Disagreeing Well

by Kristin Silva

Originally published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling 33:1

How do you disagree well? Disagreement is commonplace, so this question is always relevant. The world is fractured by political, religious, ideological, and personal disagreements. These disagreements can turn into conflicts, fights, hostility, division—even war. But behind the negative way disagreements usually play out is a positive creational foundation. Before disagreement becomes conflict, it starts out as difference. Different opinions. Different likes. Different leanings. Different tastes. Different lenses with which to view the world. Different cultures, backgrounds, aptitudes, loves, goals, concerns, comforts. These differences are the points at which disagreements arise. To faithfully navigate them, we need a robust understanding of difference—and how God intends difference to function in his creation and in his people.

Difference Is Good but Sin Corrupts

Difference started with God, so our first task is to understand difference biblically. Let’s think about the ways the Lord created difference to function constructively, and set categories that help us discern good difference from bad. To begin, what makes difference good?

The story of difference begins in the Lord himself. He has variety within unity; he is three distinct (different!) persons united in one. When the Lord created a world that reflects his own splendor, he made it full of variety and difference. He delights in variation—he created a multitude of species and kinds, an array of colors and textures. And to finish his creation he crowned it with his own image—male and female. Different and yet united, God commanded them to multiply variety through offspring.

The theme of variety within unity is found throughout all of Scripture. One place it surfaces dramatically is how God takes nations, tribes, tongues, and peoples who are different from each other—and invests in these differences potential to glorify God in a kaleidoscope of diverse ways. Similarly, variety within unity surfaces prominently when Paul describes the gifts within the body of Christ. He begins this teaching with a Trinitarian formula. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everything” (1 Cor 12:4–5). The different gifts reflect God’s variety.

Indeed, differences display the splendor of the Lord. To live well amidst differences, we must value the goodness of variety because it images God. But that is not always how we respond. Because of our sinfulness, we are often tempted to see otherness, or difference, as intrinsically bad. This temptation can be subtle. Have you ever been frustrated with someone because he is not like you? Or avoided someone at church because she seems strange to you? If so, your frustration or your avoidance is identifying differences as a problem. In both of these situations, we fail to see the goodness of the variety the Lord created to image himself.

            Other times we don’t view differences as good or bad, but as neutral. Maybe that sounds like this:

  • “You hold your opinion and I hold mine.”
  • “Let’s agree to disagree.”
  • “Live and let live.”

In other words, difference just is and the goal is simply to respect that. Without a Godward trajectory, this may be the best place you can land—but it falls woefully short of God’s design for us to learn and value good differences.

As we’ve seen, God’s design for otherness or difference is deeply good. Fallen people just don’t see it that way. And to that we must add that difference itself has been corrupted. When Satan brought sin into the world, it entangled and warped what God created. Due to the fall, difference no longer images God alone, so it’s no longer all good. Variety has become tainted by sin. There are evil differences—true wrongs, false perspectives, counterfeit saviors. Sin impacts our interactions with difference in three ways.

First, we are tempted to make the categories of difference too simple—as if a difference is either good or bad. But sin makes it more complex than that. For example, take Lamech’s poem in Genesis 4. God gave poets gifts and strengths in communication. And yet people can hijack the medium of poetry and use it to harm rather than bless. This is how Lamech used the form.

  Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;

              You wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:

  I have killed a man for wounding me,

              A young man for striking me.

  If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,          

              Then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold. (Gen 4: 23–24)

This poem is a piece of artwork. It’s linguistically stunning, but it doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to hear the wickedness of Lamech’s heart expressed in artistic form. It’s an example of a creative ability—a beautiful source of variety—twisted to display the image of the enemy.

Second, sin tempts us to discern the right or wrong of difference by self-centered standards. So while good difference images its Creator in its splendor and variety, sin tempts us to value difference according to our own likeness. If a difference is only good when it aligns with my preferences and tastes, then I’m living in the warp of sin.

