Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Annoying Voice of Guilt

I read somewhere years ago of a well-known psychiatrist who was asked about mental disorders and the many people in mental institutions. He said something to the effect that the recurring theme in most of his patients’ mental issues is guilt. If people had a way to deal with their guilt, most of his patients would be cured.

I wish I could remember where I read that. Hopefully, I’m not spreading one of those infamous Christian legends that we pass on ignorantly. I can’t affirm this incident is true, but it has always stuck with me. What I can affirm from my own experience and years of counseling people is that guilt would definitely be at the top of the list for people’s issues.

Guilt is always under the surface. It sits in the background. It is never really gone and with very little prompting it seems to resurface and taunt us, torture us. If you ever want to see how powerful guilt is just do an experiment. Wake up one morning and decide that today you are going to be perfect. You are going to actually try with all my might to be good, full of joy, full of love. You will avoid all that is harmful, wasteful, and vain. Each time you find yourself failing even in a second, put a check box on a piece of paper.

I tried this once in college. I began the day feeling good because like New Years resolutions, or the first day of a diet we feel good about ourselves. We have suppressed the guilt and the despair of repeated failure and today we are going to see some hope. The day started well, but by lunch I had so many check boxes for minor failures, I quit. The more I would analyze each and every moment, the more I became aware of the overwhelming and impossible task.

I think guilt hits each of us in different ways. For some there is actual guilt. We find ourselves doing or thinking things which go against our own values. Maybe we put a high value on dependability and dedication. We hate the person who shows up late to meetings, then find ourselves running late, giving the same excuses we despise in others.

For others there is a false guilt. There is always a sense they are inadequate somehow or they are easily made to feel badly for not meeting someone else’s expectations. You haven't really done anything wrong, you just always feel like you have. 

Still for others, guilt is something that works deeply in the background. They don’t even recognize it. What is in the foreground is anxiety, depression, sleepless nights, jitteriness, or a constant melancholy. Their subconsciences carry the burdens of failed relationships, wayward children, bad financial decisions, poor choices in friendships. There is a voice in the background always reminding them, I screwed up. 

I can’t say I fully understand guilt or why it is so prevalent in our psyche. Some would argue that it is from the fall. I’m sure that is part of it, but not the whole picture. Others would argue that guilt is a synthetic construct created by manmade religion. Yeah? Show me a non-religious person who has no guilt at all.

From a Christian perspective we have a way to deal with guilt, but it is a daily battle. One way is to try and lower the collateral damage. We will never be perfect, but we can make choices that prevent us from acting out our full depravity. When we give in to every temptation without attempts to fight, we add actual guilt upon guilt.

There is a better way from my experience to deal with guilt. Continue to speak to yourself your identity in Christ. At the cross, Christ took on our sin, and we were clothed in his guilt-free righteousness. From God’s perspective he sees nothing but beauty. He is not mad or disappointed at us because that would mean he is mad and disappointed with Jesus. Sure, this doesn’t give us a pass to do what we want, but in fact is a stronger motivation to change. Change happens much more quickly when guilt isn’t holding us down. When we don’t fear failure. When we know we can get right back up because God is for us.

We will never be free of guilt in this life, but we don’t have to be slaves to it if we don’t want to be.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ask and you will receive????

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:14)

When I read this passage, I am confronted right away with my own lack of faith.

This passage, and passages like it have always frustrated me because if taken in short form, my life should look different. I should be comfortably wealthy for all the times I’ve asked for money. I should be perfectly healthy for all the times I have prayed for healing. I should know few people who aren’t followers of Jesus for all the times I have asked for the spiritual awakening of others.

I have had many answers to prayer throughout my life, but nothing close to the 100 percent batting average Jesus claims here. So maybe we can assume Jesus is exaggerating because this doesn’t fit our experience. Maybe Jesus meant something else in saying this.

The apostle John who recorded the life of Jesus, later wrote the epistles of 1, 2, and 3 John. He says this from his own experience. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. (1 John 3:21-22)

Here John claims that Jesus’ promise is true at least in his experience, yet he adds additional conditions. “Because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.”  I think this gets us closer to what Jesus is saying.

