Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Desiring fame: When does it lose lustre?


When I was a kid I would sometimes fantasize about being famous or a hero. Maybe everyone does. As I became an adult, that desire shifted from being a crime fighter or sports star to being a famous intellectual, a professor somewhere. I distinctly remember a conversation with my friend Geoff. We mused that it would be cool if we could succeed the two more famous professors at our bible college. While we were thinking about future possibilities, I’m sure we were also driven by the desire to be somebody.

Fast forward to this past week. My colleague Bryan and I were sitting on his Opryland Hotel balcony and musing about the years we had been coming to the AACC World Conference, our years of presenting there and at other conferences, and how our feelings about presenting had changed. We both began presenting at conferences while at Wheaton College in the PsyD program. We both had aspirations to teach grad students. We both had looked up to a few we thought we would like to emulate. And, we both thought about books we might write one day. Some of the “highs” we experienced were,

  • Getting our paper presentation proposals accepted at CAPS and AACC
  • Getting fairly large crowds to come to these paper presentations
  • Getting published in a peer-reviewed journal
  • Getting academic jobs…moving up the ranks
  • Publishing a book (Bryan, not me)

In the early days when we first presented (as grad students) we found the cheapest ways to get to conferences and stayed in a pretty seedy motel a long walk away from the conference location. But on the balcony of a very nice hotel room, we both felt a bit melancholy and completely unimpressed with ourselves and our former aspirations. These things did not matter and were of little value. Bryan would undoubtedly trade all prior aspirations to have his wife back (she died a little over a year ago).

In many ways, we received some of the recognition we once desired: both had our ways paid to the conference and hotels comped because of our higher level work (pre-conference speakers, track leader). I even got 2 minutes to speak to the entire conference attendees.

Big deal…in light of far more important matters. 1 John 2:15-17 reminds us,

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (NIV)

Fame is elusive, transitory, and dangerous to pursue. The desire for limelight will lead to decisions that will not honor God or benefit anyone but self. May those of us who want to be a somebody be reminded daily that the Kingdom of God is for the meek and lowly of this world. Fame here translates to nothing in heaven. Rather, our hunger must be for righteousness not fame.

So, when does fame lose lustre? When we are able to see greater things of value.

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Filed under christian counseling, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling, Evangelicals, 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.

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Filed under Christianity, Guidance and Counseling, Insight, Uncategorized

Book Note: “Why the Church Needs Bioethics”


Just received a copy of Why the Church Needs Bioethics: A Guide to Wise Engagement with Life’s Challenges (Edited by John F. Kilner; published 2011, Zondervan). Using 3 case studies, a wide variety of authors discuss “better birth” (fertility), “better life”, and “better death.”

Authors include Richard Averbeck (OT and Counseling), Kevin Vanhoozer (theology), DA Carson (NT), and Stephen Greggo and Miriam Stark Parent (Counseling). In addition, there are business, law, medical, education, pastoral care, bioethics, and intercultural ministry authors.

I got a little chance to play a part in this book as a “critiquer” (p. 9) Stephen Greggo authors chapter 3, “Wisdom from Counseling” as a counseling response to the case study of Betty and Tom, a couple who are considering using Betty’s sister’s eggs and Tom’s sperm and to implant embryos into Betty. I got a chance to read and react to this chapter some time ago all because of a little article my wife and I wrote in 2002 and published in 2005.

On page 71, Greggo and Parent say,

A recent search of the leading peer-reviewed journals that inform Christian MHPs [mental health providers] and pastoral counselors yielded only a single article to guide a Christian counselor who might be dialoging with  Betty and Tom.

Their footnotes reveal that they searched The Journal of Biblical Counseling, The Journal of Psychology and Christianity and the Journal of Psychology and Theology between the years 2000 and 2009.

I find it surprising that there are no other articles than ours (full text here) and gratifying to see our essay summarized in this volume. While there are a number of good full length books, there is a serious need for good Christian counseling articles dealing with infertility and assisted reproductive technology (ART) because this is where many counselors start their study on a given topic.

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What is the difference between a trial and a stressor?


Words matter. The words you use to describe an event really do shape how you will view it and how you will respond to it. For counselors, the words they use to conceptualize a client/case will shape how they see clients and how they will attempt to intervene. This is why I take considerable time in my Practicum class to practice case conceptualization.

