Are You a Submissive Listener?

Submission involves surrendering people to God. Instead of trying to control them, we leave them with all their freedom intact. Instead of wishing that people did what we wanted them to do, we ask God, How can I be part of what you are doing in this person? How might I be restorative instead of accusative?

Perhaps the greatest form of submission is listening deeply to them. Being totally present to others and quieting our minds is hard work. It involves not interrupting, not finishing sentences, not inserting little jokes when people talk, and not thinking about other things while they talk. Listening is minute-by-minute submission. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the “half-listening” phenomenon:

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person [Life Together, 98].

Perhaps it seems to harsh to say that to listen inattentively is to despise a person. But despising someone is the opposite of respecting them, and respect is a core expression of love. To listen to one another is one of the greatest services we can give another person.

Jan Johnson, “Contagious: The Surprising Things that Make Community Transformational,” Conversations, 13:1, 24-25.

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3 Things that Kill Love

3 things kill loveA wise marriage counselor once told me that there are three things that kill love in a marriage. Without the appropriate virtues, marriages will remain stuck or fail. I suppose that these three vices will also kill love in any relationship.

A Lack of Self-Awareness

It can be said of all humans that there are things “we don’t know that we don’t know.” This becomes acutely painful in relationships, especially when we don’t realize how we are coming across to others. We can be innocently ignorant, or willfully ignorant. By means of poor socialization, cultural narrowness and/or historcial naivete we can have appreciably negative effects on others. We remain out of touch with reality if we don’t have some standard by which to calibrate ourselves–something or Someone who is bigger than our socially constructed views of reality. We are inclined to use ourselves and our preferences (that with which we are familiar) as the standard of measure. The homes we grew up in seemed reasonably normal–until someone came along and annoyingly pointed out the dysfunction. Do you have some means, some standard by which you calibrate yourself to reality? 

A Lack of Ownership of Sin

Denial of guilt is a built-in default of the human condition. “Hiding” and “covering” begins in early childhood and extends well into adulthood. And it goes with many to their graves. Hiding becomes sophisticated as we age. This is most noticeable when we take on clever personas and self-protecting strategies. Covering is equally sophisticated: blame-shifting, minimizing, rationalizing, self-justification are ways of we avoid responsibility for our poor choices. In some instances, calloused hearts are no longer able to take responsibility for bad choices. In other instances, a lack of ownership of sin can be due to shame that has been deeply buried and unexplored. Does anyone explore your soul and help you see that you and you alone are the owner of your sin? Do you allow, even invite this?

A Lack of Humility

Some ancients believed that pride was the ability to make oneself look larger than normal. In other words, to make life work and to keep people under your control, acquire an exaggerated sense of self-importance. In order for this to happen, God is pushed to the periphery of our thinking; he becomes a mere bit-player in our stories where WE are the hero. In its most severe form we think of boasting as a lack of humility. In its more subtle forms a lack of humility consists of inwardly holding others in contempt, but being nice and pleasant on the outside. Over time, our inner lawyers can become crafty and intellectually overconfident. Brokenness is the corrective for pride. The hard knocks of reality have a way of pin-pricking our inflated selves. Tragedies, sickness, financial reversals, relational abandonment can be the effective means of penetrating a proud heart. So too, the “faithful wounds” of friends can sometimes serve as a catalyst for brokenness. When was the last time someone gently, but firmly pointed out your lack of humility? When was the last time you allowed it? Invited it?

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Obviously, these three love-killers can be developed more fully with greater sophistication and nuance. Suffice it for now to say this: Insight alone does not bring people to a recognition of their love-killing ways. Some kind of emotional and experiential shift has to happen. The internal pain of these love-killing strategies has to become too much to bear. The sufferings of life can also serve as a recalibrating jolt for stubborn hearts. Moreover, the ears of mature and discerning people are needed for shifts to occur. Here’s where a mentor or spiritual director can be most helpful. Do you have a mentor or spiritual director? Lasting change is well nigh impossible without the input of wise and discerning guides. Finally, some of the best soul work happens in small groups with seasoned guides, humble leaders who are Spirit-filled and biblically-informed. We all have love-killing leanings. Do we and are we willing to invite others to recalibrate our skewed and self-focused views of reality?

