An Unexpected Progression

The Bible can be confusing. I was reading in the book of Romans recently and I came across several verses that didn’t make sense to me. I’ve learned that when this happens, it’s usually a cue that these are verses I need to pay attention to and try to understand. Here’s the verse:

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4

There’s a progression being laid out here, and it sounds like it’s an important statement about the nature of how we find hope, but it didn’t make sense to me at first glance. I get the first 3 elements in the chain- suffering requires perseverance and this develops character, but how does having character lead to hope? It doesn’t seem immediately obvious.

The Connection Between Character and Hope

I started thinking of this progression that Paul writes about as a “cycle of hope” and that it is the remedy for what we understand in addiction circles as the “cycle of shame.” The shame cycle works like this:

  1. PAIN AGENT (Suffering)

  2. Beginning to fantasize or contemplate addictive or unhealthy behavior

  3. Dissociation- In the “fog” and no longer thinking clearly and rationally

  4. Ritual of seeking out the behavior

  5. Engage in the behavior

  6. Feel sense of shame or remorse

And once we hit that sense of shame, it can become a pain agent and so the cycle begins again and that sense of feeling trapped in an unwanted behavior becomes stronger and stronger. So let’s return to Romans. Paul is encouraging us to do something different when the pain agent shows up- to persevere. This is often the hardest thing to do when we’re in pain. It can feel like everything in us is crying out for an escape, and we all have many escapes in our back pocket that we have been using for years. But if we can feel something painful and just sit with it, or make a healthy choice like reaching out to someone or consciously caring for ourselves, something amazing happens- we discover that the pain does eventually pass. And if we string a series of these good decisions together we discover something else- that we are starting to form character. One of the insidious effects of addiction is that it stunts our maturity and growth and keeps us responding as we did when we first started relying on the behavior. It even changes the reward circuits in our brains! This is because instead of developing character we rely on our preferred coping skill to escape suffering. Once we commit to developing character, it becomes easier to make different decisions and we are establishing new habits and cycles. We can rewire our brains and create new pathways, but it takes time and consistency. Now instead of landing on shame at the end of all of this, we land on hope. We like who we are becoming. We don’t have to hide from those around us. There are no secrets. We’re more connected to our lives and to our relationships. We feel able to manage pain if it shows up again. Isn’t all this incredibly hopeful?

Hope Does Not Put Us to Shame

I left out vs 5 earlier because it’s the best part-

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

This is the good news, we don’t have to break the cycle of shame in our own power. We can’t actually, so that would just be setting us up for further shame and disappointment if we believed we could. And this is the hope that Christianity offers, which I don’t see how you get if you’re just relying on yourself to make a change. God’s love is poured into our hearts and we have the Holy Spirit living in us, enabling us to endure suffering in the comfort of ongoing connection to God and in the hope of knowing that we are being transformed into people of character while this is going on. Many people enter counseling feeling truly hopeless about their circumstances and the loops that they are in, and I have a lot of empathy for that. It’s a terrible feeling. But we need to know that the remedy to hopelessness is not a quick solution to our suffering or simply finding ways to make it go away. The first step is to feel the suffering, to listen to it, to make good choices within it, and to allow it to create a new character in us. God’s love is pouring into us as we do this. This is how we find hope.

Self Knowledge

The Johari Window and Irvin Yalom


I've been spending time recently with the book The Gift of Therapy by psychiatrist Irvin Yalom.  Ever since I first read his work in graduate school, I have returned often to his writing to be refreshed and reminded why therapy works and is meaningful for both therapist and client.  He talks a lot about the importance of what he calls "here and now" direct feedback to clients.  This refers to the therapist letting the client know how they are experiencing them and the relationship in the context of the counseling session.  For example, if someone has difficulty opening up in their personal life, the therapist will likely feel this and encounter barriers as they ask questions and try to get the client to talk.  It's important to find the right time to notice this and bring it up in a session.  To illustrate why this is helpful, Yalom references a tool called the Johari Window which is seen a the top of this post.

When a therapist lets a client know how they are experiencing them and gives feedback, they are helping to expand box 3- blind spots.  One of the main things that creates distress for people is failure to be successful in their relationships, which is often due to patterns of relating that tend to create problems.  Whether it's dominating conversations and not listening well, or avoiding intimacy, or being critical, these patterns or styles of relating will show up in the counseling room.  It's important for clients to receive this feedback so that they can become aware of their blind spots.  I want to emphasize that this feedback isn't given from a smug place of judgment or therapist superiority, far from it!  It is given out of a desire on my part to connect in the counseling relationship and to kindly uncover blind spots.

Through deeper exploration of the past, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and even dreams, we can become more aware of the unknown self from box 4.  These are the parts of ourselves that we're unaware of and have either buried or never uncovered.  Whenever a client takes a risk and voices something they have always kept secret or have felt ashamed of, they are doing good work with box 2, the hidden self.  I am always honored and touched when clients take a chance with me and let me know that what I've just heard has never been shared anywhere else.  This is a huge step and often results in greater transparency with other important people in their lives outside of therapy.

I share this with you today to highlight a theme I return to often in this blog- the importance of our relationship in the counseling process.  It is the primary change agent.  Many people come into therapy thinking the change agent is learning new information like coping skills, or gaining insight into the source of their problems.  These are certainly elements of therapy, but they are not the primary element.  What happens between you and I each week as we meet and talk is the place where self awareness grows, new and healing types of interactions take place, and change occurs.  Relationships take time to develop and so this means that therapy is a process and journey.  It is one I look forward to taking with each of you.