There are many other verses that seem to give limits to this “asking” and the author Andrew Murray says this: "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my Name, that will I do." Jesus means that promise literally. Christians have sought to limit it because it looked too free. It was hardly safe to trust man so unconditionally. They did not understand that the phrase "in my Name" is its own safeguard. It is a spiritual power which no one can use further than his living and acting in that Name allows." 

Asking in Jesus name – within his “will” is praying as if Jesus is praying. It is asking for those things Jesus would ask for to the glory of the Father. This is both encouraging and frustrating. It is encouraging because it helps explain why so often we don’t get prayers answered. We are asking for something God doesn’t want us to have or may even be wrong for us to ask. It is frustrating because knowing how God thinks doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of praying, experimenting, reading Scripture.

For me I have found that “Jesus’ will” seems to be less about an exact thing, and more about a category which has many options. For example, if I go to the candy store and order candy for my wife, I know that if I order chocolate she will want it. I have dozens of options to ask for within that category and she will be pleased. So it seems to be for asking and receiving. When we read God's written word and better understand the heart of God, we are more likely to pray for things within the category of "good, acceptable, and perfect." (Rom. 12:2)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Physical Health and Spiritual Health

I’ve been reading a book called “Toward a Perfect Love” by a 14th century writer named Walter Hilton. Hilton was an Augustinian mystic who received some education from the University of Cambridge. Most of his works were very practical and devotional in nature.

Hilton talks about how it is we can develop our spiritual strength and he says something that was surprising to me.

He quotes the Apostle Paul concerning physical exercise and taking control of our physical bodies. Then he says this, “By discipline of the physical life we are enabled for spiritual effort. We need to be able to break down the inflexibility of bodily desires by acquired discretion and such exercise as may make the body itself supple and ready, so that it is not antagonistic to spiritual disciplines”.

Later he gives some examples of what he means by physical exercises such as fasting, or disciplining yourself to stay up and pray as well as learning to restrain even healthy physical appetites in order to learn discipline. Where I was surprised was to hear a man who lived in the 14th century put such emphasis on physical health as a conduit for spiritual health. I assumed it would be the other way around. I guess I shouldn't be surprised because much of the monastic movements connected body to spirit, but hearing it in this way made sense for some reason.
What I don’t often hear or read from Christian authors is the priority of the physical disciplines in order to allow freedom for spiritual health. What is more often said is we need to focus inwardly on the spiritual side, and the disciplines of our body will come.

We in the Pacific Northwest live in a health-obsessed culture and not always for the right reasons. Here is at least one good reason for physical discipline. There is something to say about the fact that when we are out of shape, overweight, addicted to facebook, not getting sleep, sick all the time from unhealthy habits, it is difficult to focus on spiritual things. We are mentally and emotionally tired. We deal with guilt from our laziness or struggle to keep our minds focused in the silence of reflection or meditation. 

The apostle Paul talked about bringing his physical body under his control (I Cor. 9:27). Recently, I started applying this in my own life. I love to be active, but I hate mundane exercise. I am not motivated to run a 5k, look buff, or just sweat in the gym for the hell of it as many of my friends. Don't get me wrong, I wish I was motivated and I admire anyone who will exercise robotically. This just isn't me. 

However, I am realizing I need to push my body more with exercise and diet to gain better control of my spiritual life. So far I’ve found increasing benefit and freedom. When my body is circulating, my head is clear, my energy has a place to go, I have found it really does provide more space for spiritual reflection and focus. 

We'll see how long it lasts.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When God Says "No"

I ran across a fascinating passage this week in the book of Jeremiah on prayer.

The prophet Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet because he is sent to do the nearly impossible task of getting wicked Israel to turn back to God. Not only do they refuse to listen to him, but he is beaten up and verbally abused multiple times.