Finally, because of sin, difference has the potential to divide. In Adam’s family, the shepherd killed the farmer (Gen 4:1–16). In Isaac’s family, two brothers—who will become the nations of Israel and Edom—are set against each other (Gen 25:19–34). This plays out over and over in Scripture when people and people groups erect “dividing walls of hostility” (Eph 2:14)

I grew up in the late 80s when rap and hip hop music began to enter the Christian music scene. It was a music form that reflected a good difference—rhythms and spoken word blended with music. But the secular version was widely associated with violent, immoral lyrics. It was a modern version of Lamech’s poem. The temptation for many Christians was to only see the gnarl and not to notice or appreciate the skill, artistry, and uniqueness of a new form of music that could be used in a worshipful way.  

This example demonstrates all three of the effects that sin brings to this equation.

  1. Rather than being able to discern the good and appreciate the adornment of creation, people were tempted to only associate this music with sin.
  2. Since this music was new and foreign to them, people judged the goodness of the difference based on their own inclinations. But just because someone doesn’t lean toward a certain type of music, it doesn’t make the difference bad.
  3. The music had the propensity to divide. “I don’t associate with people who listen to that kind of music.” Making assumptions about the kinds of people who listen to rap separates people.

Though nobody is required to enjoy this type of music, to not see its beauty in variety, to proclaim it as simply bad, and to allow it to separate people is sin on top of sin. This is not disagreeing well.

            However, not disagreeing well is not limited to smaller matters like taste in music. We experience disagreements at all levels of human experience—between friends, families, ethnic groups, even countries. We’ve seen that division is the way of fracture. But what is the way of Christ uniting us, making variety and difference beautiful again?

The Gospel in Difference

Just as both variety and fracture expand throughout Scripture, so too does God’s redemption of it. Two themes summarize God’s action in difference.

First, God is actively at work restoring his multi-splendored image in his people. In Israel’s history God is pointing forward to when he will truly unite difference again. Jacob’s family is a clear example of this. Fractured by betrayal and deception, brothers with widely varied talents and affinities joined together only by the promise made to their forefather Abraham – to be a nation and a blessing to all the nations (Gen 12:1-3).[1] It’s a picture of what Christ will do with his church in the New Testament. As we think about the uniting of difference in our church communities, we must see that living united in difference is part of redemption. We don’t just tolerate each other in our differences but rather our differences, and the fact that we can stand together with one voice praising the Lord, should evoke in us a worship for the God who restores his image in us. And it should make us long for the day when all tongues and tribes stand together praising our great King. This is the redemption of difference.

Second, he is glorified when sin’s trajectory for difference is overturned. Sin skews otherness to divide and create hostility. But God triumphs over sin when division and animosity become the stage for redemption. Ephesians describes it this way:

 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility …, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility….So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephes 2:14–16; 3:10)

As the church unites, God’s great power is made known to the heavens. Our union in difference is the testimony of his victory over sin.

The Gospel Trajectory for Difference in Disagreement

As we turn to the practical ways we live out the gospel in our disagreements, consider this striking proverb and the course it sets us on. Proverbs 18:18 sets a priority for us in our disagreements. It says: “The lot puts an end to quarrels and decides between powerful contenders.”  The implication is that it is better to cast lots in a disagreement than to engage in a quarrel. The goal in such cases isn’t deciding what is true and right, but to end the argument. Consider this in the life and body of the church and where it points us. Often, the things we disagree about are important matters. In the church, differences over doctrine and ethics are important. Questions about church leadership and roles are significant and weighty. Faithful questioning about raising children, education, and methods of discipline are serious matters. In each of these situations, the arguments on either side are strong. In the language of the proverb, there are powerful contenders on each side. Certainly, in each of these things, it matters where truth lies and it bears emphasizing that there are many topics that have only one correct answer. But even in the subjects where truth is absolute, in a disagreement, we’re always called to talk about it and consider it together.[2] And as we do, this proverb is setting a priority for us—a heart posture that will choose peace over being right and winning. Here are five actions and attitudes that give shape to the heart posture this proverb is pointing to as we engage in disagreement:

1. Find and delight in the good.A good friend of mine studies rocks and often when we are out on a hike together he will point out different rock formations and explain to me what they are, how (he thinks) they got there, and what differentiates them from other rocks on our path. To my untrained eye, I may be able to see the differences between one rock and another but it doesn’t register beyond difference. But to my friend, the difference is the earth’s adornment. He sees the beauty because he knows the story and the significance of the intricate details. Likewise, as we seek to admire the adornment of differences in our communities, we must become investigators. It’s not enough to notice difference; rather, we must become curious about it. What is the story of that difference? Where did it come from? What formed it? In what way does this person image the Lord in a way that’s different from me? How does that person reflect the variety of an infinite God?

