Keith, as I have watched you from a distance for the past twenty-five years, you have not been a Christian who just made up his mind to be a Christian and just relax and be one. You seem to keep wrestling with the faith as if it is a continuous process after you are saved (or accepted by God). Why would you have to struggle with faith problems when you’ve been saved?
That’s a good question. It implies to me that you (or people you know) see Christianity as a transaction between God and a person like joining the YMCA or signing up as a Democrat or Republican. Once you’re in, you’re in. Of course you may have to pay dues, but the decisions are over once you’ve made the choice to join.
But for me, a serious relationship with God is more like a marriage than joining something. A marriage involves an initial commitment, but if one has a real marriage there is a commitment to ongoing communication and growth as the relationship deepens. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how the life of faith has gone for me.
When I was a little my mother told me that God is real and taught me to pray. I continued to “say my prayers” at night, and prayed for help when I felt vulnerable or like I might fail or not get what I wanted.
Then by the time I was twelve or thirteen I decided that “God is real”—not symbolic like Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. So when asked to, I stood with a bunch of other young people in front of the huge congregation at Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa and “said the words” that the Methodist church had for a commitment to Christ. I was doing what I had been told was the next right step. And according to the Church, I was officially saved and going to heaven. And I am not doubting the validity of the churches confirmation rite. But for me, inside my mind, I was to experience a lot about which I hadn’t been told.
That was when puberty hit. I began having two kinds of consciousness. I had my usual mind that dealt with schoolwork and how to be better at sports, etc. But when I was tempted to do things I was pretty sure God wouldn’t encourage us to do (like masturbate, think about girls and sex, etc.) I stepped out of the “God room” in my mind and into an empty windowless film room. Having a secret space to go where God was not invited didn’t seem like that big a deal for a long time since I’d never been told that God would “get me” if I wasn’t good.
Then life brought devastating situations that I could not change or make sense of by myself. My only brother was killed in WWII. A few years later I walked beside Dad as his damaged heart weakened, then killed him. I sat with Mother (taking the night shift in the hospital) a few short years later as cancer took her life, an inch at a time.
I began to ask questions I’d never asked, like “What is death?” and “Why do people hurt and kill each other?” I read serious books about what it might mean really to know God and learn how life was designed to be lived—since I believed he was its creator. I knew that I didn’t know God as I knew other people.
I had married a beautiful and very intelligent young woman. We were in love and I went to work to start fulfilling the American dream of raising a family and “becoming successful.” But when my mother was dying I realized that life wasn’t what I’d thought it would be. And then one day on a roadside in a car I had a deep intuitive knowing that I needed to surrender my whole life to God, and that he would guide me into the truth about life.
When I started to live out my commitment (to this God Jesus called Father) in every area of my life, I began to write books about the journey. The books succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I studied theology and then psychology, writing and lecturing in many places across the world about what I was discovering. Before I knew it, I had been given more affirmation and success than I could ever have predicted.
The experiences about which I’ve written might be seen by some people as struggling with faith. But to me it as been more like a struggle between myself and God over who would be in charge of my life.
Sometimes I wish it were as easy as I’ve heard people say it is for them—easy just to surrender, keep out of the driver’s seat of my own life and allow God to be in control all the time. It has not been so for me. At each stage of my learning, I was being asked to face personal issues that came up. I would pray and finally realize that I was putting something ahead of God. And after much prayer and counsel, I would see what I needed to give to God, finally surrender that and have a new burst of freedom.
Somewhere along the way—after some years of notoriety and the deference that comes with it—life lost its joy, and I was bewildered. I became aware of “something” about myself that was totally resistant to surrendering to God. I didn’t learn exactly what it was for years. But I was baffled at the uneasiness and frustration I was experiencing—while living a life of effectiveness and glamor caring for many people everywhere I went. I was really confused, but could not see what the matter with me was.
People close to me sensed that somewhere very deep in my life I was not the unselfish person whom people seemed to experience in relating to me. (The person whom I consciously was much of the time.)
Eventually a little beer or wine morphed into a lot of Scotch whiskey. Even several years of prayer and psychological and spiritual counseling did not uncover what the problem was. My behavior deteriorated and I acted out some of my fear and frustration in very self-centered and immoral behavior leading to a divorce and to the crash of the great life and work I’d been given to do.
Finally my misery led me to a treatment center where I learned that the thing I would not surrender to God was so deep and so well defended that I’d even repressed it from my own sight and sincerely thought God was driving my life. I came to the place where I saw no other way, no other solution than to agree to surrender whatever it was that I was hiding, if God would show it to me, as frightening as that prospect was. And at last I saw that it was my self-centered need to be in charge of my life and to make sure that I could get my own gigantic need for love and attention met. Facing and surrendering that was the most frightening experience of my life. I felt that if I surrendered my future, I might be nothing. (I have described the experience in a book.) The morning after facing my deep self-centeredness and my unconscious need to control even God, I realized that the self-centeredness and need to control had been my underlying denied problem all my life.
So the answer to your question, “Why have I continued to struggle with God and faith if I were truly saved or converted when I first committed my whole life to God” is this: In my conscious experience I gave all of my life I could see to as much of God as I could understand, asking him to show me what to do. And as God began to shed light on what I might do for him, that same light revealed things I needed to surrender in order for me to be able to do what he gave me to do. My struggle has been to recognize, confess, and be willing to give up each character defect he showed me—and then ask God for the power and the courage to live and love people, trusting Him with the outcome of my efforts.
Twenty-six years ago I began a new adventure of faith by seeing and confessing my deepest sin of wanting to control my destiny. On the new adventure, I have been learning more about how to think about other people and their adventure and to help those who are seeking to find the dreams God has put in their lives—and to help some of them accomplish those dreams.
I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.
– Galatians 5:4, The Message
Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others. You’re fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you’re not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe—some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them—then you know that you’re out of line. If the way you live isn’t consistent with what you believe, then it’s wrong.
– Romans 14:22, The Message
The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him [or her]. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you.
– Galatians 3:11, The Message
Lord, thank you that you have been so loving and patient with me as I have struggled to see not only your will for my life, but also as I have struggled to learn to live each day asking what your priorities are for me today, right now. And thank you that my job is not to try to change other people—especially family members—but just to love them as you have loved me. In Jesus’ name, amen.
This is a response to the second question of a two-part question that came up after John Burke (Lead Pastor at Gateway Church) interviewed me last month. I responded to the first of the two-part question on last week’s blog. Last week’s question was about why I think the kind of small group I had mentioned was important. My response is that Jesus spent approximately two-thirds of his three-year ministry with a small group of twelve men—the same twelve men. And all Jesus left was that small group and the Spirit in their midst. Further, Paul’s ministry was largely devoted to starting and continuing to correspond with and mentor a few small groups scattered in cities around the Roman Empire.
So now I’m getting to the second question: “What is the purpose of the small groups you talked about, and do these groups prepare Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment to issue God’s invitation to the world?”
What is the overall purpose of an “adventure” group?
Although the members of an “adventure” group learn about and experience ways to pray as Jesus taught the Twelve, and they examine relevant scripture passages, the overall purpose is for the group members to experiment with and actually experience receiving and giving the love of Jesus in their real time everyday lives and relationships. The experiment begins with every member agreeing that for thirteen weeks they will assume that the God Jesus called Father is real. And for the thirteen-week period the participants will live as if they had actually surrendered their entire lives to God. This includes an agreement among the group members not to argue about God’s existence or different interpretations of the Gospel. Instead they will be guided to experiment with how to love the people in their personal and vocational lives beginning with the other group members. They learn how to share in the group meetings by listening without interrupting or challenging what anyone else says they have experienced, and by reporting what happens—the failures as well as positive experiences—when they consciously take God with them clear through their days and nights. Each group member agrees to pray for the others every day during the experiment about the things shared in the group.
