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Awakened By The Father
The daughters and sons of the Triune God have distinct relationships with each person of the Trinity. Eternal life is knowing Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is both a unified knowledge of the one true God, and distinct knowledge of each Person. As I reflected a few months ago, in John 10 Jesus directs us to the safe hands of the Father. This is a distinct safeguarding work. But the Father doesn’t just protect those who have been harmed by spiritual leaders. He also awakens them to new life.
Reading John 9-10 through the lens of trinitarian doctrine allows us to see another aspect of the Father’s healing work for spiritual abuse survivors. To explore this, I am borrowing from Shannon Thomas’ Healing from Hidden Abuse which outlines 6 essential stages of psychological abuse healing: Despair, Education, Awakening, Boundaries, Restoration, and Maintenance. I have considered using the three-fold model of Judith Herman (safety, story and community), which Scott Harrower deploys in his development of “a trinitarian response to the horrors of this world” in the Gospel of Matthew. For now, I’m thinking through Thomas’ stages because of how practical her book is for survivors. Also, while it doesn’t have the neat threefold triad that Herman’s model does, six is divisible by three, and I plan to explore how each person of the Trinity distinctly appropriates two of the six stages. It might seem like I’m skipping over the Despair and Education stages, but a few pieces I’ve written fit the Despair stage (appropriated to the Spirit) and the Education stage (appropriated to Son, here and here).
Thomas describes the awakening stage like this:
“When survivors have identified their Despair from having been psychologically abused (Stage One), and then Educated themselves on the specific ways abusers harm others (Stage Two), an Awakening happens for the survivor (Stage Three). This is the point in recovery when aha moments happen. Survivors can describe what they experienced, have learned new terminology, and in doing so, no longer feel isolated in the abuse. At this stage, a survivor may start to feel empowered in their recovery journey.”1
How does that relate to God the Father?
The ultimate goal of the triune missions of Son and Spirit are to bring creatures back to the Father. He is the final origin of life, the fount of every blessing. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus rescues his sheep “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). We could thus orient this awakening stage around the work of the Son. But in the Good Shepherd discourse Jesus repeatedly directs our attention to the Father as the final source of all that Jesus provides as our Shepherd. The sheep have life because Jesus laid down his life, but Jesus did that because he received a charge from the Father to lay down his life and take it up again (John 10:18). Therefore, we are also awakened to new life in Christ because it was the will and plan of the Father (cf. Eph. 1:5, 9-11).
This awakening to new life is powerfully and vividly enacted in the healing of the blind man in John 9.
Awakened to the Father’s world
In Johannine writings, seeing is much more than physical sight. Jesus makes this painfully clear in 9:39-41 when he pronounces judgment on the Pharisees for their spiritual blindness. But the spiritual image only works by analogy from physical sight, and there is much here with which spiritual abuse survivors can relate.
When the man born blind was cast out by the Pharisees, it was as if his community said, “We don’t see you anymore. We are blind to you. You say you see the light, but we are the ones with true sight, and we cast you back into the darkness.”
John is a master of metaphor, and we will frequently miss the greater depth of his narration if we stick to the surface level of the text. When the man was given sight by Jesus, he was physically healed but left in spiritual limbo. He was in a process of awakening: believing Jesus to be a prophet, but when asked about Jesus’ location had to say, “I do not know” (9:12). He identified himself as a disciple of Jesus (9:27), but he had never actually seen Jesus. It wasn’t until Jesus personally disclosed himself as the Son of Man the healed man truly saw Jesus with the eyes of faith and worshipped him. This portrays a gradual process of awakening with which many Christians have related.2 This is equally true in recovery from spiritual trauma. It is also equally true that physical sight often plays a central role in healing. And that is where we see the distinct work of the Father.
