St. Paul as a “One Idea Man”?

Was St. Paul a healthy-minded missionary, or an obsessed madman. Let’s consider a few quotes from the 19th century and early 20th century to bring some consideration to this thought. This is not an idle consideration. Many see Paul as the ideal missionary. We should consider whether our ideals are, in fact, ideal.

One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea”

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Joshua Glibert Holland (1819-1881)

written by J.G. Holland back in the mid-1800s. His thesis is that individuals who obsess on one topic only develop a certain mentality that could be described as insanity. He suggests that the human mind was designed to be healthy with a number of ideas; not just one, much as the body is healthier with a range of foods rather than a diet of one food item or category. One time I transcribed that essay but now I can’t find it. Oh well. I have a paper copy in Sanders Union 6th Reader. It originally came from “Lessons in Life: A Series of Familiar Essays.”

 

The essay starts with a quote that expresses the idea:

“Cultivate the physical exclusively, and you have an athlete or a savage; the moral only, and you have an enthusiast or a maniac; the intellectual only, and you have a diseased oddity, it may be a monster. It is only by training all three together that the complete man can be formed.”   -Samuel Smiles

The idea that the “one idea man” is bad is far from universal. A quick websearch shows many who feel that this type of person is healthy and perhaps even bound for greatness. Within Christian circles, I will take another old and rather obscure quote:

being a man of one idea “… was not so bad after all; for were not the best and greatest men, who had achieved most for mankind, men of one idea? Paul himself was a man of one idea; so was the philanthropist Howard. A man of one idea was not to be dreaded, unless he had got a wrong one; if his one idea was a right one, let him have free course. The one idea system has done a great deal of good in this world.

<The Christian Messenger and Family Magazine, Volume II, p. 469.  (1846).>

So here are two very different ideas from the same period of time regarding a person who appears to be obsessed with a single idea. One possible way of synthesizing them is to note that Holland felt that God was a bit of an exception in that God is big enough (speaking about ‘God’ as idea in this context more than being) for a person to be single-minded about. Now, I don’t know about Howard listed above (perhaps John Howard, British philanthropist) applies, but regarding Paul, he had a singlemindedness to obeying God. However, during much of his ministry that singlemindedness led him to a wide range of activities. It led him to evangelism, churchplanting, leader development, writing, and charitable work. The ultimate idea

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Anton T. Boisen (1876-1965)

may have been singular but it manifested itself in a wide range of activities. However, later in life, Paul gained a more focused singlemindedness on the need to stand before and speak to Caesar. This took several years and (possible) resulted in his death. Perhaps that more narrow single idea was self-destructive.

 

I would add an additional voice, that of Anton Boisen. He was a theologian who founded Clinical Pastoral Orientation. He also had several bouts of mental illness where he spent time in mental hospitals. I think his perspective could be said to have bearing on this. In his autobiography,

As I look around me here and then try to analyze my own case, I see two main classes of insanity. In the one case there is some organic trouble, a defect in the brain tissue, some disorder in the nervous system, some disease of the blood. In the other there is no organic difficulty. The body is strong and the brain in good working order. The difficulty is rather n the disorganization of the patient’s world. Something has happened which has upset the foundations upon which his ordinary reasoning is based. Death or disappointment or sense of failure may have compelled a reconstruction of the patient’s world view from the bottom up, and the mind becomes dominated by the one idea which he has been trying to put in its proper place. That, I think, has been my trouble and I think it is the trouble with many others also.

          -Anton T. Boisen, “The Exploration of the Inner World– A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience”, 1936 original publication, 1962 edition, p. 10-11.

Boisen suggests that a toxic fascination on one idea is generally driven by deep trauma that fractures a person’s worldview. That trauma then can lead to fixation on one thing that he or she cannot properly integrate into a new whole person.

Considering Paul again, his Damascus experience would certainly be a fracturing of world view. This fracturing would also bring about guilt and trauma. However, the focus on God is a big enough “idea” for fixation. As such, he was “healthy” with such a fixation. One could argue that his refusal to listen to church leaders and go to Jerusalem, and then avoided early release from jail so the he could see the Emperor, perhaps, shows a more narrow obsession with an idea that was not broad enough. Reading the book of Acts, it certainly seems clear that Luke was uncertain on whether Paul was right or wrong. This is particularly clear in Luke’s recounting of Paul’s arguments with the churches in Asian Minor about returning to Jerusalem.

Jesus speaks that where our treasure is, that is where our heart is also. Perhaps, one idea is too small because it becomes our cherished idol. Only God is worthy of worship so God alone can be our singleminded passion. Ultimately, one might make some tentative conclusions that apply to us:

  • Trauma can disrupt and lead to obsessive thinking.
  • Obsessing on a bad idea, is always bad.
  • Obsessing on an idea less than God is too narrow for humans, and may lead ultimately to unhealthy, even mad, thoughts and actions.
  • God is broad enough to encompass man’s passion/obsession. However, when such passion shows itself with total committement to one narrow activity, the same problem of unhealthiness results.
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Life Stories

This is a presentation that we use for Clinical Pastoral Education class. However, I it is quite relevant to missionaries. as well. It draws a bit from Narrative Counseling. “Bible Heroes,” as well as missionaries throughout history have complicated and painful lives. Part of their success was in embracing God’s perspective rather than their own. Some of that is also in my book “Theo-storying,” which is described in MY BOOKS.

