Sunday, June 26, 2011

Don't Let Your Heart Condemn You

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything. 1 John 3:18:20

Over the last several years I have begun to notice something that disturbs me. I watch friends (myself included) that genuinely love God, spend so much time listening to and agreeing with the evil assaults thrown their way. These assaults are meant to demean the quality of their love for others so that they pull away from relationships and live in discouragement.
In his epistle John is affirming several very strong Biblical themes. The first theme is that we ought to stop pretending that we don’t sin. He very strongly suggests that if we can’t confess the reality of our sinfulness we are calling God a liar. In our vernacular he says, “You are not that good. Everyone sins so stop pretending that you don’t. In fact, when you sin confess it so that you can receive the Lord’s forgiveness.” (1 John 1:8-10). Remember as you read 1 John that he is calling our sin out into the open.
Another truth John affirms is ‘gradual sanctification.’ Because he is calling sin out into the open he is giving his readers a ‘tool’ to deal with the on going recognition of sin. In essence he says, “As you are more honest about your sin realize evil will use it to beat you up. He will want you to think that all you do is sin. So, you must remember that what the Lord asks of you is not sinlessness but gradual growth in the quality of your love for others.” (1 John 2:3-8)
Most people I know tend not to see the subtle ways they are changing in how they love others. It might be because they still struggle with outward habits that are a reflection of unbelief (those things we get addicted to – anger, gossip, pornography, food, working out, etc.). Evil loves to hold this up as evidence that we are not in Christ or not growing in Him. I regularly watch many trusted friends become more loving and free as they gradually, (often very gradually) get better at fighting the habits that wear them down. We also fail to see the quality of our love for others because we are not hearing the Lord or others point this out in us. (This is why we must continue to help those we love recognize their changes and humbly accept compliments when they are cast our way. I can’t emphasize this enough – we must kindly and consistently remind those in our world of where they are growing and latch onto these words when we hear them.)
To walk more freely in the Lord we must view holiness as relational. Are we letting the Lord love us more and as a result are we loving others more? (I suggest you read through John’s 3 epistles thinking about holiness along these lines – it runs throughout his writing) Our unbelief can be manifested in the habits we struggle with but the clearest and most important marker of our growth in Christ is the way in which we love others and we need help seeing where we are changing in our love for God and others.
So, up to this point I have reviewed three themes. (1) We sin and can’t pretend about it. (2) We grow gradually toward holiness. (3) Holiness is relational and it is evidenced by how much we are letting the Lord love us and in response loving others better.
This brings me to the verse at the top of this post I wanted to write about. John says, “We demonstrate the truth by our actions and even if we feel guilty our actions may be demonstrating our love in such a way that God is affirming us.” This brings me to what has been bothering me. I am always talking with people about their relationships and often people are coming to me to help them love those in their world. Thus, I am paying attention to what they say and watching to see if their attitudes, desires and actions change in relation to those in their world. So often they are and the people I am meeting with don’t see this change. Their change is obscured by their guilt, by the condemnation evil continues to hurl at them about how they are failing those in their world.
Take for instance, Stan, whose boss legitimately demeans and controls him and sabotages some of his success because his boss is jealous. It is easy to see that Stan is gifted and also kind. He is not afraid to talk about his failures and the way he talks about himself you can easily see he has a tendency to beat himself up while struggling hard to love others. His education and achievements up to this point clearly indicate Stan is gifted and on his way to success. It is not that hard to put what Stan is saying in context and recognize that much of what he says about his boss is true.
So Stan comes in one day and tells a story about how his boss unjustly took over one of Stan’s clients. It was a client Stan worked to build a relationship with and stood to make a good profit if the client joined with Stan’s company. Stan’s boss covered over the injustice of taking this client by saying Stan didn’t have the ability to handle such a large client. There is not much Stan can’t do or learn to do well and it is easy to recognize the selfish ambition and jealousy that guided Stan’s boss.
As a result, Stan finally decides to stand up to his boss firmly but kindly. As Stan re-tells the story you hear both his frustration with his boss and his love for his boss. You are also glad Stan stood up because you saw how much the boss was taking advantage of Stan’s gifts and kindness. However, when Stan finishes telling the story he concludes by saying, “I was such a jerk to my boss I need to apologize.” Stan has the kind of meek, self-control that you have a hard time picturing him being a jerk to anyone. You realize what Stan is ‘feeling’ (hearing/processing) are lies. You have a good sense Stan demonstrated love to his boss by being stronger but evil is trying to rob, kill and destroy and keep Stan from growing more strength. Stan’s actions (kind strength with his boss) demonstrated that he belonged to the truth even though he felt guilty. God is greater than Stan’s feelings and you want Stan to see that he demonstrated love even though he feels guilt. You say, “Stan I know you and I have watched you struggle well to love your boss. I have also heard how consistently he has taken advantage of you. Your strength in this last conversation demonstrated your love for you boss more than any action to date. In fact, he continues to bully people because others protect themselves from offering him strength. This may make him angrier but for now I want to stand for you against the guilt that is condemning you. It is not from God.”
Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything. We demonstrate the truth by our actions and even if we feel guilty our actions may be demonstrating our love for others in such a way that God is affirming us.
I have found that working in a culture where people are more honest about sin means we have almost turned the words from Mathew (5:21-30) on their head. Unlike Mathew’s audience we are not afraid to look inside. I fear we make the opposite mistake and have let what is going inside take us away from the truth not toward it. When Matthew wrote that anger is murder and that lust is adultery he was writing to a people that for ages had made their faith mostly outward. Everything was black and white. Mathew was writing to Jewish people with a strong history and affection for the law. Most of what they focused on was outward. This was before Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice changed everything. Mathew is introducing them to this change by saying you are going to have to go deeper now. Outward compliance is not enough. Holiness in the innermost parts is now the norm. Centuries later, in a culture obsessed with the inside, I want to say something different. Sometimes your actions (what you do) demonstrate you love for Christ but you condemn yourself because of your inner life. You need help discerning what you feel because it is untrue and its keeping you from seeing what you are doing and what you are doing demonstrates a gradual growth in the Gospel that we need to celebrate.
So I am troubled. Troubled that we let evil condemn us while we gradually demonstrate love to those in our world. May you see more clearly where you are demonstrating your love for Christ!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Helping Our Children Grow Trust

