Week 20: Disillusionment
Song for May. Listen => Struggle (on our dark night of the soul)
You are a leader. No matter what level on the leadership pyramid you occupy, it is inevitable that some day, in some way, your ethics will be tested. For those privileged to reach the peak– especially in politics, business and science– powerful tools and resources will be at hand. As events in Ukraine vividly teach, the goodness of a leader is of paramount concern to all of us. Only leaders of goodness use the tools and resources available to them for the good. Where is the ethical foundation of a leader formed? In piety. Only when we enter into God’s presence do we discover the audacious reach of His love for us and for all. It is here we learn to move beyond ourselves; to expand our circles of care; to serve.
Our piety deepens through thick-and-thin companionship with God. It is formed in still and quiet prayer; it is formed in the heat and shadows. To reach maturity in our faith, we must at times “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” In last week’s letter, we explored the shadow of doubt– as illustrated by the story of Mother Teresa. She suffered through a lifelong battle between doubt and faith, a never-fully-resolved conflict. Despite this– more likely because of it– she was graced with humanity, humility and soulfulness. The smoldering embers of her doubt purified her faith; made her a better servant leader.
In this letter, I wish to explore the shadow of disillusionment. Disillusionment is the dissolution of a belief we once thought to be true. As the veil of false belief is ripped from our face, we are shocked by a new awareness, both troublesome and disorienting. The world as we once knew it no longer exists. Before us lies some new and uncomfortable reality. We grieve for what was; we resist– but can’t deny– what is.
Perhaps our disillusionment is in God Himself, experienced when first we realize He will not give us the thing we so desperately seek. This forces us to reimagine who God is and isn’t; we must choose anew whether to believe. Will this reimagining of who God is help us to rediscover His love for us? Or will it lead us to reject or deny Him? Perhaps we are disillusioned by those around us– we are surprised by their selfishness or greed or envy or even cruelty. Is it possible to accept but transcend this reality, to see it through God’s eyes, and to find our way back to forgiveness and love? Or will our hurts descend into hates? Disillusionment provokes questions such as these.
Today I would like to share the story of Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was the daughter of a watchmaker who lived in Amsterdam during World War II. She lived a simple, stable, happy life inside a loving family. In May of 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Soon the occupying force mobilized to implement its “final solution”: the extermination of the Jews. Realizing what was happening, Corrie’s father asked the family to welcome Jews into their home. They built a secret hiding place behind a false wall, right in Corrie’s own bedroom. For two years, Corrie, her sister Betsie and the Ten Boom family hid many Jews behind that wall, and then helped them to escape out of the country.
Eventually the Ten Booms were caught, betrayed by a neighbor. Corrie, Betsie and the rest of the family were thrown into prison. Corrie and Betsie ended up in the same concentration camp — called Ravensbruck. Corrie was just 26 years old at the time. Imagine her disillusionment: betrayed by friends; stripped from her happy family; denied freedom; caught in the clutches of evil. All notions of the goodness of humankind, all trappings of home and promises for the future were shattered as the gates of Ravensbruck closed behind her.
Upon their arrival, she and her sister were stripped of their clothes– in front of the guards. They were given rough prison garb and thrown into a barracks, its sleeping platforms stacked three high, crawling with prisoners and fleas. On that first night, the sisters huddled together as Betsie began to pray. “Show us, God. Show us how”. Betsie had somehow managed to smuggle into the prison a small Bible. She read from the book of Thessalonians. A phrase struck her, and she said to Corrie, “That’s it. That’s his answer. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this barracks!” And so they did. They even gave thanks for the fleas.
Corrie Ten Boom’s time inside Ravensbruck was her dark night of the soul. In the terror of darkness, she encountered the crush of disillusionment. It took time, but through constant prayer she began to transcend it. She and her sister celebrated the fact that they had each other. They found solace in helping others. Armed with their small smuggled Bible, they organized a clandestine Bible study group. Corrie took on the role of visiting and encouraging others, saying prayers with them, and reading the Bible to them. She did all this right under the noses of the guards. Their Bible study group was never discovered. Corrie later learned she and her sister had been protected by the fleas: the guards avoided roaming the barracks for fear they would become infested.
Betsie died in Ravensbruck. Corrie survived. After the war, Corrie went on to share her story and her Christian faith to audiences all around the world, awakening the faith of many. She traveled far into her old age, speaking to audiences large and small about the love of God and the power of forgiveness.
In 1947, at the end of such a talk in Munich, Corrie saw a man approaching her. She froze. She instantly knew that the man coming up the aisle towards her was a former Ravensbruck guard. In that moment, she later said, it was as if he still wore his visored cap with the skull and crossbones, the blue uniform, the leather crop swinging from his belt. With horror she recalled her naked walk past him, her clothes thrown on a huge pile on the floor along with those of other newly admitted prisoners.
He said, “I too was at Ravensbruck. Since then I have become a Christian. You say that God forgives all sins, and indeed I know God has forgiven me for all the cruel things I did there. But I hope to hear it from your lips as well. Will you forgive me?” Corrie Ten Boom knew her faith– the proof of her progress past disillusionment– was being tested.
Corrie described what happened next:
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”… And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
Corrie Ten Boom found God in the midst of her deep disillusionment. Despite the darkness she discovered a deeper understanding of His love. It freed her to become a capable, ethical servant leader for the rest of her life.
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” — 1 Cor. 13:12–13
Unchecked, doubt and disillusionment often progress into the psychological state called depression– which is the topic of our next letter. Many leaders have struggled with it. We will talk about it.
P.S.: What to do when the world as you knew it falls apart? How do you process the end of innocence, when you see terrible things happening to good people? This poem speaks to that sense of disillusionment.
Ukrainian Alisa, nine years old,
Was scrambling with her family ‘cross the bridge
Weighed down by pack and bundled ‘gainst the cold
She began to lag behind just a smidge
As bombs rained down, inching ever closer
Mother’s panicked lips began to pray
Young Mykyta slowed to help his sister
And took her by the hand to speed her way
But bombs are bombs: the family never made it
The world viewed fresh, dead bodies on the ground
Damn it, but God (may I be explicit?)
I’m haunted by the thought You weren’t around
It’s the part of faith I’ve ne’er understood
Why is it evil sometimes conquers good?
Previous Week’s Letters: