Sorrow at Christmas

I wrote this blog last Christmas and wanted to post it then but every time I sat down to do it I think the emotions were too raw to post for anyone to see. So here you go, a year later.

Decorating the Christmas tree has always been one of my favorite things in the year. I love watching the tree burst with Christmas lights and fill with sparkly things. I love pulling out old ornaments and remembering the stories that come with them. And that didn’t change this year, I still loved it, but woven in with every memory was a deep and echoing sorrow. So many of my ornaments carry memories of my childhood and moments with my family. This year with each joy came the pang of sorrow. My family broke this year. Every lovely and sweet moment remembered brought with it mourning what has been broken, grieving the fracture of the world I grew up in.

I’m sure my experience isn’t unique. For so many people Christmas is a time that stirs up painful memories and reminds them that things are broken. It brings forward emotions that have fallen into the background and sets them in front of you to feel it all over again.

Scattered throughout the tree are my childhood memories but in the midst of them are ornaments that carry with them the story of Christmas. Angels and stars. Wise men and shepherds. And a manger with the Savior of the world come to us. There on my tree was my own Christmas story in ornament form. Christ come to dwell in my own broken world, to live among the pain, to know it and feel it. To grieve with us and be grieved by us. To mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. To take into himself, into his own body, the fracture of this world. To place my own story, and yours, into his.

As the sorrow of my family and the joy of God’s great love settles in me so does the sure hope that one day these fractures will be healed and broken things made new.  As I sit now in the dark in front of my twinkling Christmas tree my soul knows the beauty of Christ with me and the hope of Christ victorious.

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God’s Unexpected Provision : 2 Kings 6:8-23

Originally published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling 31:2 under the title: “More than a Proof Text: God’s Unexpected Provision When Enemies Close In: 2 Kings 6:8-23”  

“God is with you. He is in control. You can trust him.” This is the direction Christians tend to go when they try to help others with anxiety. But many people, maybe even most, find these truths—stated this way—more discouraging than hopeful. Consider my friend, Tessa. She is a faithful Christian who struggles daily with anxious thoughts that permeate the details of her life. And while she knows that God is in control and seeks to trust him, she feels numb and is exhausted by the constant struggle to find her bearings. Rather than instilling hope, these truths stoke a fear that she is failing as a Christian. The promises that she knows should bring comfort sound stale and overused. She wonders if something is wrong with her.

In the midst of her anxiety, Tessa needs to experience and grow to trust the Father’s provision for her in Christ. Discouragement and shame have become barriers that separate her from the experience of Christ with and for her. I have found 2 Kings 6:8–23 helpful for Tessa and others like her. This story of Elisha and his anxious servant breaks through these barriers. The story shifts her preconceptions, connects to her story, and points her to Christ. It makes general truths pointed and specific.

Three characteristics make this passage particularly good for helping anxious people who are stuck. First, the story is unfamiliar to many people. It was new to Tessa, which allowed us to slow it down and discover it together. Second, the details of the story are striking and unique. God provides for his people—but not how you would expect him to. Because Tessa expected me to point her to the same old thing, startling twists in the story helped shake some of her assumptions. Third, while the particulars are surprising, God’s overarching action is predictable and normal. This is part of where Tessa was stuck. The very thing Tessa needed to anchor her—God’s steady and unchanging provision in her own unsteady and changing world—had begun to feel like a dismissal of her story. Rather than seeing his intimate provision in the personal details of her struggle, it felt like those details were getting absorbed into a blanket statement. She was ashamed for feeling that Jesus was a “one-size-fits-all” answer that didn’t touch her questions. It’s true that he is God’s Yes and Amen to all of his promises in every situation (2 Cor 1:20). And that is a lovely statement of faith. But it is only half of the answer. The Father gave Jesus as the answer to all the brokenness in the world and Jesus meets her personally, in her unique place and time, in the particulars of her struggle.

Rather than telling Tessa these things, I wanted to let her experience the story come to life and her idea of God’s provision to bloom as we entered the details together. To do this I chose to lead into the story by emphasizing the predictable summary. In this case it was as simple as saying, “Let’s read a story about God’s provision for his people.”

The story starts off with a frustrated Syrian king. He has been chasing the Israelite army but “more than once or twice” they are able to escape (v.10). The Syrian soldiers attribute their escape to Elisha. They tell their king, “Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words you speak in your bedroom” (v.12). When the Syrian king learns of Elisha’s whereabouts, he moves his army there.

Once the stage is set, we read the passage together, one chunk at a time. To help Tessa see the personal nature of God’s provision I slowed the story down to consider the personal details of the characters involved. I began with Elisha’s servant.

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” (v.15)

We put ourselves in the servant’s shoes and imagined the scenario. We considered together why the author told us that it is early in the morning. Waking up groggy, walking outside in the cold, seeing your breath in the early morning air, wrapping your cloak tighter around you—and then looking up to see an army with horses and chariots surrounding the city. What would it feel like to wake up and find that an army is hunting you down first thing in the morning? Something about the time of day makes it that much worse. You were just asleep, unsuspecting, warm in your bed. And now—in an instant— impending doom.

I wanted Tessa to enter the experience of the servant and relate to how he must have felt. To help her bring it into her own life, I asked her what her version of the servant’s words might be. She knows well the experience of waking up to an onslaught of anxious thoughts about the day. What does she say when she begins to panic?

