The Manual

Kristin2The Manual

I’m self-diagnosed as an anxiety sleep walker. As a kid I used to sleepwalk for any and every type of dream. I remember trying to convince my mother to come to a concert in my bedroom once and being mightily offended when she told me to go back to bed. Who was she to question if there was a concert happening in my room? It’s lent itself to some good stories, but I’m thankful that in adulthood my midnight antics have dwindled.  These days, romps around the house in the middle of the night are saved only for particularly anxious seasons of my life and always focused on one thing – my endless search for… “The Manual” (dun dun duuuuuun).

It’s not difficult to uncover the true meaning behind my sleepy restlessness. Some people’s dreams contain deep and complex metaphors. Mine’s more of a one-to-one correlation, I’m afraid my brain just isn’t creative. Basically if, during my waking hours, I’m in the middle of a situation where I feel uneasy, unsure of myself, unequipped, or fearful, then in my dream world I create the solution. Clearly the problem is that I’ve lost the manual and all I have to do is find it. Sadly though, the manual is always just out of reach and I can never quite get it despite my best efforts. It feels like the formulaic plotline for some cheesy drama on tv.

Over and over again I sleep poorly and fret about my inability to find this magic manual. In my dreams I feel guilty that I’ve lost it, foolish that everyone else has their manual and I can’t find mine, fearful of what people will think when they realize I don’t have it. I wake up the next morning and get a good laugh out of it when I remember searching under couches and through drawers, but I also know that my dreams lay my heart bare.  It is a stark and telling picture of something I believe will save me.  I truly do long for the manual. Deep down in there I do want to solve my own problems and believe I just need to know what step to take, how to behave in order to do so.

The obviousness of my dreams is laughable. Though it’s not lovely that I often get very poor sleep during these seasons of sleepwalking, there’s also something merciful about being able to see it so clearly – of course there’s not a step-by-step how-to guide for all of life’s complexities.  When I awake the next morning I can see the silliness of searching endlessly for something that doesn’t exist. But as I consider this concept in my life I’ve come to realize that I do this very thing when I’m awake, just in much more nuanced and creative ways. The manual in my waking hours isn’t a book, it’s often a set of expectations I place over myself – things I must accomplish to be ok, ways I must act to be who I’m supposed to be. Or to put it in biblical language – laws I must live by to be righteous. Yikes, if you see where I’m going we’re starting to talk about serious stuff here.

Let me slow down and give you an example.

The setting: Financial insecurity

The response: Fear and anxiety

When finances are uncertain my fears can be complex. The easiest to identify is the worry that I will not be taken care of. That’s a real and legitimate fear but if I’m honest with myself it’s just the tip of the iceberg. When I push into it I realize that I don’t fear starvation or homelessness, I have a loving family and community. What I’m more worried about is that I won’t be taken care of the way that I want. Being financially secure holds more for me than just physical care, it’s an identity. I am NOT the kind of person who fails financially. I am NOT needy. I do NOT want to have to ask for help. (Imagine those with the intensity of a 3 year old’s temper tantrum…. this is serious business!) What will others think? What would that say about me? Are you starting to see how what is at stake for me is masked behind a physical concern but really is a fear that I’ll lose my right standing before myself and others?

The solutions: I have a choice here: How will I respond to that desire to be righteous before others?

The manual: If I jump immediately to actions I will take to fix the problem – saving more, spending less, I’m setting myself up as my own savior. My problem now becomes twofold. Not only have I erected a false standard for righteousness (right standing before others), now I also have an inadequate savior to rescue me from it. It’s no wonder that anxiety begins to consume me here.

Christ: Turning to Christ at this point involves rejecting and turning away from the false standard. My life before the Father is the only standard I live by and that standard is fully satisfied in Christ. Any other standard and any other savior are what the Old Testament identify as idolatry and the consequences of that are dire.  Psalm 130 comes to mind here. I begin to cry out to my Heavenly Father pleading that he hears my voice, I cry out for mercy (vs. 1-2). I know he is with me and I know that forgiveness of my sin is the greatest need that I have. Repentance comes, a turning away from a craving for a right standing before anyone but him (vs. 3-4). I know fully that he’s satisfied the thing I need the most and a hope in his steadfast love builds in me, my heart learns to hope in the Lord (vs. 6-8).