This group experience is not like any Bible study or sharing group most people have ever been in. The purpose is not to evangelize your neighbors or become expert Bible students; it is to learn (by doing) how to carry out the new command that Jesus gave the disciples when he was about to leave them: “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (Jn. 13:34-35, The Message)
Since we are also called to love the world, the primary purpose of Jesus’ group and these groups is to learn how to love God and do his will in all areas of our own lives, secular as well as “religious.” And as we try to do some simple things to learn how to receive and give love—with the Father and each other, we will be acquiring the core characteristics, attitudes and behaviors that we will need later when we go out to meet the needs of those who have been marginalized in our culture—the hungry, the sick, those without clothing and shelter, etc. I’ve always thought it was strange that Jesus didn’t send the Twelve out on missions until not too long before the crucifixion. He evidently wanted them to be sure to go out with love as well as a perspective in everything they did.
Bruce Larson and I worked for years with dozens of groups to build a course that is emotionally safe. We did this by developing rules (and making these rules clear) that keep the members from putting people down who risk sharing their reality, (i.e. not “fixing” them, offering suggestions or corrections) that would shame them for not participating or for “making mistakes”. The leader and all the group members will help each other to learn how to love and assure every person’s safety in the group. (This experience can be invaluable later in missions to people who have been abused in their worlds.)
Almost anyone can lead an Adventure group. In the meetings, Bruce and I face and respond first (on CD’s) to every question to which group members are asked to respond. And the group leader responds third. So an appropriate level of vulnerability is established before other group members are asked to share, which allows the group to become safer and closer more quickly than is usually possible otherwise. Also, any participant can choose to “pass” on responding to any of the questions or exercises without being shamed or criticized. These guidelines create a safe and more free and open atmosphere than many participants have ever experienced anywhere. An atmosphere in which the real issues, the fears, the joys and the reality can be shared—of trying to commit their lives and relationships to God in the real life contexts of their own families, church situations and vocational and social lives.
So in this safer atmosphere, the participants try various experiments in their real life situations (outside the group, between sessions) of praying, handling the many disappointments of admitting when they are wrong and asking forgiveness. As they do so, they are building a library of experiences—living stories—from the experiences they will personally go through and share with the group during meetings. And while they are carrying out these experiments between group meetings, the group members will also be examining some of Jesus’ stories (parables) and considering with which character they identify—thus adding more living stories to their educational base.
When people close to Jesus (including the Twelve) asked about the stories he pointed out that they (whom he was teaching) were getting a good picture of how the Kingdom of God works in their lives. But other people whom they encountered along the way—people who hadn’t had this much teaching from Jesus and so didn’t understand—for those people stories created readiness—readiness to hear more. (See Mark 3:10-11, The Message, quoted at the end of this blog.)
What usually happens—invisibly at first—is that in the process of being heard and accepted as they are, people who may have been church members for years, come to realize that love has crept in and replaced loneliness and the sense of not fitting—feelings that apparently all people long to overcome.
As to the sharing, it often happens that when someone who has “passed” several weeks in a row finally speaks, he or she may be a different person than the one whom you met at the first meeting.
We believe that these experiences are all parts of the transformation process Jesus said was essential. It is like being “born anew from on high.” And friends, when you see a fellow adventurer being transformed before your eyes, week after week, it is impossible to tell you what this can do to your faith and ability to love God and other people. It seems that one must experience this personally to understand how important it is.
There is also a strong rule about keeping everything that is said in the meetings confidential. At first this seems strange but in the end, this creates an unbelievable sense of freedom and honesty. I remember when I started the first group of this kind in a church in Norman, OK in the 1950’s I had explained the group plan to the pastor and gotten his permission to start the group. We were meeting in our home. After several weeks the pastor called me and said, “What are you telling the people about money?”
I said, “Why are you asking?”
He said, “Well, three of the couples have started tithing since the group started meeting and they were a little vague when I talked to them.”
I laughed because tithing hadn’t even been mentioned. But the minister was so happy that he said, “I’m sending another couple over to join your group.”
“I’m sorry, Joe,” I said. “The rules are that no new members are allowed to join a new group after the second week. In this intimate atmosphere running in new people every week means starting to build the trust level all over again. We may do another group later if some people want to.”
The minister then asked, “Well what is this ‘secrecy’ all about? Where did you ever come up with a rule about people not sharing what’s going on in a group?”
I smiled and said, “Jesus. Several times Jesus told people who’d been helped by his ministry, “Don’t tell anyone.”
This may sound like an unusual way to operate a group, but people who have been together for thirteen weeks sharing their reality, the good news and the bad, sickness and celebrations, have reported time and again that long before the thirteen weeks are over, participants report that they find themselves becoming more caring for people around them outside the group, even difficult people and even in painful situations. But these feelings and attitudes of really beginning to trust and share are new and a little scary for people at first. And we are convinced they need a safe, non-critical place to report failures as well as successes. (We still attend such groups after all this time.)
This sort of group experience can create a spiritual culture of people who want to experiment with really trying to offer to God the living out of their eating, sleeping, working, walking around lives for Christ. (See Romans 12:1, The Message)
No group structure or process is for everyone, of course. But we have found that unless a large church finds a way for new people to learn to love each other and pray specifically for each other in a face to face atmosphere, over a period of time the back door of that church will become bigger than the front—no matter how gifted and committed the teaching pastors are. And our experience indicates that many group graduates go on mission trips after a thirteen-week group, or join a mission group in their own city, or teach a class in the church. They report that because of their experience in these groups, they find themselves listening to and praying for or with the people they are going out to help.
I have not tried to give you a comprehensive picture of the course content. If you would like to read about the course materials, click here.
And one last thing: because of years of being in adventure group meetings of various kinds, I realize that people are all different in their needs, hopes and dreams. And I have discovered that my job is not to change anyone—even any of you who may be reading this blog. So if what we have learned is not something that you feel comfortable trying, we won’t bug you. But this is just my answer to the person who wanted to know the purpose of this kind of group experience.
We are starting up again working in local churches after many years of working in different cultures here and overseas. If you choose to use this group experience as a part of your Christian formation effort, we’ll be glad to do what we can to help that happen.
“When they were off by themselves, those who were close to him, along with the Twelve, asked about the stories. He told them, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom—you know how it works. But to those who can’t see it yet, everything comes in stories, creating readiness, nudging them toward receptive insight. These are people—
Whose eyes are open but don’t see a thing,
Whose ears are open but don’t understand a word,
Who avoid making an about-face and getting forgiven.”
-Mark 4:10-12, The Message
“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s.”
-1st Jn. 4:17, The Message
Lord, Thank you that you took the time to live the life of love with the few people you chose to deliver the Father’s invitation to the rest of us, so we’d know it’s really livable. Give me trust at this time to believe that I will get my work done if I risk interrupting my busy schedule long enough to live your life with a few others…again. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Keith, a few weeks ago I watched as John Burke interviewed you at Gateway Church. I am an emerging leader at Gateway and have a few questions for you. First, specifically, why do you think the kind of small group you described is so important?
(You can watch the interview here.)
This one is a great question. And I’ll save your other questions to write about in another blog soon.
In the first place, I want to tell you that for most of my life I hated small groups and refused to be in one. I’m a classic loner in that regard—or rather I was until I surrendered as much of my life as I could to as much of God as I understood and started reading the New Testament. (1) What I discovered was that in Jesus’ three-year ministry the only “structure” he used was one small group of twelve—with the same membership. And that he spent approximately two-thirds of his time with that group of twelve. (2) The only subject or curriculum on which the group seems to have focused was “What is the God really like (whom Jesus called “Father”)? And “how (specifically) would people live if they surrendered their whole lives to the Father and became citizens of the New Kingdom of God (His “reign” over their lives) and how would they live out relationships with the Father, each other and everyone else?”
