Counseling/Pastoral Issues

Everybody Needs Counseling

I sat to counsel someone recently. And he stated the obvious to me: “If everyone,” he said, “really thought about it they would be sitting right here.” The truth was pure and simple. It was refreshing to hear it. We all need counseling. I need counseling. You need counseling. We may need professional counseling from trained individuals, or we may need a shoulder to cry from our neighbor. God has given us two or three friends in a lifetime to fulfill that role. It is a powerful role. I am grateful if you have that function in someone’s life or if someone has that role in yours.

If that is the case, and if the biblical record affirms the “one-anothers” again and again, what keeps us from seeking counseling? Basically, pride. What Augustine referred to as the first and last sin to overcome man. We are too big to need others or the counsel of others. Most of us will rather endure the pain of day-to-day by ourselves than open ourselves to others. This is remarkably inhuman. God created us to need others, to depend on others, to serve others, to be faithful to others, to submit to others, to be humbled by others, to confess our sins to others. In short, God created us to never face anything alone. Yet, again and again, many do. Many prefer to do it this way. They prefer to suffer the agony of pain in the high of self-absorption.

The individual I met recently was very aware of his need. His self-awareness made him an easy person to counsel. His attentiveness and lack of need to defend himself or his own actions made him an easy target for the Spirit of God to work. His life is finding redemption. It is a slow process, but that’s ok, because in counseling this person sees that his sins were many, so time is the least of worries, rather the individual wants to know that he is re-structuring his thinking after the thoughts of God. He doesn’t want to miss a point. He wants to hear every angle and every perspective. It matters to him. His assumption that he needs counseling is the key to his success.

New Year Resolutions

If 2015 is going to be successful, and I pray it is, seek counseling. If your marriage is in trouble, abandon your pride and seek help from a pastor or a qualified Christian counselor in the area. If your pornography problem has been knocking at your door daily or consistently and you no longer fear opening the door, seek counseling. Seek confession and help. If relational problems are overwhelming, seek reconciliation. Do not allow this new year to become another year of self-absorbtion, self-pity, and self-help. Seek and you shall find.

Make your new year’s resolution to be a resolution of repentance; repentance for believing the lie that you can self-medicate your problems without others; repentance for trusting your expertise and your sophisticated ability to justify before a court of your imagination your sins and to continue in them. Here’s the honest truth: you and I need counseling.

Sexting, Cell Phones, and Parental Oversight

We live in an age of quick pleasures. Pornography is an epidemic. It ruins lives. It ruins productivity. It ruins imagination. With the advent of smart phones pornography is easily accessible. Children as young as nine have already been exposed to an array of images. Many have seen things and have trained their brains to process them storing and accessing those images at whatever time they deem suitable. These images have an incredible capacity to cycle themselves. They remain and re-invent themselves again and again. It’s a cycle of death. Many have become aware of this trend. Some parents continue to live naively through life assuming their children would never willingly submit themselves to such images. Indeed these images are little virtual icons. Their appeal eventually causes you to bow before them.

I posted a link recently warning parents to take heed of a phenomenon in our technological world: the world of sexting. At one time erasing internet history was a way to avoid being caught. In our day, the use of acronymns has taken its place. Most parents are unequipped to decipher the vast world of shortened communication. This world has developed quickly. Quick pleasures lead to quick actions mediated by quick texts. We are talking about a lot of acronyms. Some of them rare I am sure, but some of them more common than we would imagine. Sin always finds a way to be subtle. Screwtape is on the move.

Some responses to the article linked above treat it as a scare tactic. “Some of the acronyms simply cannot be as common as this article makes it out to be,” they say. Perhaps. The phenomenon exists, however. And this seems to be the main point. Take heed, parents. Children are exchanging body parts like baseball cards. They are giving it out to the world freely. The sacred has become profane. This is taking the culture by storm. Godly communities are not immune to its manifestation. One sociologist observed that the question, “have you ever seen porn?” is outdated and should be replaced by “how often do you see porn?” This is frightening.

Covenant Oversight

I live in a culture where words like covenant succession is thrown out quite often. Covenant succession simply means that parents play a fundamental role in the outcome of their children. Mind you, they do not play the only role, but a fundamental one. In covenant succession the Spirit of God is wrestling with our children; guarding, preserving, and leading them to righteouness. Parents point their covenant children to their covenant Lord and pray that the Spirit might always wrestle with them throughout their lives.a

Among the many responsibilities of parents is the responsibility to deliver their chilren from evil. This means that they are to direct their children from intentionally tempting temptation; poking a dormant ferocious animal for the mere high it provides. “Deliver us from evil…”Lead us not into temptation.” Yes, the Lord’s Prayer presents us a parental paradigm in many ways. Children mature at different levels and throwing them to the lions before time can be devastating. Parents need to exercise wisdom. No good parent would throw their children into a dangerous situation, but they may unknowingly. The world of cell phones–and social media by extension–provide such an opportunity. The question is not whether we should wait until a certain age or whether we should trust them with such a tool, but rather, “are they equipped to handle such a responsibility?” Cell phones represent the opening of communication. Are our children equipped to handle this new world? How have they behaved and reacted to the local communication they experience? Have their experiences been positive? Or have they been quickly sucked into a false community where communication serves our selfish ambitions and desires? Communication is stewardship. How they use it locally determines how they will use it broadly.

