Doubt has been my off-again, on-again companion for most of my life, from mid-teen years till now. As I grow older, a quieter, deeper kind of doubt seems more on-again. I wonder: what am I firmly persuaded is true, especially in my worst moments, moments of fear, of disappointment, of terrifying uncertainty, and of paralyzing doubt?
I find comfort in John Owen’s words written by the great Puritan pastor and theologians several centuries ago. As Christians grow older, Owen said, their fire often flickers, their confidence often fades, their hope often dims. But fear not, Owen counseled. God’s deepening work continues. Do I believe that? I am not always sure.
I want to walk through the doorway of doubt to discover that living truth. To deny doubt will deny me that opportunity.
Just recently, I felt nudged through that door when I saw something in a familiar passage I hadn’t noticed before. When Jesus feed the five thousand, he distributed the multiplying bread and fish to his disciples, who ate the food for themselves first, then served others. Looking back on forty-plus years of counseling, writing, and teaching. I am now seeing that I’ve spent a lot time in the kitchen preparing meals of truth, then only nibbling on bits of food before I carry full plates to others.
No wonder I doubt whether God’s provisions are proper nourishing my soul. They aren’t, because I’ve not taken the time to eat them, to digest them, and to relax in God’s presence with gratitude for what he has given me to enjoy. Perhaps my ongoing doubts, coupled with worsening fatigue, need claiming as God’s nudging me to do what I’ve done so little over my years of active ministry, to come to his table and respond to his invitation to delight myself “in rich food” (Isa. 55:2).
Larry Crabb, “Growing Older: Struggling with Doubt, Alive in Community, Moving toward Wisdom,” Conversations 12:1, Spring/Summer 2014, 41-42.
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The process of sanctification is broader and more subtle than our conscious efforts to mortify known patterns of sin in our lives. Much of our growth in grace is quietly effected by events and conditions God brings into our lives to perfect his work in us. We are faced with sacrificial choices, like Abram’s call to leave Ur and the later command to offer up Isaac, and our positive response to such choices deepens the purity of our intention to follow Christ. We undergo painful losses and illness, or attack and persecution, and our trust and obedience in these circumstances enlarge our character and conform us to the image of Christ.
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“For a long time now, the looser sort of constructive theology has been afflicted with a bad case of ‘galloping perichoresis,’ and it has become trendy to say that just about anything indwells just about anything else–perichoretically.”- Fred Sanders
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Perichoresis (pronounced PARRY-CORE-AY-SIS) is a term that theologians use to refer to the way the members of the Holy Trinity relate to another. In other words, all three Persons of the Trinity mutually share in the life of the other members so that none of the members is isolated or detached from the actions of the others.
John of Damascus (c.676-749) masterfully synthesized what those who lived before him had to say about perichoresis. Here’s his explanation:
The abiding and resting of the Person in one another is not in such a manner that they coalesce or become confused, but, rather, so that they adhere to one another, for they are without interval between them and inseparable and their mutual indwelling is without confusion. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit is in the Father and the Son, and Father is in the Son and the Spirit, and there is no merging or blending or confusion. And there is one surge and one movement of the three Persons. It is impossible for this to be found in any created nature (The Orthodox Faith, I. 14.11-18).
Perichoresis, as a theological concept, is principally derived from the following three Scripture texts:
“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18).
“All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27)
“For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11)
The concept of perichoresis attempts to communicate the point that the Trinity is a connected community of being that serves distinctive functions in the unfolding process of God’s self-disclosure.
Is the Trinity a model for how humans are to relate to one another? A model, especially, for the way men and women relate? Yes, in a similar fashion to the members of the Trinity who have a profoundly deep love for one another, humans reflect God whenever humans demonstrate selfless love toward other humans. But as John of Damascus reminds us, “It is impossible for this [perichoresis] be found in any created nature.” Great caution is necessary when advocating Trinitarian relating. The most we can say is that when humans, empowered by the Holy Spirit, selflessly love other human beings, we capture a small but significantly powerful glimpse of God.
