One thing that ties in here is the need to broaden the traditional understanding of what sin is, and what salvation entails. Traditionally, sin is understood as hurtful things we do to others. This separates us from God. However, there are many other things that separate us from God besides this. Things that have more to do with being sinned against, or living under the dominion of sin.
We see that Jesus most of the time was ministering to those who were sick, or who were excluded, or who were suffering. A message of repentance is important and needed to be sure. But when we focus on this to the exclusion of other things that cut people off from God and love then we make the gospel far too small. We underestimate the scope of the problem of sin. Paul speaks of sin as not just about our hurtful actions (“sins”) but about the dominion of evil (“sin” without an “s”).
What is interesting about this is IF we think of the problem only in terms of bad things we do then we end up with a particular focus: how to respond to bad behavior. The traditional answer to this is “with punishment.” But once we realize that the scope of what separates us from God is not only restricted to bad things we do, but also bad things that happen to us, then that very narrow solution becomes a bad fit. So what is a solution that fits all of these? I’d say it is restoration. Both those who are estranged from God because they are in a cycle of hurting, and those who are estranged because they have been hurt–both of these need to be restored into a loving relationship with God.
What we have found through advances is mental health is that a restorative approach works–not only with people who have been hurt, but also with people who are hurtful-- while a retributive approach does not work, and in fact tends to have the opposite effect of hardening people rather than producing empathy. So science (psychology and neurology) are now telling us what Jesus seems to have known way before them (big surprise!).
Consequently, the solution is also much bigger. The scope of what Jesus did for our salvation is much much bigger than just forgiving our sin. Yes, it emphatically does involve this, but it also involves a lot more. It entails a new creation, an end to sickness, an end to suffering, and end to our estranged existence of abandonment, doubt, and pain, as Matt so beautifully expresses,
Bob expresses this “next to last word, and last word” in a much more succinct way,
In the meantime, we are called to be “ambassadors of reconciliation.” I believe that it is crucial that this be a focus on the broader (and better) way of restoring both sinner and sinned against, and not on the old (and failed) way of hurting back people who hurt. That means that:
when we care for the poor, it is simply wrong to say that this is not the gospel. It is an integral part of the gospel, just as much as leading people to loving behavior is. Perhaps we can connect the dots and tell them that the love we show is a reflection of God’s love for them, but we really need to get that caring for those in need is not a distraction from the gospel IT IS THE GOSPEL. It is what Jesus spend most of his time doing. It is completely connected to the cross.
In keeping with that, we need to do all we can to heal our broken world, to help love to break in to people’s lives, to stop violence and suffering. It’s not enough to simply be against violence, we need to ask how we can work to reduce it. Asking: What can we do actively, not just what should we abstain from doing?
In short, I’m all for a belief/hope in universal reconciliation, but that MUST translate into our action in working towards that in evangelism in the form of: demonstrating God’s love to people, in caring for their needs, in mending broken hearts, in feeding the hungry, in healing sickness, in stopping violence by fostering empathy and peace. All of that is evangelism, because all of that is part of spreading the gospel.
Wow, the great discussion continues… I think on some lines of thought we’re beginning to bump into that brick wall marked “sovereignty”, such as when we ask questions like, “why does God rescue some people from certain situations, but doesn’t rescue others from them”…
Just tossing this out there for the moment, I’ll have to read more carefully through the posts since my last and add any more comments that may come to me.
I ran across a couple of scriptures recently that would seem to lend support that any “punishment” of the wicked will occur here on earth: Proverbs 11:31 and Isaiah 24:21.
In addition, what’s particularly interesting about the Isaiah verse is the definitions of the word translated “punish” there. (There is only one sense in which the word means “punish”, but look at the other definitions, as well as the event this scripture seems to be referring to.)
Derek, Just a minor clarification: I was encouraging Dave that you are actually quite receptive to his approach. So my suggestion that he wanted to hear that “resurrection heals everything” (i.e. no further process is possible in unrepentant lives) is not my position, but the position that I perceived that you and Dave share.
I’m not sure I know what you mean by “no further process is possible in unrepentant lives.” Perhaps you could clarify? How would you differentiate your view from the statement if yours I had quoted earlier?
Probably good to keep in mind that the perspective(s) in the OT are often quite different than in the NT. Generally, the OT does not have much of a notion of the afterlife at all. Also the idea of the devil is pretty much absent in the OT. So I’d be pretty hesitant to interpret things the way you are since it implies an inerrant interpretation of Scripture (i.e. it assumes that human authors and culture played virtually no role, and the whole Bible is just one big book with one cohesive view). I find that inerrant approach to be pretty impossible to maintain. So while I sympathize with your direction (no punishment in afterlife), I’m uneasy about how you get there (flat inerrant reading).
