Category Archives: Evangelicals

Jack Miller on repentance (again)

If you haven’t seen Jack Miller’s little book on repentance I encourage you get ahold of the new edition published by CLC publications (2009). The cost is under 8 dollars! Jack Miller wrote the first edition in 1975 under the title, “Repentance and the 2oth Century Man”. This one, entitled: Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrenderalso includes a foreward by Andree Seu (World Magazine) and an epilogue by Miller’s widow, Rose Marie.

Here’s why I find this little book very helpful. It clarifies the subtle but oh-so-important differences between true repentance and penance; between true repentance and regret. It reminds us that repentance is a daily moment-by-moment attitude but is not something that is full of shame and morose feelings. 

As someone who works with Christians struggling with addictive patterns, I find one of the greatest challenges is to help clients move from penance to repentance and from guilt to freedom. This book ought to help with both.   

For those unfamiliar with Jack’s legacy, he started New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside (my church) and out of that church a number of other churches were planted as well as the founding of World Harvest Missionwhich has 170 missionaries now in 15 countries–including Uganda where missionaries were intimately involved in the care of those suffering through last year’s ebola outbreak.

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Filed under addiction, biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Evangelicals, self-deception, sin

The way out of moralism?

What is the way out of Christian moralism? Continuing from the last post, Coe says we have to

[open] our heart and mind deeply to (1) the reality of Christ’s work on the Cross in justification and (2) the ministry of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and in-filling. (p. 73)

If there is no more condemnation then “come out of your hiding in your prayer life and be honest with God.” And if Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to you, “then stop trying to cover your badness by being good.” (p. 74).

Coe says we often feel forgiven for failures but still feel unacceptable. And so we tend to respond with moralism in an effort to get to that point that we feelacceptable. Instead we are to meditate on the truth of our acceptance on the merit of the Cross AND need the transformation of the Spirit. Coe reminds us that spiritual disciplines do not transform us but “only become relational opportunities to open the heart to the Spirit who transforms.” (P. 77)

So, what do you think about his way out? Are you left wishing for more direction? More objective activities? Then in his mind you might be a moralist…

Maybe we should start by talking to others about our propensity towards moralism and quick fixes to our deepest problem. Also, we may need to explore how little we rely on the Spirit and how infrequent we are mindful of our needy state without moving toward shame or dulling that feeling.


Filed under Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, Uncategorized

Are you tempted to moralistic formation?

At the ETS meeting, someone handed me the inaugural issue of Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care. Despite the fact that I’m in the business of these activities I have to admit that I am often turned off by writings about spirituality and soul care. Maybe its because the words can mean so many different things.

Anyway, I finally had a chance to look at the articles and found this little treasure by John Coe, “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation: Opening to Spiritual Formation in the Cross and the Spirit” (p. 54-78).

Coe tells his reader that he is writing to dedicated Christians (rather than consumer Christians) who are very serious about their Christian growth and have a sincere desire for increased holiness. He says he sometimes calls this group the “dedicated neurotic.”

What I have discovered, however, is that these same dedicated persons often struggle with a secret, and sometime not so secret, burden of guilt and shame that they are not as mature as they should be, that their lives often feel spiritually dry and withered, that the Christian life feels more like work than joy. They wonder at times, “God, what is wrong with me? Where are the rivers of living water? Why do I still struggle with the same sins year after year? Why is my spiritual life so dry?” And so they might pick up a Dallas Willard or Richard Foster book or come to our Institute for Spiritual Formation with a hunger to grow, hoping to find something that will make their spiritual life work. (p. 55)

Ever experience this?

Coe goes on to say that he wants to tell this person,

…what they may not know is that they are in the grips of a great temptation… For some, there is a temptation to despair of their spiritual life, to despair that God will come, to tune out, to accept a spirituality of “dry bones.” For others there is the temptation to act out immorally, so that when frustrations mount in the Christian life, the temptation is to say in one’s heart, “I cannot take it anymore, I just want to escape for a while.”

