On Marriage, Part 3: Hope for Healing Damaged Marriages

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This is the third part of a marriage series.  Part 1 was thinking about whom to marry and Part 2 shared what we’ve learned about staying married.  Part 3 addresses what to do if you feel like your marriage is in trouble.

For each of these posts in the marriage series, I feel (rightly) obliged to show my credentials:  who am I to say anything about marriage?

I’m Mike.  I’ve been married to Kim for 23 years and we’ve come through the death of a son, a miscarriage, a daughter with extreme health concerns for her first four years, fourteen moves, five years living in a developing country (two in a slum), getting fired, deaths of parents, severe depression, and two what I would term major crises in our relationship, both lasting over a year.

What I can say for my perspective is this: we’ve walked through a lot together and we’re still happily married.  We like each other.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We laugh together.  Our marriage isn’t perfect, but we wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s.  And we’ve worked our butts off to get this far.

I’m not an expert, not a licensed marriage and family therapist, and we have not experienced many of the worst things that destroy marriages.  So why try to say anything?

Three reasons:  One, I’m a transformation junkie.  I believe God can change any of us, at any time, none of us are beyond redemption, and likewise our marriages.  Two, I believe that the scars we carry are opportunities to speak to others who are struggling with wounds similar to what we have survived; God redeems our suffering by making us able to love others who are suffering as we did.  Three, I hope this offers a safer way to start seeking help, a first step, and this may be your chance to start doing something before it’s too late.

If reading this helps one marriage, it’s so much more than worth the hours of writing.  And from my end, I want to know I’ve offered what I can.


People often think you have to resolve your problems with each other before you can heal.  You may need to heal some first before you can resolve your problems.   

The worst year of our marriage happened here in Nicaragua.  We got so fed up with each other that our dates became the venting of our stored frustration with each other, the time we addressed our conflicts.  Who wouldn’t look forward to that Date Night?

The lowlight, from my perspective, was when we went out to dinner and I just lost it in a restaurant, started crying and couldn’t stop, had to go out to the car and we just drove home, where I insisted Kim get out so I could go be by myself.  I can’t remember ever crying in public like that, before or since, even at a funeral.  Big surprise, we stopped having dates soon after that.  Then we were just unhappy with each other all the time, while never spending any focused time together.

For perspective, Kim and I had been so romantically in love that once, during our college dating years, we made a rule limiting how many seconds we could gaze into each others’ eyes.  So if you’ve asked yourself, “How the hell did we get here?” yeah, so have we.  And we made it back from there.

People often think you have to resolve your problems with each other before you can heal.  You may need to heal some first before you can resolve your problems. 

Of course the best advice is, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” meaning reconcile by the end of the day–i.e. as soon as possible–so that nothing can build up.  But though this will help protect our relationships from serious division, it’s not a cure all.  Not every conflict can be resolved in one conversation, sometimes we try to forgive but have trouble letting some things so, and when there is a pattern of the same behavior, promptly addressing it still may not touch the root of why it keeps happening.  Oh, and sometimes we disagree over the conflict, can’t settle it, and then we’re just in bed and angry and the sun is long down.

Your problems almost certainly did not start overnight. 


Here is what I know:  your problems almost certainly did not start overnight.  Ours didn’t.  They grew and spread through many choices over many days and weeks and months, maybe even years.  Perhaps in a rare situation you or your partner just made a horrible, destructive decision out of the blue and everything came crashing down.  It happens.  But almost always the decisions are the daily kind, like erosion, the small disagreements and tensions and fissures that add up.  Maybe you have had a dramatic breaking of trust, but likely that came at the end of a chain of events, too.

We had reached the point where we could no longer go back and find the roots of our problem.  Kim and I symbolically had to sweep everything off the table and start over.  We put our time together back in the center of that table and nothing else.  Then, slowly, we would add things back, after we were certain our relationship had stabilized again.

Most of you have seen that visual lesson where someone shows how if you put the big rocks in the bottle first, the rest of the rocks and sand and water can fit, too.  We weren’t going for that.  We dumped everything out of the bottle and put in the rock of our marriage, plus the bare minimum of our responsibilities (keep feeding our kids, show up for work).  Then we started over learning to like each other.  We intentionally, consciously changed how we spoke to each other.  We were not avoiding the areas of conflict altogether, but we were not discussing them, or even alluding to them, on date nights.

We went on an anniversary trip together during this time and it was…stilted.  We were no longer just easygoing and comfortable with each other.  We had some nice times and also some awkward, difficult conversations, because we were committed to keeping things positive with each other.

If what I’m describing sounds like denial to you, think of this:  you have a gaping wound in your side and every time you bring up the conflict between you, it’s like taking sandpaper and rubbing it up and down that wound.  You might think, “No, I’m addressing the problem,” but it’s possible all you’re really doing is inflicting pain and aggravating the injury.  If you can’t stand each other, you’re not going to want to work things out.  Ever.  You might stay legally married but your relationship may not recover.

In our opinion, if you have covenanted to be married for life (those vows you said, not a contractual agreement), you have a long time to let yourselves heal and keep working through the conflicts until you can reach reconciliation.  Neither of you is going anywhere.  Whereas if you keep making the other person scream out in pain, one of you might go somewhere, far away, because you (or he or she) has reached the pain tolerance limit.


Prayer has saved our marriage.

We pray.  We believe in prayer, we believe in God’s desire and power to answer prayer, and we both think our lives would have gone horribly if God had not intervened many times.

When we are angry or fed up or at the end of our rope with our spouse, someone’s heart needs to change.  But I can’t change my significant other’s heart.  Often, I can’t even change my own.  But God can, and I can be willing for it to happen, which in my experience is the one crucial prerequisite.

You may read that and think, “Why does my heart have to change? I’m not the one who’s wrong!  I’m not at fault, except maybe 15% of the time!”

That may be true.  And you both may think that–which mathematically doesn’t work out at all.  But assuming 1)you want to stay married, and 2)on this trajectory your marriage will smash on the rocks, your heart will have to change, whoever is more to blame.

I once preached a sermon entitled, “You’re Wrong.”  Most Christians who have any grasp of orthodox (sound) theology know that we are sinners saved by God’s grace.  That’s our party line.  But even though it’s implicit in “we sin” that we must be wrong–sin means doing or thinking something wrong, self-damaging and dishonoring to God–it’s harder to hear “you’re wrong” than “you’re a sinner.”  What’s up with that?

I think two things:  we don’t really, fully with our whole hearts embrace that notion of being sinners with all its uncomfortable implications, and we are willing to admit to God that we’ve screwed up but not nearly so willing to acknowledge to people that we aren’t (always) right.