When the Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesian Christians to be “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1), does this mean that we are to imitate the Trinity, particularly in the way they lovingly move toward each other? Keith E. Johnson offers the following proposal:
Many contemporary theologians assume that we are to fulfill this biblical directive [Eph. 5:1] by imitating the inner relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in marriage, family, church, and society. . . . Scripture does not call us to imitate the way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another in their inner life. Rather, Scripture calls us to reflect the Trinity in three ways: (1) by imitating the character (communicable attributes) of the triune God, (2) by imitating aspects of the conduct of the triune God in the economy of salvation, and (3) by imitating the humble, self-sacrificing life of the incarnate Christ. In short, we are to imitate the way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to us in the economy of salvation–particularly as displayed through the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Thus, imitation of the Trinity (imitatio trinitatis) ultimately takes the form of the imitation of Christ (imitatio Christi) and is empowered by the redemptive work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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Too often some of us dismiss our personal history with thoughts like That was then or It’s time to grow up or What good will it do to remember all that old stuff? We strongly disagree. Remembering and telling our story takes us home to ourselves. There is no possibility of soulful relationships without an integrated soul that has embraced its story (the good, the bad, the ugly).
To be sure, remembering our story is not always easy. Some stories are filled with sadness, anger, disgust, anxiety, guilt, fear and shame. To revisit them is very painful. Other stories have major gaps. To revisit them is almost impossible because there are few memories from early years. But this is the work we must do even if the memories are difficult or not forthcoming. If we long for more soulful relationships, if we truly desire to be more fully present to our spouse, our children, our friends and even to God, then we must be more present to our story. Ignoring our story conscripts us into the service of our earliest emotional blueprints and the defenses we forged in order to feel safe. Exaggerated defenses force us to live in the shallow end of the relational pool. Remembering our story, entering our story, probing our story is the way by which we own and integrate ourselves.
So we recommend that you make every effort to remember and share your story. What did you live? Who were the important people in your childhood? How did they influence you? What are your best memories? What are your most painful memories? How have your painful memories influenced your way of connecting? Answering these kinds of questions helps bring your emotional blueprint into focus.
Whenever we begin a journey down memory lane, we shouldn’t be discouraged if the details are slow in coming. We can be confused or perplexed by what we remember. We can be befuddled with our feelings or lack of them. Or we can feel overwhelmed by what we lived. No matter what our experience, it is important to keep in mind one crucial thing when it comes to our stories: it isn’t enough to review them on our own. We must share them with another. We must do so because we are relational beings who are both hurt and healed by our relationships. We must have the presence of others to help us to see ourselves well. We need help even with our own story!
The act of telling our own story to someone who listens well is one of the ways by which our relational blueprint becomes more more endurable and available to us. In sharing our story our implicit memory is recalibrated and changed. An emphatic listener helps us access and expand our understanding of our emotions and thus our conscious identity. The relationship with the listener becomes a new way of connecting and understanding old patterns. The listener gives us a healthy emotional response that we will unconsciously begin to mimic.
And while we desperately need to share with another human being, we ultimately must share our story with God. Like the prodigal son in Luke 15, we must head home to our heavenly Father who longs for our return. The more of our story we bring to God, the greater will be the depth of our communion with God. And the more we enjoy God’s presence the more we will be able to enjoy the presence of others. In coming home to God we find we are coming home to our own souls.
Whatever your story is, our conviction is this–you are held by God, and God is always listening with a loving ear. God cares about your story because God cares about you. God hears and delights in your joy. God also hears the cry of your heart. Sharing your story with God does not mean painful, shameful memories will magically disappear. But God “gets” your story. He is a suffering God. And because he has suffered in the Son, our trinitarian God offers you a way to his heart through your suffering. In your pain God’s sorrow holds you, comforts you and over time heals you.
Richard Plass and James Cofield, The Relational Soul: Moving from False Self to Deep Connection, 50-53.
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Since human love can so easily become tainted with selfishness and sensuality . . . it is necessary that one maintain a strict vigilance lest one’s love should exceed the limits of virtue and become an occasion of evil. For if it is true that a good friend is a powerful stimulus to virtue, it is no less true that one of the most destructive forces in the Christian life is that of a sinful friendship. . . . it happens frequently that a human friendship begins in a virtuous manner but imperceptibly but surely becomes mixed with sensual love and finally terminates in carnal love.
