Humility & Repair
How can we become more capable of repairing our relationships with ourselves, others, and with God?
In this episode, Dan and Rachael dive into the concept of repair in both personal and larger societal contexts. They stress the importance of humility in our repair process, introducing the concept of “epistemic humility” as a way to express love by making space for others. It’s a curious approach that acknowledges the limitations of our perspective, which is shaped by our unique experiences.
The conversation becomes personal as they reflect on a past publication that may have caused harm and explore how these experiences can be used for growth and repair.
By practicing repair with justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:8) in our day-to-day personal relationships, we can also begin to address broader societal issues with a similar approach. Rachael closes out this episode with this reminder: “Repair is a core part of what it means to love and be loved.”
This episode contains brief explicit language that may be offensive to some listeners; discretion is advised.
Rachael: Hello, Dan.
Dan: Hi, Rachael.
Rachael: Today we want to step into what are often really fraught waters, but I think for us, also very familiar waters of what does it mean to be people who are capable of entering repair. Interpersonally within ourselves and relationship with God. It’s certainly in our larger world that we’re connected to. And yeah, I mean laughing because as I said, this is not a topic that feels like, oh, let’s explore this. It feels very daily and almost mundane to some extent.
Dan: Oh, but real, so freaking… I didn’t expect you to use the word waters, but just a conflict yesterday. We began cold plunging this summer. We bought $120 little container to fill with water and a few ice cubes. And Becky, she’s nuts. I’ve known that over many, many, many decades. But the woman will get in the cold plunge and she’ll stay there for nearly forever. And so I was monitoring because I’m the one who will let her know that she’s done four minutes, and I’m like, sweetheart, it’s been four. She’s like, I’m going to stay here a little longer. And I’m like, look, I’ve read the articles. You’re not supposed to do cold plunging more than 15 to 18 minutes a week. You want to do 15 to 18 minutes today. So all of a sudden tension, just stay another moment. Why don’t you just go away? I’m like, if I go away and you’re going to stay in there forever, well you just go away. And I’m like, I’m not going to go away. So I mean, it felt like we were in third grade. Well, she was in third grade. I was in fifth. I had the mature upper hand here. I had the data that it wasn’t good, but the tension between us should not have been as great as it was. And all of a sudden, both of us are at least somewhat aware. The issue isn’t just the issue, it never is. There’s something else going on. And part of the necessity of repair, it’s to know that you need to repair, but also that often what’s on the surface needs to be addressed. But there’s often the simplest, there’s more to the story than what is seen. So yeah, I would say the topic of repair is very relevant every day.
Rachael: Yeah, I think about being a stepmom, certainly being a mom. I mean, I have to repair with Evie and she’s 14 months, but there’s still reparative processes that play out. But just the amount of times you have to go back to your kids, especially if they feel safe enough to call you out and to say, I didn’t.. that hurt my feelings, or I didn’t like that I didn’t have choice in this interaction or just different things to navigate. And I think in my fantasy world before moving into relationships that I was in day in and day out attachment relationships, I thought, oh, I’ve got this. Yeah, I’ll have to repair every once in a while…
Dan: Every once in awhile, the old phrase, every blue moon.
Rachael: Yeah, look how much therapeutic work I’ve done. I’m so grounded now. Anyhow, I digress. And I think practicing there is such good practice. I think what gets harder with repair is exactly what you’re naming, that there’s often stuff under the surface. And then when you move outside of your immediate sphere, let’s just say you move to your immediate family. I can’t tell you the amount of times my siblings and I have gotten in fights that are so old and familiar. And there is some sense of either there hasn’t actually been genuine repair here, or we actually don’t have imagination that we’ve changed or transformed. And so we’re responding to these triggers, but we’ve actually maybe moved to a different place. But that feels risky too because that requires a new kind of trust, a new possibility, and so much we’re so guarded of like, I will never be hurt in the same way again. So I need you to be bad so that I can stay safe, or I need you to be stuck in this way so that I know how to mitigate relationship with you.
