Sunday, August 28, 2011

Within/Without...are they the same?

There must be a quiet place where all is in order, a place from which comes the energy that overcomes turbulence and is not intimidated by it."

As I was preparing some material to present for a retreat, I read Gordon MacDonald’s book
Ordering Your Private World. This book originally came out in 1984, with the latest revision being printed in 2003. MacDonald asks a very important question that often relates to an unseen issue in many people who come to counseling. Are you taking time regularly to order your inner life?

After describing what a Florida sinkhole looks like, he states "The Florida sinkhole is a physical picture of a spiritual problem with which many Western Christians must deal. As the pressure of life continues to grow in the first years of the 21st century there will be more people whose lives resemble a sinkhole, unless they gaze inward and ask themselves, Is there a private world beneath the noise and action at the surface? A world that needs to be explored and maintained? Can strength and resilience be developed that will bear up under the growing pressure at the surface?

Christ recognized the same problem when he accused the religious leaders of his day of being "white washed tombs." (Matt 23:27)They gave one appearance on the outside, but inwardly they were rotted (the dead body).

Stress and pressure in life eventually beings to reveal the emptiness within us as sin-fallen humans. Perhaps that is why God inspired several of the biblical writers to write about "tests of faith" as blessings, and something to rejoice about. Those problems, stresses, or "tests" often force us to see what is really inside our inner world, and to recognize the need to make changes to become a person of integrity. A dictionary definition of integrity is "a state of being whole or entire." Most chocolate bunnies don’t have integrity–they are hollow inside. Far too often we are like the bunny–we are not the same inside that we appear to be outside. When the tests come, if we are hollow inside, we will cave in. Our clients, too, often do not have the inner strength to deal with the issues of life.

Before we can truly help our clients "order their inner life," we must learn to do so in our own lives. MacDonald states: "If my private word is in order, it will be because I make a daily choice to monitor its state of orderliness." To order my inner life, I must know my "inner life" or my heart, as the Bible calls it. Not only do I need to know my inner heart, but I also need to know God’s heart, so I will know how to order my inner life.

If I am who I say I am (a Christian counselor, or even "a Christian"), it will require taking time daily to know the heart of God and to know my heart. Psalm 139 highlights how God knows my heart, my inner thoughts, and even my inner motivations. But do I know His heart? Hosea 6:6 reminds us (God speaking) "I don’t want your sacrifices, I want your love. I don’t want your offerings. I want you to know me." Making a choice to "order my inner life" means I take time to know God’s heart, and to know my own heart, so I can have courage and strength to believe and trust God, and choose God’s desires over my own. That courage and strength is the opposite of anxiety and depression that often overwhelms many people.

How do we do that? Of course, our primary revelation of God is from the Bible, so spending time in the Word is essential. Reading through the Bible every year is a great starting place, but we also need to be studying, memorizing, and meditating on God’s Word regularly. How do I come to know my heart? Journaling each day is a great way to become honest with myself and my heart motivations. There is something about expressing thoughts and emotions externally that enables us to see them more concretely. As I have processed my own latest "great stressor" in life, journaling through the Psalms has been a rich experience for me. Most of my journal entries are written as letters to God, containing segments of telling Him what is in my heart, segments of confession, and segments of praising and thanking Him for all He has done and will do.

MacDonald tells us "A disorganized spirit often means lack of inner serenity. For many Christians, what should be tranquility is in fact only numbness or emptiness." How many people come to counseling for this very reason? They can’t really identify what they need, or how to resolve their problem, so they come to a counselor.