Pulled Out of the Pit

"I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him." Psalm 40:1-3

The church I attend chooses a Psalm each month- we sing it weekly and reflect on it over the course of the month.  It's been a rich activity for me to sit in a passage much longer than I usually do, and I am amazed at the depth of meaning that can come from a single verse or verses.  This month it is Psalm 40, and as I was meditating on the first few verses I saw some important things that apply to the human condition, especially those seeking counseling.

What Does a Pit Look Like?

Many of us can relate to being in a slimy pit.  Every time I read this passage, I get a clear image of being trapped at the bottom of a well, sitting in sludge.  This is a helpless position.  When you are in a pit, there's nothing you can do to get out.  This is where many of us go astray- we continue to pretend we are either not in a pit or that we can thrash about enough or keep devising schemes to get out.  As long as we're doing any of this, we aren't getting out.  If you read any of my other entries, you'll see that I regularly harp on the dangers of denial and defensiveness, because I see those behaviors as incredibly damaging to a person's ability to grow and receive help.  So it is in this Psalm.  We must acknowledge we are in the pit and be willing to be lifted out.

Second, I think this language of slime and mud is important.  There's something about being in the pit that causes us to feel shamed and dirty about it- this is especially true if it relates to sexual behavior, but it also applies to depression, anxiety, or any other ongoing struggle we wish we could just shake off.  Sexual sin and abuse can cause us to feel slimed unlike anything else, even when we intellectually know that the abuse wasn't our fault or that we've been forgiven.  It leaves an emotional experience of being dirty.  We feel that we can never confess or be forgiven, and nothing can quiet the voice of self contempt that runs through our minds all day long each day.  This Psalm understands the human condition, how we all feel that we are stuck in the mud if we stop and are honest about who we are and what's happened to us.  This is what being willing to be helpless uncovers, and I understand why many don't want to look at it.

How Do We Get Out?

So what is our responsibility?  Verse 1 tells us to wait, and it also tells us to keep talking to God and crying out for help.  It's important to note here that you could be waiting a long time.  Suffering is often mysterious and goes on much longer than we would want it to, then at other times it is lifted quickly.  If you haven't acknowledged the reality of the pit, and you aren't waiting for help, you likely will be so busy devising plans and struggling that you will not be calling out to God.  You will be stuck in a fruitless loop of self defeating behavior.  Start by being honest with those close to you about where you are mentally and emotionally.  Ask for prayer and don't try to come up with immediate solutions.  This Psalm, like many others, tells us that God turns toward us when we cry out to him.  He is then the one who accomplishes the lifting out as well as supplying us with a new song to sing once we are on solid ground again.

Once you have been lifted out, it can be easy to end up back in the sludge.  In some ways that is our default mode, to climb back down into the pit and return to the old addiction, the old behavior pattern, the old negative thoughts.  We avoid this by singing a new song- this means many things, more than I can unpack here, but for starters it means to be grateful and to continue talking about and focusing on God's amazing work of bringing you out of the pit.  When you lose gratitude, you are already starting to climb into the pit and sing your old song of resentment, hopelessness, bitterness, denial, and false trust in yourself.  When you're grateful, you remain aware of the pit and your dependence on God to stay out of it.  

This is very good news, and I love how clear and practical the bible presents itself to be when we slow down and read it verse by verse to see what it is telling us!  We know that God is in the business of pulling people out of pits, because that is what Jesus' life, death, and resurrection was all about.  He descended into the pit for us so that we could have a solid rock to stand on.  This is our fundamental state when we accept Christ- He is our rock and our salvation.  It is because of this that Jesus is committed to continuing to climb down and lift us out each time we crawl back in.  

If you're in the pit right now, please keep waiting patiently, and keep crying out and acknowledging the desperateness of your condition.  Be willing to feel the pain of your situation, whether you caused it or it was done to you.  Be willing to wait longer than you would choose to if you were the one in control.  Help has come.  We've seen it on the cross and we know it will come again.  Now we are grateful whether we are in the pit or out of it.  This is the victory of the Christian life.

2 Pathways

Proverbs 4:11-12- "I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths.  When you walk your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble."

Proverbs 4:19- "But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble."

Proverbs 3:23-26-"Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble.  When you lie down you will not be afraid; when you lie down your sleep will be sweet.  Have  no fear of sudden disaster or the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the Lord will be at your side and will keep your foot from being snared."

Choose Your Own Adventure

I really enjoyed reading choose your own adventure books as a kid, especially if they involved escaping from mummies, zombies, or pirates.  The goal was to keep making choices that would keep you alive.  It was a terrible feeling to turn to a page only to see that the monster caught you or you got poisoned or your parents grounded you.  A lot of bad things could happen.  The goal was to make it out alive, to take the safest path possible.  If you didn't, you could just turn back to the last page where you were safe and make a different choice.  Amazingly, in life we do often seem to get second chances, but as I see every day in my office, sometimes chances run out.  Marriages end, people lose jobs, teenagers are estranged from parents, people sink further into addiction.  

I've been chewing on the first 7 chapters of the book of Proverbs for a little while now and I'm noticing how frequently they talk about choices.  The writer often uses language about light and darkness, freedom to walk/run vs stumbling or being ensared, and a stable path vs a crumbling one that leads a person straight to death.  According to Proverbs, the stakes are high.

