Driving into work this morning I caught the end of an interesting programme on radio 4. Oliver James and Laverne Antrobus were taking part in a programme discussing the impact that parenting has on children – and specifically how much parenting can influence a child’s future – especially in terms of what we might call ‘undesirable’ outcomes – from emotional and mental health problems through to antisocial behaviour and crime.
I only caught the final half of the programme, but what they were discussing then was very topical for me because it mirrored a discussion I had yesterday with the senior pastor at the church I work in. The radio discussion by then had moved onto serious crimes and the kinds of situations which hit the headlines – where children who have themselves been the victim of very dysfunctional and traumatic background go on to commit horrendous and violent crimes, or to repeat the kind of abuse they themselves experiences. But the question that caught my interest was about those children – and whether there was any real hope for rehabilitation and recovery for them. Were there, the interviewer asked, any children for whom the damage done in their childhood is so severe that realistically there is no hope?
This was exactly the question that hung in the room yesterday as the senior pastor and I wrestled with a specific situation that has been challenging us over recent weeks and months. It raises a bigger question for us – when we are trying to support people who have experienced very traumatic, abusive and chaotic childhoods in their pasts, and are demonstrating very challenging and damaging behaviour in their presents – what view do we take on their future? We know that through God there is always hope, and we hold onto that for them – but how do we line that up with the knowledge that from a clinical perspective, their future looks bleak? And how does our knowledge of their ultimate hope work in practice – how do we treat people who respond negatively to our support, who challenge and disrupt the boundaries we put into place in order to care for all those who attend our church - how do we welcome them into the family of our church when their behaviour is at times wholly unacceptable?
I found the programme this morning fascinating because both of the experts said straight away that yes, sadly there were some people for whom the damage done in their childhood was so severe that no amount of therapy would solve that. It’s such an unpalatable ‘truth’ (I’ve put it in apostrophes because I know some people will disagree with it) – and it’s unusual to hear it stated so unapologetically. As for me, I am torn. Torn between the knowledge that I have worked with several people who were labelled ‘hopeless situations’ – but with good, consistent and focused care (and of course a lot of prayer) actually went on to live transformed lives; but that there are also people who with the same consistent loving care seem resistant to any change and remain trapped in negative cycles of behaviour which are as harmful and devastating to those around them as they are to themselves. I know that clinically there are some people for whom the chances of their showing any meaningful kind of recovery are very slim, but I also know and believe 100% that God can heal all of these people. Then again, I’m reminded of Jesus’ first question to the man at the pool – ‘do you want to be well?’ and I find myself asking myself that question for some of the people I am working with. I know that some of these people are so trapped in their situations that they seem unable to move towards change – and that some of those are the people who might fall into this category of those for whom there is little chance of recovery.
Most of all though, I am so aware of the risk that I might unfairly judge someone, or that my own preconceived ideas about their chances of change might become self-fulfilling because of the way I treat them. I am in complete agreement with my senior pastor – we continue to be committed to working really hard to treat everyone the same. If someone comes to us for help then no matter what their past or present circumstances, we believe in them, and we believe that God can heal them. We do our utmost to provide appropriate support and care for them within the natural limits of what we – as a church rather than a treatment facility - can offer. We aim to give them the best chance, should they want to take it, of moving towards recovery, healing and a new future, and we support other treatment they might be receiving and try to give it the best chance of success. We pray for people regularly, lay hands on them, anoint them if they are comfortable with this, and we provide good teaching where they need it, to help them to counteract the negative lies they have come to believe about themselves as a result of their past experiences. But I guess that somewhere in all this we have to be aware that some people may not be capable of moving on, and that in those cases even though we do everything right, the tragedy may be that nothing changes. For those people we may be left with what is ultimately our most powerful tool – prayer. And we have to resolutely continue to pray for them and hold on to that hope. Because it may be that we are the only ones who will.