Category Archives: Insight

Does sympathy require action?

Can you experience true sympathy towards another but do nothing in response? When you watch people suffering the effects of famine, hear of genocide, see a homeless person begging for money, can you feel sympathy but not do something about the problem?

Consider these opening words of Octavius Winslow, 19th century preacher (in the US and London) in his The Sympathy of Christ with Man: Its Teaching and its Consolation New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, pp iii-iv.

Much that passes for sympathy, and is really so, as commonly understood, is deficient in this one essential element, and needs to be remodeled. There is poetry and there is beauty in real sympathy; but there is more- there is action. True sympathy may exist impotent to aid, we concede, and its silent expression may not, in some instances, be the less grateful and soothing; but the noblest and most powerful form of sympathy is not merely the responsive tear, the echoed sigh, the answering look- it is the embodiment of the sentiment in actual help.

In this book he takes up the action oriented sympathies of Christ. We have a high priest who sympathizes with our state AND acts to do something about it.

Does true sympathy lead to action?

I believe so. Now, I want to be clear that it does not always lead to removing the suffering. It does not always mean immediate and direct help. There are times where the help is indirect. Consider the Scriptures in that the Lord hears the cries of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt and rescues them…some 400 years later. We can’t say that his action was deficient.

Our sympathies may lead to,

  • speaking the truth in love
  • comfort
  • pursuing justice
  • educating others who can do something
  • praying
  • not rescuing someone too quickly from their own tragic choices
  • inviting another to get some help

So, if you feel sympathy and helpless about doing something of value. Think again. What action does the Lord enable you to do “at such a time as this”?


Filed under Christianity, Insight, Psychology, Uncategorized

How do you make decisions?

A line in a recent sermon by David White has stuck with me for a bit. He asked us to consider the mindset behind our decision-making. He reminded us that we might say, “If the Lord wills I will do thus and so.” Sounds holy right? But maybe we really mean, “If God lets me do what I want, then I’m going to do what I want.” Notice the differences between being concerned about what God wants and what we want to do if he’ll just let us.

The line that got me was this:

If it is not unholy, should I pursue my particular ambition?

To be honest, I’m not sure he said it or if that is what I wrote down in my notes. What I took away from it is that we commonly quick check the box on whether what we want to do is right or not and if we think it is right, then we stop asking God whether we ought to do it or not. While it is good to consider rights/wrongs in decision-making, I can still ignore important matters in determining whether I should choose to do A or B. This probably sounds abstract so let me put this into a specific and real context:

Should I accept a speaking engagement invitation some months from now? The group and topic are worthy of the time. But should I do it? If it is not wrong, can I just say yes? Is right/wrong really the same as asking God whether or not this is good and right for me to do. As I considered the factors in the decision, here’s some of what passed through my mind.

  • Well, it is a conference I was already considering I might attend. So, I would have been gone from my family anyway.
  • This particular invitation was pretty special and might not repeat any time soon. I should do it.
  • You know Phil, a number of your mentors and colleagues would be there and it would be cool to be on the docket as “invited.” Then I admitted to myself: Glory is not really a reason and the work would be greater than just attending. You often underestimate how much effort it takes to do these things.
  • I really want to do this. My motivations are mixed but it still would be fun.
  • I hate saying no to requests. 

So, what did I do? I asked God for some help in making the decisions. I did not choose to talk to anyone about it (other than my wife and the one doing the inviting) for fear I would get folks to tell me what I wanted to hear.

How did it turn out? Believe it or not just as I was crafting the email to tell the conference planner that I would be coming, I remembered I had tentatively given my assent to an event here in the Philadelphia area. Now, you need to know that this event was more of a dream than a reality, more of, “I’m willing to be present if you guys decide to hold that meeting.” After a fleeting thought that I could squeeze both event in (something I’ve tried before), I realized I was getting my answer and some grace to say no to something that was absolutely enticing but not what I need to do this year.

Does God have a specific will?

I continue to believe in Jim Petty’s 3 circles of discerning the will of God. Somethings are very clearly wrong and should be avoided. This is the inner circle and you could label it “the law”. The middle circle are things that are not necessarily wrong but need to be evaluated through the lens of “the law of love.” These are things that could be wrong because they reveal that we love ourselves more than others. For example, if I decide to give up my job to take up a risky start-up business, I might be unloving to my family and placing them at more risk than they are comfortable with. Finally, the outermost circle contains everything else and is “christian liberty.” So, I decided to go to college or I’ve decided to get married and this seems good to those who know me well. There may be many choices of good schools and potential spouses. Christian liberty says that there isn’t one choice and if I screw it up I’m out of God’s will.

And while I still think in these terms, I am also realizing I don’t spend much time thinking beyond my own interests. It is time to take up the challenge of this question, “Okay, so it is not wrong…but is it right for me and my family? Is this how I should spend my time?” And then…time to pray a bit more and wait expectantly for an answer.


Filed under Christianity, Guidance and Counseling, Insight, Uncategorized

Surprised by peace? Surprised by suffering? What do you expect?

