Shane Claiborne once said: “Jesus wrecked my life”.
Conversely, Ray Comfort tells people: “If you trust in God, he will never let you down.”
As I look back at the last two years, Shane’s take on things pretty much sums up my life.
I don’t know how it is that I’m not on in-patient status, divorced, or dead by this point- the last two years have been the best worst years of my life. Years that have left me feeling happy and heartbroken, pissed off and elated, all at the same time.
I’m learning how to cope, learning how to “hold things together”, and learning how to heal as best as I know how. I’ve been learning a lot of things lately.
But more than anything, right now I’m learning how to forgive God.
Yup, you didn’t misread that. I’m learning how to forgive God. After reading this, I hope that you will too, because it is a life-giving experience.
After two years of painful silence, I’ve decided to tell my story publicly- or at least a Reader’s Digest version of it. I’m ready to tell it for three reasons: First, I know there are a lot of friends who followed our story of adoption and who know that something went way, way wrong and who would like to know what happened. Secondly, I’ve been receiving a ton of mail from readers across the country (I love it, thanks!) who have graciously shared with me their story, their struggles, and their hurts. From reading so many of your letters it strikes me that many of you could experience healing, and a freshness of faith, through discovery of the practice of forgiving God- something I doubt you’ve ever heard preached in church. Finally, I’m ready because I desperately want to put painful aspects of my story behind me, and I think telling it will be a good start.
For old friends and new readers, here’s why I’m learning to forgive God:
When my wife and I first met on October 5, 2005, our small talk quickly led us to the issue that started this life journey together: adoption. This joint passion to one day adopt a girl from an impoverished country was the impetus for a courtship that two-years later, led to marriage. Once I was settled in at seminary, we decided to begin the long process.
Just before we began the process, my worldview had begun to
shift crumble. As part of that massive shift, I realized that adoption was becoming very trendy in Christian circles, and that many were doing “adoption as an event” because that’s what Christians do (not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Seinfeld). However, due to the influence of Father Dean Borgman- the professor who taught Biblical Global Justice at Gordon-Conwell, my understanding of the teachings of Jesus became way, way more radicalized (radicalize actually means “to return to the root of”). As a result, I knew that “adoption as an event” wasn’t something that was for me- I wanted to give my entire life to children in need… I wanted adoption as a lifestyle.
So together, my wife and I decided that we would forgo having biological children- adoption became “Plan A” for us. Instead, we would spend our lives offering life in a family to girls from impoverished and war-torn countries around the world. Without really even needing much discussion, we decided that we’d focus on adopting kids who didn’t have much of a chance otherwise- older kids, sibling groups, and the other demographics which typically get passed over by families both in their birth country as well as in international adoptions.
Flash forward 26 months; we found ourselves at an orphanage in Peru meeting our daughters for the first time- biological sisters, ages 8 and 12. Everything was emotionally blissful, until day four.
That’s when the violence started.
It became quickly obvious to us that what we had been told wasn’t true. We began asking everyone involved to please dig deeper into the background to help explain why we were experiencing such violence, but we were consistently rebuffed with “this is what the adjustment period looks like”. After a few weeks of constant violence (during the month in country pending legalities), we had our social worker approach the orphanage to discuss the situation and demand more information on her history. All we were told, was that “we’ve never seen her hurt anyone before”.
The violence continued.
The day after the adoption became final in the Peruvian courts, our social worker approached us and said she had “news that will make you sick”. It seems that the orphanage staff waited until after the adoption was final to give us the evidence of what we knew but couldn’t yet prove: a significant psychiatric diagnosis. In fact, the documents showed she had been taken off 4 medications just seven days before we gained custody, a medical decision which could have killed her via withdrawals.
The government social workers apologized profusely for the orphanage’s deception. They told us they would allow us to abandon both girls at a local orphanage and return back to the states, without penalty. Somehow, it just didn’t seem right to send both girls back, when one immediately bonded to having a family and the other had potential to live in a family with proper treatment. We insisted we would take both girls back to the states, and that we’d pursue the best medical care we could obtain for our oldest. They practically begged us not to, telling us that they’d never seen a child react so violently to having a family, and that we’d end up divorced if we attempted to do this.
Before we told them that we would, under no condition, re-abandon the girls, I remember sitting on a rooftop in Lima and having it out with God:
“This one is on you man. I came here because YOU told me to defend the fatherless. I came here because YOU told me to encourage the oppressed. I’m not here because I have fertility issues and need to be here- I’m here because I decided to live radically like Jesus. So this one is on YOU. The table is set, you have a chair, it’s now your turn to show up for dinner.”