When my niece was learning to spell we hit a disagreement over how to spell the word receive. She simply could not believe that I was spelling it correctly and argued with me for a few minutes insisting that this wasn’t the way her mother spelled it. It wasn’t until I could pause the conversation for a second and understand what was so important to her that I was able to reason with her. She genuinely believed that her mother had spelled it a different way for her and desperately wanted to be loyal to her mom. It was a lovely desire mixed with my 6 year old niece’s stubbornness and faulty memory. It was a small and insignificant disagreement but it’s a good picture of searching for the loveliness in the other person even when one position in the argument is clearly correct over the other.

Not all opinions strongly held are true. But all opinion-holders are image bearers and all opinions reflect some degree of that image bearer’s otherness. If difference in the Lord’s image is deeply good then it is our job to find where we can delight in it as a starting point in disagreement. It becomes a lot easier to live out this proverb in a disagreement if my heart is in a place to truly delight in the goodness of my opponent’s created difference. I still might not agree, but if I can appreciate the goodness of their otherness, I’m one step closer to living well in disagreement.

2. Humbly admit your own gnarl. Humility pushes us to acknowledge two things. First, our attitudes, the way we hold our opinions, and how we choose to express them are susceptible to the warp of our own sin. Do you find yourself digging your heels in? Getting defensive? Grabbing for any detail you can think of to make your point? When you’re engaged in a conversation, is it more important to be right than it is to know and understand the person? Any of these can be signals to alert you to the effects of sin in yourself.

Second, be willing to see potential flaws in your own thinking. Again, the goal here isn’t to undermine absolute truth or to insinuate that you should hold all truths with an open hand. But rather the goal is to encourage you to ask the question: Is this something I should be holding this tightly? And the answer very well may be yes. But I suspect the answer should be “no” more often than we allow it to be. While our conviction may be strong that one way is right over another, if we acknowledge our current state, one where our minds are marred by sin, where our very thinking is skewed (1 Cor 13:12; Rom 1:21), where our cultures and backgrounds and affinities and communities all influence the way we think, then we must also acknowledge that it’s possible that we are blind to the places where our own conviction is falling short.

During my first two years in college, I was required to take a series of courses that traced art, literature, philosophy, and music through history. It was incredible to watch how historical events influenced society, how philosophical ideas took root and developed over decades and influenced art and music. There was a moment about halfway through the series of courses where, for the first time, it dawned on my eighteen- year-old self that my thoughts were being influenced by things outside of me. I wasn’t unaffected by my world.  I, too, lived in a time period where historical events and philosophers (even ones I was unaware of) were shaping me. Outside influences can skew you with flawed thinking. They can accent one piece of human experience creating an emphasis in you that others might not share. And those accents can blind you to important things the other person is trying to communicate. Humility in a disagreement means you realize that you’ve been influenced by other.

There’s a reason Proverbs contains so many warnings about thinking too highly of your own opinion without listening and understanding those of another: because that attitude works against the humility needed to live well with one another.[3] As we enter disagreements, we must do so with the expectation that something in each of us bears the gnarl of sin, that the things that influence us in our opinions have also been twisted.

  • The biggest danger in disagreement is the sinful desire to be right—

the thrill of exalting yourself, your thoughts, your strengths. To combat this temptation, consider ways you might begin to evaluate what your goal truly is:

As we step back and see how difference functions in the community of the Lord, the only appropriate goal is God’s glory. He is glorified when we image him—when we live united in difference as a reflection of his unity in difference. He is glorified when sin is defeated—when division and hostility are cast away and unity and love replace them. He is glorified when the effects of sin become the stage for our redemption—when he uses the friction difference causes to sanctify and demonstrate the glories of his grace. In disagreement, make sure your heart is pointed in the right direction. Repent when you see it is not.