As we think about the servant together, we make specific connections to her experience. Are there times when she has felt trapped by her anxiety and by the circumstances that are causing it? Does she know that feeling of impending doom? What is it like to experience that feeling? Can she resonate with a time when it seemed like there was nothing that could be done?

After spending time on the servant’s experience, we moved on to Elisha and his response.

Elisha said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (v.16–17)

God peels back the curtain to give the servant a tangible and powerful experience of his presence with them and his purposes for them. In the midst of the servant’s fear, God allows him to see a glimpse of what he is up to.

For Tessa, I was laying the groundwork for the end of our conversation when we’ll talk about the ways the Lord makes himself known to her now. To do this, we spent some time talking about how kind it was for the Lord to open the servant’s eyes. We considered the significance of this detail, that the servant is a minor player in the narrative, and what effect that must have had on his fear. I gave her space to voice some of her frustration that God does not open her eyes to the angel armies around her, knowing that we will get to it later.

God reveals his presence and power to the servant before his enemy. The text tells us the Syrians bring horses and chariots. In response, God brings horses and chariots of fire. Whatever Israel’s enemy can bring, God is greater. Not only is this a picture of God besting this enemy, but it points to his future victories. Christ is the warrior King who comes in power and might to save his people. As the rest of the story plays out, we will see the nature of his victory and how it foreshadows Christ’s work for us. For Tessa, at this point in the conversation, I wanted her to focus on God’s power over his enemies and how he shows that.

We moved forward in the conversation. When God surrounds your enemy with chariots of fire what do you think is going to happen next? Most of us would guess that the enemy is about to be destroyed. But that is not where the story goes—and I want Tessa to be surprised by this. In my life, not only would I guess that is where the story will go, but I also genuinely want the story to go there. I want God to show up and wipe out the things that make me anxious. This is true for Tessa as well. She has well-formed ideas about what God’s provision should be and what it would look like if he genuinely were present. But God’s provision is not required to take the shape we want it to. Even when he doesn’t conform to our expectations, his provision is true and spectacular (as the rest of the story will show).

The Syrian army begins their attack. They are on the hunt for Elisha. Elisha asks the Lord to blind them. As they stand there confused and blind, Elisha offers to guide them—and they don’t know it’s him! He leads them not just into the hands of the Israelite army, but straight into Samaria, Israel’s capital (v.18–19). When they arrive, Elisha prays for their eyes to be opened and “behold, they were in the midst of Samaria,” surely surprised, bewildered, and in the crux of Israel’s power (v.20). God had chosen not to conquer them with his heavenly army. Instead, now it looks like he will use the army of Israel to defeat the Syrian army. But that’s not what happens either.

The story has a surprise ending. Before we read it together, I stop and ask Tessa what she thinks will happen next. Like most people, she thinks that a battle will occur. The king of Israel has the same idea. He wants to kill the Syrians. He wants this so much that he asks Elisha twice, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” (v.21). But Elisha has other plans. Instead of directing them to be killed, he instructs the Israelites to throw them a feast. Yes, a feast!

So the king prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel. (v.23)

Tessa and I imagined together what it would be like to be one of the Israelite army commanders and get the instruction to feast with your enemies instead of conquering them. It sounds awkward. Yesterday you were trying to kill one another and today you are sharing a meal. It sounds disappointing. The commander had an opportunity to have another win under his belt, but he does not get that. It is confusing. Why would God command a feast in place of punishment?

As Tessa and I wondered about these things together, the gospel story started to naturally emerge—the mighty God enters our world with the power to save. This God gives grace to people who deserve punishment. This God prepares a feast for us in the presence of our enemies. This God overturns the enemy’s mission and brings grace and redemption through it.

These are some of the avenues leading toward Christ, but this last one is where I went with Tessa. God brings grace and redemption through the very things we struggle with. We had spent the majority of our time together talking about the particulars of the story in connection with the particulars of her story. But as we ended the conversation I wanted to zoom out and talk about anxiety as the stage for God overturning his enemy. In Christ, God takes our sin and our suffering, and the enemy’s plan, and uses it as the stage for our redemption. In his resurrection he claims his victory. And with his Spirit he enables us to participate in that victory.

Tessa’s anxiety can become the stage for her to see the Lord’s power. She has been praying for the Lord to take away her fears; it is the equivalent of praying for the angel armies to defeat the enemy. But rather than taking it away he has a plot twist in store for her that displays his power over it. When Tessa struggles with anxious thoughts and cries to the Lord for help, she’s experiencing God’s victory over the enemy’s plan. When she chooses not to nurture her anxious thoughts in solitude but to turn to a friend who can speak truth to her, she’s living out the plot twist. She is living out God’s victorious reign as he uses anxiety to draw her closer to him and to draw her deeper into community.

As Tessa and I continued to work together we practiced looking for ways the Lord was demonstrating his power in the midst of her anxiety. We started by looking back. Tessa had journals from years ago. When she went back and read them she could see God’s presence with her and evidence of his work in her. She remembered a vibrant prayer life. As we talked about the journals we remembered Elisha’s story and recounted how God had been working even when she couldn’t see it. As she practiced turning outward for help he began to heal the shame that comes from struggling in silence. We watched as he gave her courage to enter situations that made her nervous. And reveled together as she became a blessing to others who also battle with anxiety.

Tessa continues to struggle with anxiety—but the struggle has changed. It is her daily calling to turn to her warrior King to combat anxious thoughts. And in the midst of that battle she gets to experience the plot twist of the gospel on a daily basis. Her King has won and even when the path is perplexing she is growing in faith to trust his provision for her.