Most beginning counselors are good at collecting information. But, for most, that data might well be a hopelessly knotted  ball of twine.  Where to start pulling? How do we make sense of the various pieces of data? And since data never comes to us uninterpreted, which “data” do we tend to gravitate to? Behaviors? Family history? Motivations? Biology? Environment? Client beliefs? But even more confusing are the words we use to describe these sectors of life–and the meaning they convey!

Stressor v. Trial?

Here’s how language influences case conceptualization. Your client experiences long-term family discord due to an adult child with schizophrenia. The family member routinely goes off medications and the police have to be called in order to transport him or her to the hospital after threatening self-harm. Your client comes to counseling to seek support for handling this difficult situation. As you can imagine, the client feels alone, worn down, and wondering how to keep going despite no sense that the situation will get better any time soon.

What do you imagine might be the impact of calling this family situation a trial? And how might you view it differently if you called it a stressor. Notice any differences? Benefits of each? Drawbacks of either? In your mind, are they equivalent? (See Eric Johnson’s brief discussion of these two words and their similarities/differences in regard to Christian psychology in his Foundations for Soul Care, p. 240)

Here is my thinking. Within Christian tradition, a “trial” signifies a difficult time or season but from a spiritual or divine perspective. It conveys a purpose–a testing or proofing of one’s faith. We tend to view trials (or desire to at least) from an eternal point of view, “testing of your faith produces perseverance…”  (Jas 1:3). Notice that while “trial” does signify difficulty, the focus is largely on the purpose it serves.

On the other hand, a “stressor” is something that causes stress or distress in a person’s life. Notice that this word carries no sense of eternity, divine value or purpose. It merely describes a facet of life that is troubling a person’s life.

Imagine with me a counselor who uses “trial” to describe the distress in the life of the client mentioned above. How do you expect that might shape the counselor’s view of the situation and thus response sets to that client? Would our counselor be more likely to view the trial as something to endure, more likely to engage in spiritual conversations so as to find comfort and peace in the middle of the storm? Would their conversations tend toward the hope of heaven? Is it possible that using the language of trials might cause a counselor to ignore the real-time experience of distress?

Now imagine the counselor who uses “stressor” to describe the same distress. Would this counselor be more likely to discuss in detail the physical, psychological impact of living with a mentally ill and unstable family member? Would this counselor then be more focused on finding ways to decrease the moment-by-moment stress levels? Is it possible that using the language of stressor might cause a counselor to ignore an eternal perspective?

Hopefully, you can see the value of both word meanings and the interventions described. It is possible to use the language of trials and focus in on the details of how that trial impacts the client. And it is possible to use the language of stressors and keep in mind an eternal perspective. Whatever language, the interventions off stress education and reduction and hope building are necessary interventions.

If you are a counselor or counseling student, observe the language you use to describe your clients and their lives. How does that language influence your view of them and the interventions you might use with them?

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Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling skills, Uncategorized

Sensible Evangelical Worship?


In the upcoming week I will be meeting with DMin students to talk about renewal. These students are all active in ministry as leaders and thus are in the habit of leading others by discipleship, counseling, teaching, mentoring, preaching, worship leading, etc. Leaders tend to be servers rather than takers. This is why many ministry leaders find themselves spiritually dry and lonely. Put a leader in a conflictual relationship with those he or she serves and dryness becomes major depression.

One of the important tasks of ministry leaders is making their own relationship with God a priority. Too often their spiritual disciplines exist only in the preparation for ministry activity. In other words, as they consider what to say or do with others, they may apply what they are studying to themselves. While this is a great benefit of teaching–teaching self first!–it ought not be the only form of renewal for the leader.

One of the best ways to pursue renewal is to use all of the human senses, hence the title of this blog. Too often we evangelicals use our head and think about worship. But what if we were in the habit of following our orthodox or Anglican brothers and sisters? What if we were more inclined to use silence, visuals, smells, and bells?

Consider your last worship time. What did you do? Read? Sing? Imagine? Listen? Move? Which of your senses do you commonly leave out of the worship experience? Which do you commonly use most of the time? How might using less used senses add to the experience?

I’m especially interested in the experiences of those who were raised in the 3 hymns and a sermon mode of Sunday worship or the 1 Psalm, 1 Proverb, 1 NT reading and 1 OT reading for daily quiet time. How have you begun to use more of your senses?

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Trauma the greatest mission field of this time?