Israel’s sin list is pretty appalling. They ran from God and looked for pleasure everywhere else; full of lust, apostasy, and evil. (2:13, 19-20, 23-24) When things got hard they would partially repent, but just in order to stop the pain, not to be back in the loving relationship with God (3:9-10). God told them if they would “return” to the Lord, “remove” the detestable things from their lives, and choose to again follow “truth and justice” God would completely forgive and restore (4:1-2).

God threatens violent punishment on the nation which we know was fulfilled in 586 B.C. when Babylon destroyed the nation and the temple. Hope is given in that God will make another covenant relationship through the Messiah that won’t turn out the same way it did with Israel.

But here is the passage I found fascinating. "So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you. (Jer. 7:16). God says this two other times in Jeremiah as well (11:14;14:11). God has been clear throughout this prophecy that his punishment of Israel is motivated by love and a desire to bring her back to him. It is for this reason Jeremiah is told not to pray for the people. More specifically, he is not to ask God to relent or change his mind because he won’t. It is God’s will that Israel come back to him and he knows it will not happen if he relents.

Here is the application to me. We often measure the success of our prayers on their “yes” answers. We don't have the luxury of the prophets of being told exactly what to pray for and what is outside of God's will. So we pray for everything we think is good. When our prayers aren't answered the way we want or would expect, it can be discouraging.  When we ask God to come to our aid or rescue a friend who is in spiritual darkness, from our perspective what we want seems what is best. We wouldn’t ask for it otherwise.

However, here we can get a small glimpse of the harm that could come from God saying "yes". If God always answers our prayer affirmatively,  he could be doing what is hurtful to others, what is against his ultimate plans, or what has much broader repercussions than we can see. We would be put in the driver's seat for the ordering of our world, but we make poor little gods. 

So we should be happy when God answers our prayers, but also be thankful for the times he says “No’’.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Prayer, A Compulsive Discipline

I see in my own experience two types of prayer. 

The first type is the easiest and most natural. It is a prayer that comes by compulsion. When circumstances, usually crisis or deep concern, move me to focus my thoughts toward God. To pray for my rescue or the rescue of another. The problem arises in that this compulsion to pray is motivated by something I want, so usually forms itself into a task list for God. It is a reactive conversation, not a proactive one.

Other times I feel a compulsion to pray when there is a spiritual emptiness of some kind. These prayers are usually pretty sweet, because I am feeding out of hunger. Unfortunately, if the only time I prayed was out of inner need, praying would rarely happen. I am too rich, lazy, comfortable, entertained, and dumbified by this world. I have too many ways to synthetically stop up the spiritual leaks, so usually I band-aid the issue and move on.

Another type of prayer comes out of at least a modicum of discipline. I don’t like to give any props to this word  because it hasn’t done me much good over the years in most situations.  But without certain structures or rhythms in our life most of us won’t experience meaningful prayer most of the time.

I don’t think it has to be either compulsion or discipline. The best spot is when both are combined.

I read recently that the Puritans had a saying “Pray until you Pray”. I would call the first “pray” a discipline, and the second a compulsion. Often we have to pray until we get to the good stuff. A great blog on disciplining prayer into goodness can be seen here.  

Most of the time that we begin prayer it is dry, but if you are able to push through this, sometimes you will experience the spiritual in a way in which you are then compelled to pray.  

C.S. Lewis quotes this anonymous poem which I think is a fantastic way to articulate what I have experienced.

They tell me, Lord, that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since but one voice is heard, it’s all a dream
One talker aping two.

Sometimes it is, yet not as they
Conceive. Rather, I 
Seek in myself the things I hoped to say, 
But lo!, my wells are dry.

Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role and through
My dumb lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.

And thus you neither need reply
Nor can; thus, while we seem
Two talkers, thou art One forever, and I 
No dreamer, but thy dream.

My take-away from this poem is that prayer usually begins as “one talker aping two.” I talk into the air and have not yet placed my thoughts into the presence of Jesus. My mind spins; my will is locked. Then something happens. Not all the time, but sometimes. It is a tangible experience where the supernatural takes over. Like the unclogging of a drain. Thoughts begin to pour in and I pray them out. I’m overwhelmed with the presence of God. I experience a love for God and mankind which burns away my doubts and fears. 