4. Find your common voice. When Paul instructs the church regarding disagreements. he consistently points them to what holds them together. One Spirit, one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.[4] He calls us to anchor into that by having the same mind. I’ve been frustrated by that because it sounds like he’s calling us to agree. In fact, when Euodia and Syntyche disagree that is exactly what he says: “agree in the Lord.” [5] At first glance it sounds like the goal is consensus. But the language he uses is a repeat of what he was teaching a few chapters earlier in the book when he was patterning their relationships after Christ’s humility, “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”[6] To “agree in the Lord” has more to do with having the mind of Christ, cultivating humility, and considering the interests of others over yourselves than it does with coming to a consensus.

Consider this from another angle. When Paul instructs the Roman church regarding tensions over different convictions, he prays for them to “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Jesus Christ, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[7] In Romans, he doesn’t instruct them to come to the same conviction but exhorts them to glorify the Lord with one voice in the midst of their disagreement. This image of coming together in one voice makes me think of the description in Revelation of every tongue and nation and tribe bowing down before the Lord. The Lord doesn’t erase the difference of language but unites us to join together in one voice to worship our King.[8] This is how it will be when we learn to live in unity amongst difference.

The previous step involves pointing your own heart in the right direction. This one means beginning to point in that direction together. Here are a few ideas that move a conversation with you and your opponent in that direction.

  • The temptation in a potentially tense conversation is to come with your arguments lined up ready to defend yourself. While the topic may be weighty and significant and the disagreement serious, it puts it in perspective to consider how Christ was crucified to unite you as family.
  • When tensions arise, name the hostility for what it is and bring it back into the book of Ephesians. “This moment right here, this frustration between us, the animosity I feel in this very moment is what Christ tore down. This moment, right now, is the stage for his redemption. He has purchased peace for us.” Hopefully, this will begin to realign you.
  • Second, it is a prayer that my eyes might be opened to see the effects of that salvation even in our disagreement. And third, it is a prayer that when I see the work of the Lord in him, I might rejoice, that this would be where my heart was pointed and this is what I might revel in.

5. Lean into differences. In sin, difference divides but in Christ we are united in our difference. The final step in navigating disagreement is actively working against division by leaning into difference—not shying away from it.  This doesn’t mean finding the sore spot in a relationship to poke at it. There is wisdom in letting a contentious topic drop. Scripture is clear in its warning against stirring up strife.[9] But if you do choose to step away from the conversation, here are a few things that should be true: Despite the disagreement there isn’t distance in your relationship; You’ve done your due diligence to understand and love the person in that difference; The choice not to speak is motivated from patience and gentleness with your brother in his difference.           

If you are tempted to avoid or pull away in the face of difference, the hope is to see that place in your relationship as the stage for Christ’s work. To live together united in him in light of that difference is the glory of the gospel playing out in your relationship. To stand together in your difference and delight in the variety of the Triune God. This is one of those things that is far easier to say (or type!) than it is to live out. Living together in difference often brings friction. It stirs up pride that needs to be humbled and defenses that need to be whittled away. As Paul addresses the union of the Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians, he knows there is going to be friction. This is why he exhorts them to bear with and speak the truth in love to one another. He knows we are going to see the gnarl of sin in one another and he calls us to evaluate those things with one another but without sin.[10] Living together in difference will sanctify us and demonstrate Christ’s work on the cross as we live united unto him in our differences.

Disagreeing Well

How do followers of Christ disagree well? What does Proverbs mean when it instructs us to “flip a coin” when disagreements turn contentious? It doesn’t mean that all opinions are equal and true or that there is truth in both. But it is indicative of a priority. It means that living united and pursuing Christ together is far more important. It means living in the knowledge that the image of Christ in us corporately is at stake. Will I follow the trajectory of the fall, of sin and all its hostility? Or will I live as a witness to the heavenly realms of the peace of Christ bought for me?

[1] In Genesis 49 Jacob blesses his sons with blessings that range from negative prophesies of violence and destruction to characteristics such as beauty or affinity for rich food. Each one distinct, each with its own character, and yet all a part of one promise.