Derek, My unclear words were describing the view that no painful judgment or other divine dealings will be possible in the lives of the resurrected unrepentant, since resurrection simply “heals everything.” I was perceiving an affinity between those who emphasize all ‘punishment’ and severity is immoral/unBiblical, and ultra-universalists who may believe God’s whole solution will be instantaneous transformation on the day of resurrection. I may wrongly assume you share that affinity?
While my essays page here controversially argue against violence, my “difference” is in retaining sympathy for the classic universalist view (Pary/Talbott) that a purgatorial process may be part of God’s plan both now and in the life to come.
Yep. And I am aware of that dynamic, as well as the whole inerrantist issue. What I find interesting though is how the apostle Paul, who is the poster-boy for the NT so frequently draws on things found in the OT that he fleshes out for us in his letters; and how when he does this, it casts the OT in a whole new light. The OT prophets may not have understood at all what they were prophesying, but that doesn’t mean (even with overall inerrancy issues) that what they prophesied was not inspired and therefore untrue.
I see scripture as progressive revelation, but we get some very strong hints in the OT pointing toward the new covenant. It even says (somewhere in the NT, IIRC) that God in his forbearance didn’t even punish those in Sheol who’d been there pre-crucifixion, essentially because God had a better program on the way.
I am, like you, more interested in the overall meta-narrative. I just still like to go around and look for puzzle-pieces.
Yeah, I don’t know about the “instantaneous transformation” part. I was simply affirming the idea that while there is clearly suffering now, that I hold the hope that somehow God will make it right when “every tear is wiped away.”
As far as the “purgatorial process” goes it’s important to keep in mind that what would need to be “purged” is not just our bad behavior like pride and malice where we might tend to think that punishment could help, but also our insecurities, doubts, self-hatred, worthlessness, pain, and so on that would also need to be “purged” since these also can cut us off from God and lead to hurtful behavior. With these, it really does not make much sense to think that punishing someone who hates themselves or who is afraid would be very “purging.” In fact, I would imagine that it could push them deeper into the darkness. So it seems to me to be a view that breaks down as soon as we recognize that the problem of “sin” is a lot more complicated than willful transgression.
Derek,I’ve assumed that all Christians hope that ultimately all tears will be wiped away (traditionalists for a select group, universalists for everyone). If for you some future continued ‘process’ is possible, we perhaps only differ semantically on whether ‘purgatorial’ has a place. I agree completely that a sense of insecurity/inadequacy is often a central obstacle to becoming what we’re meant to be, and that painful experiences be may precisely what is not helpful.
Yet for me it doesn’t seem to follow from this indeed “complicated problem of sin” that there can never be a need for some purifying process, or even that sometimes painful experiences are valuable in our growth, or focusing our attention on what is disastrous. I know this sounds to you like we are completely insensitive to the horrendous moral problem and suffering which ‘punishment’ commonly brings. But it is precisely the “complicated” aspect of the challenges within our nature that feed my instincts to resist an either/or position here. I.e. I’m afraid I think the notion of both ‘carrot and stick’ may have some kind of applications in what we see both in Scripture and in the kind of existence in which God allows us to find ourselves.
I don’t think it is just semantics. I think the issue is that we cannot seem to agree on a solid definition of what we are talking about. The definition keeps shifting between wildly different meanings. So until we can nail down precisely what is meant, it really is not possible to converse on this topic.
I have tried to offer some very clear definitions, but folks have then almost immediately departed from these. So, given that, I’m completely at a loss for how conversation is possible here.
Thanks for your in-depth responses, bro, appreciate your thoughts
To comment on a few:
Aye, you’re right, it is hard to imagine anything like that, but then with God all things are possible
That’s a beautiful vision, bro I do hope for that… reminds me of this short poem:
I like that, ‘…God’s still small voice breathes healing over all.’
Aye, the world is groaning in expectation, that’s for sure.
And that reminds me, my fiancee told me recently that while she was attending a church camp last year (or the year before, can’t remember) she said that God spoke into her heart something like this: ‘Trust in Me, for I am the Healer’… something along those lines anyway.
I agree there bro… I think people could actually get by without the scriptures (though since they’re available, we mi’aswell make use of them)… what we need more than anything is the Spirit to teach us and guide us…
Yeah, I have often wondered if crossing the veil would be like being born… though we’d probably have a bit more ability to perceive what’s going on… and hopefully wouldn’t have our butts slapped by a doctor. Probably not.