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How Do We Protect Relationships

Change is a part of church experience.  People are always coming and going.  We welcome new people to our congregation and we work to build relationships with them.  We say goodbye to those who have been part of our lives.  We have new leaders rise up and old leaders sometimes move away.  Ministries are also changing.  

Change in our churches also means that our relationships are constantly changing. As our relationships change, we may experience conflict.  We have to adjust to changes and that takes work. How we respond to conflict is an important thing.  There are several “typical” responses to conflict.  

Overlooking

Overlooking can be a very helpful response to some conflict.  Sometimes conflict is a matter of personal preference and there isn’t a right or wrong at stake.  Proverbs 19:11 even says  we can gain glory by overlooking an offense.

Ken Sande, in his book Peacemaker points out helpful questions that can guide our thoughts on whether or not to overlook an offense.  He asks: is it dishonoring to God? is it damaging your relationship? Is it hurting others? Is it hurting the offender? If we answer yes to these questions then the offense is too great to overlook. If we overlook these offenses we are leaving the other in a behavior pattern that is damaging and will cause ongoing harm.  

Dietrich Bonhoefer, in his book Life Together writes “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”

Withdrawal: I will forget you to escape pain

Another common response to conflict is withdrawal.  In this response we pull away from the conflict and the other parties in the conflict.  At the heart of withdrawal is the decision to avoid pain, even at the cost of losing the relationship.  In some cases we withdraw quietly and the others may not know we are distant.  Central to this choice is the decision that if staying in relationship with you means I have to hurt, I am willing to lose you as well as the pain.  This attitude denies the Biblical truth that all people are precious and deserve both respect and engagement.  Even in abusive relationships we do not withdraw without clarifying that the abusive party is valuable.  The truth is that the abusive person needs to hear a call to repent and then boundaries must be established that prevent them from continuing their abusive behavior at will.  They are too valuable allow to continue in their sinful patterns.  

Winning: I will get my way at any cost

Some of us respond to conflict as if it is a war to win.  I am bound and determined to get my way.  I am not going to listen to you and find out what you want.  I will not see you as a valuable person whose desires also matter to me.  You are simply an obstacle to my goals and my pleasure.  I am not going to treat you as an image bearer and work with you to bring healing.  I am going to treat you as an object that is making my life difficult and I will move you out of my way.

Giving In: I will lose me to keep peace with you

Some of us when we are in conflict simply do everything we can to make the other parties to the conflict happy. Their goals and desires are important but ours are not.  Our goals, if we are prone to giving in, are to have peace and an absence of the pain of conflict.  This approach is similar in many ways to withdrawal, but instead of clearly losing the relationship, we lose ourselves.  We either honestly accept the other’s view and desires, or we pretend to accept their views and desires.  In any case, we have lost ourselves and as a result we cannot give ourselves honestly to another.  

Working Through the Issues: I care about you enough to engage

The healthiest response to conflict caused by changes is to work through the conflict and resolve it.  We take the time to listen to each other and we take the risk to share our thoughts and feelings.  In this conversation we demonstrate our faith in the safety we have in Christ and with each other.  Fear does not control us.  We will go through difficult times in order to have a solid and honest relationship with each other.  Some passages that shape this response are: Genesis 9:6, James 3:9, John 13:34-35, and Hebrews 12:6.

Every person we meet is an image bearer and has tremendous value.  We cannot treat anyone as an object to be used or avoided.  We must treat both others, and ourselves, with respect.  On the night of his arrest Jesus commands us to love people as He loves us.  We are to love sacrificially and completely.  We can overlook offenses and differences, or we can resolve them.  When we follow Christ we are not free to disrespect others by withdrawal, winning, or even giving in.  If the problem is too important to overlook, we are called to the serious work of resolving.  

There is much more to say about how to pursue resolution, but that is for a later blog.  

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Helping Our Churches Become Communities of Change

Helping Our Churches Become Communities of Change

A few years ago Steve Midgley gave a talk at the CCEF National Conference giving a handful of practical steps we can take as leaders to develop a community that reflects gospel change. I’ll give a few highlights below, things that stood out to me personally, but if you’d like to listen to the talk in its entirety you can click here to purchase it from CCEF.

Begin with your own humility:  “Here is where you begin in the business of side by side ministry. You begin with yourself, with humility. We begin with our neediness, we are only ever sinners before a holy God in need of his forgiveness. Begin with humility. Before we open our mouths to presume to speak with others. Before we counsel or preach, begin with humility. Before we seek to be the agent of change in the life of another, begin with humility.  Be deeply persuaded of your need for grace because change begins with us, with a heart that knows its need for Christ.”

Incorporating the Body: Ephesians 4 – “In our churches we’re tempted to slice out the crucial element of personal one-anothering ministry.” Our goal is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry, enabling them to fulfill the role they’ve been gifted to play.

  • How ready are you to take risks in your church community? We will never discover the hidden talent in our communities if we always go to the same people.
  • How does it go when things go wrong? How do you handle mistakes? It’s tempting to try and camouflage them but it’s much more fruitful if we highlight our failings. “If we are embarrassed by our errors we’re communicating that this is a place for perfect people, where we won’t count on anything but excellence.” Highlighting our mistakes communicates grace. “We seek to be a church that is a hospital for sinners rather than a museum for saints”
  • How does your church respond to new ideas? What happens when someone wants to try something completely new?
  • When choosing people to pray up front who do you pick? Do you pick only the eloquent or do you pick people who struggle a bit with their words?
  • Who do you pick to give testimonies? Allow people in the middle of their process to speak about that process, about the wrestling. Don’t fall into the temptation to only present stories that are on the far side of change.
  • How much do you talk about your constant need for change and growth? A church that isn’t changing is one of two things: 1) It has reached a state of sinless perfection. Or 2) It is a church that has forgotten that God intends it to keep growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Speaking the Truth in Love. We do this as we walk together. This isn’t an excuse to get something off my chest or elevating myself above you to drop truth upon you. This is speaking to one another as one sinner to another. “Failing to speak the truth in love means we will not grow. We will stay immature.”