Dan: Yeah, there’s a theory called Imago theory that basically says we have images of one another. We have pictures of who we are or how we relate, and in some sense change it from the idea of image to the idea of a thematic narrative. And so we become more predictable to one another in the process of how we relate. So we stopped seeing each other as we are because we have that image or we have a sense of the thematic overlay. Years ago when I had a beard and I shaved it and I came downstairs, I still had a mustache. And I remember looking at one of my daughters full face, hi, good morning. And she’s like, good morning. And I’m like, hi. She’s like, well, what are you doing? And I’m going, I’m just sort of bringing my face to you. She’s like, well, okay, well, what do you want? I’m like, I didn’t say it at that point, look at me. But I eventually had to say to her, do you see anything different? And all of a sudden her eyes widened. She goes, yeah, you grew a mustache. And I went, No. And it took literally a, I shaved my whole beard and left them a mustache. So when we get locked in, and I think that’s an important phrase when we get locked into how we see someone or expect them to be, it’s where we do need to think thematically, and we do get images, but there always has to be, again, a fancy word, but just bear with it. Epistemic humility, a ability to know that what I do know, I cannot hold with such confidence that I don’t let other data in that sense of, I’m not denying. I think I know that two plus two is four, but I have to be open to the possibility that what the implications of that are is beyond what I do know, so that there is this sense of humus, dirt, that I am dirt, but I bear the breath of God. And so in my dirt-ness, can I be that, shall we say royally, supremely confident that I know X, Y, or Z? I think that’s what we’re moving toward in conversation. I need an epistemic, meaning epistemology, how I know what I know, a kind of humility to be able to say. I always have to have some degree of question mark. It’s not so much doubt. It’s not just ambivalence, it’s that there is more to be known because I see through a lens that is at least to say opaque.
Rachael: Well, I mean, and that just recalls, I know you’re imagining this too. I mean, that’s in some ways what Paul’s talking about in his letter to the Corinthians when he has this beautiful, prophetic, provocative passage about love and really breaking down what is love. And it ends with this notion of we see only in part, and someday we’ll see in full, like we long to be known, but we only know in part. And someday we’ll be known even as we fully know. And there is, I think that’s, and therefore these three things remain faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. And so when I hear you say something like epistemic humility and that acknowledgement that in this here and now, and this already not yet, we don’t see fully. And we do see through our brokenness and our beauty, we see through our wounding and the places we’ve known tastes of goodness, and it’s all there tied up together. And yeah, I mean to me, epistemic humility is love. It’s a way of extending love, making space for the other. And it’s funny when you bring up the Imago thing, I forgot what you said, Imago theory. Today, well, when we’re recording this, which is just a few days before it will air, next week is my fourth wedding anniversary, and at my wedding I read one of my favorite passages from Jürgen Moltmann book Jesus Christ for Today’s World, which if you’re not familiar with Jürgen Moltmann, he’s a German theologian. He’s writing out of being a prisoner of war. A German soldier was a prisoner of war and coming to terms with what it meant for him to be in the time and place he was in, what it meant to repair, what it meant to understand his identity and Jesus. But this is his book. He has volumes of very intense theological work. He writes a lot about the suffering God. I think it was a way he really needed to come to understand who God was. But this is his book for the lay person, and that’s part of why I love it. But he has this little passage.
Dan: Before you go there, I just have to say, you didn’t just read it. It was part of one of the most remarkable set of vows. Most people’s vows get spoken in 30 seconds to a minute, to two minutes. Thank God you took your time. It was a marvel, just an absolute glorious marvel to have somebody read Moltmann as part of her vows. So please go ahead.
Rachael: Well, he talks about how, and I think this is what we’re talking about, and I’ve always wanted a moment to be able to bring this to the podcast, so I’m going to take it. He talks about the art, he says this, and he is talking about marriage and family and friendships and intimate relationships. “The art of loving has to be learned. We learn it through joy in each other, through the forgiveness of guilt we experience and through the continually astonishing miracle of the new beginning. In that wide space where there is no cramping, we accept one another, grow with one another and unfold from one another. Part of love is friendship, which knows how to combine affection with respect for the other person’s liberty. That means respect for the mystery of the other.” And that’s that what you’re talking about with that epistemic humility, “for the mystery of the other. And his or her are still latent and unrealized potentialities. If love stops, we make a fixed image of each other. We judge and pin each other down. That is death. But love liberates us from these images and keeps the future open for the other person. We have hope for each other, so we wait for one another. And that is life.”