So I think it is great to pray when you feel like it, but often to feel like it we need to discipline ourselves to pray when we don't feel like it. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I Like Praying, Just Not With You

I went to a Silence and Solitude retreat this weekend and had an epiphany. You see I have always said for years that one of my biggest spiritual weaknesses is prayer. “Prayer doesn’t come naturally for me” I will always say.

I see this as a weakness in my leadership as well since  I don’t effectively lead the staff in prayer, nor do I feel our church displays a culture of prayer. So I kick myself, and ask God to somehow shore up my weakness by bringing others gifted at prayer to strengthen this aspect of spirituality.

But here was my epiphany. I love to pray. It isn’t that I don’t want to pray;  it’s that I don’t want to pray with other people. I realized this weekend a common thread in these group retreats on prayer. Most people say how hard it is for them to sit in silence, meditation, or reflection for hours. I love it. That is the center of my universe. Thinking, reflecting, writing, talking with God is great as long as noone else is involved in it to “mess it up” (sounds horrible I know). 

Then comes the part of the retreat most people like and I hate. We get together and sing, or do spontaneous prayer together. All I can think about is, “Damn I sure wish I could go back to the awesome silence and solitude.” 

What is wrong with me?

I’m not saying there aren’t some times in my life where there were powerful moments in group praying, nor am I saying I am normal. In most cases it has nothing to do with the group, but everything to do with what prayer is to me.

After reflection this week I think I realized what the issue is. Since I was a child conversation with God has been as natural as breathing. Yet, for me prayer is extremely personal and experiential. I need this place of safety to be honest with the only person I can truly unload on. Jesus. My best prayers are in the woods, or on a beach. I pace in circles;  I talk out loud; sometimes I cry, yell, or even cuss. I have kept prayer journals off and on over the years and have hundreds of answers to prayers. My wife could tell you that after a morning alone in prayer I am a freed-up person.

Then comes a time for me to pray in public, or pray in a group. I don’t know what to say. I find myself speaking more for the benefit of the listeners than myself. My prayers move from spontaneous silence, experience, minutes of dead space, just enjoying  the presence of God to lots of monotonous words. I find myself running through a mental index of topic headings like the front page of a newspaper to get some ideas of what I should cover. 

Anyway, this is clearly a problem because corporate prayer is important. How can I model prayer when I don’t want anyone to hear my own. So I am on a journey right now to figure out how to be better at corporate or group praying without feeling fake and jacking up the good thing I feel I get in private.  I know I need to pray with other believers. I’m a pastor for goodness sake, but I don’t want to do it, because praying on my own is so much more fulfilling and enjoyable. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Distorted, Caustic, and Warped view of Forgiveness

One of the most common myths perpetrated in the Christian community is the idea that we are required to forgive someone who deeply wounds us as long as they say "I'm sorry".

In life there are many little ways in which we hurt each other. No one is perfect, right? We are told to cover each others faults in love.  But what I'm talking about is when someone clearly hurts you with their words or actions in a way that does lasting damage to the relationship. What should we expect from that person, if anything, before we can forgive?

Well, let's start with what God expects from us. 

"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14)

This is one of dozens of passages that address God's expectations for forgiveness and restoration of a broken relationship. God had a unique relationship with the nation of Israel. They were his chosen people. They were his children and the ones he loved. When they sinned against God, countless times he offered forgiveness and a restoring of that which was broken. However, forgiveness can only be done by mutual consent. Forgiveness means to repair what has been broken, to restore the relationship back to its previous form. Both parties have to agree to restore what was broken. One party cannot impose forgiveness on the other.