Experiences also shape this question. One respondent to the link said that if we teach them diligently they will stray from such a problem or avoid it. Through self-discipline our children would avoid the world of sexting and the consequences that come with them. This is a healthy observation. It fits into much of the covenantal model, and I should add the Solomonic principles we see in Proverbs. Some who have experienced the overburdens of legalistic backgrounds may simply react to that background by making all things accessible that once were taboos. If covenant education is exercised and a sense of godly discipline is taught then early exposure to certain tools like cell phones can be seen as a reward to good behavior and faithfulness in the little things. At the same time there is a danger of overexposing and assuming too much self-discipline from the son/daughter. We need to remember that once that world is opened it is almost impossible to close it again. Again, images cannot be quickly erased.

Awareness and Maturation

I wrote a short book last year that focused on the need to raise boys to be warriors. The premise was that fathers need to be kings training their sons to assume their thrones in a new kingdom. My hope is to revise that book with a few additional chapters in the next few years. I don’t have the last word on the issue and find myself learning new lessons each day. Specifically, I find new ways in which parents would greatly benefit in applying the Trinitarian model to their own roles in the home. Luke 2:52 says: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” This offers us a three-fold strategy–one might call it tests–to consider before opening our children to the world of cell phone and social media in general:

First, are they increasing in wisdom? Has there been a general trend towards maturation in their lives? Does his/her communication manifest a sincere desire to see life under the lordship of Jesus? Also, do others affirm this maturation? Parents can be deceived and so the wisdom of the community becomes a great platform to determine such realities. Is his maturity a maturity that extends to the heart issues? That is, are his concerns merely outward, or does he express an interest in reforming his imagination and conforming his thoughts and motivation after our Lord?

Second, are they increasing in stature? This is certainly connected to physical growth, but also ties in with the first set of questions. Is he at age 14 easily mistaken for an eight year old when speaking to an adult? In other words, is his physical growth matching his maturational growth? Are his physical abilities and strength being used for good? or are they being used for selfish-gain?

Finally, are they finding favor with God and man? Are they human benedictions in their community? Again, these all overlap and are meant as amplification of the other points. But this last point is the application of the previous two. Wisdom and growth–physical and spiritual–are not meant only in relation to God– for to live before the face of God is necessarily to live before the face of created man–but also for the benefit of mankind. The question of whether or not a covenant individual is prepared to use certain tools depends on a pattern of using the tools he already has for the good or detriment of his fellow brother/sister. Faithfulness in the little things hopefully will mean faithfulness in the big tings.

Parental oversight needs to keep these questions in mind. Parenting successfully is the ability to give gifts to our children and then to see those gifts used wisely for the good of our neighbor and the exaltation of the name of God. The world of quick pleasures need not appeal to us or our children when we consider that the pleasures of God are everlasting to everlasting and his pleasures lead to life abundant.

  1. Wrestling here is synonymous with the consistent move of the Spirit in our lives engaging and confronting us in our war against sin  (back)
Some initial thoughts on race and Ferguson and the American divide

Some initial thoughts on race and Ferguson and the American divide

Here I stand as a Latin American analyzing the Ferguson scene. What follows is a less than eloquent analysis, but an analysis nevertheless.

I have little to offer, except to say that I have been racially profiled on several occasions. At one time when my hair was longer I was stopped consistently at the airport. I have been asked if my country of origin is Morocco, Peru, Guatemala, and other choices. I am actually from Brazil. My country has not been in a war in over 100 years. Lula, our former president, famously said, “why should I go to war? have you seen our beaches?”  I feel the same way. So, here I stand: a foreigner, generally opposed to warfare, a peace-making man, yet, often receiving that suspicious look from authority figures in our culture. To make the situation even more interesting, my father-in-law is a cop, and I have family members who are involved in politics, law, and respected positions in police departments in my own country. And to conclude the matter I have family members in the process of adopting a black child. So, I am positionally, in a pretty interesting spot being immersed in both worlds a bit.

I look at Ferguson with paradoxical eyes. On the one hand I see that there are simplifications of the situation all over the media. On the other hand I see folks overly-complicating matters and offering the same solutions to the race-problem. Here is an affirmation: racism exists. It is not as severe as it once was in American history, but it still exists. I have learned over the years that adopting the full narrative of the right–though I have more in common with the right–is a bad idea, but to refuse to listen to the narrative of the left–though I have far less in common–is also a bad idea. In this case, concerning Ferguson both sides have spoken. They have spoken so dramatically that you would think that the other side is either drunk or lost in the sea of ignorance for not seeing the clarity of the other side’s position.