Though I do imagine we’d find ourselves in loving arms, just as many of us did when we were born into this world.
Aye, I believe that earth will always be our home…
It may well be that God would permit us to explore the universe in our resurrected bodies (which may be capable of interstellar travel or teleportation, who knows? Beam me up, Jesus! ), but I believe this world will always be where we belong, even though one day it will be made new.
You’re welcome, Dave, and yeah, we need to keep all the pain, all around us, and inside of us, in mind… if our faith cannot address the world’s pain or our pain or offer any answer to it, or hope in the face of it, then our faith has no meaning, let alone power…
Aye Let justice roll down like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream!
Ah, maybe the word punishing is the wrong one because it comes with so much baggage… I guess what I mean by punishing is correction, discipline, that sort of thing, like a loving heavenly father teaching his kids right from wrong, rather than a stern cosmic cop ruffing up some good for nothing criminals… or something like that anyway.
That sounds beautiful bro
And about the Mighty Breasts…
But then again, I do believe that God is as much a Mother as a Father.
Wow Can’t say I’ve heard someone tell me they thought my writings were worthy of being canonized.
Can’t say I feel very inspired at the moment (had a shoddy day today, and made an ass of myself in a number of ways ), but if God is working through my words, in spite of my stumbling and my mediocrity, to encourage and help others, then I am very thankful for that.
Blessings to you Dave, and I do hope that we can meet sometime in the near future, as we do not live too far apart
I guess the way my brain works is I try to keep the baby and throw out the bathwater
By that I mean take hold of the things that make sense and ring true in my heart and my mind, and then the things that don’t, I either just set them aside for later, or throw them out altogether… that may sound as though I’m got a cafeteria kind of thing going, but… oh heck, I’m not ashamed to say it, I got a cafeteria kind of thing going.
I mean, there are so many voices and opinions and perspectives in this world, mine being only one, and sometimes it can be really overwhelming… so I’m just trying to process all of that, just trying to think for myself, and, well, follow my feet, as it were… if I perceive flaws in something, I may not throw the whole thing out… I may keep the things that still resonate, that still ring true, and where there are gaps, look for ways to fill them, or just try to live with them…
And I’m sure you know where I’m coming from here, and probably take a similar approach… I mean, we kind of have to… we can claim to accept things all a piece, but it’s our nature to pick and choose… and why? Because there are flaws and gaps everywhere, and there are flaws and gaps in us, and… oh my goodness, I can’t find words for this.
Let’s just say that life is messy, and trying to understand life, God, the world, one another, ourselves, is messy too.
It’s a messy process, this searching for truth thing… which is why I think there are so many different philosophies, religions, worldviews… and 35,000 denominations within Christendom alone
I don’t know bro, reading Derek’s book, I can’t say I thought it was full of fallacious premises (though I’m not even sure what that means… sorry, I’m kind of dense, or just tired ), it seemed pretty solid to me, what he was saying, even if it still left some unanswered questions, as does any book… maybe you’re being a bit hard on Derek?
And I do believe there is probably some miscommunication going on here between some of you guys, and I can feel some tension and frustration (though with a desire to be gracious and keep the peace, to be sure)… of course, this online thing makes it harder… without hearing someone’s tone of voice or seeing their body language you have less to work with, and these emoticons can only do so much.
Well, hopefully we can all come to an understanding… guess here’s me trying to play peacemaker.
I agree bro that we shouldn’t throw out the whole concept of punishment… even if punishment leads to the cure, that doesn’t mean it isn’t punishment anymore, at least in some fashion…
Hey bro, even if I think you’re being a little hard on Derek, I can see that you are trying to be humble and gracious, and that’s really cool. And if anything I’m dominating the discussion at the moment with my excess verbiage.
I think what the guys have been trying to say here bro is that there may yet be a tough side to God’s love, that there may be times when one person or another needs a little, or a lot, of conviction, needs to be knocked up side the head, maybe even needs to be knocked down on their behind, so they can come to see and understand, so they can be turned around, and then set on the right path.
In my own life I’ve found a cold slap of reality was what was needed, and such times were painful, yes… but they were also needed.