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What is your baseline perspective on life? Do you tend to believe that life should work pretty well and are surprised when suffering and pain enter your life? Or, do you tend to believe that life is hard and are surprised and pleased when it is not so hard or when you have moments of peace?

Perspective is pretty much everything. If you are driving during rush hour and you expect that traffic will be really bad but it turns out to be better than you feared, you probably feel great. But, if you were thinking your drive would take you one hour but it took two, you probably feel a bit frustrated. Both drivers might travel exactly the same amount of time but have opposite perspectives.

Expectations shape our feelings and perceptions of how life is going for us. Now, I am NOT arguing that if you just think happy thoughts, you won’t be bothered by problems in this life. No matter your perspective, you will suffer. To think otherwise would be denial of reality. But behind most of our “this is not fair…why would God allow this…I’m not sure I want to believe in a God who allows pain to happen” kind of comments are some assumptions and expectations that reveal what we believe life should be like.

Consider these assumptions or expectations. See one that gets you?

1. Life should be fair and should work. This could be called the Jonah perspective. Yes it should. But since sin entered the world, it isn’t. Instead of blaming God, might we not want to notice how many times in life, things are fair, just, and good? Might we not want to see that God is giving us better than we deserve? How might that mindset modify our general view of God’s care for us?

2. I have sacrificed much for God, why hasn’t he given my good and decent desires)? This one is similar to the 1st point but focuses along the lines of Psalm 73. Fairness is seen along the lines of righteousness. The good guys get blessings and the bad guys get suffering. If we hold this expectation then it is common to feel gypped when we don’t get our good desires met.

3. Suffering is something that is temporary, something to get through. This is an American viewpoint. We can overcome obstacles, we can heal the sick, we can fix problems. Once we get our education, get married, get the job we wanted, get our 401Ks then life will be good.


Filed under Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Insight, suffering

Trusting in your own wisdom

I recently had the need to consult a couple of experts on a medical question. In doing so I re-discovered a maxim:

we trust in our own expertise to solve problem.

Or, more colloquially, if what we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The psychiatrist puts her trust in her common tools. The neurosurgeon puts his trust in his scalpel. The neuropsychologist puts trust in the common diagnostic tools she uses.

Hmmm. I think I’m no different. I’d like to think that I’ll give my clients the right recommendation for treatment but when someone comes to me with a run-of-the-mill problem I must admit that I usually think I and my skills are up to the task.

Good care requires that I inform clients of other options. For example, if someone is depressed, I can provide counsel but they may wish to choose to see a psychiatrist for medication options. If a couple comes for therapy, I should inform them of the various kinds of therapy that might work equally well: EFT by a certified specialist, intensive Gottman style interventions (3 hour sessions every 3 weeks with lots of homework). Or, if a parent brings a child with ADHD like symptoms, do I suggest my style of intervention or do I recommend more careful diagnostics of a neuropsychologist’s exam? But even when we counselors tell clients of other options, they probably can tell we think fairly highly of our own counseling methods.

Don’t be surprised when surgeons want to use their knives, when oncologists want to ply their trade, or when nutritionists emphasize their health improving interventions. If you are seeking care, keep this human frailty in mind. And do be sure to ask more questions when you are seeking the best path for solving your problem.


Filed under christian psychology, Insight

Identity: Purveying fine ideas

Sabbaticals create a crisis of identity for me. As you may already know, the halls of academia are filled with individuals who secretly believe they are frauds–that all others in the hall (teachers and students alike) should be there but we have somehow gotten in by faking our intelligence. For me: will I, have I produced enough to be a legitimate professor? Where are my many books? Why isn’t my vita longer? Where is my empirical research?

Truth is I’m not a researcher and at this point do not need to be one. My school seeks quality teachers who make important additions to the field (vs. primarily researchers who happen to teach). 

But recently I had an aha about who I’m made to be. I had been struggling with writing a book proposal (which I hope will still succeed) and trying to evaluate whether I was making any discernible progress. I needed a coffee (okay, didn’t need but wanted) so walked out through the parking lot on my way to a local shop. In the parking lot was a friend on her way to help out some families in crisis. She stopped me and asked me if I could help her consider how to respond. Within minutes I gave her several ideas and steps on how to think about the issues and some direction as to where to lead the individuals involved. She was grateful and after scribbling on a napkin some ideas we parted ways.

As I walked to the shop I got the “aha.” I’m a purveyor of fine ideas–like the purveyor of fine coffees I was on my way to vist. I doubt I’m ever going to write that revolutionary text, develop a unique model of care, provide the statistical data to back up a theory, etc. But I’m relatively decent at collecting fine ideas that may not be so well-known to the community and giving them to people in useful bits. I think the Lord has given me the gift of discerning which biblical or psychological information might be useful and how the person in need might be able to use it.

So, I don’t make good things, I find good things and try to get them into the hands of folks who need it. Maybe that makes me less of a professor but I’m coming to terms with this.