Ideas from his own church to make people feel more equipped to speak the truth in love: 

  • To speak the towards change in others people needed to experience change themselves. They began running “How People Change” courses.
  • Becoming comfortable talking about the way God is at work in us so we can see the way he is at work in another person. They changed the way they did prayer meetings. They carved out time for people to share what God was doing in their lives.
  • Emphasize community. They changed the way they did coffee on a Sunday. By putting the invitation for coffee in bold underneath the songs and bible readings in the bulletin they began to communicate that chatting after the service was an informal time of worship that followed the formal worship we just completed. Because every Sunday there are people to rejoice with and people to mourn with and it will be to God’s glory as we do both.
  • Acknowledge the difficulty. They named their weaknesses as a culture and continue to push into them together.
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When Should a Pastor Refer?

When Should a Pastor Refer?

In pastoral ministry the line between the work you do with your people and when to bring in extra help can be a difficult one to discern. For some seasoned wisdom on the topic I turn to Mike Emlet, a counselor and faculty member at CCEF. In the space below I’ve summarized some of the key points from a talk he gave at the 2015 CCEF National Conference titled “When Should Pastors Refer: When should the help you provide as a pastor extend beyond yourself and the resources of your congregation?”. Click here to purchase the complete talk from the CCEF website.

When Should a Pastor Refer?

Assuming you’re meeting regularly with people, assuming you believe that the biblical story is always relevant to the issues at hand, assuming you are already helping your counselee take full advantage of the resources in the church, here are some things to consider as you ask yourself whether or not to refer:

Things about yourself to take into consideration:

  1. Gifting – Romans 12:3-8. Not all pastors in ministry are equally gifted as ministers in counsel. As a pastor you have the call to be walking alongside of the people you shepherd but your own gifting as a counselor will be a factor in determining which cases you ought to take on yourself.
  2. Training and Experience – Even with a baseline gifting you need training and experience to stir up that gift. Much of our learning happens reactively –  as we’re faced with situations that we encounter, we dig in and learn how to handle them. If you don’t have much experience it doesn’t necessarily mean you must refer. Ask yourself these questions: Am I willing and able to study and learn? If you lack experience you don’t want to learn and grow in isolation. Find someone who can help you with hands on questions. Is the person you’re counseling comfortable with that arrangement? Are they on board with you as you learn and grow? Are they comfortable with you seeking outside help? A note from us at Impact: We’d love to be an outside resource to you. Please contact us if you have questions about what that might look like. 
  3. Time – Do I have time for a regular and recurring meeting with this person? Although the answer to that question never feels like a resounding “yes”, there are several things to help mitigate the time factor. 1) Meet every couple of weeks. Space out the appointments. 2) Counsel the person with a friend or small group leader to have a built in way for someone else to carry the load of walking with them. It also opens the possibility of transitioning care for the long haul. “If you find that you never have time to meet with a person more than once it’s something you should reassess.”

Things in a counselee that would cause you refer to outside help:

  1. Medical problems. Do you see physical symptoms?
  2. Marked personality changes
  3. Heavy substance abuse
  4. Eating disorders, or other struggles that require a multi-disciplinary team approach
  5. Psychiatric symptoms. Do you have concerns about their connection to reality?
  6. Seriously considering suicide
  7. No change. Are they putting in the time and effort and change isn’t happening?
  8. A problem requiring intensive and extensive counseling.

The question of referral is about how to best love the people the Lord has called you to walk with.

Proverbs 11:14 “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in abundance of counselors there is safety”

 

 

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Change, Does It Really Happen?

As a pastor and a counselor I work with a number of people who feel the need for change, but often wonder if it is possible to change.  I have heard the following statement from more people than I have counted: “I have worked to change, prayed for change, and I have not changed.  I guess this is just who I am.”

We do long for change.  It is painful that change seems so difficult.  Sometimes we lose hope.

However, Scripture is clear that change is a part of our lives.  “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  (Ez 36:27).  “…so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”  (Romans 6:19).  “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15).  God is at work to bring us to maturity and “perfection.”  We will not be perfect until He finally glorifies us, but we do see that He is always growing us.  We are called to partner with him in this.

It is important to keep in focus that the goal of this growth is not our personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.  The goal of our growth is God’s glory and pleasure.  John 14:15 simply tells us that as Jesus was going from the Last Supper with his disciples to the garden of Gethsemane where he was wrestling in prayer prior to his arrest, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  1 Peter 1:7 tells us that the outcome of enduring trials in this life is that our tested faith “may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

There is a much greater goal for our growth than personal pleasure.  We are living for God.  I believe if we minimize our perspective on growth and change, limiting it to our own pleasure, we will likely conclude that the costs of change are greater than the benefits of change.  In short, we will give up long before we experience change.

