Hope for Us and the Church Beyond Learned Helplessness

The other night we began our public meeting at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington with Eminem’s and Rihanna’s squalid ballad Love the Way You Lie. We were trying to acknowledge that we are entangled in the ways of the world. And now I continue to be tangled up with Rihanna’s haunting chorus. That is, I am entangled with 547,269,483 (and counting) youtube viewers since the song premiered in 2010.

learned helplessnessRihanna said she joined the collaboration with Eminem because she could relate to the theme of the song, as she and Eminem had experienced domestic violence on “different ends of the table.” Eminem and his ex-wife Kimberly Scott had been in a difficult relationship, having divorced in 2001 and again in 2006 after a remarriage. In February 2009, Rihanna’s notorious relationship with Chris Brown ended following his felony assault on her. She described Love the Way You Lie as unique, realistic and deep, saying it “broke down the cycle of domestic violence because few people had insight on the topic” [MTV]. She tried to exploit the popularity of the original with a Part II that celebrates death and masochism with even less subtlety, if that is possible.

Learned helplessness should not be normalized

I admit I am an admirer of these artists because they are talented and clever survivors. If your song deserves a Wikipedia page, the least we can do is tip our hats.  There is a lot to say about a song that influences hundreds of millions of people. But I just want to say one thing: the learned helplessness being normalized in the song should not be normalized.

Rihanna: Just gonna stand there and watch me burn?
Well, that’s alright because I like the way it hurts.
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry?
Well, that’s alright because I love the way you lie.
I love the way you lie.
I love the way you lie.

Eminem: Now I know we said things, did things that we didn’t mean
And we fall back into the same patterns, same routine.
But your temper’s just as bad as mine is, you’re the same as me.
But when it comes to love, you’re just as blinded.

Baby, please come back, it wasn’t you, baby, it was me.
Maybe our relationship isn’t as crazy as it seems.
Maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano.
All I know is I love you too much to walk away though.

Abuse, especially sexual abuse, presents the victim with a terrible choice. If she (or he) wants to live free of the pain, they must choose not to be alive in some way. She might come to say with Rihanna, “I like the way it hurts. I love the way you lie.” Or he might try to normalize it by saying, with Eminem, “Maybe our relationship isn’t as crazy as it seems.”

No, it is, and you know you are not getting the love you desire. Even though you might choose to kill the part of the soul that feels the pain, the grace of God renders you unable to destroy your own or someone else’s sense of being. But the powerlessness we may have experienced in our family, from an abuser and from our pain has terrible consequences to confront.

One consequence I want to highlight is the self-doubt that results in learned helplessness. Eminem doubts he can change and Rihanna has given up. They are helpless and hopeless. They expect to burn. The goal – a happy family, the end to the abuse, relief from the pain – is out of reach. Their perpetual question is, “Why can’t I make this work?”

I think 500 million people probably resonated with that question. The result of continued, frustrated labor that fails to reach the carrot of love at the end of the stick of an abusive relationship is learned helplessness. We learn to give up before we try because we have learned there is no hope. We are locked in a cell and no one will rescue us. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). We may leave the porch light on, feigning involvement, but no one is home; we never invite someone into our empty soul. We can’t do this completely, of course, the soul keeps popping up to be slain again. But when we try to keep it dead so we can’t experience the pain, we unleash terrible consequences.

What to do when you don’t get what you need from those who should provide it

This happens at a corporate level, too, in whole families and in the church. I want to talk about it as a church. We are a circle of hope that does not always get what we hope for. Lately we have been talking a lot about having a missional culture. I think we have been pushing some pained people to move beyond their learned helplessness. Maybe they have been “on the mission field” a long time and they have not been as successful in meeting their goals as they expected. Maybe they feel, like an abused child usually does, that if they just do better they will make it all right. But the increasingly vocal forces against Jesus have wounded them and the contempt for their powerlessness has made them feel ashamed. They have come to feel that they should not try to influence people at all; if they try, the giant forces against them will be too strong to stand against. They try to tamp down the soul of the church lest they experience it dying. Paul’s words sound like damnation, not inspiration, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13).

The solution to the personal powerlessness that deadens one’s soul and the learned helplessness of the disappointed missionary is the same. Jesus and Paul both demonstrate this, if that helps convince you. We need to trade death for life, lose the life in which we are caged in order to find the life outside the cage which Jesus has provided. It will take turning off our fake porch light and walking through the darkness with Jesus until we emerge in abiding hope. We’ll have to forfeit our controlling, self-protective and mistrusting ways and turn to humble dependence on God and passionate involvement with others, which is what I think everyone wants, down in that indomitable soul.

Rihanna and Eminem exploit their pain for profit and unwittingly (I hope) teach their young fans to accept the despair of the powerless as if destruction were just what tornados and volcanos do. Connecting our powerless, pained souls with God is what enables us to stand in an evil day. When we keep connecting, as a church, we don’t end up submitting to the contemptuous forces of the world who teach us we are helpless and tell us we should just shut up and love the way they lie

[Check out Dan Allender’s book The Wounded Heart. It inspired some of what I wrote]

4 thoughts on “Hope for Us and the Church Beyond Learned Helplessness

  1. I think a lengthy diatribe about the message that victims are choosing their victimization is unnecessary with all of the buzz today about the Steubenville trial, so I’ll leave that commentary out.
    I’ve been talking to people over the past couple of days about the nature of our relationships in the church, and I thought this was pretty spot on. Many of us come into church with all kinds of assumptions about what the church is for. I think, most of the time, those assumptions are mixed in with who we think God is, which, let’s be honest, comes from what we learned from our parents. We come in with ideas of what SHOULD happen, who our leaders SHOULD be. And when we feel let down, we feel REALLY let down. I think what’s unfortunate is that there are a lot of churches and church leaders out there, perfectly happy to oblige people in their transference of God onto leadership. It’s nice having people trust you without having to earn it, or respect you simply because you’re in charge. What stinks most about that narcissistic behavior though, is that it just perpetuates weird abusive problems. If you’re going to expect people to treat you like God then you have to be in their hearts and minds, telling them what to do and convicting them like God. In other words, you have to be completely enmeshed with them.
    I have excellent relationships with some of my professors and really look up to a lot of them as role models and leaders, but there’s not a chance you’d catch me crying about how they never say, “good job” or aren’t affirming enough of my efforts in class. That isn’t what those relationships are for. They aren’t my parents and they aren’t God. Why should I expect as much from them? I think phrases like “Church Family” and “covenant” bring up these feelings in people, and possibly contribute to all of the codependency, but regardless of where it comes from, we are doing ourselves a disservice of we don’t challenge each other to move into healthy adult ways of relating. If I’m not still asking my dad, husband, best friends etc., to exclaim, “good job” every time I help out around the house, I probably shouldn’t expect the people in my church to do it either.
    Also, once you graduate high school, the risk of being sent to the principal’s office (my personal brand of transference) rapidly declines, last time I checked we don’t have one at COH, so I’m safe. Whew!

  2. Thanks Rod for this, I find that I can easily read lyrics and not consider the overarching theme or “lesson”, this gave me a good example in doing so.
    Also though, I have been amazed at the number of hits of videos I’ve watched of late on Youtube (I don’t think a music video back in the 90’s was getting watched on MTV 500,000,000 times…), we are all getting filled with the same stuff, but hopefully our thoughts afterwards are staying diverse enough to keep the conversation (and critiques) coming.

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