Dan: I love that.
Rachael: It’s so beautiful.
Dan: I had the privilege of standing with you as part of the process of becoming covenantally, bonded to your beloved, but that is such a rich passage. So the context of our conversation came from a interaction, I think direct or email regarding some of my writing in the past. So we want to use this framework to step into what has felt like for at least one listener, reader, a sense of harm.
Rachael: Yeah. And again, I would imagine, Dan, you have many stories like this, I think when you’re a writer, when you actually have the power of a platform and a prominent voice, and you have been doing the work for decades, so you’ve also been a human being in process. You also are a human as you write and speak, so informed by your context. But yes, just a really good hearted person sharing with us that some of the people in their community who have known profound harm, especially in a spiritual context, have encountered an article you wrote in 1996 in the Mars Hill Review where you were talking about love. And I think in many ways for the mid-nineties, trying to reframe the notion of sin and our notion of sin that was very myopic. And especially in the evangelical context, very like your moral failures, thinking like addictions, brokenness, but not necessarily always framing that in a relational context. So you were playing with the love of God and love of neighbor as really kind of the root of what we measure our sin. But you had a phrase in it where you said something along the lines of all psychological disorders or all psychological, something comes down to a failure or to disobedience. That was the phrase you used to disobedience. And I think maybe people who are coming out of high-control context where something like disobedience is used to manipulate and control, and then tying that to psychological disorders was just really triggering for some folks.
Dan: Oh. Yes, indeed. And rightfully so. I think one of the things that you have named well, and I think you feel this as well, is we are privileged, immensely privileged to be given a platform to be given a voice, to be able to reflect on our experience, our engagement with scripture, the reality of the human condition. I think we do pretty well, not straying too far into realms that I actually would want to say more about, but I really am not well thought in that realm. So as long as we’re in some degree of human relationships, trauma, the reality of the love of God, we’re going to probably, I’m going to probably cross into realms that I would need more time to reflect on if I were to do that same work again. But in this article again in 1996, “What is wrong with us? The question at the heart of the counseling debate”, already I’m setting a context and that is I’m obviously in some conversation with someone or someone’s that whole different perspective and I’m attempting to articulate my own. I knew that, but when I picked up my journal, which I can’t even believe I still have, but I’m glad I do. What I noted is, and this is going to take us far, but I’m talking about the context of interacting with my 16 year old daughter, Annie at that time, and I just blew it. I blew an interaction with her and I’m just so aware of how sometimes my efforts at playfulness end up with harm. So I’m using that as a framework. But if I go a little further, this is being written in the middle of a, what I would call ministry divorce. I had worked with Larry Crab for almost 18 years up to that point, and the two of us had divided in terms of the work that we were doing. Larry took a very different direction. I took a different direction. So our formal work had come to an end in some ways, just to get a historical context, I’m in the middle of a lot of turmoil. I got a 16-year-old, which I dunno was its own turmoil. And I’m in the middle of a divorce, the ending of a long-term ministry and friendship and trying to “find myself”. Trying to articulate, what do I think I bring into the conversation about the nature, if I put it in a broader term, a biblical anthropology, and the question of what’s really going on inside of me as I fail my daughter in an early morning interaction. So it doesn’t, please don’t hear any of that as a way of justifying or excusing. I look back to the notion of that particular section on all psychological issues are a byproduct of disobedience. And I go, oh, that is not well said. Oh, that is like a lingering statement. Even if it’s embedded in a larger context, that begs for clarity if you’re going to say it. So that the nuance of how it could be read by people, I’m grieved. I’ve brought harm even through that paragraph. And I would say if given the opportunity to rewrite that, I would not say it that way. I would say again that there is the reality of our own brokenness having this intersection between trauma and our own efforts to find a way of living in that trauma without having to deal with it, which I later, I think I more articulately have named as a form of idolatry. So again, a failure of love for ourselves, failure of love of others, ultimately the failure of love for God, I would still say is the core war that has other biological, other traumatic, other relational, familial, but also other cultural phenomena that play into the evidencing of human pathology. So nuance, depth, but also context. I would say, oh yes, that I feel grief as we talk.