However, I want to address a peculiar temptation, one especially relevant and (I think) universal to those who are dedicated to the Christian life and to ministry. It is what I call the moral temptation. (ibid)

What is a moral temptation? In Coe’s mind it is to,

attempt to deal with our spiritual failure, guilt and shame by means of spiritual efforts, by attempting to perfect one’s self in the power of the self. It is the attempt of the well-intentioned believer to use spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, ministry, service, obedience–being good in general –as a way to relieve the burden of spiritual failure, lack of love and the guilt and shame that results. (ibid)

How do you know if you are a Christian moralist? Coe uses the following diagnostic?

Question one: When you are convicted by sin, what is your first response?Is it “I will do better…I need to work on that…” then you are a moralist. If this is not just your first response, but also your most abiding one then he really thinks you are positively a moralist. The law, Coe says, is our tutor to lead us to Christ. And we can tell the difference based on our response. Are we feeling condemned versus culpable. Are we feeling the “should do differently” versus “I cannot do it apart from Christ.” Are we thinking we should try better versus sorry for our failing. Are we making moralistic efforts versus seeking the spirit.

Question two: When you are aware of your guilt and failure, does it lead to“overwhelming and abiding feelings of frustration, sense of failure, and self-rejection so that you do no want to feel things things but, rather want to repress them from awareness…”? (p. 68) Or do you pray with the ancients, “O blessed vice, for it was you who taught me to cling to Christ”?

The next post we’ll look at some ways out of this moralistic pattern.


Filed under Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christianity, Evangelicals, Gospel

The God I don’t understand 3: Chapter 2

Christopher Wright tackles “The Offence of Evil” in this chapter of his book. He begins by reminding the reader that even though she may need to accept the mystery of evil she cannot accept evil itself. No, “There is something within us that reacts to evil in the way the body reacts to a “foreign body”–with rejection and protest.” He tells us the point of this chapter is to say that we are absolutely right to react the way we do and that, “the Bible not only gives us permission but even gives us the words to do so.” (p. 44)

Natural disasters, says Wright, perplex us because these lack “moral or rational explanation.” While some natural disasters may have human agency as partial cause others do not. Wright cites the disasters brought on by movements of tectonic plates. Why? How can such things happen when God is supposed to be in charge?

Are these disasters God’s judgment? A result of the curse? Wright suggests that while both have elements of biblical truth,”both seem to me dangerously misleading when pressed into service as full explanations.” (p. 45). If you take these events to be the result of the curse, then if you follow the cause back far enough, you have to level the charge at human sin. Is this fair, Wright wonders. He finds this explanation “improbable” for several reasons. First, he disagrees that Gen 3:17 is a curse on the whole planet. Rather it describes the struggle relationship humans have with earth and the hardship encountered in trying to make a living from it. He sees it as a functional curse. If you take the curse of the ground as curse of the whole planet then you have to believe that our planet behaved differently before the fall. Wright doesn’t think so.

There is no evidence that our planet has ever been geologically different from the way it is now, or that animals were ever nonpredatory, or that tectonic plates in the earth’s crust were somehow stationary before the human species emerged and sinned. (p. 47)

So, in Wright’s mind, God placed humans on a planet with geological activity that seems rather precarious at times. He muses, “I don’t pretend to understand why…I might wish that it could be otherwise. But I don’t think I can be presumptuous enough to tell the Creator, “you should have thought of some other way of making a home for us.” (p. 47)

But what about these disasters being God’s judgment on a people? While all humans are judged to have fallen short are the victims of natural disasters worse sinners than those who live where no disaster has happened?

It is one thing to say that there may be elements of God’s judgment at work in the natural order as a result of prolonged human wickedness. It is another thing altogether to say that the people whose lives are snuffed out or devastated by a natural disaster are the ones deserving that judgment directly. (p. 48)

He likens those Christians who declare these disasters to be God’s specific judgment on a people for their sin to be no different than the Muslim cleric in Britain declaring that the Tsunami in Thailand was Allah’s judgment on sex tourists–even though most of those killed were families at the beach and not those seeking sex with minors. “The sheer crass arrogance of such responses staggers the imagination.” (p. 48)

This illogic happens, Wright says, because “we so easily take some aspects of what the Bible teaches, then invert the logic, and apply it quite wrongly.” (ibid) Yes, God sometimes uses natural disasters to punish or judge. The biblical account give a few examples. But Wright tells us that when we attempt to speak for God, to speak authoritatively, we err. He gives examples from Job, John 9 and Luke 13 that counter the believe that disaster always equals specific judgment. Also, while these disasters do cause some of us to reconsider life and to repent of sin, Wright believes it is “grotesque” to suggest  that God did this just to warn us.

