The Key to Spiritual Transformation in Your Church

The key to healthy spiritual transformation in a local church is ultimately not found in a particular system or programmatic structure. These can be helpful tools, but ultimately transformation is the result of the Spirit of God at work in the lives of people through relationships within the body of Christ. Transformation is the fruit of the Spirit as followers of Christ love another, speak truth to one another, listen to one another, care for one another, and bear one another’s burdens. In all this, dependence on God is the key. I don’t want to sound simplistic. I love thinking of and planning systems and structures. But transformation in the local church really is as simple as caring for other people. Caring for their souls, for their hearts. Anyone, anywhere, in Jesus’ name can do that–including you.

Mindy Caliguire, STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships, 150.

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Will the Holy Spirit Lead You into Suffering?

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) (ESV).

“Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) (NASB).

“At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild” (Mark 1:12) (The Message).

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What are the implications of Mark 1:12 for our understanding of the Holy Spirit? Let us begin by noting that Mark 1:12 is not a theological island. Other passages of Scripture support the general thesis that the Holy Spirit is an agent of transformative suffering. In the Old Testament, the prophets frequently speak a Spirit-inspired message of both encouragement and discomforting conviction that is aimed at the sanctification of God’s people. In John 16:8, Jesus promises that he will send the Counselor, who will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. We find this dynamic reflected in many sermons portrayed in Acts, most notably Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Peter’s listeners are “cut to the heart” and cry out in anguish, wondering how they can be saved. In Romans 8:13, Paul teaches that those who live by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh. Putting to death the deeds of the flesh is neither trivial nor comfortable.

Next we note the theological precedent Mark is establishing. Jesus is baptized, anointed with the Holy Spirit, and then immediately driven into a situation of deprivation, opposition, and testing. This sequence would be familiar to Mark’s readers. . . .  like Jesus, they too would be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and be tested by a world hostile to them, often to the point of persecution. . . . Mark’s readers would know the sensation of being armed with power but then hurled into the fray immediately after being baptized. Therefore, Mark and his readers would need little help recognizing the parallels between Jesus’ testing and their own.

In a similar way, we can draw parallels between Jesus’ testing in the wilderness and familiar experiences we recognize in spiritual formation. To begin with, Jesus’ divine sonship is defined in the midst of temptation and testing. Christians who also desire to live as sons and daughters of God should expect the same. [The] description of salvation in Christ as a “participative journey” is helpful. It means our paths will wind through places familiar from the life of Jesus. We will walk in his footsteps.

While it is unlikely that the Spirit will expel many Christians into the physical wilderness, the principle conveyed in this verse is meaningful. When considered in a metaphorical sense, the wilderness is a place of temptation . .  . .

First, it involves testing that arises as believers deal with deprivation and uncertainty. Metaphorically, the desert represents a state in which one is brought to the existential realization that all of one’s sources of comfort and livelihood either have been or could be stripped away, so that one’s faith in God’s love and care are brought to a state of crisis. Whereas many believers are familiar with this state of being, they do not commonly associate it with the agency of the Holy Spirit, especially when the Spirit is understood to be our comforter, advisor, and inspirer. Nevertheless, this is where Mark 1:12 leads.

Second, temptation can mean active conflict with evil itself. When God the Spirit expels a believer into a wilderness where she is uncertain of her very well-being, the temptation is great to turn to some other source into which she may put her trust. Because the metaphors that dominate the field of pneumatology tend to center around comfort, nurture, love and renewal, it could seem scandalous to think that the Holy Spirit is capable of expelling God’s beloved into the wilderness. Notably, there is no significant discussion within systematic theology of the implications of Mark 1:12 for pneumatology. Nevertheless,connecting the sanctifying work of the Spirit to human experiences of alienation, deprivation, and testing is well-trodden ground for the spiritual masters.

T. David Beck, “The Divine Dis-Comforter: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Transformative Suffering,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 2:2 (2009): 199-218. 

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What’s Your Sexual “Story”?

We enter the world erotically endowed in full and designed for arousal, pleasure, and union–to be satisfied not merely through genital stimulation, but through the provision of care and delight. It is easy to measure sexual health in terms of consistent genital satisfaction, as can be seen the number of drugs available that are meant to enhance erectile function, with much research regarding sexual dysfunction for men being within the realm of genital performance. However, for women the experience of sexual satisfaction is based not solely on genital arousal but on factors that include the intersection of desire and connectedness to their partner.

Through our childhood and into adult years we enter into countless relationships that provide interpersonal paradigms for inciting excitation and providing satisfaction and shalom. The multitude of interactions provides us with building blocks for the development of our sexual orientation. Simply said, the greater the violation of God’s paradigm throughout our life journey, the deeper the struggles with issues of intensity and orientation.

God’s creation of sexual desire is far more than merely an evolutionary desire to propagate the species or achieve orgasm. Sexual desire intersects the poetic awakening of Adam to his female counterpart, Eve, and propels us to the last sentence in the creation narrative that speaks of a world without sin: “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Gen. 2:25 NIV).