In that group they tried to do what Jesus did and told them to do, and they asked questions about everything. Since Jesus was living the life (as the first citizen in the New Kingdom), they had him and each other’s experiences to learn from. And besides hanging out watching Jesus, the content of their learning was largely made up of stories (parables, etc.) about how people who were committed to God would live and spread the life and love that Jesus was announcing and inaugurating before their eyes.
The small group was so important that after Jesus left them they chose another member, Mathias, to replace Judas.
And that small group was all Jesus left them. He left no money, no rich donors, no influential people, no buildings and not even a book. (The Old Testament was locked in the synagogue and there was no authoritative New Testament completed until the fifth century.) He had said that their life together could continue after he left because the Personality (the Spirit) they had experienced in him would still be in the midst of them to keep guiding and teaching them.
And it was the same with Paul. He first tried to use the existing churches (synagogues) as his structure but Jesus’ message (and the Christians’ lives) were so different from the life and attitudes of the people in the synagogues of that day that the Christians were usually thrown out. And when they were thrown out, all they had with which to invite (evangelize) the world was to start small groups and replicate the kind of group the apostles had been in with Jesus. He had told them that whenever two or three of them met in his name (i.e. as he would meet), he would be with them. The letters of Paul, Peter, and John were not theological treatises but mostly dealt with specific everyday problems and misunderstandings about how the Father wanted them to live in love.
And the new “family” spread clear across the Roman Empire—mostly one small group at a time—until the Father’s Reign became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire in about 25 A.D. During this time the apostles encouraged and taught the people in the groups by visiting them, writing letters to them and sending lay teachers (like Timothy) to encourage the small groups who met mostly in people’s homes. The subject of these small groups was still mostly about how to live for God, learning how to love Him, each other and other people as they delivered the Father’s invitation to an intimate and eternal life with Him and them.
The bottom line for Paul and John was the commandment Jesus gave the disciples, to love each other. This was so important that Jesus said it was their primary teaching and evangelizing asset. The way Jesus put it was, “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
So I came to believe that our first task as Christians is to learn how to love each other as Jesus loved. And as we experience being loved as we are and loving each other, warts and all, we will not have to be prodded to love the marginalized people Jesus loved, at least that’s been my experience.
Paul described how the transmission of the living/loving way of life that Jesus embodied and taught occurs. It is passed from Christian to Christian in these groups as Paul told the Christians at Philippi in a letter: “Put into practice what you learned from me; what you heard, what you saw and what you realized.” (Phil. 4:9, the Message)
The people in the groups heard Paul (and each other) say he was (they were) trying to live for Christ. They saw him and each other risk reputation and even life for Christ’s cause. And then they realized, “Wow! I can do that, too.”
So to answer your first question, I think that this particular kind of small group is important because this was virtually the only teaching “laboratory” Jesus used to get across how God wanted us to live and learn to enter into a Father-child relationship with God to whom we give permission to be in control of our lives (surrender). And out of that surrendered life we learn how to be in relationship with each other—a way to pray and read the scriptures. And then—out of this supportive, truth-telling, loving culture that develops in the group, we move out into the rest of the world to invite others to step into this loving culture of people who have surrendered their lives to God, and who are allowing God to transform them and the way they relate to others. We invite them to experience this life along with us. But if we are not being transformed ourselves, then the invitation we extend to others will most likely not reflect the reality and love we are being exposed to in the sermons and lives of our teaching pastors.
What I was referring to in the interview with John was a safe small group process Bruce and Hazel Larson and I created where people can go on the adventure of living for God experimentally for thirteen weeks in this kind of group and this perspective of how to live for Christ. The format is so simple that anyone who wants to live his or her life more as Christ wants him or her to live it can have an opportunity to try it in real time with a few others.
We have helped start hundreds of these groups over the years and more has happened to people who have been in these groups than in all the preaching, teaching and book writing we’ve done in the past fifty years.
P.S. Several people at Gateway have started and led some “Adventure” groups. After the closing prayer I have added a copy of a recent letter from a member of Gateway who led a group this year. If you’d like to get in touch with them, let us know and we’ll give you their contact information.
“This new plan I’m making with Israel isn’t going to be written on paper, isn’t going to be chiseled in stone; this time I’m writing out the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts. I’ll be their God, they’ll be my people. They won’t go to school to learn about me, or buy a book called God in Five Easy Lessons. They’ll all get to know me firsthand, the little and the big, the small and the great. They’ll get to know me by being kindly forgiven, with the slate of their sins forever wiped clean. By coming up with a new plan, a new covenant between God and his people, God put the old plan on the shelf. And there it stays, gathering dust.”
– (Jeremiah quote found in Hebrews 8:6)
Lord, sometimes I still wake up lonely and discouraged when nothing is really wrong. Thank you that you have invited us into your family style Kingdom where you can transform us into the creative, loving people you made us to be, so that we can know your peace and be happy living in our own skin. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Letter to Keith
I’m writing to let you know of the profound change that occurred in my small group as a result of doing the 13 week Edge of Adventure group experience create by you and Bruce Larson. Our group went from an intellectual group of socializers to a caring community of honest people who love each other and are committed to walking through life with each other. This 13-week group experience taught our small group how to actively love and live as Jesus did resulting in a profoundly purposeful and vibrant life.
Before this study our small group was literally on the brink of dissolving. We had met together for 2+ years and were “sticking it out” out of a sense of obligation. We were a group of lonely self-centered people who wanted to change but didn’t know how.
As we started this adventure, I noticed an immediate change simply caused by implementing the expectations of this study. There was a safe environment created by the “no cross talk” rule. People who were normally quiet opened up because of the practice of giving each person a chance to speak by going around the circle to answer each question. The confidentiality requirement was a simple, yet critical, element that was referenced many times in the first few weeks as people began to open up and share.
Having you and Bruce on the audio tapes helped set the tone of each meeting in a powerful way. We were able to sense and be inspired by your passion for the discussion topic. We were also assured that it’s okay to have struggles and doubts and that there can be a very real sense of liberation that comes from honestly sharing these thoughts and feelings with others.
I believe that this group experience can be the tipping point for many small groups by helping them develop the community that God intends. When this happened for us, we began to experience a more deep, rich an abundant life. It’s not that life will always be fun and easy, it’s that life’s struggles now have meaning.
My small group was so moved by the changes that occurred during these 13 weeks that we want to share this experience with others at Gateway. We simply can’t hold in the blessings we have received as we feel called to share them with others. We want to share this in any way that would be the most appropriate and helpful. We could split up and each visit other small groups or we could all band together to lead this in a large group format. We would like to discuss this with you and the appropriate leadership at Gateway to see how we could be the best service.
Thank you for this course. It has been a blessing!
I have been sitting here for some time, writing my heart out to you on our new software program. I was telling you about our family’s solution to not having quality time together with our kids, grandkids and great grandkids.
After pouring my heart out for three pages, I was just writing a prayer at the end, when all of a sudden the cursor (and the curser) went wild moving backwards at the speed of light—erasing all my loving vulnerable sharing. I punched every button in sight and hollered for Andrea. By the time she got here, all my work had disappeared. The computer monster had gulped down EVERY WORD without a belch or even a “thank you.”
This is Friday, July 8th, and we have been trying to get caught up from our annual family gathering at a ranch near Bandera (21 of us), and from a surgical procedure I had upon returning (it looks like the Lord has given me another extension-for which I am very grateful—even though I actually forgot all about being grateful when the computer’s word feast began).
The bottom line is that I am exhausted somehow, and simply do not have the energy to rebirth and re-edit that personal document right now. So this will have to be my blog for the week. We will have another one up on Monday or Tuesday (the 11th or 12th).
Andrea and I are sending love and prayers with this note for any of you who have read this far.
Faithfully in our Lord,
What have you learned as a Christian about death and dying? As an 84-year-old, how are you handling the fact that statistically your own death is not far off for you?
