We Need to Let the Soul Mourn!

By Ulrick Dam

We need to learn how to let the soul mourn and to recognize that God never causes evil.

There are many wonderful things about being a Dane. Great pastries, Søren Kierkegaard, and especially our supersecret vowels, that only we—approximately six million Danes—use. Of course, our Æ, Ø, and Å. In this essay, I need to teach you a word with one of these vowels. The word is ‘Sjælesorg,’ which might not be the easiest to pronounce if you are not a native Scandinavian. The ‘æ’ in sjælesorg sort of sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘any’ and the ending -rg has a soft sound, more like a ‘w.’ I hope your tongues will survive trying to pronounce ‘sjælesorg.’

In any case, Sjælesorg is the Danish word for pastoral caring, which is the part of the pastoral job, where we offer social, emotional, or spiritual support for members of our congregation. The Danish word ‘Sjælesorg’ is a combination of two words: ‘Sjæle-,’ meaning the ‘souls,’ and ‘-sorg,’ meaning ‘mourning’ or it can also mean something like ‘caring deeply.’ It would literally translate into ‘the mourning of the soul’ or something like ‘caring for the soul in a time of grief.’ Danish can be a tricky language sometimes. Sjælesorg points towards the notion that pastoral care is about creating a space for the soul to mourn, grieve, and come to terms with loss and pain. In my experience, this is a very helpful framework for pastoral care.

The question then stands: How can we create a space for the soul to mourn? Firstly, I will introduce some of the ideas I’ve learned from Open and Relational theology about the uncontrolling love of God. Secondly, I will give you some pointers on how to practically open up a space for the soul to mourn.

So when we consult people in pain or grief, one question often comes up: “Why? Why did this have to happen to me?”

Why does evil happen? It might be one of the largest theological conundrums. Some people come to quite simple answers. For example, the answer could simply be that this evil is just God’s plan. God needs to send you through pain for the greater glory. In essence, the evil stems from or is allowed by God. Easy, right? But that does not really fit our view of God, does it?

Before I encountered Open and Relational theology and the ideas of God’s uncontrolling love, I always dreaded this sort of conversation. I had nothing really to contribute to the mourning person. I could do little more than listen and be a shoulder to cry on. When asked: “Why?” my brain just went blank.

Diving into the uncontrolling love of God, I learned something particularly important. I learned how to respond, as a pastor, to the question of why evil exists. I encountered a theological framework which can truly state, “evil never comes from God!”

When we experience true evils and believe that evil never comes from or is allowed by God, that implies God must be limited in some ways. God could not singlehandedly prevent this evil from happening. God’s way of acting in the world has been limited, by God’s own choice, to voluntarily self-limit. This is why we are saying God’s love must be uncontrolling.

This is a limitation that God chose voluntarily upon creating our universe, the free agency of humans and other creaturely entities. Instead of being controlling, God keeps acting in our life today, through uncontrolling love, by being completely self-giving and others-empowering. Some critique this view and say it makes God impotent, but I do not see it that way. God is extremely potent, powerful, and mighty. God keeps inspiring, luring, and calling Creation into God’s loving path and plans. And God works and acts in all sorts of ways, that could only be done by an almighty God.

Sometimes God heals by inspiring doctors and scientists to find the best treatments. Sometimes we see miraculous healing, where the cells themselves cooperate with God and a person is healed. But God is not just singlehandedly removing the cancer. God works in cooperation with creation, without being controlling. God never causes evil. God never allows evil, but God cannot singlehandedly remove evil. Evil stems from the free choice, all entities of creation have, to either cooperate with God or not. Thomas Jay Oord beautifully describes this: “a relational God of uncontrolling love can’t singlehandedly prevent evil done by free creatures, smaller organisms, or inanimate sources. A loving God without the ability to control can’t be rightly blamed for causing or allowing evil. God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly” (Open and Relational Theology, 85). God needs partners to function as God’s hands and feet in this physical world to prevent evil and act out love and grace.

After I dove into the ideas of God’s uncontrolling love, I started getting a grip on how to answer these questions. I got something to hold on to. I was able to perform sjælesorg; to create a space for the mourning soul. Looking back, I can see three major things I’ve learned.

Firstly, we need to show up and be authentic in a loving relationship with the person we are sitting with—and with God. We need to listen to the other person and listen to God’s inspiration. What does Love lure me to do? To say? I place myself as an open and willing channel for God to act and speak into the mourning soul, who often doubts whether God cares at all and who often is closed off to experiencing God for itself. I am in a position of being God’s partner. I can help to connect the mourning soul to the very being of God once again.

Secondly, we must have faith that evil never originates from God. God never causes or commits evil. Evil is the complete antithesis of God’s very being. Evil most often originates from Creatures not cooperating with the divine. Sometimes this is done deliberately, sometimes accidentally. In sjælesorg, we must learn to sit with sorrow and not try to answer why this evil has occurred. It is not God’s plan in any way, shape, or form. Evil can never be in God’s being.

Thirdly, though we cannot explain why evil strikes, we can point towards an open future. God works through uncontrolling love to squeeze all the possible good out of evil. This does not mean that God allows evil for God’s greater purpose. But once evil has struck, God works to squeeze all the possible good out of that evil. In sjælesorg our first step is to grieve and mourn; to let the soul bleed. Bleeding is not a bad thing; it cleans the wound and makes it ready for healing. When the wound is ready for healing, we can point towards the open future of God, and all the ways God draws us into a new tomorrow. In Revelation 21 God says: “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5 NIV) Healing means that the broken soul will be made new and whole again.

These three ideas have been very important to me in sjælesorg. They have helped me to be a better counsellor, a better pastor, and a better friend and father. Pastoral care is not a discipline merely for pastors—another reason to call it sjælesorg. Caring is something we all do, all the time. When my son falls outside and scrapes his knee, my wife will embrace him and care for him. When you are called up by a heartbroken friend, you listen and you care. We all care all the time, these three points will help us be better caretakers in all aspects of our lives.

One last addition, which will not go on the list, is equally important. God does not have a physical and localized body. God does not have arms and hands to embrace the mourning. God can’t even give a simple pat on the back. But you have hands and feet, and God can inspire you to embrace someone, give a pat on the back, or call up someone. When you do that, you act out God’s love, you become God’s hands and feet. Loving responses are how God is calling you to act. I love the way Robert Mesle says that “your experience of love can move your hands and arms to touch with gentleness, to hug with protectiveness, to reach out to others in ways that enact the causal power of your love in the world.” (Process-Relational Philosophy, 2008, p. 64)

In other words: The ultimate love is given to us through God so that we are fully shaped by love. Love is not only a warm fuzzy feeling on the inside but an active power of good in the world that works to promote overall well-being. This love can move my hands and feet to reach out and enact the causal power of love, as Mesle puts it. Love is God’s primary way of inspiring and moving humans. Love creates empathy, understanding, and connectedness. It creates a will to change unfair structures, and to stand up for the defenseless. Love inspires us to, physically and mentally, embrace people around us. Therefore, all constructive and robust sjælesorg must start from the point of love!

Ulrick Dam is a Danish Theologian with a Master’s degree in Church leadership and development. Ulrick is pastoring a church and does leadership consulting. Ulrick has published some books and papers in Danish and is currently working on his first international book publication. Befriend him on Facebook to follow his work.

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