Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Running in Circles

  • 2007 19 Jun
Running in Circles

Trapped in a Cycle of Pain

And you call yourself a Christian!”

I noticed how tight and white my mother’s lips were when she spoke. She was standing on the stair landing above me, hands on her hips.

“You’ll never get into heaven with an attitude like that! God knows all the evil thoughts you’ve ever had about me. Not one is hidden from him.”

She continued down the steps, her index finger pointed at me. Her footsteps were heavy, the stubby heels of her black shoes thudding. The thin pale lips were moving again.

“You’ll never please God the way you are. Don’t think you won’t reap the consequences of your evil thoughts. ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord!’” She was upon me now.

I was eleven. I had vacuumed the house and, according to my mother, not done a very good job. I was not fond of vacuuming, and when she ordered me to do it over, I had pushed back. I thought I had done a great job, and besides, it was a daunting task. Our house was a historic faculty home on the campus of a well-endowed institution for higher learning. There were fireplaces in every room, and the rooms were immense.

Maybe she was angry because I had spent time with my father that morning listening to his lecture. He had read it to me with his glasses balanced on the end of his nose. She didn’t like it when Dad and I spent time alone. But I wasn’t really sure what had set off this episode. I never was.

“If you knew the truth—that I am the apple of God’s eye—you would treat me differently!” She was building momentum now, her voice rising. “You are spurning God’s chosen one when you look down on me!” The words shot through the air and whizzed through me with their familiar pain.

The culmination was at hand, the consequences imminent.

“You are a hypocrite—full of evil thoughts and lies. A whitewashed tomb. Everything you do and say is a lie, and Satan is the father of lies, so you must belong to him!”

I could hear the cicadas buzzing outside. There had been a rash of them that summer, and when you walked on the lawn you could scarcely avoid the sickening crunch they made underfoot. I was aware that I was crying.

“Go to your room!” she ordered, flinging her arm out to point up the stairs. “I don’t want to see you again, and I don’t want you to talk to anyone. Have nothing to do with your sister either. This family will not associate with someone who refuses to respect those God has put in authority over them!”

I ran up to my room and lay across the bed, sobbing. I cried like this almost every day. I sometimes wondered if other kids cried all the time, but I didn’t have anyone to compare myself to. Outsiders weren’t welcome in our home. When they did gain access, after a brief honeymoon the relationship was always cut off because of “questionable motives” or a “spiritual oppression” they brought with them.

Even my little sister’s friend, a seven-year-old, was forbidden to come to our home to play. The tears and pleas of my sister, eight years younger than I, did not sway the decision. Friends were not easy to come by under these circumstances, and though I was only partially aware of it, I lived an isolated, lonely life. I was less favored than my sister, and I never had a real friend at all. I told myself I didn’t need friends, that I was fine the way I was. I deadened myself to the circumstances, neutralizing any hopes and expectations. I said “Whatever” a lot.

Mine was a precarious life as well as a lonely one. I was constantly on edge, vigilant, able to emotionally prepare myself instantly for what could come my way at any second. You learn quickly when the only thing predictable is the unpredictable.

We’d be packed and ready to go on vacation, only to cancel on the day of departure because the trip was “not God’s will.” We’d be eagerly anticipating a promised outing or gift and it would be canceled or never delivered, again because of divine will. Pets were given away without discussion. We were dragged from church to church every couple of months, abandoning a congregation once the pastor said something that “disagreed with Scripture.”

My father, a professor and theologian who was endlessly loyal to my mother, kept telling me it would get better, that God would do a new thing. He said this after each blowup, each tirade—and these could last for days.

I tried to believe him, and often after an eruption we experienced a period of calm. It was a scary calm—we weren’t sure when things would flare up again—but it was a calm nonetheless, and I was grateful. Yet the pattern inevitably repeated itself, and despite our earnest prayers and hopes nothing changed. My father sometimes bore his soul to me. “Why does she have to be so cruel to you?” he would say after an angry outburst that had left me shattered and sullen.

I didn’t know.

“She not only puts the knife in,” he said, “but she turns it.”

The fighting between my parents was extreme. Screaming and door slamming woke me in the night. Days of tension paralyzed my sister and me with fear, and we crept quietly up to the attic to play with old toys.

“I need to rise above this,” Dad would tell me in his vulnerable moments after he had been the target of an onslaught. “I have to not let what she does affect me.”

Away from home (and he kept the two worlds very separate) my father’s work and writing helped a great many people come to know the authentic power of Jesus at work in their lives. His combination of intellectual knowledge and conviction of the personal presence of God flooded the lecture halls where he spoke. But the world at home was scary, insane and lonely.

As I grew older I discovered that my mother had been the victim of severe abuse as a child. Even though I intellectually began to come to terms with the reasons for her behavior, I was unable to free myself from her grasp. Still, my father’s comments and judgments against my mother’s behavior helped me begin to grasp the unfathomable and experience a deep courage. Despite her claim that she was God’s voice and presence in the world, despite her grandiose proposals and assertions about her power and unique giftedness, I began to realize that she was—perhaps—wrong.