2 Paths

The first and perhaps most important thing to grasp is that there are actually two different paths you can travel down, with very different results.  It's hard for us to believe that our actions will have consequences.  The world spends a lot of time promoting unstable paths and promising things on it that may feel good in the short term but never deliver.  We have largely moved away from an agricultural, local economy and so it is harder for us to understand the concepts of sowing and reaping, of diligent effort leading to delayed results.  Because I spend so much time working with people on the issue of sexual addiction, I want to run this issue through that filter, but I hope you'll see that it applies to any pattern of unhealthy choices.

Sexual addiction starts with what often seem to be innocuous choices.  We're told to achieve as many sexual conquests as possible, to have fun, to be liberated.  We find that porn is an amazing escape, a place of beauty and fantasy.  Proverbs 7 paints an incredibly realistic picture of sexual temptation as offering an amazing meal, comforts like we've never known, and the promise that we will never be caught and no one will know.  The path starts out feeling like we may actually be walking on something pretty satisfying and stable.

But soon you find that your foot is ensnared.  Perhaps your spouse is hurt by your behavior and wants you to stop.  Maybe you have started to have sexual difficulties because you've programmed your brain to respond to fantasy instead of reality.  If you come from a faith background you have likely often felt guilt and distance from God as a result of these behaviors.  Whatever the reason, you realize it's time to stop.  But now you can't.  Proverbs 5:22 says, "The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sin hold them fast."  You now enter into a cycle of trying to be free but continuing to return to the old behaviors, what some writers call the noose of addiction.  As Proverbs points out, you now begin to live in fear- fear of discovery, fear of failure, fear of sudden ruin and exposure.  You look around and realize that long ago you left the stable path in the sunshine.  The picture I see is the difference between running a race during the day on a track compared to stumbling along the side of a winding, crumbling mountain pass in the middle of the night, flirting with death.

Choose the Stable Path

Proverbs starts by spending so much time contrasting these two paths and warning about the difference between the two because we have such a hard time believing on an emotional and experiential level that the second path will harm us.  Even once we've felt consequences we quickly forget.  People in the world seem to be having a great time and the wicked are prospering and advancing.  Some part of us still feels we can't live without masturbation or the high from porn.  But Proverbs again and again urges us to write wisdom on the tablets of our hearts.  This means to move it from external, intellectual knowledge written on a piece of paper, to being internalized and etched into our very being.  This is to believe on a deep level that God's ways are best and to make choices accordingly.  

I was trained by Dr. Weiss to have people write thank you and goodbye letters to their addiction at the start of treatment, and it is something I utilize with almost everybody.  This is to come to a place where you understand why you initially sought the addictive behaviors and how they helped you, but that now you have discovered they were not really your friend and have only brought destruction.  God is holding out his hands and pleading with us to take him at his word, to not have to discover everything the hard way, to find life instead of death.  Even if you have gone way further on this path than you intended, God is offering you a way out.  Won't you pray that wisdom will be written on your heart so that you can walk in light, stability, blessedness and peace?

Proverbs 4:26-27- "Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.  Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil."

Proverbs 6:23-"For this command is a lamp, this teaching is a light, and correction and instruction are the way to life."

Calm Under Fire

Ok I'll admit it.  I am a pretty devoted fan of the ABC reality show The Bachelor and I watch it every week with my wife.  Let the judgment rain down upon me, I can handle it.  The show certainly has it's trashy moments, and the premise is bizarre at best.  30 single women come to a mansion vying for the love and attention of 1 man and he proposes to one of them at the end of the show.  I usually turn off my "counseling" brain when I'm not at work because it would be too exhausting to have it on at all times and no one would want to be around me, but one of the main reasons I like this show is because it provides really fascinating glimpses into relational dynamics- how the women befriend one another or don't and why some women click with the bachelor and others don't.  The aspect of the show that is getting my attention today is how we respond under stress and emotional turmoil.

It Brought Out the Worst in Me

You will repeatedly hear contestants on this show talk about how they had no idea how to handle the situations it presented and how it brought out parts of them they had no idea existed and didn't like.  This is on television for the world to see, and many viewers love judging the characters for flying off the handle or being obnoxious.  But this show is touching on the truth that for all of us, when something touches on our wounds or insecurities, bad things can happen.  It's amazing how many of the contestants talk about feeling worthless or unlovable.  Usually, the closer we are to someone, the more power they have to touch on these wounds, especially if they are a spouse or someone we're romantically interested in.  The only difference between us and the unfortunate contestants on the show is that our daily poor responses to emotional upset are not broadcast.

Healing Wounds

So how will we find a way to respond differently when we're feeling rejected, attacked, worthless?  I would suggest that whenever something in the present triggers a strong emotional response that it is likely connected to an unhealed wound in the past.  We all long for acceptance and security, and God designed it that we would come to experience this through our parents and in relationship with Him.  Our parents are very important in our development.  Many people want to downplay the role of parents or the role of their past in general and they dismiss therapy because it seems to be so focused on the past.  There's a lot that could be said in response to this, but for the sake of brevity I will just ask "How is that working out for you?  Are you able by sheer force of will to have a great marriage or change your behavior?  When your spouse hurts you are you able to respond exactly as you would like?  When you are on the show The Bachelor and another woman steals away the guy you've been talking to for 2 minutes and have only just met and you lose it for the next several hours, do you think it is only related to what just happened or could it be tapping into something deeper?"  Ok that last question might not apply to you but I hope you get the point.  I once read a helpful analogy that our lives are like a train- if the train derails off the tracks at age 10 by the time we are 40 we will be very far from our original destination.  You cannot just redirect the train to start traveling in the right direction.  You must go back to where it went off the rails and move on from there.