Wright believes that there isn’t any one answer or explanation for the cause of natural disasters.

Science can tell us their natural causes, and they are awesome enough. This is the achievement, but also the limit, of scientific explanation of “what really happened”. But neither science nor faith can give a deeper or meaningful reason or a purpose for a disaster. Thus we are left with the agony of baffled grief and protest.

When we run out of explanations or reject the ones we try, what are we to do? We lament and protest. We shout that it simply isn’t fair. We cry out to God in anger. We tell him we cannot understand and demand to know why he did not prevent it. Is it wrong to do this? Is it something that real believers shouldn’t do, just like “real men don’t cry”? Is it sinful to be angry with God?” (p. 50)

Wright finds in his bible that the answer is NO. For the rest of the chapter he explores Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Psalms and finds that “those who loved and trusted him most” (and not God’s enemies) were frequently angry, questioning, lamenting, and protesting God’s seeming inaction. Wright tells us that there are more lament psalms than there are praise psalms and yet he finds the church unable to lament in corporate worship. Why? Why do we turn to other explanations (judgment, curse, God’s sovereignty, Rom 8:28, etc.) instead of engaging in public and corporate worship characterized by lament and despair?

We are to “file our protests before God….within a framework of faith that has hope and a future built into it. For the present state of creation is not its final state, according to the Bible.” (p. 54) But for praise to have “integrity”, we must be able to pour out our “true feelings before God”.

Wright ends with some choice quotes from Nicholas Wolterstorff and this,

But if that were all [that we accept the mystery of evil that we cannot understand and that we lament and protest it to God], life would be bleak and depressing in the extreme, and faith would be nothing but gritting our teeth in the face of the unexplained and unrelieved suffering. Thankfully the Bible has a lot more to say to lift our hearts with hope and certainty. That is where we are headed in chapter 3.


Filed under Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals


Off to NYC to talk to a group of pastors regarding their spiritual and relational health. My basic point: unique stressors of ministry plus unmet personal/professional expectations equals stress responses that either destroy or strengthen a pastor. No rocket science here but I hope to get them thinking about some practical steps they might take to ensure their own renewal. Some Shepherds tend, I’m sorry to say, to focus on the care of the sheep but neglect their own care–thus forgetting they themselves are sheep.

Interested in a summary of research on the unique situation of pastors? Check out the “slides” page for a brief paper written by me last year for a group of us meeting to dream about starting a center for multi-level care for christian leader families.


Filed under Anxiety, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, Depression, Evangelicals, pastoral renewal, pastors and pastoring

Bobblehead Christianity

At the Society for Christian Psychology, JKA Smith (a Calvin Coll. philosopher) made an offhanded comment about bobblehead Christianity–the kind where the head is huge but the body is nearly non-existent. This image has really stuck with me.

We fill the head with truth and facts about our faith and we expect that to transform us into Christ. But we ignore the body, or the practices of the faith. He made mention of this problem in a discussion about worldview. He said something to this effect: “I think worldview conversations are important. I love worldview. I’d marry it if I could. But we must pay attention to our practices as they are attached to worldview and shape it in reverse. Worldview discourse places too much emphasis on what we think and less on what we do. We need to include visceral ways of knowing…tactile involvement in worship.” (phrases from my notes, not true quotation)

Seems we ought to take his critique to heart. Where are we overemphasizing truth statements or thinking about self as change agent and underemphasizing performing (use of disciplines) as acting into the truth as a work of the Holy Spirit?


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, church and culture, Cultural Anthropology, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, Psychology

Do YOU know where you are going on YOUR journey?