For this reason it is extremely important that one know the signs by which one can determine whether a friendship is sensual. The first and most evident sign of a sensual friendship is that it is exclusive. This exclusiveness is shown by the fact that the two friends withdraw from the company of others in order to be alone, are annoyed if others join their company, and are jealous of each other to the point of becoming angry if one sees the other in the company of a third party. Secondly, a sensual friendship is characterized by possessiveness, which may reach such a point that one cannot tolerate the absence of the other, seeks to prolong conversations and visits unduly, and dominates the other person. Thirdly, sensual friendships are obsessive. At the slightest provocation one’s thoughts turn to the friend; on entering a room the first person sought is the friend; the imagination seems always to be focused on the face of the friend, and this to the point of distraction in prayer or in the performance of one’s duties.
In order to avoid this type of friendship, which is harmful to the spiritual life, the best remedy is to prevent such a friendship from developing. As soon as any of the signs have been noticed, one should react as to the symptoms of a disease. If, however, such a friendship has already been allowed to develop, it may be necessary to avoid any drastic and sudden measures but rather to let the friendship gradually cool until it can be rectified. Spiritual directors and confessors, who are prone to react violently to such friendships and to demand of their penitents an immediate and definitive break between the friends, may unwittingly cause a psychological upheaval more serious than the disorder they hoped to cure.”
Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, 379-80.
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Pride causes you to accept more responsibility than you can bear. Arrival [believing you have arrived at spiritual maturity] allows you to assign more ministry work to yourself than you can realistically accomplish. Self-glory causes you to think that you’re more essential than you actually are and more necessary than you will ever be. It’s pride, not humility, that makes it hard to say no. It’s pride that makes it hard to live within the limits of your true character and strength. I am persuaded that much of the tension between family and ministry is caused by arrival. We know that God won’t call us to keep one command in a way that would cause us to break another. So if, over the long haul, our family has suffered neglect because of our ministry, it is because we are doing things in ministry that we should not be doing because we have wrongly assessed that we can handle more than we are able to handle.
Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling, 162-63.
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After having listened to the stories of many Christian men, and comparing notes with counselors, pastors, and soul care providers over the years, the following list has been compiled. It is by no means exhaustive in scope. Certainly, other reasons could be added to this list. Sometimes the reasons given below are more subconsciously argued than verbalized out loud. In other words, some of statements below are the internal rationalizations that self-justify a man’s sexual behavior.
1. “I am enslaved to viewing online porn, and I can’t seem to find freedom from bondage.”
2. “Since my married sex life has become boring or nearly non-existent, I, regrettably, view porn and masturbate instead.”
3. “Because my marriage is not in a good place right now, I think I deserve some relief by looking at porn.”
4. “Since I am single and unmarried (or divorced), viewing porn is a less-than-ideal stop-gap measure that God graciously tolerates until I get married.”
5. “How else am to express my sexuality and live with the fact that I am an unmarried, red-blooded testosterone-producing male?”
6. “Using porn is not the most harmful sin a Christian could commit.”
7. “If I view online female nudity that is presented in good taste and is not degrading to women, God understands and forgives my lapses and weaknesses in these areas.”
8. “The visual images are undeniably alluring and in some inexplicable way I believe that my needs for emotional intimacy are getting met.”
9. “The sexually repressive nature of my Christian religion incites my lust more than I am willing to admit.”
10. “I have to admit that I enjoy the rush that comes from each new online sexual escapade.”
I have added one more that has emerged in light of recent research:
11. “Statistics reveal that most Christian men use online porn. Get over it! Everybody else is doing it. If they say they aren’t, they are lying.”
After reading these, maybe some of these rationalizations make sense to a certain degree. You will note that there is subtly distorted thought in other reasons stated. In other statements, there is uninhibited honesty. Still others indicate a heart that is been hardened by means of self-deception. Can you identify with any of these?
I am grateful that God has raised up some powerfully effective ministries that speak to these challenges; for example, Covenant Eyes, The Conquer Series, and Proven Men to name but a few. Sometimes, even one or two trusted wounded healers in a local church can be powerful agents of transformation. A common denominator in stories of freedom from bondage is the decisive role that community plays. If this is your struggle, my prayer is that you will seek out a safe, authentic, truth-speaking, biblically-informed community that will stir you to a deeper level of self-awareness and freedom.