The result:

The manual: My actions and behaviors will begin to carry the weight that only Christ himself could carry. Any infraction no matter how small  will lead to self-condemnation in the form of guilt and an increased fear of failure. As the tyrant of my false standard persists I’ll be more and more likely to turn to other things to fix it, the temptation toward more false standards amplifies as does the lure of methods to escape.  I turn inward, my ability to be generous decreases and my thoughts about money and saving begin to consume me. I may cry out to the Lord for help but his help to me in these moments is the growing awareness that I must reject the things that I have come to love, the standards I want to fix me. And when it’s gotten deep enough, I will begin to sleepwalk.

Christ: Money begins to lose its grip on me. Tithing feels less painful. Freedom to be generous returns. Financial planning brings freedom instead of guilt. I learn to embrace my neediness instead of fighting against it. I can feel weak and needy because Christ is strong within me. Failure loses its power to condemn because Christ has been victorious and he will finish what he’s started.

It’s interesting that from the outside each of these responses may look fairly similar. Both involve making financially wise decisions. Life might look fairly hum drum in either situation. Even if I am living by the manual it’s not like I’m spiraling out of control (though sometimes this is what people experience). I might just be feeling a little more sensitive in my relationships (for me, a symptom of other false standards) and watching a little more tv (escapisms). Both may even involve a conversation with the Lord. I know I’ve prayed that I might trust that he’ll provide for me even while I continue to live in submission to a standard outside of him (praise the Lord for his mercy!). My heart left to its own devices is sneaky, it’s amazing to me how I can easily convince myself I’m autonomous, self-sufficient, strong on my own, and wise within myself. Added to a propensity toward blindness is a hiddenness from the outside. The kinds of effects you begin to feel from living under a false set of standards starts internally. Though you may start to see negative effects in your relationships most often you can manage those through discipline. You don’t feel generous but you give anyway. But you can’t manage the inside. You can’t manage guilt and condemnation. When the gospel begins to feel trite, when Christ’s death on the cross doesn’t touch the guilt you feel, it’s a tell tale sign that false standarditis has set in. Christ’s death only satisfies one standard, the Father’s. It will not ease the guilt of rules it was never designed to fulfill. The beauty here is that while it will not rescue you from false rules, it does bring the grace and mercy we need to come to the Father in our lowest and most rebellious moments.

Finances is just one example of this. To be honest it’s just the least vulnerable example of it in my own life. I can think of 2 more right off the top of my head that would be far too scary to post online and those are just the ones I’m aware of. We do this at every turn – beauty, academic achievement, parenting, business success, professions, relationships, health. Goodness, we even turn the right standard into a false standard when we remove Christ from the picture…but that’s a post for another day.  In some ways I think we’ve grown so accustomed to the burden of living under false standards that the negative effects of them somehow feel normal. They’re easily excused because everyone everywhere does it all the time. But to a life abundant you were called. In Christ is a freedom your heart can barely imagine.

Today I’m repenting of my false standard and experiencing the joy of living, in this moment, before the eyes of my Father whose love is unending, whose mercy is deep, and whose grace is extravagant. Help me Lord Jesus in the rest of my moments as well!

 

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Forgiving the Big Hurts

Steve by JonIn South Africa the Forgiveness Project has worked diligently to promote forgiveness following the end of apartheid and the incredible wounds that South Africa has  faced.  This same group has worked at promoting forgiveness and healing in Rwanda following the genocide in which the Hutus and the Tutsis inflicted unimaginable wounds upon one another.

Most of us wonder whether or not such forgiveness can be real.  Is it possible for someone to suffer such trauma and then in response act with the grace and compassion necessary to get beyond their pain and actually talk with those who have done the damage they have to endure?  How can anyone demonstrate this kind of strength?  Is it real?  If so, how can they do this?

Those questions are straight from the epistle of 1 Peter.  Peter is writing to those who  are being abused.  They are being persecuted.  Some are being arrested and tried.  Others are being beaten and losing their homes, businesses, family members.  Sometimes they are being killed for their faith.  These are the people Peter writes and says “always being ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you.”  Peter assumes these brothers and sisters will have hope.  In chapter one he tells them that God, who is the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has caused us to be born again to a living hope through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He tells them that their hope is to be fully set upon the revelation of Jesus, who has revealed Himself in His first coming, and will reveal Himself again when He comes back to make all things right.

As we hear that people are facing those who murdered their family members, and then granting them forgiveness, we do not have any categories to make sense of this.  It really is not human.  When they forgive those who maimed them, physically, emotionally, even spiritually we struggle to understand what they have done.  Most of us have not suffered anything comparable to what these people have experienced.  We still find it nearly impossible to forgive the wounds we have experienced.

