Counseling/Pastoral Issues

Five Ways to Apply Community

Five Ways to Apply Community

“Yes, I am convinced of the necessity of community. What do I do now?” If you’ve been aloof to the idea and are now prepared to engage this new world, you need to begin thinking carefully about incorporating community into your calendar. To do so, you need to budget your time. Community is intentional, which means you have to pursue it.

Here are five ideas to begin in the journey and joy of community:

a) Reserve a day each week for hospitality. Invite someone over for coffee/dessert or a meal. Pencil it in your calendar. Make it a priority.
b) If you are single/college student, invite someone from the church for coffee/drink. You may wish to invite an older saint in the church. We have a misguided idea that youth only spend time with youth. In a community, we are all one. The idea is to make an art of knowing others in the body and casual settings provide the right environment to hear others’ stories
c) If your church provides alternative gatherings (Bible studies, etc.) outside Sunday morning, be faithful to at least 50% of them. These activities provide opportunities to bond with fellow members. When people complain that they just don’t seem to fit in a church, it’s probably because they neglect these gatherings.
d) The Church is called to be faithful and your active engagement in her faithfulness makes her beautiful to the world. Every church has its own culture. What are you adding to make her a pleasing aroma in the eyes of non-church goers? How are you representing your community? Ponder these questions regularly.
e) Finally, be a force for peace in the community. It takes minutes to ruin communities, but a lifetime to preserve its peace. Be the ambassador of peace in whatever church community you are. Seek the well-being of the body by giving thanks to our Lord for incorporating you into His own body.

Holy Complaint

Holy Complaint

There is a sort of holy complaint to God (Ps. 142:1-2). In fact, God calls us to complain; to plead our cause. Not all complaining is created equal. But there is a kind of complaint that is both defiant and dangerous. Complaint can be defiant when we treat God like a magic genie. But God does not exist for our needs, we exist to satisfy His will (I Thes. 4:3). He does not promise to take away our problems nor console us in our unrepentance.
But there is a complaint that is also dangerous because God is a consuming fire which is why for a complaining people having God close is dangerous business. Holy complaint desires the warmth of God’s fire, “Lord, hear my plea.” Ungodly complaint tests the Lord of the fire, “Lord, can’t we have better manna tomorrow!” And when the latter happens continually, the world can no longer distinguish between light and darkness.

When Being Busy is Not Enogh

C.S. Lewis once said that a Christian can’t always be defending the truth, sometimes he needs to feed on it. Over the years I have seen Christians exhaust themselves in ministry work. They overwork, overreact and sometimes enter into long stages of depression. And while depression can be rooted in many things, it is likely that many become overwhelmed not by the work of the ministry, but by doing ministry by the power of their own work. Even our Lord rested and refreshed himself for the work ahead. To be busy is not always a badge of honor, many times it is a badge of dishonor. We are created for Sabbath and when we don’t honor Sabbath we are acting as anti-image bearers. We are created to rest in the finished work of Jesus. So, as the weekend approaches, feed on God’s truth. The weight of the world is not on your shoulders. Jesus carried the world for you. Feast and rest in this truth.

Combativeness is not a gift

Combativeness is not a gift nor a virtue. I try to convey this to my boys every day when they fight or are unkind to one another. The goal is kingship. Kings control themselves and their emotions for the sake of the people. So too, boys need to control their tempers and their bodies for the good of their siblings. Fathers, therefore, need to stress a kind of gracious convictionality. We do not wish to see our boys fall for every new trend nor feel as if every battle is a battle worth fighting. Combative fathers can easily lose their sons or create combative heirs. There is a lot more to be said here, but perhaps this will stir some fruitful conversations.

Angst in America’s Adolescents

Time Magazine’s new edition entitled: “Anxiety, Depression and the American Adolescent” is a fascinating journey through the angst of this millennial generation. While they are easily stereo-typed as undisciplined and shallow, the story and the psychology behind it are rather complex. The author offers solutions, even helpful ones, but forgets the centrality of internalized religion in the formation of healthy adolescence. One author states that we are “the first generation that cannot escape our problems at all.” Problems range from “hyperconnectedness” to “overexposed.” These are real problems which I have tried to address in other environments. The further dimension to the angst of our age is the excessive expectations placed on our children, the author asserts. The college application process has become more demanding forcing many teens to abandon real face-to-face interactions to virtual relations in order to keep up with the demands of education and the need to qualify for scholarships.