Rachael: Yeah, and I mean that makes a lot of sense. I think this brings us into some of those waters that we’re familiar with in the work that we do. And it’s that sense of like, oh, can we practice what we preach? And sometimes we can and sometimes we can’t or sometimes we do it well and sometimes we don’t. But that reality that what you’ve named or what you’ve put words to without stating it explicitly, is that even though your intent and the context of how this was coming to be was to actually help people, to help them understand more what they were suffering. And you said also you’re writing specifically for yourself and maybe to another person that you can still be moved, you can still be grieved, you can still be humble in the face of where that has impacted someone differently.
Dan: Such an important category, intention, at least I know I have used that phrase in my marriage and in other relationships where there has been a failure of love and I have attempted to resolve it by saying, but it wasn’t my intention, which the people I’m interacting with already know that I’m not an evil man. So bringing the intention card is not a helpful category because they know my intent is not in most occasions to do harm. But the reality is we use intent often to escape impact. And in that it’s the same structure of self-righteousness of defensiveness, of justification and explanation, which ultimately is a failure of love.
Rachael: Yeah, I was just thinking about the places. I have also used my good intentions, and I think especially before I started getting more awareness of my story and started doing work, I could barely tolerate if someone reflecting back to me in some ways what I heard is you are not good, you’re bad, you are dangerous, you’re mean. And it didn’t fit my internal sense of self that was actually very flimsy, very fragile that I needed to hold onto because obviously I have a theological understanding. I mean, we talk a lot about this. I think you asked me the other day, how often do you think about the log in your own? I do have a theological stance that I am a broken person in need of continual transformation, in need of continual repair and humility and coming back to the table and learning and growing and having more courage and undergoing grace and having to really clinging to Jesus who has taken on all condemnation. I mean, Dan, you brought Romans 8 back to me and talked about the bookends of like, it’s a passage I talk about a lot, but just there’s no condemnation and there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. And yeah, there were times in my life and still times today where in my own defensiveness, if someone’s asking me to see a way I might’ve harmed them sometimes, even if I feel like that’s ridiculous, like you are being too sensitive AKA, when I’m working with my children who are children and developmentally are sensitive, that I don’t love having to see myself in that mirror, having that mirrored back to me. And if I can hold on and stay grounded, my heart is actually to make things right. And I’m just aware on a larger scale, we’re in a moment right now in our world and it makes sense to me logically something like cancel culture where people are going back and saying, you said this thing 12 years ago. I mean, I think about this for teenagers. I’m like, thank God I didn’t grow up with putting all my thoughts on Twitter. Oh my God. Where in some ways, rightfully so, to some extent, where you have harmed wittingly or unwittingly is being brought back to you in a way. And what we see is so few people can actually say not just like, I’m so sorry if you perceived that I hurt you, or I’m so sorry that I was a teenager and I was, it’s like to actually be able to say, I can actually see how this would cause grievous harm and I won’t attempt to make excuses. But I can tell you I’ve grown, I’ve changed, and I know there’s still… we don’t actually have a lot of imagination in our culture right now, one on one end of the spectrum that people need to be held accountable when they have perpetrated tremendous harm or that we’re complicit in systems that are perpetrating harm and that we can tell the truth and it will be hard work, and we can enter lament and we can attempt to make things right. That’s one end of the spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s this sense of, for many of us who know, it’s a projection. If you take one wrong step, you’re cut off, you’re exiled, you’re bad, you’re done. And I think in some ways we’ve got to get out of the binary. We’ve got to make sure that those who are hurt and harmed, survivors and victims are not denied, dismissed, minimized to protect powers. But what we also have to hold space that not lose each other’s humanity.