As I have thought about this I think I understand something about why it is so hard for us to forgive.

Those who hurt us aren’t human in our minds.  They are somehow less than human.  They are sources of pain.  They are angry and act with evil intentions to hurt us.  We respond to them as if they are objects who deserve wrath and judgment for their evil.

We believe a lie.

Those who wound us, who cause our suffering and grief are themselves human beings who are acting out of their own wounds and fears.

When they hurt us we have profound choices to make.

We can react out of our hurt and try to escape the hurt.

If we do, we will become exactly the same as those who have wounded us.  We will pour out our hurt and create pain for others.  We will leave others in our trail who have been hurt just as we have.

In South Africa and Rwanda the source of the horror was earlier horror.  Those who hated their enemies had previously suffered wounds like those they decided to inflict.  Not necessarily the same wounds, but deep wounds that caused pain they had to pour out.

Another choice we have is to see the hurt that the people who have hurt us are experiencing.  To move toward them with the desire to see healing.  We can invite them to face the horrors of their own wounds and grieve them instead of pouring out upon others the same evil that they have experienced.

There is a battle that rages within us when we are hurt.  Do we face the hurt and work toward healing or do we pass the pain out of us onto whomever, in the hope that it will not continue to hurt us.

What we choose to do will depend, to a large degree, upon whether we believe that Jesus gives us grace to endure the hurt we experience.

More to come…

 

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What now? I have sinned again!

Steve by JonWe, like Isaiah in chapter 6 of the book of Isaiah, are a fallen people.  When Isaiah saw the throne room and was face to face with God he cried out in fear and said “Woe is me!  I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the Lord!”

Isaiah knew that what should happen next was judgment and that he deserved to be condemned and his sins deserved punishment.

When we become aware of our sin, we recognize what Isaiah recognized.  God should punish me for my sin.  I should be cast out from his presence.  Sometimes we know that what we really deserve is hell, in whatever form it truly exists.

The moment I am aware of my sinfulness I need to understand grace.  I need a vision of God’s redemptive plan.  At this very moment I teeter between a vision of why I love God–Father, Son, and Spirit, or why I am lost.  If I focus on my lostness I teeter toward hopelessness.

On the one hand my sin leads to a richer understanding of the blessing of redemption and on the other it presses on me with such a weight of condemnation that I am prone to give up.

I think it is an issue of life or death to understand what will push me to one side, and what will push me to the other.  As I swing between knowing my Father loves me, and feeling like I face eternity under His condemnation I think it is possible to move toward Christ.

The question I  think at the heart of this is what does my sin do to me?  What does it do to my relationship with God?

Bear with me for a moment, but the movie Groundhog Day has helped me to recognize a something helpful.  In the movie the main character is a news channel weather man who is full of himself and incredibly self focused.  He hates the fact that he has been assigned to broadcast the farce of Punxutawney Phil and whether or not he sees his shadow.  He can’t wait to get out of town, but is forced to stay due to a storm.  When he wakes up the next morning it is actually yesterday and he is the only one who knows this.  He is not only forced to stay in town, but he is forced to repeat the same day over and over and over and over and over.  For what seems to be forever.  Everyone else is blissfully unaware that life is on an endless loop.

At first he tries to take control by killing himself.  He simply wakes up from death and it is the same day.  Again.

Then he decides to use this “gift” to pursue his selfish desires.  He has a blank slate.  No one but the main character realizes what has happened the day “before”.  He fully expresses his selfishness.  Over a very long time he becomes bored with the meaninglessness of his experiences.  He is a very selfish man and he uses the “opportunities” he has to live very selfishly.  He comes to realize that, as the Westminster catechisms say,  this place of selfish sin is really miserable.

The next phase of this life is that he decides to make a difference.  He learns medicine to save a homeless man’s life.  He learns to play the piano to entertain.  He does many small things to help others because he has learned the bad things that are going to happen and he prevents them.  Slowly he changes from his selfishness to becoming more selfless.

The story presents a worldview that man is good, and that even a bad man, given enough opportunity will become good.  At the end of the story the main character finds love, makes a difference in the lives of the people in the town, and then finally wakes up and it is the next day.  Now that he is “good” life can go on.

The truth I mentioned above of which this story reminded me, is that we are given continually new opportunities.  We do not live the same day over and over.  Each day is a new day.  Lamentations 3:23 tells us God’s grace and love is new every morning.  We do not depend upon ourselves to get better.  We are brought to new life by God’s redemptive love.  He has paid the debt of my sinfulness, and has made me a new creature.