And I think what they’re trying to say is that this may be a part, even a big part, of how God accomplishes restoration in many people, especially those who are very stubborn and proud. Yes, there are deeper issues that need to be addressed, that is absolutely true, because even the worst of criminals and madmen that we ourselves may consider monstrous are still broken and lost children of God who need healing and love, but sometimes that stubbornness and pride needs to be broken through first in order to address those issues…
The Bible is full of this kind of thing, I remember, God humbling the proud, and exalting the humble (or as the poet John Donne would say more eloquently, ‘so that He may raise, the Lord throws down’), and unless we want to say that a huge portion of the Bible, both in the OT and in the NT, is just plain bogus, and want to throw a lot of it out, this is something we need to take into account…
And no, I don’t think they’re saying, don’t think I’m saying, that means that God is going to cast people into literal fire or throw them to some pitch-fork carrying demons to be tortured for a spell… what I think they’re saying, what I’m saying, is some people may need their pride to be broken first before they can be healed, and this may be painful, and it even may, in a fashion, be a kind of punishment… someone coming to realize how wrong they’ve been may be both a kind of punishment but also their path to repentance and healing and home…
I think the story of the Prodigal Son kind of illustrates this… the prodigal son finds himself in a pigpen, he, well, finds himself in a bad spot, and that is where he comes to himself… could it be that that is what things like the outer darkness and the lake of fire are?
That place or that situation, in this life or in the next, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where there is crying, because that is where you are faced with reality, and must come to see the truth of how wrong you’ve been, and how broken and lost you are?
And then when you come to see and understand that, that is when you turn around and come home, where your Father is waiting to embrace you, and heal you, and set you free, and wipe away your tears…
And I think they’re also saying, that I’m also saying, that this may not be the case with everyone.
Maybe some would need no such thing, because their hearts would already be tender and open enough already…
Well, personally, I think that God deals a little differently with each of us, because each of us is unique.
So there may be different ways in which God corrects us, disciplines us, different ways that God heals us and sets us free, both in this life, and in the next… whether this happens over long ages, or happens in a matter of moments, I don’t know, only God knows… but whatever the case, I think we can all agree that some kind of transformation needs to take place in order for us to be with God face to face…
We can’t keep our baggage or our issues or flaws or faults or badness or hang-ups… they have to be dealt with, and they have to go… we need to be changed before we can enter into the joy that we were made for, the life we were made for… some made need to be changed more than others, but the fact is all of us would need to be changed in one way or another, to some extent or another… and I think that’s something we can all agree on, even if we may disagree about God’s method in accomplishing this or on how long it takes to get there…
All of humanity needs healing, needs changing, needs renewal…
I think the way I see it is that God will do whatever is necessary to bring this about, whether that be through judgment or through grace, through correction or through comfort, through discipline or through encouragement… I believe God will do whatever needs to be done in order to heal and restore people, and heal and restore all of creation…
And we can trust in His wisdom, and we can trust in His love…
There are many unanswered questions, and I’m sure that I haven’t covered all the bases, not by a long shot, but I think that’s what it comes down to… we need to be able to trust in His wisdom, and trust in His love… if we can do that, then perhaps we don’t need to figure everything out or understand how everything works… we can just know that it will all pan out somehow in the end, that by God’s grace, all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well…
Not sure if I’m making any sense… it’s almost five in the morning, and I’m pretty tired, and I’d be astounded if I was making any sense at all. But hopefully you’ll give me points for trying.
Like I was telling Dave, I’ve had a shoddy day today, and made an ass of myself, I think, but hopefully what I have to say here does some good and makes up for my shoddiness a bit.
Blessings to you Derek, and hopefully we can all come to understand one another a little better, and learn and grow together in grace and love and life, as brothers and sisters, as sons and daughters.
I do hold my reservations with some of your ideas but I can appreciate that you’re saying you’re working with a particular definition. I get that. It’s just hard to sit back and listen when I define a word differently. try to imagine listening to someone preach “we need to be violent” and then when refuting him he says “well violence here is not physical violence”. But then you hear him yell out “we need to be violent”. It doesn’t sit well with me. So you’re totally right that I have difficulty with your definition.
Derek, when you say the differences are not “semantic,” but different definitions of terms, that’s exactly what I mean by semantics. I think God is involved in a process which can be “painful” or ‘traumatic,’ but which is not harmful to our welfare to which God’s love is committed.
Alright Matt, lemme see if I can try and explain my position to you…
Taking Sin Seriously
The broad problem I see is that Christians, generally speaking, do not take institutional and systemic sin seriously enough. They tend to excuse and justify it. So while there is a strong emphasis on taking individual/personal sin seriously (some might argue too much emphasis), the opposite happens with institutional/systemic sin. There is instead a tendency to excuse, justify, or minimize institutional sin–especially when it is the institution we belong to!
Our history of violence
With that in mind, let’s review some history: There is a long and horrible history of institutional violence that has been committed in the name of Jesus. We all know about the crusades where massive amounts of people were killed in the name of Jesus. We have also heard of the staggering amounts of people were brutally tortured and burned at the stake for heresy, both by the Catholic and Protestant churches. More recently Native Americans were slaughtered in a near genocides, again done in the name of Jesus. These were not rare exceptions, but policy that was in place for centuries, beginning around the time of Constantine, and continuing up until the beginning of the 20th century.