Maybe I overgeneralize here, but let’s take the case of the conflict between you and the person with your ring: are you wrong?  How much of the problem is because of you?  Can you start there as you approach how you will reconcile and heal, that you really are wrong? 

Ask God to change your heart.  I mean seriously, even if you are not in the habit of praying, even if you aren’t entirely certain there is a God up in the sky (or wherever the God-you’re-not-sure-of might dwell), ask God to change your heart and help you see where you are wrong.  Why?  Because 1)God just might do that, and it’s worth the risk of asking to save your marriage, 2)asking to see where you are wrong is a big step toward coming to see that you are, in fact, wrong in a lot of things; you’ve acknowledged the possibility.  God can work with that.

If you ask God to change your heart toward your beloved, and you keep praying that, he will answer your prayer.

Nope, I don’t know your situation personally (unless I do), but I do know that even if your significant other “started it,” the pattern of irritation and criticism and defensiveness and sarcasm and avoidance and manipulation and passive aggression is now being perpetuated by two.  Most of us pray for God to change our spouse.  When the conflict drags on and grows into a full-blown crisis, we might get angry at God for not answering.  But I know this, too:  If you ask God to change your heart toward your beloved, and you keep praying that, he will answer your prayer.

I’ve learned that one of the biggest blocks to true forgiveness is the need to be justified, to have the other person say how right I was and how wrong he or she was.  I’m grateful that I learned this before I entered our marriage, and the lesson saved what has become one of my closest lifelong friendships. Two people holding out for hearing “you were right” can easily become The Zax.


Forgiveness is to marriage as oxygen is to lungs.

I tried to stress in Parts 1 and 2 that if you can’t or won’t forgive, marriage isn’t for you.  If you’re already well into marriage and only just now discovering this fact, you have to 1)learn, 2)get divorced, 3)resign yourself to an unhappy relationship.  I suggest 1.

But forgiveness is hard; it is one of the things that makes marriage such demanding and sometimes grueling work.  You may be facing trying to forgive something that feels beyond forgiveness.  In the end, that’s the choice of whether or not you will stay married: can you forgive that?  Maybe “that” is adultery; maybe it’s years of habitual neglect or indifference; maybe it’s doing the things that bug you the most on purpose, just to piss you off.

And maybe you can forgive, but is there any indication the other person will change even if you do?

So much of marriage is based on hope.  I think most of us enter our marriages with starry eyes and unsubstantiated confidence that everything will go well.  The truth is, we are making vows to love a person who is going to change and grow and we have no idea who they will become.  And that’s describing emotionally healthy people.  “Sickness and health,” “Richer and poorer,” “Better or worse,” those are seriously wide ranges that we’re committing to.

We’ve entered this relationship that assumes change is not merely possible, but guaranteed.  What we’re really asking, therefore, is not “will the other person change if I forgive,” but “will the other person change to stop doing this thing I can’t bear?”  My point here is, we’ve already taken a huge leap of faith that the person I loved when I exchanged vows is someone who a)I will still love even after she has changed radically over the years, and b)will still love me even if my changes are difficult for her, even if I don’t become what she hoped I would be, even if I don’t become what I hoped I would be.  Like I say, it’s starry-eyed that this doesn’t strike us as a huge risk, but when you look at results, clearly it is.

 Seeking God to change my own heart and believing that Kim is trying, too, that is a radical act of hope.

So I am taking a similar risk when I forgive and believe that my spouse will change.  Forgiving in hope of seeing change (not as manipulation to get change) is the risk we take in marriage.  Seeking God to change my own heart and believing that Kim is trying, too, that is a radical act of radical hope, especially when we don’t feel loving toward each other.  And yet, it’s not a true risk, because for our hearts to survive, we need to forgive anyway.


Forgiveness does not equal Reconciliation

I have to make a crucial distinction here:  We forgive everything, but not everything can be reconciled.  By this I mean we do not hold hatred or resentment in our hearts against our significant others (nor anyone else, if we want to live and grow).  But we may not let them in the front door ever again, if the problem is bad enough and they show no commitment to change accompanied by action.  Reconciliation requires genuine change.  Virtually always, it requires both people to change.  Note: Trying harder to get the other person to see you’re right is not change.


Not every conflict can be reconciled and not every conflict should be reconciled.

“WAIT!  I thought you were trying to heal our marriage, not talk us out of it.”

I used to be the optimist who believed that every single marriage can be saved.  I don’t anymore.  I do believe, as I said, that everyone can change and be transformed by the power of God.  I also believe that if two people are committed to staying married, they can work out their problems.  If neither of you will give up, then you don’t have to get divorced.  It comes down to the two of you: no one outside can force you to quit, so as long as neither of you quit and you keep working on your relationship, you will work through things.  Eventually.

But sometimes, the other person gives up and you can’t make them try.  Should you stay in a marriage with someone who doesn’t want to get divorced but refuses to make any effort to change?  I really believe that is between you and God.

Should you stay in a marriage in which you are being physically abused?*

No.

The only “unless” I will submit is that your husband or wife is willing to demonstrate genuine repentance–meaning not merely “I’m sorry” but turning around and going the other way–through a number of agreed upon steps that might include therapy, limited time together, outside accountability and certain other benchmarks that show evidence of effort and progress.

There is a crucial difference between forgiveness and allowing someone to continue in destructive behavior. I may forgive someone for stealing from me, but I won’t have them walking through my home unaccompanied again, unless I know that the person has changed.  I mean, really, demonstrably changed.

Having said that, I don’t want to speak against someone else’s faith or willingness to forgive.  I have a number of close friends who have forgiven some awful things in their marriages that I cannot picture being able to forgive, much less reconcile and continue to be married.  But the truth is, I have not been through their situations, and we experience God’s grace when we’re in the midst of the struggle, not standing outside watching it.


 

I know this has been more narrative than step-by-step, so I’ll offer that, too.

Decide for yourself (and with God, if you pray) whether your conflict is worth ending your marriage over.  If it truly is, you should decide that consciously, not through erosion and passing the point of no return.  If it’s not, then make up your mind to do whatever you can on your end to fight for your marriage…and continue with this list.

  1. Identify what you have done wrong.
  2. Pray for God to help you change your heart toward your spouse, no matter who has done what.
  3. Ask God to help you forgive what your love did wrong.
  4. Apologize, ask forgiveness, and commit to changing.
  5. Receive apologies, forgive (this may take time) and don’t keep score or hold it against him or her.