[2] Proverbs consistently exhorts us to live our lives seeking the counsel of others. See Proverbs 12:15; 15:22; 19:20; 20:18 

[3] Proverbs 26:12 – Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. See also Proverbs 12:15; 16:25; 30:32-33

[4] Ephesians 4:4

[5] Philippians 4:2

[6] Philippians 2:2

[7] Romans 15:5-6

[8] Revelation 7:9

[9] Proverbs 10:12; 16:28; 17:14

[10] Ephesians 4. Here Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “be angry and do not sin.” Righteous anger is evaluative. It calls things wrong. The implication is that in living life together we will be evaluating things within one another and the goal is to be righteous in that. 

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What Does Respect Look Like?

"At the Feet of Jesus" May 12, 2013 Luke I remember as a young child that whenever I would see someone who was visibly different, perhaps had some sort of disability or disfigurement, my mom or sometimes my dad would tell me that I should not stare or make some sort of comment that would focus on the person’s differences.  The very clear message I heard was that I was to be “polite” and to ignore the difference out of politeness.  We wanted to do what we could to make the other person, and those who were with them, comfortable.

I think I learned to pretend I did not see those differences.  I learned to see and respond to what was “normal” about the other person. In and attempt to be kind, I learned to ignore who people really were.

Fast forward to today and I think we as a culture still wrestle with how to address disabilities and “undesirable” differences.  We really have come a long way in recognizing the human value of those who are different.  We understand there are more differences that we can learn to embrace than we have previously understood.  We have come a long distance in our efforts to “mainstream” and to recognize that our differences do not diminish our value.

The Bible presents a picture of this struggle in Luke 7 where Simon, the Pharisee, invited Jesus to dinner.  The story is that Simon had invited Jesus to dinner and a woman from the village crashed the dinner and washed Jesus’ feet.  Simon sees enough to know that this woman had broken the cultural norms by coming uninvited, being present in the room in which the men were eating, touching a man who was not her husband, and showing attention to Jesus in a public setting that should rightly have only taken place between a husband and wife in private.  This was a very awkward scene.  So awkward that Simon had concluded that for Jesus to allow this behavior to continue meant that Jesus could not be a righteous man. Certainly he could not be a prophet.  Simon had simply seen too much and knew that Jesus was not a holy man.

Simon wanted the woman to be removed and ignored. She was violating cultural, religious, and moral norms. He saw something very wrong taking place.  He wanted Jesus to refuse this woman and her attentions.  Simon wanted to send the woman away and to ignore that she had ever been there. Jesus would have to go through the steps to purify himself and restore his righteous standing, but this unpleasant turn of events would be forgotten with the proper responses.

Jesus saw what Simon saw, and much more.  He looked at what was happening and saw the woman as someone who bore God’s image.  She had value that was not diminished by her sin, or her gender.  He also saw her clearly enough to recognize that she repented of her sin and saw her savior.  She recognized that Jesus was not only a holy man, but that he was the one who could save her from the sin that had defined her.  Simon, bound by his culture, could only see that she was not a man, that she was not an invited guest, and that she was a sinner who was both polluting and offending his guests and himself by being in the room.  She was not someone to respect and understand.  She was someone to avoid, ignore, judge, and remove.

Jesus respected both the woman and he respected Simon.  He received the woman’s worship.  He revealed Simon’s blindness.  Jesus loved both of these people in a profoundly righteous way, and challenged the culture that needed to change.  He actually called Simon to see the woman more clearly.  He explained to Simon how the woman was doing the right thing.  He even revealed himself as savior to Simon and his guests when he forgave the woman’s sins. As he so frequently did, Jesus saw and moved toward the people that we would ignore and avoid.  He respected them and offered redemption.  He also offered Simon truth and the opportunity to receive redemption.  We do not know what Simon did with the offer.

In our experience today we have to ask ourselves what we see.  Firstly, when I see folks and I am uncomfortable with what I see, am I seeing someone who bears the image of God and has value?  If I feel the freedom, or even need, to ignore them, I most likely am not aware of the truth that this person matters.  I feel free to overlook them.  Secondly, do I, like Simon, see only some small part of the other?  Do I see them as the thing I dislike?  Simon saw a sinful, pushy woman who invaded his home and created problems for him.  When I see the person on the side of the street asking for help, do I see an image bearer who needs care and engagement, or do I see someone from whom I turn my eyes and whom I ignore.  Jesus saw the Samaritan woman in John 4 and asked her for water.  He asked her to tell him her story and then revealed himself as savior.  By all cultural norms he should have avoided her and ignored her.  Talking to her was messy.  She even questioned why he spoke to her.  She knew he should have ignored her.  She expected to be treated as a non-person because of her differences.