Sexual desire is the prompting to move toward a pleasure that aches to escape division, loneliness, or shame. Sexual desire is not so much the desire for orgasm as it is the desire to be caught up in the sensuality of beauty that transcends the here and now for a timeless, undivided, unsoiled innocence. All other dimensions of lesser or distorted desire that we call sexual are cheap counterfeits or, far worse, a conscious effort to evade the Creator’s design or transgress the Creator’s boundaries.

The tragedy is that no one holds fully to the true east as we journey in our sexuality from birth to death. We are far, far more troubled and broken sexually than we are apt to confess. Certainly, our unique story of sexual development is far more complex and mysterious than to suggest there is a preordained, right path that if followed removes all or most complications. I (Dan) have worked with countless men and women who were virgins at marriage, escaped the perversion of pornography, and never kissed their spouse until their wedding day–yet still warred with dark desires or the absence of desire at various periods in their marriage. There is no foolproof route to sin-free desire. Are we then hopeless and bound by whatever forces have made us who we are sexually? The promise of the Song [of Songs] is that love has the final word over all forms of death, distortion, or degradation.

Consequently, it is imperative to listen carefully to every desire that seems to rule our heart. Sadly, we have many desires that are contrary to God’s design, and we are apt to indulge and then feel shame. Seldom do we listen and look courageously at our broken sexual desire and feel the kiss of God’s delight. 

A man I worked with could only experience sexual pleasure with his wife as he fantasized about his mother’s shoes. As broken as this sounds, his desire was for an uncomplicated relationship with his wife, and his mother was viewed as the paragon of womanly virtue. His war with his wife stemmed from his bondage to his mother. The more we explored his erotica arousal with his mother’s shoes without shame or contempt, the more he came to understand the meaning of his desire. The more he blessed the holy desire beneath the broken lust, the more he allowed God’s delight to expose all that was contrary to love and then allow the Spirit to hover over his sexual chaos and shape it into the beauty of creation. 

Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, God Loves Sex: An Honest Conversation about Sexual Desire and Holiness, 43-44.

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Are You a Controlling Christian Parent? – Part 2

One fact should be clear by now: none of us is innocent. While the prodigal son’s rebellion was evil, the elder brother’s more subtle rejection of God was every bit as bad. As parents, we fail in many ways we never see. Even though each person is responsible for his or her own sins, a parent’s sins can damage children. So in conflicts with your offspring, beware of being overly innocent. Don’t live a lie or deceive yourself about your own failings. Children play their games; parents play theirs–the games of control and pretending to be the innocent victim. Not to admit our game playing, to insist at all times upon our own innocence, is to embrace what psychologists describe as neurosis. Arthur Miller once wrote that the most innocent place in any country is the insane asylum: “There people drift through life totally innocent, unable to see themselves at all. The perfection of innocence, indeed, is madness.”

As Christians, we routinely acknowledge that we are all sinners. We may not all be lawless rebels, but it is nevertheless true: we are all tainted with sin. How? By our inward rejection of God’s control over our lives. We continue to try to take over, to run our own race, to be our own boss. Sin is not just doing bad things, like dishonoring parents, lying, cheating, stealing, or committing adultery. It is also saying to God, “No, you cannot rule over me. I will rule over myself and my family, and I will depend upon myself and not upon you to train my children. You can assist me from time to time when things are desperate, but I will not permit you to take full control.”

But the discovery of our sins presents a great opportunity. Our instinctive reaction is to feel threatened and defend ourselves, but that is to miss the opportunity to know God by taking a radical step that will revolutionize both your own life and, in time, your family’s.

Consider how unsatisfying much of your life is at present. You long to be a better person and a better parent, but you can never quite achieve that. You may even have to admit that as a parent you are often obsessed with your own anxieties, pains, and failings. Driven by frustration, you may go from book to book, from counselor to counselor, trying to find the how-to’s that will turn you into a successful father or mother. But the difficulty does not lie with the counselors or the books on family life and child training; it rests with you.

What is the real problem? It may be that you simply do not know as much as you should about God’s grace. Maybe you know nothing at all about it.

But that is also your great opportunity. Grace is available for those who have a knowledge, a faith-awareness, of their deepest need, a need that is the same for all human beings, but so long as we are successful in all aspects of our lives it remains a need that we are not conscious of.

. . . our need for grace has two sides:

  1. a knowledge of God’s unconditional love for me as a child of God, adopted into his family on the basis of personal trust in his death for my sins (Gal. 4:4-5);
  2. the continual surrender of my life to the control of the Spirit of the Son of God, to move from thinking like an abandoned orphan to confident trust in the Father (Gal. 4:6).

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

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Are You a Controlling Christian Parent? – Part 1

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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Has Suffering Been a Major Theme in Your Story?