Parents fail to provide the kind of psychological support to provide adolescents the mental assurances that their worth is not found in their grades but in something else. The author, however, fails to incorporate the ultimate rationale for the modern adolesccence angst; namely, the absence of Christ Jesus in their formational years.

As Christians we need to create an environment for our children where proper pressure is placed, but not abused; where grades play a role in their formation, but not the essence of their identity. We need redeemed intellects and beautiful hearts. Therefore, we need to re-analyze the expectations we have for our children and ask if such expectations meet the standard Jesus set for his own disciples: “What profit is there if someone gains the world (academic, athletic, etc.) but lose his own soul?”

Our society is undergoing a general angst. Technology, academic and social pressures exist, but the fundamental angst of our teenagers is a distorted view of their own reality and identity. We need to remind them of who they are daily, continually, lest their problems consume them and they lose sight of whom they serve.

PostScript:

My friend Carmon Friedrich adds this insightful note to my original post:

There was a very sad case here of a young woman whose parents ran a Christian camp. She worked there from childhood, heard many good talks about faith and life. She was gifted and beautiful and got a scholarship to college, where she went to live in a dorm and was under a great deal of pressure to perform, both in sports and in her classes. She was a perfectionist, comparing herself with others and feeling like she needed to live up to the expectations of others, who praised her for her gifts and beauty. The first semester she had a psychotic break, and her parents were so surprised and saddened and went to help her as best they could. Because she was over 18, they were limited in what they could do, but she agreed to go to a treatment center. She went back to school after that for a time, and went as an outpatient for continued work on her mental instability. One day they were to pick her up from an appointment and when they arrived, the center said she had walked away after being dropped off. She disappeared. For weeks, the family and friends searched for her, especially looking around the area of the camp run by the family, suspecting she may have gone there. Finally, the mother discovered her daughter’s body hanging in a tree, where the girl had killed herself.

This Christian girl heard the truth about who she is in Jesus, but somehow those other messages and pressures to perform were so strong and overwhelmed her. Combined with genetic predispositions and environmental factors, some people struggle to make sense of it all and it’s important to address every aspect of their anxiety or depression. Your assessment of the fundamental need for getting priorities straight and removing those pressures to perform and conform to the wrong standard is so important. Augustine talked about a proper ordering of affections, and sending messages to our children about their value coming from what they do rather than who they are in Christ are very destructive.

Covered you with Silk

There is an image in Ezekiel 16 that we all should remember as we begin a new day. The language recalls the faithlessness of God’s people throughout redemptive history. In fact, the imagery is quite explicit because the depths of depravity is explicit. In the midst of this expose of our fallenness and propensity to wander away from God, the text provides some of the richest language known to man. Yahweh says: “I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk.” God does not take the weak and cover her with any fiber, but the most luxurious fiber imaginable. He covers our nakedness with royal garments. God longs to cover you with all good things. He is not eager to see the weak perish but to raise him to newness of life. In union with Jesus, we are covered with the finest linen known to man, the righteousness of God. Remember that we were children of wrath but God has dressed us in fine linen and covered us with silk. In God’s eyes, we are a treasured possession. Believe this and rejoice!

Talking Past Each Other

The “talking past each other” problem is a very real one. I don’t think individuals or groups choose to talk past each other. Everyone in his right mind wishes to communicate clearly his frustrations, concerns, and arguments. Yet we are hindered by our inability to see others as image-bearers worthy of speaking into our lives. We think we are listening, but we are already crafting our response as we give the appearance of listening. One way we begin to avoid this problem is by acknowledging that each of us come from a particular context. We are a product of the influences (whether good or bad) of many people in our lives. We all approach life contextually. In many cases, our poor experiences with certain ideologies presented by certain people have closed the doors to the way we think about said ideologies. Two people can hold to similar ideas but the way one articulates it closes the doors of communication, while the other welcomes conversation and dialogue. When we come across people who hold (it appears) diametrically opposite viewpoints, don’t begin by questioning their character or ideology, begin by asking how they got there. Nurture space to hear and share. The people who have most affected my thinking and life were those who allowed me to opine before carefully and meticulously disarming me with kindness and logic. Talking past each other is part of the fall, but perhaps with some grace, we can actually talk and learn from each other.