Our response as a society
That is a LOT of blood. So it really is not something we can just shrug off. We need to look at the views that led to justifying this kind of systemic violence, and give them a serious overhaul.
Thankfully, this has happened in our time. Beginning with the advent of modernism (the Enlightenment) which lead to things like 1st amendment rights and rule of law, and continuing with the development of humanitarian reform of laws (labor laws, legal rights, outlawing torture, etc.). We have been making changes in how our society uses violence and punishment.
We have not stopped there. We have looked at the results of punishment on people, and observed the damage it does. We now know that shaming a person does not produce empathy, it dehumanizes them. We understand now that intentionally hurting someone does not make them remorseful or empathetic, it hardens their hearts. If we want to see certain results-- instilling empathy, responsibility, impulse control, etc.-- we now know that it does not work to punish. It in fact has the opposite effect. It’s really pretty simple: hurting people hurts them.
Consequently, we not only do not let teachers hit children anymore, we don’t let them scream at them or insult them either. Teachers are taught to speak in terms of “following instructions” not “being obedient,” and say that something is “bad behavior” but never that a child is a “bad boy or girl.” All that language is very deliberate and it is because we have observed that speaking that way hurts kids.
If a teacher today said that children are “wicked” and needed to be “punished” then most parents would rightfully remove their child immediately, and possibly involve the police. I hope you would too. This would be extremely alarming.
But I have heard this language used in this thread when referring to the discipline of children: “Punishing the wicked.” Not only that, we have heard people say that “torture” and “abuse” and even “rape” could be loving for God to allow/cause to happen as a “punishment.” That just makes my jaw drop.
How can we say things like that? It is only possible if we have a major disconnected between our words, and the very real history of our own faith’s use of violence. I find it really disturbing.
If we are at all aware of how, in the not so distant past, people used those same kinds of arguments to justify committing unspeakable acts to people, not just once or twice, but on a massive scale for centuries, I hope you can see how these kinds of things ought to set off 100 red flags for us. We ought to be especially sensitive and vigilant to this, given our history of institutional sin.
It is a very small step from “God can do this because it is good for you” to “I can do this too because it is God’s way and for your good.” That’s not theoretical or only something from the past. We see people today arguing that we should support torture, corporal punishment, and capital punishment, and these are disproportionally religious people using these very arguments, specifically conservative American evangelicals. It is not just something from the past, it is a current problem. We need to take that very seriously.
I appreciate that we might stress that we can learn something important by going through a hard time. But saying that we can learn and grow despite pain is very different from claiming that it would be loving for God or anyone else to intentionally cause that harm to us. Again, we have heard people say here that God may allow a person to be raped in order to “punish” them for their own good. I cannot say how profoundly troubling that is to me. Rape is evil. God is not evil.
I sincerely hope that these kinds of statements are not representative of the actual values and beliefs of people here, and were simply said carelessly. I would expect that on a forum stressing universalism that the motivation for people here is one of a heart of compassion for those who are hurt, lost, and condemned. I understand that people can say things in debates that they don’t mean. I do not want to point the finger at anyone. But what I do hope is that we could be more sensitive to religious language that promotes or excuses violence. I hope we could step back and really take a look at what we are advocating when we defend such things.
More and more we are coming to understand that the entire idea that it is okay to cause someone harm “for their good”–is simply not true. It is not good for them, it hurts them. It makes them worse not better. This is something that virtually every mental health expert, doctor, and child development expert would affirm. The same can be said for adults. Again, we call this abuse and have made it illegal for a reason.
So I am proposing that we need to find a way to better communicate that does not draw from this hurtful and incorrect understanding. More importantly, we need to have a way of thinking about justice and redemption that is not based on a deeply flawed and harmful understanding that in fact is deeply harmful to people.
If we take our own religion’s history of violence seriously, if we at all recognize the dangerous potential for violence to be justified with religious arguments today, if we at all recognize the potential for people to be wounded by a hurtful image of a punishing God, then we need to swallow hard and resolve to stop justifying this way of thinking and instead find a better way.
As I say in my book, I am convinced that the NT gives us that language and those concepts: restorative justice, enemy love. These were revolutionary then and still are today. They work. They are practical. They heal rather than hurt.
Most Christians have not been taught to think in terms of restorative justice, and instead are taught to think in the language and logic of retributive justice and punishment. This needs to change because the way we think about justice will shape the policies we make and live by. Rather than finding ourselves defending the idea of “punishment” we need to be the ones spearheading what it means to live out the way of enemy love and restorative justice.