Over the next year and a half, I kept waiting for God to show up for dinner. Growing up as a kid, I had it drilled into my head that Jesus was already standing at the door knocking, and all we had to do was invite him in. But honestly, a year into it, that really seemed like BS to me. It didn’t feel like God ever showed up. Quite honestly, it still doesn’t.
The next year and a half was a depressing hell. We fought so hard for my daughter, and dedicated our lives to “therapeutic parenting”, a process which takes two people and about 36 hours in a day. While one daughter was flourishing and bonding to family, one was floundering and rejecting. I began to feel like a jerk on Facebook, because I would post about the happy milestones of my youngest daughter, but was rarely able to mention my oldest. We couldn’t even post photos of her, because she’d usually take our phones and delete them before we ever had chance to share them.
Folks would comment: “What about your other daughter?”
I would just ignore them, not knowing what to say.
I was so lonely I wanted to die.
We went through four hospitalizations in seven months, and even more ER visits and 911 calls that didn’t always result in a hospitalization. When not hospitalized, our home was converted into a hospital-like state. Our days were filled with violence and threats of violence to the point that we had alarms on our bedroom doors to protect us from being assaulted in our sleep, a key lock on the knife drawer, had a large stock of plastic cups and plates, and completely gutted our house of anything glass, sharp, or that could be remotely used or converted into a weapon. We went to every length possible to keep everyone safe, and to give her every opportunity possible to live in a family setting safely.
When not driving to hospitals for visitations and therapy, or in hospital mode at home, we were meeting with clinical team members who focused on: family preservation in adoptions, attachment therapist every Wednesday, in-home intensive therapy 3-4 days a week, respite organizations, personal counselors (everybody needs one!), the chief of Psychiatry from Tufts Medical Center, school clinicians (we secured a therapeutic school), DCF social workers (who we asked to come on the team voluntarily), and a host of others… we literally “maximized servicing” as our lives were consumed with giving our daughter the best possible chance to make it in a family unit. We barely even worked, allowing our finances to go down the toilet so that we could fully devote our lives to serving our daughter.
But eventually, things got ridiculously out of control. After she had a second arrest for domestic violence (the police got really tired of coming to our house and started arresting her for battery), she had her bail revoked and was temporarily removed from the home. Her clinical team, unanimously insisted that her only hope to eventually live in a family safely, would be to go to a residential program for at least a year of therapy and treatment. The system required we make such a request through the DCF office, but with an overcrowded medical system, limited residential beds, and a budget to preserve, our local DCF office refused to pay for the necessary treatment. We quickly discovered that the Massachusetts DCF ranked 8th worst in the country and as a result, was facing a massive class action lawsuit for not properly caring for children in their custody (see Connor B. v. Patrick). By this time, our daughter was in their custody because her bail had been revoked, and they indicated that they would “never” put her in the type of therapy her doctors insisted. Instead they intended to place her in foster care- even though her psychiatrist signed an affidavit indicating that foster care would actually be damaging to her and move her further from the desired outcome of reuniting with her family.
As soon as we began insisting DCF follow the medical advice instead of simply going with the “cheap” option, they turned on us and began a process of systematic retaliation- something the DCF supervisor threatened to do if I “got the court barking orders” at him. The people who had been our friends, overnight became our enemies. They went from kindly telling us we were “just as wonderful as everyone says you are” to screaming at us and calling us “just a couple of missionaries who like to rescue kids from poverty.”
As a result, we took the Massachusetts department of Children and Families to court, arguing that they were abusing their discretion by going against medical advice (AMA) and placing our daughter in danger. This made things way worse, as they quickly escalated the retaliation- showing us that government social workers have plenty of ways to make your life hell, without any justification. Our clinical team was in a state of shock with the retaliatory response to our lawsuit, simply because we legally held them accountable for refusing to follow the sound medical advice of the treatment team.
To further complicate matters, our daughter had been assigned two lawyers- one to represent her for the domestic battery, and the other to represent her in the case for residential placement. Unfortunately, she vacillated between loving us and hating us, wanting a family and insisting she never wanted a family, and used her legal team as a tool to resist and delay treatment. Additionally, she terrorized us with promises that she’d find a way to ensure she could leave our family and take her little sister with her- even if that meant making up false abuse allegations. The thought of this gave us nightmares. (Literally, not metaphorically)
Despite her rejection of our family, threats, and using her lawyers to block every attempt to place her in treatment, we continued to fight for her on all fronts. We fought legally, and fought emotionally. However, she fought so hard against us, via her legal team, that eventually we reached a breaking point as we feared that if things continued to spiral out of control, our family unit would further be in jeopardy.
A long legal battle would mean her residential treatment would be delayed, and for a child this age, time was a luxury she didn’t have.