Maybe these experiences were not God’s will at all. Perhaps it was wrong that I couldn’t have friends over or get involved in social activities. Maybe I wasn’t born to be miserable all the time, and maybe I wasn’t in the grips of Satan with evil spirits lurking in dark corners ready to oppress me and throw me into hell. Maybe I wasn’t contaminated by those demons the way my mother said I was when she came into my room in the middle of the night to cast them out. Perhaps purging the house of evil—praying in each room that Satan would leave—was not the way most families spent their Saturdays.

At one point I suggested to my father that we get Mom some help. His usually gentle face went rigid and he sucked in his breath. He told me my mother didn’t need help, that she was doing better, and he asked where my family loyalty was. He declared that God had given him this situation so he could learn to rise above it. Jesus suffered, saints suffered—why shouldn’t he?

This topic was clearly taboo. It was just too painful for my father to identify the problem honestly. So the bizarre, erratic behavior continued to loom larger than life and define us. One day her tirade might be God’s voice to shape us up. Another day a low mood was a “dark night of the soul” she was being called to walk through. She often believed her struggles were demonic and had many well-known people in the deliverance ministry try to cast out spirits from her. It never seemed to take. Other days she accused my father of having no faith and contaminating her with an oppression she could not shake off.

Years of intensive psychotherapy later, as I look back at the shattered landscape of my early life, I still shudder at the cycle of pain and abuse. The most chilling aspect of those years was the fact that my mother’s spiritual language seemed to validate everything. Although I am sure there were spiritual components to my mother’s condition, her ultra-spiritual terminology gave her assaults frightening leverage in our lives. If I had been able to grasp that my mother needed psychological help, perhaps I would not have taken her actions and words so much to heart. I would have had some mastery and control over the situation, and I would have had the correct words to define the reality in which I lived. Had my father been able to come to terms with the problem, I believe he would have attempted to persuade Mom to get professional help.

When I left for college, I watched from a distance as the situation became increasingly chaotic. During my visits home I saw my dad’s jovial demeanor dissolve into brooding melancholy. He began to question why he was still alive. One day as he was walking out of a bank, he fell over with a massive stroke and died. He was only in his sixties.

Mom eventually left the area, and her behavior continued to deteriorate, especially once my father was gone. His presence had served as a kind of support for her erratic condition; once he died there was no one to contain it.

Our family’s faith was a mixed blessing. Had we not believed in God, we might have sought help much more readily. Paradoxically, spiritual language can be a lacquer that covers over and justifies problems rather than helping us discern the most appropriate, even obvious, course of action.

I am a pastor now, and I see many people trapped in a similar cycle of pain. The woman in the abusive marriage whose husband threatens to kill her tells me, “Maybe if I just clean up that back room and keep the kitchen a little neater, things will get better. The Lord put me in this marriage, and God works all things for good.” The wife of a bipolar man whose wild spending habits have brought them to financial ruin says, “God is telling me to love him and pray harder.” There is certainly nothing wrong with loving, and praying harder is always warranted in difficult situations. But these people reappear in my office a week, a month, even a year or two later asking why God hasn’t done anything. Despite their earnest prayers, heaven is silent. The old patterns keep repeating. There is no relief. In fact, the problem now looms larger than before.

I call this cycle “hamster-wheel suffering.” In my work I have seen countless people who struggle with patterns of thought and behavior that keep them spinning but going nowhere. Unless we work through loss, trauma and abuse both psychologically and spiritually, we find ourselves muted, stymied and shut
off from the present because of the past. The broad landscape of life grows dim and small. There seem to be no options. We cannot remember what used to bring us joy. Our sense of identity—if we ever had one—goes underground. Time collapses; we feel old or convince ourselves that life is almost over anyway. Dreams evaporate and fear interlaces even peaceful moments with dread. Delight, joy and wonder are replaced by obligation, guilt and routine.

When reading Dante’s Inferno awhile back I was struck by how much of the torment in Dante’s hell is cyclical. The people in one group are all stabbed in the chest as they travel along their path. They continue on and their wounds begin to heal. As the bleeding stops, these sufferers find they have come full circle, and they are stabbed again. The healing effort is lacerated, and the cycle begins anew. Health and wholeness are dashed. The hope of a new thing is unrealized. This is the hamster wheel. This is hell on earth.

I know the hamster wheel. To seek God when you are in hell and not be able to find him is the most despairing journey of the human heart. Many people in this situation use spiritual language to cover their cyclical wounds, desperately trying to hold on to some sense of meaning and purpose. I do not look down on their efforts to find God in the midst of crisis and difficulty. Even after leaving home and breathing a big sigh of relief, I continued to relive the chaos I had grown up with. It was all I knew.