Trinitarian Leadership

“…that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up…” -Apostle Paul

The primary purpose of the Trinity is to use authority over us that edifies and builds, not tears down. In Paul’s pastoral letters he wishes to use his God-given authority to draw people to the Gospel. This is always the first and foremost desire of the leader/authority figure: to bring people to the Gospel by an authority that edifies, not beats you down. Notice how the Father uses his authority over the Son on earth. The Father doesn’t add threats to his desires for the Son, he adds encouragement and affirmation: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
He doesn’t say, “My Son, go to the cross, or I will make you go my way.” There is a tender authority in the persons of the Godhead that is beautifully pictured in the pastoral ministry of the Apostle Paul.

785px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhen you read Paul’s letters a you are left with this sense that the Apostle wants to see restoration in the Church not through the means of threats, but through prayer, gentleness, and humility. Do you want to see your son and daughter change a particular attitude? Do you want to see a friend abandon their destructive ways? Build her up. Tell her the gospel. “My dear friend, I come to you as your sister in Christ. I want the best for you. It pains me to watch you self-destruct. How can I serve you during this time? Do you want me to check up on you every three hours?” “My son, dad has not always been here for you. I have sought other hobbies to entertain myself when I should have been spending time with you. Please, forgive me. It hurts me to see you making these decisions. Is there a way I can help you find truth through this confusion?” There is an inherent authority given to the saints when they speak life into the lives of their fellow parishioners. This authority needs to be edifying.

Authority that is admired and loved is an authority that is edifying. The fundamentalist exercises authority through threats—“do this or else.” The pietist exercises authority through perfection –“If you fail me you are ruining our family’s reputation and there is no way back!” The Biblical Christian exercises authority by serving and edifying before demanding and expecting. Oh, yes, there are ways of getting what you want, but you may get what you want while losing the heart of the one you love. And that, beloved, is not biblical Christianity.

Paul summarizes Jesus’ life:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God
something to be possessed by force.
On the contrary, he emptied himself,
in that he took the form of a servant
by becoming like human beings are.

The most authoritative man in history became a servant while being an authority. The God, who is Three and One, and One and Three, is first and foremost a God who expresses his authority to build, not tear down. Our God, our Trinity is a Trinity that exercises gracious, loving, and life-giving authority.

  1. see particularly II Corinthians 13  (back)
Counseling and the Spirit

Counseling and the Spirit

Theology is intensely intimate. Michael Bird excellently summarizes theology as “speaking about God while in the very presence of God.” We have deeply engaged with the subject of our study.” a This theological intimacy builds a particular type of worshiper. This worshiper, then, is aware of the nature of his relationships and his relationality with the Triune God. The theological enterprise, which has mostly become a rarely pursued journey by the typical parishioner, has fallen into the hands of armchair theologians. Instead of finding theology an intimate quest, they see it as an academic exercise to be used at a fair distance from the subject of their study. They have academized theology.

But theology, properly understood, is a project of the people of God for the sake of the world. Undoubtedly there is room for academic expertise, but this expertise will not bear fruit unless applied. And part of this distaste for theology has come from the official divorce between theology and counseling. Simply put, we have abandoned the Holy Spirit while pursuing theology. In doing so, we have broken the Trinitarian commitment to knowledge and life. The Spirit is the divine matchmaker. He puts together man and God. He does this by providing in man a need for the divine. The Spirit’s work in us is to make us into needy beings who can only find fulfillment in a giving God.

Counseling is necessary for theology. It is the Spirit-side of theology in the Trinitarian diagram. The Spirit is the comforter and our advocate. When others drive us to madness, the Spirit is the One who reminds us that our sanity comes from the Father, and though we have been painfully beaten to the point of mental breakdowns, the Spirit says that our sanity is from above, and no one can take it away.

John Frame was right when he asserted that Christians understand the distinctness of the Father and the Son, but they view the Spirit “as a kind of impersonal force or power associated with God.” b This un-trinitarian tendency c has infected the theological enterprise. Though most evangelicals are careful to avoid sounding like Mormons, they still practically approach theology as a Spirit-less process. Of course, orthodoxy has always affirmed that there is no conflict in the Trinity. There is mutual glorification among the persons of the Trinity. d But practically, our orthopraxis contradicts our orthodoxy. Though Jesus is promised to be a “wonderful counselor” (Isa. 7), the Spirit is promised to be an abiding counselor; the one sent by the Son to abide in every Christian ( Jn. 14:26).

To a great measure due to the misunderstanding of the trinitarian nature, the Spirit has been left out of the counseling room. He is not called nor petitioned to enter the process. But the Third Person of the Trinity is the key to the theological intimacy we must all seek. Paul writes:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

This transformation/transfiguration comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. Counseling stresses the Spirit dependency counselees must have to be transformed from glory to glory. The work of theology, Frame stresses, “is not simply to repeat the language of Scripture, but to apply the language of Scripture to our thought and life.” e The Spirit applies theology that changes for He is the source of change.