The first step for us is to see.  The second step is to listen.  Who are these people, these image bearers, and why are they different?  Are their differences wrong?  Are these people simply problems with bodies.  Tim Keller, in his sermon on Proverbs entitled “Repairing Relationships” points out that we have the pattern of cartooning others by seeing them through the lens of one of their flaws.  They are not an image bearer, but a homeless vagabond.  They aren’t an image bearer, but an unemployed beggar.  They aren’t an image bearer, but a liar or a thief.  How did they get to this point in their story?  What do they want?  What do they need? What are their dreams?

As we grow in our understanding that everyone around us is an image bearer we can take time to see their personhood and to hear their story.  When we move toward them, we can also see how the gospel has the answers for what they need.

There is much more to explore on this topic.  Stay tuned.

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The Gospel in Mental Illness

A few months ago I was asked to give a short devotional before a women’s event on mental illness at Hinson Baptist church. The blog post below is the manuscript from that talk.

Tohu Va-Vohu. It sounds ominous doesn’t it? It’s the Hebrew words for the wilderness of creation just after God has created the heavens and the earth – when “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Imagine the kind of wilderness that must have been – the stuff of creation without any form. I chose this image to start with because often in counseling, often in the face of what gets called mental illness, this is an image that makes sense to me. It feels chaotic, a bunch of things all jumbled together. And I chose this image because it strikes me that it’s a wilderness that exists before sin. Even before things get all jumbled up with sin the Lord has demonstrated his power over the wilderness. He is the God who brings order to chaos. He is the God hovers over our wildernesses. So tonight as we consider the wilderness of mental illness together I want to stop and think about 3 ways the gospel shapes this for us. First, how the gospel meets us in the experience of mental illness. Second, how the gospel intersects the complexity of mental illness. And third, how the gospel is the hope in mental illness.

First, how the gospel meets us in the experience of mental illness. What is the experience of mental illness? Well I think that image of a wilderness, of chaos, and confusion is one of the most common themes that runs throughout mental illness. We categorize things as a mental illness when they fall out of the norm – when someone begins to believe with everything in them that closing the door three times will keep them safe throughout the day, when the brain begins to hear voices that don’t exist, when sadness descends upon you for no apparent reason. There’s a chaos to it, it feels inexplicable. All the things that should normally order your world are no longer working the way they should. Your world begins to feel unordered and chaotic.

But there’s more than just that, the description of a wilderness fits in other ways as well. Because when your own world begins to be unordered, when you don’t fit into the norms of the society around you, there’s an isolation that comes with that. It appears as if life is going on as normal all around you but you, in your world, exist in a wilderness and it feels like no one else understands it. It can feel like wasteland where relationships are void.

I think the experience of mental illness is your own tohu va-vohu, a wilderness. So to understand where the gospel speaks to that experience let’s look at where Scripture leads us with this image. Wilderness is an important theme in Scripture. Think about Israel wandering in the wilderness or Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, both very significant moments in the biblical narrative. Let’s start with Israel. Some of the same language from Genesis 1 shows up in reference to Israel wandering in the wilderness. Deuteronomy 32:10-11 says “He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness…” – sound familiar? Now listen to how the Lord responds. “He encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him in the apple of his eye. Like and eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions…” Interestingly that image of fluttering over the wilderness is exactly what Genesis describes the Holy Spirit doing over the wilderness before creation because this is the very character of the Lord, it is who he is and thus how he acts. In the midst of your wilderness he flutters over you, he spreads out his eagle’s wing above you. I love that image. I grew up in Southern California and the wilderness is the desert, and it is hot and barren. To think about the Lord being the wings of an eagle above me in the wilderness evokes an image of sheltering me from the blistering sun, protecting me.