But now I know there is a difference between suffering that is cyclical and destructive and suffering that is redemptive. I realize that distinguishing between types of suffering can lead us to a potential Pandora’s box of questions about evil and suffering in the world. To answer these questions is not the intent of this book. Nor do I assume that these distinctions are prescriptive—set in stone. The distinctions I will be making are intended as general guidelines that can be applied practically so that people of God can be freed to recognize their purpose and not be shackled by endless patterns of futility and fear.

Throughout history the Enemy has used cyclical oppression to keep God’s people enslaved, to keep them from recognizing the glorious purpose and hope to which they have been called.

White slave owners in the Old South knew that once the African American slaves became educated, able to think and articulate their experiences, they would seek a higher form of life and recognize freedom as their inalienable right. So they passed laws forbidding anyone to teach slaves to read.

In the same way, if we stay blinded, uninformed and unable to understand or articulate what is happening to us, we cannot examine how our lives fall short of the glorious liberty we are entitled to as God’s children. If we mistake the hamster wheel for God’s will, we make God an oppressor rather than a liberator, a justifier, an outrageous forgiver and the Author of life. To live in freedom we must think intelligently about our lives and stay open to the possibility that things may not be as predetermined as we thought.

In the Gospels, Jesus does not succumb to every kind of suffering that comes his way. His identity as God’s beloved Son and his sense of purpose and calling cause him to avoid certain situations. God reminds him before he goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil that Jesus is his beloved Son (Matthew 3:17). This reminder of his identity as the beloved one is to encourage Jesus and build him up before a period of desolation. We too need to be reminded of who we are in the eyes of God. Paul tells us that we are chosen by God (Colossians 3:12), his “beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).

In the wilderness, Jesus knows who he is. There is no doubt in his mind—and he states it. The Enemy tries over and over to challenge this identity. “If you are the Son of God, let’s see you prove it!” He distorts Scripture, and if Jesus were to follow what Satan wanted, he would come under the bondage and oppression of evil. But he doesn’t. Time after time he answers Satan’s distortions with statements of victory and purpose. When he emerges from the wilderness, his identity leads him to begin his ministry the right way. From the outset he tells people who he is and why he has come. He reads from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

This is who Jesus is—the liberator of captives and the champion of the oppressed. He states to the people that this is his mission and call. And at first they think he’s great. But when he refers to incidents in Scripture in which God intervened on behalf of non-Jews (Luke 4:24-27), implying that God has sent him to the Gentiles, they bring him to a cliff and prepare to hurl him over. How quickly they change! What does Jesus do? Stand there and let himself be destroyed? Does he say, “It must be God’s will that I suffer for what I said. Go ahead, guys. I’ll die a martyr right now by letting you toss me over this ledge!”

No. Scripture tell us, “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30). On his way to where? To fulfill the purpose for which he came. Immediately he starts healing people, setting them free. The people love him so much they try to keep him from leaving them (Luke 4:42), but Jesus is clear about his call. He responds, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

Would you be able to succinctly sum up your call and your reason for being sent to earth at this time? Are you able to spot scriptural distortions that perpetuate oppression rather than liberation? Are you able to act courageously and confidently in the truth that you have been beloved of God since the foundation of the world and are “of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31)? I know many Christians who don’t feel worth one sparrow.

This book is about discovering your tremendous worth in Jesus Christ. It is meant to help you break out of the bondage that can steal your life and rob you of the purpose and call of God. In the following chapters I talk a lot about stopping the cyclical past in order to recognize God’s liberation. The first crucial question to ask on this journey is, “Am I suffering because I am fulfilling my God-ordained call and purpose—or because I’m on a hamster wheel?” To help in the discernment process, I try to give practical suggestions and examples, not a list of self-help solutions. This book is an effort to help you get in step with the Holy Spirit, the only true Helper, and discern his direction for your life. I encourage you to read prayerfully and seek the Holy Spirit’s transformation. Recognizing patterns, remembering who Jesus is and discovering the dreams God put deep inside you can open new channels for grace and change.

What I share with you on these pages is what I have lived. I am here now because of Jesus’ love. Writing this book has made it necessary for me to turn myself inside out, exposing all my ragged edges and uneven seams. I have had to honestly examine the path my life has taken, including the many times my flaws and shortcomings got in the Lord’s way. It has been necessary for me to assess what is holding me together these days and causing me to look forward to living rather than dying. So I share with you my insights, reflections and stories in hope that they might shed some light on who God is and who we as God’s people are called to be in Christ Jesus.

I start by describing the characteristics of hamster-wheel suffering, which we must recognize if we are going to be freed or help free those we love. The courage to change means we must dare to believe that although the hamster wheel is circling, there is a way out, a choice we can make that will launch us into a new way of living, loving and allowing ourselves to be loved.

Taken from Running in Circles:  How False Spirituality Traps Us in Unhealthy Relationships by Kim V. Engelmann.  © 2007 by Kim V. Engelmann.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.  For more information, please visit