The moments that followed that phrase from the doctor a year ago changed my life dramatically. It would take a few days, but soon I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. The usual regimen of chemotherapy began and was tolerated without major side-effects, save the usual week of fatigue, the occasional trip to the hospital for anti-biotics when my fever would rise, and the expected hair loss. By July, I finished the prescribed treatment and was pronounced “in remission,” just in time to travel to Beirut for 2 weeks of teaching counseling education classes with students from across the Middle East. However, a month later, another CT scan confirmed our biggest fear…the tumor had returned. Now the treatment and prognosis took on a more serious, ominous tone… 4 more stringent chemo treatments…then a bone marrow transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore by Christmas. My world was rocked…everything in my life came to a screeching halt. Since then, I have closed my private counseling practice and we have moved from our home, unable to keep paying the rent. Graciously, God has provided rent-free housing and storage for our belongings, as well as financial gifts from family, friends, and churches. While the faithfulness of God remains true, in these months, both my wife and I have been on an emotional…and spiritual roller coaster.
Traumatic life events can cause a destabilization, or a “shattering” of our basic assumptions about the world, life, justice, and our self-image (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). A major recovery task of the traumatized individual is to process, re-interpret, even struggle with the event. While the construct of “coping” includes utilizing many resources, for religious/spiritual individuals, “religious coping” is often the first resource we turn to. Religious coping orients us to the “sacred” in our search to make meaning out of life when our equilibrium has been disrupted by trauma (Pargament, 1997; see previous post, “God Help Me!”). Recent research suggests religious coping consists of both positive and negative patterns and outcomes. Generally, the pattern of positive religious coping relates to a sense of spiritual connectedness with others and a secure relationship with God. In contrast, the pattern of negative religious coping relates to a more uncertain relationship with God, a view of the world which is foreboding, and a religious struggle in the search for meaning and significance in life. Positive religious coping tends to correlate positively with reduced distress and increased psychological and spiritual growth; while negative religious coping methods generally result in greater emotional distress and lower levels of health and well-being (Pargament, et al., 2001). However, in only a few studies, religious participants (ie: clergy and “Cross-Cultural Christian Workers”) utilized both positive and negative religious coping, resulting in positive growth (e.g., Ting & Watson, 2007; Proffitt, et al., 2007). The prevailing thought is that individuals with more spiritual maturity may be able to more effectively tolerate the ambiguity and conflict of the negative aspects of religious coping, resulting in spiritual and psychological growth.
What does this mean for “Christian workers” on the front-lines of cross-cultural ministry regularly exposed to and experiencing more than your fair share of trauma and crises? How we employ our spirituality as a means of coping may provide positive or negative outcomes. Believers who have a more secure relationship with God may be more likely to experience growth through trauma. And, it’s ok to struggle with the meaning, the uncertainty, the fear of a traumatic event. I see Christ struggling in the Garden of Gethsemene,“…if it be Your will…let this cup pass…” And, even on the cross, He asks the Father the question we feel too “unspiritual” to ask…“WHY? Why have You forsaken Me?” But, out of the trauma of the Garden and the Cross came victory…hope…healing…eternal life.
If you’re struggling with “bad news” this holiday season, hear again the words of the angels,
“Fear not…I bring you Good News…a Savior…”
I would be interested in your experience of religious coping and perhaps struggling with a trauma. What are the practices/disciplines you have found most helpful? Please leave your comments below, following the References, or send me an email. Peace -Tom
P.S. Due to my illness, it’s been over a year since my last post. During this time, as I’ve let go of all the “activities” that identified me, I have been re-evaluating my priorities and passions. I’ve come to the conclusion that if I could only do one thing, my heart’s desire is to support and encourage Cross-Cultural Christian Workers. Writing “New Mission Wellness” is one small thing I can do for now, as I await my upcoming transplant. Hopefully I will be able to post more than once a year!
Pargament, K. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford Press.
Pargament, K., Tarakeshwar, N., Ellison, C., & Wulff, K. (2001). Religious coping among the religious: The relationships between religious coping and well-being in a national sample of Presbyterian clergy, elders, and members. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40(3), 497-513.
Proffitt, D., Cann, A., Calhoun, L., & Tedeschi, R. (2007). Judeo-Christian clergy and personal crisis: Religion, posttraumatic growth and well being. Journal of Religion and Health, 46(2), 219-231.
Ting, R., & Watson, T. (2007). Is suffering good? An explorative study on the religious persecution among Chinese pastors. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 35(3), 202-210.