Let me illustrate. You and a friend have a falling out. That friend ends the conversation with, "I hate you and hope to never see you again. Don't show up to my house or talk to my kids." They walk away. After a few days, you decide you will be the bigger man or woman and say, "I forgive you." This is impossible to do when your friend does not want restoration, as illustrated by their actions and attitudes towards you. In the countless times God offers forgiveness to Israel it was always preceded by steps they first must take toward him. They must humble themselves. This is the attitude necessary to receive rebuke and recognize one's inimical actions. They must confess their sin. Confession means saying about my sin what God says. A poor confession would be something like, "I'm sorry for mistakes made", or "I was having a bad day", or "I'm sorry if somehow what I may or may not have done has caused you pain."

No. A good confession looks like this. "When I yelled at you and demeaned you in front of your friends I did so because I love the feeling of power it gave me. In that moment I thought only of myself and I viewed you like an animal, unworthy of compassion or empathy. You did not deserve that. What I did was wicked and excuse-less and I am so sorry for the hurt I caused you by my sin. Would you please forgive me and allow me to rebuild trust." This is closer to what confession actually means.

Then we are told to repent, or make steps to turn from that sin. Repentance means literally to make a 180 degree change in action. Maybe that change is only for a day or a week. Maybe it lasts a lifetime but our effort in turning from the very thing we did to wound others shows that we truly recognize the wrongness of our actions, and the effect the actions had on the wounded party(ies).

So God agrees to forgive and cast our sins away from him when we humble ourselves, confess what we did, and make steps to stop repeating the patterns of abuse and wounding which got us here in the first place.

This same pattern of forgiveness is given to us in skeletal form in the New Testament church. Passages such as Matthew 18:15-17, I John 1:9, Luke 17:3-4 all give us the same general picture. We are all to have a heart willing to forgive no matter what someone has done to us. However, if they wound us particularly in a deep way, we can expect and even demand humility, true confession, and repentance as a requirement for that forgiveness. Even with all this it still may take time to rebuild trust.

One valid push-back is this, "What do we do if the person who wounds us does not humble themselves, confess the sin, or repent?" Let's assume the process was fair and the charges made are vetted. If they don't confess and repent not only do they not want your forgiveness, but it isn't something you can give. This puts us in a bind. Many in our lives may wound us without acknowledging that hurt or being willing to go through a reconciliation process. For those people we are told to love. However, this is now a love towards an enemy (Luke 6:35). We should pray for them and their repentance. We should beg the Holy Spirit to give us a heart of compassion and not bitterness and resentment. However, we do not have to be their friend. We do not have to validate their sin because they made some vague references to regret or mistakes made. Our hope is always that they fess up, allowing for us to then seeking healing.

When people misunderstand how forgiveness works several things happen:
1) Abuse is perpetuated. A husband beats his wife one night after too many drinks and feels bad the next day and says "sorry". Her friend tells her "You have to forgive him because he said sorry". Most of us would cringe at the wrongness of this scenario. We would advise her to leave that husband and not come back unless there is a real process of he is willing to go through. But when Christians are calling other Christians to forgive abuses done to them without requiring first the humility, confession, and repentance of the abuser, they are helping perpetuate abuse. There are times in which good intentioned Christians are guilting others into remaining in abusive situations that they have no responsibility to remain in.

2) Forgiveness is made cheap. Forgiveness always comes at a personal cost to the victim. Forgiveness is saying to the perpetrator, "You can't pay for the sin you committed, though you should be punished. Instead, I'll take on that punishment myself. I'll let you go free at a personal cost to me." It is hard to forgive, but because of the cost, it is one of the most beautiful and redemptive processes we have in our world. However, forgiveness is not something just anyone can toss around. Forgiveness can only be given by the victim. A friend or a church cannot say, "Why don't you just forgive him/her? We have!" But no sin was actually committed against them. There was no wound inflicted on them. They had no true relationship with the person. When they throw out forgiveness like candy at a parade, it is meaningless, without cost, and makes the path towards forgiveness even more difficult for the person truly wounded.

So let's have a proper understanding of forgiveness. Let us seek to love all and pray for all, but don't cut the process of forgiveness short because some of your ignorant Christian friends throw out conversation stoppers like "Why can you let it go?" or "You need to forgive and pretend everything is ok."