In the first place, death is real for everyone—Christians and all others. But death is also the most important deterrent to serious crime and abuse of others who are weaker than we. In fact, without death most of the morality we have could be lost. The fear of death keeps us from going too far since people could kill us. And with regard to the reign of God in human experience, death is like a beeper light at the end of every life reminding us all that we apparently have a limited time to consider God’s offer of a creative, loving and intimate relationship that starts in this life but extends beyond death. And because of this offer from God we can risk all or part of our lives loving and experiencing love that can transform all of life into fulfilling experiences of freedom from the irrational fears of rejection, injury and death.
I learned a number of things about death and dying between my eighteenth and twenty-ninth birthdays. During that time all of my family of origin either died or were killed. And I found myself planning funerals, picking out coffins and doing the paper work to clear up estates from age eighteen to twenty-eight. I had no idea how unusual that was. I just had to step up and do things because of the way things unfolded.
But I didn’t face the stark fact that I am going to die until the last member of our family—my mother, Mabel Olivia Davis Miller, died.
When she was sixty-three, she discovered she had terminal cancer and had only a few months to live. Since she was the youngest child of her family by fourteen years, her sisters and brothers had predeceased her, she was pretty much alone. When she had to be hospitalized, I asked the major company I worked for to transfer me to their Oklahoma City office (from Texas) so I could be with my mother who had been a sorority housemother in Norman twenty miles away.
I worked in the daytime and took the night nurse’s place for financial reasons. Because of that I got to sit with her while she was dying. And I was amazed. She was calm about her own death. She had me get a notebook so she could tell me what I would need to do as the last member of our family. She told me who to get for a funeral director—a friend of my father’s of whom I had never heard. Then she told me what to give to some cousins in Missouri whom I hadn’t known since I was a child. And she told me some people to notify when she died who would be hurt if they weren’t contacted—and she even helped me to pick out the clothes she’d be buried in—since I would have had no idea.
The bottom line was, here was a brilliant woman dying and in a good bit of pain who was thinking totally about other people. When everything was planned, a few days before her death, she said to me very calmly. “I wonder what death will be like. I wonder if there will be anything like consciousness and if Jesus was right when he said there will be a “place” for each of us—and if so, will we recognize those who have gone before.”
And I realized something I’ve never forgotten: that we learn how to face death by watching people do it with courage and trust.
But even with all that experience I never let my weight down into the stark fear and awareness that I am going to die—until after my mother’s death. After her funeral, I went into our family home in Tulsa and arranged for most of the things to be given to the Salvation Army. The last place I went to was the basement. There was a large room in the center and several smaller rooms with doors opening into the big room. When someone had died, what remained of their personal effects had been put in one of the separate rooms. No one wanted to go through them. But now there was no one else to go down those stairs to go through it all.
I remember sitting on the floor of that big room with boxes of family pictures and mementos of my dead family’s lives all around me. I felt helpless. I began to cry when I realized that there was no one left to tell me who the people and occasions in those pictures were. When I realized that I’d never know, I also realized that I’d just have to burn those last remaining evidences that these people had lived—people who had been so dear to my family and who had loved me. I felt lost and very sad.
That night I had a vivid dream. I was lying in a wooden box with my eyes closed. I sensed that someone was about to nail down the lid but I couldn’t get my eyes open or move my mouth as I realized I was being nailed in a coffin alive! I panicked!
Finally, with all my strength, I exploded my muscles and kicked at the top and woke up trying to scream “I’M ALIVE!”
The next morning as I sat on the basement floor in the midst of the boxes, I realized in a different way that I am going to die. And I thought about that. Then something occurred to me I’d never thought before and I said to God, “Whatever your plan about death is, if it’s good enough for them (and I indicated the boxes of pictures) it’s good enough for me.” And in that moment in the gray concrete basement I felt in some strange way that I had joined the human race. That was when I realized that death is like a red beacon at the end of the tunnel reminding us that if we want to live a good and loving life here on earth, we should get at it, since our time is limited.
Several months before my mother died I had committed as much of my life as I knew to as much of God as I knew in Jesus. However at that time I had not thought about my own death and how people who might see a picture of me might not know my name. And for me, those few minutes alone with the family’s past in that gray basement constituted one of the milestone steps in realizing that I had to begin to trust every part of my life to God in order to live in Reality.
Over the years I have been very healthy physically and I’m grateful about that. As a counselor I have also learned that everyone is afraid at some level—afraid of a few things or a lot of things. But I’ve also learned that Jesus left us an incredible Life Plan that is designed to free us from fear by teaching us to receive God’s love and acceptance and continual presence right now—without having to earn it. And realizing that I was loved by God somehow freed me to want to give other people who were lonely and afraid the same self-limiting love I felt from God and from other people I met the next few years who were attempting to surrender their whole lives to Him.
Since that time when I hear that someone I know has died, I realize that the best thing I can bring to their family is to be present during the time of the funeral. At first I didn’t want to see people who had lost a loved one because I didn’t know what to say. But then I remembered that Jesus didn’t promise to bring us brilliant or fancy gifts. He just promised to be with us—he promised us his presence. So now I can go and sit with a friend or family member without the burden of having something brilliant to say but just to listen to them tell what happened, how the sickness or death went, or whatever they want to say, if anything.
And over the years, I’ve learned that for me the acts of loving people, helping out if possible or just walking alongside them in simple ways by being present—all of these are parts of what Jesus promised each of us—as an aspect of loving us specifically. The bottom line is: we will never have to be alone again. He will be with us. And it is that love (not courage) that sometimes can cast out fear—even of death. (see John 4)
Regarding my own upcoming death, sometimes I wake up at night afraid. And when I do, I stop and surrender my whole life once more and thank Him for the remarkable years I’ve already had and for the people he’s put in my life to love. But mostly I’m filled with gratitude, and I’m more in love with my wife, Andrea, my grown kids and grandkids, great grandkids, old friends, and the crazy people I still meet with several times a week who continue to teach me how to live and love. So I’d like to hang around a while longer. I am very happy and love the work God has given me to do, as Andrea and I work together to finish a book about a new perspective that we have heard God offering in His story as we try to walk in it.
Lord, thank you that as we learn to love you and other people as you love us, you help us to trust our relationship with you and its continuance beyond pain and death—and the miracle is that we can begin to trust other people as you act toward us in trustworthy ways. Help us to surrender our lives right now—and then help us to look around and see who we might love and help for you today. Amen.
“You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live.” (Jn. 14:1-4, The Message)
“This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body—but only if you keep in mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! The corpse that’s planted is no beauty, but when it’s raised, it’s glorious. Put in the ground weak, it comes up powerful. The seed sown is natural; the seed grown is supernatural—same seed, same body, but what a difference from when it goes down in physical mortality to when it is raised up in spiritual immortality!” (1 Cor. 15: 42-44, The Message)
“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.” (1 John 4:17-18, The Message)
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. (Matt. 5:8, The Message)
“You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.” (John 11:25, The Message)
Where and how did you learn to be open about personal problems all Christians face?
A “C-minus!” I couldn’t believe it! I’d been a good student all my life and had spent hours developing, writing, and editing this, my first sermon for a homiletics class in seminary. I was angry, but, more than that, I was confused. The sermon represented the way I had always thought preachers should preach: by sharing their own personal experience, strength and hope along with the biblical message. But my professor of preaching had dismissed my sermon as being unacceptable.
After pointing out some minor structural mistakes that I could agree with, he leaned back in his chair, drummed his fingers together, and said, “The reason your grade was a C minus was because you were ‘personal.’ You used the first person singular to describe the problems with which you were dealing.” He paused and then went on. “In the first place, using the first person singular in a sermon is not effective. And besides, it is not in good taste.” He pushed my sermon across the smooth surface of the large desk.