Bob, I think you may be thinking of the word “dramatic” rather than “traumatic.” Trauma is a medical term that means injury. Trauma is by definition harmful. So if one were to intentionally cause trauma to another, this would always be harmful to their welfare.
There is so many thought provoking things you have said in your most resent posts here that I will only be able to address some of them. Too much to discuss via a forum, much better to do it face to face, so let’s discuss this through PMs and try to nail down a time and place to do that before the end of the month.
I will pick some of you comments from several of your posts and respond to them all here. So here go’s:
I have never been much of a reader of poetry, but I certainly like the ones you have shared on this thread.
A small voice that breathes the healing Spirit of Jesus the healer over all, not the terrifying bombast of an angry, wrathful god. Beautiful and true.
Yes, that resonates as a true whisper from God to me. Even as the world descends into growing madness and careens towards the edge of destruction, there is something else arising in the midst of it all. First a whisper, then a gentle breeze growing to a robust, stiff wind and finally the full on breathe of God healing the whole creation with resurrection life.
The language of new birth is often confused. For many Christians who say they are “born again” it is some sort of personal encounter with God, a kind of conversion experience, a deep psychological effect that changes their perception and their behavior to some extent. But it is limited both in the effect it has on that individual who claims to be born again and limited in the scope: it experienced by only a select few of individuals. It creates a feeling of specialness and distinction that separates them from the great mass of ordinary mortals and even from the great majority of professing Christians who claim no experience of being “born again.” It is a kind of spiritual caste system, they are the spiritual equivalent of the “one per-centers.” The few haves that have a fuller, truer experience of God as opposed to all those who are the have not’s–the vast majority of the rest of us. This is not equitable and this is not what God wants for the world.
The new birth is not literal in the sense that we are resurrected with the bodies of infants or little children. We instead are resurrected with all the dross of our sins removed so that we can be healed and free to become authentic human beings, life the Human One (son of man) Jesus. I think one of the best ways to try to illustrate this idea is to take a look at people who have Williams Syndrome. This is a genetic disorder where 23 genes are deleted from the chromosomes of the person who has the syndrome. Here is an NPR article about Isabelle who has William’s syndrome.
The drama class had just gotten out, and everybody was standing around talking when Jessica noticed her 9-year-old, Isabelle, making her way over to an elderly woman Jessica had never seen. The woman was neatly dressed, most likely just a well-meaning suburban grandmother who had come to retrieve a grandchild on behalf of an over-extended parent, most likely a perfectly harmless person.
Isabelle, as she usually did, exchanged hellos and struck up a conversation. It was the usual post-drama-class conversation until about two minutes in. Then Isabelle dropped the bomb.
“Will you take me? Can I go home with you?” Jessica heard Isabelle plead.
Driven To Trust
Jessica’s daughter, Isabelle, has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder with a number of symptoms. Children with Williams are often physically small and frequently have developmental delays. But also, kids and adults with Williams love people, and they are literally pathologically trusting. They have no social fear. Researchers theorize that this is probably because of a problem in their limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. There appears to be a disregulation in one of the chemicals (oxytocin) that signals when to trust and when to distrust.
This means that it is essentially biologically impossible for kids like Isabelle to distrust. (NPR is not using full names in this story for privacy and safety reasons.)
"They don’t have that kind of evolutionary thing that other kids have, that little twinge of anxiety like, ‘Who is this person? What should I do here?’ " Jessica explains. “They just don’t have it. She just doesn’t have that … early-warning system.”
Pathologically trusting? I get it, the children with William’s syndrome are so open and trusting, even toward strangers that they would be an easy victim for a psychopathic predator or any of the many other sick individuals out there in the big, bad world. They must be under constant protection even more so than children who are not Willies (Willies is what Australians call people with William’s syndrome and is a term of endearment, not derision).
What is pathological is not the trust of the Willies it is this sick, sad excuse for a world that we live in. The Willies are one bright spot of what is right and good in this world, they are a harbinger of what we will all become in the coming new creation of God. The Willies, like all of us, suffer under the collective sin/pathology of the world. The Willies are in no way sinners, they are not contributors to that collective sin of the world but they can certainly be victims of it. Oh, I know that many credentialed theologians and religion pushers at the pulpits will argue, that they are indeed sinners for “all have sinned,” with the rhetoric of biblical exegesis and jargon, but they would be wrong. Just as they are often wrong about the true character of God and his gospel.
For Jessica, there are good and bad things about parenting a child with this kind of personality.
