Become What Thou Art

I have enjoyed teaching New Testament Theology this last week. Even though I was feeling sick that week, I did not feel sick while I was teaching.. Biblical Theology and Pastoral (iterative) Theology are my two favorite theologies. I can understand why people like Systematic Theology— but for me, I likes the enlivenment of close proximity to revelation (for Biblical Theology) or ministry (for Practical Theology). Right or wrong, I find Systematic Theology a bit dusty.

We were going through Ladd’s book, “A Theology of the New Testament.” (Yes, I now there are newer books… but since my specialty is missions, not theology, I figured it best to go with a tried and true classic.)

laddtheology

I had always been told that the term “justification” is a legal (or forensic) term. As such, to be justified, God recognizes that we deserve a declaration of GUILTY, but because of the act of Christ, we are declared NOT GUILTY. In essence it is an act of fiction. Justification then leads to us being declared righteous. If righteousness means sinlessness, then this declaration of righteousness is also an act of fiction.

Nothing wrong with a little fiction, even a double fiction, but I appreciated Ladd’s take on it, as well as the work of McGrath in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (DPL). The Greek term for justify and righteousness has the same root– linking them together. That is not so important except that it is doubtful that one should separate the two– righteousness is directly related to being justified. But of more importance is that Paul was connecting righteousness with the Old Testament (Hebrew) concept of Righteousness. This might be doubted by those who believe that Paul created the concept of justification out of nothing. But for those of us who see Paul as working in the tandem with the teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, this should be obvious. And since Paul uses OT imagery/illustrations such as Abraham, Adam, and quoting Habakkuk to reinforce his views, to understand Paul’s view of justification and righteousness, we should look backwards.

McGrath in DPL (page 518) suggests the Hebrew term (tsedeq) for righteousness translates better as “rightness” or conforming to expected norms (as opposed to sinless perfection). Add to that Peter Stuhlmacher (Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification (2001)) who notes righteousness in the Old Testament indicates “that justification results from an action of God whereby an individual is set in a right relationship with God.” (p. 19-20) Stuhlmacher finds a number of references in Paul’s writings that indicate that this is exactly what Paul is talking about, righteousness as a concept understood in relational terms.. That is:

Justification means to declare righteous

Righteousness means to have a right relationship with God

“God does not treat a sinner as though he were righteous; he is in fact righteous. Through Christ he has entered into a new relationship with God and is in fact righteous in terms of this relationship.” (Ladd, 445)

This relational view makes sense of a lot. In the Bible we are told to be righteous, yet also told that we already are righteous. In other words, we are called to be what we already are. We are in a right relationship with God because of Christ… now we are live according to that relationship. Paul says that we are saved… children of God, while telling us to work out our salvation. It is also consistent with Paul’s view of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit indwells us and sanctifies us… but in our failings we are not told to ask for more filling of the Holy Spirit. Rather, we are to conform ourselves to the Spirit– the Spirit we already have. Bultmann’s quote well describes Paul’s ethics, and his view of justification/righteousness for Christians: “Become what thou art.”

“Become what thou art” is far different with Bultmann than with how Nietzsche used the phrase. In Christ, we are declared righteous.  This is a statement of fact, not fiction since we now have a right relationship with God. Now we are called to live out that reality… becoming what we (through the work of Christ) already are.

bultmann

 

 

The Problem of Forgiveness

Why should we forgive? In our counseling center, I have had so many tell me, we should forgive because God tells us we MUST. You might think that is enough. But it really isn’t, because when we are given a rule that we don’t like we look to how close we can get to the boundary– how close we can be to bad (vengeful, bitter, unforgiving–where we want to be) while still being good (where we are supposed to be). More effectively, we look for moral loopholes.the-changing-face-of-horse-racing-171

Loophole #1.  Forgiveness is only to be given if there is repentance (and some add confession). This answer is given by some.  This view is expressed HERE. The passage  that views is based on is Luke 17:3-4.