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“Do you struggle with sexual integrity?” seems like a straightforward enough question.
But now consider another question: “How do you struggle with sexual integrity?”
The two sentences only differ by one word. Yet the difference between them represents a significant shift I’d like to see among Christian leadership.
The first question begs us not to tell the truth or, at least, to tell only part of the truth. The second question not only makes the assumption that we struggle in some way, but it also signals it’s okay to talk about it.
The first question tends to trigger our fear-driven fight-or-flight response. Confronted with only two options for answering, the knee-jerk response of many would be, “No, not really.”
But the second question feels safer and invites conversation beyond a simple yes or no answer, causing a shift away from defensiveness toward a freedom to engage in honest dialogue.
These two questions represent the difference between shame and grace, law and love.
Michael Todd Wilson, Unburdened: The Christian Leader’s Path to Sexual Integrity, 12.
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Memory is a very complex and sophisticated human capacity. Much of memory is a mystery. But we do know this about it–memory operates at two levels. The first level is conscious. We are aware we are remembering. For example, if asked to remember something that happened to you in the sixth grade, you would consciously dig into the mine of your memory and come up with some incident . . . .
Memories are conscious if we are aware that we are trying to remember them and do indeed remember them. Conscious memory is sometimes called “explicit” memory. It typically comes online around age two to three.
The second level on which memory operates is unconscious. We are unaware of what we are remembering or even that we are remembering. An easy example of unconscious memory is what happens when we ride a bicycle. Once we have learned how to ride, we do it unconsciously, without thinking about how to ride. We don’t dig into the mine of memory in order to stay on the bike.
Unconscious memory is sometimes called “implicit” memory. The brain systems responsible for implicit memory are online at the time of birth and are fully developed by fifteen months. Because implicit memory is active so early, what is remembered is not episodes recorded in words or pictures. Instead, this memory is recorded in emotions, perceptions, bodily sensations and the body’s readiness to respond in certain ways. Back to the bicycle example–though we can describe it verbally, we don’t remember riding a bike in words. We remember in and with our body. This is the way God designed us as embodied souls.
While there are many fascinating aspects to implicit memory, two are critical when it comes to our relationships. First, we usually are not consciously aware of what is being encoded in this memory. In other words, we don’t have to pay attention for something to be absorbed in our implicit memory. Second, we are not aware that it is operating. But this doesn’t mean implicit memory has little effect on us; just the opposite is the case. Implicit memory has an enormous effect on us because it holds our way of relating.
Implicit memory stores our relational habits and evaluations–our way of attaching to others (attachment pattern) and how close we feel we can be to others and still feel safe (learned level of intimacy). The kind of memory that makes it possible to ride a bicycle is the same memory that makes it possible to connect with others. And this kind of memory is very difficult to put into words. It is an emotional way of knowing almost beyond words.
Implicit memory is always active in all our relationships. It shapes the way we perceive, process and present ourselves in our relational word. It guides how we respond and interact. Daniel Sigel summarizes, “relational experiences involve knowledge or information that is packaged in intuition, feelings, and gut-level sense that go on outside of our conscious awareness.” Because our implicit relational knowledge is stored in the unconscious part of our memory, how important people in our life feel about us is remembered not “in words, but in our emotions, body, and images in our gut-level way of knowing.”
Online at birth, our implicit memory gets programmed early. We acquire a basic blueprint for how to build relational experiences. Our blueprint then sets us up for how we go about our relationships in ways that reinforce our original relational experiences. In other words, our early programming directly affects the way we perceive and process relationally so that we usually engage relationally in ways that confirm our early programming . . . .
Implicit memory is the means by which we do relationships in ways that are unconscious to us. We typically don’t recall the details of how we learned to attach. We typically don’t think about how we came about our learned level of emotional intimacy. We typically don’t think about how we practice our way of relating. But our implicit memory keeps what we learned alive and active in all our relationships as adults, especially with those who are closest to us.
Richard Plass and James Cofield, The Relational Soul, 43-44, 46.