I had a thought this week about parenting. Why do we say, “We want our kids to be able to tell us anything,” but when they mess up we are quick to point it out and teach them a lesson or redirect them? If we don't learn to let our kids mess up and not say anything at all or if we don’t learn to love them in the middle of the mess ups and laugh a little for them than they are not going to tell us about more serious mess ups when they really need our support and direction. In fact, the more a child receives a punishment or correction every time a parent is pained by what they do the more that child will act out and be distant from their parent when they grow up. We say things like “Jesus death covers all our sin. Past, present and future.” However, we don’t act like that. Our obsessive focus on what our children do wrong or what they need to do right demonstrate that we don’t act like Jesus is raising our children. Your kids’ mess ups are covered and there is Someone who is guiding, holding and caring for them that isn’t always pointing out what they do wrong. My definition of discipline is this: Discipline is not hurting your child after they have done something wrong. It is guiding them away from self-reliance towards trust in someone bigger. That trust begins with trusting their parents and then later the Lord. If your main goal of discipline is punishment your child will not trust you the way they need to.
To me our parenting focus got off track when we misapplied the meaning of rod and discipline in a verse like this: Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them. (Proverbs 13:24) To many people the rod only symbolized corporeal punishment and therefore we came to equate the word rod with the word spanking. The rod was a symbol of leadership and care. The shepherd used the rod to guide the sheep, protect the sheep, and lead the sheep to water and green pastures. The rod was also used to swat the sheep on their behind but that was not its main use or only focus. The only use of the rod was not corporeal punishment. If your only focus of discipline is swatting your child or applying pain to their life as a means to teach them and guiding, protecting and nurturing isn’t part of what you do well as a parent than they won’t trust you and become children that are responsive to the Lord. In fact, some of the most meaningful moments of your parenting will be when you think your child needs pain to straighten them out and you give them grace. Again, the rod was a symbol that the shepherd was the care-taker of the sheep. Because of what discipline has come to mean (punishment) we are better off using words like guidance or training to describe what the rod means. Our fear pushes us toward a more rigid definition of discipline. When we are scared about where our kids are headed it is easy to resort to the thought that more pain will straighten them out. That is a lie. A parent, of course, needs to be free to use pain in the course of their parenting but that is not to be the focus of what you do to raise them.
I want our children to trust us and come to us when they are in trouble and really need help. We begin to point them in that direction when we are free to correct them or apply grace depending on what will be most beneficial in the moment. If there are meaningful times where we can let their sin go and meet them with kindness in their fear, discouragement or shame there is a good chance they will trust us with their messes when it’s more important. (This is for another time but we also want them to have other people to go to when they mess up. A parent can’t be everything….)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Loving & Forgiving Yourself