But as a new creature I have sinned.  What do I do now?  Have I lost my relationship with God?

This is the razor’s edge upon which I believe that we balance.

Scripture makes clear that we have not lost God.  1 John 1:9 points out that we are sinners and that we need to deal with the reality of that sin, but there is a way to deal with it.  I confess and repent.

Scripture also makes clear that I am not a prisoner of my sin.  Sin is not my master.  Romans 6:14 tells me that I am not under law, but under grace.  When I confess my sin and repent of it, I am free to live in the new grace that God gives me.

When I believe that God cannot accept me because of my continuing sin, I will be tempted to give up and live in hopelessness.  When I believe that I am so far into my pattern of sin that I may as well just give in to it fully and give up, I will live in hopelessness.  I am believing the lie that because I have started to sin I am already a lost cause.

I am also believing the lie that sin is pleasant, at least for the moment, and that I am as guilty for starting as I would be for finishing.  So I believe that fighting against my sin is not worth the pain.

The truth is that God loves me, redeems me, and is holy.  He is worthy of everything I do to fight my sin and to live out my love for Him.  He has saved me, no matter what.  He loves me no matter what.  He is giving me growth in holiness, no matter what.  And I can live in light of that truth.

John 14 tells us that those who love God will obey Him.  We may be tempted to interpret that as saying that I have to obey God in order to love Him.  If I work hard enough I will love God.  Luke 7 tells us that those who are forgiven much love much.  When I recognize how good God is, how much He has loved me and demonstrates that love, then I am moved to love Him.  Because I love Him I act out of that love and grow in my obedience.

This is what I need to know in order to swing to the side that says I confess and hate my sin, but I love God and with renewed energy and strength I start anew to love Him by living to please Him.  I am free to love and obey because He has paid the debt of my sin and given me a clean slate, no matter what I do, and now I can battle my sin patterns and love my redeemer.  I have eternity, beginning now, to grow my love, to live in obedience, and to please my savior.

If you are living in hopelessness look at how Jesus loves you in spite of your sin.  He says that He will never leave you nor forsake you.  If you are teetering on the edge and battling the slide into hopelessness, look to Jesus and see that He gives you new grace every moment.  Do not work to obey to build confidence that you belong to God.  Focus on the love God has showered on you.  He created.  He redeemed.  He holds on and never forsakes.  He promises you heaven and will fulfill that promise.

And for now as you know Him, love Him.  Your love for Him will give you all you need to act and to love Him in return.  Loving Him moves us to serve.

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Intimacy in its various forms

SteveI am frequently working with people to help them with issues in their relationships.

Tim Keller, in a sermon from Proverbs that he entitled “Repairing Relationships” makes the point that relationships are always in need of repair.  We live in a fallen world, among fallen people, and we ourselves are fallen.  Our relationships require a lot of work to keep them working well.

One component of the work I do is to address the issue of what intimacy looks like in relationships.

I think intimacy is a term that has lost meaning because it is used casually in our conversations.  When we hear “intimacy” some of us think immediately of sexual intimacy.  The word intimacy has become a term to talk about sexual intercourse (and intercourse is a word that has suffered the same fate I am claiming intimacy is suffering today).

You might be wondering “What is he going to say about the forms of “intimacy”?”  Is this some sort of guide for sex?

Yes and no.

Intimacy is a very rich word.  It has a lot of content.  In comparison, sex is a limited term.  I also believe that sex is a poor substitute for intimacy.

We experience intimacy in different forms.  There is emotional intimacy.  There is spiritual intimacy.  There is social intimacy.  And yes, there is physical intimacy.  Physical intimacy is a subset of sex.  It is the purer aspects of sex.

Sex can be selfish.  We see all around us the selfishness of sex.  Sex focuses on my pleasure uses the other person, whether inside or outside the boundary of marriage, and sex is at that moment something selfish.   We see this most clearly in porn addictions.  I can speak at length about this, but for this blog I am going to focus on intimacy.

Intimacy cannot be selfish or divide those who experience it together.  Physical intimacy is always something that connects people.  We cannot deceive, use, or harm others while we share intimacy with them, without damaging intimacy.  Perhaps we destroy intimacy by these actions.

It can be restored.  But that requires a change of relationship that understands and builds intimacy.

We also cannot experience one “variety” of intimacy and ignore the others.  We cannot experience great physical intimacy and ignore emotional and spiritual intimacy at the same time.  We are embodied spirits and we cannot break ourselves apart without damage.  We cannot break apart the intimacy we experience without damage either.

