Conversatio Divina

Part 4 of 17

Discernment for Suffering: Hamster Wheel or Potter’s Wheel?

Kim Engelmann

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

  1. 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 . . .
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

03.  Conversation between Kim Engelmann and Gary Moon

GWM: Kim, the title of your book—Running in Circles: How False Spirituality Traps Us in Unhealthy Relationships—is very memorable, especially with your helpful images of hamster wheel and Potter’s wheel. If you were listening to a friend talk about her personal spirituality, what do you think are the key indicators as to whether she is describing a healthy or an unhealthy spirituality?

KVE: Signs of healthy spirituality are authenticity, humility, and a deep sense of purpose in and through whatever circumstances are impinging. Unhealthy spirituality uses “God language” to cover anxiety, self-absorption, and lack of insight into oneself. Again, these are general indicators, and as I emphasize in the book, nothing is meant to be prescriptive. These distinctions are meant to be guideposts, not legalisms.

GWM: If you are hearing someone describe an unhealthy spirituality, under what circumstances might you confront this?

KVE: Often it manifests when someone is desperate for God to do a specific thing according to the person’s own time frame and expectation. Or it can manifest generally in someone’s life if “God language” is used as a defensive maneuver to cover deep issues of guilt, shame, and fear.

GWM: Do you think it’s helpful to think of unhealthy spirituality—which can produce hamster-wheel suffering for those exposed—as often involving imposing one’s will on others, or even on God?

KVE: It does have to do with control themes, although ultimately all of that is based in fear—fear that if I get off the hamster wheel with which I am so familiar, I won’t be able to handle the freedom of life, like the bird that likes the cage better than the wide-open sky—it’s all the bird has ever known.

GWM: Yes, I often find myself thinking of fear and love as both physiological and spiritual opposites. Kim, you certainly were not afraid to be disclosing in your book about your own childhood family dynamics. I found the descriptions powerful and moving. What was the discernment process like for you in making a determination to “tell all”?

KVE: It wasn’t an easy decision, and I tried to keep my parents as anonymous as possible so that no one would be hurt, since my mom is still alive. My husband supported me in telling our joint story, and we both know that sharing our journey together with others has given many people hope. So we didn’t want to hide our pain—which was transformed into light—under a bushel. Being willing to be vulnerable with others is one of the biggest lessons God has taught me throughout my ministry. People respond to it as if you’re a magnet, especially in the church, where sometimes it feels as if you have to have it all together in order to be spiritual. The opposite is actually true; when people start sharing their brokenness together and can point beyond it to the healing love of Christ, true community and compassion are born.

GWM: Well, I found your story both powerful and helpful. And I want to ask you another question just to make sure I’m tracking with you. I have written about the contrast between two types of pain: the pain that is so often a part of the process of Christian formation—Potter’s-wheel suffering, to use your phrase—versus the pain that often goes under the label “theodicy”—why bad things happen to good people.

For better or worse, I have often broken down the pain associated with the formation process into three avenues:

(1) the natural and logical consequences of moving away from God—what some might call the consequences of willful choices of sin or separation from God;

(2) a “dark night of the soul” experience—in which God seems to withdraw himself for the purpose of purifying our desires and exposing idols;

(3) the pain of “the Refiner’s fire”—an awareness of both God’s presence and his role in this process of shaping and purification, as opposed to the perception of a mysteriously absent God in a “dark night of the soul” experience.

Having said all that, I’m assuming these are just three different descriptions of being on the Potter’s wheel; that is, each of the three is a different and discernible way that pain can be part of the shaping process. So, do you think I’m with you or all wet in trying to think of the Potter’s wheel this way?

KVE: Whatever works! I’m all for it. I would say that in my model the hamster wheel does little to form us while we’re on it. It is akin to your first avenue, yet goes unrecognized for a lot of Christians because their theology advocates for a life of suffering.

GWM: Yes, yes! The first category, I meant to say, is seen as redemptive suffering only if the individual realizes the source of the pain is separation from God, stops, and turns around. Otherwise, he is still on the hamster wheel.

KVE: Thank you. I thought that’s probably what you meant. And I would say that patterns of “sin”—or as I like to say, “missing the mark”—are not always consciously chosen, but unhealthy issues from the past tarnish the present and keep the person in bondage, even though he or she is trying to live a Christ-centered life. That is why the first step is always to state the problem. It is a huge first step and a hard one. God can then use the circumstances of the hamster wheel for good, after we are formed on the Potter’s wheel to see it for what it was—basically, from God’s perspective, missing the mark.

GWM: Is it fair to say that hamster-wheel suffering is always within the domain of theodicy?

KVE: Yes, although it is hard from a space-time perspective to grasp the full picture. There is something very intriguing to me about the whole idea that instead of destroying evil completely right now, God decides to use the worst that evil can do and redeem it—ultimately in the Cross. You get glimpses of it all through Scripture, such as when Jesus uses mud and spit to heal the man who is blind. In some ways it is a bigger victory to be able to use evil for good than simply to obliterate it altogether. When evil serves God’s purposes, we see how big and powerful God is. Nothing is a threat to the Divine purpose and plan for all humanity.

GWM: Would you mind giving one example of how you went about getting someone off a hamster wheel? And even if you do mind, would you do it anyway?

KVE: I don’t mind! It’s these kinds of experiences that keep recharging my battery. I think one of the most obvious cases was a woman who was clearly in a marriage that was destroying her and her children. She was emotionally battered, and the children were scared to go home. Yet there were Scriptures she quoted about female submission and being willing to forgive that made it hard for her to see that this awful situation was not God’s will for her. Nor was she loving her husband by allowing him to think this sort of behavior was something that should be tolerated. It took almost a year for her to see her hamster wheel cycling. When she did leave, she experienced healing and renewed energy; self-confidence returned, and so did her joy of life. It was so obvious to me, yet it is much harder when you are enmeshed in the hamster wheel to see the forest for the trees.

GWM: Thank you, Kim. We’re about to run out of time, so let me say on behalf of the readers of Conversations, thank you for the marvelous job you have done in writing the Conversation Guide column. We’ve heard many positive things from small groups who are using your column to turn each issue of the journal into a shared small-group experience with the particular theme. But to close on topic, I have one last question. You’ve spent years working with John Ortberg. Has this been more of a hamster-wheel or a Potter’s-wheel experience?

KVE: By asking this question, you assume that suffering is a part of working with John.

GWM: That’s okay, he’ll never see this. You can be honest.

KVE: All I can tell you is that we are writing a book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Hamster Wheel (just kidding . . .)

04.  In my book I suggest some ideas for moving forward:

  1. State the problem (Yes, I am on the hamster wheel).
  2. Reach out. Get support and validation from others.
  3. Begin to seek God through meditation and centering prayer.
  4. Involve others in the journey. Find a few trusted individuals with whom you can share honestly.
  5. Look for opportunities. Keep your eyes open for God’s call on your life to serve him—this may come later, after you receive healing from the depleting pace of the hamster wheel.


Kim Engelmann is a Presbyterian pastor and is currently working at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, where she has served as Caring Ministries pastor for seven years. She is the author of seven books, including her most recent book, featured in this article, Running in Circles. She has also written Seeing Jesus, A Walk With God Through Friendship, and three children’s books entitled the Joona Trilogy. A new book on how to experience God’s presence in small groups will be coming out next year.