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Are You Looking to Jesus to Remove Your Shame?

Crucifixion1631COMBefore being crucified, victims were usually stripped naked. It is difficult to imagine a more humiliating event. There is reason to believe this was true for Jesus. But we find it virtually impossible to look upon his naked form, or even consider it, given how embarrassing it feels. Our own discomfort is revealed even in the way we represent it artistically. With few exceptions, depictions of this event usually portray Jesus’ loins covered with a cloth. This not to argue in favor of a different way to portray Jesus’ crucifixion, but rather to point out that although we assent theologically to how Good Friday delivered us from shame as well as sin, actually permitting ourselves to be there on that Friday, being with a naked Jesus, it is entirely a different matter altogether. But only to the degree that we take the time to image, sense and feel what it would have been like to be there can we answer yes to the question “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

The point here is to emphasize that Jesus’ naked vulnerability is a testimony to us that he knows exactly what it is like to be us. To truly be with us Jesus–Immanuel–not only knows what it means to be vulnerable, he knows how painfully, frighteningly hard it is to live into it, given shame’s threat. He knows the agony of sweating blood, looking for a way–any way–to avoid being stripped naked, being seen for who he was and left alone to die. He does not require anything of us that he does not do first himself. . . .

To this God, whom we meet in Jesus, we must direct our attention if we are to know the healing of our shame. We must literally look to Jesus in embodied ways in order to know how being loved in community brings shame to its knees and lifts us up and into acts of goodness and beauty.

Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame, 128-29.

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Spiritual Formation: How Is Your Church Doing?

EP-708139781.jpg&updated=201208141041&MaxW=800&maxH=800&updated=201208141041&noborderThere is as wide a difference in how local churches are doing at facilitating spiritual formation as there is in how individual families are doing at raising healthy children. Some are doing better than others; all have their particular strengths and weaknesses. That said, I do think churches in general are struggling for clarity about what spiritual transformation is and how it happens in the life of person. There is still a bias toward assuming that if one is attending church services regularly, participating in a small group, serving with one’s gifts, and tithing faithfully they are transforming. This is decidedly not the case.

Many churches are also struggling to know what it means to “bring” spiritual formation to the corporate (community) setting and have given little thought as to how to resource all stages of the faith journey. Some are very good at evangelizing and resourcing those who are in the seeking phase of their faith journey while others are very good at resources and discipling young Christians who are new to the faith. Some tend to be oriented towards
providing solid teaching and other resources for those who are farther along on the on the journey; most do not know what to do with people who are experiencing the dark night of the soul and, in fact, it is at this stage of the spiritual journey that many faithful church-goers drop out.

In addition, some churches minister more effectively to one generation or another, freely acknowledging that this is their calling and passion. Others just keep doing what they have always done without giving any attention at all to generational differences and how those differences might affect the ways in which they encourage and foster spiritual formation in that generation. Obviously, for a church to effectively facilitate spiritual formation, it needs to be a place where all God’s children—no matter what stage they are in—can find nurture and sustenance.

A recent Barna survey found that a majority of self-identified Christians today (52 percent) believe there is much more to the Christian life than what they have experienced, and 46 percent say their life has not changed at all as a result of going to church. There is no doubt that people in our culture today are spiritually savvy and have many other options besides the church for meeting their need and desire for spiritual transformation. These statistics and my own experiences of working closely with many Christians relative to their spiritual life suggests that the church has real work to do in learning how to facilitate spiritual formation effectively at all stages of faith.

Ruth Haley Barton, “Spiritual Formation in the Church,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 7:2 (2014), 300-301.