Dan: Right. Well, and so much of our Allender Center conversation has evolved, revolved around Micah 6:8. So the category of act justly. So comments made X amount of years ago can’t be ignored. No, let’s come back to this, but do we love mercy? Do we actually believe that people can receive and change? That’s in part a love of mercy. But in doing all that, can we walk humbly? So that triad has to be in one sense, lenses to look at if you see somebody acting justly or dealing with justice, you also have to look through the lens. Is there mercy? Is there humility? Or if there’s humility, is there a heart for justice and is there a love of mercy? So in one sense, each lens refracts what it is for you to be through the other. And so in fights between Becky and I, we’ve had to say we, where’s justice being played out or injustice being played out and further, is there a desire truly to be able to be reconciled? Or is there just the desire to, in one sense, to trump, the harm that has been done in a way in which then it’s actually just, it’s not justice, it’s vengeance. So the task here is where we come back to epistemic, humility is the final phrase. Walk, walk, walk humbly. And in that you can’t come with a fundamental dogmatism. And what I would say is for the practicality here, every time you’re defensive, you’re operating with dogmatism, you’re operating with a kind of self-righteous arrogance to defend your position. And in that, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t good to explain and justify and even defend, but the stance has to be one of, I know I’ve been wrong a lot, and yet I’m not going to just concede to kind of, oh, I’m just wrong, self contempt, but also not barter that away in order to then justify through other-centered contempt. So part of this I think is just the play of evolution, the play of growing in some sense for a greater understanding of what’s true. So going back to the article, I would want to say to that 42 year-old-man, you are trying to find your way. I don’t know if I was writing it to anybody, me and maybe a few other people and trying to, shall we say make a claim on truth to give me a clarity of identity in the middle of a divorce. That’s heartbreaking. And as I read, there’s a lot of sentences I would go, oh, I like that. And oh, that’s good too. Nice job there, pal. But what I feel more so is, oh, Dan, you are trying to find your north star. And again, this will sound too simplistic, but really Jesus was and is your north star. You didn’t have to craft a theory in order to find a north star. But if in your engagement with Jesus things get clearer that are somewhat theoretical, that’s a very different stance then. So there are many other sentences in that article that I read and I go, oh my. And again, this will sound pejorative, but you young boy, you young boy, I don’t feel condemnatory. But I also want to invite him to go, we, meaning the interior complexity of my soul, we know more of Jesus today than I did when I was 42. So why would I want to defend that sentence or that article or frankly much or if any of my life, when I get to still play and until they pull the plug, whatever plug that might be until they pull the plug, I get to play. And in that, there is the holy honor of being able to take your shoes off knowing that that is a sign that I am the presence of something so much bigger than me or this article or those sentences. Can I hold that and still grieve that I have brought harm to good people who may have read that from a experience of spiritual abuse and to know, oh, what would it have cost you to have known more about spiritual abuse? And to be able to deal with that in your own life, to be able to then show up in that article with greater clarity about what’s really being said for others, not just to stake my claim to certain territory.
Rachael: That’s beautiful, Dan. And it makes me think that when we don’t have to in a defensive posture, like the way in which you’re offering such kindness to yourself and others, it allows you what I hear you saying is you can actually receive even the hurt from others as a very generous gift as opposed to what can sometimes feel like a weapon.
Dan: Yeah. Well, and again, I’ve not had the privilege of interacting with these folks the way you have, but I trust you and you have had rich, deep good conversation. And in that sense then that is an important distinction. I’ve had plenty of people come after me written books about me, and they’re not true. And I’m not going to approach the interaction with the same sense of grief. I can be grieved for someone who accuses me of something that is not true. But again, this is that interplay of cancel culture is totalitarian. It demands an either you are in or you’re out. And that kind of fundamentalism, which is a strange thing to say about the secular culture and often the Christian culture, its fundamentalistic in its view of good/bad, and you used the word earlier, this polarity, and that’s the working of dogmatism. With dogmatism, you have certainty. But when you begin to have, again this epistemic humility, it’s more like, I’m sorry, this is way more gray, a lot more gray. Now there are certain blacks and whites, certain clarity of that’s a color that doesn’t work in this. Let’s step back and begin to do that. It isn’t just a all truth, there is no truth, therefore it’s your truth, et cetera, et cetera. It’s more now we can have a conversation because there’s not a stance of accusation. It’s an invitation. And that’s in part why we’re doing this podcast. Because you had been invited, I’d now been invited to engage not just a particular article, but far more the implication of what happens when we take a kind of self-reflective loop, looking at our own lives, looking at the products that we have created and be able to go, can I enter into it and feel it the way other people feel it and begin to monitor having a kind of self-monitoring of, oh my gosh, lemme read it. Lemme react to it internally, lemme remember. But then in some sense, coming to a certain self-evaluation, so that play of self-monitor, and then again, what’s often called self-regulation, which just means what do you want to do with what you now know? And I bring it back to even the conversation we had about this opened up a day or so ago. I’m in the middle of this conflict with Becky on how much time she spends in 51 or 52 degree water. And I’m like, I’m not handling her well, I’m coming as if my reading of the articles provides me with the absolute certainty you’re in here wrong.