Are you willing to pay the cost for an "ordered life?" Not only will you benefit from this choice, but those who come to you for help will benefit, and God will be glorified.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

10 Things I Want Counseling Students to Know

10 Things I Want Counseling Students to Know (as they start a new semester).
1.  God is always in control.  We often forget this, and begin trying to "fix" things ourselves...whether in our own lives, or in the lives of our clients.
2. It is ok to feel emotional pain. No doubt, pain in not fun, but sometimes it is a very important  part of healing. If I avoid pain, or help my clients avoid pain, I will miss an important element in the healing process, and may deny there is even a problem. All of us need to learn to accept pain and learn how to deal with it rather than running from it.
3. Knowing God and spending time with Him is more important than learning about Him.  I must keep a personal time with God daily as a priority. Just because you are studying here at the seminary or are taking a Bible course doesn’t mean you are building your relationship with God.
4. The Holy Spirit has been assigned the role of "convictor." Although I am charged to  "speak the truth in love," I also must be careful to not take over the role of the Holy Spirit.
5. Characteristic excellence glorifies God. In all I do--in all you do--do it with   excellence.  If  God has called me to study, then I must study with excellence. Sometimes that might mean taking fewer classes so I can learn more.
6. Discipline yourself to memorize Scripture. God's Word is living, and sharper than a "two-edged sword." God uses His Word to transform our thinking patterns, as well as emotional response patterns and behavioral patterns. I need God's Word in my life, just as my clients need God's Word.  It is more important than any other study I might complete.
7. Take time to get to know other students and your professors. God often works through others to reveal His character and truth.  This is a golden opportunity during your seminary days to build godly relationships.  Iron sharpens iron.
8. Develop a merciful response in your heart.  None of us are perfect, and humbling ourselves will allow us to become merciful.  If you do not have the gift of mercy, ask God to give you a merciful heart. (Matthew 9:13; Matthew 18:33)
9. If you are married, and if you have children, remember your spouse and children are your priority second only to God. Be sure you make time to invest in them and their needs.
10. Rejoice when you experience suffering (suffering can be as small as feeling lonely as you build relationships to financial stress to health problems). God uses suffering in our lives to draw us to himself, and to build His character and nature into us. (James 1:2).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

God's Holiness in Us

1 Peter 1:15-16 “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; (16) for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Have you ever had a relationship with someone who rubbed you the wrong way? It might be a family member, a coworker, or even a client or a client’s spouse. You know that find yourself being reactive or impatient with that person.  As counselors, we are trained to pay attention to our inner feelings and notice when we are responding reactively to our client or even a family member of our client. [If you have never felt this way toward a client, you may not have ever worked with someone who has narcissistic or borderline tendencies.] Moses struggled with the children of Israel in this way. It didn’t seem to matter how many times God showed His faithfulness to them, or Moses told them God’s commandments or directions, they still continued to whine, complain, and disobey.  Sometimes our “difficult person” may not be whining or complaining, but may have some other trait that irritates us.  It could be that they seem unable to recognize their own weaknesses, or they dig in their heels and refuse to make a change even when they knowledge changing would be a good thing. The important factor for us to consider is our response.

Mothers (myself included) often find ourselves being reactive with our children–“why can’t they just do what I ask?!!!! How many times do I have to tell them?” or “Why can’t they just do what they are suppose to do?”  Usually the persons we struggle the most with are those God has entrusted to our care or our shepherding. Jesus described himself as the good shepherd. (John 10:11). “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That whole concept of “dying to self” or “laying down my life” blossoms in the New Testament. Those God has entrusted to me in the circles of my life are the “sheep” He has given me.  That might be a new colleague at work, a new believer at church or someone God has called you to disciple, or even a new client.

In Numbers 20, once again the children of Israel came to a place where there was no water. They began blaming Moses and Aaron, declaring Moses and Aaron had brought them to this place to die. [Just as an aside–isn’t it so very painful to be accused of something you were not guilty of?] Moses and Aaron went to the entrance of the Tabernacle, and fell on their faces before the Lord.  We have shared the experience of going to the Lord about those we are working with (shepherding) who seem to never move forward, who keep repeating the same mistakes. Going to God, of course, was the right thing to do, and God gave Moses and Aaron instructions to assemble the people, speak to the rock, and water would pour out.

Numbers 20:9 says Moses did as he was told.  His actions were in obedience to the Lord. However, Moses struggled with the same thing we struggle with–our attitude. Numbers 20:10-11 “Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. ‘Listen, you rebels!’ he shouted. ‘Must we bring you water from this rock?’ (11) Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So all the people and their livestock drank their fill.”