As I said, you may need to do step 3 and commit to it over a period of time before you can make progress with reconciling your conflict.  And you may never reach the point where fault is acknowledged and forgiveness asked.  You may both simply have to choose to forgive and let it go.

Remember, taking these steps assumes your relationship is in a place to work through the conflict.  If you need to heal and regain fondness for each other first, do it.  Make that step two and keep returning to it.


 

There is a vast quantity of research and writing on marriage and healthy relationships.  The very best source I know is the Gottman Institute.  They have forty years of research invested in figuring out why some relationships last while others end.  Here is their blog that directly addresses the things that they have found most often kill relationships, which they refer to as “The Four Horsemen”:  Criticism, Stonewalling, Defensiveness and Contempt.

I highly recommend reading through these posts on the Four Horsemen, which include not only descriptions of destructive habits we can all get into, but ways to address each and work together to change.

 

I hope and fervently pray this may be of some help, or that you are able to find the help you need elsewhere.  When we most need help, often we feel least willing to seek it.

If you have comments or questions, I would be more than happy to respond.

Here is one last thing I know: God does love you and does desire to help your marriage.

 

 

*If you suspect you are being physically or emotionally abused, seek help from someone you trust personally or a professional.  I am NOT suggesting here that forms of abuse other than physical are acceptable, but they may require more discernment to identify.

Questions I Need to Ask

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Okay, a quick break from the To Live a Faith That Is Authentic  series.

I have some questions I’ve been needing to ask.  It’s time:

 

What does it take for you to admit you’re wrong?  How much evidence do you require?  

This is a great post on the issue from Jayson Bradley, whose blog both inspires and discourages me at the same time.*  What a gift!

 

When your text (how you’re communicating, not on your phone) is kindness and acceptance but your sub-text is “you’re not good enough,” do you really believe yourself that you’re being kind?  

When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy – if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this is easily managed.”  C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

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“…A Faith That Is Authentic…” Part 2: Listening

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When last you joined us–in Part 1–I had explained why, though I compete for “Most Dysfunctional Functional Person in the World” (I’ve never actually won, but I’ve come in 4th like six times), I also have the crazy privilege of profoundly influencing people, sometimes being one of the most influential people in their lives…and not even in a bad way.

After writing several posts and series on how people like us (go ahead, define that) survive and seek to thrive and trust God in the world, I’m taking the bold step of trying a series on what I do right.  That’s what this is.  I think I’m special only in the sense that God has worked in my life in unusual ways and taught me some thing that appear to be a bit off the beaten path.  If they help others, that’s worth sticking my neck out and offering them.


Listening.

I don’t know if I’m a better listener than others.  I do know I listen a lot (I’m also rumored to talk a lot, which means I must spend a lot of time with people).  Listening is both easy and crazy hard work.  I’ve given a lot of thought to listening:  what it is, how it works, why so many people suck at it, and how transformative it can be in people’s lives.

  1. (and also 2., 3., etc.)  Care

The difference between merely waiting for someone to stop talking and listening to them is caring what they say.  Caring what people say is one of the most practical ways we can love them. Christianity is really big on love, since the founder kept commanding things like “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Here’s a crazy thing:  Jesus was a great listener.

Here’s a crazy thing:  Jesus was a great listener.  The wisest person ever to live listened well to others.  Had the most important things to say in history, listened well to others.  My favorite example is that on the way to heal Jairus’s daughter, Jesus stopped when the woman in the crowd touched him.  She was already healed physically.  But he wanted to identify her, look her in the eye, hear her story, and then send her in peace, proclaiming to her and everyone else that her faith had healed her.  Jesus healed her emotionally and socially.  He showed her that she mattered.  He loved her by listening.

People generally know if you are paying attention or not.  Paying attention is an investment in another human being.  It’s called “paying” for a reason.  It requires concentration, setting aside anything more urgent-feeling, and quieting the voices shouting “Squirrel!” and “I’m hungry,” and “Ooh, she’s cute.”  Eye contact helps. Active listening, i.e. asking real questions and giving ongoing verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate we are tracking, these demonstrate that we care what the other person says and help us succeed at listening, at the same time.

For me, real listening means finding a way to connect with what the other person is saying.

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The Resurrection I’ve Seen

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Today was Easter.  Easter is a big deal.  We make a big deal of Easter.

It isn’t a big deal to a lot of people.  Easter for some people is no more than a day of candy, and for others it isn’t even that.  It’s just a day.

What’s the difference between Easter being a big deal and just a day?

There are a lot of easy answers to that question:

Knowing Jesus.

Being raised in a Christian culture.

Hearing the Gospel.

Intersecting with someone who has experienced God.

Experiencing God’s Spirit.

Being indoctrinated in the Christian faith.

 

The way you answer that question–or the answer you would pick from that list–probably indicates something about your relationship with Easter, as well.


 

Easter is Resurrection Day.  We make this the biggest day of the year, bigger than Christmas or Pentecost, because what we believe about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and ourselves and the world all hinges on this day.  They all hinge on the historical event that did or did not happen for which we claim this day.

A friend of mine who is a Christian told me recently, “I wonder if I believe this because I was raised with it.”  I think that’s a fair question to ask.  I don’t think it invalidates Christianity, but it is reasonable to consider whether, if you or I were raised in a Muslim country with four Christians among ten million people, would we have heard the Gospel?  Would we be Christians?

 If I’m honest, I then have to ask if I am the most difficult part of being a Christian for some other people.

The most difficult part, for me, of being a Christian is other Christians.  I will say that straight out.  If I’m honest, I then have to ask if I am the most difficult part of being a Christian for some other people.  I might be.  Sometimes I don’t believe what they believe or speak like they speak. Continue reading

“…To Do with As I Will?”

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Jesus tells a parable in which a wealthy landowner goes out and starts hiring folks to work.  Some get hired with the whole day to go, others get hired in the late morning, still another group get hired to work starting at noon.  One group get rounded up to begin in the mid-afternoon, and a final set of workers get hired with one hour before quitting time.  They work for one hour.

These are day-laborers, so when the final whistle blows, it’s time for everyone to get paid.  The very last workers to arrive get paid first, and to everyone’s shock, they are paid a full day’s wage.  Those who started work first, way back at sunrise, get very excited.  After all, they worked many times longer than these late-comers.  If one hour’s work equals a day’s pay, imagine how much a whole day’s work might earn!

