Confession: The Essence of Soul Care

. . . the essence of soul cure remains the primary need of confession of sin(s). Even Luther, who reacted so strongly to the abuse of confession, affirmed: “If you are too proud to confess your sins, we conclude that you are no Christian.” He urged further “go and confess, and use this means to health.” Protestants have argued that habitual confession loses its poignancy, so what about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper? That too can lose its sacred participation in the Body of Christ. Thus in the future
ministry of soul cure, confession needs stronger reinforcement rather than what is now commonly being practiced.

We recognize in medical practice today that one of the great advances of medicine lies in revealing hidden diseases that are life threatening without the patient ever being aware of their existence. Likewise in the healing that the soul may require, the unveiling of hidden thoughts, and of inordinate desires, is of critical importance. In the spiritual direction of the desert fathers . . . disclosure of the logismoi, or inner thoughts, was central to their pastoral ministry. For when once accepted by insight, confession, and repentance, these “inner thoughts” lose their grip upon the soul, while also deepening more intimate individuation in Christ. But gentleness and humility are essential too, so that we do not expose such repressed and denied vices too abruptly, or without compassion and loving concern for the one making self-discovery, and self-disclosure. But again as the apostle assures us: “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

James Houston, “The Future of Spiritual Formation,”  Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 4:2 (2011), 131–139.

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Is There Such a Thing as “Righteous Anger”?

“Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry – but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life” (Eph. 4:26-27) (The Message).

“It is expected that you will get angry at the sins of fellow believers, but let your anger toward them be addressed in a timely manner, so that Satan won’t create more problems in your relationships” (Eph. 4:26-27) (Paraphrase).

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior” (Eph. 4:31).

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As Christians we are to . . .

  • “hate what is evil” (Rom. 12:9)
  • “be slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19-20)

What are the implications of these verses regarding anger? Are we to be angry when we are personally offended? Is anger legitimate in response to hurtful kinds of sin done to others (e.g., oppression, child abuse, torture)?

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“In Eph. 4:26 Paul is placing a moral obligation on believers to be angry as the occasion requires . . .  As God himself does not dwell in anger neither should we.”

Daniel B. Wallace, “ORGIZESTHE in Ephesians 4:26,” CTJ 3:372.

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“Anger at your car being stolen, a broken promise, or a child’s rebellion may fall into the realm of [Ephesians] 4:26, while that which is forbidden in [Ephesians] 4:31 is hateful anger that wills harm to another person and damages that relationship. We can also see how legitimate 4:26 anger, when nursed and not combined with a forgiving spirit, quickly becomes the anger of 4:31.”

Matthew A. Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament, 221.

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“Anger, more than the other passions, is wont to trouble and upset the soul. But even anger sometimes renders the soul great benefits. When, in fact, we use it calmly against error or stupidity, to denounce and save, we obtain for the soul additional gentleness, since we are furthering the purposes of justice and divine goodness. Therefore one who makes temperate use of anger out of zeal for truth will no doubt be found better, in the time of judgement, than one who out of inertia was never stirred to anger.”

Diadochus Of Photike, GC, 62

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Fear is ONLY Conquered by Fear

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“It is only the fear of God that has the spiritual power to overwhelm all the horizontal fears that can capture your heart. These relational-situational-location fears are only ever put in their proper place and given their appropriate size by a greater fear–fear of the Lord. Perhaps this is a good portion of what is being said in Proverbs when it declares that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Allowing yourself to be twisted and turned by whatever fear has you at the moment is an unwise, unstable, and unproductive way of living. Living just to alleviate fear never leads to being fear free. It simply makes you more fearful of fear, more fear alert, and ultimately more fearful. It is only when God looms larger than anything you are facing that you can be protected and practically freed from the fear that either paralyzes you or causes you to make foolish decisions. Wise, stable, and fear-free living doesn’t require you to deny what you’re facing, but rather looks at whatever you are facing from the perspective of a gloriously freeing and motivating fear of the One who rules all the things that you would otherwise be afraid of. A functional awe of God really is the key to your heart’s not being ruled by fear.”

Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, 129.

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Mystics and Rationalists: Take Heed!

We are not to deny the supernatural life Christians are given by God and called on to live. But our own human spirit does not have the potency for direct access to God. We do not need to train as contemplative athletes to attain special mystical knowledge. Like every other human endeavor and achievement, mysticism should be viewed with awareness of its ambiguity and its questionable nature. Ironically, those most hostile about it [mysticism] may not think to question their own intellectual prowess! . . . . When we have had a special experience of God that we can only describe as mystical, the test of its validity is our personal response and its benefits to ourselves and to others.

James Houston, Joyful Exiles, 64-65, 66

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Beauty Will Save the World

“The beauty of God calls out  to us, drawing us to God, enabling us to overcome sin and make suffering a means of deepening the heart so as to understand more profoundly the fullness of God’s beauty.”

Andrew Louth, “Beauty Will Save the World,” Theology Today 61 (2004): 75.