Sometimes a line you say strikes a nerve. It happened this morning when Diane Langberg made a passing comment to attendees at the She’s My Sister impact summit. Diane was to make some introductory comments about the nature of trauma and the fact that God’s children, the body of Christ, “are to follow the head” into the problem of injustice. Following her I was to make some summary of the trauma healing advisory council’s work from the previous day.

To a room full of ministry leaders (from World Relief, IJM, Saddleback Church, American Bible Society and other international societies), Diane made this statement,

Trauma is the greatest mission field of this time.

Soon after a number of folks began running with this idea. Trauma, they could see, is an opportunity serve others and bring the Gospel to bear in word and deed. Trauma is everywhere. The need is overwhelming. The Gospel has something to say about the experience of suffering and what the Christian life offers to suffering people. One of the first ways people heal from traumatic events is when they are able to speak their experience; when they feel heard and cared for. They realize they matter.

Abolition of slavery was the great mission field of the 19th century. Trauma may be that field for this season.

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Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, christian psychology, Democratic Republic of Congo

Uncomfortable with a conversation? Change the subject


What is your usual response to someone who brings up your “stuff”? You know, that stuff you’d rather not talk about because it is embarrassing or painful or causes you to have to confront some issue in your life? And yes, I know it matters WHO is doing the bringing up and HOW.

But if we are honest we probably recognize the tendency to blame-shift by bringing up their stuff or change the subject to some intellectual debate in order to get off of the topic of us.

At the end of yesterday’s post I mentioned the passage in John 4 that tells about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well. Notice a few of her responses as a result of her discomfort:

1. Jesus asks for something………she’s suspicious and defensive and brings up Jewish arrogance against her kind of people

2. Jesus offers something………she’s wondering how he thinks he’s better than their forefather Jacob

3. Jesus tells her to get her husband (she is living with someone not her husband)……..she tells a partial truth

4. Jesus tells the woman her own private story–5 husbands and the one you are with isn’t your husband (notice he doesn’t call her a liar but actually validates her half-truth)………she brings up a doctrinal debate between Jews and Samaritans.

5. Jesus avoids the debate and gives a bigger picture…….the woman THEN drops her defensiveness and gets her village-mates to come see Jesus

We’re probably a lot like this unnamed woman of ill-repute. We blame-shift, focus on possible problems of the other, tell half-truths when cornered and then finally resort to rabbit trail debates all so we can avoid facing certain things about ourselves.

The good thing is that God rarely lets up in his gentle but persistent pursuit.

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, Christianity, conflicts, counseling skills, Doctrine/Theology

Christian anxieties?


In light of the holiday stresses and anxieties, I bring you a couple of thoughts regarding “Christian” anxiety.

Everyone faces anxiety at times in their life (unless you lost your amygdala) But some anxieties are unique to evangelical Christians:

1. What if I am out of God’s will? What if I make the wrong choice?

2. What if I committed the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit?

3. What if I am missing out on the blessing of God? What does it mean if I don’t feel thankful?

4. What if God wants me to stay in this awful situation? What if my situation is God’s punishment for previous sins?

5. What if I’m not sure I believe? Am saved? Have faith?

6. Is God holding out on me because I have weak faith?

I’m sure there are more you could list (feel free to add to this!) that are unique to Christians.

When working with someone struggling with these kinds of intrusive spiritual fears (aren’t all fears intrusive?), I have noted that they often

  • struggle with frequent guilt
  • are comforted by voices around them telling them that they are okay…but the comfort doesn’t last very long as cognitive efforts to convince them they are wrong fail
  • work very hard to do Christian service–sometimes to the point of compulsion

If you or someone you love struggles with these fears consider the following recommendations

1. Listen for the deepest concern. What if’s are almost always present in anxiety. What if I’m not saved? What if God isn’t going to give me my desires? Instead of responding to the surface fear, listen between the lines for deeper concerns (without debating them). For example, fears about not being sure about faith may really be a deep sensation of guilt and or failure to be perfect.

2. Validate AND encourage re-evaluation of the meaning of the fears. Always begin with validation—communicating that (a) it is clear the counselee has a real problem that needs attention, (b) such concerns are painful, BUT—and this is important—, (c) it might be possible that they have mis-identified their spiritual problem. Fear tends to deceive the mind and misdirect attention away from more important matters (e.g., a worry about germs focuses attention on cleanliness but away from underlying fears of being out of control).

3. Counter fear with STOP and MEDITATE techniques. Most people have their self-soothing techniques. Unfortunately, some of these can add to the anxiety. For example, repetitive “Lord save me” prayers will only lead to more belief that you may not be saved. Look for these repeated responses to fear and try to stop them–even if they seem rather religious in nature. Instead, look to meditate on some other part of the bible or of the character of God–something completely out of the orbit of the fear.