I don’t see such a need to offer such profoundly antithetical statements. I think there is a narrative on the left and on the right that actually gets it right. I think such a harmonized position can exist. I am not sure I have the wisdom to put it together coherently, but I do see it possible.

Senator Rand Paul is right to criticize the justice system and to affirm that there is a disproportionate amount of blacks in prison:

Three out of four people in jail for drugs are people of color. In the African American community, folks rightly ask why are our sons disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and maimed?

This is a reality that modern Republicans need to grasp. Many do not.

At the same time Democrats must realize that fatherlessness is a huge element in leading some in the black community to seek drugs or theft as a relief from such conspicuous absence in the home. White kids from fatherless homes also seek the same, but fatherlessness is a disease in the black community in a way that is not in the white community. Some have observed that homes where fathers are present do not necessarily mean that it is a safe environment. This is very true. I have invested some of my time into studying domestic abuse and realize that in some cases the presence of the father does more damage than the absence. But I am quickly to say this is not most cases. In most cases, the presence of a father (or a father figure) that is stable in the home provide greater and healthier options for black teens to thrive in society. The same, of course, can be said in the white community.

Another element missing is that theology needs to be joined to sociology. There is a sociological dimension that needs to be added to these conversations. The children of Israel did not walk around 20-50 years later after their slavery and oppression thinking that since time has passed therefore the Egyptians will treat them with dignity again. No. They were cognizant that the abuses they suffered left a cultural impression on them that they will not forget so soon. Culturally speaking, the abuses seen in the south not too long ago certaijnly leads to much of the skepticism in the black community towards the police, and that has bled over to many in our society outside the black communi

One must also be reminded that the fifth commandment serves as an exhortation to honor those in authority over us. Police officers, for better or for worse, are placed in a position of protection over us. We may choose to reject their help or to avoid contact with them, but we cannot go out of our way to disrepect or threaten them. We ought to give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them respectfully and be at peace with them as much as it is possible. And in most cases, it is possible, but our stubbornness and perhaps previous bad experiences force us to view them with unpeaceful eyes. We need to keep in mind that not all members of the police department in town are created equal. Each one is given a conscience. So, we ought to treat each one as worthy of our respect. The same, of course, needs to be said of how police officers treat citizens. A soft answer almost always turns away wrath. We need to keep that in mind.

We are not responsible for what people do or say to us, but we are responsible for how we react to what is said or done.

In this entire process there have been various redeeming cases. There were black men who protected a white man’s gas station, images that have captivated a nation, and an NFL player speaking nationally and directing the nation to Christ as redeemer. Every conflict is an opportunity to redeem the ugly. Some redemption has taken place. But there is no redemption when we affirm only one narrative of the story and dismiss other concerns from the other side. We owe brothers and sisters at least that courtesy.

How to Have the Perfect Family

How to Have the Perfect Family

This is an important article. I hope you read intently each word. I would be so bold as to say that it may change everything you ever thought about the family. I am not one for hyperbole, though I wish I had written this piece a million times. Better, I wish I had the opportunity to practice this consistently in my own home. I am in the middle of the battle. I am not post-battle wishing I had done things differently in battle. I am in it. The diapers in my trash can prove it. The smell of spit-up–oh, that awful smell! My wife (peace be upon her) is amazing! She is quick to love, tempered, and full of patience. It is safe to say we have a perfect family. I never though it would have been so simple. After eight years of theological training, an almost completed counseling certification, and I think only the last few years I discovered that I have arrived. Our family is perfect. Our children are perfect. They are perfect in the precise way God intended them to be.

Now, you may ask: “I pray, dear sir, tell my thy secret?” Indeed I will. How to have a perfect family? Admit your imperfection as a parent. Legalists will never have perfect families because they will always set a standard that is too high for their children or themselves to fulfill. They refuse to see the error in their own ways, and they trap their children in a warming pot just comfortable enough for them to realize they are ok when in reality they are not. But the biblical parent is quick to admit his fault before his family. Go ahead. Try it. Perfection draws nigh.

It was a warm afternoon in North Florida. You may be tempted to think that that is the definition of Florida, but it’s not. This afternoon was particularly hot. At that moment I felt the unbearableness of being human.  I felt exposed. Drops of sweat slowly creeped down my shirt. At that moment if Mother Teresa knocked my door I would have told her to come back later. So, it happened. One of my children disobeyed my direct orders. Mind you: at that moment the world revolved around me and my wet woes. I quickly reacted–told him to stop what he was doing in a less than tender voice and proceeded in my liturgy of self-pity. You see, at that moment I did not want a perfect family. I wanted my own perfection. That’s unhealthy. It took me a while before I was able to admit my stupidity. I did and quickly repented to God and my child. My child, by the way, quickly forgave me. It was beautiful. Just the way things ought to be. I had the perfect family at that moment.

