Monday, September 13, 2010

Constructive Criticism

Constructive criticism is "speaking the truth in love," as God's Word calls it.  It says in Proverbs that a blow from a friend is a good and welcome thing.  True friendships bear the responsibility of striking the other when necessary.  It is not an option.  A person who can never tell you the truth, who can never confront you in love, is not really your friend.  You may hang out a lot. You may like the same music.  You may laugh together.  But if there is no honest communication, even about negative things, then it is not a friendship.

Constructive criticism, as implied above, is built on a foundation of love.  There is already an established relationship of trust and acceptance and safety between the two people.  This ensures the other person, "Listen, I'm not throwing you away in the garbage.  I still love you.  However, you need to look at this."  It ensures them that you are not there to reject them, nor are you there to slay them with your words for your own benefit or exaltation.  You actually care about them, and there is no question about it in their minds.

As Paul tells us in 1 Cor 13, love does not seek its own.  Therefore, constructive criticism is not just a "nice" way to point out the flaws of another person for your own selfish benefit.  As stated, it is built already upon acceptance of the other person.  This is diametrically opposed, then, to a relationship that is built upon performance.  Yes, sadly, those exist.  "If you do this and if you live up to this then I will love and accept you.  If you do not, I will condemn you, reject you, and eventually abandon you."

Constructive criticism is redemptive.  It is hope-oriented.  It looks forward to a better picture and comes alongside the person.


What constructive criticism is not:

You'll always meet someone who is ultra-critical of you and anybody they get close to.  They justify their behavior, often, by saying things like, "Well, its true."  I've actually had someone, ironically a victim of various kinds of abuse themselves, tell me that their behavior toward me was not wrong because their words were "true."  Even if it is true (though more than likely a partial-truth spun through their selfish perception), this kind of person fails or refuses to realize that the "truth" can be used as a destructive weapon.

There is no love in these words, no matter how nicely and calmly they are spoken.  These words are intended to hurt.  Regardless of the degree of truth to the words, using our words as a weapon to punish, demean, silence, belittle, dominate, control, or manipulate someone is abusive.

When someone compares you to others as a way to point out your flaws or how they are unsatisfied with your performance, that is abusive.  There is no foundation of acceptance.  They are seeking to punish you for how you have dared not satisfy their cravings, or they are hoping if they crush you, you will "step up" to the plate and try harder.  They are not loving you like a person but using you like a tool to get what they want or, in some cases, stepping over you like an obstacle.  You are being used as a means to an end.

Next time a person speaks to you in such a manner, ask them, "Are you looking out for my betterment or the betterment of the relationship, or are you simply pissed off at me for not giving you what you want?"  And then watch them deny, deflect, and blame-shift.  That is what abusive, critical people love to do.  They won't face the music for how they treat people.

Abusive criticism destroys hope.  There is no redemption in it.  It tells you, "You're no good.  Nobody would ever want you."  It condemns, end of story.  It is meant to give you a little piece of hell on earth -to destroy, to put you beneath them, to punish and discard you for failing to meet their selfish cravings.  It does not seek to wound in order to root our the bad and make room for more good.  It is not like pruning a tree.  It is more like poisoning the root and smashing the stump.  It is endemnic.

Abusive criticism, finally, isolates the victim.  Nobody comes alongside you to hope for your best.  It is intended to put down, to shame, isolate, and to make you feel separate from the rest of humanity or a certain group of it.  It is intended to segregate you from the "worthy" and place you in the "unworthy" class.  It does not seek your good.  It seeks your slavery and destruction.  It wants you to buy into the idea that the abuser is right and that you need to somehow fix yourself of you will be exiled to a worthless oblivion forever.  Nobody will want you otherwise.

I've been on the receiving end of this kind of thing.  Let me tell you... words do hurt.  Words do wound, far deeper than physical blows.  Condemning, demeaning, hope-sapping, dignity-crushing words, even if you believe they are "the truth", do lasting damage to people.  Words have power.  Maybe you can break a person's arm with your hands, but you can crush a person's spirit with your tongue.  A broken arm will heal in a few months.  A broken spirit may never heal fully.

Be careful with your words.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Flesh

What is the flesh?  I've been thinking about this for a while and seeing it in operation in myself in greater degrees.  Is the flesh just that part of us that does bad things?  Below are my thoughts on the topic.

The flesh is that part of us that is committed ultimately to self and therefore to managing our lives apart from God.  The thing that makes this definition, in my opinion, more helpful than the whole "the flesh is the part of you that does bad things" idea is that it more accurately encompasses the various ways our flesh works itself out in real life.

To see what I mean, take a look at the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  Jesus is actually illustrating this point.  If we listen carefully and consider the audience of this parable, we can almost see that this parable is not quite as much about the "prodigal" son as it is about the one we usually forget: the elder son.  The younger son, the prodigal who takes his inheritance from his father and runs off to live his own way easily fits our definition above: the son did not want his father -he wanted his own independent life, padded and provided for by his father's finances.

But look at the elder brother.  Rather than running off like a foolish young man, living riotously and extravagently, the elder brother always does what the father asks.  He even says so to the father, and the father does not dispute it.  But consider the elder brother's reaction to the graciousness of the father to the younger brother when he returns.  He is indignant.  He rebukes his father, as if to say, "What are you doing?  I always do what you want -these things are rightfully mine!  Who are you to give them up to him to welcome him back, old man!?"  In his bitterness, the elder brother refuses to join the feast set out for the prodigal son.

Can you see that the elder brother operates out of the same basic heart-attitude that the younger brother did?  He doesn't want his father.  He wants to manage his life apart from a relationship with his father.  He wants his father's things, not his father.  The only difference between the two young men is their approach.

The younger brother takes the classic "bad boy" route, while the elder brother takes the path which is much more difficult to sniff out.  He represents the religious person -the person who prays, lives morally, and tries really hard to be good so that God will be like a cosmic Santa Claus.  "If I try really hard, God will help me out."  "If I be good, God will love me and bless me with the things I want."  Another similar approach is like this: "If I apply Biblical principles, I can get a happy and harmonious life."  God, in either case, is there superficially at best or for spiritual business transactions to get the life we want for ourselves.

The second thing we see, both from the Bible and painfully from experience, is that we cannot overcome the flesh by our own resources.  We can't change ourselves.  We are the Israelites, living in slavery, captive to an enemy more powerful than we can overcome.

This flies in the face of everything borne out of religion, even with the label "Christian" on it, but it makes perfect sense.  You can't use flesh to overcome flesh.  You can't use your own resources to overcome that part of you that is hell-bent on using your own resources to carve out and manage your life apart from God.

I remember conversations I've had with a dear friend of mine who beat upon himself and obsessed about killing some particular sin in his life.  He would go through periods where the various mechanisms and "spiritual disciplines" in his life seemed to "work" -he had momentary success.  But then stressful circumstances would come along or, out of nowhere, he would fall flat on his face.  The result was despair.  Why?  Partly because despair is the result of relying upon our own efforts and then finding our we are still just as helpless as the day before.  It is a mixture of hopelessness and self-pity.

It is easy to forget this point.  It is easy to resort to flesh to seek to accomplish very Christian-looking goals.  One of the most common ones is to kill off a particularly bothersome sin.  But if we look a bit more closely at why we endeavor so strongly to clean ourselves up, using the Bible and seeking to leverage God somehow through our own efforts, we often find things like... we just want to avoid pain... we just want to avoid the public embarassment of our sin (pride)... we want to be able to boast in our spiritual progress and maturity... we want to avoid discomfort... or we may even, if we are honest, want to avoid God's anger -we may be fueled completely by fear of punishment.  On some level, there isn't much wrong with wanting these things, but sometimes these make up the driving force for our self-effort.  All told, if you look at them honestly they are pretty self-interested.  "I need to stop this sin so that I can get my life to be how I want."

The Gospel reminds us that the flesh is not something we can overcome ourselves.  Jesus died to pay for our sins and rise from the grave in newness of life, conquering Satan, sin, and death.  He had to do it -not just for our forgiveness but for our sanctification, for our conformity into His image, for us to have newness of life in Him by His Spirit.  This does not mean we are inactive in our sanctification at all.  However, it means that our life in Christ, growing in grace, is a life of surrendered dependence on the Spirit of God to accomplish what God promised to complete in us.  Our action takes on a posture of dependence and life-abandonment over and over.

The last thing I want to comment on is that the antithesis of the flesh is the Spirit, or, for our purposes, grace.  The thing about grace is that it only makes sense and has any value to someone who has come to the end of the rope with their flesh.  They see the destructiveness and futility of their flesh, and under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, they see how walking in the flesh, even in the most pious and religious of forms, is truly contending against God.

Grace comes along and says, "Though you have walked your own way, I still come to you, I still love you, and I give up Myself to make you Mine, not because of anything you can do, and give you the power to be transformed into what I want for you."  Grace is about receiving as a gift what you could never earn.  The flesh, as we recall, is all about what I can get for myself through my own efforts.   Grace is also about restoration to God.  The flesh is about getting God's things apart from God.  See the clash? This is why they do not mix.