It earns them a day’s pay.  They receive exactly the same as everyone else who worked for the landowner.  The first to work, who put in ten plus hours in the hot sun, receive identical recompense to the last ones to enter the field.Parable+of+the+workers+in+the+vineyard-1024x768-19487

The excitement turns to anger.  “That isn’t fair!  We worked ten times longer than they did!  If you are going to pay them for a good day’s work, when they barely even started, why don’t we get…?”

The landowner seems genuinely confused.  He had paid them what he promised.  He had not broken his word to them or underpaid them.  “Friend,” he said, “Did I not do what we agreed?  I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.  Is it not my money to do with as I will?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?:

The answer, of course, is that they most certainly do begrudge his generosity.


The answer, of course, it that they most certainly do begrudge his generosity.
The answer is that his generosity is beautiful and open-handed but not so much for them. For them, the landowner is merely fair, keeping his word, fulfilling his agreement.  But even his fairness seems a bit tainted now.  Someone else received much better at his hands; someone else experienced extravagant generosity, but not us.  We just got the regular treatment.  The regular treatment now feels almost chintzy.


 

Jesus does not fit in the boxes that we like to pull out.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen explanations on Facebook about how socialism doesn’t work, because the people who work hard don’t receive the full reward for their work, while others who barely work receive what they didn’t work for, and in the end everyone realizes that working hard makes us no better off, so we all just sit on our butts and the whole system falls apart.

But those are just stories.  My neighbor works very hard.  He repairs motorcycles.  He has held his job for several years and he is good at what he does.  He works for a motorcycle repair shop in one of the mercados.  He has a wife and two small children.

Last week, he came home after a full day’s work having received only eighty cordobas.  The exchange rate is currently almost 30 cordobas to the dollar.  He made less than three dollars for his full day’s work.

He’s trying to decide now whether he can make a go of starting a repair shop out of his home.  His family is going hungry.  He can’t allow that.

Now, instead of reading the parable through the lens of “welfare cheats,”–which many seem haunted by but I’m not certain how many of us actually encounter in the flesh or know by name–consider it through the experience of our friend.  We’re sharing meals with them and trying to offer a little work to help them earn enough to get through this.  If our friend were in a parking lot with an hour to go before the workday ends, it wouldn’t be due to laziness or some cunning that “perhaps I could get hired late and still get paid the same.”  He would be there out of desperation that even a couple bucks or whatever an hour’s work might get him would help a little and be worth it.

If he were asked, “Friend, why are you still here so late in the day?” he could easily answer, “No one would hire me.”

Try to imagine his response to getting hired for that one hour, just to do anything it takes to buy food this week, but instead of receiving one hour’s pay–or the couple bucks he was underpaid for a full day–he is handed a generous day’s wage, instead.  How much do you earn for a day?

“So the last will be first, and the first last.”


 

I’m pondering several things about this passage.

First, are we offended when others receive grace?  We’re smart enough to know that standing out in the field like the elder brother of the Prodigal with our arms crossed and refusing to come in to the party looks bad, but does it piss us off when someone else gets a better deal than we do?  Does it ruin what really was a perfectly fair deal for me when I realize that someone else received greater generosity?  Or can I rejoice in God’s extravagance when it’s for someone else?

  Can I rejoice in God’s extravagance when it’s for someone else?

What was Jesus trying to tell us?  What if God is kind and forgiving to people who have screwed up more than we have?  What if, while we were trying to do good, someone else was just pulling all kinds of crap, and we were secretly hoping to see them get theirs–not in the nice way–only to watch them treated just like we are?  When I pull more than my weight on the “volunteer” committee and someone else pulls less, but we are equally recognized?  When someone else’s lesser effort earns the same bonus that busting my butt gets me?

Second, have we come to hold our economic views higher than the words in red?  I really mean this.  Does Jesus inform our economic principles, or do our economic principles shape our understanding of Jesus?  Do you know a person in your life who cheats the welfare system and gets benefits unfairly?  The only person I know who might qualify for that description used to work half a year at a very hard job and then sit around and play video games or go hunting during the winter and receive unemployment checks.  He was very conservative in his politics and saw no inconsistency in what he did.

Our Nicaraguan neighbor is much more typical of the people I have known, who struggle against poverty and try to keep their children fed.

Finally, do we have empathy?  Not pity for “those poor unfortunates,” but genuine empathy, in which we put ourselves in others’ shoes by relating their suffering to our own.  I think when grace offends us, our imaginations have failed…or maybe they have worked too well.

dirty handsWe fail to imagine that we could be going hungry, that our children might come to us and we have nothing to give them.  Or else we imagine that we are never going hungry because we are more righteous, because we have earned God’s favor and that’s why we were born to well-off parents and received a sound education and enjoyed security and privilege.  What does it mean when we have all we need and most of what we want, yet we’re deeply offended that we might have to give up a little to benefit people who are hungry or sick.  Tonight.

When Jesus says, “The last will be first, and the first last,” and we are currently the first, that demands a response.

“For the kindgom of heaven is like…”

Don’t mistake Jesus for one of the politicians promoting a fanciful economic system.

Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.

We aren’t debating whether this is a nicer way to treat workers, or a more equitable means of disbursing profits.  Jesus says the kingdom of heaven works like this.  Are we trying to advance this kingdom in our world?

Or are we offended by its generosity?

Because We REALLY Don’t Know

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“There’s always another story.  There’s more than meets the eye.”

–W.H. Auden

Three stories on the same theme, one from my hilarious, candid and slightly profane friend, Shari.

After our son Isaac died, Kim and I took some time away.  Our eldest daughter was two.  Some bike-trailerfolks on the church board where I was pastor had generously let us use their vacation home to have some space.  Kim and I decided to go on a bike ride with Lydia in a bike trailer.

I was in bad shape at this point.  Nothing made sense to me and I was just trying to keep my head above water.  To give you an idea, when driving alone, I would tell people who cut me off, “You really don’t want to do that to me.  I truly do not care if I ram you or not.”  Yeah, I mean out loud.  They couldn’t hear me, but I meant it.*  Exercise helped me not to despair, and we had a daughter to take care of.  We rode about an hour and came back to our car to load up the bikes.

A man approached us and started asking questions.  I have a history of attracting strangers who want to talk with me, so I wasn’t surprised, but neither was I in the mood.  I went for short without being completely rude.

“Is that your little girl?”

“Uh-huh.”

“How old is she?”

“Working on two.”

“What’s her name?”

Sigh.  Ready for this to be done.

Then the man said, “I was watching you before when you were getting ready to go.  You two are really good parents.  I saw how you treated her.  She’s a lucky girl.  Are you Christians?” Continue reading

Until We Die

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What’s with all this dying?