I have discovered in my six years of parenting that I want a perfect family. Understand what I am saying. I want to be holy and perfect as God is holy and perfect. I don’t want to be perfect and holy in the same manner God is. God is infinitely holy and perfect. His perfection cannot be marred by sin. His holiness is all purity. But God wants us to be perfect not in any hypothetical way. That would be cruel. He wants us to be perfect like fallen human beings. He wants us to be perfect united to His Perfect Son, Jesus Christ. He wants us to be perfect by admitting our imperfection and our endless excuses to be something or expect something of our families that not even God expects.

Over the years I have seen perfect families. By that I mean I have seen fathers and mothers repent biblically and consistently. I have seen fathers seeking the heart of their children. It has been wonderful. The perfect family has laundry on their couches, dishes to be cleaned, but joyful voices around the house- voices that frighten God’s enemies. You cannot manipulate the joy of children. When there is unresolved discord in the home, we know. Trust me, we know. But when there is confession and consistent love they laugh. And that is perfection.

A counselee asked me jokingly recently, “What must I do to be saved?” I said without hesitation: be perfect. I went on to explain what that meant. To be perfect is not the state of knosis. It is no secret knowledge. In fact, it’s quite simple. It’s being open about your inadequacies and striving by the Spirit of God to be holy.

I know your world is not shattered by such propositions, but I hope it is an affirmation that parenting is hard and no amount of abstract theology will do. There is a lot of work to be done. This is not the place to do it, except to make the poiint that you can have the perfect family. Just admit often your imperfections. Don’t set up a standard for your children that is higher than what you would expect for yourself. And after all of that: thank Jesus. He is the author and perfector of our faith.

Three Lessons I Learned in Talking to the Dying

Three Lessons I Learned in Talking to the Dying

It was late at night. My wife’s grandfather (Pops) was battling an infection. His cancer was getting the best of his 88 year-old body. I had met Pops on many occasions. His talkative and gracious persona was quite captivating. He visited us on numerous occasions. When I was in seminary he and his wife came to visit us. Being the useless handy-man that I am, there were some lingering duties in the home that needed fixing. Pops came along, and with his decades of experience offered us a helping hand around our little townhome. At other times, he was gracious to us in letting us use his time-share for vacation. He was a generous soul; a soul deeply grounded in faithfulness to his God.

Pops was what some of us would call an old-time religion man. He liked his religion served with altar calls and Fanny Crosby. Rumor has it that I won he and his wife’s approval to marry their grand-daughter when I played every imaginable Fanny Crosby song I knew on my guitar one evening. But that’s just a rumor. He was a church-man; one of those rare birds who stayed in the same church for three decades.

It was a late night. My wife thought she’d give Pops a call. The doctor had called the family. It was just a matter of time. Pops had remembered his Creator in the days of his youth, and now in his last hours he was ready to meet Him. My wife asked me to step out of the room as she said her last good-bye. I didn’t think Pops would be able to talk… perhaps just listen. But he was relatively lucid. My wife spoke to him and said her good-byes. She had always loved him. I was reading in my office when she walked in and said, “Pops wants to talk to you.” I was a bit nervous. I didn’t think that in his last hours of life he would want to talk to his granddaughter’s husband. But he did. In fact, he made a point to do so.

As a pastor, I am always prepared for such situations. But this one caught me off guard – it was so sudden. When I receive a hospital call, I have a drive to think through what I’ll say, but this time the phone was handed to me and I had the honor of saying good-bye to a dying man possibly hours before his death.

Pop’s voice was stammering due to heavy medication. He used his last words to encourage me and to tell me how proud he was of me and my call to the ministry. He was quick to remind me that he did not agree on everything with me. I was tempted to tell him that sometimes I don’t even agree with myself, but I gently reminded him that I was glad that we are agreed in our union with Jesus Christ. He gave a hearty amen. He repeated himself a few times and thanked me for everything. I think there is peace in the heart of a dying man who knows that his children and grandchildren are cared for.

I had my pastoral companion with me. I carry it everywhere. It’s a Lutheran book on ministering to people in various situations in life. There is an entire section for ministering to the dying. It was absolutely perfect. The psalms I read and the prayer I used were affirmations that this phone call was not untimely, but perfect, as is God’s timing in every circumstance.

Pops died early in the morning. His family surrounded him and comforted him. It appeared he died in his sleep. Precious in the sight of God is the death of His saints, indeed.

I have been pastoring for less than a decade now, so my experience is very limited. But I have spoken to the dying on several occasions. For those who are younger in the ministry than I, or for those who simply want to be prepared to speak words of peace to the dying, here are three lessons to keep in mind:

First, be biblically prepared. The companion book I use has Psalm 23 in the King James Version. Maybe things will change 50 years down the road as modern translations gain greater notoriety, but in our generation, Psalm 23 ministers most effectively in the King James Version. Its sounds and rhythms speaks profoundly to the elderly. It is one of the psalms they have all memorized at some time in their lives. Additional passages may include Psalms 4, 27, 31, and 73.