Even in the best of families, we all have wounds because we all have sin and there's no such thing as perfect parents.  Abuse is horrendous and usually easily recalled, but it is harder to wrap our heads around lack of nurturing, physical affection, and verbal affirmation.  By the time we are adults we have received so many slights, disappointments, and outright wounds that it's only by God's grace we can function in society.  We need to be willing to look at those wounds and to do the necessary work so that they can be healed and we can stop getting triggered and set off by those around us in the present.  This does not mean that we criticize our parents or become victims and whiners.  It means having the courage and honesty to understand where we might have gone off the rails and taking responsibility for it. 

I've recently synthesized steps toward healing from a variety of books I have read over the years that I will post following this one to begin to give you some idea of what that process looks like.  For now, my main aim is to help you see that your current situation isn't the only problem and that there is benefit to looking at your past and finding healing there.


I play tennis each week.  We play doubles and it is organized as a ladder system, which means that if you win the most games out of the four players present, you move up to the next highest group, and if you win the least you move down.  I'm a decent player and I hover around the 2nd or 3rd group from the top.  Every once in a while I make it to the top group, but I can never win enough games to stay up there.  I found myself not looking forward to the weeks I would get to the top and feeling really irritable, both while playing and then afterwards.  What was going on here?  It was just tennis after all.  There's no reason it should affect my mood that much- unless there was something deeper going on.


James Macdonald says, "The closest we can come to total honesty is to admit our inability to be truthful with the face we see in the mirror.  Personal honesty is too painful"  (Act Like Men, 44).  I'm still relatively young, but as I've gotten older, reality is setting in.  I'm realizing that I've told myself some stories about who I was and I've made a lot of excuses for myself.  If I didn't get the playing time I wanted on the high school basketball team it was easy to blame the coach for favoritism.  When I played tennis in college I told myself similar things, believing that I was being overlooked or that if I "really tried" and didn't care so much about my academics I would be the best on the team.  

Here in the present, I have been faced weekly with the reality that I'm just not quite as good as the guys at the top of the tennis ladder.  At first I fought this by thinking I was just rusty or doubles isn't my strength, singles is.  When that stopped working, I tried to avoid it and became more and more irritable.  But eventually I had no choice but to accept reality, and it has been freeing.  As I've done so, I have been able to revise my athletic history and let go of a lot of bitterness toward coaches and teammates.  I'm not a dominant athlete and I never will be.  I have limitations.  There will always be many who are smarter, faster, and stronger.

So why am I going on about my athletic history?  It was good for me to acknowledge reality in this area, but gaining clarity in this area led me deeper to seeing the pride behind much of my behavior and with it, my tendency to defend and excuse myself.

We Are All Defense Attorneys

When the Holy Spirit shows us an area that needs repentance, we must overcome the instinct to defend ourselves.  We must silence the little lawyer who steps out from a dark closet in our minds, pleading, "My client is not so bad."  Your defense attorney will defend you until the day you die- and if you listen to him you will never see what is wrong in you nor face what needs to change.  For you to succeed in warfare, your self preservation instincts must be submitted to the Lord Jesus, for Christ alone is your true advocate- Francis Frangipane in The Three Battlegrounds, 24.

Behind every attempt to defend, justify, and flee reality is pride.  This shows up in our relationships.  How do you respond when your spouse criticizes you?  How do you respond when your boss calls you in for a performance review or a good friend calls you out on a behavior pattern they've noticed?  When you are consciously aware of a failing or pattern of sin in your life, how much effort do you put into hiding it from others?  Are you quick to confess and ask for help or do you justify the behavior?  I see this all day long in my office, and it grieves me.  This is the essence of finger pointing and escalating conflict. I have discovered a rule in my own life and in counseling- If someone criticizes you about something, some part of it is probably true.  It is in your best interest to default towards humility and repentance rather than defensiveness and self righteousness.  One path takes you to God every time, the other takes you out into deep and unsafe waters. 

Each time we let our defense attorney have the floor, we are inviting darkness into our life and we are avoiding the freeing light of humility and confession.  Frangipane goes further and says, "The strength of humility is that it builds a spiritual defense around your soul, prohibiting strife, competition, and many of life's irritations from stealing your peace...Remember, Satan fears virtue.  He is terrified of humility; he hates it because humility is the surrender of the soul to the Lord, and the devil is terrified of Jesus Christ."

Be Free

So a couple weeks ago I made it back into the top group and these things were consciously on my mind as I played.  I had a blast that week and I also played the best I've ever played in that group.  I kept inwardly repeating to myself reminders that I didn't have to be the best and admiring the skill of the other players when they hit great shots.  If this story was about bolstering my pride you would think it ends with this finally being the week I won enough games to stay in the top group.  It wasn't.  Those guys are still better players than me.  But I felt free that night and there was no trace of irritability as I left the court.  This is a feeling I want to carry around with me wherever I go, and it is one you can have as well.  Cling to humility and radical self honesty in your life.


High Places

Reading through the Old Testament can be depressing at times.  I've been going through 1 and 2 Kings and it's basically a long list of kings who seemed to completely disregard God.  I was especially struck by the repeated phrase, "He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from the sins of his father, which he had caused Israel to commit."  Even kings who somewhat had it together were described like this, "He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Uzziah had done.  The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there" (2 Kings 15:34-35).  God repeatedly warned the people that this disobedience was damaging and would have consequences, which are summed up in 17:15- "They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless."