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Beware of Fake Meekness

” . . . we must learn to recognize true meekness. Do not be deceived into thinking that a soft-spoken voice indicates a gentle will. Often an iron will lies hidden behind the softest voice. Stubborn inflexibility is in the hidden nature of our character, not in the voice. Some appear outwardly to be more gentle before others, but they are inwardly just as inflexible and obstinate before God. For them there can only be the severity of His dealing until they dare not act presumptuously. God designs external dealings to touch us at the core where our toughened wills hide out. Never shall we be able to raise our stubborn heads in these particular matters. It is irrevocably determined that in these kind of circumstances, we cannot disobey the Lord by insisting upon our willful opinions. It is fear of the Lord’s dealing hand that restrains us. And it is the fear of God that makes us meek. The more we are broken by God’s dealings, the meeker we become. To see true meekness is to behold inner brokenness.

“Let us illustrate: After contacting a certain brother, you may sense that he is truly gifted. But you discover that he is not yet broken. Many are like that—gifted but unbroken. Their unbrokenness can be easily detected. As soon as you meet them, you sense an undertone of inflexibility in them—you can feel their obstinacy. Not so with one who is broken; there is a Spirit-wrought meekness. In whatever point one has been chastened by God, there he dare not boast. He has learned to fear God in this and is transformed into meekness.”

” . . . meekness, born out of the fear of God, is the Holy Spirit’s sign for brokenness. One broken by the Spirit naturally possesses meekness. His contacts with people are no longer marked by that obstinacy, hardness, and sharpness which are the hallmarks of an unbroken man. He has been brought to the place where his attitude is as meek as his voice is gentle. The fear of God in his heart naturally finds expression in his words and manner.”

Watchman Nee, The Release of the Spirit, 99-100.

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Discovering Lectio Divina

With the rise of interest in spiritual renewal in evangelical circles over the past two decades, there has also arisen, from various quarters, a suspicion of spiritually renewing practices. A criticism sometimes raised is that spiritual formation authors promote a highly subjective, careless approach to the reading of Scripture. No doubt, there are approaches to the Christian spiritual life that are innocently misguided and subtly self-serving. This seems to occur most frequently when: (1) one gives greater authority to personal experience than to Scripture; (2) one disregards the historical context of and important exegetical features of a text, and (3) when one fails to submit their readings to the wisdom of other mature Christians.

It is the judgment of this reviewer that this book sufficiently dispels the fear of mishandling Scripture in personal devotion. The authors have not only succeeded in providing a helpful overview of the ancient practice of “lectio divina” (Latin for “divine reading”), but they also impart a practical wisdom for reading Scripture in a vitally formative way. It is true that the ancient practice of lectio divina is vulnerable to misuse–as any spiritual practice can be. Thankfully, Wilhoit and Howard are able guides in directing readers toward a biblically robust and Spirit-empowered use of lectio. The authors are aware of the importance of careful interpretation, but also note that accurate interpretation of text may in fact obscure, even quench what the Holy Spirit might accomplish with a text. Especially appreciated is the authors’ sensitivity to the role that prior understandings or control beliefs play in reading texts. That said, I believe that a fitting use for this book might be in a hermeneutics class, as a complementary aid to sound exegesis. The study questions and suggestions for each chapter are a helpful feature, and necessary for getting the most out of the book.

A wonderful summary paragraph captures the gist of the practice: “Lectio divina, or devotional reading, engages the human dimension with the Word and the Spirit of God. We bring ourselves to the text: eyes, questions, circumstances, heart–all of us. We watch as we read, noticing how the reading process is shaped by the Spirit. We allow the Scripture to soak into us and reprogram our heart, changing the very concerns and ideas that control our beliefs and feelings. Through this process, our ordinary questions, our cultural biases, our personal fears and our controlling operating systems are placed at the disposal of God’s Spirit through the text. And through the same process, our mind is renewed and our heart is transformed” (58-59).

By way of minor critique, I wished that the authors had explained where Benedict of Nursia (480-547) obtained his understanding of “contemplation.” The metaphysical assumptions undergirding Christian contemplation require, in my mind at least, some brief explanation. Especially is this the case for Christians who may not be aware of how cultural currents have influenced Christian spiritual practices. Contemplative spirituality is too often misunderstood by evangelicals, and, consequently, falsely caricatured. Explaining what contemplation is and isn’t might allay the anxieties of those who are apprehensive about this practice.

I was also expecting a bit more discussion on the communal practice of lectio divina. Lectio can have fruitful results in a communal setting, especially when guided by a spiritually mature and biblically-literate leader (or leaders). For the most part, Wilhoit and Howard focus on how this practice might look as an individual participates in it. In fairness to the authors, they leave considerable room for how the practice can be applied: “We are not purists who think there is one best way to pull this off. You may want to consider the elements of lectio to be ingredients that you can experiment with in order to concoct the best recipe for you and your situation” (139). Along these lines, we must not forget that millennials, Xers, and even baby boomers might be more inclined to listen to Scripture on their smartphones, tablets, and iPods than to read a bound, paper and ink Bible!