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sistersins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.
                                                                                 -Luke 17:3-4
But is repentance an absolute requirement for forgiveness? There are three problems with this interpretation.
  • This passage appears to provide a loophole (if it is a loophole) that the rest of the Bible doesn’t.  That should, at a minimum, give one pause for concern as to its interpretation.
  • The context (Luke 17) is about the dangers of a person erring, and another being complicit in that erring. Within the context the emphasis is on the importance of restoration, NOT on how to avoid forgiving. That is supported by the fact that the passage says what to do if the other person repents. It, however, gives NO explicit guidance on what to do if there is no (or “inadequate” demonstration of) repentance.
  • The Greek word that is translated forgive is apheisis (the form of the word in verse 4, a different form in verse 3) only loosely translates as forgive. The general idea of the term is to release, remit, let loose. As such, it goes beyond the English term “forgive,” except in certain specific contexts– such as “to forgive a debt.” Rather, the term is more like. “Forgive and Forget (and release from consequences, if possible)”.

In counseling, when we tell people to forgive, we are not telling people to revoke all issues of justice, or telling people to forget wrongs. We are talking about releasing bitterness and bitterness. Forgiveness of this type is done for the benefit of the one who was harmed, not the one who did the harm.

Loophole #2.  Forgiveness should be withheld for the sake of justice. The argument would be that God is a God of Justice. It may be granted that God is also a God of mercy… but mercy does not negate justice… perhaps.

The problem with this is, I hope pretty obvious and built off of the answer to the first loophole:

  • Forgiveness, as we are here using it, the wronged conscious choice to release bitterness and vengeance. It is not necessarily to hold someone unaccountable. To forgive does not necessarily mean to forget or fail to set up appropriate safeguards/boundaries.
  • When the wronged hold bitterness/vengeance in his or her heart, it is likely that appropriate justice will not be carried out. Revenge or unfocused lashing out is more likely.

For me, though, the reason to forgive is not so much about ethics, Biblical interpretation, or issues of justice. The biggest issue is what unforgiveness does to the wronged. It creates a second harming. I deal with people who are unwilling to forgive and those who are dealing with unforgiving people. It really does destroy lives and relationships… and the epicenter of the destruction is in the unforgiving victim rather than the wrongdoer.

Sometimes I almost want to tell people to forgive just to make sure that the wrongdoer is miserable. With unforgiveness, the wrongdoer is likely to suffer, but often less than the victim. I have seen it too many times.

 

Five Dangers of Neglecting Exegesis in the Field

I was looking over my notes from a “Biblical Theology-NT” class I took something like 13 years ago, taught by Dr. Kevin Daugherty.  I will be teaching this same course at a different school as a 1-week module. In my notes there was several reasons why it is dangerous to neglect exegesis, or at least not take it seriously. They are worth sharing I think (I added the 5th one):

The dangers of neglecting exegesis are:

  1.  The danger of assumption:   “I don’t need to do proper exegesis because the Holy Spirit will reveal all things to me.” Is that true? Perhaps, perhaps not. Is it a good assumption? Absolutely not. God rarely rewards laziness. And, in fact, laziness is often the unspoken reason behind doing poor research.  A second assumption made in this case is the assumption that the individual is able to discern what the Spirit declares a passage to mean, over what the individual wants the passage to mean. Essentially, we are making assumptions about God’s actions that may not be justified, and making assumptions about our own discernment that is absolutely not justified.
  2. The danger of eisegesis: There is a great danger that one will force upon the text a meaning that is not there. Without attention to the context of the text, the tendency is to interpret Scripture in accordance with our own contexts. The result is that the text is forced to say things it does not really say. It should not be surprising if this kind of “eisegesis” results in interpretations that are pleasing to the reader or confirm him or her own prior beliefs.
  3. The danger of missed meaning: As a direct result of #2, the real meaning of the text is missed. It may not always mean a wrong theology. In some cases it can be the right theology from the wrong text. The real meaning, further, is then lost– a double loss. For example, Revelation 3:20 is commonly used for evangelism. It sounds right, but almost certainly that is not the meaning of the verse. So good theology (regarding Jesus seeking the lost) is applied to the wrong verse (the first loss), and the real meaning (about God seeking to restore communion with errant churches) is missed (the second loss).
  4. The danger of lost credibility: We live in a time when alternative interpretations of the Scriptures abound. The Philippines, for example, is flooded by religious groups. Some fit the classic definition of cults, while others are Christian although horribly sloppy in their theology.  These groups commonly practice very poor exegesis (and often rely on Christians not having the competence to know better). While it is true that even Christians who practice poor exegesis can be “orthodox” in their theology (“the right theology from the wrong text”), when we practice uncontextual reading, we lose our right to criticize cults when they do the same thing.
  5. The danger of dependency: In the mission field, it is the responsibility of ministers, layleaders, and missionaries to train up the next generation. This training is not simply in learning the articles of faith, or the catechism, of their denomination. It is to help them study well and to contextualize well. Failure to do this can lead to syncretism or schisms. But it can also lead to dependency, where Christians are unable to study for themselves and so rely on others to study for them. It is scary how many people I come across who explain their beliefs by quoting people on “Christian” television. What a horrible horrible HORRIBLE place to seek godly wisdom. We need to take exegesis seriously so that we can model that and train others to do it for themselves rather than become dependent on others (regardless of whether the “others” are good or bad).

