Sometimes suffering is redemptive, like the cross of Christ. Sometimes suffering is destructive and goes nowhere. This kind of suffering leaves us depleted, unable to recognize ourselves as God’s beloved child. It is easy to confuse these two types of distress.
When you are caught in a destructive cycle of suffering, the challenge becomes whether or not you can discern it as such, rather than assuming that you are somehow “taking up the cross of Christ.” I call redemptive suffering “Potter’s Wheel” suffering, and the destructive kind, “Hamster Wheel” suffering.
I have found these distinctions helpful in working with people who come to me for pastoral counseling. It is one thing to know that you are in pain, but quite another thing to see the pain as not necessarily God’s plan for you. This realization gives people hope and incentive to get out of the destructive cycles that paralyze them. In Luke 4:24–30, an angry mob tries to hurl Jesus off the cliff. Jesus passes through them and goes on his way to fulfill the purpose God had for him. He does not submit to their wishes that he be put to death at that time. Later, at the Cross, he does.
Christians may assume that any kind of suffering that comes their way is God-ordained when, in fact, most of it is not. There is nothing that the enemy would like more than to deceive us into thinking that our pain is gain for the kingdom when, in actuality, we are going nowhere for God faster than we may realize.
I was raised with a mother who suffered from what appeared to be a serious mental illness, although she was never diagnosed. The rest of the family became masters at dancing around her illness and enabling it. One day Mom might feel that God’s will was that we go on a vacation. We would pack the car and be ready to leave. Then the verdict would come down: God had changed his mind. We were not supposed to go on a vacation. Rather, God would be mad at us if we went, and something terrible would happen. Mom had us all convinced that she had a special line to God. Fostering this kind of insanity made us all a little bit insane, including my father, who was a nurturing, caring individual as well as a theologian. Despite his education at Menninger and Harvard, his ability to deal with my mom was limited.
Sometimes God was “doing a new thing” with Mom, my dad would tell us, and sometimes it was her “dark night of the soul.” In any case, we put up with her rage in our faces, her deep, depressive episodes, her need to isolate, which kept us from having friends, and her ongoing demands about what God’s will was for us at any given time on any given day. I was told by my father that this was somehow helpful for God’s will to be accomplished.
As I look back on those dark days of childhood, I can see only the rubble that left us all wounded and caused me to need years of intensive psychotherapy in order to heal. It is not that God hasn’t used this experience in my life to teach me many things, for God works all things for good. Somewhere along the line, however, my mom would have been relieved of her suffering—and we of ours—if help had been provided, and intervention made. Had we gotten off the hamster wheel, our suffering would have been more in the area of learning to create new patterns of interaction and learning together that God was not punitive and fickle, but steadfast in unconditional love for us.
Obviously, after going through all this, I just had to go into counseling other people. And of course I began to see this same kind of cyclical pain in the lives of other Christians who, wanting to make meaning out of their suffering, seemed to endorse it as God’s plan for their lives. So that is why I wrote the book Running in Circles. It is meant to help people discern whether they are in the hamster wheel or on the Potter’s wheel. Below are some characteristics of both.
01. Discerning the Hamster Wheel
Realizing when we are in the hamster wheel is not easy. We can lose ourselves in the cycling and think we are actually going somewhere. But clear distinguishing markers can help us identify when we are running in endless circles, and then we can make a plan to get out.
Characteristics and Traits of Hamster-Wheel Suffering
- Hamster-wheel suffering is solitary. People in destructive cycles are afraid of relationships. Being in community is an essential part of discerning God’s will for our lives and following through on it. Have you ever seen a hamster run in the wheel with another hamster? Never . . .
- Hamster-wheel suffering is depleting. If you are depleted at the end of each day and wake in the morning with little capacity to enjoy or anticipate, chances are you are in the rodent wheel! Hamsters are the power behind the wheel’s turning . . . it is all up to them to keep it going.
- Hamster-wheel suffering goes nowhere. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that we may be going nowhere for the kingdom of God. In the dizzying frenzy of the hamster wheel, it can appear that we are making great strides. Still, with the repetition of destructive patterns, we find that we get off at the same place we got on.
02. Discerning the Potter’s Wheel
The Potter’s wheel is different from the hamster wheel because it is redemptive. It produces transformation. Potter’s-wheel formation is never easy. If you’ve ever seen a potter at work, he or she slams the clay down quite a bit in the beginning and pounds it in order to get the clay molecules aligned to strengthen the final product. Still, the process yields a new and transformed result.
Characteristics and Traits of Potter’s-Wheel Suffering
- God’s hand is involved in the process of formation, both through people and directly. You are not alone on the wheel. God is in charge, even if it might get worse before it gets better.
- The Potter, not the clay, is in charge of moving the wheel around. It’s not that formation is easy, and we may feel exhausted at times. However, resiliency and hope are present in people on the Potter’s wheel that are not present for those depleted from the hamster wheel.
- We get off a different shape than when we got on. Often a potter will create a vase, a bowl, a cistern fashioned to hold something. The lump of clay that initially was thrown down on the wheel could never have held anything. When we get off the Potter’s wheel, we are all uniquely shaped, but we are shaped in a way that allows us to hold more of God’s love inside us.
Recognizing these characteristics and symptoms of hamster wheel vs. Potter’s wheel, therapists and pastors can work with people to help them discern what wheel they are on. Helping people recognize that they are on the hamster wheel can be the first huge step toward healing and change. The book describes methods for meditative prayer that can help to foster an experience of God’s presence. These experiences of Divine love and comfort will often reframe things for an individual and help him or her discover abundant life beyond the hamster wheel.
The characteristics of hamster wheel vs. Potter’s wheel are meant to help people break out of a bondage that robs them of the purpose and call of God for their life. It is important to stop the cyclical patterns of the past in order to recognize God’s liberation. The first step in discerning what wheel you are on is to ask the crucial question, “Am I suffering because I am fulfilling my God-ordained call and purpose or because I am on the hamster wheel?” If, after asking this question, you discern that you are on the hamster wheel, this is a huge first step toward getting off it. Recognizing the frenzy of this wheel is often the hardest thing to do.