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When Marriage Counseling Becomes a Distraction


. . . abuse is a matter of personal responsibility, not a shared relational culpability. When one person is willing to harm another in order to get his way, no amount of working on “us” will remedy the problem. Marriage counseling becomes a distraction from what needs to change first and most. . . .

. . . to think clearly and communicate effectively about abusive marriages, we must make this understood. When one person is willing to jeopardize the physical or emotional safety of another, then no marital issue is of greater importance than the self-centeredness of the offending spouse. The point represents a watershed distinction in the focal point of change.

Chronic self-centeredness must be acknowledged and addressed before any other type of marital intervention will have a lasting impact. Yet by the time this level of dysfunction is reached, it will be so “normal” that the individual conflicts can easily become the focus of counseling.

To address “marital issues” in an abusive context is a form of minimizing the abuse. Believing that resolving situational variables is going to cease the abuse is like believing that giving money to an alcoholic will help him to get sober by alleviating financial pressure.

Counseling in abusive situations should not be marriage counseling. Both spouses should be counseled separately until they can both consistently acknowledge that the abusive or neglectful actions are the predominant issue. To do otherwise is to confuse marital enrichment (refining a marriage within the bounds of “healthy” to become increasingly enjoyable) with marital restoration (focusing attention on changing a problem that is a threat to the marriage).

Brad Hambrick, Self-Centered Spouse: Help for Chronically Broken Marriages, 19, 23-24.

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Are You “Throwing Pearls to Pigs”?

Matthew-Henry-218x300Our zeal against sin must be guided by discretion, and we must not go about to give instructions, counsels, and rebukes, much less comforts, to hardened scorners, to whom it will certainly do no good, but who will be exasperated and enraged at us. . . . therefore give not to dogs and swine (unclean creatures) holy things. . . . Reproofs of instruction are ill bestowed upon such, and expose the reprover to all the contempt and mischief that may be expected from dogs and swine. One can expect no other than that they will trample the reproofs under their feet, in scorn of them, and rage against them; for they are impatient of control and contradiction; and they will turn again and rend the reprovers; rend their good names with their revilings, return them wounding words for their healing ones; rend them with persecution. .  .  . Our Lord Jesus is very tender of the safety of his people, and would not have them needlessly to expose themselves to the fury of those that will turn again and rend them. Let them not be righteous over much, so as to destroy themselves. Christ makes the law of self-preservation one of his own laws, and precious is the blood of his subjects to him.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary, 5:72


“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matt. 7:6) (NASB).

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Are You a Controlling Christian Parent?

It’s not hard for a parent to see through a rebellious adolescent’s strategems for getting and maintaining positions of power in the family, but it is another matter when you, the parent, have to confront your own manipulative techniques of consolidating power.

The primary game that parents play is so built into the parental mindset that only grace can release the practioner from its bondage. The game is control. The controlling parent views the child as a possession, almost an extension of the parent’s own personality. Control is the effort of parents to exercise a godlike government over the child’s life. Often unknowingly, they want the power to shape the child in their own image, without respect for the integrity of the child’s own conscience. Parents often feel they must control the child to protect their own reputations. The child/s failures, they believe, are the parents’ failures.

Nevertheless, this assertion of the parental will is an act of rebellion against God who alone has ultimate ownership of and control over the child. Yet this rebellion is difficult for parents to detect. Many parental interventions are right and good in themselves. . . . Any child who is not firmly disciplined and lovingly nurtured by his parents will likely turn into an adolescent monster. Effective parenting does require a certain amount of parental rule, especially in the early years.

But control is another matter entirely. It is dangerous because the parent who practices it omits something essential. Many fathers and mothers are simply more satisfied with a child’s conformity and less concerned with the youngster’s motivation and hidden desires, with what the Bible calls “the thoughts of the heart.” Often unconsciously, the self-centered parent labors to form an orderly child who performs well in public and does not shame the family by disturbing the status quo. The problem, of course, is not with the orderliness of the child but with the shaping of a person with a desensitized conscience, a performer who has never learned to love God or people from the heart.