If we want to build any form of intimacy we have to be working to build them all.  I enhance my physical intimacy with my wife by building my emotional intimacy with her.  I also build both my emotional and physical intimacy with her by building my spiritual intimacy with her.

Let me say that again, perhaps more clearly.  If I am looking for a more wonderful sexual union with my wife, I build that by sharing myself with her spiritually.  When we worship Jesus together we build our total intimacy.  As we grow in our spiritual intimacy we will also grow emotionally and physically intimate.  As we grow in intimacy, we will also grow in how we express that intimacy physically.  We will be safer, more honest, and more deeply connected with one another.  We will have so much less blocking us from each other and we will find it so much easier to touch each other.

I am only trying to introduce some thoughts today, but I will write more about this in the future.  Check back to see when it gets posted.

 

Steve

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Grenades and Healing Relationships

SteveI work with a lot of couples.  Most of these couples will come to me for counseling because their relationship has deteriorated and they are growing more distant and unhappy with each other.  They want a good marriage, and in many cases are working with their spouse to build a good marriage.

They frequently do not know how to move forward toward a good marriage.  Which is why they come to me.  They are looking for help.

There are patterns that have developed in how they relate to each other that have become the norm and are in many cases so familiar that my clients are oblivious to them.

One such pattern that I deal with regularly is what I call grenades.

A grenade is a statement that not only addresses real issues, but it does so with criticism and even contempt.  If you are on the receiving end of a grenade you know it immediately.  Grenades blow up.  They wound, if not kill.  When I see a grenade thrown and watch it blow up I also see the hurt that passes over the victim’s face for that split second before it turns to anger, hatred, despair, or rejection.

One problem with grenades is that they multiply faster than rabbits.  Faster even than hamsters!  I watch in sessions as one throws a grenade and the other throws one back almost before the first grenade has exploded.  We seem to think that the best defense against a grenade is to throw one back.  I can tell you with great sadness that any Mutual Assured Destruction program for grenades does not work.

People throw grenades back and forth until they respond by rejecting and withdrawing from each other or they are simply too exhausted to continue.

The only time I see clients avoid this pattern is in the first exchange.  If the person that receives the first grenade stops and deals with the hurt we can stop this cycle.

“You did it again!  I knew you would!  You always treat me this way.  I trusted that you were going to listen.  That you were hearing me and what you heard would matter to you.  But you didn’t change.  You have never loved me!”

If instead of defending or withdrawing when they hear this my client would stop and hear the hurt under the anger, they can defuse this attack.

“I am so sorry that I have communicated to you that you don’t matter.  I really want to love you well and I understand that you do not feel that I love you.   Can we talk about this when we are calmer?”

Proverbs 15:1 tells us that a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

I have found that if we can hear the hurt that undergirds the anger, we can respond with gentleness.  When we can understand that there is a wound that has provoked the anger and led to the grenade we can also move toward the other person and bring healing.  We need perspective and support to do this, but when this pattern replaces the replicating grenades cycle real change and healing can take place.  We need other people to help us to see past our own hurt and to move toward the one throwing grenades.  That is where Biblical fellowship is so important.  The church can do a lot to promote this fellowship.  In our culture today we often turn to counselors for this help.

More to come on how to hear the hurt that is camouflaged in anger.  Check back for that article.

Steve

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God is not an Object

Steve by JonWe are tempted by our nature and taught by our culture to treat others as objects instead of people.  Whether we are in conflict with others and think of them as barriers to what we want or we treat them as those who serve us, we frequently minimize others.  We equate them with the functions they serve in our lives instead of as people who are complete individuals and have lives of their own.  We do not think of them as people who have feelings, who have value.

We will often do the same thing with God.  Cornelius Van Til is a theologian who spoke of the Creator Creature distinctive.  He said that God is the creator and is the authority.  God is, simply stated, the authority and ruler.  Van Til also talked about how we frequently live as if we are the ruler and authority and we reverse the Creator Creature distinctive and think that we can tell God what to do and how to do it.  In our minds God becomes our servant.  We believe He is a tool we use to get what we want.  He becomes an object to us.

God has not been, is not now, and cannot ever become an object.  He is uniquely a complete and self defined being.  He is the creator who defines everything else.  He deserves worship and obedience.  We are valuable and deserve respect because we are created in His image.

