The Waterfall

By Johan Tredoux

An exploration of the uncontrolling love of God in a clinical chaplain patient encounter.

I remember a carefree upbringing as a pastor’s kid in a town called Rustenburg, 60 miles from Johannesburg, in apartheid-era South Africa. I remember looking forward to my dad’s day off, as it provided me with an opportunity to go up and swim in the mountain pools on a nearby kloof. I recall the exhilarating experience of free falling with a waterfall between two standing pools of water. I also remember yelling my name into the mountains, only to have echoes come rumbling back… Johan, Johan, Johan…first strong and then weaker as it faded off into the distance. Unfortunately, this free-flowing movement with a waterfall between two pools did not translate into my spiritual and religious world. My childhood evangelical world brought with it legalistic mores, prejudices, and theological norms that were confined to a specific pool of water. I was baptismally immersed in this pool and the only echoes I was interested in were my theological echoes of religious certainties.

My carefree world changed when my dad felt pressured to resign as senior pastor. As is usually the case in these separations, scapegoating practices and spiritualizing formulas were alive and well. In this early, literalist stage of my faith journey, my ears picked up phrases like: “God is in control!” or “everything happens for a reason.” Unbeknownst to me, these phrases were hardwired in my body and became part of my embedded childhood theology.

Tom Malone brings deeper insight on this metaphorical idea of swimming in a religious “stagnant pool.” He describes it as building a “set” in a play. In this set, we “know” what is “true” and how things should be. We “know” who we are. We “know” who the other is. Unfortunately, according to Malone, it is a “knowing” almost always about the other, the outside, or about me. It is never about the connection itself. The “waterfall” between the two pools was nonexistent. This set me up to fall into the trap of prejudgment… that devilish state of “already knowing” and “pre-constructing” opinions about others without real relational connections.

Gradually, over three decades of pastoring and teaching, as a life-long student, my BA in Hebrew, M.Div., and Ph.D. in Pastoral Theology caused me to deconstruct the boxed-in faith that was handed to me. Fundamentally, as a “rebel in the ranks,” I struggled to free myself from “pack thinking.” Mentors like Thomas Oord (The Uncontrolling Love of God), Mildred Bangs Wynkoop (A Theology of Love), Peter Enns (The Sin of Certainty), and Bradley Jersak (A More Christlike God) helped me to realize that God is not into control, but rather approaches, awakens, or woos us through uncontrolling love. This truth has become front and center in the last 4 years as I shifted away from pastoring in a church setting to becoming a Board-certified Clinical Chaplain.

The shift from being an evangelical senior pastor to becoming an interfaith chaplain was hard and thrilling all at the same time. The expression of my lived theology through the lens of the uncontrolling love of God brought a significant expansion of my worldview. I learned to get out of my bubble and become culturally sensitive to the meaning-making systems of Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim patients (to name a few). As I encountered the meaning-making systems of these patients, I discovered that it was not so much about “bringing God into” the room but more about “bringing God forth.” It was as Oord described his belief, that divine love is tailor-made for each creature and never coerces, withdraws, overrides, or fails to support the freedom, agency, or self-organization of others. For me, this meant the expansion of “witness” to the rich idea of “withness.”

As a CPE-trained Chaplain, this “withness” meant entering the world of patients with a “listening presence” and the constant hope that the process of “active listening” can facilitate inner dialogue, which would allow patients to become compassionate witnesses to their own painful experiences, ultimately leading to self-healing. I have learned that the practice of presence includes a focus on emptiness, and self-emptying, to make space for being fully present. “Withness” is about the relational connection that occurs when I become attuned to the body language, voice, and nonverbal communication of the patient.

In a word, it is to experience

the Uncontrolling Love of God

as Resonance…


Beautiful waterfall”

between two pools.

Resonance describes the desirable state of interpersonal empathy. It is to experience the feelings of others within oneself as if those emotions are one’s own. Physiologically, this empathic process is said to be processed by a network of mirror neurons. This network involuntarily resonates, or mirrors, the feelings and thereby establishes an empathic connection between two individuals. I have found that if I can stay in this “active listening” mode, there is a strong likelihood that the patient can experience the love of God in an uncontrolling way.

However, that is a big if, and it’s one of the biggest challenges in my role as a professional clinical chaplain. The temptation to control the conversation or try to “fix” the patient by giving advice is ever before me. Voices from my embedded childhood theology of a “controlling” God is ever present in my inner dialogue tempting me to control the conversation. The temptation to pre-construct opinions rather than to construct them in the present shows how difficult it is to be a true active listener.

These struggles with control will be demonstrated as I invite you to consider the raw humanity of a patient I visited in a Level I Trauma Center. Through the process of reflective listening and being attentive to her facial expressions and body language, this patient entrusted me with her story. The patient was a 60 y/o female who, because of a stroke, was left with speech deficits and left-sided weakness. On this admission, she was found to have an acute brain bleed which required an immediate procedure to reduce swelling. At the point of this encounter, her strength and speech were improving. This patient had to carry the burden of feeling socially disconnected through a stroke and being insecurely attached to her family because of her sexual orientation as a gay person.

I encountered the fight and flight parts of her traumatized brain as she shared the suffering caused by her family who severed ties with her when she came out as gay. She shared the following verbatim:

The severance with my family will always be with me. Early on, after coming out, I lived with the fear of expanding rejection. I have dealt with unending critical voices and shaming, and at times, I felt the pain was so acute I could not bear it anymore. But when I finally came out, I experienced a freedom I had never felt before. I recognized as much as possible there would be a cost, my cross to bear. (At this point the patient turned her head; She then showed me her surgical incision behind her right ear). Chaplain, do you, see this incision… it saved my life. For some of my family and previous church friends, however, this incision is seen as God’s punishment for the lifestyle I have chosen.

The impact of her startling revelation was a jarring moment for me. The stark nature of the brutal sentiment shared created a deep holy silence in the room. Flashing in front of my eyes were images of my younger brother who came out 30 years earlier. I felt an emotional shift within. It was sympathy to profound empathy. And yet, I did not share my inner thoughts (in self-awareness, through a great tug-of-war, I was able to manage the counter transference welling up within me). Had I done so, I would have only demonstrated my own need and/or internal urge to move quickly to a more comfortable place of a cognitive solution-seeking role. I would have moved into a posture of control.

Instead, I held her pain in silence for a while, followed by a simple open statement, “how is this going for you now?” I was able to stay with the feelings that underlie her story. In doing so, the patient was able to mimic me (through the mirror neurons system) by staying connected to her own emotions, and that in turn helped her to self-empathize with her painful feelings. As a spiritual care provider, I had to return and re-return my focus to stay in tune with the patient’s pain and suffering by using paraphrasing, summary, and open-ended statements. In turn, I experienced the patient feeling comfortable to return and re-return to feel her own emotions by retelling her painful story in greater depth and detail.

Through empathetic listening, genuine compassion, and attunement to the patient, I was able to extend God’s embrace. And there, in between “stagnant pools” of family expectations, outdated theology, and broken bodies, we experienced a “beautiful waterfall” of uncontrolling love. This encounter affirms Oord’s assertion that God’s actions originate in love, shifting and turning in all its various expressions as God promotes overall well-being without control.

Rev. Johan Tredoux, Ph.D., BCC. resides in Lenexa, KS. Johan is a Board-Certified Chaplain (APC), presently serving as a chaplain for St, Croix Hospice in Overland Park, KS. Johan earned his MDiv. from Nazarene Theological Seminary, KC., MO. and his Ph.D. from the University of Manchester, UK (2015) in the discipline of Wesleyan Theology.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love