As I consider Jesus, and his love and sacrifice for me, and the promise of blessings that he is giving me in this life and in the next, I do grow in my love for him and I am moved by that love to respond with love.  Simply put, he is worth any efforts I make to change.  My commitment to, and energy for, change are multiplied.  The result is that I see God change me and I grow into the Christlikeness to which I am called.

 

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He Lifts the Head of the Shamed

KSilvasmall-5Originally published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling 30:1 under the title “More Than a Proof Text:’You feel ashamed – but Christ is the lifter of your head’ (Psalm 3:3)” by Kristin Silva. 

 

What does shame look like? Shame’s posture is downcast—eyes down, head down, hiding from the gaze of others. Often in counseling as people begin to tell the story of their shame, the struggle shifts from something they have experienced at another time and place to something they feel right now, with you in the room. I remember this moment with a friend. As the shameful pieces of her story entered our conversation, I watched her head sink lower and lower. My presence with her, my eyes upon her, my knowledge of the intimate details of her experience all seemed to make the weight of shame even heavier.

How might Scripture speak into this moment? We had talked about shame in the past but this time was different. In this moment, her body began to reflect the shame she had previously only spoken of. She was not merely describing feeling dirty or shameful; she was literally downcast before me, embodying the posture of one who is unworthy. So, we began by putting words to what she was feeling and how her body was reflecting it. Then I read Psalm 3:3 to her.

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, the lifter of my head. (Psalm 3:3)

I hoped we would find some help there. Could we find ways that her experience is parallel to David’s? Could this become her prayer too?

David wrote this psalm as the consequences of his most shameful sins were unfolding. Because he had taken another man’s wife and had her husband killed, the prophet Nathan foretold of death and rebellion in David’s household.[1] Now, as David writes Psalm 3, his son Absalom is contributing to the fulfillment of that prophecy by trying to kill his father and usurp the throne.[2] As he fled from Absalom, the weight of those sins hung in the background. He speaks his fear and shame to the Lord, opening the way for others to be blessed as we learn how to do the same.

            To consider the psalm with my friend I asked her:

What do you think the memory of those sins felt like for David?

Where does the memory of your own sin take you?

Another way David suffers in this psalm is that his own people make false judgments about him. His people wonder if there is any hope for him. To them, he is so far gone that “there is no salvation for him in God” (3:2). Though actual accusations are not always present, shame often begins to stir when we perceive that others are judging us. Because David’s relationship with the Lord was especially intimate, my friend and I imagined what it must have felt like for it to be called into question. I asked her:

What kinds of thoughts do you think might be going through his head?

What are the places in your own life that it feels like people judge you?

As you sit here with me, what are you afraid I might be saying about you in my                       mind?

And because our inner voices say the same things that outer voices might say, I asked her:

What are you saying to yourself?

The inner and outer voices often speak as a chorus in accusation against us.

Shame might begin with the fear of judgement from others but it quickly grows and expands into a full-blown attack. Shame hurls insults: you are not good enough; you are not worthy; people are going to find out how filthy you really are. It feels like enemies coming at you, like an attacking army rising against you, pushing you down. “O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me!” (Psalm 3:1). To bring these verses into my friend’s life, we talked about shame as her foe.

What does it feel like when shame rises against you?

What would the first two verses say if you wrote them in your own words?

After this, I read verse 3 out loud and very slowly. “You, O Lord, are a shield about me.” I paused and we talked about the nature of God’s protection.

What does a shield do in the midst of an attack?

In what ways does the Lord do this for you in a moment when shame attacks                          you?[3]

From there I moved to the second half of the verse, “You, O LORD are the lifter of my head.” I paused again and encouraged her to lift her head. We talked about everything she was feeling—the vulnerability, the fear of standing before the Lord and being seen by him.

As she lifted her head I pulled in the third part of the verse. David says that the Lord is our glory. It means that he shines his face upon us.[4] And like Moses on Mt. Sinai, when the radiance of his glory shines upon us, we shine too.[5] This last truth was very meaningful to her. With tears running down her cheeks, she reflected on lifting her head to see the shining face of the Lord.[6] My friend bears physical marks of her shame, scars from self-inflicted wounds that remind her of shameful moments. They stand in accusation against her. In this moment, as she experienced the radiance of the glory of the Lord, she proclaimed, “His face is shining so brightly upon me that my scars are washed out.” He truly removes her shame.

This was a dramatic moment for my friend. God does not always work in this way, but he did in this case and the experience has continued to bless and help her. This is not surprising. David says something similar. He says that he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord sustained him.[7] In the following months, in places where fear and shame had once lured her to run and hide, my friend experienced the Lord’s sustaining power that allowed her to faithfully believe that he removed her shame. We come back to this psalm often and praise the Lord for the big and small ways he sustains her.

 

 

[1] 2 Samuel 12:10–11

[2] 2 Samuel 13–18, specifically 16:22

[3] Christ as our shield is a rich image worth expanding in another conversation. Like a shield he absorbs shame (Isaiah 53:3); he casts our shame away (Hebrews 12:2); he makes shame powerless against us (Colossians 2:15).

[4] The psalm sets the stage for this jump. Though I do not often give my exegetical reasoning for pulling in another passage during a counseling session, I am happy to explain it if asked. In a moment like this it is more important to move seamlessly from the Lord lifting the head of the shamed to knowing his shining face upon them. In this particular passage the use of the word glory opens up the idea of radiance or shining (Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 21:11). If the Lord is our glory it is because he is shining upon us (Numbers 6:25).

[5] Exodus 34:29–35

[6] The hymn Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus fits well here and can be a helpful way for a counselee to recall this conversation throughout the week.