This is an important truth in how we live and how we counsel.  When we believe we need to tell God how to act and what to do, we take up a job we are completely unfit to perform.  When we look at our circumstances and believe we know what we need God to do to take care of us, we have made several errors.  We have assumed that we have the ability to know what needs to be done.  We do not.  We have assumed that God does not know what needs to be done.  He does.  We also assume God is willing to allow us to be the authority and will do what He is told by us, His creatures.  He is not.  That does not mean that prayer is pointless.  As we pray and talk with the Father, we grow.  God teaches us to pray.  He reveals Himself to us through Scripture and gives us promises He intends to fulfill.  Even in such promises as Psalm 37:4-5 God calls us to delight in Him and promises He will give us the desire of our heart, which is God in whom we  delight.  However, God never becomes our tool or our servant.  We never become the ruler.  We never command God.

God loves us too much to let us take over the role that only He is able to fulfill.  It would not be loving for Him to allow us to lead Him.  He would be abdicating His place as the one who uniquely knows what is right and what He needs to do.  Even Christ, in the garden of Gethsemane prayed to the Father and honestly spoke of His desires, but also submitted to the Father’s will because the Father would do what is right and good.

God is always active.  He is always doing what is good.  When we suffer, God is still active and is still loving us.  It is important that we remember He is for us.  We are the bride He loves.  The problem is not that He is at a loss about what to do and is waiting upon us to tell Him.  He is already doing what is good and necessary, but we do not see that.  The problem is that we need to see Him at work.  We need to focus on His plans and purposes. We need to trust Him.

One thing we can do to correct our perspective is to remember that He is sovereign.  He cannot be ruled by another, and He is not an object.

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How to Battle Anger in a Relationship Pt. 2

SteveI wrote recently about how to deal with anger in relationships.  I introduced the idea of working through real issues without criticism or contempt.

This is really hard, but an important step in healthy relationships and in growing in our Christlikeness.

I work with my clients to help them to understand what is really going on in their hearts and how to talk about that without beating up on the other person.

One of the critical steps in this work is to think and communicate with “I” statements.

We might think this is easy.  All we have to do is to say what we are thinking using “I.”  It is actually fairly hard to do well.  It involves knowing what I am feeling, how I am responding, what I am hearing, etc.

When we are responding to hurts we receive from others, we typically move quickly to the sins we believe the other person has committed against us.  We might even think the following is an “I” statement.  “I can’t believe the way you just spoke to me!  You are so mean!  You have no idea how much that hurts me.”

This, to be clear, is a grenade.  It is an anger response.  We have spoken using the word “I” but the intent is to inflict hurt on the other.  The anger response is about giving away my pain and typically we are trying to inflict that pain on the one who hurt us.  When we stay in the “hurt circuit” we are not trying to inflict pain, we are trying to express the hurt we feel without criticism or condemnation.  We want the other to understand and care about what we are experiencing.  We want to work at eliminating whatever is causing our pain, not simply passing the pain on to another person.

Anger responses focus more on trying to have the pain flow through us without having it stay long enough to damage us.  The problem is that anger generates more anger.  When I try to give my pain away I create pain in the other.  They then have to decide how to deal with their pain.  If I have hurt them then they typically are tempted to respond by returning that pain to me.  Now I have two sources of pain.  I am likely to throw another grenade and inflict more pain on them.

The cycle will intensify unless it is broken.  It is very hard to break this cycle when it is actively building.

When I am hurt I have the choice to respond by expressing my hurt clearly and without criticism.

“I am not sure what you were trying to say, but I have to tell you that what I heard you say was very painful.  Am I right to understand that you were saying that …?”  “Can you tell me what you felt when I told you that I am hurt when you forgot our date tonight?”

This may sound unrealistic.  You may be thinking “No one speaks like that!”  “No one can bite back their anger like that.”

I am telling you I work with some who do.  I am also seeing people come to understand how important it is do build the skill of thinking and speaking in “I” messages.

As we grow in Christlikeness we will have the safety to feel hurt without fearing the pain.  As we grow in Christlikeness we also have the strength to respond with gentleness and love.

The foundation for this lifestyle is to know Jesus intimately and to trust Him with all of who we are.  This is not simply an issue of skilled communication.  Those who teach this skill without recognizing our need for Jesus are building a second story without the foundation or first story.  The building will always collapse.

We need Jesus.  We need the Holy Spirit indwelling us.  We need the Father justifying and empowering us to grow in grace.

More to come in a future post.

Steve

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God’s Plan

 Steve by JonLife can be hard.