But even more than protecting his hovering over wilderness has an ordering property to it. He is the God who brings order to chaos. He brought order to creation and he brings our wilderness into his order. The Old Testament hints at it but the fullness of it comes in Christ. Christ doesn’t just flutter over the wilderness, he enters it. The wilderness for him was a place of isolation, a place of suffering (he was fasting!) and a place of temptation. Mental illness has all of these characteristics. Often your body is being pushed to its limits, it’s not functioning, it’s acting against you. And in that place of physical weakness we are tempted just like he was. Who will you trust? What will your Savior be? Will you walk with the Lord? The gospel in the midst of the experience of our wilderness is that Christ entered those temptations and acted righteously for us. We are able to walk righteously through our own wildernesses because he has gone before us.

He knows our wilderness, he’s shown himself Lord over it, he hovers over it in power, he protects us in it, he entered it for us, and he himself becomes our means for walking through it. This is the gospel in the experience of mental illness.

The gospel in the complexity of mental illness. Mental illness is complex, there are body issues happening, and outside influences that have played a role, and things that are happening before the Lord. There are voices in our culture that are telling us that these are purely physical. And there are voices within Christian circles telling us that they are purely heart issues, products of the choices we are making before the Lord. But creation and a biblical understanding of who we are tells us that we are embodied souls. Our bodies and our hearts are bound together and affect one another. Most of you experience this every month during a special week of the month when your body makes life particularly difficult emotionally and your heart is vibrantly active in the midst of that. You have a keen awareness that it’s both your heart and your body.

Now consider what happens to that embodied soul when sin enters the world. We’re all pretty familiar with the ways sin affects our hearts. We know we turn away from God at every turn without the saving work of Christ. And if you stop and think about it you’re pretty familiar with the way sin affects your body. You feel every day the effects of death waging against your physical self, the deterioration of aging, things falling apart, sickness ravaging. But we also know that sin affects the way we think. Romans 1 describes our darkened understanding, the inability to see clearly and think straight. Sin affects every corner of the world. Romans 8 describes how creation longs for redemption. Sin hits every single aspect of the world we live in.

I love the word “gnarly” and grieve that its reputation as a word is so tarnished. But despite the surfer connotations that come with it I think it’s a great word. Think about the image of gnarled wood. A straight grain in the wood that gets all knotted up. I personally don’t know anything about wood working or chopping wood but I’m told that cutting through gnarled wood is particularly difficult. Not only is it twisted but it’s stronger than regular, even more resistant to being “sorted”. This is what sin does to an embodied soul in creation. It takes the goodness of heart and body and outside forces and it gnarls it. Twisted together, resistant to being sorted, impenetrable.

This is the complexity of mental illness. Who can sort where all the fracture comes from? Is it sin? Is it a body in rebellion? Is it the product of a broken world? Yes. To all three, in complex and varying degrees. And sometimes we are able to pull threads out that belong to one camp or the other. Sometimes we can see clearly that this aspect is the heart and that aspect is the body. But often it’s a jumbled mess that is very difficult to sort out.

While that may sound discouraging I actually find it hopeful. Because no matter where the fracture is found, no matter what percentage belongs to heart or body or creation, all of it is the product of sin fracturing the world. No matter what gnarls, what strangeness and complexity that I encounter in the midst of mental illness I know it falls into the category of: “What sin does to the world.” And given the extreme measures the Lord had to take to fix it, that he, the God of creation had to become human, had to enter the fracture, had to be put to death by his own creation, had to suffer the wrath incurred by thousands of generations, and rise from the dead in victory over it. If this is what it took to set things back on the right tracks then I know I should expect that the problems and fractures I see are extreme as well. When the complexity of mental illness feels extreme I know this is what I can expect in a gnarled sinful world because I know the extreme answer that has already been given.

That leaves us to the gospel as the hope in the midst of mental illness. Sometimes in the midst of the complexity of mental illness we despair because we can’t sort it out. But if you think about the three different factors at work in it I’m struck by the fact that Christ is the answer to each one. Christ has won my heart and actively works to transform it to love and worship him. He has paid for my sin and bestows his grace upon me. He will give me what I need to walk righteously with him no matter what. Christ has entered my fractured world. He has taken on a body himself and resurrected with a glorious body. I Corinthians 15 describes him as the first fruits of creation. He will glorify my body too, this is where we are pointed physically. And he will redeem his creation, the mountains and the hills will praise his name. Structures and systems that oppress and destroy will be shattered. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear (Psalm 46). Wolf will lie with the lamb (Isaiah 11). He will be King and the nations will praise him (Revelation 15).

