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Staying Power

March 9, 2014

“Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?” Deuteronomy 4:33″


How do you know if the trial you or someone you care about is going through includes the unusual grief of ambiguous loss?

I don’t claim to have a laundry list of indicators, but I’m beginning to recognize a few on the you-don’t-have-to-read-a-book-to-know level. The subject of this post is one sign: the wish/plan for someone to go away.

So maybe after the introductory post on ambiguous loss you wondered, Is this what has been weighing on my heart? Is this part of my friend’s suffering?

If so, another person also came to mind, someone it is easy to conceptualize as the person with the problem.

Maybe you’ve found yourself mulling scenarios under which a troubling person might go away. At first these possibilities are quiet ponderings in your heart. What would our family dynamics be like if…. We had not brought home this child?  …I had married someone else?

After a while, you may confide the thought aloud to a close friend. “Some days, I understand how kids come to be re-homed.”  Or, “What is the marital equivalent of residential treatment for a spouse with RAD?”

After a while, with no meaningful help on the horizon, no significant course correction in sight, the going-away wish may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The child is placed out of the family. Couples separate or divorce.

That’s one reason we need to understand that ambiguous loss is real: so we can intercept the “going away” wishes when they are still thoughts and take them seriously, recognizing that our anxieties stem from the ambiguities of the circumstances themselves: the complex reactions and responses of the entire family system to the ongoing, unresolved grief triggered by the crisis.

This is quite different from our natural inclination: to think the solution is to eliminate the source of the problem –the person whose crisis appears to be triggering chaos in the family system.

gas flame wikimedia commons

Think of holding your hand too close to a flame on a gas burner on a stove. The nerve endings in your skin register dangerous heat and your brain automatically warns you to snatch your hand away from the fire.

Our hearts seem to be wired the same way in relationships. We take the heat as long as we can stand it. But there comes a point when it feels like we can take no more.

Often, having borne with dysfunction in a relationship so long,  by the time we come to our senses and realize just how hot this fire has gotten, it seems it is no longer confined to the stove but  threatens to consume the whole kitchen. The result is panic: the feeling that the fire is not only a danger to us, but to our entire family.

At this out-of-control-stage, finally, outsiders begin to pay attention. The standard intervention in the church is to quote Bible verses admonishing husbands/wives/parents from fleeing burning buildings. I have no quarrel with scripture. But the way we tend to use the Bible in these situations is about as helpful as handing the person a hammer and telling them to use it to beat out the flames.

It would be far more effective if we were proactive in counseling, teaching, and discipling each other that as Christians we are called to suffer. We are called to live our lives with our hands in proximity to flames for Jesus’ sake. This is a normative Christian experience, not something to be feared or judged.

Humanly we cannot live  in close proximity to the heat without pulling away, we cannot suffer in a way that glorifies God, without asbestos gloves on our hands. And asbestos gloves are not standard-issue human equipment. They are spiritual power gear.

This is where we intervene too late. By the time the kitchen (a family system) is aflame, there is too much adrenaline in the system to be quiet before God. There is too much flight-or-flight for humility. Too much anger to let love guide, too much pain to let peace rule, too much control to let go and give God free reign.

The agitation, the anxiety, adds oxygen to the fire. The original flames are fanned higher and scarier and the family can become trapped in a self-perpetuating dysfunctional loop of reactions to reactions that keeps even the healthier members from coping well with the original fire.

This is where the person-must-go wish becomes self-fulfilling: we conclude that the original fire is the problem; the fire must go before it burns the house down. I do not doubt that there are some cases where separating combustible elements is an absolutely necessary step toward a goal of restoration.

But I can say this: there is another way. Way back when the fire was still contained to the burner on the stove, I could have used some counsel that went like this:

“I see this hand-next-to-the-flame-business-is-painful for you. When I got to this stage I just wanted to run away because it felt so unfair. I started out with the best of intentions and full of faith and did everything I knew to do. Yet it just didn’t go the way I expected God would make it go, you know? I’ve never been so disappointed.”

I think would have wept, then, to find someone who understood.

But when I finished crying I would have looked up, thinking of my own hands, so painful with fresh blisters they could barely clench the tear-soaked tissue in my fingers. Feeling a little-self righteous about my pain, I would have challenged the truth of her story, the missing evidence:

“But your hands are fine. You’re not scared. You don’t look like a burn victim.”

I imagine she would have smiled. “You should have seen me before I upgraded my gloves. When you are called to live next to fire and stay there, you need gloves that can stand the heat. Someone counseled me like I am counseling you: When you find you can’t stand the fire God has appointed, you need to go back to the Bible and re-outfit yourself with more of God than you are wearing. He is all you need. You’ve never needed Him this much before so you had no idea you were under dressed. It’s your job to get dressed every day: to allow Him to transform your heart and mind, to keep working on you until you can take the heat in the kitchen He’s called you to.”

And that returns us to the price of the tea in the kettle on this stove called ambiguous loss. Despite the fantasy that we can make the troubling person go away, and with that departure, restore the imagined equilibrium we idolize, most people don’t have the power to resolve ambiguous loss by terminating the person from the family system. Not to mention the fact that it is rarely biblical.

Ambiguous loss is real. But the troubled person is not the problem in ambiguous loss; the person is simply the trigger. The anxieties, some of the most intense suffering in ambiguous loss, stem from the ambiguities themselves: the complex reactions and responses of the entire family system to ongoing, unresolved grief.

And much of that grief is actually rooted in our own sin. It is always easier to see the troubling person’s sin than our own. That’s why we need to pull our thoughts up short when we imagine sending them away will fix things. Distancing their sin may simply restore the comfortable distance we’d rather maintain between our ego and our own sinful shortcomings.

God uses ambiguous loss, like He uses everything, to reveal how desperately people need Him. The person in crisis needs Him and the people coping with the crisis need Him. All of us need God in greater measure than we’ve previously known and He’s in the business of making that plain.


“For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him. Out of heaven you hear his voice, that he may discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire and you heard his voice in the midst of the fire….Know you therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” Deuteronomy 4:32-36, 39


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