We live in a real world, with real people, and real trials.  Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that feel frightening and out of control.  It is easy to find ourselves looking for some way to gain control and find safety.  We scramble for a way to protect ourselves and feel safe again.

There are some important stories God gives us in Scripture that address this reality.

One such story is found in Genesis 22.

Abraham had followed God throughout his life.  God had called him from his father’s home in Ur of the Chaldees and told him that He was going to give Abraham a new land.

Abraham left his father and followed God.

God also promised Abraham that He would give him a son.  Through that son God would bless the nations.  Abraham was 75 when God promised a son.  He waited for his son for 25 years as he learned to follow God in a variety of trials and difficulties.  He slowly came to know God intimately.

When Abraham’s promised son, Isaac, had grown to be a young man, God spoke yet another time to Abraham.  In Genesis 22 God spoke to him and told him to sacrifice Isaac.  The son Abraham loved with all his heart.  The son for whom Abraham had waited 25 years and whom he had loved for probably more than 10 years.  Isaac.

Abraham was faced with an incredible dilemma.  Obey God or spare Isaac through whom all the promises God made to bless Abraham and bless the nations were to be fulfilled.  God had created a problem.  A very big problem.  A problem Abraham could not resolve.

But over the years he had followed God Abraham had learned that this was a problem that God not only created, but could also resolve.

So Abraham said yes.

He took Isaac, some servants, a knife, fire, and went to the mountain God had commanded him where he was to sacrifice Isaac.  At the base of the mountain Abraham spoke to the servants and told them to wait.  He and Isaac would return after the sacrifice.  Then he took Isaac and went up the mountain, where he built an altar.  Isaac then spoke to his father and said he could see the wood and the fire but he did not see the sacrifice.  Abraham told Isaac that God would provide the sacrifice.

In my cynical moments when I wrestle with the hard places and wonder what God is doing, or perhaps not doing, I find myself thinking that Abraham knew that if he spoke the truth that the servants would stop him and Isaac would run away.  He decided to “lie” in order to do the terrible thing God commanded him to do.  I also wonder if Abraham was trying to think of some way to rescue God from the dilemma He had created.

“What can I do that will protect Isaac and still technically be obedient to God?”

I go there.  I find myself thinking that way.

Abraham honestly was not thinking that way.  In Hebrews 11:17-19 we hear what was going on in his mind.

Abraham knew, because of his long journeys following God, that God had not only created a dilemma, He had an answer.  We read in Hebrews that Abraham knew that God could raise the dead.  The promise was going to come through Isaac no matter what God commanded Abraham to do.  God had a plan.  Abraham only needed to trust God, obey Him, and watch God’s plan unfold.

When I am in hard places, I quickly shift into trying to solve God’s problems.  I look for an answer that will maintain God’s honor and my obedience.  When I do this, I am doubting God, trusting myself, and moving headlong into sin.

What should I do instead?

Trust God.  Pray.  Listen to God.  Wait expectantly for His solution.  Live with integrity and obey what God has told me.  Psalm 46:10 tells me to be still and know that He is God.  Just like Abraham did.

God stopped Abraham as his had was descending to sacrifice Isaac.  He provided a lamb.  Both Abraham and Isaac returned to the servants at the bottom of the mountain after the sacrifice was complete.

There have been times when I have waited upon God.  When I have been able to be still and I have then known in clearer ways that He is God.  He has solved the problems in which I found myself.  The dilemmas God has created.

The Bible is full of such stories.

In the Exodus God led the Hebrews to the Red Sea where Pharaoh’s army threatened them with annihilation.  God spared the Hebrews as they walked across the Red Sea on dry ground, and annihilated the Egyptian army as the waters flooded over them when they followed the Hebrews.

God protected Daniel in the Lion’s Den.  He spared Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the furnace.

He has done so many miraculous works to take care of his people.

And I still wrestle with what He is going to do in the problem I face today.  Silly me.

The message to take away is that I need to learn more about Him.

Be still and know that I am God.

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What do I do when I am angry in a relationship

Steve by Jon

I have been working a lot with couples who are battling anger with their spouses.  This is so common today that you might be thinking to yourself, “Well, duh, aren’t you a counselor?  Don’t you realize that people get angry?”

Yes, I am a counselor.  Yes, I am all too familiar with how common anger issues are.

I am also aware of how destructive angry behavior is and how hard it can be to overcome it.