Readers will readily observe that the book makes reference to different voices outside the evangelical Christian tradition (e.g. Gregory the Great, Gregory Palamas, Ignatius of Loyola, Madame Guyon, Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, to mention a few). As this reviewer sees it, Wilhoit and Howard, are attempting to discern truth wherever they find it. Their goal is to mine the spiritual wisdom of the church throughout the centuries. Without an integrative frame of mind and an earnest dependency upon the Holy Spirit, readers of this book will likely be bothered by the presence of non-evangelical authors. An integrationist frame of thinking holds true not only in the reading of this book, but for any work on the history and practices of Christian spirituality.

In compact fashion, this book describes how the church in its earliest centuries understood a spiritual approach to reading Scripture. The book also provides practical ways to use lectio divina today. In short, Discovering Lectio Divina is an excellent guidebook for understanding a long-overlooked approach to reading the Word of God.

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The Awful Voice of God’s Thunder

I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time, singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce anything, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunder-storm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, if I may so speak, at the first appearance of a thunder-storm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural for me to sing, or chant forth my meditations; or to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice.

Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative in Letters and Personal Writings, Vol. 6:794.

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Much Suffering is Mysterious and Unjust

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job sit literally alongside one another in the “wisdom literature” section of the Bible, and it is important to recognize their differing yet complementary perspectives on suffering. While Proverbs tends to emphasize the justice of suffering and how much suffering is directly related to wrongdoing, Job, Ecclesiastes vividly show how much of it is not.

The biblical story of creation was unique among ancient accounts of the world’s origin. Other accounts describe the world as coming into existence through a battle or struggle between divine beings or other supernatural forces. In these views there are multiple power centers in constant conflict and tension. That meant that the world was basically a chaotic place, a place where anything could happen, depending on which power gained the upper hand. This view has resurfaced today in the writings of scientific materialists who see the universe as the production of violent, unguided forces. In this kind of world, the most important trait is strength and power.

But Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad points out the uniqueness of the Hebrew Scriptures. There we read that creation was the result of one all-powerful God without rival, who made the world not in the way a warrior wins a battle but more as an artist crafts something of wonder and beauty. As an artist, he creates for the shear joy of it (Prov. 8:27-31). And therefore the world has a pattern to it, a fabric. A fabric is a complex underlying designed order or structure.

Biblical wisdom, according to von Rad, is to “become competent with regard to the realities of life.” Since the world was made by a good and righteous God, the fabric of the world has a moral order to it. That order is not based on power but on righteousness. Power and self-interest may appear successful in the short run, but they do not ultimately “work” in a world created by a good and just God. Therefore, cruel, selfish power is not only sinful, but stupid. It brings about loneliness, emptiness, and destruction. Faithfulness, integrity, unselfish service, and love are not only right but wise, because they fit the fabric of reality.

Except. While Proverbs points to the fact that, in general, hard work leads to prosperity, and laziness leads to want–it doesn’t always work that way. Job and Ecclesiastes supplement Proverbs’ understanding of the world. Our world has been created by God and therefore has a foundational moral order to it. And yet something is wrong with that order now. It is partly, though not fully, broken. . . . while Proverbs shows us the reality of God’s order, Job points to its “hiddenness” and Ecclesiastes to its “confusion.” At the end of the book of Job, God appears and insists that the moral order of the universe is still intact, but it is in large part hidden from human eyes. So while there is still a certain amount of “poetic justice” in which evildoers fall into the very traps of they set for others, much suffering is disproportionate and unfairly distributed. The good can and do die young.

The New Testament testifies to the same view of things. In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man and takes pains to show his disciples that he was not in that condition because of his sin or that of his parents, but in order to fulfill God’s inscrutable purposes. Thus, suffering people should not automatically be blamed for their condition.

The biblical idea not only contrasts with the teachings of karma, it goes against common sense. Psychologist Mel Lerner has demonstrated that most people have a deep desire to believe “people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.” They tend to assign blame to victims of tragedy especially if it is not possible to punish a perpetrator. This comes from a normal human impulse to make sense of things, but it also likely stems from the deep human need to believe we are in control of our own lives. People want to believe “that couldn’t happen to me–because I am wiser, I’m better, I know what I am doing.” The Bible’s assessment is less flattering to non-sufferers and kinder to those who are hurting. Much suffering is mysterious and unjust.

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 134-35.

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Does Your Mind Wander During Prayer?

“When we talk to one another, there may be a hundred and one things popping in and out of our minds that have nothing whatsoever to do with our conversation, but they do not in any serious way impede communication. It is only in extreme cases that we get so distracted that conversation becomes impossible . . . It is far better to make do with that very ordinary modicum of concentration that allows us to carry on conversations in spite of the hubbub in the background.”

Simon Tugwell, Prayer in Practice, 18-19.

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We must remember that our practice of prayer is not merely a matter of our own ability to remove distraction, vice, and inappropriate thoughts, but is also, and more importantly, an interaction with the actively present Holy Spirit of Christ. . . . we need not despair when we do not know how to pray, because “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Prayer is ultimately more about God’s grace than about our performance. Karl Barth is right, I think, when he says: “Perhaps we doubt the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of our request. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is the answer that God gives. Our prayers are weak and poor. Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them. That is why we pray.”

Evan B. Howard, “A Biblical/Evangelical Response to Evagrius of Pontus,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 7:1 (2014): 138.

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