This post is prompted by a sermon I heard last Sunday. Duane Davis, student at WTS preached a wonderful sermon on Hebrews 11:8-22 and Abraham’s journey to the promised land. During the sermon I thought of this application to my own Seminary’s quest to teach and train missional church leaders and counselors for the 21st century. A little background: not everyone has been happy with our move to reach the emerging leadership of the emerging church. The emerging church has been willing to criticize sharply the prior evangelical style of church. In their effort to try new things, some emerging leaders, writers, etc. have tried on theological positions that run counter or at least perpendicular to conservative Christian doctrine. Because we at the Seminary haven’t led with our criticisms of emerging church, that has led some to criticize and attack us. One criticism has been the challenge that the emerging church and Biblical Seminary don’t know where they are going. We’re on a journey that can only lead to heresy and rejection of the Gospel–or so it is thought by some. Enter Hebrews 11.

Notice that Abraham travels with much uncertainty. He surely knew that God called him (at least he knew this enough to leave all his family and homeland at an elderly age) and so he went expectantly. I wonder if he grew tired of saying, “Here, Lord? This looks like a good spot. No, you want me to keep going???”. I wonder if he second-guessed himself.  But Hebrews does tell us that Abraham did look expectantly to one thing: heaven (v. 11). In fact, the promise of heirs the number of sand and land was never fully realized in his lifetime. As Duane reminded us, he even had to buy some land to bury his cherished wife. Even at age 100, he had yet to receive the promise of Isaac. Then a few years later he is asked by God to sacrifice Isaac.

We who have the entire canon seem to forget that we too do not know where God is taking us. We have a clearer picture of heaven and clear calls to seek and serve God’s kingdom. And yet we do not know exactly to what God is calling us to. We, like Abraham, may try to bring about God’s promises (these usually lead to bad consequence). God is faithful none-the-less. Unless He returns, we too will not see the full promise delivered.

So, in answer to those who ask whether Biblical Seminary knows where it is going, I say no. We don’t. We do know that God is faithful, the land is foreign, we own nothing, but we trust in his goodness both now and in eternity. We seek to live faithfully in worshipful service to God and in loving our neighbors as ourselves. It would be more comforting to think we had it all figured out. It is tempting to do so since that would make our vision planning much easier. In fact, it is tempting just to say we have it all figured out. That would be more attractive to students and donors. But, we believe a more faithful response is to ask the Lord to send us into the harvest and use as as He can.

One last point. Our lack of knowing just where we are going is not to say we have NO idea nor to say all viewpoints are valid and everyone’s expression of faith is good. Those interested in knowing more what we do seek and believe are welcome to check out our President’s “Missional Journal” at

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, Biblical Seminary, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, missional, Missional Church

Last Practicum Monday: Christian counselors in a secular world

Today marks the end of the 2007-8 school year for our MA Counseling students. Some have completed their final credits and others are half-way to their diplomas but I’m sure all are glad the school year is over.

Our students here do fieldwork in a variety of settings: churches, christian private practices, nonprofit social services (hospice, pregnancy centers), and secular or state/federal financed mental health facilities. Those who work in secular settings are often faced with questions about their faith from colleagues and supervisors. Are they going to try to get their clients saved? Will they leave their faith at the door? And students struggle to know what to do with helping clients in some ways (new communication skills) but not being able to help them in deeper ways (putting trust in God during difficult times). Just how should Christians working in secular mental health agencies function? 

First, I very much believe that Christians should be in all aspects of society if they have any hopes of being salt and light in the world. Far too frequently we sequester ourselves from the world and then wonder why they persist in using caricatures of us.