We had no other decision…
We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. We knew she was far too unsafe to ever attempt to bring home; there were times when she told us: “being safe is a choice, and if you bring me home, I’ll be unsafe again”. Our providers warned us that if we attempted to bring her home with such a history of violence and articulated threats with follow-through, that we would be considered neglectful because it would have placed our other daughter in physical danger (who was by this time, petrified of her sister- and telling others she was scared of her sister coming home). According to her providers, without prolonged treatment, there was “no hope” of her integrating into a family safely- there was no possibility to keep both children safe, apart from intense therapy. However, the legal circus which ensued seeking her placement was only becoming a distraction and delay to the very treatment she needed to heal, and hopefully one day return home.
We came to realize that her only hope in receiving treatment, was to give the state permanent legal custody of her which would force them to provide treatment. It was a horrifying decision, but became the only legal maneuver which enabled her to receive the residential care she is now receiving.
We are still her parents according to her birth certificate and the state of our hearts, and have tried to stay as involved in her life as she permits us, but unfortunately, that isn’t much. She calls sporadically, but used her lawyer to block us from having contact with her new DCF social workers, who are now once again, kind and professional.
Yes, the circus is over and the most severe experiences are behind us- but we’ve lost a daughter. We lost a dream. We lost. Most days, it feels like she died.
We’ve lost, simply because we decided to live as if Jesus actually meant the things he said.
We decided to live radically, in a way that would seem crazy to many- even other Christians, but would make perfect sense to Jesus. We just didn’t know how much that would actually cost us.
How much money Jesus has cost me.
How much sense of security Jesus has cost me.
How many tears Jesus has cost me.
How many sleepless nights feeling as if I had drank battery acid, Jesus has cost me.
Jesus has cost me more than I ever expected to pay.
Trust me- there is a price tag attached to those red letters.
And so, I’ve been learning a new spiritual practice… I’ve been learning the importance of forgiving God.
Every relationship benefits from free-flowing, gratuitous forgiveness, and our relationships with God are no different. Often, our hesitancy to forgive people is because of our misconception that forgiveness is something designed to benefit the offender, when in reality, forgiveness is designed to heal the one who was wounded. When we forgive someone, we’re not endorsing what happened, we’re not saying we agree with it or that it was acceptable- we’re just saying that we’re not willing to be bitter. When we forgive, we are pronouncing that we will insist on living life in freedom, instead of in emotional bondage.
In light of this understanding of forgiveness, it’s not even necessary that someone actually be “guilty” of deliberately hurting us in order for us to forgive. Often times, in relationships we are hurt- not because of an action which wounded, but because of a lack of action which disappointed. We are hurt because other people fail to live up to our hopes and expectations of them- even when those hopes and expectations are completely unfair or unrealistic.
Sometimes, people will fail to live up to your hopes and expectations. Even though they’re not guilty of doing something wrong in the situation, we are tempted to live with the emotional weight of disappointment and resentment that result from our own lost hope and unfulfilled desires. In these cases, the only option that allows us to live in freedom, is to forgive the person who disappointed us. Even when that person is God.
Especially when that person is God.
I have been learning to forgive God. I keep forgiving God. I don’t care if this makes me sound like a heretic, because it has been a freeing experience- and it saved our relationship.
I decided to live out a radicalized Christian faith, hoping and expecting that even if it wasn’t easy, that at least I’d feel like God always was there for me.
But, I didn’t always feel that way. God failed to live up to my expectations, and I forgive him for it.
I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to be resentful. Most of all, I don’t want my relationship with God to become strained. So, even though I wasn’t directly wronged, I forgive God for letting me down and I live in peace because of it. In fact, I feel more connected to God than ever before.
I keep on forgiving because heartache and all, I actually like the way of Jesus and I’m not interested in looking back, giving up, or changing sides.
I like living radically. I like pouring myself out. I like sticking up for the people Jesus stuck up for, even when it costs me friendships, and even when it costs me a child.
I actually believe that the way of Jesus is the best way to live, and there’s not a person on the planet who will change my mind, regardless of how much I lose in this pursuit. I’ve put all my chips on the table, and I am willing to lose it all to follow “in the dust of my Rabbi”.
I can’t imagine living any other way. To keep doing it however, will mean that I will feel hurt and disappointed at times, and will benefit from forgiving God.
God doesn’t need my forgiveness- he hasn’t done anything wrong, but the forgiveness is actually for me. It is my way of saying “I still love you, and I’m not bitter about this.“
I’m going to have hopes and dreams that God is going to fail to live up to, and when that happens… I’ll be faced with the choice of forgiving God in order to live in freedom, or allowing festering resentments to destroy our relationship.
I’ll go with freedom.
If you’ve got some disappointments, hurts, or scars may I encourage you to do something new?
Practice forgiving God.
It doesn’t fix things, but it sure does help.