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.

 

A Minister’s Five Best Friends

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Liz Ryan is one of my favorite columnists– a regular contributor to Forbe’s Magazine. She writes regarding business employment– hiring, firing, and managing people. Although I have been out of the corporate world for over a decade, I find much of what she says very applicable in ministry as well. Much of her guidance centers on the importance of mutuality, respect, and, well, humanity, in the corporate world. One might suspect that these principles are hardly needed to be meditated on in the ministerial world— but that is wrong. Sadly, it is often even more necessary. Rules for proper treatment of workers are commonly overlooked in the religious world– often under the guise of “freedom of religion” or that serving God is a 24/7 job. I worked as a banquet server, hardly a classic ministerial role, for a “Christian business” where poor treatment of workers was justified by toggling back and forth between “you need to sacrifice because we are doing God’s work” and “sorry, but this has to be done to be competitive in the market.” The terms SELF-SERVING and DUPLICITOUS come to mind

I strongly recommend her article, FIVE PEOPLE EVERYBODY NEED IN THEIR CORNER.

I could stop there, but would like to interpret it in terms of ministers– primarily pastors and missionaries.

A minister needs people that he/she (I will use he here due to laziness) can trust.

  1.  He needs one he can trust with his emotions. He needs an UNCRITICAL LISTENER. People in minister often struggle greatly because they are uncertain who they can talk to about their burdens or frustrations. Far to many in the religious profession have the awful tendency to be advice givers and experts; or worse, judge-ers and condemners. Sometimes one need to vent or even confess to someone who will simply listen and accept. However, as Liz Ryan noted, you need more than this. One needs more than the human equivalent of a fuzzy blanket to talk to.
  2. He needs one he can trust with the truth. He needs a BRUTALLY HONEST ADVISOR (or BHA, for short). The truth hurts, but sometimes we need to hear the truth… but from someone we trust. A BHA should be someone who we trust to know the truth, and trust that he/she has our best interests at heart. For example, a pastor who likes to lead corporate worship with an off-pitch voice, needs someone who cares enough to tell him the truth— that his singing voice and microphones don’t really mix. (I would like to add “You know who you are…,” but in fact, you probably don’t.)
  3. He needs one he can trust who has blazed the trail before him. He needs a MENTOR. This person is generally more experienced and commonly older. He has, generally, been there and done that. His primary strength is not drawn from books or articles but life experience. The advice given from a mentor is welcome because it is seen as trustworthy and based on reality. Commonly an older pastor or missionary is what is needed. However, age and experience are not enough. Good mentors are, sadly, a rare breed. If one is willing to help, think long and hard about it. A good mentor may be exactly what you need.
  4. He needs one he can trust to challenge him to grow. He needs a COACH. Like a mentor, a coach gives advice, but it may not be based on great experience. Rather it comes from a position of being a good listener, reflector, and reframer. A good coach is not always right, but should help the minister look at his life (holistically) from other perspectives.
  5. And speaking of other perspectives– He needs one he can trust to be a very different viewpoint. He needs a NON-MINISTRY FRIEND. A minister should have friends not in ministry. Frankly, he should have some not in the same denomination or organization. In fact, it would be good to have friends who are not even fellow-believers. He needs someone who doesn’t talk shop and, frankly, wouldn’t really understand shop-talk anyway.  He needs someone he knows who won’t give the same old “Christianese” or denominational formulae for specific concerns. And much like the Uncritical Listener, the non-ministry friend can listen without being religiously or professionally invested or biased.

Of course, if you need such friends, others do as well. Which roles can you serve for others?

Advice from Asian Missionaries

My “Missionary Member Care” Class at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary questioned missionaries here in Asia about some of their challenges in missions. I have 11 students, and they each asked 3 missionaries 12 questions and recorded their answers. All of my students are from South Asia, East Asia, or Southeast Asia. From the 396 answers, I asked the students to break up into three groups and each group come up with 15 especially relevant statements from the answers.

We listed them (as seen in the picture below) and then started sub-categorizing them. I took the challenges and advice, and created a common response. the other categorizing, I will leave for my students in another week or so.

Serving in missions is challenging. It is difficult to live in a culture unlike my own, and adjusting my living to be in many ways like those around me. It is hard to serve God in places where the people and government are not sympathetic to what I am trying to do. This becomes even more difficult when churches and people at home are inconsistent with their support. It not only makes it hard to travel and minister, but often makes it uncertain that I can care for my family, and educate our children. Team-members can be a great help, but often we find ourselves in conflict with each other. I want people to whom I am ministering to come to God, but often I am so busy and distracted that I find it challenging to spend time with God myself.

My advice to others considering going into missions is to take good time to take care of yourselves. Invest in a healthy diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep. Don’t get so engrossed with the busy-ness of ministry that you fail to spend time with God. You need to regularly take time to pray, study God’s word, and meditate. Also invest in your relationships with others, especially your team-members. Make an effort to fellowship and worship together. You need to learn to work with others– work out conflicts, and seek to live at peace with others, even including local governments. You need to take time to understand the culture, and embrace any opportunity to learn more about the people and about how best to minister to them.

Still, sometimes things seem to get out of control, and problems build up. You need to bring these burdens to God. You also need to have some close friends to whom you can share your problems with. Writing down your burdens, taking some alone time, and even a good scream or cry now and then can help as well.”

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