Alicia Britt Chole - On Processing Pain

Alicia Britt Chole is a speaker and author who spoke at morning and evening chapel at George Fox University on September 25, 2013. This video and transcript is of her talk at the evening chapel about processing pain.


Hello, friends. This morning I began introducing you to my family by sharing with you some of their quotes because I believe that words often open up a window into souls. Those of you who were here this morning met my husband Barry and our precious daughter, Keona. Tonight I'll introduce you to the boys.

All of our children are ours through the miracle of adoption, and all of them have special strengths that sing delightful duets with special needs. Jonathan is our oldest. He is a profound soul. Jonathan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. We didn't hear any words begin to spill out of his mouth until he was around three and a half or four. His very first original sentence was pieced together like this gorgeous rare quilt, when he was four and a half. His first original sentence was this: "Daddy is amazing."

When I think about all of Jonathan's words, there are so many I would love to share with you, to introduce him to you. But probably one of the most touching conversations we had occurred when he was maybe seven years old. We live out in the country and my husband had built a bonfire, and so Jonathan and I were warming ourselves by the fire. Jonathan doesn't intuitively understand dangers, and so I was explaining to him about how we needed to be careful around fire.

He looked at me and said, "If I fell into the fire, would I die?"

I said, "Well, actually, it is possible depending upon the extent of the burn, yes, it is possible."

Then he got very, very serious, and he said, "Mom, are you going to die one day?"

I said, "Yes Jonathan, one day I'm going to die."

Jonathan became very, very quiet, and he walked around thinking, and I knew I needed to listen to very, very closely to the next words that came out of Jonathan's mouth, because they were going to give me an indication whether he had a hope that could outlast this lifetime. Finally Jonathan stopped walking, and he said, "Okay, it's all right if you die, and it's even okay if Jesus takes you to Heaven. But I'm going to be the one who carries you there." That's my son.

Our youngest son, Louis, was the most drug-exposed of all of our children. We truly would treasure your prayers for him. Louis is a tender soul, a natural servant. He takes great joy in giving gifts. Here is one of his quotes to tell you a little about him. He's holding a broken toy: "Mom, my train is broken; we have to take it back to China. But we can ride my bike, because I ride really, really fast." Precious boy. So my family is praying for us tonight.

This morning I shared with you a study in John chapter 14 that has helped this artist's soul develop a little bit of a backbone in processing pain. Tonight I'm going to begin by sharing with you a little bit of how I processed pain as a young atheist, and then I'm going to share with you some principles I apply to my life now as a person of faith. When I am in a faith struggle or when pain takes my breath away - my parents teased me that the very first word that ever came out of my mouth wasn't "mama" or "dada." They say it was "why." So evidently, I have been asking questions since I could speak, and to be honest, not much has changed.

As a young woman, unanswerable questions led me to the conclusion that there was no God. I sincerely believed God hadn't created man. It seemed fairly obvious that man had created God because there were just so many questions in life that were never going to be answered - by science, by reason, by experience - so it was understandable that individuals and entire cultures would create mythical beings, call him God, call them gods, stuff them into gaps and calm your fears.

As a young atheist, I simply considered myself a realist, who preferred unanswered questions over fairy tales. Now in the beginning, my atheism was emotionally benign. I wasn't angry, I wasn't argumentative, atheism just seemed the most logical conclusion given what could be known, and what could never be known. However, I walked through a couple of darker years, where I struggled with depression, and during that time some anger started gathering around the edges of my atheism.

As I emerged on the other side, I was angry, and I was extremely annoyed with anyone who had the audacity to suggest the existence of a God, or gods who held all power, but who, when I took a realistic look around the world, sure didn't look as though he or she or they were using that power to prevent pain.

Now this is going to sound really abrupt because it was really abrupt. One day, God interrupted my existence with an encounter that was so tangible that I would have had to commit intellectual and emotional suicide to deny its reality. Now in the thirty years since, many people have asked me that since I am someone who used questioning as an art form, did my angst-filled spiritual questions vaporize in the light of God's love? In a word, no. No. Not at all. I still have a lot of questions.