Second, don’t pray for miracles in the presence of the dying, especially if the doctor has said they have only hours to live. Older saints at this stage in life have gone through every possible prayer for healing. Their community may have already prayed fervently for recovery and healing. But now, they are seeking rest – eternal rest. Praying for healing to the dying is a contradiction to their own petition to commit unto the hands of the Lord their spirit. If someone suddenly discovers he is ill, pray fervently, and call for the elders to anoint him with oil. But if he is in his last hours of life, pray that God would grant him comfort on earth before he meets his Messiah in heaven.

“At your chosen time, grant him a peaceful departure and a joyous entrance into everlasting life.” Amen.

Finally, if he is able to talk, listen. Listen attentively. Listen carefully. Listen lovingly. If he has been faithful to Christ, thank him for running the race well and for setting an example to you and your children of how Christ expects us to run the race on earth. If he is not able to talk, speak softly. In most cases, they are still able to hear you. Speak words of comfort. Read the psalms. Sing a song or hymn he is known to have loved. Share stories with him of fond memories together.

In these precious moments, God uses the weak to minister to the dying. What an honor to speak peace in the last moments of those making ready to meet the King of peace.

Does God Hate Divorce?

Does God Hate Divorce?

Here is an interesting conversation on the translation of Malachi 2, and a couple of other considerations on the grounds of divorce. Barbara Roberts offers also a very helpful response to the argument that since Jesus suffered, therefore Christian women ought to remain in abusive relationships.


Should you Stay in a Marriage if you are Being Abused?

Should you Stay in a Marriage if you are Being Abused?

The following answer comes from Leslie Vernick. She has done a remarkable job capturing the heart of the issue, rather than allowing evil men to twist the Scriptures for their own purposes.  I am reminded of a quote from David Powlison who once wrote: “God is not a private refuge who shuts down recourse to other helps.” Women, a in an attempt to live pietistic lives or by immersing themselves in simplistic understandings of the text–primarily because it is all they have ever heard– continue to live a life of misery thinking that their suffering is a good thing, when in reality–as will be shown–is a horrendous evil that they are called to escape.

I pray this section is enlightening to many of you suffering under the heavy, abusive hands of wicked spouses:

This week one of my coaching clients shared that her Christian counselor told her that her role as a godly wife was to submit to her husband’s abuse and quietly suffer for Jesus.  She was told that setting boundaries was unbiblical and asking her spouse to change specific behaviors for her to feel safe or rebuild trust was demanding.  Is that true?

Does scripture encourage a spouse to patiently and quietly endure harsh and abusive treatment within her or his marriage?

The passage that we usually turn to support this thinking is found in 1 Peter 2:133:22 where Peter writes to believers who face mistreatment for their faith.

The entire book of 1 Peter has to do with suffering, but let’s see what Peter teaches us about how we suffer in a godly way as well and when we should patiently endure suffering.

First, let’s look at how Peter tells us to handle ourselves in the presence of abusive people.  Peter is clear that believers should be respectful of others regardless of how we are treated. Often in destructive marriages a spouse who is verbally battered or emotionally neglected or abused starts to lob some verbal bombs of her own. 

Instead of responding to mistreatment in a way that honors God, she dishonors herself, her husband, and God by her building resentment as well as her explosive or sinful reactions to his abuse.

We must help her choose a different path. Peter encourages us not to pay back evil for evil by reminding us of Jesus, who, “when he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22,23).

Second, Peter explains when we should endure abusive treatment.  He writes, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?  But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”

The good Peter is talking about here is a moral good, a doing the right thing kind of good.  Although in this passage Peter specifically advises us to submit to authority, Peter himself was flogged after he refused to stop preaching about Christ even though he’d been ordered by those in authority to stop.  Peter refused to submit because in doing so, he would have to stop doing good (Acts 4:19; 5:17-42).

In the same way when a wife refuses to submit to her husband’s sinful behavior, or stands up for her children who are being mistreated, or refuses to sign a dishonest income tax report, or calls 911 when her husband is threatening to harm her or himself,  she is doing good even if it doesn’t feel good to her spouse.

Her behavior honors God, protects her children and does what is in the best interest of her spouse.  (It is never in someone’s best interests to enable sin to flourish.)

When a woman takes these brave steps she will suffer.

She may suffer financially as her husband sits in jail because she called the police when he hit her.  She may suffer the censure from her church when she separates from him because of his unrepentant use of pornography and verbal abuse.  She may suffer with loneliness, retaliation from her spouse, disapproval from her friends and family for the stance she’s taken.

That’s exactly the kind of suffering Peter is talking about.  He’s speaking about suffering for doing good instead of being passive or fearful or doing the wrong thing or nothing at all.  Peter is saying that when we do what is right and we get mistreated for it, God sees it and commends us.

When we counsel a wife that God calls her to provide all the benefits of a good marriage regardless of how her husband treats her, provides for her, or violates their marital vows we’re asking her to lie and pretend. This is not good for her or her marriage.