Paul outlines this in his letter to the Galatians.  He uses the example of the two sons born to Abraham -Ishmael, born of Hagar, the servant-girl; and Isaac, born of Sarah, his wife.  If you recall, God promised Abraham that he and his wife would have a son, and he would be the father of many nations.  The idea was preposterous.  His wife was well past child-rearing age.  They were elderly.  Years went by and nothing happened, so what did they do?  They came up with a plan to do it out of their own resources.  Hagar, Sarah's servant, was given to Abraham to bear him a son, and she did.  Ishmael was born.  Over a decade later, lo and behold Sarah became pregnant by Abraham and Isaac was born.  Woops.

Paul's point is this: you can't mix the flesh and grace.  They are two completely different animals.  One is by human effort and the other is by God's promise, through grace.  You don't earn a promise.  You can't make a promise happen by taking control and trying to produce the same results through your own resources.  God simply promises it, and it comes to pass.  Grace.  Gratis.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Danger of "Real Men" Theology

One of the newer movements within Christian circles, especially within the past five years or so, is the drive for men to become "real men."  American culture has been feminized, and the Church, the Body of Jesus Christ, is no exception.  Things are geared more toward women, women are given more leadership opportunities and reasons to get involved in things like Church, more is expected of women, women are empowered.  In cultural media, such as film, men are potrayed as irresponsible, bumbling, passive oafs who couldn't do anything right without a woman around.  And when we look at statistics, those caricatures aren't sadly that far off the mark.  Men are not taking leadership in their homes.  They are passive, focusing more on stupidity, acting like grown up boys.

Feel bad yet, men?  So, the ministry of many, especially younger-generation pastors, has been to focus on promoting "real men" masculinity that is based in God's Word.  One of my favorite preachers, Mark Driscoll, is a perfect example of this.

A big problem is that many of us see the problem, agree with it, latch on to people who preach against it, usually because we already like their overall message, but don't stop to use some discernment.  I've done that quite a bit, especially with this.  There have been times I have been gung-ho about "real men" theology.  That lasted only long enough for me to realize my failures.  Then there was just shame and embarassment.  Why?

The whole "real men" theology movement has to be extremely careful of something: subverting or dodging the Gospel.  It is a bit ironic that some of these preachers are the most Gospel-centered, Christ-preaching people I know of today, but when it comes to "real men" theology, we have to use discernment and be careful about the following things (at least!).

1)  Standards that are Non-Biblical or Extra-Biblical.  If we want to say that "real men" don't cheat on their wives, then fine.  But when we start talking about how "real men" cry at these things are not at those other things, what is that all about?  If you mean that "real men" care more about their family than their favorite sports team, then say that.  That leads us to the next issue.

2)  The Presence of "Religion" or Legalism.  Mark Driscoll himself clearly described religion as involving the idea that the world is divided into two groups -good people and bad people- with a defined list delineating who falls into which group.  The goal of the religious person is to make sure, through their own "good works" and concealment of their flaws, that they belong in the "good group", thus leading them to snear down at those bad people who belong in the bad people group.  The danger of "real men" theology, aside from the fact that there may be unbiblical standards invovled, is that it gives you the impression that you are either in the good group or the bad group. 

I was reminded of this recently on Facebook.  Driscoll made a comment about how "real men" cry when their daughter dies.  I agree.  Just thinking about it made me cry.  But I noticed something else going on.  As soon as I read that, the first thing I did was check my response, my behavior, to see which group I fell into.  I was pleased and relieved to see that, at least this time, I am considered a "real man."

Hmmm... Again, I believe it was Driscoll who pointedly remarked that, with the truth of the Gospel, all of us fall into the "bad group" except for One, Jesus Christ, who died to save us.  That brings me to the next item.

3)  "Salvation" by Works.  And what is the solution if you find out that you are not a "real man?"  How can you be saved from the hell of not being a "real man?"  Are you pointed to Jesus?  In my experience, not always.  Much of the time you are left just feeling bad.  You are left with the impression:  if I want to become a real man, I need to change who I am, I need to do these things, or I should be ashamed of myself.  In other words, the way you find yourself in the good people group (and there are apparently people who achieve such status) and not the bad people group is through lifestyle change and behavior modification.  Yes, there is often, "turn and follow Jesus," and I will certainly agree that repentance is needed for many, many things.  But still, when you go beyong the reality that we are all sinners who need to be saved from hell and you start pushing the idea of a man being either a "real man" or not a real man, as though one is heaven and the other is hell, and the way to "heaven" is through self-improvement, then that is very, very dangerous.

Overall, I agree with a lot of the "real men" theology.  But we need to be extremely careful because many times it does border on religion.  It is easy to become "fanatical" about it, because our flesh loves things like that. Our flesh loves religion.  We love opportunities to put ourselves in the good people group through getting on board with a trend or shaping ourselves up.  If we can just use a little more braun in the household, read the right books about manhood, and make sure we start being more pro-active in Church, then we can happily feel as though we are on the path to real manhood.  We are no longer one of those losers.

See, that is the problem.  We are all losers... which is to say, "sinners."  We need to not only repent of our "sins" but also our self-righteousness:  Jesus died for both.  We need to trust Him to save us from both.  The goal is to live a life of gratitude and hope, which leads us to do things out of love.  When the goal becomes behavior modification to feel pridefully good and avoid the shame of not being part of the "acceptable group", then we have strayed from the Gospel.

Monday, June 14, 2010

God's Secret to True Greatness

What is God's secret to true greatness?  It may not be what you think.

"Blessed is he whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not count his sin." (Romans 4) 

The man is blessed who, through owning his moral and spiritual poverty, trusts wholly in the mercy of God through the saving work of Jesus Christ.  That man is blessed.  That man has no sin counted against him, by grace and not our works.  But greatness, true blessedness, comes through the fruit of this, as well.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth...Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall have their fill." (Matthew 5)

"Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:39)

"And when the ten heard [that James and John were asking Jesus how to have the great status of sitting at His right hand in the Kingdom of God], they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, 'You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'" (Mark 10)

The truth is, it isn't much of a secret.  It's just that we don't tend to like it very much.  It doesn't promise us glitz and lots of temporal blessings like all of those health-wealth-prosperity guys or new-age success gurus.  But this person is, in God's eyes, "blessed."  Who are we to presume there is a better standard?  Who are we to imagine that the One who made us is ignorant of the path of true greatness, true blessedness, and true happiness?

The truth is, God is the One who is meant to be center-stage -it is His show, His party.  We like to think that becoming great means that we will stand on stage and be applauded. It actually means quite the opposite.  It means becoming a servant.  And yet, the Savior who came, emptied Himself, and served us, is the One who receives us and crowns us with crowns of glory.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Shame

Shame is one of those interesting and complex topics that I for some reason don't seem to find much written on in Christian circles.  The stuff I do find written on it either offers more secularized "self-esteem-based" solutions ("you just need to see that you are loved and are special") or more pseudo-Biblio-stoic solutions that don't really do justice to the pain and damage of shame ("you just need to stop looking at yourself and love others").  Occasionally, one will find a resource that touches on the complexity of human shame -both legitimate and "illegitimate" shame- and the various sources that play into its dominating, life-marking effect on people.  What I want to do here, I suppose, is offer some of the things I've learned about shame.

First, I find that very few of the more orthodox preachers I revere seem to spend a lot of time talking about human shame.  It is a bit frustrating.  I look to them because they generally divide the Word well.  What I often find in their sermons and writings is talk about what is typically called "legitimate shame."  Legitimate shame simply means that it is shame based on exposure of one's depravity.  Essentially, if one had to define it, shame has to do with exposure of one's ugliness and deficiency (perceived or real) before the eyes of others.  Legitimate shame has to do with the exposure of one's sin.  When God shines the light on our sin, perhaps through the gentle rebuke of a friend, we should feel the sting of shame.  We should feel "found out."  This kind of shame is intended to bring about and involve godly sorrow and conviction, leading us to return to God.  Legitimate shame, while painful, is good.

But in our rebellion, we generally don't like this kind of shame.  We fight against it.  Recall the story of Adam and Eve.  When they rebelled against God, they immediately felt shame.  They felt exposed.  They ran and hid.  God went looking for Adam and found him.  Adam had the opportunity to come out of hiding and return to God for restoration.  What did he do instead?  He arrogantly blame-shifted and accused his Maker.  "It was the woman YOU gave me..."  We buck against the painful-but-healing sting of legitimate shame.  We want to push blame onto someone else, minimize our part, and even point our finger at God.

The kind of shame that many of us are silently familiar with and suffering under, however, is what is generally called "illegitimate shame."  The name doesn't suggest that suffering under this kind of shame is somehow to be ignored as trivial or "all in your head."  The name simply means that this kind of shame does not reflect what God intends.  God does not intend for us to feel shame in this sense.  It is the product of evil and sin.  This kind of shame is insidious because it is not designed to bring life but only death. It is designed to expose some "defect" in the victim and distance them from the rest of humanity (or at least from the "acceptable" part of humanity). It is designed to kill and produce more death and sin, and it does.  How does illegitimate shame work?