But faith isn't about answers, faith is more about leaning. And there was something extremely discernable that began to happen in my soul immediately. It was as though my center of contentment began to shift away from knowing and toward being, away from my understanding and toward God's presence. So tonight I'm going to share with you just a few simple thoughts that I hope are quite practical for you because they're very practical for me - thoughts that I apply through images, through writings, through illustrations when I find myself struggling with unanswerable questions, and unexplainable pain.

And I'm going to begin and end with a quote from C.S. Lewis, from Screwtape Letters.  I'm sure many of you have read Screwtape Letters, but for those of you who haven't, in this book C.S. Lewis chronicles a dialogue between an older demon and a younger demon. And the older demon is mentoring the younger demon and how to snare the soul of a Christian. So listen to the worlds of the other mentoring demon. He says:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

These are some of the ways I position my soul to still obey in those life-size pain points we looked at in our study this morning.

The first principle is this: I ask God to mentor my mind. Now I mean this very concretely. I ask God to - in my head - be the leader, and I position myself mentally to be the follower because true intellectual strength is not just the ability to think. True intellectual strength is the ability to choose what to think and when to think.

I'd like to read to you, as I'll do a couple of times tonight, from a journal entry that turned into a blog. From July 22nd, 2009, I called the journal entry "chasing horses":

We live in the country.

We have 4 dogs, 2 cats, and our neighbors are cows.

I mean that in the nicest of ways. We live partially surrounded by a large dairy farm that features black and white, polka-dotted, classic cows.

Here in our quiet county, there are no leash laws (I think). Somehow, dogs know their boundaries--this fence line, that dirt road, this dry creek bed...they stay, play, and live well within the safety of our few acres.

Except when our other neighbor's horses come near. Then, our pups wander. Not far mind you, but they cross under the wire and bark and chase and run around...and one of these days they are going to get the wind kicked out of them...

Chasing horses. Our dogs just can't seem to resist wandering when horses come into view.

So I've been thinking of how easily we all wander in the presence of that one thing. What is it? What horse are we compelled to get near, see up close? What activity invites us to step across lines of safety and take a risk for the...the what? Perhaps the thrill, the experience, the story, the rush.

Chasing horses.

As an Atheist, I (obviously) didn't grow up with fond memories of singing hymns. But of late, I've been acquainting myself with a collection from an older book by Jerry Jenkins. Alongside of some of the hymns, Jenkins comments on the author. Today I read "Come, Thou Fount" by Robert Robinson.

The lyrics are stirring:

let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee

prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love

Here's my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for Thy courts above

Prone to wander...God, I feel it.

Jenkins notes that Robinson committed his life to Jesus from a "life of sin." He wrote the hymn, entered the ministry, was a preacher...and then "lapsed into sin again."(page 78)

Online I learned that Robinson wrote Come, Thou Fount at the age of 23, later become known as a respected thinker, and toward the end of his life, several sources cite the following story:

There is a well-known story of Robinson, riding a stagecoach with a lady who was deeply engrossed in a hymnbook. Seeking to encourage him, she asked him what he thought of the hymn she was humming. Robinson burst into tears and said, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."

Robinson seems to have mourned what he lost through his wanderings. From what little I could find, the horses he chased were theological.

Which brings me back home.

My dogs can't seem to resist wandering when the horses come by. But we can.

I'm not trying to be mystical, but we must allow the Holy Spirit to mentor our minds.

I love thinking, most, I enjoy wrestling with issues and thorny theological subjects...But sometimes I bump up against a fence post and I sense the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit saying, "let it rest now. For the moment, no farther." And I have a choice to make.

Will I press past that invisible barrier in the name of intellectual integrity simply because I can? Or will I pause, and trust the mentoring of the Spirit whose entire purpose is to lead me in truth?

Sometimes--especially in academic environments where it can sometimes seem as though if you CAN think about an issue, then you MUST think about an issue--I have pressed past that whisper and entered territory that God knew well but I was unprepared to navigate.

