2017 February Issue
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Sermon Ideas For Galatians 4:4-7 Part 2

So we are no longer slaves, but through adoption are children and heirs. This promotion of status must bring joy to everyone, right? As the younger generation says so emphatically, Not! For many, the status of slave remains much safer and more desirable; many cling with great tenacity to their bondage.

Whatever for? What makes slavery so attractive? (Here I am speaking of spiritual and relational slavery rather than of political or legal slavery.)

It was the psychologist Erikson who decades ago formulated eight stages in the cycle of human development. His ideas have been extended and improved, but the theoretical structure he proposed has stood the test of time. His stages were framed in polarities: Basic trust vs. basic mistrust; autonomy vs. shame and doubt; initiative vs. guilt, and so on.

These first three stages have a lot to say about whether a person can tolerate intimacy, responsibility, mutuality, and other factors that make mature relationship possible. The less successful a person is in negotiating these early-life stages (i.e., the more one's life experience promotes basic mistrust, shame, doubt and guilt), the more the yoke of slavery becomes not only comfortable but inevitable.

It is one of life's cruelest ironies that the very person who is most wounded or deprived early in life is the same person who later wards off or defeats the love that might bring healing and nurture. A person whose early life experience teaches basic mistrust will not, as an adult, allow others to get emotionally close, because to let someone close is to get within striking distance. One who is burdened by shame and doubt will remain emotionally hidden, convinced with irrational certainty that if another person came to knew one at any depth, inevitable rejection would follow, due to one's sense of pervasive and repulsive inner defectiveness. A person afflicted with guilt resists letting anyone close due to the danger of having his or her misdeeds come to light.

Such persons find relational slavery familiar and manageable. They seek it out, and will doggedly (although perhaps not consciously) maneuver any non-enslaving relationship toward the slavery they know and trust. It is known; the rules are clear-cut; no trust, vulnerability, autonomy, or initiative are required. Take their slavery away and they become frightened and disoriented: What will happen to me now? Don't hurt me!

These people make their way into the church for various reasons. Some want to be God's servants, hoping thereby to assuage God's wrath toward them. Some hope to present a sparkling-clean facade to hide their sense of inner filth—believing that they are defective beyond loving, they hope to at least fool people into accepting their personas. Some hope to find the courage somewhere, somehow, to confess and—terror of terrors—risk the consequences of that confession, not really believing forgiveness is possible but simply weary of covering the guilt.

What does Paul's declaration of a new adoptive status offer us—especially those of us who by nature would fight it off?

I'm reminded of a saying whose pertinence to this discussion may not immediately be clear. It is accepted as a truism by those who work in certain specializations within mental health. This is it: "Cancer cures neurosis." While the context of this statement is often the dark humor that people develop who deal daily with death, the statement is nonetheless based on time-tested observations. (By "neurosis" they refer to the self-defeating, repetitive psychological behaviors to which the flesh is heir—the internal thorns in our sides.)

The statement points to the truth of how persons respond in the wake of learning that they have cancer. Many of the standard features of the grief process emerge: Shock, denial, bargaining, etc., but there is also often a corresponding remission of unhealthy psychological defense mechanisms. One speculation is that these defense mechanisms are used to ward off catastrophe; now that catastrophe has arrived anyway (in the form of cancer), they are discarded. Another possibility is that the pros pect of impending death (when the cancer is life-threatening) focuses and energizes the individual; neurosis stops being a shield and starts feeling like a waste of immeasurably precious time.

Whatever the cause, the effect is widely observed. It comes to mind here because it is a natural human response to the in-breaking of an event that shatters not only our complacency but also redefines our sense of reality. Cancer redefines priorities, often turning them upside down. The promotion that seemed so important suddenly vanishes from view, while the chance to spend even five minutes with a grandchild is worth a king's ransom; the pursuit of the perfectly manicured lawn seems ludicrous while an hour without nausea is a gift from heaven; the "shoulds" of life fade away in favor of the is. In the process, the various quests we make as selves fall away, and we are confronted with life as soul.

Perhaps the connection I want to suggest is already clear: God's adoption involves an in-breaking that is similarly dis-orienting and re-orienting. The Spirit which cries, "Abba! Father!" cures neurosis also—not so much by making it go away as by providing a transforming context in which healing breaks through all defenses.

This is not to say that neurosis vanishes. Rather, in the life of soul, neurosis takes a back seat and is seldom called upon. God's child has already surrendered the quest to preserve the self's life, so neurosis is not needed to ward off that death; God's child lives a life so precious that the self's neurotic pursuits seem like folly.1

Gregory A. Hinkle

Notes

1. References for Pastoral Implications: Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (Rockport, MA: Element Press, 1993). Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973). Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1963).