Do you have any thoughts on any other dangers to add?

Choosing our Words Carefully in Ministry

I watched a TED talk, as well as the 2016 movie “Arrival” recently. Both of them had a somewhat similar theme… that the way we think is guided strongly by the language and labels we use.

TED talk, Keith Chen’s “Could Your Language Affect the Way You Save Money,” noted a strange correlation between health and saving practicestimeless of people who are first language speakers in “tenseless” languages, versus those in “tense” languages. That is, looking at those in which verbs change based on past, present, and future (tense) and those in which verbs do not change (tenseless). The theory seems a bit far-fetched but there is a fairly strong correlation. For example, English has tenses for time:

I went to the store

I go to the store

I will go to the store

Some other languages, like in fact most other Germanic languages, are tenseless. Time is still addressed but not in the verb:

I go to the store yesterday

I go to the store now.

I go to the store next week.

Tenseless languages tend to have users that save better and have practices that lead to better health later in life. This correlation has a tantalizing theory as far as causation. Could it be that for tenseless languages, action is seen in more of a timeless way? Therefore, subconsciously there is a slightly lesser tendency to disconnect our activity today from the future. In other words, perhaps those from tenseless languages don’t feel that the sowing of today is as disconnected from the reaping of tomorrow.

Of course, this can be overdone. Benjamin Whorf suggested a time relativism of language where a culture that has a “timeless” worldview may have a timeless language. He used the example of the Hopi language. However, the example appears to be misguided a bit since the Hopi language can still distinguish between past, present, and future. Rather, language and thought connection tends to be more subtle..

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that how mfhsutq24qdiyjw767fx0tawe structure and use language will guide or influence how we think and how we behave. A classic example comes from fire investigations. A man is in a room that is suddenly engulfed in flames. Luckily he survived and when the investigator talks to him, he discovers that the survivor was smoking when the fire started. The investigator asks him if the lit cigarette could have caused the fire, the man replies, “I don’t see how, there was nothing in that room but a bunch of empty cans.” But what does it really mean “empty cans?” Is anything truly empty? In fact, those cans were full of highly flammable fumes. That and the lit cigarette came together to cause the fire. The man labelled the cans as empty, and in common usage he used the term “empty” correctly. However, the term in his mind was connected with “harmless” or “safe” and that led to behavior that was foolhardy.

Again though, one must avoid taking this too far. Some OT scholars had in the past suggested that the ancient Hebrews only thought in concrete terms… did not think abstractly… because the Hebrew language is built on concrete, rather than abstract, terms. That’s flawed. Every language, as far as we know, still deals with issues of time because we as humans need to separate activities of planning/preparation, from action, from recall/remembrance. Likewise all humans need to deal with abstract concepts whether we know it or not. Languages that do not have abstract terms have no problem with abstract concepts— that’s what metaphors do. Read Psalm 1 or Psalm 23 to see how concrete terms can be used to address highly abstract thoughts. In the movie Arrival, aliens give a timeless language to humans that is supposed to open one’s mind to timeless thought. One can think and recall timelessly (including “remember the future”) because the language “reprograms” the mind (if done early enough) to think timelessly.That also seems to take things too far (as far as we can tell) even though time in some ways is a mental construct. Language nudges our behavior and thought… and our behavior and thought nudges our language, but the causation is not normally dramatic.