I’m watching the internet explode with posts about David Bowie and Alan Rickman (and chipping in a few of my own).  I thought this article about losing our theologians was brilliant.  It captured for me why I’m grieving over artists whom I never met or even saw live.

There’s been a fair amount written about death, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to add to the collective wisdom here.  But an unusual combination of things are swirling around in my head and I’m trying to figure out how they all fit together.

David Bowie was a brilliant artist, a true musical genius.  I’ve never listed him among my personal favorites, but I respect his accomplishments and enjoy a lot of his music.  But then there’s this:

“David Bowie was an incredible musician who inspired generations. He also participated in a culture where children were sexually exploited and raped. This is as much a part of his legacy as his music.”

Two nights ago, I watched the movie Spotlight with my daughter.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it and believe it has a decent chance of winning the Academy Award for best picture–TRIGGER WARNING, though, it’s about the Boston Globe breaking the story of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church.  Challenged by a college friend, I’ve been doing research since and finding out how horrifically prevalent sexual abuse is within the Protestant church and missions.  Today I spent time with the director of our school, discussing the dangers and committing my help to identifying and preventing such abuse at our school.  If you are part of a church, mission or Christian school and aren’t already well-informed on this issue, I urge you to read this entire article.  I know it is says some negative things about certain organizations, but turning away from what we don’t want to know helps create an environment in which abusers can carry out their abuse.

Jesus always sided with the abused.  He always stood with the persecuted.  Many of the stories of healing speak not just of his miraculous power, but of his willingness to stand against abuse, hatred, and shunning of the weak, the victim, or the shunned.  When he stopped the crowd rushing to Jairus’s daughter to speak with the women who had hemorrhaged for twelve years, he did more than restore her dignity.  He challenged a system that turned suffering people into outcasts.  He stood for the victim of abuse.  She was considered “unclean” and had no business in that crowd, much less touching a rabbi.  Jesus credited her courage to touch him and believe in his power and compassion as bringing about her own healing:  “Go in peace; your faith has made you well.”   The woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman by the well, the lepers he touched, those possessed, all of them were despised and considered outcasts because their suffering was considered their fault.  They must have sinned.  They brought this upon themselves. Continue reading

Fighting for Hope: Depression

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the-labours-of-alexander-1950 Rene Magritte

I am a bit scared to share this one.  People judge a lot for this.  But I hope it can help someone–maybe you, maybe someone you love–and if so, I want to do what I can.

The truth is, there are days for me when it’s hard to get out of bed, hard to pray, hard to breathe. There are days when just being takes all my energy. It isn’t because I’m lazy, it isn’t because I lack motivation. It isn’t even because I’m unfaithful. I struggle with depression and I have some dark days.

I have days when doing anything at all feels exhausting. Some of those days I’ll sit and read my Bible and pray and the clouds lift and the weight comes off my chest. But others, I’m praying and exercising and eating healthy and doing everything I know how to do and it doesn’t seem to change anything. Or maybe because I’m doing those things it doesn’t get worse, but it’s like I’m fighting to a standstill.

My father was diagnosed bi-polar. Genetically, that means I’m about four times more likely to develop this condition than someone without a close relative who is bipolar. About 10% of children with a bi-polar parent will exhibit symptoms themselves. So that’s fun. I didn’t get to choose; those are my cards. God loves me. I’m His. He’s given me gifts and He uses me for His Kingdom. And I also have to be vigilant about my mental and emotional health, probably more vigilant than many people, and I walk through some tough days.

God might heal me completely someday. Then again, compared with what I saw my dad suffer, God has mercifully spared me already.

Right this second, a number of people are re-evaluating me, trying to make what I’ve just said fit with their picture of me. I may have just lost a bit of standing with certain people.  Someone else is saying, “Oh, my gosh, me, too!” It may look different on you than me, but the core is the same.

One of the funnest things about depression is the shame, the feeling that something fundamental is wrong with me and if people knew, they would…well, they would think as lowly of me as I sometimes think of myself.  And that would be a bummer. So the predictable response to depression is to isolate, because a)you don’t feel like doing anything, and b)telling other people you’re like this is a huge risk.

That’s not an unfounded fear, either. I’ve certainly encountered people who don’t understand depression and who assume that it’s just self-pity or a lack of faith or laziness.  Part of understanding is knowing what these words we use so freely mean.  I need to define things so that we’re clear on our terms.

I’m quoting Archibald Hart, who was the Dean of the School of Psychology at Fuller Seminary when I was studying there:

Depression can be seen as a symptom, a disease, or a reaction.  As a symptom, depression is part of the body’s warning system, calling attention to something that’s wrong. It alerts us to the fact that there has been a violation of some sort. Something is missing or lost. It can also be a symptom of something physically wrong. Depression accompanies a wide variety of physical disorders, such as influenza, cancer, and certain disturbances of our endocrine system. But depression is also a disease in itself.  In its most severe form, the psychotic depressions, it is an illness category all its own. Known as a major depression, it has two forms: unipolar depression (one just gets severely depressed) and bipolar depression (alternating manic and depressed moods). Finally, depression can be a reaction to what is going on in life or more specifically, to significant losses one experiences. This last form is known as reactive depression. It’s the kind most people have to contend with in their daily lives. If we are emotionally healthy, we deal with those losses promptly, and the depression is short-lived. If we’re not, the depression lingers and may even get worse or chronic.

  So depression is complex, and we’re really talking about 3 different categories with similar effects:

1)Depression as a symptom of things ranging from flu to cancer;

2)depression as a serious disease, and

3)depression as a reaction.

I think this is partly why people can get so confused and overwhelmed about depression, and why some people don’t understand what others go through. Most of us know what the flu feels like, how your body just seems to drop into low gear. Many of us here have suffered loss or grief, and reactive depression can hit hard and last for a while, and then gradually or suddenly lift again.  A smaller number suffer depression as a disease, and this also has a range, from low-level doldrums to a crippling extreme that makes functioning in normal, everyday life impossible.

Jesus experienced depression. He certainly did.

What did Jesus feel in the garden of Gethsemane when he was preparing to face his arrest, torture, and murder?

He left the upper room with his disciples, who were singing a song together. He told them what was about to happen—how he would be betrayed and deserted—and they told him “No, you’re wrong.”

He went out to be alone with God but asked his three closest disciples to watch with him and they fell asleep. He asked them for help—one time in the Gospels where Jesus specifically asks for help—and they failed him.