[7] Psalm 3:5–6 “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.”

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Speaking the Truth in Love…

 

Steve by JonHow we communicate with others is very important. I have the privilege of working with people who are going through difficult times. Some of these people are able to talk about those difficulties with grace and compassion. Others communicate their pain in ways that hurt the people with whom they are in relationship.

Those in the latter category typically transfer their pain to others.

The problem is, this does not work. The pain does not go away. It multiplies.

Let’s listen in on one typical conversation.

Bill: Carol, you seem like something is wrong. Are you ok?

Carol: I told you last week that this week was going to be rough. I have a big project due at work and I feel overwhelmed with everything I have to do here at home. How can you ask if I am ok? You ought to know that I am not ok.

Bill: Bite my head off, why don’t you? I am trying to talk with you and understand what is going on and in return you slam me. I should have stayed at work and done something productive instead of coming home to this.

Carol: That would be your norm, staying away and taking care of yourself. I need you to help out and do the laundry. I not only have to work to help with the finances, but all the housework falls to me. The least you could do is to do the laundry this week. You tell me that you love me, but the way you behave doesn’t show much love.

Bill: (he becomes silent and looks up at the ceiling.)

Carol: There you go. Once again you disappear and leave me alone.

Does this sound at all familiar?

Bill and Carol have history and have built their relationship over time. This fight is not the whole of their relationship, but it is becoming more common over time. Each fight reinforces their fears and deepens their expectation of impending attacks. More and more they distance from each other and they brace for fights when they are together.

There is hope for Bill and Carol.

Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the truth in love. Some of us speak truth without love. Some of us do not speak at all. How we speak, or do not speak, is actually diagnostic. We can see what is going on inside us as we think through our conversations. What we do is often a true description of our goals.

Bill saw that Carol was upset. He engaged with her and tried to communicate his concern. But, and this is a big but, he had not listened well in the previous conversations. He was present in the moment. He also needs to be present over time.

Carol erupted with complaints when she realized that Bill was unaware of her struggles with her demanding schedule. Things went downhill from there.

Bill and Carol can do a couple of things that will help them transform their relationship. The first is to do the hard work of understanding their goals. The second is learning the skill of constructive communication.

Both Bill and Carol are trying to deal with their pain. This conversation shows that each is hurt and that what they are focused on is how to manage their pain. They are, at the moment in a very focused place and their words and actions seem to be intended to minimize the impact of their pain. At least to minimize the pain for themselves. If we only focus on one goal we can move toward accomplishing it, but once we have accomplished that goal we will likely realize that we have missed, and probably set back accomplishing other goals that are perhaps even more important.

In this exchange, both Bill and Carol have focused on their own pain. As they speak to each other they are dealing with the pain they feel and expressing it to each other. They are not doing anything to help the other deal with their pain. To get away from the heat of the frying pan, they have jumped into the greater heat of the fire.

In dealing with pain, it cannot be “every man for himself.”

If I create more pain for others, I cannot escape that pain myself. If I hurt you, you will in turn feel the desire to hurt me. This has to be stopped, and I am the one in control of what I do. I would be selfish to wait for you to stop what I can stop.

Our goals need to be clear, and as comprehensive as we are able to make them. In a difficult conversation my goals, in light of Philippians 2, need to include caring for you and not just for me. In Peacemaker Ken Sande presents an helpful tool he calls the PAUSE principle. This includes a step of understanding all of what we both want. This becomes a great starting point for understanding the goals we should keep in mind as we talk and act.

Secondly, how we talk constructively is also very important. In current studies on a counseling methodology called “Emotional Intelligence Therapy” the importance of how we talk with each other has become clear. If my goal is to care for you in the process of dealing with caring for myself, how I speak will demonstrate my care for you. I will not speak in ways that bring you pain. I will cover all the same issues that we need to cover to bring resolution, but I will speak them differently. Rather than say “Bite my head off why don’t you?” I would say “I am not sure what I did to hurt you, but I do want to let you know that I feel attacked by your response.”

The skill of letting the other person know what we are hearing, feeling, and trying to say is a critically important skill in building relationships. Our focus in this way of communicating is to help the other person know me and what I am experiencing in a way that allows them to share themselves and what they are experiencing. We want to communicate this without any criticism or contempt.

I can honestly know what I am experiencing. I can have a careful observation of what you do, or do not do. I cannot know what you feel, think, or what your motives are, unless I ask and you tell me. Consequently, if I do not act on the assumptions I have about you, I show you respect when I ask you to tell me what is going on inside of you. I also show the wisdom that comes from knowing what I do not know.

One word of caution. It is very easy to think that I am asking questions to know you, and sharing only what I know and experience, when I am instead living with assumptions. This is a skill that takes time to develop and master. It also takes outside observers to help us understand not only what we think we are communicating, but, what we are actually communicating. God has created us to live in relationships, and this is one very big example of why we need others.

Feel free to write with questions on this topic. I will try to answer them.

 

 

 

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Giving Yourself Grace

KSilvasmall-5This is an idea I hear often. Whether it is someone in counseling describing the struggle not to condemn themselves, or a friend offering me well-meaning advice when I am struggling with my own perfectionism, or the content of a recent blog from a popular Christian author, it’s a common theme in Christian language.

There are some things I appreciate about it. I appreciate that it seeks to be a pointer back to grace, that in many ways it’s pushing us away from self-condemnation and guilt and that’s a good direction to be pointed in. And if you stretched it a bit you might even go as far as saying that you live in grace because grace has been shown to you. Maybe. You have to stretch a bit to get there and as you’re stretching you might begin to have an inkling that something is off.