For instance, when Isabelle was younger, she was chronically happy. She smiled at anything. She loved everyone: family, friends, strangers. She reached for them all, and, in return, everyone loved her. Strangers would stop Jessica to tell about how adorably loving Isabelle was.
In those days, Jessica says, she and her family were more or less tolerant of Isabelle’s trusting and loving nature. “We would try to restrain her, but it was somewhat half-heartedly, because we didn’t want to embarrass her by calling her on the carpet about how open she was,” Jessica says.
The Danger Of Unconditional Trust
But as Isabelle got older, the negative side of her trusting nature began to play a larger role. A typical example happened a couple of years ago, when Jessica and her family were spending the day at the beach. Isabelle had been begging Jessica to go to Dairy Queen, and Jessica had been putting her off. Then Isabelle overheard a lady just down the beach.
Isabelle practices training the family dog, “Betsy,” with her dad.
Enlarge Jesse Neider for NPR
Isabelle practices training the family dog, “Betsy,” with her dad.
"She was telling her kids, ‘OK, let’s go to the Dairy Queen,’ " Jessica says. “And so Isabelle went over and got into the lady’s van, got in the back seat, buckled up and was waiting to be taken to Dairy Queen with that family.”
Jessica had no idea what had happened to Isabelle and was frantically searching for her when the driver of the van approached her and explained that she had been starting her car when she looked up and saw Isabelle’s face in the rearview mirror.
The woman, Jessica says, was incredibly angry.
"She said, ‘I am a stranger, you know!’ " Jessica says. Essentially, the woman blamed Jessica for not keeping closer watch on her daughter — for neglecting to teach her the importance of not getting into a car with someone she didn’t know. But the reality could not be more different. "It’s like, ‘My friend, you have no idea,’ " Jessica says.
In fact, because of Isabelle, Jessica has had to rethink even the most basic elements of her day-to-day life. She can not take Isabelle to the dog park. She tries not to take Isabelle to the store. And when the doorbell rings, Jessica will leap over a coffee table to intercept her.
It’s not just Jessica and her family who must be vigilant. Every teacher at Isabelle’s public school has been warned. Isabelle is not allowed to tell them that she loves them. Isabelle is not supposed to tell other schoolchildren that she loves them. And there are other restrictions.
How sad is that, what an indictment about how far we as a society have lost the plot of what it is to be truly human.
“She’s not allowed to go to the bathroom alone at her school, because there have been numerous instances of girls with Williams syndrome being molested at school when they were alone in the hallway,” Jessica says. “And these are like middle class type schools. So it’s a very real problem. And, you know, I’d rather her be overly safe than be on CNN.”
Raising A Child With Williams Syndrome
Jessica spoke with me for over an hour in the family’s home in their woodsy, suburban neighborhood while we waited for her three children to come home from school. Then, just after I turned off my recorder to take a break, I felt two small arms circle my neck from behind. It was Isabelle. She had crept in from school and was giving me a hug.
I turned around, and quite suddenly, the room was filled with questions. Who was I? What was I doing here? Which TV show did I like? Did I know the Muppets?
This is another of the truly wonderful and endearing qualities of the Willies. They are the polar opposite of narcissists. They are passionately interested in other people. They genuinely want to know all about you. What a refreshing break from all of the self-absorbed, inflated egos that dominates our society. Sadly many of the Willies have a hard time establishing friendships with non-Willies because when someone asks them the sort of question they enthusiastically ask others they are at a loss of how to respond. The explanation for this is that their cognitive deficiencies inhibit them from processing such self-centered information. Wow, just wow! What is seen as a deficiency in our sorry excuse of a world will been seen as a defining attribute of being an authentic human being in the Kingdom of God/new creation.
Then Isabelle took my microphone in her hands. She had decided to sing me a song:
**“You’re my friend … You’re my friend in the whole world,” she crooned. “You look so nice and so beautiful and so sweet.”
The Willies have a very highly developed affinity for music. Music is a profound and wonderful mystery, our brains are peculiarly wired for it and there is a deep, deep connection in our brains to the quantum realm (which has many analogs to what the ancients considered to be the spiritual). So start connecting the dots here and see where it leads. Isabelle picks up the microphone and begins to sing a song of friendship and praise to the other. She is other-centered in her outlook and does not dwell on herself but she looks outward towards others and sees the world not as it is, but as it should and will be. Unless you become like a Willie you will not be able to see the Kingdom of God.
When Isabelle speaks, she has a slight nasal slur. She also has some cognitive issues. Though she goes to a regular school and sits in a regular third-grade class, her attention is very jumpy, and she needs aids to help her.