What about us in ministry? I teach at a Protestant seminary in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. I said in my class, “Interreligious Dialogue with Asian Religions”:

“Please, I ask you, stop saying things like this to other people– ‘I used to be Catholic, but now I am Christian.’ Just stop saying that. People of other faiths around the world think that Christians are a strange disconnected, fighting lot. Why reinforce that?  If you want to say ‘I used to be a Catholic Christian, but now I am a _________ Christian,” that is fine. Choose your words carefully.

I know people that like the fact that the People’s Republic of China recognizes several religions, and two of those recognized are ‘Catholics’ and ‘Christians.’ Why feel good that a nation has legislated division of our faith? And why feel good that we came to China with such animosity that Chinese non-Christians figured that we are two distinct faiths? If we think that keeping a line of demarcation in China is good, wouldn’t it be better at least to support new labels such as “Catholic Christians” and “Protestant Christians”?

Here in the Philippines the term ‘Born Again’ gets thrown around a bit loosely. There is nothing wrong with the term I guess. It is a metaphor for the rebirth (another metaphor) associated with following Christ. The problem is that the term has drifted over time so that often “born again” now means, “individuals or denominational groups that associate being a Christian with saying the Sinner’s Prayer.” There is no Biblical correlation with saying a specific prayer and being recognized by God as His child. I am not against the Sinner’s Prayer… it encapsulates the declaration of repentance and allegiance to Christ. However, because of the reinterpretation of “Born Again,” it is often assumed that those that don’t use that term, or those that don’t associate following Christ to the Sinner’s Prayer, are not saved… are not Christians. And likewise, those who have said the Sinner’s Prayer, regardless of their age, understanding, motivation, or interpretation, are often believed to be regenerated, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The term “Born Again” is not bad, but it’s careless usage has led to incorrect thoughts and behavior.

More humorously, people sometimes ask, “Is your denomination ‘Spirit-filled?'” I am tempted to say, “No my denomination is Spirit-empty,” or perhaps “Spirit-filling” or “Spirit-sharing.” After all, the concept of the Holy Spirit indwelling, to say nothing of ‘filling,’ an institution is so far away from sound theology that it doesn’t really deserve a serious response. What they mean by the question, really however, is “Does your church promote upbeat and ecstatic worship, and theologize such behavior suggesting that it directly correlates to one’s relationship with God?” In that case I could simply say, No and No. But the sloppiness of the language results in such a corresponding sloppiness of thought that there is no way to answer it both truthfully, and in such a way that the questioner would understand. Language can both clarify and obfuscate.

Consider a different case. What about language we use for non-Christians. Are there undesirable ramifications for the language we use… often unwittingly? Consider a few… some are commonly used, and some far less. But what pictures come into your mind when you read these. And if those labels are used for THEM, do those labels affect how we picture US?

  • The Unsaved
  • The Lost
  • The Unregenerate
  • Pagans
  • Heathens
  • The non-Elect
  • Sinners
  • The Unreached
  • Those Jesus Misses Most
  • The Mission Field
  • The World
  • Children of Darkness
  • Seekers

Some of terms are quite pejorative. If I was speaking in church and said,

“We are surrounded by Sinners, children of darkness,” versus

“We are surrounded by our mission field of the unreached, those Jesus misses most,”

does the imagery in our head, the attitude in our heart, or the motivation toward action change?

 

Lilliput and Blefuscu– Us versus Them

Lilliput and Blefuscu were two neighboring peoples in the book “Gulliver’s Travels.” The book was written by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). In the story, the two empires share much in common, including a common history, a common vernacular language, a common racial identity (at least in comparison to other peoples of the world), and a common religion. However, over time divisions increased until the time that Lemuel Gulliver visited. The biggest dividing issue was heresy. According to their shared religion, holy writ, and prophet, an egg should be opened at “the convenient end.” But what is the convenient end? There are three obvious choices:

  • Small end of the egg (legal constraint)
  • Large end of the egg (legal constraint)
  • Whatever end a person happens to find convenient (personal freedom)

The prophet of their faith was long dead so he could not be asked. As is typical, those wanting to show their faithful adherence to faith gravitated to the legal constraints rather than to freedom to show that they had more piety than others. This led to growing animosity and violence.