To move this idea toward the gospel you have to recognize that grace comes to you from the Father. You deserved condemnation and were forgiven and shown favor because of Christ. This is grace. But how does it work for me to show grace to myself? It would mean that I deserved condemnation (from myself), that I ought to be punished for this, but instead I am going to give myself favor. It would mean that I am my own judge doling out the consequences to myself of my actions against myself. It breaks down even more the further you go with it. At the end of the day I don’t think it’s possible to be gracious to ourselves. It’s a non sequitur.

While I do think it’s both logically and theologically inaccurate, I think there’s a reason we say it. My purpose here isn’t to pick through our phrases with a fine tooth theological comb. I want to think more practically. I want to suggest that rather than cutting this phrase out of our vocabulary that, instead, we learn to follow it. Not subscribe to it, but follow the path it is taking us on. Let me explain…

Most often I hear this phrase in reference to things we’re working on. Maybe we’re trying to eat healthier and we are too hard on ourselves when we cave in and have a cheeseburger. Maybe we feel guilty because our house isn’t clean enough. Maybe we’re trying to be more prompt, spend less time on our phones, run more, respond to e-mails more quickly. And in the process of trying to build new habits we struggle to do so, we slide back into old patterns, and begin whipping ourselves back into shape as we gear up to try again. It is at this moment that our hearts know that we need grace. Something in us knows that a law has been broken and we’ve been tutored to know that grace is the correct response.

That’s step one. A law has been broken.

Follow the path further with me. If a man steals gold from a king he doesn’t think about how he needs to be nicer to himself, he knows mercy must come from the king for him to be ok. Likewise, when I sin against the Father I know grace must come from him. We naturally know to seek grace from the offended party. So what is this gut reaction that I need to show myself grace showing me? I’d venture to say it’s showing me that the law I’ve broken is likely my own. When grace from the Father doesn’t solve your guilt it’s someone else’s law that you’re living under. Because when you live under the Father’s law you’re covered by the righteousness of Christ. When you live under his law you know extravagant grace freely given. But if the person you need grace from is yourself, then it’s likely you’re the creator of this law.

That’s step two. This law is my own.

I think what frustrates me most about this phrase isn’t that it’s theologically inaccurate, it’s that it stops woefully short of the blessings we have in Christ. I want more for you than this. If you truly have sinned against the Father I don’t want you to settle with being nicer to yourself, I want you to know the incredible gift of his unending grace towards you. But if it’s not his law that you’ve broken and it’s your own, I long for freedom for you. Any law that isn’t the Lord’s is a slave driver and a tyrant over you. It carries no authority and yet it tells you that you ought to be punished.

When we have the inclination that we ought to be gracious toward ourselves we are listening to the self-imposed tyrant . We believe its lies that we deserve punishment for this. We confuse its voice for the authority of our Father in heaven. We know we need grace but the grace we need isn’t because we’ve left our house messy, it’s because we’ve thought having a clean house could make us righteous. We thought having a clean house was the law we were living under.

That’s step three. Forsake your own tyrannical laws. Despise their condemnation.

In Christ I stand before the Father blameless. The Father knows my frailty and my weakness and is compassionate to me. He is longsuffering and patient. His grace knows no end and his kindness is unfathomable. When I stand before him my failure means nothing. It can’t bring condemnation because Christ took that. Instead it becomes a place to know the character of the Lord more deeply. To experience his mercy, to swim in his grace, to know once again how much he loves me. This is the freedom I long for for you. It’s much sweeter than being kind to yourself.

That’s step four. Embrace freedom.

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What Does 1 Corinthians 7 Say?

Steve by Jon

The Bible is the inspired word of God. It is the place we can go to get direction and guidance for day-to-day life. It addresses issues we face and contains incredible wisdom we can apply to our lives. But occasionally passages of scripture are interpreted in a way I believe was not intended. The misinterpretation may cause damage to individuals and relationships. One passage I believe is often misread is from 1st Corinthians.

“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Co 7:1–5). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

As a counselor working with Christian couples to improve their marriages, I am aware of serious problems with how this passage is interpreted in some evangelical churches today. I believe that this passage is sometimes presented in ways that coerce women into conclusions, and consequently actions, that are clearly not what Paul is saying. In fact, those conclusions are not what the Bible consistently teaches about marriage and relationships with spouses.

I want to make some initial comments to set the stage for the rest of this article. Paul is not saying there is a universal truth that sexual relations are bad. Paul is warning of the danger of sexual immorality, and that can exist inside and outside of the marriage covenant.

We have a propensity to think narrowly and take things out of their context. In this passage we read about sexual immorality and about conjugal rights and reduce those to a physical act. But conjugal rights are not exclusively a physical thing. By making this assumption, we lose sight of the context of the overall marriage relationship. We truncate the truths that Scripture teaches, to the singular issue of physical union, to sexual intercourse.

But joyfully, Scripture talks about marriage in much richer ways. Genesis 2 reveals God’s establishment of the marriage relationship when it talks about the creation of Adam and Eve, and as it follows their story after the entrance of sin into creation. We need to understand that God created Adam as an embodied spirit. Adam, along with all who follow him, are bodies and spirits combined in one being. We cannot lose sight of this truth or we fail to understand ourselves.