“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and stay awake with me.” They fell asleep. He found them sleeping and rebuked them, then exhorted them not for him, but for their own sake, ”Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He goes off and prays in utter misery, so that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  He came back…and they were asleep again.

This is a perfect description of reactive depression. Of course it’s not sin; Jesus is suffering loss, he’s in agony, and his body is registering this physically.

Studies show that people who are in the “helping professions” experience reactive depression more often:  social workers, community organizers, pastors, missionaries. That makes sense, because it’s a physiological response to loss.  It’s one stage of grief.  When someone you love and have been helping makes horrible decisions and/or walks away from God, you feel depressed. You may not exhibit the symptoms I described earlier.  You may have different coping mechanisms to deal with it.  Or you may be internalizing these losses and pushing on, which almost always leads to problems later.

But everyone experiences depression from external events that impact us strongly.  When we’re deeply invested in people, we’re going to face pain and sorrow with them, and because of them.  Would any parents disagree?

The disease level of depression is often triggered less from external conditions and more from internal mechanisms, from brain chemistry out of balance. But studies show—and believe me, I’ve studied this—that genetic and environmental components also play a part. This is where people who haven’t experienced severe depression can misunderstand what’s happening to those suffering it.  I’ve already touched on this, but I’m going to say it more directly:

Depression is not sin, and telling people to “just get over it” is akin to telling people with physical diseases to “get over it.”

Depression can lead to sin; it can make us more vulnerable to sin. But condemning people for being depressed is badly misunderstanding what is happening to them. Telling people that they’re depressed because they lack faith is like telling someone with diabetes or cancer that they are sick because they don’t have enough faith. That’s behaving like Job’s “friends”: “Gosh, you’ve got problems–you must really be an awful sinner!”

I don’t claim to speak for all people suffering depression everywhere—I’m not signing up to be Poster Boy for Depressed Folks—and please forgive me if my description does not helpfully address what you experience.  But I am going to give you four truths that I know about depression.

#1:  God knows.

Scripture addresses depression. Have you read Psalm 88? What’s different about this Psalm? It doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t end with a rallying cry of hope and a declaration of faith. Most of the Psalms, even the most downer-sounding of them, conclude with God’s faithfulness, God’s judgment on the wicked (those wicked often being the cause of the downer-ness), and a reaffirmation of hope in God.

In God’s wisdom, we also have Psalm 88. There aren’t dozens of Psalms that end with “life sucks,” which I take as a guideline not to wallow in our pain. But there is one, which I take to be a promise that God understands and that our struggles are not unique; we are not alone.  Though depression always makes you feel isolated and cut off from humanity, that is not true—you are not alone in feeling this way! The psalmist felt the same way, and this is part of our Scripture. Psalm 88 is a prayer.  It’s a cry to God for help in despondency. “O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.”

The writer goes on, “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with your waves.”

It’s easy to blame God when you feel this way. The psalmist totally does: “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cnanot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. “But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.”

The writer doesn’t say, “There’s this situation right now that is really getting me down.” “From my youth I have suffered and been close to death.” We don’t know the objective situation of the writer, we don’t know how bad things are, but we know the psalmist feels miserable and describes this as a long-term struggle, “from my youth.”

This may be a lifelong battle with depression, or this may be how, when you’re depressed, everything can seem horrible, including your entire life retroactively. God knows. I think this is validation.  Feeling depression, even long term, is just what some people deal with; these are the cards they drew. Or we drew. Depression is hard enough to deal with, without adding self-condemnation on top. It’s crucial to believe that God knows, He understands our situation.

#2 God is with us in our struggle.

Believe me, I am not saying this cheaply. It’s not a cliché for me. Not everyone considers Luke 22:39-46 a crucial passage for their faith. I do. Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane and he is miserable. I don’t love this passage because Jesus is miserable, I love this passage because God used it when I was most depressed to help me believe that He understands me and is with me, even in my darkest times. When our son died, I was furious with God and could no longer see how he loved me. I was refusing to accept Isaac’s death. I felt like if I told God it was okay that it happened, then I would have to accept it and go on. But it wasn’t okay. So I stayed angry and figuratively held my breath, demanding that God change it. He didn’t. He didn’t raise my son from the dead.

But this is what stationsofthecrossgardenhe showed me: Jesus prayed in the Garden, “Lord, if it be your will, take this cup from me.” That’s the most ludicrous prayer in the history of existence. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, The Incarnate Word of God who was Present at Creation, who knows better than God the Son that this is the plan for Redemption—and yet Jesus asks, “Could we change it now? Would that be possible? I will do your will, Father, but maybe we could try a different plan?”

What is that? That is Jesus’ heart. That is the intimacy between Son and Father, that Jesus prayed exactly what He felt, knowing full well that it was impossible, that God would not answer that prayer in the affirmative. For me, more than any other Scripture, this proves to me that God knows my suffering and is with me in my suffering, no matter how ludicrous my thoughts or how impossible my demands. This passage is bedrock for me. Because in depression, in grief, in our struggles down in the depths, we need to know more than anything else that God is with us. He is.

“If I make my bed in hell, you are there.”

#3 Healing means coming into the light.

Pain, injuries, depression, and bitterness, many things fester and grow worse in the dark. God’s healing is always in the Light. Keeping our secrets, whether because of shame or humilation or pride, does not lead us to life. Why does God choose to work that way?

I know many of us have prayed and prayed for healing and help in private, just us and God, and it sure seems reasonable that God would answer those prayers, for so many reasons. But God prefers to work through community. That is as clear as anything in Scripture. God’s Kingdom is communal; our prayer, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a corporate plea. The “me and Jesus” approach, for the most part, is not Biblical. Sorry, I’d often prefer it, too. But God heals us through our brothers and sisters. We seek God in community.

Our Enemy is much more convincing when we face him alone, when we have no one to remind us of the Truth. I never win arguments with Satan. Never. And sometimes I can just step back and let God defend me, but sometimes I’m not able to grasp the Truth that saves me without a human voice to remind me. That’s my weakness, yes, but that’s our condition. We are weak. And we’re inclined to believe lies.