God completed his commitment to Moses and Aaron --he did what he said he would do–bring water out of the rock. Moses obeyed by bringing the people to the rock, and using it as a source of water for the people.

Why, then, did God discipline Moses? Numbers 20:12 “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them!’”.  Whew! That is pretty strong disciplinary action!
Why was God so upset that Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to the rock?

God pointed out to Moses that he did not “demonstrate my holiness” to the people of Israel–and that was a lack of trust in God. For a long time I wondered what “striking the rock” instead of
speaking to the rock” had to do with demonstrating God’s holiness. Then as I thought about what Moses actually did differently, I realized maybe it had to do with his attitude, the condition of his heart. Perhaps Moses’ impatience with the people was the opposite of God’s patience–His character and His holiness. Moses obeyed in his actions, but his emotional response (attitude) was not consistent with God’s character and nature. God has long-lasting patience with us. He never gives up on us.  He continually works with us and patiently waits for us to learn to obey. When I am not patient with someone God has placed in my life (client, coworker, child, husband, etc), I am not demonstrating the character of God. Jesus displayed that same character of patience as he dealt with the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, even his own disciples.

Am I a good shepherd? Am I displaying God’s holiness to my client, my child, my coworker, my spouse? Or am I striking the rock and shouting at the person God has entrusted to me?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Why and Who of Suffering

Think about a time when you thought you couldn’t go any further, or you couldn’t make it to the end of whatever you were working on. For some of us, that might be a rather minor experience, such as “I thought I would not be able to finish the paper I was writing” or “I thought I couldn’t continue another day at my job with the conflict that was present.” For others, we may have experienced a time that we thought we couldn’t go on with life, that we didn’t have enough strength –physical or emotional–to continue on, such as the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship, or even the death of a long-term dream. Paul must have felt something like this when he wrote II Corinthians 1:8 “I think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and completely overwhelmed, and we thought we would never live through it.” (Italics mine).

We don’t typically think of Paul as being a person that had come to a place emotionally that he felt like he just wanted to “give up,” and that he would never be able to get past his current circumstances. But he did experience those emotions. Job experienced the same emotions and thoughts...that he could not go on living. Job, in Job 6, describes the depth of his pain: “my troubles...heavier than all the sands of the sea;” “poisoned arrows deep within my spirit;” “all God’s terrors are arrayed against me.”  He finalizes his description of his pain with these words: “But I do not have the strength to endure. I do not have a goal that encourages me to carry on” (Job 6:11).

Job then tells his friends they have not been helpful to him in his place of difficulty. (Job 6:14, 21) “One should be kind to a fainting friend, but you have accused me without the slightest fear of the Almighty.” and “You, too have proved to be of no help. You have seen my calamity, and you are afraid.”  Then Job states the cry of his heart (Job 7) that echos the cry every person has clamored  who finds themself dealing with suffering: “Why?”. (Job 7:19-21). “Why won’t you leave me alone–even for a moment? Have I sinned? What have I done to you, O watcher of all humanity? Why have you made me your target? Am I a burden to you? Why not just pardon my sin and take away my guilt? For soon I will lie down in the dust and die. When you look for me, I will be gone.”

Job’s friends continue to try to answer his question of “why,” all the while basically telling him he is guilty of some sin and God is punishing him. (Job 8-38). After all this conversation of accusations and Job continued to disagree with them and continued speaking the truth about God’s nature, God himself finally answered Job.

When you have been hurt, or in the pit of despair or struggling with a hopeless difficulty, haven’t you asked “why?”  It seems to be the universal need of all men and women to understand “why.”
When my husband and I recently encountered some difficult circumstances, for weeks our minds struggled and wrestled with “why.”  Almost every still moment that didn’t require focus of my mind, the question would return, along with the endless search for an answer to “why.’