I have found through the years that we often make comments like, "I have to forgive myself,” or "If I don't learn to love myself than I can't love others." Such comments seem to underscore the need for us to treat ourselves in a certain way that will foster change in our behavior. Thus, we make ourselves central to the process of change. If we can somehow keep telling ourselves we are loveable enough or forgivable enough than we will behave or feel better. Such a belief makes us the savior and redeemer. We actually don't have the capability to love ourselves enough or the authority to forgive ourselves. What is better is to keep growing the humility to accept God's (and other's) forgiveness even if we think we don't deserve it (we don't it’s a gift). In addition, we have to grow in accepting God's (and other's) love even though that tends to offend our desire for control and our pride that tells us that we can be our own savior. Truth be told the vulnerability of accepting help from outside ourselves makes us kinder and humbler people than thinking we can (and should) somehow be the one who brings change in our life. Such a truth kind of ruins other popular sayings like, "I can't change or control anyone all I can do is change or control myself." We can't change or control ourselves either. At the end of the day vulnerability defines our condition. As we accept our vulnerability and the love and forgiveness of God that can be the conduit of change in our life than we move in much better directions. In addition, learning to accept God's kindness helps us to accept ourselves. Self acceptance, or becoming comfortable in our own shoes, is a much better idea than learning to love or forgive ourselves. Growing self acceptance through relationship with the Lord is a much healthier and life-giving path than learning to love or forgive ourselves in our own strength. The path of self-reliance always leads to rigidity, a lack of love and self-righteousness whether or not it is recognizable as we walk down that path.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Interdependence and Maturity

I just finished reading the book I Don’t Want to Talk about It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression by Terrence Real. Many of his thoughts were helpful and worth reflecting on but I want to focus on something he said about maturity and connection. In detailing the way men develop depression he does a good job showing how boys are not encouraged to grow relationally and how this causes them to separate from parts of themselves that would ward off depression. One aspect he underscores is how boys are encouraged to disconnect from their families. He says, traditionally oriented therapists may actively discourage family therapy, citing the need for the boy to have “a place of his own,” in which to “work out separation.” But the true meaning of psychological “separation” is maturity, and we humans stand a better chance of maturing when we do not disconnect from one another. But what maturity truly requires is the replacement of childish forms of closeness with more adult forms of closeness, not with dislocation. As boys turn into young men, closeness not just to the mother but to both parents – indeed dependent closeness to anyone – is equated with childishness. Growing up becomes synonymous with moving out. Maturity and connection are set up as choices that exclude one another. (pg. 143)

What a painful reminder that in our culture dependent closeness to anyone – is equated with childishness. How often as parents and friends do we discourage, react against or demean dependent closeness? I realize that there is danger in being overly dependent. There are times and seasons where we are alone and have to learn how to navigate such periods with resiliency. Standing alone is part of growing to maturity. As a parent I want to help my girls be able to stay buoyant in difficulty and become spiritually mature. Like Terrance Real I believe this maturity is facilitated, not only by standing alone, but by being able to appropriately (and vulnerably) depend on others. Obviously, Christian theology underscores this. We are to depend on the Lord and His church. For the first half of my life, I foolishly worked hard to become a good independent person but later as I really began to grow in the Lord I realized what a backwards approach that was if I really wanted to mature as a Christian. It feels good (it feeds our flesh) to stand on our own and awkward to learn how to depend on others. Generally, I watch others struggle with both, wisely choosing to stand alone or wisely asking for help and/or depending on others. However, out of the two I would say the majority of people find it harder to vulnerably trust others. Therefore, I really appreciated the reminder that we often demean interdependence and I often play right into this. Dependent closeness is equated with childishness and this type of ‘childishness’ is to be encouraged. If I remember correctly Jesus encouraged us to change and become little children if we really wanted to participate in His Kingdom (Matthew 18:3).