Rachael: So glad you’re naming that because I was like, we’re really going to have to have a conversation after this podcast.
Dan: So I mean, I don’t know. I’ve not done the research, but I’m like, okay, it’s your body. You stay as long as you wish and you want me to depart, I will depart, but I’m going to say I’m wrong for standing over you literally, literally standing over you saying with absolute certainty you need to get out right now.
Rachael: I also know you are a little bit of a worrier and… you know.
Dan: Excuse me, keep going. Keep going. Yeah, I’m for others, not for me. But you’re in the water too long. Do you have your life vest on as you go into your little cold plunge?
Rachael: I can’t relate at all. I’m totally chill. Totally chill.
Dan: Let’s just use this knowing the thematic tendencies ought to be able to be held with a little bit of humor, like what we’re talking about. So to get a sense then that in our humanity, humus, there better be a growing humility. But even our laughter just now is a reflection of what humility is meant to bring us. Not degradation, not, oh, I’m terrible, but in some sense, the laughter of mercy, the laughter of knowledge. And again, I didn’t expect you to bring up my predilection of worry on behalf of others.
Rachael: Oh, I’m sorry.
Dan: No, I’m grateful. It’s hilarious. But to be able to, right now, I feel caught. But it feels honoring. You are a worrier and sometimes it becomes an imposition of your form of dogmatism. And I’m like, shit, it’s so true.
Rachael: Well, it just takes one to know one.
Dan: Well, how do we end this? Where do you want to end this discussion?
Rachael: To me, I would end this by saying the realm of repair is a core part of what it means to love and be loved. And I do think these are matters of life and death. Obviously, they have huge implications in the small meaning, the intimate, the daily interpersonal reactions with our loved ones, with our children, our parents, our friends, our colleagues. And they have even bigger implications. When you have cultural repair, that’s when you have national, international, global realities where entire groups of people or governments and the way we tell our stories actually work against repair, work against accountability, work against any kind of movement towards reconciliation or something being made new has massive implications for life and death. So for me, it’s back to that reality of if you can’t practice this in the small, which sometimes feels more terrifying than the big. But if you can’t practice this in the small, how in the world are we supposed to be the people we’re called to be for such a time as this in our world today, where we have to use our voice, where we have to take a stand against powers that we’re complicit in, that we benefit from, so that those who are under oppression, those who are under violence, and all the nuance of when you have, and I am thinking about Palestine and Israel right now, when you have historical cultures that have both known tremendous harm sometimes with each other, and yet we’re watching innocent lives being taken, we have to be able to find our moral courage to say, no, not on our watch, not with our tax dollars… we’ve made… But we can’t do that on a national level because we haven’t been able to say what we’ve done is wrong. So how could we step into other contexts? And we, meaning I’m thinking more where we prop up power, where we prop up supremacy and we don’t want to engage it. It feels too scary, or we don’t know how we’ll come out on the other side. So for me, this conversation holds a lot of weight. And our failure to repair as humans with loved ones and with strangers across the globe has implications of life and death. So I feel like it is very, very, very serious. And I want us as Christians to be people who actually take delight in making things right, because we can hold that sense of justice and mercy and humility, and it does take incredible practice, and it certainly takes letting go of some of the power of this world that tells us that’s too dangerous and actually becoming the baptismal identity people that we are. So I know that got really intense. That was probably way too intensive of an ending, but I don’t know how else to frame it.
Dan: The dilemma is saying anything, all I can do is to say, with both deep appreciation and gratitude, amen.