And so with this aha I go back to my computer, flush with caffeine and some comfort that my life isn’t evaluated solely on this proposal I’m working on. Of course it doesn’t you say. But we humans need to be reminded of the truth every so often.


Filed under Identity, Insight, Meditations, teaching counseling, writing

Context and our perceptions

It shouldn’t be a surprise that context is everything when it comes to perception. Win the the 10 million dollar lotto and then have your car run over by a Mack truck (assuming no one was in it) and you probably laugh it off and go buy your dream car. Context changes how you perceive the event.

I had two reminders of the effect of context last Friday. First, I was on my way to a meeting and listening to an NPR show. The host of the show was interviewing Gary Marcus, NYU psychology prof and author of Kluge (a book on the mind). Though parts of his interview annoyed me greatly, he talked about contextual perceptions by pointing out this research tidbit (my words not a quote).

If researchers ask individuals (a) if they are happy, and (b) how many dates they have had lately they get one set of results. If they reverse these questions, the answer to the happiness question is clearly influenced by the answer to the dates question. I may in fact be happy until you remind me that I haven’t had any dates lately.

Second, at my meeting we were discussing perception of change in clients. Imagine this scenario:

You are working for 6 months with a man helping him to accept responsibility for his addictive behavior (you can substitute addictive with just about anything that needs change). The change has been painstaking but he has indeed begun to see his self-deception and begun to stop blaming his past for his present behavior. About this same time you hear that his wife would like to come in to a session. You invite her and when she comes with her husband you ask him to tell his wife what he has been learning. As he does you see her roll her eyes and smirk. You check in with her and she is absolutely livid. From her vantage point he hasn’t changed a bit. Sure, he’s not drinking anymore, he’s not beating her up, but did you know that he’s become rather obsessed with work, he still doesn’t call to tell her that he’ll be late and he won’t stop overspending each month. And worse for her, now he wants to have sex (in the past he avoided her) all the time. You acknowledge he has lots of work to do but you also realize she feels threatened to admit he has begun to change. If she does, maybe he’ll stop…

Notice how context influences our perceptions. If you think someone has come miles and miles in personal growth you likely get pretty excited. If, however, you focus on how far they have to go, your perceptions will be a bit more pessimistic.

Now here’s the challenge. How do we stop believing that our context is the only context for viewing experiences? It takes openness and empowerment and ability to see two things at once without demanding that one view overpower another. As Christians we must live in this bifurcated life. We are sinners…saved by grace. We are maturing…but never arriving. We are mistreated…and protected by God.

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Filed under Abuse, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, Insight, Psychology, Relationships

What does your internal conversation reveal about you?

In your quiet moments (hey, it may only be the shower for some of you), where does your mind go? What topics, feelings, ideas show up when your mind has no place it has to be? What do you notice, turn over in your mind, “process”, etc.? What internal conversation do you have with yourself? As you take stock, just describe what is there: Continue reading


Filed under Anxiety, christian counseling, Desires, Insight, Mindfulness

Spiritual formation: What do you eat?

Where do you feed? I spent a few hours in a class at my church discussing the concept of spiritual formation. It wasn’t new news to me but still a great reminder to look again at my inner life. Spiritual formation could easily be called, spiritual feeding. Before we talk about how to feed on good things, we really need to take stock of the “food” we actually eat.
My counselees come in to try to find how to fix their problems. Part of my job with them (and with myself) is to evaluate their meditational/imaginal life. I need to know what they feed on in order to understand their world and what they care for.
So, what do you feed on? Your wounds? Others’ sins/failures against you? Your successes? Your goals/desires? Your identity (from work, family, gender, race, etc.)? Your weaknesses/deficiencies? Your right to self-determination? Pleasure? Financial security? Escapism? Carefully controlled spiritual behaviors? (It is possible to look at external measures to see how we are doing in our spiritual life. Have I read enough? Prayed enough? Served enough? Sacrificed enough?)
So, where do you feed? One of my colleagues, Charles Zimmerman, once said that what you think about in the shower can give you a bit a sense as to the nature of your god. I suspect that kind of “mindless” time does reveal our feeding habits.

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Filed under Insight, Meditations

Going blind from insight!

Just came from the eye doctor this am. They dilated my eyes to look at my stretched retina (I’m blind as a bat). So, now lights of any kind are piercing my eyes. They gave me those wrap around sunglasses to help but vanity suggests not wearing them. Got me thinking about how too much insight at any time can produce the same pain. Sure, we counselors look to build insight in our clients. They, in turn, want to know the whys and the wherefores. But more isn’t necessarily better. I once videotaped a 15 year old boy with an Aspergers diagnosis to give him feedback on his social skills. We had been working on role-playing socially appropriate behaviors with peers. When he saw himself, he disintegrated before my eyes into a little ball. I had to do a lot of work to rebuild trust and help him recover. Too much insight at one time.

Thankfully, the Lord doesn’t overwhelm us with insight into just how sinful we really are. He graciously allows us to grow over time and reveals his grace in ever increasing measure so that our awe of Him grows as we gain personal insight

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Filed under Insight, teaching counseling