Age has, hopefully, brought wisdom and the realization that mental strength is more than the ability to think, it's also the ability to choose what to think and when to think.

Horses we want to chase today, may be easily ridden in years to come. When we ride them prematurely, odds are we're going to get the wind kicked out of us.

In the middle of breathtaking pain, I pray this concrete prayer, "God, I need you to be the mentor of my mind. I need you to lead, and I need the strength to follow." And from experience, when I have pressed past that gentle pause God gave me, in processing I've mentally found myself in a very cold place.

Here is another thought that I apply to my life in the middle of a faith struggle. I work to turn disappointment into a learning opportunity. I'd like you to view disappointment like a house alarm. If in my home, at 2:30 in the morning, our house alarm goes off, it does my family precious little good for me to stand in front of the alarm panel and say, "The alarm is ringing, the alarm is ringing! Have I mentioned that the alarm is ringing?!" That alarm's whole purpose is to draw my attention to something else that is out of order.  Well, in the same way, disappointment is just an alarm. It does us and the people around us precious little good for us just to stand in front of our disappointment and say, "I'm disappointed. I mean, I am really disappointed. Have I mentioned I'm disappointed?!"

Disappointment is an alarm, and it alerts us to something else. It alerts us to the presence of an unmet expectation in our life. If we're willing to do a little bit of work, we can turn that disappointment into a rich learning experience, by first asking ourselves what expectation has been unmet. Second, by tracing that expectation down to its root, to the best of our ability. Third, by asking the question, "Who created this expectation?" I'm going to illustrate this process, from a non-crisis moment because I find that as I apply these principles in my daily life, then I have the muscle to apply them in times of pain.

So a real life example: Two years ago, I'm walking by my daughter's room, and I look inside, and it's a certifiable disaster zone, and I feel disappointed. Now it would do everyone precious little good for me to stand at the doorway and say, "I am disappointed. I am really, really disappointed." Now there's value in that emotional honesty, but I can't stop there. And besides that, if I were to stand there in my daughter's hearing, that would be using shame, which I believe is an abusive parenting tactic.

So I'm going to pause, and I'm going to say "Alicia, your disappointment is sounding an alarm that alerts you to the presence of an unmet expectation. So number one, what expectation has been unmet? Well, pretty obviously, I expected her room to be clean! Number two: let's trace that expectation down to its roots: why did you expect her room to be clean? Well, because at the age of 8, I think she should be able to keep an orderly room. Why? Well, because when I was 8, I kept an orderly room. And it's already getting ugly, isn't it? But I can't stop, I have to keep going. And, well, I guess I expect her to be like I was because I expect her to have all of my strengths.

Now normally, when I trace things down to its roots, I wind-up in the place of repentance. Every once in a while, it leads me to laughter, but most often it just leads me to repentance, as it did in this instance.

I can't stop there, I need to keep going. There's more work to be done. I have to ask myself, "All right, who created this expectation, Alicia?" Did my outrageously extroverted, born-entrepreneur, clearly creative daughter give me any indication that she was going to wake up one day and suddenly be a neat freak? No. This one's on me.

Sometimes when we trace an expectation down to its root, we realize that someone else did clearly give us an expectation, which leads us to have a calm, assertive, non-anxious conversation with them. But most of the time, at least for me, I trace it back to myself. We spend so much energy emotionally punishing people for expectations they didn't create and, most often, don't even know exist.

In the middle of my pain, I exert the work to identify what the disappointment is really representing, and I often find on the other end of that a wonderful, rich learning experience. It leads me to whisper prayers of repentance and prayers of gratitude that the Holy Spirit mentored my mind, that the Holy Spirit intervened before my passionate but unevaluated disappointment spilled over and abused another soul.

Here's another thought: when I'm in the midst of pain, I seek to honor my disillusionment. I seek to honor my disillusionment. Webster defines disillusionment as "to disappoint or disenchant, especially by leaving without illusion." A friend that both Rusty and I had years ago, dear Joe, who is now playing a Gibson in heaven with Jesus, defined disillusionment as "the dissing of illusions."