As Dan Allender wrote in his book, The Wounded Heart,

"Legitimate shame exposes depravity, and illegitimate shame shines a light on some aspect of dignity."

What is dignity?  Dignity refers to the basic image of God stamped on us by virtue of being God's special creation.  There is a glory there.  It is the glory and dignity present in the unborn child that makes us see the sanctity of life and stand against abortion.  It is the dignity that remains in the quadraplegic or mentally retarded person who can't function as most other human beings.  Part of that dignity involves the ability for relationship.  We were made for relationship with God and others -to be loved and to love.  With that come a host of desires that are very good (though they often become marred by sin).  Such desires include the basic desire to be known and accepted.

Allender continues to point out how illegitimate shame relates to human dignity through the abuse of others -whether physical, emotional, sexual, or whatever.  Rather than it being "good shame" which exposes sin for the sake of us returning to God, illegitimate shame generally focuses on dignity and involves the abusive actions of another.  For example, every time we were told we were stupid for failing, the attack is not on some aspect of sin that we need to repent of but on some aspect of our dignity.  The message is not designed to suggest that we are sinners.  It is designed to demean us and tell us, "You are just wrong, flawed, inadequate, dirty, and defective."  It is not "there is something morally evil in you"; it is "there is something defective in you."  The shame produces a soul-destroying terror "that if our dark soul is discovered, we will never be enjoyed nor desired, not pursued by anyone."

The cruel irony in the connection between abuse and illegitimate shame is that reality gets twisted.  First, the one who should feel shame is the abuser, for his or her sin againt God and God's image-bearer.  Yet the one who is suffering in shame is the victim.  The betrayed person sits exposed, demeaned, and wounded deeply by the actions of the other person.  Their dignity is marred and mocked and belittled.  The intense shame felt by the abused unleashes a torrent, a war within that cannot be silenced by human hands.

"Any significant abuse causes the victim to despise the way he or she's been made: a person wired for deep, satisfying, eternal involvement with others and God." 

So, the good that God built into us is seen as the enemy by the victim.  The victim sadly reasons, "If I could just kill that aching desire to want love, then I would not care and therefore I would not hurt any longer."  Meanwhile, the evil perpetrated by the abuser often produces no immediate shame in the abuser, unless by the power of the Holy Spirit bringing conviction upon them.

Second, things become twisted in the life of the victim, too.  The focus is often solely placed on the marred dignity and the pain that caused, but the depravity of the victim is ignored.  I'm not suggesting that the victim did something to deserve what happened to them at all.  People don't make other people sin.  But plainly stated, we know that all of us are not innocent before God.  And furthermore, when sinners are sinned against, we typically respond at some point with sin.  Thus, shame almost always leads to contempt -contempt for ourselves and often contempt for others.  Shame also leads us to self-protect.  It tempts us toward the road away from God and His universe and toward autonomy, the path of trying to seize control of our little universe so that we will never be hurt again.  Hence, we shut down, refuse to open ourselves to others, and refuse to love or really live.  Rather than pursue others, we either try to control them or we withdraw from them.  Rather than enter into the lives of others, we either use them or safely try to placate them so that we will be safe.  Or mission in life becomes self-protection and numbing our pain, not the interests of others.  We effectively deny God the right to use is in the lives of others.  The list goes on.

And, again noting that the abused did not do anything to warrant the abuse from the other person, much of our illegitimate shame involves a discussion of an element, touched on above, that is equally difficult to discuss.  It is difficult particularly because it involves looking at the reality of depravity in the heart of the individual.  It does not minimize the acts of abuse that others perpetrate against us, but there is another force that works against us to bring illegitimage to our doorstep, and this force is found within our own hearts.  Allender writes, "Shame is an excellent path to exposing how we really feel about ourselves, what we demand of ourselves and others, and where we believe life can be found. It unearths the strategies we use to deal with a world that is not under our control."  What is he talking about?  He is talking about the ways in which sinners determine to deify and create false gods -things, ideals, people which we believe, if we serve them (performance), will deliver us from the painful realities of life and give us what we want.

In my own life, I have seen how my heart has responded to insults and shame by erecting more and more idols.  Rather than turning to God, grieving the pain and loss with God (who more than equally hates these aspects of sin in His fallen world), I siezed control and placed my trust in things that I believed would protect me and deliver me from such pain. 

There are numerous examples.  Perhaps we place our trust in our own strength.  We determine to never let ourselves be hurt again.  Of course, we can't deliver.  We can't protect ourselves no matter how hard we try, and in the process we destroy ourselves and everything around us, especially relationships with others.  Another common example is human approval.  We determine that we never want to feel so low and insignificant, so we will just make sure everybody likes us and appreciates us and thinks we are great.  The problem, again, is that these false gods do not deliver.  They fail us, and we are crushed in deeper shame.  The Bible promises that false gods bring shame.  Yet, we become slaves -unwillingly on one hand, but willingly on the other.  We become spiritual and emotional slaves to these gods, determining to serve them relentlessly with the promise of deliverance from things like pain, loss, rejection, emptiness, etc.  We return to Egypt all over again.

This is seen acutely in some abuse situations.  "Shame is experienced before the one I've entitled or given the right to judge me. Ultimately, that is the prerogative of God alone. To give that privilege -in essence, the opportunity to bestow or retract life- to anyone other than God is idolatry." (Allender)  In Allender's book, he tells the story of a woman who desperately looks to her father in such a way, yet he regularly disappoints her and it crushes her.  One time, she waits patiently for his arrival for a visit. 

"Every time she would look up to see if he was finally coming, she would feel a wave of self-hatred and shame. Her hope of connection with a man who was her false god -the one who could bestow or retract life- failed her, and she was ashamed. Of what was she ashamed? The answer involves two inter-related forces: the ache of disappointed longing and misplaced trust. The shame of folly is involved whenever our false god remains deaf and dumb, impotent to heal the wounds of our heart."
 
And later, Allender writes...
 
"False gods are a diverse lot. They can include people, objects, or ideals. Central to a false god is the assurance that we will be protected by their ministrations, and when they fail us or we perceive that we have disappointed them, the combined shame of rebellious independence and naked aloneness floods our soul."
 
I've experienced all of the above.  You can't live in a fallen world, and be a fallen person yourself, without it.  You will sin and feel good shame for it.  You will be sinned against, have your dignity demeaned, be told you are stupid or fat or ugly or undesirable or defective, and it will scar you and wound you with inexpressible shame and pain.  You won't know how to get out of it.  You will self-protect.  You will trust in things other than God to protect and control your little piece of the universe and give you the life you demand.  You will close down from others, withdraw from them, use them, spill contempt on them, or abuse them.  Some of us, such as those who were abused sexually as children, experience these things more acutely than most, especially illegitimate shame.
 
We know there is hope for legitimate shame.  There is a God who sent His Son to die for us and redeem us.  But is there hope for those marked by illegitimiate shame?  Is there a way to remove that painful stain, that branding on the soul?  I believe there is, but it is beyond the scope of this article to really share my findings on that topic.  In short, it involves a long, arduous path of embracing the whole truth of our situation and who we are, embracing life -including pain and hurt, patiently walking with God through the pain rather than hiding from it, and openly seeking to embrace others in the dance of love and intimacy once again.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Abuse and the Gospel

If you've lived long enough on this planet, you have experienced abuse of some kind at the hands of another.  Abuse, generally considered, is not so much a one-time sinful act of one inflicted upon another.  It is generally a pattern of sinful relating that degrades and assaults the dignity of the other person.  It may be Abuse (big "A"), such as things like domestic spousal abuse or sexual abuse, or more like abuse (small "a"), such as verbal or emotional abuse, bullying, etc. 

Depending on the circumstances, I think there are similarities of experience.  Lately, I've been reading Dan Allender's The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse.  I was not, as far as I remember, sexually abused as a child.  However, I have experienced some life-impacting abusive situations that have been (and still are) very difficult to get past.  This is not to say I know what a sexual abuse victim feels like, however some of the things Allender notes are remarkably similar to some of my feelings and struggles.  I know what things like shame and contempt feel like, for example.  I know about self-protection when it comes to relating to others.  Because of that, I am getting a lot out of Allender's book.  If you don't know what I'm talking about with the terms "shame" and "contempt" and "self-protection," I'm going to try to explain, imperfectly I'm sure, a bit about what I've been learning that has been blessing me from Allender's book.

Shame and Self-Protection

Abuse degrades a person.  It makes them feel small.  This isn't even an apt description for the horror some people have experienced and still live with.  Nevertheless, it produces shame in the victim -a sense of being exposed and "not right" and dirty and "defiled" even condemned before the eyes.  People who battle shame often are characterized as having "low self-worth."

During the abusive acts, nobody can blame the victim for wanting to do something to self-protect or numb the horror of what is happening.  But years down the road, people who have been abused often develop ways of relating to people that are built around self-protection.  We generally even excuse those ways of relating to people, no matter how destructive we realize they are, because... "who can blame us, after what happened to us?"  Allender gives three archetype examples: the Party Girl, the Good Girl, and the Tough Girl.