I’m not saying that depression magically goes away when people speak God’s truth to us, but I know that one of the most crucial weapons in the battle against depression is people faithfully speaking what is true about us to confront the negative things we have internalized. You might be shocked by how loud and constant the negative voices in my head are; if you can’t relate, God bless you and I’m happy for you. Or you might sing this exact song with me, note for note. I don’t have an off switch for those voices, but one of the things that helps most is seeking the truth to confront the lies. I can do that by reading Scripture, by praying, and by hearing my brothers and sisters—and my wife—tell me what’s true about me.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should dietrichbonhoefferseek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”  Bonhoeffer, Life Together

 


 

I need to make a caveat now. Not everyone can handle hearing what we suffer. Just like some of us suffer from depression and other mental struggles, some of us suffer from lack of compassion or empathy, and some simply have not yet reached the depth and maturity to walk with others through certain kinds of suffering. It takes wisdom and grace to handle hearing about someone else’s struggle, and it takes wisdom and discernment to choose the right person or people with whom to share these things. Sharing pain with someone who can’t handle it can make things worse for everyone. It’s important that we not think, “If I tell someone, I’ll automatically get better.” That belief can set us up for crushing disappointment.

One aspect of this is that some people struggle with depression at a level that will require more than a willing ear. I was a pastor for about 10 years and I’ve been in vocational ministry for coming on twenty. I had one, one, pastoral counseling class when I was in seminary. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve read a lot, I’ve receiving counseling and I’ve offered counseling, but I’m not capable of dealing with every level of depression. I can love people. But I also need to be able to recognize when I am out of my depth. Like I said before, that can be particularly difficult here, where it’s such a risk to let someone else see one’s struggle.

On the other hand, we have to walk carefully, because “This freaks me out” or “I don’t want to deal with your pain” is not the same as “I’m out of my depth.” I believe in both God’s power to heal and God’s use of our minds, education, and understanding.  Psychology without the Gospel doesn’t have the heart of the Truth, but sometimes we need the Gospel applied with the tools psychology offers.  Pray and ask for God’s leading before you open up.*  Pray and ask for God’s leading if someone opens up to you. Keep their confidence, but if you suspect their struggle might be beyond what you can walk through—I don’t say “fix” or “heal,” but journey beside—then seek counsel.

#4 Final Truth: God is bigger.

God’s grace is bigger than however messed up and discouraged you or I might be. This is the bottom line. This is the most important thing I can tell you about depression. This is my choice to believe every day of my life. Depression is not sin, but we can sin in our depression, and it is easier to sin when we are depressed, believe me. But where sin abounds, Grace is Greater. Hear me: God’s Grace is always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS greater. I know it doesn’t feel that way. I am a very feeling-oriented person. But sometimes our feelings are just wrong. It’s not a sin to have wrong feelings, and sometimes those feelings are caused by brain chemistry that is not functioning correctly.

I told you my dad was bi-polar.  He had so many untruths that he believed and battled every day. I watched this battle from long before I could understand what was going on, and he wanted to tell me his problems from much younger than I could handle hearing them (choosing your young child for your confidante: bad idea) and he passed on a lot of these characteristics and genetic dispositions to me.  Here is my final Bonhoeffer quote:

We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.

I resented and even hated my father for a long time, especially before I became a Christian. Now I understand a lot better, both intellectually and viscerally. My life looks very different than his did, because he lived a Job life and didn’t come to peace with God until the last few of his 68 years. But God’s grace was greater than my dad’s pain, if only Dad could have availed himself of it decades early, and God’s grace is greater than my struggles. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ says that sorrow and depression and death do not have the final word. Even on the days when we feel like we’re hanging on by our fingertips—maybe especially on those days—God’s Grace has the final word, and that Word is Eternal, while this fight is temporary. I’m not one to tie up messy theological or existential struggles in neat little bows (depression and the death of a child defy those easy answers), but God is doing something in us through this struggle, because he never leaves bad things to rot; He is the Redeemer.

“And I know, as my Redeemer lives, that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been destroyed [and all this damnable misery with it], then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

 

*If you are depressed and have never prayed before, this could be the time to start.  If you want to write me, please do.

Identity, Value, and Trudging Home

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One of the most readily affirmed truths in Christianity is that we are children of God and all our value comes from that identity.  By that, I mean we recognize that God’s love and adoption of us as his children imparts our value to us.  Not our abilities, not our possessions, not our fame or fortune or friendships or degrees or social standing or accomplishments make us any more valuable in God’s estimation than we were to begin with, simply because he created us and adores us.


pronouns

I’m always wrestling with which pronoun to use, because “I,” “you” and “we” convey
monumentally different things, and I don’t always feel confident or qualified to move beyond first-person singular.  So I will start with the one about which I am certain.


 

I say these words easily but they are not yet true of me:  My only value comes from being a child of God.  Actually, they are true, I believe by faith.  But I don’t believe them.

Huh?  Yeah, I said that.  I believe in the truth of this statement, but I do not believe this about myself on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis.

Can I believe a statement is true if I don’t live by its truth?  Of course.  I believe that sin hurts us and if I avoided sin, I would spare myself oodles of suffering and misery.  Yep, I believe every word of that.  I don’t stop sinning, mind you.  But intellectually?  I’m all in.

And yet, and yet, we have to ask what we mean (oops, slipped into first-person plural) by “believe.” Does it mean, “I affirm this truth,” “I assent to this fact,” or does it mean, “I live by this knowledge and order my life accordingly?”

I believe that eating healthily all the time is the best thing for my body.  I don’t always eat healthily, but generally I try.  And sometimes I just gorge.  Mostly on holidays or special occasions when I’m calling it a feast day and just taking it off from eating more wisely and selectively.  Or when I’m depressed and think that eating junk food will cheer me up, which never works in the long-term but does make me feel a little better in the instant gratification time-frame.

Back to identity.  My conflict feels different to me than sinning or eating badly, because with those I know I’m wandering away from reason, but in the moment I’ve just decided a)I don’t care, b)the consequences are worth it, or c)I’ll swim in denial for a bit.

When I say, “Being God’s child alone gives me value,” I am speaking a truth that my head buys and my heart simply doesn’t.  So I know it’s true, but I don’t believe the truth I know.  In case you are not conflicted in this manner, I can recommend some wonderful higher mathematics sites that you might really enjoy.  But Paul who wrote Romans was.

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.  But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

I had a leader of a mission trip I was on tell me that this is a passage for non-Christians and does not apply to Christians.  It may not have applied to him, but it still describes me and I’ve been a Christian for coming on 30 years now.

I would like to know and believe the truth about myself.  Heck, I would like to know, believe and live the truth about myself.  How cool would that be?  When I imagine what “God is faithful to complete the work he started” means, I picture this.  Consistency, across the board.  But today, I’m still all over the map, like the start of a Risk game when you’ve got one or two armies on each country spread out hither and yon with no pattern other than the random draw of cards.*

Today I received four compliments, seven insults, a few hugs, a nasty look, and an email thatstocksrisingandfalling might have been joking or else was a dagger camouflaged as humor.**  Does my value change like a volatile stock that bounces up and down as its shares are bought and sold?  Nope, it does not. I know that.  But those things impact me because some part of me believes that that’s exactly what happens.  Days where I can do no wrong, everyone sends sunshine my way, and my little goals in life seem to be getting accomplished, I don’t just feel happy–I feel more valuable.  That’s a confession.  I shouldn’t.  I know better.