My personal definition of disillusionment is the painful gaining of reality. To lose an illusion, is to gain a reality, however painful that may be. I begin studying this theme of spiritual disillusionment back in 1994 with this cover-to-cover study, Genesis to Revelation. It's a fascinating study to see the conflicts, to see the tensions throughout the scriptures between mankind and God, mankind and one another, and also in ourselves, the challenges and struggles we have just with ourselves and our own faith walk. And the illustration I'm about to share emerged from that study.

Whenever I think about our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, and the relationship we have mysteriously with our own faith, it seems to me that all of these relationships have in common a cycle. A cycle that begins with a familiar substance called infatuation. Infatuation is when sinner meets a forgiving God and all the world is beautiful.  Infatuation is when boy meets girl, and there are stars in their eyes. Infatuation is when you try and figure out who you're going to room with for college, and you think "Hey, I'll call up my high school best friend, what in the world could be better than rooming with your high school best friend?" Infatuation is when you've been longing for a mentor, and there she is. You've been watching her from a distance, you're quite confident she walks on water, now you guys are beginning to meet together, and you're so excited.

Well, for people who have been in mentoring relationships with me, the second stage in the cycle of relationship occur about 9.2 seconds after the first, and that's called disillusionment. And that's when you realize that that person that you've admired from afar, that you thought you walked on water, they can't even chew gum and walk, can they? That's when you realize that rooming with your best friend in high school is nothing like playing ball with them. That's when boy and girl get married, and boy and girl wake up, and they realize that they grew up with rather different dictionaries about rather key phrases in life, like "financial management" and "intimacy".

And that is when a young Christian for the very first time doesn't feel God's presence in worship. That's when they don't have their prayers answered within 24 hours. And it's also when we've been praying and fasting and the doctor still says, "malignant." That's when a close friend commits suicide, and you're just left holding a lot of questions. That's when you go home for the holidays, and you hear the word "divorce" spoken at the dinner table. That's when you're surrounded by people, but you just feel so desperately alone. And you keep memorizing the Word, but you can feel it, you just feel your mind starting to slip into darkness.

OK, so this is disillusionment, this is real life, and this is a real problem because we live in a culture that does not teach us how to press past this point in life. We live in a culture that mistakenly calls infatuation "love". We live in a culture that mistakenly calls disillusionment "failure". So what do you do when love fails? Well, you bail, of course. When love fails, you bail, and you continue a search for love that lacks pain. Can you see ourselves trapped culturally in this cycle? Relationship after relationship after relationship, job after job, religion after religion, church after church, god after god.

And if we're going to be a generation that makes a difference for more than a moment, we are going to have to find the strength to press past the painful gaining of reality about God, about ourselves, about one another and begin growing some strength on the other side of that place where Jesus lives and serves because He's the only one among us who lacks illusions - a place that really could be called love. Love as exemplified by Jesus is not diluted by disappointment. Love as exemplified by Jesus is not intimidated by pain. Love as exemplified by Jesus lives in the midst of, not in denial of, real raw life.

And you can see how this cycle itself is strength and renewal as we continue to lose more illusions, gain more reality, and choose again and again not to bail on this mysterious entity called the body of Christ. In the midst of my pain, I seek to honor my disillusionment. What illusions am I losing? What reality, regardless of how painful, am I gaining?

A fourth thought is this: in the middle of breathtaking pain, I listen very, very carefully for any if-then equations that have been hiding in my soul. Allow me to illustrate.

Decades ago, there were several different families that came together as a community to plant a church. It was a beautiful community, and one of the women in that community had an extreme gift of hospitality, and it was especially manifest in her home. She had biological children, adoptive children, and she was always fostering children. There was one particular child that she knew, that she was going to adopt. She knew it would go from foster to adoption, she loved this child, and the child loved her. However, the state made a different choice, and it was devastating for everybody involved.

