Therapy is Not Advice

If you’ve read other entries on this blog you’ll notice that I frequently reflect on the process of therapy and try to describe it so you can have some idea of what to expect and how I work. Counseling is a complex process and there’s a lot of misinformation out there and I find that it works best when you and I are on the same page about what we are expecting. I want to share a quote I recently read that caused me to put the book down and audibly say, “Yes!” and then I also wrote “Yes!” in the margins of the page. The author, a psychologist named Jordan Peterson, put something to words that I have been trying to formulate and say for quite some time.

Psychotherapy is not advice. Advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with about something horrible and complicated wishes you would just shut up and go away. Advice is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his or her own intelligence. If you weren’t so stupid, after all, you wouldn’t have your stupid problems.

Psychotherapy is genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategizing. When you’re involved in a genuine conversation, you’re listening, and talking- but mostly listening. Listening is paying attention. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen. Sometimes if you listen to people they will even tell you what’s wrong with them. Sometimes they will even tell you how they plan to fix it. Sometimes that helps you fix something wrong with yourself.

Short and sweet, but it gets right to the point. I’m not interested in telling you what to do. There are many books for that and you have many people in your life, including yourself, who are already full of opinions and suggestions. What you need is to actually be listened to so that we can process and figure out who you are, what’s going on, and what you want to do. You’re simply too complex for me to listen to you for 30 minutes and somehow have the answer to a problem that took years to develop. Do you really want to be reduced and dismissed so quickly by me assuming that I’ve figured you out and know what you should do? I know this stance will make some of you uneasy.

I’m not interested in perpetuating the myth of therapist as all knowing. I’m a flawed human with my own blind spots and the limitations in knowledge that come from being a limited being. This doesn’t mean that I’m saying I offer nothing and that I’ll just be a blank slate either. The biggest knock on therapists when we’re caricatured is that the only thing we know how to do is ask, “And how did that make you feel?” The assumption in this caricature is that we ask because we don’t actually know what to do and have nothing to offer. But what if asking that question and caring about the answer is the best thing we could offer someone? I think part of the problem is that we’ve totally come to devalue listening well and have only come to value action and productivity. I’m trying to counteract that value system. I don’t think the performance based system is really helping anyone feel better or attain any measure of peace. What I frequently hear from clients is that they could have used a little more “And how did that make you feel?” from their parents and a lot less “Get your grades up” and “Why aren’t your chores done?” and “I’ll give you something to cry about.” No, I don’t want to perpetuate that in counseling of all places.

I am trained to listen well. (And I care!) I will give you feedback on what I’m seeing and feeling as we talk, and I will ask you good questions. I’m very curious about what’s going on with you and I want to help figure it out. I have specific training in things like sex addiction and trauma recovery and I have tools to help you heal from these things. But none of this is advice, and none of it will be offered quickly or simply as a coping tool. And I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I ultimately defer this process to God, trusting that He is the one who can see through all the complexity and provide the necessary words to move forward, if only we could both find a way to listen to Him as we’re listening to each other. He is always speaking truth and order into the chaos.

So my invitation to therapy is a genuine conversation and encounter. Listen to you soon.

Self Knowledge

The Johari Window and Irvin Yalom

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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.

What Should I Expect From Therapy?

I’ve recently seen a need to help clients understand more what therapy is and how best to use it.  There’s a lot of confusion or lack of knowledge in this area.  If you’ve seen counseling portrayed on tv and in movies please throw all of that out, like many things in the media, it is rarely accurate.  My wife can tell you that I usually sigh audibly when we're watching something and a counseling scene comes on.  But I digress.  Books and books could be written on this subject but I want to start by emphasizing 3 essentials that I have found to be important for clients to understand at the outset.

Counseling is a Relationship

Many clients are confused by the nature of the therapeutic relationship.  They have questions like,  “What is appropriate for you (the counselor) to share about yourself?”  “What is appropriate for me to share about myself?”  “How should I best use the therapy hour?”  “Do I just talk about what happened over the past week or are we talking about my childhood?”  “Do you decide what I need to work on or do I set my goals?”