• The things people say are largely, if not entirely, about them, not me.  Every compliment must be taken with a grain of salt and every insult should probably be taken with a salt lick.

• There are SO MANY variables going on with every interaction I have:  People are having skubula days, they are in crises I know nothing about, parenting is not working out for them today, they (like me) suffer from insomnia, they’re feeling lousy, etc, etc, etcetera.

• I can’t be a reliable witness to how others intend their words.  Oh, I can guess and speculate–and do, all the time.  But I’m no expert witness.  No case should be decided based on my evaluation of whether that tone you just spoke to me in was light-hearted, mocking, indifferent or dismissive.  I don’t know your intentions.  I’m doing my best to decipher them, but even after I guess I still don’t know whether I’m right.

That’s a tiny list of reasons I shouldn’t let my value rise and fall on my interactions with others.  I know all this stuff.  But if you, whom I love, or maybe like a whole lot, speak sharply to me or maybe don’t trouble to speak to me, I feel bad.  It might be legitimate for me to feel concern for you, or be troubled about the state of our friendship (or whatever we have), or even question whether I did or said something wrong.  But I feel bad about me.

Truthfully, my negative response ranges based on how important the speaker or ignorer is in my life.  And this is exactly why I should root my value in God’s view and only God’s view.

• God alone has the objective view.

• God isn’t having a bad day, pissed that his car won’t start, etc. x 3.

• What God thinks of me, in the end, matters the most…by a wide margin.

In the same sense that either God exists or doesn’t, I am either valuable to God or I’m not.  According to the Bible, God does and I am.  Both unchanging.

You may say, “Come on, Mike, those negative things might hit your emotions, but they aren’t really impacting how you see your value.  Right?”  Thus did I choose to write this from my very own first-person singular perspective.  You may love advanced equation websites and you may never have felt the Romans passage I quoted above applies to you.  If that’s genuine, awesome.  If that’s your version of denial…stay with me.  We’ll get there.

I’ve become convinced that these things hit my emotions so hard precisely because I still have them connected with my value as a person, or as a Christian, or whichever part of my identity gets bruised or coddled.  Going up is just as dangerous as going down because a)what goes up must come down (i.e. if I’m invested in praise I’m also invested in criticism) and b)feeling too good about myself apart from God’s value he has imputed to me runs me smack into pride.  Anything referred to as “the root of all other sins” is just as well avoided.


 

What now?  If you are going to jump into this boat with me acknowledge that you’ve been in this boat with me all along, I’ll shift to what we might do.

My value comes from God’s love, straight up, no chaser.  God loves me whether I spend tomorrow in the fetal position, accomplish great things for the Kingdom of God, or manage some middle ground betwixt.  God loves me whether I’m wallowing in my sin or loving him with all my heart and my neighbor as myself (he has a strong preference between those, largely for my sake, but his love doesn’t waver).  If God’s love for me stays consistent regardless of my own behaviors, it’s sure and certain not to change with others’ treatment of me, nor with any of the other things that tend to swing me with their lassos.

We need to internalize this truth.  We need to integrate it into our thought patterns and let it become the measure by which we evaluate every interaction.  I know, that might sound exhausting and a little unrealistic.  Am I really going to stop after every conversation and mentally compare it with the truth about God’s love for me?  But I’m pretty sure this is what some other folks already have built in.  That’s how it appears to function in my wife.

To get this truth internalized, we need to soak in it.***  Let it saturate us.  Make it the air we breathe and the chocolate food we eat.  Let it become the water we swim in.  Meditate, memorize, reread over and over every single day, passages that convey God’s love for you.  Pick your favorites.  I don’t care if that’s cherry picking.  If you struggle with the same kind of negative thoughts I do, you are already very clear on passages about judgment, sin, and failing.  God’s grace is greater.  Jesus died for us when we were enemies.  Nothing separates us from the love of God.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

The next time you feel yourself plummeting due to someone’s words or actions, step back and hold up what they’ve said or done/your reaction to what they’ve said or done**** against the words that you’ve been ingesting.  Yes, they may even have spoken something true about what you’ve done wrong or need to repent of or do differently, but that doesn’t change who you are.  It doesn’t change how God sees you.

If you can, ask someone close to you to speak these truths to you when you can’t manage it for yourself.  This can be uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing.  It’s tough to let other people see how screwed up we feel.  But the right people can help us to believe what we struggle to accept about ourselves.

Pray.  God can change hearts, God can change minds, God can change our screwed-up wiring.  There’s a reason for each of us why we started believing untruths about ourselves.  Something happened in us that caused us to attach our value to other people’s responses or our own success or failure or whatever thing(s) we’ve hooked on to apart from God.  God can get into that sealed-off chamber in us and transform and redeem what’s in there.

I’m not saying it will happen like magic–“Presto!”–nor that it will be painless.  The truth will set us free, but first it will kick our butts.  Healing often hurts.   That’s the paradox, but it’s one we see in our physical bodies and everywhere in the world around us.  What I’m describing may require intensive prayer, or counseling, or a support group, or some other form of deeper work.  Sorry that sounds rough.  We agreed we are in the boat and leaving denial behind.*****

I am God’s beloved child.  

You are God’s beloved child.  

There are a whole bunch of other things we think we are, we’re told we are, and we’ve believed we are.  They’ve got to be dragged out into the sunshine.  The father who loves us gets the final say.  Do you think the prodigal son, while trudging home, believed the truth about himself?

rembrandt_prodigal

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

We’re trudging home.

I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.

 

Footnotes:

*Sometimes we played random draw for countries and sometimes we took turns choosing them.  The latter better look a little more like strategic planning.  Maybe winning at Risk is the image of having God’s work in me completed, in which case the other colors are truly my enemies…not too bad of an analogy.  I think I’ll leave it there before it collapses with rolling the dice.

**I’m making these numbers up so that my problem-solving friends don’t try to figure out where they figure in.

***Some authors I highly recommend to help with this:  Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Joyce Meyer, Timothy Keller, Rob Bell.

****Because remember, we’re only interpreting their intentions through our own lenses.

*****I disavow any pun here.  If you thought it, it’s yours.