The problem is that a self-protective way of relating to others run contrary to God's command to love others.  In fact, it is essentially a way to seek autonomy from God and deny Him the right to use us in the lives of others, for the sake of our own self.  We would rather protect ourselves than submit to God's agenda or consider the interests of others, both parts essential to the fabric of what God made us for.  Consider some of the ways I have sought to self-protect from others:

-Withdrawal... I find ways to withdraw from people rather than getting involved in their lives.  I find excuses of many kinds when it comes to situations where I am called to engage with someone in a close, one on one, manner.  Don't get close to someone, don't get seen and exposed and shamed and hurt again.  Rather than pursue people and pursue involvement in their lives, I am shrinking back and settling for superficial relationships where I can pick and choose what I want from the other person and avoid the possibility of pain involved in truly loving someone.  There are specific contexts in which I withdraw most, due to fear of shame, but the general idea is that withdrawal is the opposite of pursuit.  Might I get hurt?  Of course, and that should be taken into account if it is an abusive person, but love costs by its very nature.  Plus, there are various ways to pursue someone, not just one.  Withdrawal is about avoiding vulnerability, which is an attempt to self-protect and maintain some control.

-"Niceness"... I indulge people, placate them, and seek their approval.  This allows me to fly under the radar and never do the hard work of loving someone by telling them the hard truth or saying "no" to them.  Confrontation might mean being exposed and rejected and abandoned, and I can't have that.  Because of this, I often enable people to continue in sinful and self-destructive patterns, which hurts them and their relationship with God (or the possibility of it).

-"Tough Guy..."  "Nobody will ever hurt me again."  I resolve to put up many boundaries so that I will never be hurt again.  Instead of becoming tender, I become hard and harsh.  I make boundaries all about me.  But Biblically, boundaries are supposed to be the result of love.  They are meant to help me serve the other person better, not myself.  For example, if a friend of mine continually steals and abuses my things, the best way I can serve him (in most cases) would be to set up a boundary and confront him.  He needs to know, for his own benefit and relationship with God, what he is doing and how it hurts me and grieves God.  But that is not what a "tough guy" does.  A tough guy shuts people out.  A tough guy is great at setting boundaries but becomes less and less tender and involved in the lives of others.  Relationships suffer, and he winds up enjoying life less and less.

Though I may have been hurt in the past, it is necessary that I face the reality of my self-protection and how I am refusing to love others and denying God the right to use me in their lives.  I am rebelling, though I may have excused myself for a long, long time, because of what I have been though.

Contempt

Contempt is another thing abuse victims struggle with.  It is hard to define quickly or explain in its various degrees and manifestations, but we know what contempt means.  We struggle with either contempt for ourselves (self-hatred, one of Satan's best ways to numb us from two conviction of sin and joy-producing repentance) and contempt for others, especially the abuser.  Sometimes we may struggle with both.

In my own experience, contempt often feels good for a while -especially contempt for others.  It makes you feel alive because it covers over the wound.  It takes the eyes off the shame.  You don't feel as much fear and shame when you are busy hating the other person.  You even feel strong, perhaps.  But it just numbs you and cuts you off from your way out.  It is like preferring death to life.  It is emotionally exhausting, too.  You become bitter and dead, rather than face what was done to you and face how you are now responsible for how you choose to treat people.

One of the worst things about contempt, of either sort, is that it numbs you from the Gospel and the resultant gratitude.  Life becomes "poor me, I hate myself" or "poor me, I hate them."  We become blind to our own sin and need for grace, and because of that our experience of grace is miniscule.  The cross of Christ starts to seem small and unnecessary.  After all, to a person filled with contempt, that doesn't address what we think is our biggest problem.  The reality is that we aren't seeing our biggest problem because we are consumed with contempt.

Honesty and Repentance

Honesty means coming to grips with reality.  It means accepting to grips with what really happened to you.    We should name it, admit it, and face it, write about it, remember it, rather than numb ourselves from the pain.  Were you abused? How? How does God feel about it? God is grieved by true abuse against a person.

But what about all this business of exposing our sin, as the victims?  Why, you may be asking yourself, would an abused person want to dredge up negative and sinful things they are doing?  Why talk about how we are self-protective, denying God's right to use us, refusing to love others, and embracing contempt?  Why beat a man when he is down?

It is because exposing the truth leads to joy.  Bringing the light leads to joy.  Repentance for our sins, the things about ourselves we are now denying, leads to joy and growth and healing.  Denial, and focusing solely on the wrong of the abuser, does not heal us nor help us.  It hurts us deeply and helps us remain trapped.

Using myself as an example, I am discovering a number of things.  I am discovering my rebellion in the ways I self-protect.  I am also discovering that because of my contempt for those who have hurt me, and even my contempt for self, I am a "murderer," according to what Jesus says in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5).  My contempt for the other makes me an arrogant judge, seeking to dethrone God and assume the right to destroy them (even if only in my mind).  These are both humbling things to see.  This means that I am really just as guilty as my abusers, though I have not done the same things.  It takes my focus off the abusers and puts it back on me, showing me who I really am in God's eyes.  This leads to humble repentance, which leads to confession and receiving forgiveness, which leads to gratitude and joy and tenderness and hope.  I slowly become free from contempt and free to boldly love people who may hurt me.  I become free to engage in the work of being a "prophet" to those who are around me, loving them ruthlessly for God, telling them the truth in love (rather than contempt).

Repentance is also helps deal with the shame (I am beginning to learn) in the following way:
"Repentance takes away [the victim's] terror of shame because [the victim's] soul has already admitted it is naked, wanting, and undeserving.  In being accepted as a sinner [by God's grace in the Gospel], [the victim] has nothing to hide or fear; therefore [the victim] is free to love others without fear of their response or rejection (Luke 7:47)." (p. 221)
This will take some time, but coming to grips with my sin in this (rather than focusing solely on the abuser's sin) brings me to this kind of humility where I can be totally naked before God, exposed in my actual sin, and yet accepted and loved by God.  Nothing left to hide.  Yes, I am a sinner.  I am flawed.  Look at all of it, but I am accepted and loved.

But I am also discovering freedom from my shame in being able to accept what happened to me for what it is and grieve with God over it.  I can look at what happened to me honestly, grieve what was destroyed or taken from me, grieve the damage done, and learn to forgive -entrusting the justice for what happened to God.  No matter how many people may see what happened to me and want to side with my abusers and justify it, reality doesn't change.  There is no justification for abuse, period.  God hates it, and His heart breaks over it.

There is a lot more that I am leaving out.  The path out, in sum, is a path of losing self, not clinging.  It seems uncomfortable, even counter-intuitive at first, but I see light.  As I continue to read the final chapters of this book, I look forward to posting things about it occassionaly.  I also look forward to reading Allender and Longman's book, Bold Love, which continues the theme of repentance leading to love based in the humility and gratitude produced by the Gospel.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Can You Handle Being a Normal Dog?

Last night, we caught a few minutes of the animated movie Bolt, starring the voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, among others.  Actually, it was my three-year-old who caught it.  She wanted me to stop, while I was flipping around, so that she could watch it.  She is still at the age where she likes to watch movies she has seen 3,000 times again and again.

We came upon a part of the film that really struck me for its handling of a pretty deep theme.  I told my sixteen-year-old today about my reflections on it, and he sorta shook his head in disbelief.  I don't know how intentional the writers of the movie were about the development of some pretty mature and deep themes, but there is one that particularly caught my eye.

Bolt, if you are unfamiliar with the film, is a dog who is a television star.  He plays a super-hero dog, with special powers and the like, who constantly saves the day with his little girl owner, named Penney, from the clutches of an evil villain.  The problem is, Bolt believes he really is a super-dog, even off camera.  The director wanted the realism, so great pains were made to make sure Bolt really believed he had special powers.

Soon, however, Bolt is accidentally separated from his owner and finds himself in New York City, three-thousand miles away.  Within a short time, Bolt comes face to face with the utter disappointment of not being a super-dog.  There is a scene where, after saving his feline friend, Mittens, he, Mittens, and the hampster named Rhino are resting easy for a moment, riding in half of a manufactured home on the back of a flatbed truck cruising along the interstate.  The excitement of the escape has died down and suddenly the reality of Bolt's marginal, non-super-hero identity sinks in.  He is crushed.

But a turn takes place.  A "new dawn" breaks in, without all the fireworks and hooplah of being "Bolt, the super-dog!"  He starts asking Mittens serious questions about being... just a normal, ordinary dog.  What is it like?  Well, she begins to show him.  She shows him how dogs drink from toilets, eat everything they can find on the floor, and, most importantly, love to stick their heads out the window when riding in a car -tongue out, of course.  In a sense, Bolt finds freedom in being ordinary.  He actually loves to stick his head out the window with his tongue out.

You are probably shaking your head, like my son, at this point.  I'm going waaaaayyyy too far with this.  Well, maybe, but I think the point is still valid, so let me explain.  So many of us struggle with what our culture calls "low self-esteem."  We don't like ourselves because [fill in the blank with any number of reasons -we aren't pretty enough, rich enough, smart enough, sexy enough, strong enough, manly enough, etc.].  Our culture tells us that the problem is that we think too lowly of ourselves.  The solution, then, would be to find ways to build your estimation of your greatness, your self-esteem.  But in reality we are just like Bolt after he found out he is not a super-dog.  We are downcast because we want to be a hero, we already have high thoughts for ourselves, we need to be great but feel like we don't measure up -and we allow a litany of cultural or personal, externally-based values the power of granting or withholding the greatness we crave.