4. Develop alternate goals. Most anxious people would like not to be so. Who can blame them? But eliminating anxious spiritual thoughts may not be a good goal. And, the efforts to do so may only increase the spiritual angst. Yes, medication and preceding efforts may reduce anxiety, often the fears remain active in the background. An alternate goal might include (a) resisting the old dialog that engages the fear as important, (b) choosing to use the stimulus of the fear to focus on a specific person in need (a shut-in who needs a call, praying for someone else, etc.). These alternate tasks will reduce the anxious person’s thoughts about self…and thus reduce their anxiety.

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Pretense: Just how evil is it?


In Acts 5, we read the story of a couple (Ananias & Sapphira) who sold some property and gave a portion of the proceeds to their church. Seems good, right? Well, God struck them down dead on the spot.

If you have never read that story, it sounds pretty harsh judgment on someone who just gave a chunk of change to God. However, the story tells us that some others sold items and gave 100% to the church. This couple donated a percentage of the proceeds but–and here’s the kicker–intended others to think they had given it all.

Have you ever thought about how this story my apply to you? Frankly, I haven’t given it much thought. I don’t have much resources to sell and give to God. But, G. Campbell Morgan‘s thoughts on the passage bring the core of the problem to light

The Church has never been harmed or hindered by opposition from without; it has been perpetually harmed and hindered by perils from within.

Let it be carefully remembered that the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not that of refusing to contribute….Neither was it that of refusing to give all.

Wherein then lay the sin? …The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was the sin of pretending that part was all….The sin of Ananias and Sapphira is that of attempting, by confession of the mouth, or song of the lips, to make it appear that things are, as they really are not.

Morgan right rightly points out the heart of the problem: Pretense. Or, if you prefer, hypocrisy. Pretending to be someone of character when it isn’t true; pretending to feel something when you don’t; pretending to be spiritual when not connected to God; pretending to care about someone to their face while despising them in the heart. Sounds like a spiritual form of plagiarism.

If we are honest, we pretend all the time. We smile when we are angry. We say, “that’s okay,” when we don’t mean it. Now, I should point out that there are times when we don’t feel something but we act in a way that honors what we believe. For example, I may sing praises to God at church when feeling disconnected from him. I may help my son with homework when I would rather do anything else. That is not pretense. It would be hypocrisy only if I were to present myself to others as one close to God or tell my son that I love doing homework with him.

Let us work hard to make our mouths and hearts line up–especially if we have any leadership position. Sometimes we may need to be silent rather than pretend. Other times we may need to be more vocal about what is really going on inside us.

And let us consider soberly what Morgan says about today’s church:

The Church’s administration to-day is not what it was, or there might be many dead men and women at the end of some services.

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Preaching to the 20%?


I’m representing Biblical Seminary this weekend at the Shepherd Press Marriage & Family conference being held in Harrisburg. Dave Harvey opened the conference with a very good sermon on showing mercy and kindness to family members. He stressed the importance of Luke 6:36 and the need to show mercy to sinners just as God does for us. This goes against our typical human desires for revenge or at least punishment for the misdeeds of others.

But, without taking anything away from the good sermon I found myself asking this question. How would ______ hear the call to have mercy on a sinner spouse. ______ represents a person I know who has been emotionally and financially abused by her husband. She finally was able to bring truth to light and has a reprieve from his sin while he is living with his parents. However, she faces strong pressure by others to reconcile (despite little evidence of true repentance in the husband).  Knowing what I know about this woman, I suspect she would feel more pressure to have mercy and allow her husband to return to the home.

I think most sermons really preach to the 80%. 80% hear this and recognize that mercy may be shown in numerous ways. Even allowing truth to come to light is an act of mercy. Mercy may be treating someone better than they deserve but may not mean playing the part of the fool and thinking that a few tears and words are enough. But what of the 20% who are weighed down with guilt and assume that a general principle must be applied in a very black/white manner? How do we care for them when exhorting all Christians on to the Gospel saturated life?

I want to reiterate that I think Dave Harvey did a good job. I do think that it may be too easy for the rest of us to assume that the more vulnerable among us will be able to nuance the big virtues of the Christian faith; that they will know that to emphasize one (e.g., truth-telling) does not mean a rejection of another (e.g., forgiveness).

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