This counsel also reinforces the abusive person’s delusions that he can do as he please with no consequences. It would enable him to stay blind to his sin and colludes with his destructive ways, which is not good for him, for her, or for their family. That kind of passivity does not honor God.

Peter concludes his teaching with these words.  “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:19 ESV).

If we encourage a woman to suffer for Jesus, let’s make sure we’re encouraging her to suffer for doing good rather than to suffer for staying passive or pretending.

  1. and I say “women” because in most cases they are the subjects of abuse  (back)
In Defense of the 2015 Caribbean Study Cruise from Ligonier Ministry on the Topic of Suffering

In Defense of the 2015 Caribbean Study Cruise from Ligonier Ministry on the Topic of Suffering

As soon as Ligonier put out their brochure on their cruise the mockery began on the internet. The point being made behind all the negative and sarcastic remarks can be easily summarized: “Isn’t it a remarkable contradiction to propose such an extravagantly luxurious cruise as the location to discuss the topic of suffering among Christians?” In other words, look at this Titanic-sized ship! Its opulent nature and the destination offer the image of ease, contentment, peace, and ultimately, of anything, BUT suffering. Wealth and a cruise ship=the contradiction of the very message its speakers wish to convey. a

Now, I am no contrarian, though I find myself contradicting various modern narratives on the issue of counseling, specifically in suffering. I am a pastor. I have been involved in counseling for some time now. I am finishing a certification in counseling precisely because I care so much about offering hope in the most biblically accurate way possible. I love people. People in all stages of life. Old and young. Suffering and not suffering. I grew up in one of the poorest regions in Brazil and have been here in this glorious country for long enough to affirm that human beings in both Third World countries and First World countries share one thing in common: they all suffer. The rich, the poor, the young, the old, the white, the black, the red-haired, etc. Further, I have also learned that suffering is a much broader category than the starving children in Africa (the conservative narrative) or the suffering polar-bears in the cosmic attack against nature called Global Warming (the liberal narrative).

Suffering is fundamentally the prolonged state of joylessness. Now, can we have joy through suffering? Yes. Philippians is written to address these issuess. Some of the speakers will be addressing precisely how to deal with suffering as God intended. The reason many will attend this cruise is precisely because they lack understanding in how to achieve shalom through trials. Many, perhaps, are filled with pain over the loss of a loved one, some may have dealt with a recent divorce, a few may have endured years of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of wicked people, and some may simply be coming for the ride for an opportunity to meet Dr. R.C. Sproul, a renowned and faithful servant of God.

So, if you are asking whether a cruise through the Caribbean is the right environment to discuss these topics, then the answer is self-evident. If you and your husband have lost a child, is that not suffering? If someone has abused you emotionally and you are seeking refuge from the barrage of false information that has only made you feel greater shame and pain, is that not suffering? If you have experienced the trials of barrenness and had your hopes up after the pregnancy test only to discover two weeks later that you had your fourth miscarriage, is that not suffering?

As a counselor, if time allows and if you could take time away from work for a few days, I would recommend taking a few days off exploring the beauty of creation in a comfortable cruise meditating on biblical truth in the peace and quiet of God’s perfect art work.

Pain and suffering cannot be defined only as outward expressions of need. The heart suffers. The mind suffers. Suffering needs to be addressed to the rich and poor and to the middle-class. Suffering affects the whole man.

  1. Our teaching topics will cover persevering in the Christian life, looking to Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully, and I am excited that Drs. Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul Jr. will be joining me as we look at what God’s Word has to tell us about this subject.  (back)
Some initial thoughts on depression

Some initial thoughts on depression

I read Spurgeon’s observations on depression today. He took portions of Psalm 23 and took the reader through a journey through the psalm. Each portion of the psalm paralleled a phase in the journey from despair to joy. Spurgeon immersed the despondent soul through each step of the Psalmist’s journey. Here is his paraphrased translation, which captures beautifully the sentiment of the author:

Yea, though I walk through the valley shaded by the mysterious wings of death, and though I know nothing of my way, and cannot understand it, yet will I fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thou knowest the way that I take. There are no mysteries with my God. Thou hast the thread of this labyrinth, and Thou wilt surely lead me through. Why should I fear? Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Gloom, danger, mystery, these three all vanish when faith lights up her heavenly lamp trimmed with the golden oil of promise.

He observed that at times men are driven to loneliness where his loyalty to God is tested.

Spurgeon concluded with this short story:

I have read of a little boy who was on board a vessel buffeted by the storm, and everyone was afraid, knowing that the ship was in grave danger. There was not a sailor on board, certainly not a passenger, who was not alarmed. This boy, however, was perfectly happy, and was rather amused than frightened by the tossing of the ship. They asked him why he was so happy at such a time. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘my father is the captain. He knows how to manage.’