What we do not realize is that, like Bolt, freedom is found in being what we actually are and letting the narcissistic, super-person dream die a thousand deaths.  You aren't a super-hero.  You aren't so awesome that you can win the applause and favor of everybody all the time.  You aren't the most beautiful creature on earth, and the beauty you have will inevitably fade.  And if things like these are what you think you need to do and have in order to have a good, meaningful life, then you will live and perform like a slave. 

You are a normal dog.  You are limited in more ways than you want to know, even though you also have divine giftings.  And you are a self-directed, self-absorbed sinner who regularly turns from the Creator who made and loves him. 

You aren't superman.  You are more like a grasshopper.  Are you ok with just being a grasshopper?  God is ok with it.  He gave up His Son to die to cover and pay for your sins and expiate all of your uncleanness.  You are loved and perfectly accepted in His sight, but it won't mean anything to you so long as you are intent on being your own super-hero.  You will remain a miserable slave.

Or here is a way to think about it:  The Extraordinary came down and became ordinary, to suffer and die as cursed and sub-ordinary, so that you and I would be freed from and die to the delusion of our own importance and grandeur.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Big or Tall, Great or Small

All of us have gifts.  Some of us have natural abilities in sports, others music, others art, others in intellect and academics.  Some of us are physically beautiful.  Some of us even have more intimate abilities that I won't go into detail about here.  There are variations all in between.  No matter how gifted we are or believe we are, there is invariably someone, somewhere else in the world, that is "better" at that thing.  There are always going to be people better and people worse than us in any number of categories. 

We are all different and unique.  It sounds like something from a television commercial trying to imprint us with healthy self-esteem, right?  Well, it is true.  Some of our abilities are amazing, a true sign of God's beauty.  And some of our abilities range from limited to "handicapped" to tragic.  We are born the way we are.  The body deteriorates the way it does.  And then there are tragic accidents.  Our mind, our beauty, our physical strengths -all gone in a blink.

God tells us in His Word to not compare ourselves to each other.  Our prideful competitiveness longs for our own greatness, by comparing ourselves to others.  Some of us are arrogant, because we think we are in the top echelon of our peers.  And then some of us, on the opposite end of the spectrum, hate ourselves because we want to be great, we want the glory, we crave feeling "worthy" by being great in one or two areas, but we are not.

I believe one of the reasons God tells us to not compare ourselves with each other (other than the fact that it stems from sinful pride) is that it truly misunderstands and abuses what our gifts and differences and limitations are for.

1. Our gifts are meant to be means for glorifying God and blessing others, not ascribing greatness to ourselves and deriving power from being approved by others and considered "better."

2. Our differences and limitations are meant to be means for us to live in love in community under God.  In other words, we aren't meant to be great in every single area by design (not even talking about the imperfection of sin).  This is so we will remember that only God can be our all-in-all (not people) and that we are meant to love and serve one another, giving to one another rather than demanding that others fulfill all of our wants.  In community, in relationships, we give what we have to serve others, joyfully bearing with the limitations of others while they bear with ours, even complimenting the limitations of others with our strengths.

All of the things we have for temporal gifts can be taken away in an instant, and eventually all of them fade.  Our beauty will droop and sag and wrinkle and stretch.  Our mind will start to go weak.  Our athletic abilities will break down with old age.  That is why there is such a danger in using them for other than what they were intended.  When we use them for self, building our lives and identity upon them, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.  We may feel on top for a moment, but it will crumble.

The final thing we must consider is that you and I will stand before God, one day, and give an account of how we have used with every single gift we have been given.  We are each personally responsible for using what we have, for the time we have it, as good stewards.  And I'm not just talking about those of us who have exceptional gifts.  All of us, great and small, will give an account for our stewardship over our abilities and gifts.  Every one of them.

How about your good looks?  You and I will give an account for how we have used our beauty.  Have you used it to self-aggrandize and look down upon others who are less physically attractive?  Have you used it to have people fawn over you and make you feel like a queen?  Have you exposed it and sold it to the world, for the eyes of all to see?  Or have you used it for the happiness of others and saved it, especially, for a person you will love and spend the rest of your life with?

Do you have a working brain?  You and I will give an account for how we have used our smarts.  Have you used it to suppress the knowledge of your Creator?  Have you used it to jockey for position above the "peons" who only have average intellect?  Or have you used it to truly bless the world and point to the greatness of your Maker?

Do you have sexual function?  Some people do not -it is not to be taken for granted.  You will give an account for how you have used even your sexuality.  Have you used it to notch your bedposts and feel like you are a "real man" (or woman)?  Have you used it to use and exploit people of the opposite sex purely for your own pleasure?  Have you used it to put other people down when they don't please you the way you want?  Have you exposed it to the public in order to make money?

While using our gifts and abilities to try to win a place of glory in the world seems attractive, there is a peace in knowing that we have been faithful stewards before our Creator.  Everyone in the world, for their own selfish or warped reasons, may hate us and disapprove of us, but if our Creator sees that we have been faithful with everything we have given, there is a peace and rest in that.  We can hear His voice saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant..."

What do you hear?  What will you hear on that day?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Manna

Everyday, almost, some new insight or perspective or place in Scripture hits me and seems to carry me through a part of the day with renewed life.  I think to myself, "Aha!  This is what I have been missing!  I need to write this down!"  I frantically try to fit it in with all the other nuggets I can recall from recent memory, as if I'm trying to put in that last piece of the engine to fix the Mothership and fly myself home.

But something happens when I try to plunge myself back into that truth, that reality, and that moment a day or so later.  It is stale.  It doesn't impact me as it once did.  It is no longer "radioactive."  Trying to put all the pieces together never yields a running engine that allows me to zip myself across the galaxy to a safer, more comfortable, more emotionally stable, more spiritually-fortified place.  It doesn't.  And I always wind up frustrated and spending way too much time thinking.  "Where is the answer," I think?  "When is that one thing going to come that just changes everything, changes my heart, lightens my gaze, changes my perspective, and reorients my emotions?"

The question comes to my mind, "Lord, what is going on? Why don't you send that one thing that will snap things into place? Where is the dramatic deliverance?"

But God has other plans.  Instead, what I get is something to get me through the day.  I get "manna" -a daily cake of bread.  I don't get a leap and a bound; I get a single footstep.  Isn't that good, though?  Most of the time it isn't, I confess.  I'm so caught up in finding the "big fix", in obtaining the massive deliverance that is going to fix so many problems in life, that I forget what it is all about.  See... I want my life.  I want it to be mine.  I want self-sufficiency.  I want to be given the tools and answers so that I can fix it right now.  I'm going to fix that Mothership and pilot that sucker back to the promised land of my own dreams.

But, again, God has other plans.  What I get, instead, is something which is objectively better (even though not what I like).  I get to learn what it is to depend on God.  I get to learn what it means for God to be God and me to be a created, dependent person.  I get to learn that God provided manna today and that I can bank on the fact that He will provide it again tomorrow.  I get to learn the hard lesson of slowing down and depending, daily, on God.  I can't see a foot in front of my eyes, and I must trust that He will give me what I need to reach the next step on the path.  I learn humble dependence and trust -something more precious than silver, though it is, again, not exactly what I would like at the moment.

I bet this is how the Israelites felt while in the desert for forty years.  Yet God rained down manna, and every morning there it was.  They did not go without one bit.  I bet countless questions bounced around in their heads, aside from the ones recorded for us in Scripture.  Some of them may have been things like:

-LORD, why not just get us out of here?  Why not just change your mind and bring us out of this place?
-LORD, why not just give us fertile crops and a big storehouse of food all up front, right now?  Why do the whole manna thing?

What I am learning is the lesson of the Israelites: daily, humble dependence and trust.  Stop looking so hard for the big answer that you miss the daily manna, stop demanding to see what's around the bend, stop demanding a self-survival kit from God so that you can finally create your own life and happiness the way you want.  Live expectantly on the small, sustaining, wonderful bits of manna that God faithfully sends every day.  Learn that He is trustworthy, that He is there on a daily basis.

Slowing down like this is painful.  But His hand is in it.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

All the Answers

I admit that there is a part of me that is inextricably drawn to systematics, to problem-solving, to taking a moment to stop and think and then plotting a course out.  Perhaps that's why I found myself studying mechanical engineering in college and, now, building software applications.  You are faced with a problem, you gather information, you ponder, you design, you sort out extraneous information, and you make an attempt to solve that problem.  You realize you made mistakes or didn't see everything -or maybe the requirements changed.  So, you make small adjustments, evaluate, and push them out into real-life.  If you are a software developer, you probably can't help but think of the "Agile" development method when reading this.