The type of intimacy I am advocating in counseling is the intimacy that communicates the need of the Spirit and the application of truth to all of life. If only truth is stressed f you lose the relationality of the Spirit of God, but when truth is joined with a conspicuous dependence on the Spirit, then true change from glory to glory begins to take place. Theology must be an intimate pursuit. It is there we discover the Spirit of God who provides true fellowship with the Father and the Son. g

  1. An Evangelical Theology, Bird.  (back)
  2. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Christian Belief, 477  (back)
  3. cult-like  (back)
  4. see Frame, 480  (back)
  5. Frame, 482  (back)
  6. certain counseling paradigms operate strictly from this premise  (back)
  7. II Corinthians 13:14  (back)
How can I understand unless someone guides me?

How can I understand unless someone guides me?

So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

In Acts 8, we are reminded of the familiar story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. The wealthy Ethiopian had been worshipping in Jerusalem.  Upon his return home he began to read aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah. Intrigued by them, he sought the help of someone who was capable of interpreting that text. The Ethiopian found an interpreter of Scripture, but also an interpreter of life. Philip’s interpretation was not only a Messianic interpretation but also a fulfillment of Isaiah 52:14-15, which promised that Yahweh would sprinkle the nations. The Ethiopian was sprinkled/washed clean from his transgressions. He began to see that Messiah suffered so that he might have life.

This passage establishes in many ways the need for biblical counseling. Counselees are asking Philip’s questions. Their lives torn by a host of events have clouded their understanding of life, and sometimes even the Bible itself. It is incumbent then, for counselors, to come alongside the hurting and the needy and provide an accurate view of their lives through the lens of the Bible.

Jesus is the starting point of all healing. He is the suffering servant, who received no justice, according to Isaiah’s prophecy. The interpreter/counselor begins by pointing to Jesus. He guides the counselee to see that Jesus is the answer to his despair. But he is not simply pointing him to a concept, but to a Person. Jesus, as Person, died and suffered. Jesus, as concept, offers no hope.

Notice that Philip ran to him. Philip understood the pain and despair of the eunuch. Philip was troubled by the eunuch’s lack of knowledge. The Spirit guides us to those who are most troubled, whether rich or poor. Philip, the counselor, then asked a question.

A few observations concerning the text above:

Notice that Philip asked him a question. Counselors are in the question-asking business. A porn addict may benefit from a stern rebuke, but the porn addict has already been rebuked by his own conscience, which is why he is seeking interpretation. A porn addict needs to probe his motivations and his justifications behind seeking his sinful habits. He needs to think through his worldview before he can see that it is deeply flawed. Questions will bring these assumptions to the surface.

The counselee needed help. Counselors cannot help those who do not wish to be helped. The counselee acknowledged that his answers, his attempts to be good, his efforts to get away from certain habits were not paying off. He realized that unless someone guides him his efforts will all be in vain.

Guiding someone is a form of life interpretation. The counselor needs to take the counselees’ assumptions about the world and dissect them so that the counselee can see the context surrounding his sins. He may be oblivious to his own environment. He may not know that the culture he is imbibing is causing a greater urge to immerse himself in those sins. He needs guidance to see that his interpretation is flawed.

Finally, notice that the eunuch invites the counselor to come and sit by him. This is not always the case. The work of the Spirit, of course, was already humbling the eunuch. His worship experience had already softened his own mind to seek wisdom. In some cases, the counselor needs to make aware to the counselee that he needs help and guidance. At times pride will keep the individual from seeking any help. He is certain that his lack of knowledge of the text and of his own life is not a problem and that in time he will learn to deal with it. This is where community life becomes crucial to the individual. If sins are simply seen as separated acts from the community, then they bear no weight on anyone else besides the individual. If, however, sins are communal by nature, then making known to the addicted man that he needs guidance becomes a necessary component of community life. The hurting has little hope of finding a right interpretation if he has no one willing to point out his need of one.

The eunuch was baptized. Philip’s interpretation offered him a perspective that changed him and caused him to act upon it. Counselors offer interpretation that will change the course of action of the counselee. Counselors, by God’s grace, will offer a message of hope. Jesus is that hope. The One who received no justice offers justice in the sight of God to those who humble themselves and seek his guidance. Jesus sat with us and offered us an interpretation of our lives that made us whole.