I've developed the habit of trying to see myself in the Israelite's behavior.  It's so easy to distance yourself and dismiss their behavior as foolish, but this is to miss the Word's incisive application to our lives.  Why would they put so much energy into worshiping gods of wood and stone when they had the living God?  One of the keys in applying this to ourselves is the high places.


Most of us don't outright reject God, at least not consciously.  We tell ourselves that we love and trust Him, and we make an effort to be loving to our families and involved in our local faith community.  We may even cut out behaviors we know are distancing us from God- I hear a lot of people say things in couples sessions like, "What's the problem?  I come home from work every night, I'm not drinking or having any affair or anything!  What do they want from me?"

What keeps us from true growth in our relationship with God is that we're still holding onto our high places.  Watchman Nee puts it this way:

If we give ourselves unreservedly to God, many adjustments may have to be made: in family, or business, or church relationships, or in the matter of our personal views.  God will not let anything of ourselves remain...we admit that many of us still have controversies with the Lord.  He wants something, while we want something else.  Many things we dare not look into, dare not pray about, dare not even think about, lest we lose our peace.  We can evade the issue in this way, but to do so will bring us out of the will of God.  -The Normal Christian Life, 101.

It's an issue of complete surrender.  The undoing of the Israelites is described this way- "Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols."  Did you know that it's possible to do that?  Often when a client gets stuck in therapy it is because they have hit a point where they are being asked to let a high place go and they don't want to.  This is the sex addict who knows he is powerless in the face of temptation but still keeps the smartphone, internet, and television access, telling himself it's not necessary to go that far and he can stop any time or that being part of a recovery group is for other people but not him.  This is the spouse who can't let go of the pride of being right about an issue and offer an apology.  This is the person who holds onto bitterness towards those who have wronged them in the past.  This is the person who cannot stop worrying about money. The list goes on and on.

A Positive Example

Finally in 2 Kings 22-24 we see a king who gets it.  

Josiah got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem...Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did- with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.

It's almost exhausting to read the detailed account of all the idols, temples, and high places he went around to destroy.  He killed pagan priests and after burning idols he scattered the dust over graves to defile the former worship sites.  There were no half measures with Josiah.  This is the kind of obedience that pleases the Lord, and it is the kind of obedience we're called to.  (Side note: please don't kill anyone or scatter ashes in any graveyards after reading this)

 I would ask you to genuinely search your heart and talk to God about this.  Is there anything you're upset with God about or a prayer that is not being answered to your liking?  What do you feel is keeping you from being truly content and happy in your life?  Alternately, what do you have that you feel you couldn't possibly live without?  Are you witholding something from God?  What are you most defensive and easily angered about?  What repetitive behaviors are you unable to stop?  What do you get most excited about?  What gives you hope for the future?

Each of these questions could be a clue to your high place.  If you can't think of anything, I'm sure your spouse can point you in the right direction.  

A Personal Closing Word

To give you a further idea of what I'm talking about I'll share a personal example.  I've been asking myself a lot of these questions.  What's popped up for me is that my high place is an expectation for the quality of life I should have, a belief that God owes me ease in my circumstances.  It's about comfort.  I shouldn't have to struggle financially or live far away from friends and family.  I should be able to vacation where and when I choose.  To hold onto this high place leads to irritation with my wife when she doesn't make my life easier, fantasies about living elsewhere that pull me away from my calling and purposes here, and keep me praying about selfish things instead of interceding for others or growing in holiness.  To allow this high place to continue for years could lead to addictions, affairs, bitterness.  I don't think I'm exaggerating when I project that out because I see it in my office all the time.

This is serious stuff my friends.  Don't worship worthless things and become worthless.  Let God talk to you about your high place (believe me you'll get an almost instant answer if you actually want one) and be ready to lay it down for something much better- the peace and joy that comes from loving God with all your soul and strength.


The Sleepy Hollow Fire

Here in Wenatchee, Washington it has been an eventful couple of days.  A fire started yesterday in the afternoon and quickly moved along the hillside towards town, destroying around 24 homes and catching in several buildings downtown.  Earlier today there was a threat of an ammonia leak and warnings to stay inside.  As I write this, I don’t know the extent of the damage.  It seems the fires are no longer spreading, but they are still burning and there is concern that the wind could whip them into a frenzy if it picks up.

I need to process this fire.  It has shaken me up.

My house hasn’t burned down and I am safe.  I’m thankful for this!  But you should know that until November 2013 I spent the entirety of my life along the east coast.  They don’t have wildfires.  There were severe snows and hurricane threats periodically, but they rarely directly touched my life.  Living out west in an area susceptible to fires is a different experience entirely.  One of the things I’ve loved about being out west is the sheer wildness of it, the imposing peaks, the winding highways through passes, the reminders that I’m small.  But there’s another side to that coin that I don’t like as much and it is called fire.  I’ve had to ask myself over the past few days- “Can I stand to live in a place where there’s a very real possibility each fire season that I could lose everything?”

Uncertainty and Fear

 As my wife and I realized the fire wasn’t abating and was getting closer, we went for a brief drive up into the hills across the river to get an idea of what was actually going on.  Seeing the lines of fire along the ridges was shocking.  It was a primal scene.  Even worse was seeing flames erupt from buildings several miles from our house.  I felt very small and extremely helpless.  I was witnessing a force of nature.  It was no longer “out there” as in some disaster you see in the news or hear about secondhand.  I was watching it spread in my town and wondering how it was ever going to stop.