But can life really be handled this way?  There are people making a fortune out there trying to convince us it can be.  Self-help books are the craze.  Motivational speaking is popular.  Then there was "the Secret," promoted on Oprah.  If you are still reading and not gagging yourself after that last one, consider how much of the world works in concert with that drive within us for self-sufficiency.  We want life the way we want it, we want to set the goals, we want to implement the procedures, and we want results.  Self-sufficiency is the idea that I am capable of doing all of that.  I can essentially produce the results I want for my life.

Then something unexpected happens.  And another thing.  And another.  I remember hearing a preacher say that by the time we are forty or fifty years old, you have to be practically insane to believe that you have any real control over your life.  This is where things like the "mid-life crisis" come in.  Still, we plug away, often dealing with low-grade-to-severe depression... but there are pills for that, these days.  Just keep applying bandaids, just keep relying upon the next method or fix, and everything will be fine, right?  Maybe for a little while longer.

Maybe I'm one of the lucky ones, because for me exhaustion has begun to settle in while only in my early thirties.  I'm, frankly, exhausted from trying to control my life and buying into the lie of self-sufficiency.  I realize that I can't get all the results I want, that the results I believe I need are not for me to decide, and that I can (and have) literally wear myself to the point of breaking if I continue to grab hold with that white-knuckle grip on my life.  But more than that, I'm realizing that even when I get it... it doesn't satisfy me for long, and I'm at least mildly haunted by the prospect of losing it.  Life becomes one big performance -performance to obtain, to keep, to maintain.  I'm the proverbial hamster on the hamster wheel.  It makes me tired just rereading what I just wrote!

The thing is... you can't even call that living.  As I'm sitting here thinking about my next sentence, my wife's screensaver shows the following words: "Thank God for what you have;  trust God for what you need."  Why is that trust so difficult?  Why are we so bound up in self-sufficiency?  That is the human struggle.  We want our life to be our life.  The idea of someone else deciding how it should be and being in total control of all the outcomes is... scary, threatening, even insulting to some of us.  It is also those things when we are arrogant enough to think that we know better than the God who made us.  It is all those things when we really doubt that He will deliver.

I'm a guy who likes to think he can find all the answers.  Sometimes I think I actually have them, and I let other people know it.  But then the Lord snaps me to my senses, and I realize I don't know anything.  I realize I have no answers.  I don't mean that I don't know if Jesus is the only way of salvation -that is a clear truth.  What I mean is that I have no answers for how to self-navigate and self-fix and manage this life.  At least I'm heading toward reality when I begin to see that.  And I'm left realizing that for all the complexity and over-thinking and exhaustive effort to wiggle my way along and keep things in tact, you reach a point where you know that the only way you will keep your sanity is if you start taking God's word for it that what He promises is better than anything we foolishly believe we can hold on to with our self-sufficiency.  His love is better, His good for us is better, His plan is better, His comfort is better, His kingdom is better, His ways are better, His care is better... Either it is or it isn't.  Either God is out of touch with real life, or He is a liar, or He is patiently calling me to something so much better.  At what point will I start taking His word for it and step in His direction?  At what point will I stop making excuses?

At the risk of giving something that sounds like an "answer," I'll share an example of something I saw today.  I've read that passage in Jeremiah 17 many, many times before.  It is a classic passage that talks about fear of man.  I've applied every single formula and theological construct I know to it to try and "fix" my problems with fear of man.  I've resorted to will power: "You just have to stop depending on man and depend on God."  I've tried a more sophisticated, more theological idolatry-based approach: "Aha.  I just need to repent of my idolatry and put God back on the throne."  But how do you actually do that?  Need a formula for that, too.  Need a book for that, too.  Need another couple sermons to tell you how to do that.  It goes on forever.  One "answer", one more "here's how you do it" formula leads to another question, and so on.

I can't do it.  I can't fix it.  But today I saw something.  I saw God bringing me to this place.  And I saw something beautifully simple in that passage in Jeremiah 17.  God is saying to me, "See what I'm saying, here?  I'm wooing you, I'm calling you, to trust Me, to trust that I'm better and that what I have is better."  In that passage, He is calling me to just plain trust Him, to trust what He is saying.  He's warning me of believing that other things, people especially, are better and will give me something better.  He's reviving my memory of my past trials and current exhaustion to say, "See, you already know this part is true;  So can't you see that the other part is true, too?"  He's telling me that He is better, that He has better for me, and He's calling me to believe Him. 

Imagine that.  God leads, God walks with me, God personally walks me down paths, some of them very dark, for a purpose?  Imagine that.  God can be trusted?  God knows what He is doing?  God knows that exhausting me is necessary for me to stop trying so hard and just start trusting Him?  I don't need to have all the answers and see how it all works?  I don't need a play-by-play from God, an explanation for every turn in the road?  Imagine that.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Cross

When we stand under the light of the cross of Jesus and claim it for ourselves, we are admitting and exposing to God, ourselves, and to the world that we are so selfish, so committed to ourselves, our wants, and our own little kingdom, that the Son of God had to die so that we could be saved. We are also admitting and exposing to ourselves, to God, and to the world that our self-serving, self-commitment is our greatest problem and the most destructive and enslaving force to our lives -so great that the perfect Son of God had to die to deliver us. Lastly, we are admitting and exposing to ourselves and to the world that we are so incredibly loved that He was glad to do it, that He is glad to welcome us in over the blood of His Son, and that He will now never leave us or forsake us. If we forget any of these, we have forgotten the cross and stumbled into darkness.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Growing After Jesus

What does it mean to grow and change as a Christian?  How do we "grow after Jesus?"  Is it that we become saved by what Jesus did for us and then grow and change solely by following His example, or is there more to it?

For Jesus to be our example for conduct means this:

I see how Jesus treated people; therefore, I should treat them as He did.

There is truth to that.  Jesus is to be our example.  The ways He walked were righteous and true.  He shows us what it is like to be truly human, without the stains and chains and self-centeredness of sin.  But before He is our example, He is our Savior.  Furthermore, the way we "grow" in Jesus is not, I believe, primarily through strudying Jesus as a moral example but rather through experiencing Jesus as a personal reality.  In other words, we grow and change through our personal relationship with Jesus, like this:

I see and experience how Jesus treated me; therefore, I want to treat others the same.

This is Gospel-transformation.

I'll give a short, personal example.  I've struggled with anger over the years.  Praise God, I'm not going around punching walls and stuff like I have done in the past.  But I still get angry, and I noticed that one of the things I have done is trample over people's boundaries when I've been really angry.  Something inside me flips and says, "Ok, I am justified and this person is bad or in the wrong.  They don't deserve to have any rights -they deserve to be punished."

Think about the responses you might get from people if this is your problem:
-"Oh, but everybody does that sometimes..." (minimization)
-"You learned it from your parents..." (blame-shifting, minimization)
-"You have a real problem, you psycho, and you are teaching it to your children" (condemnation, even though true)

But the Gospel responds to me in a different way.  It asks me, "How did God treat you when you were His enemy?  How does God still treat you when you offend Him, such as when you treat people with bitterness when angry at them?  Does He, the only One who truly has the right, kick dirt in your face and punish and oppress you?"  No.  He doesn't.  He sends His Son to die for me.  He loves me.  He enters into personal sacrifice in order to bring me close and love me, in spite of what I deserve.  He treats me with grace and mercy even though, from His point of view, He would be perfectly right to not treat me that way at all.

Take an example the Bible gives us.  Look up the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians.  In it, Paul urges the Philippians toward humility.  He does this by reminding them of the humiliation, incarnation, suffering, and death of Jesus.  But it is not merely, "Look at how humble Jesus was.  Go be like Jesus."  It was, "Look at how Jesus left behind His glory, His interests, in order to die for you."  Paul does not portray Jesus primarily as an exemplar but as someone who personally treated them with humility and love.  That is what changes us and moves us.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Come Away My Beloved

At least for posterity, it is worth it for me to take note of a devotional book that I have really enjoyed reading and have once again picked up off the dusty bookshelf.  More than just enjoy it, God has used it to speak to me.  It is a book called Come Away My Beloved by the recently passed Frances J. Roberts.

What makes this book so different from other devotional books is the way it is written.  Most devotional books I have read follow a common formula:  the author gives a Bible verse, the author explains it, the author uses a funny little anecdote from when they were five years old to illustrate it, and then the author gives some kind of exhortation, like, "So... let's give our cares away to God and trust that He will carry our burdens," followed by a short prayer.  Since daily devotions are intended to be short, usually to fit our busy modern lifestyle, you may not find tremendous depth. That is how most of the devotional material I have read goes.  That format is just fine -not picking on it, and not all devotional material is created equal.  Some people really have a way to express the heart of God with words, and some people have a gift for keeping it simple -even using this common format.

But what many devotional materials focus on is learning or recalling some idea or some piece of information.  Sometimes that may be convicting, or it may be very encouraging but in my experience it isn't always very personal.  Many of them feel a bit information-based, as if what we need is just some more information. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there are devotionals that are beautifully written and attempt to be very personal, but it is almost difficult to not become caught up more with the beauty of the language than with the God the language is intended to point us to.  I must confess, when I read things like C. H. Spurgeon or the Valley of Vision book, sometimes I am more caught up with the beauty of the ideas and the wording.  It has that "old" flair to it, with poetic and beautiful language.  With those, I often feel connected with the living faith of men from a bygone era -not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it may be distracting.