The great Baptist preacher noted that there is a supernatural trust between child and father. The child, though tossed to and fro, still maintains an almost supernatural trust in his father’s ability to protect and direct his life. This type of trust needs to be categorized as a divine trust.

Spurgeon himself underwent profound depression in his early life. The story is told that when he was a preacher at the age of 18 someone in the crowd shouted ‘fire’! The congregation exited the building quickly and in the process one young lady was trampled by the crowd. Her death, it is said, led Spurgeon through prolonged periods of depression. He was largely absent from the pulpit ministry of his congregation.

One can hardly imagine that the greatest Londoner in evangelical history struggled with severe bouts of depression. That episode, in fact, was the valley that Spurgeon walked before becoming the evangelical titan as he is known today. Depression is no respecter of persons. Whether it is referred to “hell on earth,” or “the dark night of the soul,” depression happens and when it does we need to be prepared to deal with it wisely and graciously.  Here are some practical and initial steps in dealing with those near you who reveal the outward manifestations of depression:

First, don’t overwhelm them with words. There is no remedy that works with everyone. Pet remedies to cure depression or cliches that we hear so often do nothing more than accentuate the problem and possibly end the possibility of further progress. It’s important to keep in mind that depressed people are not looking for quick tips on getting over depression. For many, to be depressed is the only place they have been for years and to offer quick solutions is to offend the history that has shaped this individual’s life and led him to this situation.

Second, and this seems very simple, but profoundly fruitful: talk less, listen more. Depressed people have unique stories; these stories need to be told and someone will need to be there to hear them. The story of Job’s friends in Job 2:11-12 who stayed with him for seven days in silence is a remarkable testimony to the nature of dealing with pain. The rest of the story changes our view of Job’s friends, but it’s important to affirm that their silence echoed an important truth. The truth is that to listen is more difficult than to offer our supposed quick fixes.

I once knew a man during my theological training who believed he could  fix his mother’s problems. His mother was in profound pain after the death of her husband. This fellow student thought he had the theology to fix the situation. But every time he tried he only made matters worse. He failed to understand that his mother was not interested in solutions, she was interested in grieving her loss. He should have listened to her, cried with her, and taken her pain as his own.

The sooner we learn this lesson the better. We live in an age where depression is increasing at a rapid rate. Technology, relationships, a world where money moves quickly and where bankruptcy can be declared the day after you gained tremendous wealth, all these things make depression a reality in the lives of many people. This is not to say that some people mistake sadness or sorrow for depression, this happens often I would assume. Some rush to attach a title to their woes to validate their emotions. But we must remember that in most cases depression tears down the life of those closest to us and we must be prepared to be the embodiment of the first aid kit with wisdom, love, care, and tenderness.

Someone depressed may have been the protagonist to their own story of depression, or they may have bee recipient to the excruciating pain that seems to never go away. But you don’t have to know why a person is in pain in order to show mercy. God shows mercy, whether our troubles are caused by ourselves or someone else. a

Finally–and so much more can be said about this–be prepared to go through this process of healing for the long haul. Depression does not generally cease in a day or a week, but may take months or years to overcome. Be patient. Stay active in the person’s life. Read to them. Call them. Text them. Pray with them when they cannot pray for themselves. Encourage walks. Do not allow the slowness of the process to discourage you from persevering. When a strong relationship has been established, when the one depressed understands that you are a friend and not a foe, then be prepared to be honest about details that need to be worked on.

David Powlison once told the following story:

A thirty-five-year-old man had struggled with depression for almost a year, and it was beginning to show in his physical appearance. When he came to church he was unwashed and unkempt, and, as a result of his indifference, his clothes where so mismatched that they called attention to him. Everyone at church saw these outward signs, but no one said anything because he was “clinically depressed.” Yet one friend who saw him on a particular Sunday was loving and honest. You look horrible! Your hair is a mess, you are gaining weight, and your clothes look like you are a street person. Tomorrow I am going to pick you up at 9:00 in the morning. I’m going to take you to the barbershop, then we are going to go clothes shopping.

The depressed person later stated that that comment of concern was what marked the turning point in his life.

That comment made  a difference because of an established relationship of trust. Depression is pain. Those who suffer in depression need to see that their situation is not beyond hope. And you are the embodiment of that hope to him. Be that hope. Show that hope. And live that hope to him. In God’s grace he will learn to live his days in the house of the Lord forever.

  1. See David Powlison on depression; Journal of Biblical Counseling  (back)
Domestic Abuse and the “God Hates Divorce” Slogan

Domestic Abuse and the “God Hates Divorce” Slogan

The NFL of all places has begun an important conversation. James Brown here offers some powerful words on the topic:


Still, there is a remarkable lack of education on this topic.

RBC poll conducted during a webinar by Chris Moles and Leslie Vernick concluded that:

35% of Christian domestic abuse survivors said that when they sought help from their church they were told, “You must stay because God hates divorce.”  God does not hate all divorce. He only hates treacherous divorce.