But try as I would I could not shake the notion that one’s own feelings and experiences of pain, fear, anger, guilt, shame, sadness, and joy could be drawbridges over which a communicator could carry the message and love of God into the deepest levels of people’s lives. I felt that the world and the church had become so depersonalized that people were growing more and more isolated. Somehow the stance of the “expert” communicator expounding abstract concepts or telling laymen how they should live seemed to further the depersonalizing process. Worse, the message of God’s healing, self-limiting love didn’t appear to be catching the attention of the modern world—even many of those already in churches.
I knew that what I needed personally was a model: someone who was seriously trying to be God’s person and to have intellectual integrity but who also faced the kinds of fears, problems, and failures that I faced. Evidently, this was not a combination to be found in a single Christian communicator. People seriously committed to God who were professional teachers or communicators either did not have the kind of struggles I had, or considered them too insignificant or “personal” to be mentioned. I had met some other strugglers who, like me, were trying to slug it out with this paradox, but we were all nobodies. I had never run across a communicator with any authority who admitted to this strange predicament of feeling unable to be continually whole and righteous, in spite of the power and joy to be found in the gospel.
Then, in 1965, Dr. Paul Tournier came from Switzerland to speak at a conference at Laity Lodge, a new adult retreat center in the remote hill country of southwest Texas. I was director of the conference center. Although I had heard of Paul Tournier, I had never read anything he had written.
Many of the people attending the conference had traveled hundreds of miles for the sold out weekend. As we all gathered for the first session, I wondered how well Tournier would be able to cross the language barrier from his French through an interpreter to us. I had no idea what content to expect.
The first evening Dr. Tournier spoke, the “great hall” at the lodge was filled with psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors of all varieties, Christian ministers, and lay leaders from various professions. The air was almost electric with expectation, and I realized how much the conference guests were looking forward to hearing this man whose books they had read.
Then he began to speak. Within five minutes the room had faded, and we were transported into another world. We heard a little boy describing his struggle with loneliness and self-doubt almost sixty years before in a country several thousand miles away. You could have heard a pin drop on the stone floor. I sat behind the speaker near the huge fireplace and looked past Paul Tournier into the eyes of almost a hundred sophisticated American professionals. In those wide open eyes, I could see other lonely little boys and girls reliving their own struggles for identity and worth.
After fifteen or twenty minutes a strange thing began to happen, something I have never seen happen before or since. As Paul spoke in French, we found ourselves nodding in agreement and understanding—before his words were translated. We trusted him so much and felt he understood us so well, that we knew at a subconscious level we would resonate with what he was saying. He described problems, doubts, joys, meanings and fears—many of which still existed for him—and spoke of them naturally, as if they were materials God normally worked with in his healing ministry among all people, Christians included.
Before us was a man who did not even speak our language, a man in his sixties who wore a wrinkled tweed suit, and was exhausted from a whirlwind trip across America. And yet as he spoke fatigue, age, clothes, and language differences all faded into the background. He turned periodically to make eye contact with those of us behind him. I was conscious mainly of his sparkling eyes, his personal transparency, and a glow of genuine caring about his face. As he spoke I heard and felt love and the truth of God about my own life.
I found myself having to fight back tears—tears of relief and gratitude, and release. I was not alone because of my own struggles. I had sensed that to be healed we need more than good medical advice or even excellent psychological counseling. We need presence—vulnerable, personal presence. I knew the Bible claimed that was what God gave us in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit: his own presence to heal and strengthen us. And I had felt that somehow we Christians were to continually embrace the personal realities of life and presence of God, and somehow be channels to convey that healing presence personally to other people’s lives through our own openness and vulnerability. In Paul Tournier I met at last a living model of the kind of communication I was trying in a stumbling, uncertain way to find. And he obviously knew a lot about the source and healing of psychological difficulties.
I made two decisions during that conference. First, I would go back to school to get some psychological training since I realized that I needed to know more about the source and nature of the problems people faced. Second, as soon as I finished the book manuscript I was working on, I would read some of Paul Tournier’s books. I was already in the process of writing a book for new Christians about living in a personal relationship with God in their everyday lives. Other books of this sort seemed to me overly pious, and they did not deal with the actual inner and relational “stumbling blocks” that had bothered me as a new Christian. After Tournier’s visit, I completed the manuscript of that, my first book, with great enthusiasm.
When I had sent that manuscript to a publisher, the next thing I did was read The Meaning of Persons. Again, tears. For years I had been looking for books whose authors were real and transparent so that I could identify with their problems and move toward healing in Christ. The closest thing I had found was Augustine’s Confessions (written in the 5th century), which is what had finally persuaded me to write a book about my own struggles as a contemporary Christian. But if I had read Tournier first, I might not have felt the need to write my own first book, The Taste of New Wine.
Knowing that a man existed who loved God, (and had apparently surrendered his whole life to God) who used the discoveries and methods of scientific investigation, and yet faced his own humanity did something for me. And knowing that, at least partially because of Christ, this man could afford to be honest about his own struggles, helped push me far beyond my own small horizons of security and faith.
From that day forward Paul Tournier became a mentor and friend, until his death in 1986. We traveled and spoke in conferences with other Americans and Europeans in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. His work has influenced me deeply. But more, his life and his way of personal dialogue gave me a direction for living as a Christian which has brought more hope and courage than I could have imagined—which is why I am writing this to you.
Dear Lord, Thank you for letting me see you in a man with a skin face, who had the courage to be himself—so we could see through him to the Father who created him—and the rest of us. Help me to trust you enough more often to share honestly the life I’m finding in You with people I meet along the ways you take me. And help anyone who may be reading this prayer to know how beautiful they are when they trust you with their lives—as scary as it is at times. In Jesus’ name, amen.
(St.) Frances prayed day and night that God would give all men the courage to be themselves instead of what others expected them to be.
He did not want men to enter the brotherhood… he only wanted them to be free, to be what they wanted to be in their own hearts. For God spoke differently to every man, calling one to marriage, another to virginity, one to the city, another to the country, one to work with his mind and another with his hands. But who was brave enough to look into his own heart and ask if this is what he should be doing, what he really wanted to do with his life?
Francis: The Journey and the Dream
Hypocrisy is a strange slavery. When I do so much of what I do to gain the respect of others, I get warm feelings (when the respect comes). But when the respect and (or applause) are absent I am frantic and depressed—which tells me I am a hypocrite and a slave to an “audience” out there.
I don’t want any more of that.
-Keith Miller, Note from his journal
March 14, 1984
Honesty with oneself as laid down by psychoanalysis is the condition of man in which biblical revelation (can) touch him, in which the sense of guilt, the very mainstream of morality matures.
-Paul Tournier, Guilt and Grace
What keeps us from being ourselves, Carl Rogers says, “it is always fear: of a conflict, of being rejected, or breaking up a harmonious relationship. But it is the very lack of congruence which stands in the way of the establishment of true relationships between persons.
-Paul Tournier, The Violence Within
 Paul Tournier (May 12, 1898 – October 7, 1986) was a Swiss physician and author who had acquired a worldwide audience for his work in pastoral counseling. His ideas had a significant impact on the spiritual and psychosocial aspects of routine patient care, and he had been called the twentieth century’s most famous Christian physician.
Keith, what if we have let God in our lives and into the driver’s seat and nothing happened? I still have the same struggles that I have always had. Is there ever a way out? I am really wondering and feel as though I am constantly in a spiritual battle between God and the devil. Thanks, R.
This is a question that most Christians don’t have the guts to ask. And yet for anyone who has consciously and seriously tried to put God in the driver’s seat of her or his life, it is the question to ask.
There are a couple of times Jesus dealt directly with that question. “What’s necessary to put God in the driver’s seat where the decisions are made?” One is recorded in Matt. 19. A rich young man came to Jesus and told him that he wanted to quit being a listener and start being one of Jesus’ committed disciples—which in terms of our conversation would be saying, “I am ready to put the God you call Father in the driver’s seat of my life.”
Jesus said in effect, “Great, “If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.”
The young man said, “What in particular?
Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.”
(R., can you say that you are following what Jesus says? I suspect you are from the tone of your inquiry.) Anyway, the young man said in effect, “I’ve done all that.” (I’ve put God in the driver’s seat and am willing to keep all his commandments.)
Then Jesus must have looked at the man and said, “This young man is a serious player.” But then Jesus says something completely of the wall. He asked the young man to give up the thing that was really most important to him that wasn’t even a “bad” thing, but was the thing that bottom-line motivated and determined his most crucial decisions (what was really in the driver’s seat of his life—but he had never seen it that way.) Jesus told him that if you really want to trust God with your whole life, then, “go sell all your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.”
What I think Jesus is saying to the young man, and what I heard him saying to me (that for years stopped me in my tracks) was that I already had a god sitting in the driver’s seat of my life—in fact several as it turned out–and until I was willing to see and admit that something or someone who was not God was the most important thing in my life (“in the driver’s seat determining my private decisions”), I could not really surrender my whole life to God at all.
The young man in the story’s response was: “That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.”
What Jesus does still, it seems to me, is to help us see that when we come and want to follow God totally, we already have a god we do not realize is a trump card to our attempts to put God in the driver’s seat (or maybe several gods that we obey when they call.) The young man’s god was his money, or possessions. And until we see and admit that these gods which unconscious to us are already in the driver’s seat, we are not free to surrender our whole lives to God and are baffled that we are constantly in internal battles we don’t understand.
I was absolutely shocked when I tried to see what was really most important to me—because consciously God was number one. Some of the things I have had to admit were keeping me from surrendering my whole life were—at different times—financial security, sexual fantasies or actions, the love of my wife or one of my children (more than anything), my vocational success, drinking too much, my reputation as a fine Christian man, and my writing and speaking ministry. A mentor helped me realize that each of these things was at times more important than God, when I would spend time thinking about and doing one of them to the detriment of my clear duties as a father, husband, and Christian man “surrendered wholly to God.” Many of these things were not even “bad” things, but they kept my focus on me and what I wanted, instead of what I knew was the priority of God for me, and were detrimental to my growing up to be the man God had in mind for me to become.
But after many years of meeting with other men and women wanting to follow Jesus and be his people, I finally realized that although I can’t just “put God first,” I can tell him that I am willing to, and give Him permission to show me those things that I have consciously and unconsciously put in the driver’s seat of my life and relationships. In fact working with individuals and small groups to help them –and me—to discover, confess and commit God those other hidden gods, so that together we can uncover and achieve the dreams and vocations God has for each us—this became my life’s work for God.
These positive changes in direction came about when some bad decisions I made because of obeying some of the competitive gods I had not faced caused me such pain that I became willing to surrender my entire life to God, realizing that only He could give me the courage and insight to even want Him that much.
But the other part of what happened when I specifically set out to give God permission to sit in the driver’s seat in my life was that I agreed to start doing the disciplines that could help me learn how God wants me to live. For me this has entailed learning all I could about what Jesus said the Father wants us to do in the new Kingdom (Reign) of God in his people’s lives. I read the scriptures, concentrating first on the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-2), the parables, and the teachings of Jesus describing the character and purposes of God, realizing that God wants us to live out of these same characteristics. That includes loving the poor and marginalized people, but also Jesus said people will know we are his followers by the way we (Christians) love each other. (John 13:35) And I prayed almost every day about what I was learning, asking God to show me where my life needed to be different, and to help me to stop clinging to my old ways of running my life as I learned how to let God be in control.
And when I saw how Jesus said God wants us to live, I examined my life and saw not only the false gods in the driver’s seat, but also self-centeredness everywhere. And when I discovered I had hurt someone I had to learn to confess to God, then go and confess to the person I had harmed and make amends to that person. All of this became part of a running conversation with God about the life of loving I was discovering that I’d always wanted to live but was afraid to try because I might look “pious” or “holier than thou.” Now I don’t care. I just want to love people and learn how to use the gifts God has given me in the process.
And all I can tell you is that what has happened to me has made me more loving, aware of my good traits as well as those which derail my best intensions and conscious motivations.
I started not to tell you all this, but since I found that God accepts us the minute we come to him in as complete trust as we have, I have discovered the life I always suspected might be out there somewhere for me. I am still only a child trying to obey his intimate heavenly “daddy.” But I also care enough about you to tell you these things, whatever you may think me. And that—as anyone who has known me many years will tell you—is a real miracle.
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
“I am talking about a revolutionary way of living. Religion isn’t something to be added to our other duties, and thus make our lives more complex. The life with God is the center of life, and all else is remodeled and integrated by it. It gives singleness of eye. The most important thing is not to be perpetually passing out cups of cold water to a thirsty world. We can get so fearlessly busy trying to carry out the second commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” that we are undeveloped in our devoted life to God as well as neighbor”
A Testament of Devotion
“We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the center, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence…. To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the center of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centers and the true center is outside the world, this is to consent…. Such consent is love.”
Waiting for God
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which use to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.”
Third Edition, page 83-84
P.S. If you want to check out a way a Christian or group of Christians can use the 12 Steps as a guide to spiritual wholeness see A Hunger for Healing: The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth.
 If you want to see a case in which Jesus did the same kind of helping someone see the ‘god’ that was already in the driver’s seat of her life, but upon seeing that god was ready to put Jesus’ God first, see the story of the woman at the well—and what happened to her life when she made the decision to put God before her secret god (i.e. Relationships with men—or sex.) See John 4.
 R. – I am not suggesting that you have any particular ‘gods’—just sharing what happened to me when I faced this very question.
Keith, Are there specific ways of dealing with the awful feelings of guilt and shame that come over people sometimes in the middle of the night and prevent sleep, etc. Also, if one has these feelings, does it mean that he or she really isn’t committed to God?
That is a great question. I don’t know how many times I’ve wrestled with feelings of guilt and shame in the middle of the night, and wished I could find a way never to have to deal with them ever again. But I’ve come to believe that they’re really helpful experiences, warning systems for all human beings to help us to become what God wants us to be. And there is a way to work through them and learn where we may be off track concerning the way we’re living our lives.
Let’s just imagine that you have a warning system in your mind, like a burglar alarm. When the alarm goes off and you look at it, there are two panels; one is “guilt” and one is “shame.” The feeling is very similar—one of having no value, or as if you’ve been bad, are a bad person, that sort of thing. First it’s good to figure out which panel is giving me the signal: is it guilt or shame?
Andrea and I learned about these two emotions from Pia Mellody. Andrea wrote Pia’s first three books with her, and I consulted with them about connections to psychological literature that had already been written. According to Pia, in Facing Codependence, “Guilt is an uncomfortable or gnawing feeling in the abdomen about an action or thought that transgresses our value system, accompanied by a sense of wrongness. Guilt is often confused with shame, which is experienced as embarrassment and perhaps a flushed face, accompanied by a sense of fallibility.”
For example, if I lie to somebody, or steal something, the resulting feeling is guilt. If somebody saw me spill my coffee all over my lap and the floor, the resulting feeling would be shame—I’m a fallible human being who makes mistakes, and mistakes can be embarrassing. The more you think you should be perfect and never make mistakes, the more likely you are to feel shame whenever a mistake becomes known to other people. In fact, trying to avoid feeling shame about a mistake (breaking a valuable vase, or damaging a car, or getting somebody’s name wrong at a party) often motivates people to try to conceal or camouflage mistakes by lying, blaming someone else, or omitting certain facts when explaining what happened. And in some instances, if a mistake is pointed out to a person, that person may react with anger and rejection because of being in the throes of what we call a “shame attack.” So if truth telling or treating others with respect and kindness are moral/ethical values, the hiding or raging often lead to feelings of guilt—which combines with the shame, making a roiling tide of painful emotion.