But Roberts' contribution to the devotional-material mountain is different from anything else I've experienced, as admittedly limited as that experience is.  Rather than lifting me up with particularly beautiful language and rather than merely engaging my mind with information and practical anecdotes, Come Away My Beloved reads more like a personal letter to me from God.

I realize that some folks may not be comfortable with this format.  How can a mere human put together a letter from God to us?  Yes, in that regard it should be considered imperfect.  However, the words, the promises, the speech, the wooing, the heart, the character, the emotion, and the truth come straight from God's Word.  You can hear God in His Word speaking through the words of these devotionals... echoing, resonating, whispering.  In that, in the closed-door, isolated silence of my time before my Maker, it becomes personal.

And this is what I believe a "devotional book" should do.  It should engage the heart by revealing the heart of God to us, enlivening our faith to respond to what we "see."  It should be personal, it should point us to a Person and be a pathway for bringing God's Word to us for the purpose of that personal, Spirit-bound, intimate connection.  That is what devotion is, is it not?  All information and beauty are meant to serve that end, and if they don't they are lost... they become empty idols. 

And as a plus, like almost all things worth reading, it was penned by someone who has now passed from this world into the arms of her Savior.

Here is are two short samples:

"I have commanded that you love Me with a whole heart, and that you serve Me with undivided loyalty.  You cannot serve two masters.  Purge out the old leaven, therefore, and clean the vessels... I long after you with a love that embraces Eternity.  Though you go astray, I will surely draw you back.  Though your love grows cold and your heart indifferent, if you will listen, you shall surely hear My voice.  When you turn to Me, I shall bridge the gap.  Although you have strayed, I have not left you..." (from Cleanse the Sanctuary)

"O My children, what do you need today?  Is it comfort?  Is it courage?  Is it healing?  Is it guidance?  Behold, I assure you, whatever it is you need, if you will look to Me, I will supply.  I will be to you what the sun is to the flower; what the water of the ocean is to the fish; and what the sky is to the birds.  I will give you life, light, and strength.  I will surround you and preserve you, so that in Me you may live, move, and have you being, existing in Me when apart from Me you would die... Be done with petty things.  Be done with small dreams.  Give Me all that you have and are; and I will share with you abundantly all that I have and all that I am." (from You Shall Not Be Earthbound)

Enough for my lavish praises of this book, which I happen to have in the bonded leather edition (woo hoo!).  I realize all people are wired differently and all people are at different places, but if you should pick it up, I pray it will personally stir you in the presence of God's heart as much as it has for me.

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Life

I remember going through a particularly difficult time a few years ago.  I'd rather not discuss the details right now, but there was one experience (among many) that stuck with me and which I see still in myself and in the lives of others.

I was having a rough day -lots of strife inside and outside, lots of emotional pain ringing through my bones.  I went into the bathroom and locked the door, turned on the shower, and thought for a minute while I was waiting for the water to warm up.  I lamented inside with a mixture of anger, exhaustion, and despair, "I hate my life."  It was a sigh, a desperate and frustrated complaint, a defeated admission.

Immediately, another voice spoke within.  It wasn't an audible voice, and it wasn't from me although I "heard" it inside me.  The Voice said, "Your life?  What makes you think it is yours?"  I was immediately stilled by those words and convicted.  I am still convinced by them as I look at the things I walk through every day.

Obviously, when we say, "I hate my life," it is in the midst of suffering of some kind.  I don't want to minimize that.  But still, no matter how much we are suffering, to what degree are we making our experience of suffering worse because of that attitude which I was convicted of on that day? 

Usually, "I hate my life," means, "I hate how I'm not getting what I want (the things I think will make me happy, the things I want, the way I want things to be).  I hate how my plan for my life is not working out.  I hate how everything I set my hopes and dreams on keeps getting wrecked or taken from me."  Not many of us would admit to "hating" our life like that.  We try to avoid and ignore the obvious cries of our hearts and cover them over with things like denial, "positive thinking," busyness, you name it.  Yet still it eats at us inside.  Why?

God's Word makes two things very clear.  First, we are blind fools with a heart that is so deceitful we don't even know ourselves.  We just plain don't know what will make us happy.  Second, we think real life will be found in everything we want and not God Himself and what He wants.  We have an inward bent toward self-soveriegnty and all the alleged rights and entitlements that come along with that false notion.

Sometimes we get the foolish idea in our heads that God is like Santa Claus -He exists to fulfill all of our wishes if we've been good little boys and girls.  When He doesn't, we have a crisis of faith: God isn't like what we thought.  The sober truth is that God is in the business of smashing the cup of our self-sovereignty to replace it with something better, more enduring, and more beautiful and satisfying.

When you "hate your life," you need to ask yourself at least four big questions:
1. What is it that God or others didn't give you that you find so essential?
2. Why do you think this life you have is yours? 
3. What would be different about your life if it belonged to Someone else and you were, in effect, "using" it for them for a time?
4. Why don't you want to let that happen?  What things would you be forced to let go of that you don't want to let go of?  How would that threaten you and your plans?  (Hint: see your responses to question #1)

The big issue here is sovereignty, for ownership here implies sovereignty.  See, if you believe the life you have is "yours," then that means you believe you have certain rights and entitlements.  You should, for example, be entitled to decide how you think it should go.  And if people, things, situations, or even God happen to thwart your plans for "your life," then you have a "right" to be bitter about it.

A. W. Tozer explains...

"For [fallen man], God's dominion ends where his begins.  For him, self becomes Self... Because man is born a rebel, he is unaware that he is one.  His constant assertion of self, as far as he thinks of it at all, appears to him a perfectly normal thing.  He is willing to share himself, sometimes even to sacrifice himself for a desired end, but never to dethrone himself."

What if this life of yours isn't your life?  What if a supreme, eternal, and completely independent Being created you, a very, very dependent being, for His own purposes?  What if it isn't all about you getting to call the shots and decide what your life should entail and how it should play out?  What if you aren't the one who gets to decide what should be most important and what things are essential for your life, your particular little blip on the screen of human history, to be meaningful and "worth it?"  What if you wake up one day and discover that you... are not God?  Hmmm....

God calls us to "hate" our lives in a very, very different way.  Instead of being focused on our wants and lamenting our life out of frustrated selfish desires and foiled plans, God calls us to demote "self", putting God and others first.  Jesus put self aside for us, and following Him means doing the same.  And He calls us to recognize that our lives are, well, not "ours."  We belong to Someone else in a double-sense: as creatures created by God and as those who belong to the One who died and bought us.

"Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:15)

"...You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." (1 Cor 6:19-20)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Loving When it is Difficult

A young friend on Facebook recently posted the somewhat rhetorical question (paraphrase): "I know we're supposed to love, but how do you love others when they have stomped on your heart and ripped it to shreds?"

I replied in comment:
"We learn it, slowly, not by looking at others and how they treat us but by looking at the God who died for His enemies (you and I and everybody else). The more we realize we were His enemies, and even still do and love things that only enemies would love, and yet He loved us like that, the more we learn to love our enemies. Takes a long time.

But it is impossible to love people so long as we are entirely focused on what they have taken from us or how they don't give us what we want or threaten it.

Loving people who hurt us is always costly and often painful. Look what it cost Jesus."

The short answer is: we learn love from God.  It flows from God to us, and we choose to give it to others.  The more we receive and apprehend God's love in the face of the depth of our depravity, the more compassion and love we have on others, even when they have hurt us.

The thing about love is that it always costs something.  There is always a place you come to where, in order to love and/or forgive someone, you are forced to let something go.  Why?  Because, as I alluded to in my comment, the reasons we do not love others are related to things we love more than others.  There are things we are holding on to, or trying to hold on to, things we have enthroned in our lives, desires that capture our hearts.  It is easy to love someone who never hurt you.  But when someone has destroyed your reputation, killed your dream, or taken some other thing you lust after and love more than others, you have a choice:  you can let go of that thing you are holding on to, relinquishing your dependence on it and right over it and love the other person, or you can hold on to it and hate them.

Like walking in faith, love takes us places.  At each destination, at each bump along the road, love for God and others asks us, "What  or who do you really love?  What is most precious to you?"  Often times, we find out that what we love most is not God and our neighbor (or our enemies, as Jesus commanded).  We find that we love our reputation, our money, the glory we get from the approval of others, our family, our agenda, our plans, the respect we think we deserve for our good efforts, or our dream for our dream life more than we love others.  They are usually good things we love, but we love them too much.  They become what the New Testament calls "lusts."  In other words, we have a hard time loving others because we are driven by self-interet.  We love something they are blocking from us, and it's all about us and what we want.

When you have a hard time loving someone who has hurt you, you must ask yourself, "What is it that I want so badly that they are blocking or have blocked from me getting?"  That is why you won't love them... that is why you can't love them.  You can't because you're ruled by another master, and you remain focused on you and what you lost.  Love is costly (just look at Jesus) because it always forces us to restructure our priorities and dethrone the things we hold as so precious, forcing us to humbly look to God, endure the debt of what we lost, and love and serve even those who hurt us.