After we got home we turned on the news and discovered that evacuations were happening directly to the north and west of us.  You know that question, “If your house was on fire what would you grab?”  I always thought of that as a nice thought exercise, again one I wouldn’t have to actually consider.  But as I looked out our back window and could see nothing but flames on the hillside, we readied ourselves for a quick escape.  As we packed, I was struck by how little I felt the need to bring.  I was mainly concerned with my journals, letters from family and friends, pictures, and a few books that have meant a lot to me.

We were not evacuated, so we went to bed reluctantly at 3:30 AM, continuing to nervously glance out the window and check for evacuation notices.  We prayed a simple prayer before several fitful hours of sleep, and I was struck by something my wife Tiffany said to God.  She thanked Him that no matter what happened to us or our belongings, we had Him.


 And that’s what it always comes back to doesn’t it?  I was given another opportunity to realize my insignificance both personally and in my material possessions.  I was scared.  I couldn’t imagine the suffering of those that had actually lost their homes.  But I needed to be redirected, to see beyond the flames to the God of the universe, and to know that my life, now and forever is in His hands. 

This is not a new insight.  We know how suffering, loss, and moments of fear can give us a fresh dose of perspective.  I have a renewed desire not to take anything for granted.  People woke on Sunday morning like it was a perfectly normal day and by that evening they were fleeing their homes.  I was also reminded not to hold onto anything too tight.  You don’t get to take it with you, at some point in this life it may be taken from you, and most of it doesn’t matter anyway.  But last night these things I’ve thought about primarily as intellectual, head knowledge, shifted to emotional experience for me.  I pray I don’t forget the truth of it.  We’re such interesting and stubborn creatures.  Well, I won’t speak for you.  I’m mostly amazed at myself that it takes something like a town catching on fire to make me stop and actually take in deeper truths.  And by tomorrow I fear I will have forgotten it and started worrying about petty things, focused again on my comfort.  Let it not be so!

“Whom have in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  Psalm 73:25-26

Mixed Messages

 This is going to be one of those entries where I'm an old man waving his cane at those darn kids.  For some reason as I've been listening to pop on the radio, I've been paying closer attention to the lyrics instead of mindlessly rocking out to the catchy tunes, and as I listened and tried to make sense of them my irritation built.

Relational Confusion

Take Sam Smith's song Stay With Me.  He is a relatively new artist, but has become popular quickly, appearing on Saturday Night Live and non stop on most top 40 radio stations.  Here's the chorus:
Oh, won't you stay with me?
Cause you're all I need
This ain't love it's clear to see
But darling, stay with me
Then there's the boy band One Direction and their song Story of My Life whose chorus goes like this:
The story of my life I take her home
I drive all night
To keep her warm and time-
Is frozen
The Story of my life I give her hope
I spend her love until she’s broke inside
The story of my life
I found myself scratching my head as I listened to these songs.  They're so catchy it's easy to miss the fact that neither song makes any sense.  What are they about?  The message I get from both (look up the rest of the lyrics if you are also confused) is something along the lines of "I love you, need you, and want to be known and loved in return, but I don't actually want you or need you and I'm going to hurt you or leave the relationship."

This concept is found in movies like Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached, both of which center around friends who start having casual sex to "get their needs met" only to discover that they develop feelings for one another and want a committed relationship.  The thing that makes these movies confusing is that they are sending out two messages- one is positive and affirms that sex and emotional connection go together and cannot be separated.  At the same time, most of the dialogue, humor, and coolness of the characters hinges on the fact that casual sex is happening. 

Double Bind

So why am I going on about this?  Because these songs and movies touch on a concept developed in the 1950s by researchers trying to understand communication in the development of schizophrenia and unhealthy family systems.  It's a complex idea and I can't do it justice in a short essay like this, but basically, a double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which two or more conflicting messages are sent out, with one message negating the other.  This means that the person receiving the message will be wrong no matter how they respond, and they are unable to confront the inherent dilemma.  The use of confusion makes them difficult to respond to and to resist.

Our culture is sending conflicting messages about how we are fulfilled in relationships.  The content is that committed and intimate relationships are what we need, but the overarching message is that sleeping around and having fun is what life is all about.  Do we use people or do we commit to them?  Teenagers don't know how to process, respond, or comment on this message.  They sense that they want to be truly seen and loved, but they are bombarded with messages to have as many hookups as possible.  Which is it?  This affects marriages as well.  We want to be committed to our spouse, but we always wonder if we'll be happier if we could be single again or have an affair.

We send this message to each other on a daily basis.  Come close, but not too close.  I want you to care about me, but don't ask anything of me.  Tell me everything, but I'll punish you if I don't like what I hear.  You're accepted unconditionally, but this is how we do things in this family.  This is the kind of stuff that makes people crazy!  My head has been spinning as I try to write this and make it coherent, because the contradictory messages create brain fog, confusion, and the need for a good nap.

I obviously can't change the film or music industry.  But I can urge you in your relationships to be clear about what you want and to pursue it wholeheartedly.  If your spouse is confusing you, ask for an explanation.  If you don't know what you want, figure it out.  Let's stop moving through life unaware of our thoughts, desires, and motives, allowing teenagers and twenty somethings to affect us with their bizarre messages about what's important. 