God came to Job (Job 38-41) and spoke about a number of things with Job. But none of it concerned “why.” It was all about “Who” God is.  And that is the state of mind all of us must come to if we want to have peace in the midst of any circumstance that is difficult. We must focus on “Who” is in control, the nature of our God and his eternal love, and his power and wisdom. As we focus on the “Who” we realize that our “why” question really isn’t important...only that God is who he says he is, and will do what he says he will do. Then we will be able to agree with Job and proclaim (Job 42:2-3) “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you. You ask, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I. And I was talking about things I did not understand, things far too wonderful for me....(v 6) I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.”

As long as I have a “Who” (I AM), why doesn’t really matter.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Wrong Response to the Suffering of Others

A Wrong Response to the Suffering of Others

Have you ever expressed your emotions surrounding some difficulty you were experiencing, and the listener gave a “quick solution” answer? How did you feel? Responses such as  “God will take care of you,” or “God has a reason for this,” or (sometimes not verbalized)  “You must have some kind of sin in your life,” or “If you had only ____, you wouldn’t be experiencing this.”

God has given us a powerful case study of ineffective responses to those who are suffering in the book of Job. In Chapter 3, Job had gotten to the lowest point he had experienced so far. He began to express his emotions to his three friends who had been sitting with him silently for 7 days. Wisely, those first seven days they saw “his suffering was too great for words.” (Job 3:13).  After seven days, Job, in his desperation to express what he was feeling, began speaking, wishing he had never been born. He states “What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come to be. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; instead only trouble comes.” His friends began to respond with ineffective words. Eliphaz used two types of responses typical of how we might respond to someone struggling in the midst of a difficulty. He reported what he saw that has happened in the past (which contains truth), and he gave his theory about why Job was suffering (which contained partial truth).  Neither of these responses really helped Job.

Job 4:3-6 Eliphaz said “In the past you have encouraged many a troubled soul to trust in God [true]; you have supported those who were weak [true]. Your words have strengthened the fallen; you steadied those who wavered [all true]. (5) But now when trouble strikes, you faint and are broken [true]. (6) Does your reverence for God give you no confidence? Shouldn’t you believe that God will care for those who are upright?”

In Job 4:3-5 Eliphaz expressed truth–a description of the behavior he had observed in Job. As counselors, we often explore the behavior of the person. But rather than move from that exploration to giving an empathic response, Eliphaz began to speak his own thoughts and ideas.

In verse 6 he expressed two ideas that were his own theories. His first idea assumed that Job’s negative emotional responses meant he had no confidence in God.  Eliphaz didn’t express exactly what he believed Job should be believing God would do, but his second statement alluded to God taking care of Job materially and physically.

Obviously, in the midst of losing everything, including his health, Job didn’t see evidence of God taking care of him. Eliphaz’s second idea “that God will care for those who are upright” was an incomplete understanding of God and how He works. The theology of suffering in the Old Testament Jewish community that was commonly taught was based on the idea if you avoided sin, you would be blessed. Eliphaz continued to flesh out this idea in Job 4:7-11. No doubt there are numerous passages in the Old Testament when God states that blessing will come to those who obey him. However, the idea of what a ‘blessing” is may have been misunderstood. There are numerous servants of God who experiences long periods of not being “blessed” materially or physically (Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, to name a few).

Even if Eliphaz had only spoken his observations (verses 3-5), he still did not respond to the emotions of suffering Job was experiencing. Job responds with resistence to Eliphaz’s comments. Job 6:5 “Don’t I have a right to complain? Wild donkeys bray when they find no green grass, and oxen low when they have no food. (6) People complain when there is no salt in their food. And how tasteless is the uncooked white of an egg!”

How could Eliphaz have responded to Job’s suffering? An empathic response would have been something like “Job, your suffering is beyond what any man could deal with. This must the most difficult thing you have ever experienced in life. I can’t imagine the depth of despair and hopelessness you must be feeling.”

As Christian counselors, we must evaluate our responses to those who are suffering, and be sure we don’t fall into the trap Eliphaz illustrates.