Open any of the gospels and you see the end product of this emphasis on conformity–in the behavior of the Pharisees. Jesus calls them hypocrites, which literally means “play-actors.”

When control becomes successful in Christian families, a whole generation of hypocrites comes into being. These play-actors may seem to serve the church faithfully; they may even establish outwardly good families themselves. They can carry on the traditions of the faith. Unfortunately, they gain the reputation for knowing God while their hearts are like that of the elder brother in the parable of the lost son. Although his body stayed home, his heart was far from the father and his joys. In some ways the elder brother was more lost than the younger, and what was worse, he was unaware of it.

More commonly, however, control stimulates rebellion. You may say to your child, “Come to Christ,” while your actions and attitudes may say something quite different. You may actually be communicating this: “I want you to think and act like me, be orderly like me, be a carbon copy of me.” In such circumstances an invitation to come to Christ will sound to the young person like a call to give up his or her identity, and it will be read as a call to be mastered by the parent rather than by Christ. For the child under a Christian parent’s control, salvation means the loss of identity. Given such prospects, what young person would want to be saved?

According to the Bible, the human heart “is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). It even practices self-deception. I know that I have often unconsciously tried to control my children not for the glory of God or for their spiritual welfare but for the sake of my own peace of mind and reputation. When you as a parent persist in this mistake, you end up with an overload of the wrong kind of conflicts as the child grows older. You will be caught up in an endless power struggle with the self-centered ambitions of the adolescent clashing with your own love of dominance. In despair you may take up the game of “innocent victim” as more suited to your experience. Since your control has been rejected by the child, you now see yourself as the holy martyr, suffering at the hands of your offspring because you have taken a stand against a rebellious child and a self-centered youth culture.

C. John Miller and Barbara Miller Juliani, Come Back Barbara, 2d ed., 160-162.

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The Effects of Moral Corruption

rotten appleOriginal sin . . . causes a pervasive feeling of alienation from God, from other people and from the true Self [i.e., the new man ]. The cultural consequences of these alienations are instilled in us from earliest childhood and passed on from one generation to the next. The urgent need to escape from the profound insecurity of this situation gives rise, when unchecked, to insatiable desires for pleasure, possession, and power. On the social level, it gives rise to violence, war, and institutional injustice. . . . The particular consequences of original sin include all the self serving habits that have been woven into our personality from the time we were conceived; all the emotional damage that has come from our early environment and upbringing; all the harm that other people have done to us knowingly or unknowingly at an age when we could not defend ourselves; and the methods we acquired–many of them now unconscious–to ward off the pain of unbearable situations.

Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, 158-59.

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Are Christians Willing to Think Deeply About Shame?

Over the past four months I have had four posts on shame on this blog. I have the ability, through a statistics counter, to tell which posts get the most hits. The four posts on shame have had relatively few hits. What, if anything, should I surmise from this?

In the last five years, this topic has attracted mainstream attention largely through the research of Brene Brown. In various pockets of the evangelical church shame is being assessed and addressed. Curt Thompson’s work in this connection has been helpful; so too the insights of Ed Welch.

I have a hunch. No rocket science here. The reason the posts on shame don’t get looked at very much is because they bring up too much shame! The nature of shame is that we avoid the things we don’t want to think or talk about. Going back to the primal narrative, hiding and covering has been humankind’s way of dealing with our most deeply felt inadequacies. While it is true that empathy and vulnerability in the context of safe community are the most effective long-term cures of shame’s power, it is ultimately through the Gospel that shame’s power is most effectively vanquished: “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33; cf. 10:11) (NRSV). Rather than avoid the feelings of deep inadequacy within us, rather than hiding and covering our inadequacies, we can through an life-long process of gospel ownership–and Spirit-empowered community, begin to face shame and “despise” it (Heb. 12:2).

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