The power of a double bind lies in the fact that you can't comment on the contradictory messages.  I want to break through that and be clear: we were made to be known by God and our families, and to be committed and faithful.  Let culture punish you and tell you that you're outdated or missing all the fun.  You'll have what they really want.

How Do We Change?

I've been asking this question for what feels like my whole life, and I have formalized the pursuit of this question by studying Psychology and choosing counseling as a profession.  The question is both personal and relational.  I hardly expect to deal with a subject that has spilled much ink in one blog entry, but I offer what I hope will be a starting point on your journey to answer this question.

Beliefs about God
I build my foundation upon belief in God and the Bible.  If you aren't with me on this point, hang around and see if what follows makes any sense.  The essential thing to understand about God and change is seen in the reality of Jesus and the cross.  God seeks us out and saves us while we are completely apart from and disinterested in Him.  Once we are led to belief, it is God through the Holy Spirit who continues to move in us and help us grow despite our constant tendency to go our own way and live for ourselves.  We fundamentally resist change and are incapable of doing anything about it unless God acts, both before and after initial belief.

This last point is where a lot of the confusion about change begins. My thoughts on this topic are largely influenced by the writing of John and Paula Sandford, who have been blowing my mind recently with their material. 

When we trust in Christ, we are saved and our sins are no longer counted against us.  We belong to Christ.  This is the best news imaginable.  But unfortunately, the process of change and growth is just beginning.  Many are shocked to find that all of their old hangups and behaviors are still present after becoming a believer.  Growth is not complete and is still very difficult.

My training was largely influenced by cognitive behavioral therapy and experiential, client centered approaches.  What these essentially teach is that people can change if their thought patterns are adjusted and they have the right kinds of reinforcement following new behavior.  They also teach that people are inherently good, know what they need to grow, and are capable of making the right choices if they are validated and helped to unlock their potential.
This thinking isn't dominated by "secular" misguided psychology.  A common approach in the church is to assume that through the right kind of teaching and personal discipline, maybe praying harder, change will be possible.  There is danger here of falling into one of two heresies that have plagued the church.  Gnosticism: believing that we are made whole by right knowledge or thinking, and Pelagianism: believing that we can heal ourselves by our own efforts.  The two together say if we understand our formation we can heal ourselves.

So What Then?
I bought into these ideas.  They are very subtle, and they appeal to our belief in our independence and abilities.  I was baffled when in a session, a client would appear to have a breakthrough of understanding, yet return the next week with no changed behavior.  Insight is not enough.  Trying harder is not enough.  Think back to salvation- God accomplishes it.  It is the same with our growth and continual transformation.  God accomplishes it the same way He did in Christ, with one difference.  We must now partner with God in this process by continually dying and taking our old nature to the cross.  When you have an insight about your behavior or wrong pattern of thinking, don't stop there.  Confess it, repent, take it to the cross and kill it.  When I think about what my partnership with God in this process looks like, I see my main task as being disciplined to remember each and every day how dependent I am on God to maintain any changes He initiates.  So it's less about what I'm able to will myself to do, and more about remembering that I can't will myself to do anything.  I must simply get myself in God's presence on a daily basis.  This is my chief task.  He will do the rest.

We are not looking to build self esteem or teach new skills upon a solid personality structure.  We are looking for root systems that are diseased and need to be put to death.
John and Paula Sandford write, "We are always dealing not so much with what was done to us as our sinful responses.  Reactions of resentment and judgment, however hidden and forgotten in the heart, must find their way to the cross...habitual patterns of response must be transformed by repentance, death, and rebirth.  Otherwise, no permanent or even valuable change of personality will result."

We are talking about assisting the process of discovery so that the Holy Spirit can write understanding in the heart.  For that difficulty Paul prayed that "the eyes of the heart may be enlightened" (Eph 1:18).

If you are stuck somewhere, unhappy with your spouse, your children, your parents, your habits, with the fruit of your life, basically, if you are a member of the human race, this is the starting point for you.  Get help from others and from the Spirit to find the roots in your life that must continue to be put to death.  It's the only way.