This does make me wonder. Why does animosity tie to disagreement. Why couldn’t the two empires live peacefully with disagreement. Or why did the beliefs lead to separation based on national lines of separation. This does not automatically happen… but it does commonly happen. The why I suppose I have to leave that to the experts. But, in general terms, we are social beings, and culture-forming beings. As such, we develop groups that are identified as US or THEM

We tend to polarize. We form attachments for a number of reasons. For example, we have family members– and with family members we accept sizable disagreements. You might say, for example, “Oh, you know Uncle Will. You know what a narrow-minded bigot he is. But… he is STILL family.” However, in complex societies there are a larger number of voluntary groups that we are part of. And some groups that were at one time considered not to be voluntary (one’s community, one’s nationality, or one’s religion) have become increasingly voluntary. With voluntary groups, there is a tendency to join with people we like or with people we agree with— and we tend to end up liking the people we agree with and agreeing with the people we like.  It is a process of polarization.

Polarization is “a sharp division, as of a population or group, into opposing factions.”

There are a lot of reasons for group polarization. For those interested, I would suggest reading “Social Psychology in Christian Perspective” by Angela M. Sabates.

But in much simpler terms. Consider the figure here. polarization-chart

The X-Axis shows degree of cognitive dissonance— ranging from disagreement to agreement. The Y-Axis is an affective scale from dislike to like. People want to simplify their lives into two groups: US (shown in green) and THEM (shown in red). For US, we like to like people we like and agree with. For THEM, we like to dislike people we disagree with.

We struggle in the yellow regions. We are uncomfortable liking people we disagree with, and we are uncomfortable with disliking people we agree with. We feel pressure to shift people into the green or red regions. Sometimes it gets quite silly. Look at social media and look at the horrible things that people will say about people or groups that they disagree with— people they really don’t even know. This is especially strong for groups— based on a principle called the “discontinuity effect” We can hate groups like we can no one person. It was noted in 1930s Germany, that many many Germans hated Jews. But when asked about Jews who lived in their neighborhood, it was more common to get a response like “Oh, they are okay I guess… for Jews.” The removal of a personal connection did not decrease animosity for the group, it actually increased it.

Consider Evangelism for a moment. In evangelism, the assumption is that the potential respondent disagrees with the evangelist. On the “polarization chart” shown in the figure, the two left quadrants apply. In the lower left, where there is animosity/dislike between the two, the two are already in a stable relationship (based on disagreement and dislike). It is unlikely that the evangelist can do much, at least in the short-term to change things. Of course, the Holy Spirit can do what we cannot… but animosity and disagreement is a difficult thing to change.

On the other hand, if there is a positive relationship/attachment between the two, the upper left, the situation is unstable. It can remain long-term, but there is pressure to move out of that quadrant. The respondent will feel a desire to change the relationship to either green (agreeing with the evangelist) or to red (changing the relationship to disaffection).

Consider Mentoring for a moment. In a mentoring relationship, the assumption is that the two, mentor and mentee, are in agreement generally. Therefore, on the polarization chart, the right quadrants apply. If the relationship is positive, with good attachment, this is a stable position, being in the green quadrant. However, if the relationship is more one of dislike, it is in the yellow quadrant– an unstable position. Resolution comes when the relationship is pushed either to green or to red.

Essentially, in ministry, it is important to develop healthy positive relationships both with Christians and non-Christians. Having a positive relationship does not automatically mean one will have a positive influence… but it certainly increases the likelihood of a positive influence on the other.

 

Church– A Safe Place for Unsafe Conversations?

I was watching a TED Talk of Bob Mankoff, the Cartoon (“Idea Drawings”) Editor at The New Yorker. He was talking about the anatomy of a humor cartoon… and humor in general. It was both fun and informative (You can click on it HERE).

