS is what becomes greater than THAT! Seeing people run towards each other with grace and an outpouring of love and affection is way more attractive than the polarizing world in which we live.
THIS: Seeing a people speak hope into the midst of chaos instead of THAT: fear mongering, stirring up division, discord and polarity.
THIS: Hope that God can use us in our brokenness for his glory, that he can use us in our freedom for his glory and that he can even use us in seasons of rebellion for his glory, instead of THAT: an unreasonable and unrealistic demand for perfection.
THIS: The fundamental belief that God has called us by name and that there is a purpose and a plan for our lives, even in the pain and heartache vs. THAT: life is meaningless, purposeless and without hope.
I Peter 2:9-10 says: “…But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
In a miraculous way, God has restored the “years the locust have eaten.” Relationships I thought were unsalvageable for years have become strengthened and renewed. God has brought reconciliation, hope and joy into the messy brokenness of my heart and I have received mercy, I have been set free.
Anger and bitterness are my drugs of choice. I have to guard my heart. I have to recognize that the battle is not against flesh and blood. That I, like Bonhoeffer, can also stand on a hill overlooking the great military machine of the enemy. An enemy that is cunning and devious and sometimes sounds like my own voice encouraging me into old patterns of behaviors.
There are two sides to this battle. Every moment of worship, thanksgiving and praise is an act of war. We know who ultimately wins this battle, but I want to be the most effective soldier I can be. I’m done sabotaging myself. I’m totally in. All in.
I was talking to another friend in recovery the other day, asking what keeps people from truly pursuing sobriety. She said, “Their addiction is doing something for them…There’s something that’s pulling them back and they keep returning to it.”
That thought is as relatable as it is devastating.
Friends. Whatever is holding you back. Whatever lies you are believing to return day after day to captivity, I’m telling you this from experience: it’s not worth it. The scariness and unpredictability of freedom is far superior to the known bondage and captivity of our hearts. It’s time to shake off the chains. We’ve been set free!
Dean Wright is the Executive Director of The Desens House, a faith-based, community driven model of recovery dedicated to transforming and restoring broken lives. Their vision is to set generations free from addiction one life at a time. Desens House – Setting generations free, https://www.facebook.com/TheDesensHouse, Desens House (@desenshouse) • Instagram photos and videos