In Genesis 2, God concluded that it was not enough to create Adam. In fact, he created Adam and all the creatures who were to inhabit the world, and in His evaluation of that creation concluded, “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Adam was with God. Adam had all of the animals God had created to fill the earth. In spite of being with other “beings,” Adam was alone in a sense that God judged to be “not good.” As a result God created humanity male and female to reflect the community of the trinity. “Let us make man in our image.” Eve was the perfect helper for Adam and united they had the opportunity to be more than either one could be alone.

So God caused a deep sleep to come on Adam. Adam awoke and God had created a woman. Adam saw Eve and spoke of the joy he had at the relationship God had provided through Eve’s creation. “This at last….”

As Adam and Eve spent time with each other the depth of their relationship matured and we read that Adam “knew” Eve and she conceived Cain. Obviously this knowledge included physical, sexual union. But we are guilty of terrible minimization if we limit this knowledge to simply physical activity. This indicates a total knowledge of the other person. Adam and Eve, as embodied spirits, shared their lives with each other. They related emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Their relationship engaged all of who they were.

Jesus is the model for how a husband relates to his wife. Since Paul tells us that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves his bride, we need to closely examine this relationship. We read of this all-encompassing dynamic in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Jesus sacrifices Himself for His bride. His physical interactions with the church include protecting the church at the cost of His comfort, His health, and even His death. He relates to the church spiritually. He washes His bride in the Word. He sanctifies the church and brings her to spiritual completion. She is spotless, blameless, without wrinkle or blemish. He reveals Himself to the church. He interacts emotionally with the church and knows her fully.

Husbands are called to love their wives in the same ways. Our relationship with our brides must have emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical elements. We cannot limit what the Bible teaches about marriage to discussions about sex.

So now we return to the scripture from 1st Corinthians, having an understanding of the overall context of marriage in Scripture. We recognize there is an emphasis on the physical aspect of marriage in this passage. It contains a warning about the dangers of sexual immorality. It starts by making the comment that sexual relations are not necessary.

Paul is not trying to say that sexual relations are essentially bad. We have the rest of Scripture teaching that marriage is something God established because it is good. What he is saying is he believes that given the urgency of building the kingdom, it is good if people focus on that and not be distracted by other things. Paul speaks later in this chapter about devoting ourselves completely to the work of the church as she reaches the world with the gospel. But sexual immorality is such a danger, that even in a time when Paul believes we should focus on establishing Jesus’ kingdom, he agrees that marriage is one of God’s provisions for battling our temptations.

There are many different aspects of sexual immorality. The word Paul uses is porneia. It is the root of our word pornography. At times, it is used to discuss unmarried sexual activity, but it covers much more. At the root of this immorality is a core of selfishness. That selfishness includes treating others as objects rather than image bearers, using others only for our personal sexual satisfaction, whether that is through the use of images, bodies, or even fantasies to provide the “sexual fulfillment” for which we lust.

But if we think Paul is saying that just having a physical relationship or “sex” is the answer to sexual immorality, we are wrong. A simplistic understanding of what Paul is saying is the source of much damage to individuals and to the church at large. Paul is talking about the whole of the marriage relationship. Healthy relationships between spouses include all of who we are as people. These relationships are wonderful protection against settling for the fragmented and destructive experience of a merely physical relationship. In today’s language we often refer to this holistic relationship as intimacy. An intimate relationship is a lot of work. It requires time, transparency, and trust. It is in such relationships that we grow in our sanctification and become who we were created to be.

Sadly, I see this passage being wrongly used in some churches today. I know of husbands and church leaders teaching that we are required by scripture to be sexually active with our spouses and that it is enough to be sexually active physically. In some cases women are told that if they provide their husbands with satisfying sex, they will free them from sexual immorality. The problem comes in because the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual components of relationship are ignored in this demand. We reduce having a husband or wife to the concept of having a sexual partner. We limit conjugal (marriage) rights to physical, sexual rights. We reduce depriving each other to refraining from the physical act of intercourse. We elevate the importance of the physical and completely separate it from the overall relationship we are commanded to enjoy with our spouse. In doing this, we rob those who are hungry for what they are created to have. We deny the importance of relationship and love, and diminish emotional and spiritual nurture.

So in trying to rigidly adhere to scripture and force our spouse to, “do your duty,” we foster sexual immorality even as Paul is warning us against it. It is immoral to truncate the marriage relationship by commanding the physical relationship separate from the complete relationship God provides through marriage. To ask someone to submit to being physically present in sex without recognizing that they are embodied spirits is to objectify them. When I fail to relate to my wife as a complete individual who bears the image of God and who brings the offer of a complete relationship to me and instead use this passage to tell her that she is required to engage in physical, sexual activity with me whether that feeds her emotionally and spiritually is a sinful denial of who we are. It fragments her and denies her spirit whether I understand that or not. This kind of selfishness and objectification is at the heart of pornography. It is essentially sexual immorality.

Please hear this clearly. That which is essentially immoral is not made moral by taking place in the covenant of marriage. Selfishness and objectification are the roots from which pornography grows. It is always wrong to allow this root into the sacred relationship marriage is created to be. It pollutes the marriage. It is incredibly destructive. It does not strengthen the bond. It kills it.

Husbands, please love your wives well. Engage with them holistically and feed them as complete individuals. We are created to share ourselves emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. When we cultivate our relationship with our wives emotionally, intellectually and spiritually they will gladly join with us. When we have this foundation, our wives are free to express themselves physically in their love for us.

There is much more to address in the way we are to relate to one another in marriage, but that will have to come in future articles.

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