The community watched as this dear woman began to withdraw a bit from activities. But, you know, that makes sense, because when you're grieving, you have fewer resources, and so it was probably good for her to spend more time at home or alone. She started with withdrawing also, though, from her key relationships. Later on, withdrawing from her husband, eventually withdrawing from her children. Long story short, she left them all and went off to go find herself and find a more fulfilling life. And as my friend who was a witness to this experience and we were sharing and talking about this, we began to talk about the existence of if-then equations.

If-then equations sound something like this: if God gives me my heart's desire, then He loves me. And if He doesn't, well. Or, if God answers this prayer, then He's good. And if He doesn't answer this prayer, then He isn't. There are other variations as well. If I do this, then of course God will do that. Now this one has snagged me on more than one occasion. One of the if-thens that pain on earth to my own soul was this. If I do my job, as an obsessively overprotective parent, then God will do His job and make sure no harm comes to my children. No. No.

If-then equations can be outrageously painful to acknowledge, but unacknowledged and undealt with if-then equations can be spiritually lethal. I wonder if Judas had some if-then equations in his soul. If Jesus obeys, then I'm in, if Jesus behaves, then I'm in, and if he doesn't, I'm going to look for an alternate route. I wonder as I read the story of Job, if this isn't what Satan was searching for in Job's life. Sort of testing the fences to see if he could uncover an if-the equation in Job's life and exploit it. What if I touch his children, what if I touch his wealth, what if I touch is health, what if I touch his marriage, oh here's one, what if I touch his reputation. But those strategies have little power when they face a soul who like Job said, "Though He lay slay me, yet I will trust Him." When pain unearths if-then equations, they don't easily dissolve, but we can hold them in God's presence.

And here is a fifth practice I have in my own life in the middle of a faith struggle. And it's actually among the more strenuous things I have to do: I stay present to the pain. I stay present to the pain. One of the women who I'm mentoring asked a great question recently, she said, "Alicia, you speak about pain as though it were sacred, but Satan's the one who creates pain, and so how am I supposed to honor something like that?" And I said, "That's an interesting thought you've brought up." Here's what I suggest: I suggest that Satan's goal is not creating pain, I suggest that Satan's goal is creating distance. Distance, between you and God, distance between you and others. Even distance internally between who we truly are and whom we present or project or perceive ourself to be. And toward that end of creating distance, he can equally use pain or pleasure, success or failure.

So as I work against that effort to create distance in my life, I expend energy to stay present to the pain. I view this as a personal, spiritual discipline. I view this as a form of strength. It is never weakness to grieve where God is grieving. And staying present to the pain also serves my life's goal of practicing the presence of Christ because this is where God is manifest, right here, right now in this moment. I can remember his presence in the past, I can anticipate his presence in the future, but I can only be attentive to his presence right here.

And in this regard, I love the example of Mary and Martha in John 11, when Jesus shows up after their brother has been in the tomb for days. You know the story. And in turn they each say, "Jesus, if you had been here, my brother wouldn't have died." Now I love the emotional honesty, but what I especially love is that they processed their thoughts about Jesus with Jesus. We don't always do that. We often process our thoughts about God alone in our heads. Or perhaps with another person, but they give us this example of processing their thoughts about Jesus with Jesus. They stayed present to the pain, and they stayed present to Jesus.

Friends, there is a spiritual work that staying present to the pain and present to Jesus accomplishes that perhaps is unlike anything else that can be accomplished in our lives. Let me return to the quote I began with, and let's hear it again from C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis, again speaking of an older demon mentoring a younger demon, said this:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Our whispers, when the lights go out, of "I still believe." Our whispers, when the lights go out, of "I will still follow" are among the mightiest spiritual weapons we can wield on earth. As we take these steps, there is something that occurs within us that's far more precious than any answer could be: a sweet sustainable friendship with God that is deeply and profoundly satisfying. As Rusty is about to come and the worship team is going to lead us in some time, I want to invite you tonight to just be present: to expend the energy, to refuse to live with motion blur, to refuse to go faster, to numb ourselves to activity, to numb ourself through experience, to be present to one another, present to the transition, present to the pain, and mostly present to our Jesus. May the peace of Christ be with you.