This text has been misinterpreted for too long and used as threats to women who have suffered in the hands of wicked men. Barbara Roberts has offered some of the best work on this text I have seen. It is remarkable how the Bible–a book of life–has been misinterpreted to advocate the continual abuse of men towards women in the Christian community. Her book, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion offers a very thorough analysis of this text. She has recently blogged a summary of that section. I will copy it in its entirety here, rather than attempting a further summary:

In Malachi 2:16, many Bibles have the words “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel.” These words have been paraphrased and turned into the well known saying “God hates divorce.”

This saying is really problematic for victims of domestic abuse. It is bandied around like a proverb, dropped casually into sermons and magazine articles, propounded in marriage manuals, amplified in Bible studies, and thrust accusingly over cyberspace and kitchen tables. It appears to condemn all acts of divorcing, with no thought for who is the innocent party. Christian victims of domestic abuse have it carved in stone in their minds and feel trapped between two terrible alternatives: stay in the marriage (and suffer the destruction of ongoing abuse), or reap condemnation for divorcing their abusive partners.

A third alternative presented to the victim is almost as bad: separate from the abuser but never divorce — a limbo which still brings tongue wagging from the church and leaves the victim vulnerable to a dangerous reconciliation if an unreformed abuser makes an outward show of reformation.


Significantly, most people do not realise that Malachi 2:16, the text which has given rise to this saying, has been mistranslated. The incorrect translation came about as follows. The word “hates” in Malachi 2:16 is he hates. The Hebrew denotes third person masculine singular = he. The King James version had For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away.Many subsequent translations switched the third person “he” to a first person “I” without any grammatical warrant. For example, the 1984 NIV was “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel. Possibly translators thought the switch was okay because it retained the sense of the KJV — that God feels the hatred [for divorce]. They did not seem to worry that “I hate divorce” was grammatically inaccurate to the original Hebrew.

But modern translations are starting to correctly this mistake. The construction in Hebrew (“he hates… he covers”) shows that the one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband. To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he hates and divorces,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.” It is talking about a husband who hates his wife and divorces her because of his aversion for her. Therefore, Malachi 2:16 is only referring to a specific type of divorce: divorce for aversion, which could be dubbed “hatred divorce”. Divorce for hatred is treacherous divorce: if a man hates his wife and dismisses, he “covers his garment with violence” — his conduct is reprehensible, he has blood on his hands.

To date, three Bible versions have translated Malachi 2:16 correctly: the ESV, the Holman Christian Standard and the 2011 NIV. But these aren’t the only worthy translations. Since 1868, sixteen individual Hebrew scholars have translated the hatred as being what the divorcing husband feels, rather than what God feels. In my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion, I list all these translations.

The conclusion is simple. And liberating.

  • God did NOT say “I hate divorce.”
  • God doesn’t dislike all kinds of divorce; he only condemns the divorce which unjustly dismisses a spouse without valid grounds.

Examples of divorce without valid grounds might be when a man discards his wife for a younger woman; or a woman throws off her husband because he doesn’t earn enough to keep her in the luxury she believes she deserves; or a mate who says “We’re incompatible: my spouse hasn’t done anything really wrong, we just don’t have anything in common.”

Malachi 2:16 does not condemn all divorce. It certainly does not condemn the divorce which a person might take out because of the persistent misbehavior of their spouse. It doesn’t condemn divorces undertaken because of adultery, abuse or desertion.

Does it make much difference?

The correct translation of Malachi 2:16 makes a vast difference to victims of abuse who are devoted to the scriptures.

If they know that God does not condemn all divorce but only treacherous divorce, they will be much better positioned to make biblically informed decisions about their marriages.

The mistranslation of Malachi 2:16 has generated a load of malarkey (exaggerated or foolish talk usually intended to obscure, mislead, deceive or impress; nonsense; bunkum; empty rhetoric).Malachi-malarkey. Okay, I know that’s not the greatest pun, but humor me. :)

We need to stop saying “God hates divorce.”

The saying “God hates divorce” is unbiblical and unjust. It stigmatizes people who have divorced on valid grounds.

If you have never been divorced, you probably will not grasp how deep this stigma can be. It can cause profound and long-lasting guilt and self-condemnation. It besmirches anyone who divorces on valid biblical grounds: victims of domestic abuse; victims of unjust abandonment;  the innocent party in adultery, and those who have chosen to divorce porn addicts, child abusers, thieves and murderers.

Victims of domestic abuse or other violations of the marriage covenant can be trapped in horrible marriages for a whole range of reasons. Let’s remove one of those reasons by banning the unscriptural slogan “God hates divorce”.

* * * * *

Here are the three modern Bible translations of Malachi 2:16 that accurately convey that the verb ‘hates’ is third person, not first person:

Holman Christian Standard

“If he hates and divorces [his wife],” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Hosts.

NIV (2011)

“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty.

English Standard (ESV)

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces* her,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “covers his garment with violence,” says the Lord of hosts.
Hebrew: who hates and divorces