Anger is an issue that is often provoked by our circumstances, but it is never caused by them.  In spite of the frequency with which we say “You make me so angry” the truth is that my anger is not the result of anything outside of me.  My anger comes from my heart, or my soul, and the answer to dealing with it must include seeing myself clearly and committing to two things.  I must commit to repentance, and then I must commit to change.

I have been working on how to help people change and turn away from angry behavior.  God has been doing good things through that work.

As I work with couples one of the things that has been very useful is shifting from speaking about what the other person is doing, feeling, saying, etc. and instead speaking from my own experiences and interpretations.  There has been some important work in both neuroscience and sociology that actually reinforces Biblical patterns of behavior and notes the success rates for this obedience to Scripture.

As I work with my clients to use “I” statements and to ask questions instead of using “you” statements and making judgments, I watch the client change and I watch the relationship change.

The pattern we are working on is to be able to effectively talk about issues without being critical or condemning.  Proverbs 15:1 tells us that “A harsh word stirs up anger, but a gentle answer turns away wrath”.  When we are angry we typically vent our frustration and criticize the other person.  That fuels a cycle in which they are now hurt and they respond with criticism.  This is a very destructive pattern and one that we must stop both to be righteous and also to effectively build our relationship.

If we instead are gentle and talk about our concerns, with the hope that the other will hear us and will deal with our hurt, something remarkable happens.  I watch as couples who have battled each other for long periods of time begin to change how they relate and both parties become different people.

I will write more about this soon, but I encourage you to listen to your words.  Are you often saying “you did…” or “you said…” or “you hurt me…”?  If you are, I encourage you to work hard at sharing what you are feeling, what you are hearing, and how the other person can care for you in the midst of your hurt.

More soon.

Steve

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Story

Kristin2I was listening to a woman on the radio tell her story about the time she had a stroke.  She described this moment when the constant inner dialogue stopped.  There was silence and she loved it.  The stroke had affected the language part of her brain and as her language drifted away so did her connection to all the things that were currently going on in her life.  Her thoughts were silent and it was lovely.  Over the next months, as she worked to restore her language, she said she had mixed feelings about re-entering her thinking life.  “When you drop out of the story of yourself, you’re left stranded in the sunshine, in the now.”  She experienced a peacefulness she hadn’t known elsewhere. As she dropped out of her own story, she found the ability to live in this present moment and it was refreshing.*

There’s something appealing about that isn’t there?  What she’s described is a moment free from the worry and anxiety of the regular pressures of life.  This idea that you have disconnect from your story in order to achieve peace sounds both familiar and dissonant.  It’s familiar because that’s Eastern religion – detach from this world, enter the quiet to find an inner peace.  The solution to anxiety is to disconnect.  That’s all over the place in our culture.  There’s a dissonance though, something’s not quite right.  As Christians, think about the implications of disconnecting from our story. If we disconnect from our own story we’re also disconnecting from the Lord’s story.  As we face the struggles in our lives it’s not our goal to get away from them but to attach them to a greater story.  Peace isn’t found in detachment, but in attachment.  “…Christ is the HOME for my story. He is where my story begins, and ends. Christ [is] the place where I am free to share every detail of my story, and Christ [is] the ultimate Story-teller. His story gives mine meaning, depth, light, darkness. His presence assures me that my story will never be meaningless or hopeless.”**  His presence brings peace to my story.

When I attach my story to his I don’t need to forget the things that cause my heart to be anxious, instead I get to see them for what they really are – plot development.  I’ve read the end of this story, it ends gloriously!  So whatever it is that’s bombarding my thoughts now can only be building up to that.  The image of quieting my soul before the Lord of Ps. 131 comes to mind.  My soul isn’t quiet because it’s ignorant of the brokenness of this present world, because it’s forgotten that things are hard, it’s quiet because 1) it rests on the lap of the Lord and 2) because it knows that the Lord writes the ending.  The unknowns are too great and marvelous for me because they come from the pen of the Lord, the great and kind author.

I think I do the Christian version of detachment too often.  I shift my mind to other things, more peaceful things. I choose not to dwell on it.  Scripture tells us to think upon what is honorable, true and pure (Phil. 4:8). This doesn’t mean not thinking about the things that make us anxious, it means thinking about what is true and lovely in those circumstances.  What is true is that Christ is victorious over brokenness, that the Spirit is ever with us in it, and that the Father reigns supreme.  What’s true is that my story rests in his and that this is where peace is found.

 

*RadioLab, Season 8, Episode 2: “Words”   http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/

**Heather Nelson   http://heathernelson.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/story/

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