He described effective humor in terms of Tension or Conflict. One brings together two ideas… or even two unrelated areas of life, that don’t fit. In a sense this is what is done with metaphors. So humor and metaphors are related… perhaps even on the same spectrum… but metaphors are more for providing insight, while humor is more to produce a visceral, emotional response. Frankly though, both good humor and a good metaphor should have qualities of the other. Humor also has another tension or conflict as well– it exists in terms of DANGER AND SAFETY… or VIOLATION AND BENIGNITY.

These terms really don’t go together all that well, do they? But consider three examples:

  • Rollercoaster. A roller coaster is a device that throws the rider around, has big accelerations, twists, and turns that could potentially kill the participant. However, a rollercoaster has all sorts of safety devices, inspections, and carefully analyzed and tested design elements to ensure safety of the riders. Without the danger, it becomes a kiddee ride (ever try the “turning teacups”). For many of us, that would not be enjoyable. On the other hand, most all of us would not enjoy a rollercoaster that has severe design or maintenance issues that make it truly risky to ride.
  • Horror movies. Horror movies try to scare the viewer, while maintaining an impenetrable barrier between the movie world and the viewer world.
  • Zoo. Bob Mankoff’s example is going to the zoo to see a tiger. The experience is enjoyable if and only if there is a real, and perhaps menacing, tiger, as well as bars or other barriers to provide safety for the visitor. If a visitor looks into the cage and finds no tiger, the experience is unsatisfying. But it is also unsatisfying (in fact terrifying) if the tiger is between the visitor and the bars, rather than the bars being between the tiger and the visitor.

What relevance does this have on this blog page? Consider spiritual conversations? Such conversations can be:tiger-face-4

  • Evangelistic in nature perhaps, or
  • Ethical in nature (determining right versus wrong), or
  • Issues regarding people’s religious or philosophical beliefs, or
  • Concerns regarding specific religions.

People can fall into a wide range of responses to this. At one extreme are those who consider such conversations as BORING. Others see them as DANGEROUS… SCARY.

For one extreme the issue is pretty obvious… people think “spiritual conversations” are boring if they are seen as irrelevant to themselves. However, spiritual matters have to do with the big issues of life:  How should I live? What is my purpose in life? What does the future hold? These are important and… dangerous… questions and concerns. Perhaps some people were presented with spiritual conversations as a Teacup ride or an empty cage. Spiritual concerns can get watered down to the point that they seems safe, benign, irrelevant. The content, the tiger, cannot be removed… but must be presented in such a way that it can be appreciated and valued… safely.

But let’s consider the other extreme for a moment. Some spiritual conversations are truly scary. I get that. Far too many people (Christians most definitely included) express spiritual conversations much like salesmen– hard-sell salesmen. I have literally heard “street evangelists” SCREAMING in the faces of passersby six inches separating noses (the uncaged tiger). I struggle to imagine who could think that being particularly effective. No one really wants honest doubts and concerns about life to be turned into a polemic sales pitch for a “spiritual product.”

In response to that, many people just avoid spiritual concerns. Many groups will have explicit or tacit rules… NO RELIGION OR POLITICS DISCUSSED HERE. In other cases, spiritual conversations may be discussed but so hobbled or watered down to seem benign, as noted before, moving from the ethical to the aesthetic.

safe-place

What are needed are safe places to deal with unsafe concerns. Really, the best place for this SHOULD be the church. People should be able to go to any church and express theological, or spiritual, or existential doubts/concerns and find those who are willing to accept them, acknowledge their struggle,  and help them work through them… sharing burdens with each other.  A SAFE PLACE TO DEAL WITH THAT WHICH IS UNSAFE. But churches typically squash such conversations— choosing to drift to being an unsafe place to be for those with concerns… or avoiding unsafe issues, choosing safe or benign issues only.

There is a price to pay for this. An interest article was written based on research from Case Western University. A summary of it is on a blog post

Avoiding Spiritual Issues May Be Bad for Mental Health

Consider a quote from this article:

According to the study, struggling with spiritual issues did not lead to mental health issues. The problem was avoidance of challenging topics. Mental health was more likely to decline when people feared engaging with challenging philosophical and spiritual issues.

The study determined avoidance was not an effective strategy for pushing away existential thoughts. Participants faced spiritual questions even when they attempted to suppress them. The study’s authors suggest continually being plagued by existential questions can be psychologically upsetting, particularly to people who find these questions socially unacceptable.