Everyone operates out of a life story that integrates the events of life into a “coherent and vitalizing” narrative. People who have never suffered are likely to have naive stories about life’s meaning. He [psychologist Jonathan Haidt] gives the example of a woman who thought of herself as a brilliant but unfulfilled artist who had been forced by her parents into a mundane job. Her life story led to unrealistic views of her own abilities and to a great deal of self-pity and resentment toward life in general. It also contributed to her failure to find any qualified spouse candidate, who (she felt) had to be extremely creative and perfectly compatible with her. Haidt concluded that adversity offered her a prospect. “She is a mess of mismatched motives and stories, and it may be that only through adversity we she be able to make the radical changes she would need to achieve coherence.” He went on to write: “Trauma . . . shatters belief systems and robs people of their sense of meaning. In doing so, it forces people to put the pieces back together, and often they do so by [turning to] God or some other higher principle as a unifying principle.”

Haidt makes a crucial disclaimer when he says, “I don’t want to celebrate suffering, prescribe it for everyone, or minimize the moral imperative to reduce it where we can. I don’t want to ignore the pain that ripples out from each diagnosis of cancer.” He is indeed right, and . . . the Bible agrees with his view. God is grieved at our grief. The Bible is filled with cries of lament and shouts of “Why?” that God does not denounce. And yet–God is so committed to defeating evil that he is now ready to help us use it for good even in our individual lives right now. Haidt, James Davies, and other psychologists are arguing that there is a common sense as empirical basis for the idea that suffering produces endurance, character, and hope.

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering,166.

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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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How Do You Know if Your Heart is Pure?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8).

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. . . purity of heart is generally explained in terms of singleness of purpose, inner undividedness, freedom from radical inconsistency, not having mixed motives, single-mindedness. To progress toward this goal is is understood as growth in simplicity.

In this case the image is seen not so much as whiteness, as a matter of being true to one’s essential nature. Pure orange juice is devoid of additives and adulterants. Pure water is water and nothing else. A pure heart is a heart which is fully alive, with all its energies directed to a single end. The only object which has the capacity to hold such an intense outburst of energy is God; with anything less the energies are dissipated and concentration is lost. Purity of heart comes from being drawn to God.

It must be obvious that the perfection of purity of heart is not effected in an instant. It is the gift of grace and the labor of a lifetime. As a result one has to go through life with the burden of being subject to another law, of seeming to possess a “double soul.” The more conscious one becomes of a transcendent ideal [i.e., God and His will], the more one’s very nature seems to rebel against it.

In practical terms, too much attention to the correction of faults and the elimination of vice can prevent the formation of genuine virtue, substituting for a palid blamelessness that is not only barren but usually temporary. Too much vigor expended in bridling the wild energies of the passions can destroy all enthusiasm leaving a residue that is bland and boring. Sin is to be excluded only so that goodness may flourish, not for its own sake.

Purity of heart is not just a matter of deciding on a pattern of life and then resolutely refusing to compromise. There is more to a pure heart than a strong will. One needs prudence and patience to space one’s effort over a lifetime. One also needs to know how to endure. There is much energy within us which has the capacity to upset the balance of the heart and most of it is not amenable to willpower. . . . some problems go through a stage of latency. They emerge only with the passage of time, but when they do appear they are already well-established. We all know the practical utility of “nipping in the bud” destructive behavior, but this is not usually possible with regard to the deep roots from which such conduct grows. Although, theoretically, it is possible to limit the external manifestations of destructive tendencies, the tendencies themselves are intractable. If they were trivial little things which could be handled by a New Year’s resolution, they could scarcely be considered real problems or threats. But those problems which derive from deep inside us cannot be easily dismissed; we will have to struggle with them in various forms throughout our life.

This being so, it is likely that the crucial factor in checking their destructiveness is remaining continually conscious of their presence so that there is less possibility of their catching us unaware. This seems to be the meaning of . . . [the] first step of humility.

This consciousness of our tendency to sin is not a matter of self-depreciation, discouragement or excessive guilt, but just of keeping a wary eye on an aspect of ourselves which will eventually be integrated but which, for the moment, remains unruly and potentially harmful. It is realism as opposed to wishful thinking. The process of integration will take a lifetime; meanwhile it is not very wise to think that because a tendency is not causing any trouble it has entirely lost its sting.

Purity of heart is a matter of grappling with our tendencies to vice: anger, envy, greediness, timidity, melancholy, to name a few. Lust, however, has a special significance. There are a number of reasons for this: sexuality wields a powerful measure of our instinctual energies; sexuality is an area of repression for a statistically significant portion of the population; sexuality becomes especially sensitive in the case of those who dedicate themselves to celibacy and permanent continence. Whatever the relative importance of chastity to purity of heart, it must be seen that purity of heart is the absolute foundation for a chaste life. Only one who is moving toward singleness of purpose will have courage to pursue the virtue, despite temptation and failure.

Michael Casey, The Undivided Heart, 123-25.

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