And it does... it takes a long time to learn.  But as we learn it, we find freedom from the chains of our own desires that hold us down.  We don't cease to desire, but our desires for self begin to subordinate themselves to the love of God and our desire to glorify Him by loving and serving others.  We see beauty in Jesus and what He did for us, and it begins to surpass our desires for self.

Real life has an uncanny way of providing practical examples to this :).  Recently, my son got himself into a whole lot of trouble.  At first, I was somewhat in shock.  But anger soon grew inside, and it was eclipsing my God-given responsibility to love him as his dad.  Why was I angry?  It was because his actions blocked from me what I wanted.  I wanted all of my efforts to love him, listen to him, pray for him, teach him, and raise him well to pay off.  I wanted my payoff, I wanted the results I expected -I demanded them, and he urinated on all of them.  Suddenly, it was all about me.  I was being selfish.  At this crossroads, I had to let go of my expectations, to demote them, to let go of the strings I had attached to all of my giving.  I could not, and cannot, really love him and serve him otherwise.

Real love brings us to a crossroads, leading us, if we wish to walk in the way of love, to demote self and demote our self-interest, our self-kingdom, our self-plans in order to serve another.  Real love is a life-long process of dethroning and surrendering all of the things we love more than God and others.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lent, Faith, and Sacrifice

Since becoming a Christian and straying from my more nominally Roman Catholic roots, I've also strayed from the more liturgical aspects of my upbringing such as observing the liturgical calendar.  But, you know, there is something I'm really growing to appreciate about the lenten season.  Namely, I am growing to appreciate the idea of giving certain things up, making a sacrifice.

Granted, there are moralistic ways to do this, and Jesus quoted the Old Testament toward such folks: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."  But what I am coming to appreciate more and more is not what people give up for Friday's or for a week -meat, their cell phones, television, etc.- but rather what the concept of lenten sacrifice, to me, points to:  the respiration of faith.

Eugene Peterson's book, The Jesus Way, has unwrapped the nut of what I'm getting at in the first chapter, where he looks at the way in which Abraham exemplifies the way... the way of faith.  His ultimate point is that faith, the walk of faith, is something that has movement.  We are constantly moving from somewhere to somewhere, and that involves leaving things behind and moving to something new.  Think of how lightly you would pack if you knew you were moving every day!

"Abraham did not become out exemplar in faith by having it explained to him but by engaging in a lifetime of travel, life on the road, daily leaving something of himself behind (self-sovereignty) and entering something new (God-sovereignty).

Sacrifice is to faith what eating is to nutrition... Faith, of which Abraham is our father, can never be understood by means of explanation or definition, only in the practice of sacrifice. Only in the act of obedience do we realize that sacrifice is not diminishment, not a stoical 'This is the cross I bear' nonsense. It does not result in less joy, less satisfaction, less fulfillment, but in more -but rarely in the ways we expect." (p. 51)

The concept of sacrifice is the heart and soul of a life of faith -leaving the old and moving to the new.  It isn't something we do to pay God back nor to stoically punish ourselves.  It is the result of being present before God as He is present before us and walking expectantly toward His brighter and broader vistas.  We do not depart from Ur for the sake of proving our devotion but because we believe God -that He has something better for us.

Following Jesus, a life of faith, calls us to do this on many levels.  This is part of what defines a truly personal, Jesus-based life of faith (the other part being utter dependence upon Him as the righteousness we stand upon).  We rest upon, follow, and love a Person, not an idea or a system or an organization.  It separates it from the many who talk about "having faith" as if it were a thing, merely one ingredient of many toward a happy, self-sovereign life, an object in itself -like having a dog or a hobby or a regular exercise plan.  We are called to sacrifice, toward leaving and going, both on the micro level, in daily decisions, and on the macro level, with the overall direction and passions and desires of life.  Life becomes one grand journey away from our little kingdoms of self, with our lust and self-defined treasures, toward God's kingdom where He and His ways become our greatest treasure.  It is a journey of being called and following, and in the process we leave things behind.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Building a Kingdom - More Thoughts on Insecurity

"... [N]ormal desires for love [are] mutated into something very different.  This happened because we made the world about us and our desires.  We want to be admired, respected, and important.  We want fame, as long as it doesn't interfere with our comfort.  We want... glory, glory for ourselves.
What we really need is a changed heart.
There it is again:  Whose kingdom?  Where is our treasure?  Our treasure is the admiration of others; our kingdoms are our own.  The way out begins with what Scripture calls repentance.  In shorthand form, this means that we confess we made it all about us.  We were building our own kingdoms, and now we recognize and state before God that we were wrong." (Running Scared by Ed Welch, p. 188)

Welch is right, and I see it in myself.  My insecurity and fear are built around me trying to build a kingdom for myself.  The bricks are human appreciation, approval, and affection.  The beams and supports are my greatness compared to others.  How do we build it?  What is the work we do to build it?  For me, I tend to live around my performance.  I live around being great at things I do and being everything others, certain people in particular, like.  And if I can't?  If I fail?  If for some reason my efforts turn out to be for naught because their approval is lost or threatened?  I panic.  This gives other people tremendous power over me, for they stand as the gateways to what I desperately need to build my kingdom.

He is also right that the beginning of making our pilgrimage out of this land of bondage comes through repentance -admitting that I've been all about me and my kingdom.  We've been working very hard, yes, but not to build God's kingdom.  We've been working to build our own.  Even good things, good actions, become tinged with the desire to get that something back.  Good actions have been captured as slave-workers for our little kingdom.
We find this quickly when we set out to "love other more than we need from others" but then are confronted with how difficult it is to do that.  We often quicky find that we have just employed the idea as one new strategy of many practical strategies to gain that approval and appreciation.  We come face to face with how much we need Jesus, and it is only through looking to Jesus and looking upon Him that we begin to be captured with the beauty of being lop-sided:  loving others relentlessly for the sake of God's kingdom even when they don't give us back what we want.

Are you building a kingdom for yourself?  What is it made of?  What are the bricks and beams made out of?  How do you try to build it?  How do you react when you sense it is being threatened?  When it is obliterated?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thoughts on Insecurity

I struggle with insecurity.  Most people, if they are honest, will admit that they do.  I'm not really sure why, but I sorta always have.  Some experiences in life certainly haven't helped.

The Lord has shown me how my insecurity is laregely pride, a quest for my own glory.  I feel insecure about how I compare to others, but I simultaneously am compelled to do things which show how great I am when I am put in a position in which I believe I perform better than someone else.  I feel insecure about what others think of me

The result is simple.  It's called "slavery."  I'm either pulled with intense gravity to boast, or I'm intimidated by others, in comparison to them or terrified of their disapproval.  The closer they are to me or more important they are to me, the greater the effect.  Yet, it is slavery -I'm bound in service.  The worst thing my insecurity can handle is to not be great, to be insignificant, to be worthless.  And with all of that self-preoccupation, it is pretty difficult to think of and love others.

I've read enough and talked to enough counselors to know that a very common way to deal with this, from the aspect of Christian counseling, is to focus on my identity in Christ and my justification -that I am righteous in Christ, perfect and complete... that I am God's child, Christ's Bride, a priest unto God.  This is good, and it is true enough.  Maybe if there was some kind of powerful encounter with God where He really drilled these things into my soul, I would be "cured."

Is it really just a matter of finding my affirmation from God instead of people, or is there more to it?  I think there is more going on.  See, I never actually addressed something:  why am I so preoccupied with my own greatness and "glory" to begin with?  Maybe I don't need more affirmation, per se.  Maybe I need to look at the matter of my preoccupation with myself rather than my preoccupation with the Lord and others.  Granted, it is nothing I can flip a switch and change, but if I put my eyes there, at least I am perhaps being more honest about the issue.

See, Jesus gave us a totally backwards, upside-down way to look at "greatness."  He said that to be first meant to be last.  The greatest is the servant of all.  The one who is really "great" is the one who cares so little of his own greatness that he is preoccupied with serving others and being used faithfully by his God.  Jesus, Himself, exemplifies this, and He did so on our behalf.  The second chapter of Philippians reminds us of this.

Even though I still battle this, I do see something slowly working and brewing in me.  When I stop looking for methods to "fix myself" and I start looking at Jesus, drawing near to Him as a Person rather than an idea, I see in Him something beautiful.  I see One who had real greatness and glory, unlike me, and gave it up voluntarily to serve, to be an instrument.  As I gaze upon Him and enter in with Him, I start to love that about Him more and more... so much that I want to be like Him.  I start to love that about Him and see the true greatness of casting the opinions of others into the wind for the sake of being used by God in service to others.  I start to want to follow Him in that capacity, to walk in that way, even though I am so poor at it.

Lord, it is great to be used by You, to follow You no matter what because of who You are.  That is great and glorious.  I see in You that it is great to be counted as nothing by others for the sake of being a part of God's elaborite plan of redemption, working in the ways You have ordained for me, to path You have set for me.  It is great to be less so that You can be more.