These cognitive issues make Jessica’s job more difficult. Jessica has decided that the most important thing for her to do is to teach Isabelle how to distrust. For years, that has been her life project — a battle pitched against biology itself.
How deeply, deeply tragic and sad this is. Sure there are all the solid, practical reasons to do it for her safety and welfare but that does not change the fact that this world is deeply dysfunctional and very sick. It needs to be healed, it can not be fixed by better government policies or technological wonders. It needs comprehensive healing that only resurrection can provide.
Jessica and her husband have made Isabelle books about how to behave around strangers. They have rented videos, they have bought educational toys. They have modeled the right behaviors, constructed sticker charts and employed every other trick they could possibly think of. But distrust, it seems, is almost impossible to teach their child. Sometimes Isabelle manages to remember not to tell perfect strangers that she loves them. Mostly, she doesn’t.
But Jessica is determined. “We just have to restart every time,” she says. “It’s just what we have to do.”
It’s what they have to do, Jessica reasons, because she won’t be around to protect her daughter forever. And though Isabelle trusts the world completely, the world is not a place worthy of complete trust.
What is the hope for Isabelle and others like her? She must be given a world that is completely trustworthy, a world that is inhabited by someone who is completely worthy of trust. That is a world that can not be made by man, his governments and the collective efforts of a technological civilization; it can only come by way of the coming of YHWH and the Lamb. The healing, transforming homecoming of the creator into the creation that will make all of us as trusting and open to others as the Willies.
Even in their current life, Jessica says, there are moments when she realizes that she’s just an instant away from something terrible.
“We live a very sheltered life, but I can think of times when we were at the pool and I turn around to talk to someone, and I see her practically sitting on some man’s lap at the pool, and he looks very uncomfortable,” Jessica says. “And I just think: This is not good.”
When Jesus allowed little children to come to him and sit on his lap, if that would happen today, would Jesus be accused of being a potential pervert and the police called? Just what is the nature of our so-called progress, we have gained some notable good things but we have lost a lot of innocence and trust.
Unconditional Love, And A Mother’s Worry
Fortunately, Jessica says, the experts tell her it will eventually get better. She needs to just keep at it. One day, they tell her, Isabelle will be able to learn not to feel distrust, per se, but to master a set of algorithms that will allow her to safely navigate the world. She will learn, for example, not to get into a car with a stranger if she has become lost or disoriented, but to ask some person in a uniform for help instead.
In the meantime, Jessica says there are plenty of rewards to this life — a life with a child with boundless love and trust.
"She’ll ask me, ‘So how are you today, my darling?’ " Jessica says. “And it just makes you smile.”
In fact, late in the afternoon on the day I visited, everyone in the family gathered in the kitchen to eat dinner. Isabelle, who loves music, decided to play a CD.
The CD player stuttered then came to life, and Isabelle approached her father.
“Will you dance with me, my sweetie?” she asked.
Her father picked her up in his arms. He spun her round and round.
Here is a video about Williams Syndrome where you can actually see and hear some of these wonderful people.
I will continue to respond to your other comments in another post coming up.
Hi Derek; I’ve posted bits here and there on this thread, but I have a question about this. I read your book recently and thought it was excellent; I think that at least in the main I agree with what you’ve said. I think you’ve written an important and much needed book, because it touches on core values that are so ingrained in the Christian psyche it can be hard to examine them objectively.
Above, you said:
“More and more we are coming to understand that the entire idea that it is okay to cause someone harm “for their good”–is simply not true. It is not good for them, it hurts them. It makes them worse not better. This is something that virtually every mental health expert, doctor, and child development expert would affirm. The same can be said for adults. Again, we call this abuse and have made it illegal for a reason.”
I wonder, given this framework, how you would categorize the harm caused to a triple bypass patient in order to save and prolong their natural life. The reason I ask is because this is a clear case of causing physical harm for the ultimate benefit of the sufferer. (Granted, the intent here is obviously not to cause physical injury to the patient, but is a necessity in order to effect the ultimate good of the patient in this example).
Is what you’re advocating for, more of a question of psychological vs. physical harm, and how/ where do we draw the lines of distinction in either case, especially when we’re talking about the operations of God vs. man? (I agree with you for example, that God would not cause a rape in order to punish or discipline someone.)
I’m also curious how you view scriptures such as Proverbs 25:21-22
"21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat ; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink ; 22 For you will heap burning coals on his head, And the LORD will reward you. "
In this scripture, God likens treating your enemy with kindness to heaping burning coals on their head. While this is obviously not literally what you are doing, it’s clear that showing enemy love here is actually in some sense painful to them.