I would argue that this avoidance strategy comes, in part, because of their inability to find safe people and safe places to deal with these unsafe topics.

Church should be like a comic in The New Yorker (or many places where ideas are expressed humorously to challenge how with think and view things). It should be a place that is safe to bring ideas together that are unsafe or challenging. A place to think,  with the freedom to disagree… or be profoundly changed.

Pastoral Recovery- Knowing What’s Good For You…

I deal with a lot of missionaries andrecovery pastors who are suffering with burnout, with traumatization, with moral failure, with relationship break-down. There can be many reasons for this. Within classic ‘Biblical Counseling’ the answers tend to be along the line of:

  • “You need to ‘get right’ with God”
  • “You need to confess and repent”
  • “You need to work on your ‘quiet time,’ and other spiritual disciplines”

And really, all of these are true… to a point. The problem is that this system of thought commonly identifies a symptom and then guesses at a root cause. The symptom is any problem in the personal life, relational life, or ministerial life of the individual. The associated root cause is then seen as personal sin. While often a pretty good guess, there are important caveats.

 First:  While many problems are associated with personal sin… there are other sin-related causes. Two obvious ones: (a) The consequences of sin are often commonly experienced not only by the perpretrator of the sin, but by the victim of sin done unto him or her by another  Most people would cringe at the thought of blaming the rape victim in being raped, but doing exactly that, blaming the sufferer and playing Job’s ‘friends,’ is often Christians’ default mode. (b) The consequences of living in a generally sinful (fallen) world. Even here, Christians often try to find meaning (blame) for victims of natural disasters or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Second: Even when sin is personal, there often are root factors as to why the minister sinned. We often simplify things to the idea that the one who committed the sin is immature… or ‘given over to Satan.’ But essentially that is little more than washing our hands of the problem— a quick answer, a Procrustean Bed, that allows for a simple non-personalized response. But while sin may be inevitable, the specific temptation that a minister falls to is tied to very personal character or temperament issues, specific personal history, and unique circumstances. Why does a pastor burst into a rage during staff meetings? Why does a counselor gossip about patients he/she talked with in confidence? Why does a missionary act out sexually with those being discipled? To deny that these activities are sinful is simply denying the truth. On the other hand, to simply say that each needs to confess and repent, without addressing their unique personhood and situation is pastoral malpractice.

Third: Problems often occur when there is a “bad fit” in ministry. This is not really an issue of sin. Not everyone is molded for a specific ministry… and not every ministry is molded for a person.  We can talk about SHAPE in this (from Saddleback):

S – Spiritual Gifts – What has God supernaturally gifted me to do?
H – Heart – What do I have passion for and love to do?
A – Abilities – What natural talents and skills do I have?
P – Personality – Where does my personality best suit me to serve?
E – Experiences – What spiritual experiences have I had? What painful experiences
have I had? What educational experiences have I had? What ministry experiences
have I had?
Personally, I would also like to add another “S,” Sphere of Influence, making SHAPES. Often a minister has the wrong SHAPE (or SHAPES) for the ministry they serve in. This stressor will commonly create problems down the road.
I had a friend who was pastoring a church… and fighting developed and he left, went to another church and the same situation repeated two more times. Eventually he came to the conclusion that he did not fit the role of a pastor. What a nice realization! He could have confessed, repented, and gone on a spiritual retreat, and repeated the same problems in more churches… 4, 5, 6, 7…, but instead (drawing from the title of this blog) he decided that pastoring wasn’t good for him… and he does much better in lay ministry.
Unfortunately, Christians have close to 2000 years of history in developing a theology of “ministerial calling.” Very little of it has any discernible relationship to the Word of God. Often there is the belief that stepping out of professional ministry is rejecting God, or changing ministry is giving up. One could argue that the opposite is true. If God made us to be dynamic, growing, living beings involved in a walk with Christ (whether in green pastures, by still waters, or through the valley of the shadow of death), a failure to learn, change, and grow is much more a rejection of God. To not learn and repeat the same mistakes over and over again is truly giving up.  I think it is really a good time for Christians to seriously reevaluate the idea of ministerial calling.
But even if one stays in professional ministry, one does have to change at times. It is my personal belief that the Apostle John, when he got too old to go out and around and planting churches, became John the Elder (a person mentioned in early church history), at the church of Ephesus. Frankly, that only makes sense, and almost certainly other apostles would have done similarly if they weren’t directed into martyrdom.
My first several years in the Philippines, my wife and I worked in a ministry of medical mission events. It was a pretty good ministry and we got to be fairly competent at organizing them. The team we were part of, Dakilang Pag-Ibig DIADEM Ministries, did around 70 medical mission events in 5 years treating around 30,000 people. Not bad for a small group of volunteers with spotty funding. We did about one mission point a month. We eventually decided to step away from it for several reasons:
  • Our passions were different. We were more passionate for pastoral care (especially my wife) and training ministers (especially myself).
  • Our training got us good at doing medical missions, but it also got us more competent for other ministries that were not really possible for us to do when we started.
  • The stress got to us. Some might find this silly, as medical missions can be fairly relaxing for a few weeks… but then there is the stress of organizing the medicine, transportation, volunteers… and then the craziness of the actual event. During the 3-4 days before a medical event, my heart would jump with dread every time my phone would ring, and I feared that a doctor or dentist  or nurse was backing out, or a vehicle was suddenly not available. Some thrive on adrenaline and the craziness that much of international missions entails, but for my wife and I, we do better with ministry that still holds variety, but with more steadiness and reliability of work load.