Leaving Home

I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember, which has saved me from much trouble in life, and for that I’m immensely thankful.  I don’t need to have an incredible conversion story in which I left the biker gang to feel that my faith is real.  But there are times where this kind of longevity can create difficulties, and I need old truths to become fresh again.  When you’ve been hearing the same things since you were a child, it can be easy to take them for granted as abstract truths with no bearing on day to day life. 
Take the teaching that Jesus left the sweet, perfect communion with the Trinity in heaven and came to earth.  Phillipians 2:6 talking about Jesus says, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death-even death on a cross!”  Having heard this a million times, it is easy for me to take it all for granted, that Jesus left his home and gave up everything, making the ultimate sacrifice on the cross.  I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit that this reality usually elicits very little of a response from me.  I gloss over it, thinking there must be deeper truths about God to be explored.  After all, everyone knows what Christmas is all about, just like they know why we celebrate Easter.  But through my recent life experience, God was gracious enough to remind me of His love in coming to earth.  I want to draw your attention to the incredible ways that God uses our life experiences to teach us and relate to us.  
A Big Move
We just moved across the country to Washington from Maryland.  I’m very excited to be here, and it’s been something I’ve wanted for a long time.  But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.  A long move like that is loaded with stressors, and since we’ve been here I have faced the inevitable homesickness that comes with such a change.  Everything is new and strange, there are no familiar places from which to draw comfort, and the family and friends I often relied on are thousands of miles away.  I was feeling the pang of this sharply the other night.  As the Spirit often does, I heard a gentle voice reminding me that this is a tiny fraction of how Jesus must have felt on earth.  He is more intimately acquainted with homesickness, loneliness, and all other types of suffering than I ever will be.  As it is written, “Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”(Matthew 8:20)  I miss imperfect places and people, and I have moved to what I consider a desirable place.  Jesus left God’s side for the broken mess of earth and was surrounded by people who didn’t understand him at best and murdered him at worst.
Spurgeon puts it this way: “He solemnly determined that to offer a sufficient atoning sacrifice He must go the whole way, from the highest to the lowest, from the throne of highest glory to the cross of deepest woe.  He would not stop short of all He had undertaken to suffer for His people."  I was feeling sorry for myself, thinking of all I’d given up and in a flash, the teaching of the Incarnation became more than a children’s story.  This chastised, comforted, and led me to worship.  But it also taught me something about getting to know Jesus better.
Shared Experience
 We are relational creatures and so we need truths we can relate to.  Have you thought about this?  Part of the reason we are urged so often to imitate Christ and to share in His sufferings is because it helps us to draw closer to Him.  When you meet someone and discover that they have experienced the same things, even if they happened to visit the same restaurant we’ve been to once, we immediately feel closer to them, we get excited, and we have something to talk about.  If they went to the same school as us or lived in a town we lived in, we have even more to discuss.  If we knew some of the same people then we’re really jiving and beginning to think we could become friends.  We connect by sharing experiences.  I’m sure we all can connect with this feeling of being outside our comfort zone and the terror and loneliness that comes with it.  The God of the Universe made a bit of a cross country move himself, and He did it to save me.  I hope that now whenever I feel that ache, I will be reminded of what Jesus gave up for me and that I will long for heaven the same way that He did.  If we are unwilling to follow in the suffering of Christ, or be out on a limb, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to get to know Him more intimately.
The Incarnation is a call to follow His example in leaving comfort behind in order to accomplish something for the kingdom.  This is a unique way that I can imitate Christ.  Not all of us are called to make big moves, but we can make this truth fresh in our lives whenever we push aside our comforts and give something up in an effort to follow God’s purposes for our lives.  It is only a temporary leaving and homesickness anyway.  Jesus’ little trip made it possible for all of us to follow Him back to heaven in a little while.  Oh the things we will have to talk about.

It's New Years

I spent some time the other day looking over my journal entries from the past year.  Like many of you, I wanted to use the turning of the calendar as an opportunity to do some reflecting and to make some changes.  However, I didn't want to come up with the typical list of resolutions about eating less carbs or breaking free from the underground fight club.  I wanted to see if I actually learned anything over the last year and if I could apply it to my life in 2014.  I share this list because while it contains personal lessons, I think it could be easily applied to your situation.

The Weather Will Change

There's a saying in certain parts of the country that if you want the weather to change you just need to wait 15 minutes.  Sun quickly turns to rain, or wind suddenly dies down.  Even if your weather doesn't change rapidly, you can always count on the seasons to bring new conditions.  The first thing I noticed about my entries from the past year is that each time I wrote, whether it was a day or a month later, my emotions were always different.  I would be in abject despair about a certain situation only to discover a week later that it either resolved itself or God had given me the peace to deal with it.

Despite this obvious pattern, in each entry I behaved as if I completely lacked this perspective.  The issue of the moment dominated, and I didn't have the peace God wanted me to have.  For example, we just moved to Washington from Maryland, and many of my entries this past year were dominated by the theme of figuring out where to go next and how it was going to happen.  Now that we're here in Washington, I'm realizing that I wasted a lot of energy fretting about circumstances that not only resolved themselves, but emotions that did as well.

Watch Less TV

The second major theme I noticed is connected to the first.  I also discovered that I had a good bit of control over how quickly the emotional weather changed in my life.  There were times throughout the year where I "relapsed" and swung back to feelings of frustration or anxiety and I noticed a direct correlation between my ability to deal with life and how I'd been spending my time.

The entries littered with quotes from books I was reading or passages of Scripture I was reflecting on were the ones where I had a healthy perspective on life and a measure of contentment.  The weeks where I was just kind of getting by, going to work and watching a lot of Netflix seemed to be the times I completely lost perspective.  I had no idea this was the case until I looked back at the whole year.  I think it's important to note this because everything I'm saying is common sense, but when you're in the middle of it, when it's a Wednesday in February and you're just trying to make it through, you don't remember that how you spend your time matters.

 I was so lazy and self involved during the TV heavy weeks!  I think this is why many of our resolutions center around being more disciplined in some area of life, because we understand our harmful tendency to switch back to default mode.  What a contrast when I was spending time with God and fixing my gaze outward!  When I was focused on self, I was interested in what I was lacking and how this or that seemed unfair or unbearable and I needed it to change right now.  It was like two different people were writing each time, the mature version of me and the 4 year old having a tantrum, which is kind of embarrassing.  But it makes sense.  If I spent 30 minutes in a given week praying, reading about God, or listening to a sermon, that couldn't compete with the hours upon hours spent watching fictional characters live the good life and get all the happy endings I thought I was missing out on.


So I'm committing to emotional consistency in the coming year.  I'm realizing I have a lot of growing to do, and that I've been tossed about by the waves of life more than I care to admit.  Maybe you feel some of the same and want to get off the roller coaster in the coming year.  Remind yourself that your feelings will change, and take the steps towards peace and contentment by grounding yourself daily in Christ.

Me jogging: Ok, I made one stereotypical resolution