When the man “went and washed and came back seeing” (9:7), it was the Father’s world that he saw. While the external works of God are undivided, and creation is equally a work of Father, Son and Spirit (cf John 1:3, Gen. 1:1-2), from the time of the early church students of Scripture have ascribed creation to the Father as uniquely his work. This is why the Apostles’ Creed begins with, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” It is the Father’s unique position in the Trinity to be the unbegotten source and origin. It is the Father’s plan which sent the Son and Spirit to redeem creation (Ephesians 1:3-14; Acts 1:4). By seeing the Father as unbegotten source, we see how creation is a distinct work of the Father (again, even while confessing the Son and the Spirit as involved in creation, both according to their personal properties and in union as the one God).
“This Is My Father’s World,” wrote presbyterian minister Maltbie D. Babcock.3 Published posthumously in 1901 by his wife Katherine, this well-known hymn was originally a poem of 16 stanzas, including this one:
This is my Father's world. The birds that their carols raise, The morning light, the lily white. Declare their Maker's praise.
In triggering flashback episodes, birdsong has been one of the most helpful grounding realities for my wife Kristen. After her firing, it took just over 7 months and living with 2 different families before we landed in the basement of my childhood home. My parents’ house is in a relatively older neighborhood littered with giant old oak trees, sycamores, and others I can’t name which house all manner of birds. They are especially vocal in the morning, which my professor Jerram Barrs fondly described as “the morning chorus.”
There are only a few bird songs I recognize, like bluejays, cardinals, and mocking birds. One afternoon I was surprised by a fleck of gold flitting among the branches of the red maple tree in our backyard. Sitting still long enough to catch one of these birds fly, I realized the loud twittering chorus was the song of goldfinches. I could only just barely see one of them high up in the tree, the rest of them camouflaged by leaves turned yellow gold from sun shining through. The beautiful music created by these winged creatures became a source of calm for my wife, the voice of her Father calling her back to the present where he was providing for her in body and soul.
I believe the same was true for the man born blind. When he said of Jesus, “God listens to him” (9:31), he was referring to the Father. Jesus emphasized this characteristic of his relationship with the Father in 11:41-42, that he “always hears me.” So when Jesus restored sight to the man, part of the undivided work of the Trinity in that miraculous healing was owing to the Father listening to Jesus.
Why is that important? It means that the Father wanted the man to see. The Father wanted him to awaken to his world of wonder, the “very good” earth of Genesis 1. There is distinct, trinitarian comfort here for spiritual abuse survivors. When they find soothing for their nervous systems in the sounds and sights of nature, they can know and feel a special connection with the Father.
Another stanza near the end Babcock’s poem:
This is my Father's world. O let me ne'er forget That tho' the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is our Father’s world, and it is good for us to find safety in its beauty. God the Father created both the physical world and our physical senses to encounter his wondrous creation. It is this world, tangible, as real as rocks, that reminds us of the Father’s never-failing care.
Each day the sun rises, and the Father reminds us of his rule.
Water runs in rivers, pipes and faucets because the Father is the ruler yet.
By sight or sound or taste or touch or smell, the evidence of the Father’s loving provision is ever present to our senses.
Quote from George MacDonald
Is oxygen-and-hydrogen the divine idea of water?…There is no water in oxygen, no water in hydrogen; it comes bubbling fresh from the imagination of the living God, rushing from under the great white throne of the glacier…Let him who would know the truth of the Maker, become sorely athirst, and drink of the brook by the way—then lift up his heart—not at that moment to the Maker of oxygen and hydrogen, but to the Inventor and Mediator of thirst and water, that man might foresee a little of what his soul might find in God.
How can you enjoy the love of God this week through sensing the world he made?
Shannon Thomas, Healing from Hidden Abuse, p. 111.
Eg, see another story of Jesus gradually healing a blind man in Mark 8:22-26.
While writing this I discovered for the first time that Babcock committed suicide in supposed feverous delirium on May 19, 1901 in Naples, Italy. I have some more thoughts on what I learned about that, but that’ll have to fit in another post.