Dealing with Guilt
So if your alarm system goes off and you determine that the panel giving you a warning is the one marked “guilt,” you’ll be able to recognize what you’ve done to transgress a law or value. In this case, Christianity has a very specific way of dealing with guilt. You confess to God that you have broken the rule, being specific about what you’ve done, such as stolen something or lied about something or cheated on your wife. And that’s step one. The next thing to do is to make things right with that person. If you stole someone’s lawnmower, you take it back, and say “I’m sorry I took your lawnmower. I’ll pay you if I’ve damaged it in any way.” Jesus was pretty specific about this. He said that it’s more important to handle this feeling of guilt than it is to worship God. In the 5th chapter of Matthew, he said if you bring your gift to the altar, and you remember that somebody has something against you—that you have hurt or damaged someone in some way, then you leave your gift at the altar and you go and get things straightened out with the person first, and then come back and worship God. Because if you don’t get the guilt handled, you won’t be able to really worship God. It’s that important, Jesus said. (Matt. 5:23-24)
The Twelve-Step program has a wonderful way of handling guilt. There are definite steps whereby you surrender your life to God and then you recognize you’re powerless to handle guilt by yourself, as well as any addictions or compulsions you may have. Then you make a decision to turn your life and will over to God. Then you specifically make a list of all the things you’ve done as far back as you can remember that have broken the rules, ways you’ve hurt people, cheated, lied, stolen been disloyal, and things like that. Then you read that list to another human being—a sponsor or minister. Then there is a process for going to the person you have offended and making amends. It’s very important not to harm people by confessing to a misdeed to them or their families, or business associate. But when you’ve done these steps, the guilt is almost always gone. You transgressed a moral, ethical or spiritual value, you’ve recognized it, confessed it, and done everything you could, and then you’re clear.
Dealing with Shame
If you really can’t think of any specific law or value that you’ve transgressed, then the alarm panel marked “shame” is giving you the warning. For example, when I was a kid, I used to come home from parties and often cringe because I’d think I’d made a fool out of myself. There wasn’t anything specific. I just thought I’d been too brassy or silly. I thought my nose was too big, my ears were too big. Physically I wasn’t what I thought I ought to be. It was just a feeling of “not being enough” somehow. And this feeling chases people through life even if they are very attractive and very successful.
Dealing with shame is a different process because there isn’t anything to confess or make amends about. I have come to see that God specializes in handling shame through a community of people on his spiritual journey. And it seems to involve a process done in a group based on honesty and caring love. But unless you find a group of his people who are committed to sharing their lives honestly with respect and love, you may not find relief for shame. This may be why groups based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous may have constituted the fastest growing spiritual group in the world in the twentieth century.
I got in a group about twenty-five years ago. It was a Twelve-Step group. At first I didn’t want anyone to know anything bad about me so I tried to look like I just wandered in to check the meeting out. After a few meetings I heard people say that their healing and transformation began when they started to get honest about their problems and began to feel relief. I realized that if I wanted to get well from my addiction, then I had to face my problems by revealing myself. In these meetings I heard people tell about what they had done: how they had drunk too much and lied and hurt people, what their addiction caused them to do. At first I couldn’t reveal very much. The fact that I had done so many things that transgressed my value system brought a strong wave of shame over me every time I even thought about them. And telling other people about them seemed impossible—the wave of shame threatened to overwhelm me. But I noticed that no one laughed or looked disgusted or lectured anyone else who talked about these things. They listened with a quiet respect. So I began to talk. It was sort of like pulling a thread out of my mouth, something small enough that I could stand the shame. I looked around afterward and nobody looked away. They just nodded. So at a later meeting I pulled out a little more vulnerable admission—like a string attached to the thread I had started with. And then over a period of time of listening to honest sharing in a matter of fact way, I pulled out a rope, then a chain and then a whole bucket of things I’d made up my mind I’d never share. After I’d done this for some time, I realized that I didn’t feel so bad about myself. The shame had subsided, and I didn’t feel like a bad person any more.
These people seemed to love me more when I was honest about the fact that I’m very self-centered and have had some unethical and immoral behavior in my life that I’d never faced before. And the more they found out about me as I worked through the steps of the program with a sponsor, the less I felt alienated or not enough.
Having been a seriously committed Christian for more than fifty years, it seems to me that Christianity at its best is more equipped to handle guilt but doesn’t deal much with shame. And there may be a lot of Christians who wake up at night feeling awful—shameful. They feel their children don’t love them enough; they’ve been a bad parent, or whatever. It’s a more amorphous feeling of being a bad or inadequate person, or that one’s life is going by and amounting to nothing. But these thoughts that lead to shameful feelings are often not based on reality. That’s a firm conviction that I’ve discovered in biblical Christianity—that everything God created was good.
So now when my emotional alarm wakes me up at night (or any time it goes off), I look at the red blinking light and say to myself, “There’s something wrong I need to tend to.” I ask myself “Is this guilt or shame.” Often a picture will come up of something I’ve done, which indicates the feeling is guilt. And then I know what to do. I’ll confess that to God and share it with a small group of Christians I meet with and make restitution when possible.
And if I can’t think of anything specific, I’ll recognize the feeling as shame. Then I’ll identify the thought or attitude about being less-than, or having looked like a fool or made a mistake about somebody’s name—whatever I can locate. And I’ll surrender my entire future to God again, and remind myself that we’re all sinners, or so we claim, and go to a meeting and share—or share with a sponsor or friend on the spiritual journey. One definition of sin is that we have failed to hit the mark of perfection that we’re shooting at. We miss the mark and according to both programs, “all have sinned and fallen short” of God’s best for us.
But if we don’t face our own sins as Jesus advised us to, we have obviously decided that Jesus made a mistake in telling us how important it is for us to learn how to (as James put it) “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other, so that you can live together whole and healthy.” (James 5:16)
That’s just a very brief picture of our (Andrea’s and my) experience of guilt and shame and how these things can be handled in spiritual programs like Christianity and the Twelve Steps.
Lord, thank you for your consistent love even when I take control of my life and try to make it work on my own. Forgive me for the ways I hurt others and myself (and you) during these times. Thank you for the feelings of guilt and shame that alert me to the fact that I have gone off on my own. Help me to pay attention to them when I feel them. And thank you for the loving welcome I receive when I get honest with you about what I have done and surrender to your guidance once again. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.
– Matt. 5:23-24 (NIV)
Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.
– James 5:16, (The Message)
“The difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”
– Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace
“A guilty mind can be eased by nothing but repentance; by which what was ill done is revoked and morally voided and undone.”
– Benjamin Whichcote, Moral and Religious Aphorisms
 Page 95
 There are important guidelines about finding a trustworthy person with whom to share this part of your life.
 See Steps Four, Five, and Nine, pages (pp58-103) Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition.
 If you want to read more about handling guilt and shame and how if not dealt with they can lead to serious control issues and relationship breakdowns—you may want to read: Facing Codependence and Compelled to Control.
My question is about “compulsive busyness.” I wake up with eyes wide open and a tight chest as all the things I have to do during this day or this week start jumping out onto the stage of my attention and waving at me, chanting “Look at me! You promised to write a job recommendation for me!” or “you said you would answer my long email by yesterday!” or “You promised to mow the yard this week!” I know this is probably not a “spiritual” question, but I’m getting overwhelmed by things I have to do—and it’s confusing because they are almost all things I want to do involving people I really care about. I pray, but use up so much energy worrying about having so much to do that I’m getting very discouraged. Any ideas?
This is not only a very good question—one that many people have voiced—but I can add another part of the real time over commitment drama. Besides the busyness and other commitments you mentioned (which I also have experienced), I have another set of “crisis” voices coming from a group of familiar faces much dearer and more important to me than business connections. And I hear my own inner master-sergeant voice saying, “Don’t forget that your daughter’s birthday (or your son-in-law’s or grandchild’s or best friend’s) is this week!” I’m suddenly exhausted and frantic—and yet everything on my list is something I want to do—in fact something I feel I have to do to be the person I want to be.