So, if we are going to be in the world but not of it, how might we do it as counselors in a secular setting? I suggest 3 things to consider as we interact with supervisors/colleagues, clients, and our own self:

1. When dealing with an  Agency/Supervisor/Colleague

  • Get to know your context and its/their history with Christians and Christianity
  • When you hear slams or other suspicious questions be sure to explore the “back story” and validate, if appropriate, the bad experiences with naive or offensive behaviors by Christians
  • Discern who you might be able to have a reasonable conversation with regarding the nature of faith and psychology, philosophy of science, ethical care of people (including the exploration of their faith traditions), and the fact that all counseling is evangelistic to some construct of health). In this conversation be sure to using starting points that the other will understand (e.g., ethics, empirical evidence, concerns, etc.) just as St. Paul does at the Areopagus.
  • Communicate that you do not see your job as coercing anyone. You are not responsible for our clients behavior, neither are we for their beliefs. When we raise questions about faith it is to provoke their thinking a bit further

2. When dealing with clients

  • Be sure to ask early in clinical work about faith traditions, current practices, and experiences. These questions fit with what the AMA suggest as important for healing, as community and spiritual resources are quite powerful in the medical literature
  • When given an opening (e.g., questions about God, faith, etc.) pursue gently NOT with statements but questions that may reveal further beliefs, fears, wants, desires, demands, etc.
  • Further, ask how they came to believe what they do believe
  • Point out inconsistencies in belief/behavior; raise possibilities, pros/cons, potential places for hope that may lead to further discussion of God’s handiwork in their lives; Point out places where they seem to recognize their inability to love enough, tolerate enough (gently of course)
  • Be wary of the habit of “telling” others the truth. Many times clients already know the “right” answer. Exhortations may be useful at times but more often than not they cause individuals to become passive–even when they agree with your point.
  • Be ready to answer their questions about YOUR faith with honesty (e.g., what does belief in God look and feel like when everything is caving in?). Be sure not to sugarcoat the Christian life. Be ready to talk about your hope in a broken world (not just for eternity but for now)
  • And if you do talk about your faith, immediately turn it back to them for them to react, explore, challenge, etc.

3. To ourselves

  • Answer the following questions
    • Can I work with integrity within this system?
    • Is giving a “cup of cold water” (e.g., better communication skills) enough for right now?
    • Can I defend what I do say about the Christian faith in my sessions?
    • Am I giving the impression that I believe that there are many ways to God?
  • Develop a theology of mercy ministry akin to God’s providing rain, sun, and health to the just and unjust alike


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, church and culture, counseling, counseling and the law, counseling science, counseling skills, Evangelicals, philosophy of science, Psychology, teaching counseling

Risk factors for pastoral infidelity

Today, I listened to a CD of Dave Carder at last year’s AACC convention. He is the author of Torn Asunder, a book about affairs. I’ve not seen his newest book, just out in April, is entitled Close Calls. Both available on Amazon.

He presented a talk entitled, “Emerging Trends in Pastoral Infidelity.” He summarized data gleaned from 5 studies between 1987-1998. He continues to collect information that will be out this year.

Here’s some surprises in his data and risk factors:

1. suspected rate of sexual impropriety: about 40% (though this is perceived because of underreporting. Actual reporting number is 21%, though 15% admitted to lying on the surveys)
2. pastors affair partners are now more likely to be outside the church
3. 90% of pastors report being blindsided by the affair–they didn’t see it coming
4. The vast majority of improprieties are never discovered
5. Risk factors increase with:

  • History of sexual molestation, family history of infidelity, adolescent promiscuity, learning disabilities/ADHD, female friends with private conversations, conjoint ministry with opposite sex, lingering outside of ministry to share personal matters
  • Lower age in conversion to Christianity increases risks
  • Higher education increases risks as does increased bible education
  • both ministry exhausted and ministry connected pastors 

Any of these surprise you?


Filed under Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Evangelicals, pastors and pastoring, Sex

Christian put-downs? Do they fit in the mission of God?

In the world that I live in (theological academia) we engage in hearty discussions about the positions and ideas others put in the public domain. When discussing a theological point, we debate who is the closest to being right and are quick to point out where eminent thinkers have wandered off the path of reason and truth. Most of the time, this is done in the spirit of desiring to have increasing knowledge and wisdom. Well, maybe not most of the time, but at least part of the time. Of course, we usually think that our thoughts and ideas are closer to God’s truth than our counterparts. This is especially true when we begin to think critically about long-held ideas and beliefs–ideas and beliefs that we, along with the majority, held explicitly or implicitly. But something else happens when we find ourselves in the minority opinion. Continue reading

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Filed under biblical counseling, Cognitive biases, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, missional