I’ll start by saying that each hour we meet for therapy is your time, which means you have a lot of say in how the sessions will be structured.  There is no other relationship like therapy, in which you have the space to talk about whatever you need to without having to worry about whether you are talking too much.  I am a trained, confidential listener who is here to help.  I usually start therapy as more of a “blank slate”, meaning that I spend a lot of time listening and asking questions so I can get to know you and understand you.  It can be tempting to try and impress you with immediate advice or insights, but it is more important that you feel heard and understood before anything else happens.  I have a pretty firm belief that 80% of each session should be you talking and sharing and 20% should be me giving input, briefly educating, or asking more questions.  Some people like me to stay in that mode, others want more feedback and sharing about how I am experiencing the therapeutic relationship.  The key thing here that I want to emphasize again is that this is your time and this is a relationship, so I want to encourage you to process how therapy is going with me and how you are experiencing me.  I am a calm, laid back, quiet person and I don’t tend to show a ton of emotion, which has led some clients to wonder what’s going on in my mind.  This is a fine question to ask and one I enjoy answering! 

The therapeutic relationship is confusing largely because it lacks the typical mutuality and give and take of every other intimate relationship we cultivate, and it is a professional service that has an ending in mind when goals have been met.  But it is still a relationship, and we will be talking about some very intimate things as we meet.  You will hopefully find acceptance as we talk, and the opportunity to practice new ways of thinking and relating in a safe space.  Our sessions will mean something to me, and when therapy ends I will likely feel some sadness about no longer getting to talk and will wonder from time to time how you’re getting on out there in the world.

Counseling is at Times Painful, Hard Work

I also want to emphasize that therapy is hard work and it is painful emotionally, especially at first.  Many are surprised by this and drop out prematurely.  When you come in for counseling you are opening the lid on issues you have likely been avoiding or dealing with in unhealthy ways.  Part of my job may be to challenge some of your behaviors and thoughts.  I will be asking you to look at issues and to begin processing them, and for just about everyone, this is experienced as dysregulating at first.  I liken therapy to a bell shaped curve, where the initial phase is an uphill climb, but it does eventually peak and then move downhill to more peaceful and stable feelings.  So I encourage you not to give up just because it is hard or difficult at first.  Like anything in life, well-being will not be achieved without a fight.  Technology has given us the illusion that all things are instant, but things like relationships, healing, and moving toward maturity take time to grow. 

I’ll likely give you homework periodically- maybe a chapter or book to read or a writing exercise to process some emotions or a relationship in your life we have been talking about.  With many people I apply an approach called Lifespan Integration that will involve making a timeline of your life that we will use in our sessions.  All of this will require work and a willingness to face things in your past and begin changing things in your present.  The idea that the past should remain buried is frankly, a terrible one.  The longer I’ve counseled, the more clear it has become to me that the past dictates many of our current emotional responses, and if we ignore this we aren’t going to get anywhere.  Just giving you tools for how to respond differently to your spouse, for example, without getting at the roots of why you respond in a typical way each time a conflict comes up will give you relief for maybe a couple months until the strain of trying becomes too much and the old wounds open up once more.  There is a place for education, tools, and advice, but the proper order is after the younger parts of us have been cared for and are no longer getting activated each time we are in pain.

Counseling is a Commitment

The last thing I’ll say builds on the first two points- therapy is a commitment and it is not a superficial or quick process.  No relationship in your life thrives without some sense of commitment, and no growth happens without sustained effort.  Once we enter into treatment together, we are both committing to a period of hard work, of potentially having hard conversations where we challenge each other, and to growth.  I don’t want you to become dependent on me or in therapy for any longer than you need to be- it is my job to work myself out of a job.  But I encourage people once they start therapy to view it as entering a season of life, which would be at least 3 months of sustained effort.  I hope it is clear from what has come so far that I am not comfortable with quick, pat answers or with simply developing “coping tools.”  I do this work because I care about people and love to watch deep and lasting change take place.  Understanding these 3 elements before we begin will get us moving in this direction.

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.

Pride

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.

Honesty

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.

Surrender

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.

 

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.

Psychology
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.


 2014

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