If mental illness falls into the category of what sin does to the world then I know certainly that Christ has answered it. He has entered our experience, he has taken complexity into himself, and has answered with power making sin and suffering tools for our redemption in his resurrection. Whatever it is we face may he be the hope to which we cling first and foremost.


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A Response to #MeToo

The Golden Globe Awards were Monday evening and the big focus of the night was the response to the sexual harassment issues currently going on in our culture.  In a very real sense our culture is wrestling with the broad topic of sexuality.

Sexuality is a very broad category.  It includes identity (we have a very active conversation going on right now about orientation and gender identity) as well as relationship.

I want to focus on a very narrow aspect of this in my blog.  I want to look at sexuality and physical intimacy through the lenses of power vs. peer, and object vs. person.

Within the context of relating to others sexually we have to understand whether we are focusing on truly relating, or using others sexually.  The Bible clearly teaches that God intends for sexuality to be a mutual relationship.  In the New Testament we have clear teaching about the importance of not only giving ourselves to each other, but also the importance of not abusing power over another.  This includes the area of physical intimacy.  1 Peter 3 talks about husbands treating wives with honor and recognizing that they are “weaker”.  Colossians 3:19 commands husbands to love their wives and not to be harsh with them.

On top of these particular commands addressing the relationship between the husband and the wife, we have many general commands to be gentle, kind, mutually submitting, and commands not to dominate or use power over others. Matthew 20:25 tells us that among believers we are to lead by service and never by domination.

When we apply these teachings to the topic of how to relate to others, it is clear that we are not to use power to gain what we want.  We are never free to dominate, control, or demand the fulfillment of sexual desires.  Any attempt to exert any kind of intimidation within the arena of sexual activity is always sin.  It is always evil.  Even in the context of marriage.  While this was not the law of the land in all 50 states in the US until 1993, a proper reading of Scripture reveals the use of power to get what we want sexually is selfish, sinful, and evil.

As we look at the issue of person vs. object this becomes even more clear.  In much of our history in laws concerning marriage wives have been objectified and considered “property”.  The Bible does not present this view and in fact it does not even allow for it.  Men and women are both bear the image of God.  The Bible clearly presents that men and women are created in God’s image.  Genesis 1:27 states that God made man in his image, male and female. Both are equally saved by Jesus.  Both are equally loved by Jesus.  To treat any person as an object is to deny their identity as bearing God’s image.  As members of the church men and women are equally the bride of Christ whom He deeply loves as taught in Ephesians 5. We can use objects.  We cannot use people.  When we use intimidation or power to get what we want sexually, we relegate our partner to an object.  This is sin.

I have spoken at some length about what God condemns in Scripture, but I want to end with a brief statement of what God has created sexuality to be.  Humanity is created to reflect God.  We are made in His image.  The triune God has a conversation in Genesis 1 where God decides to create “man” in His image with the complexity of community.  That community is a community of male and female.  God says, to Himself, in Genesis 2 that the male, Adam, is not complete alone.  God creates a suitable partner for Adam when He creates Eve.  The language in Genesis 4 describing Adam and Eve’s physical intimacy is the beautifully interactive word, to know.  Adam knew Eve and she became pregnant with Cain.  In its description of love and marriage, with extensive focus on the physical relationship, Song of Songs talks about the physical relationship between Solomon and his wife.  This model of marital love clearly presents that the physical relationship, as God created it, is to be mutual and mutually pleasing.  The relationship described between the two is intimate emotionally, spiritually, and physically. There is no place in this relationship for the selfish use of power and domination.

I believe if we commit to live in line with the Biblical teaching, we have tremendous opportunity to influence our culture with the beauty of the way God calls us to live with one another.  We have an opportunity in this time to shape the discussion about what it looks like to love one another.  In fact, Jesus taught his disciples the night He was arrested (John 13:34-35) that if we love one another as He loves us, the whole world will take notice that we belong to Him.

May we live like Christ and lead the world to Him.


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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 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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