Some ministries take one away from one’s family a lot. This is typically not good for the family… but the removal of support and accountability may not be good for minister either. Some jobs have set hours, while others challenge personal boundaries, especially in terms of personal time and space. Some jobs really need the right people or problems will occur. Some jobs, on the other hand, may need to change so they do not become “meat grinders” where ministers are run through, destroyed, and replaced.

A person who works with youth may become good with working with youth, but as he or she gets older, needs to transition from the apparent safety of doing what he or she is good at, and move towards multiplying self by training others.

A person may be placed in a position of counseling a lot of individuals of the opposite sex. Many struggle with this… but instead of establishing environmental or procedural safeguards, or perhaps limiting who the person counsels, he or she attempts to resist temptation, without doing anything to limit temptation. This is a recipe for disaster.
Essentially, when a minister fails, one can give the same answers that everyone gives, and help the failure not be dealt with, or recognize him or her as an individual who needs to be dealt with lovingly and uniquely. The minister needs to be helped to know what is good for himself/herself and others.
I have been involved with a lot of responses to ministers who have failed, sinned, or burned out. Some were handled well, some poorly. But some mistakes include:
  • Simply kicking the person out. That passes the problem somewhere else, and often leaves the minister in a worse position than before to grow, mature, and minister.
  • Simply do counseling. Counseling helps… but by itself is completely inadequate.
  • Simply calling for confession and repentance. Most often, the person did wrong or in some way failed, because they needed help and did not ask, or needed help, asked for help and did not get it. If no help is given, the problem is almost certain to recur.

The term “simply” is important, because a failed response is “simple.” Human beings are not simple. Human beings are holistic. As such, it needs a multiple level response. The response would vary depending on the circumstances… but common elements may include:

  • One-on-one counseling, perhaps along with family counseling, and counseling of direct and indirect victims.
  • Spiritual/ministerial mentor. Telling a minister to read the Bible more, pray more, or perhaps go on a spiritual retreat, is lazy. The minister needs to grow spiritually, and to do so in balance with ministry. This requires help from a mature mentor.
  • Accountability partners. Preferably several that care for the minister, and are willing to ask the tough questions while also being supportive.
  • Limited ministerial involvement (where power is limited, and time is limited to avoid temptations for abuse, or of burn-out)
  • Involvement in a nurturing church family. If a minister sinned in a public way in a church, it is likely that that church won’t be capable of being nurturing. (It might be nice if that fact was not true, but we have to deal with reality here.) Even going to another church may not make this work. Only some churches, sadly, are nurturing. Far to many are sources of stress and chaos.
  • Education/training/retooling. Often the minister needs to change. As such, he or she needs to be empowered to do so.
A multi-faceted response is important. Simple impersonal answers?  Not if you know what is good for you… or others.