I took on a very large writing project six year ago, with my wife, Andrea, and what I estimated would take two to three years (maximum) to complete stretched into four and then five years. It looks like we are finally going to finish the project this year. I had a full life even without this project, and during this time I’ve had several surgeries and other physical challenges to go through. Further, the economic downturn combined with the fact that I’ve had to keep working on this, created some financial pressure. All this started making my days start in the same wide-eyed, overcommitted, “will I ever get caught up” pattern similar to what you described. I was filled with anxiety over my life of constantly putting out fires.
Finally I came to a place of being really stressed out. And it was then that I finally realized I couldn’t solve the problem alone. And I surrendered my over-committed work life to God, being willing to do whatever it took to get it in order.
And this is what happened….
Recently I went to an overnight meeting with nine other men in which we share our lives, “the good, the bad and the ugly” with each other, asking God and each other for guidance and suggestions in honest but non-abusive and deeply respectful ways. We have been meeting three or four times a year, usually at sites in central Texas, for over thirty years.
During the recent meeting following the events I have just described, one of the members of the group told us about something he had heard a minister say recently. This minister had described a sense of being over-crowded with things she wanted to do and felt like she had to do—including caring for and taking time with family members and others whose situations took a lot of her energy and added to an already crowded job schedule. My friend reported that the minister had described a moment in her morning prayer time, as I recall, in which she saw—in her imagination—the faces of these people she loved so much. She remembered what she had just said, “—and I just have to do these things.” Then, inexplicably, she realized how much she loved the people she was dealing with and how fortunate she was to have them in her life. And she heard herself say out loud, “Lord, thank you that I get to love and share in these peoples’ birthdays, anniversaries and illnesses and other important parts of their lives.”
I don’t remember what my friend said next because I was thinking about my own family and friends and the people I’m trying to love and help in my work. And I felt a great wave of relief and peace come over me.
The next morning after I got home from the overnight meeting with my friends I woke up in our bed at home and opened my eyes. While I’d been gone we had received an invitation to attend the high school graduation of our youngest granddaughter in May which we were excited about attending but I was almost afraid to look at my calendar for fear I might have a confirmed business or speaking commitment. Then I saw, enclosed with the invitation, her senior picture. She is so beautiful that I wept. And my first thought was: “Thank you, God, that I get to be this lovely, intelligent, and young woman’s grandfather, and that we get to attend her high school graduation!” Then I thought about my wife, Andrea, still sleeping beside me and said to God, “Thank you that I get to share my life with this remarkable and lovely woman.”
Later, images of my family and other people involved in all the commitments I have on my plate floated into my consciousness and instead of that frantic feeling of breathless over-commitment, I felt peaceful, and I said “Lord, thank you that I get to be the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of these dear people and thank you that I get to write this book with Andrea, and that even if I die before I finish it or no one ever reads it, thank you that I get to learn what you’re teaching me as we are finishing it.”
Then as each other thing I’ve committed to do came up in my mind, I said (and meant), “Thank you, Lord that I get to work with and walk with every person and project on my calendar. And in half an hour my life changed somehow. I felt full of gratitude.
I don’t know if this simple change will mean anything to you or anyone reading this, but just telling you about this has made me realize how grateful I am that I get to be the person who gets to consider, pray about, and respond to you who write questions and/or read what is written here. Suddenly it’s not such a pressured feeling to have agreed to write these blogs, not knowing if they are helping anyone. What I’ve realized as I’m finishing them is how fortunate I am to get to write them! Hope you have a great day.
Lord, thank you that I don’t have to change anyone to be happy—if I’ll let you change my mind. Amen.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
– Matthew 5:8
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”
– Maya Angelou (1928 – )
Author and Poet
“Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”
William James (1842 – 1910)
US pragmatist philosopher & psychologist
Keith, you talk a lot about prayer being an important part of your life over the past forty-five years, particularly since you made a decision to try to surrender your whole life to the God Jesus called Father. I have two questions. First, how and when did you get introduced to praying? The other question is about whether the way you pray has changed or evolved over these many years. If so, how?
These are perceptive questions. I could (and may—but not now) write a book to deal with them. But for now I’ll just start by telling you about a time when I was a little boy, probably four years old. One night my mother was putting me to bed, and she changed our routine. She always sat on the edge of the bed and would leisurely ask me about my day and we’d visit. Then she would say a prayer. I have no memory of what she prayed about, but I loved her being present, and the sound of her voice.
But one night after the sharing time, she said, “Johnny*, God is listening for you to pray, to talk to him.”
I said, “You mean God is actually here in this room with us??”
Seeing the look of apprehension on my face, she said, “Yes, and he knows all about you, has forgiven you of your sins, and loves you very much.” Then, smiling, she kissed me on the forehead, tucked me in and left, leaving me in the dark with a thin shaft of light from the almost-closed door.
I looked up in the left-hand corner of the darkened room (somehow placing God there) and pulled the covers up to my neck. All I could think of were the nasty things I’d done in that room when I’d thought I was alone that I certainly wouldn’t have wanted God to know about. But then I remembered that mother had said, “…and he knows all about you, he’s forgiven you for your sins and loves you very much.”
So finally I whispered, “Thank you very much.” And my prayer life had begun.
As to how my prayer life changed during the next seventy-nine years, I don’t know when I realized various things about God and about myself. But I can say that for years, praying was something I did, mostly at night. But after the last member of my family died and I surrendered my entire life to God (not realizing how little I knew about my behavior and its effect on other people) my prayer life changed from just expression of gratitude and requests for help. I now wanted to be God’s person, so I began to ask God to let me know what I should do and to help me do those things. Later, after I wrote my first book and it was published in eleven languages, a lot of my prayers had to do with gratitude and a desire for guidance.
Then when I was forty-seven years old, there were serious problems and conflict in a marriage of twenty-seven years. I prayed for “solutions”—that would (I now realize) change my wife—although consciously I thought I was praying for our marriage to change. But I had developed a strange blindness that made it difficult (impossible) for me to see the extent to which I was out of touch with my own reality. I found myself giving God “weekends off” somehow.
Finally through a very agonizing divorce (primarily due to my self-centered, immoral behavior) I continued to pray, but the sense of intimacy with God was no longer real somehow.
After the divorce I began to try to find out who I now was. I had to face the fact that I drank too much and didn’t even want to quit. But finally in 1985 I went to a treatment center and there I learned about my intense self-centeredness, my addictive personality and my unconscious denial of unpleasant personal characteristics. Ironically I was praying the whole time, praying to be able to see the truth that was so baffling to me. Then at the end of treatment I had a gut-wrenching night of reality in which I vividly saw my selfishness and how much pain it had caused not only my first wife, but my children and some of my friends and business associates.
The resulting surrender of my life including all the previously denied “putting myself in the driver’s seat of my life where only God belonged” put me into an entire new place in my prayers. I had become more like a small child not knowing what to do with my life. There was a deeper quality of asking God what I should do and be. In addition to praying, I read the Bible and all kinds of books about recovery and the lives of people who had surrendered to God. And I consciously “took my hands off the wheel” each morning and listened harder for directions. I learned to ask for and trust people enough to take directions, to move toward recovery, and to share the larger awarenesses I was coming to in my daily attempts to live for God one day at a time.
During this period I prayed to discover God’s perspective concerning all of life—and for knowledge of anything else about which I might be in denial so that I could surrender the newly discovered deceptive and harmful thoughts and behaviors to God, asking him to help me remove them.
For about twenty-five years I lived in a world that I had not even known existed as I tried to help other people to find God, people who had never seen their own self-destructive issues of control and self-centeredness and the problems their blindness was causing. And since I was no longer hiding any areas of my behavior from myself or from God, my prayer life was much more tranquil. I felt peace and acceptance inside for the first time ever. During this time I traveled, spoke and wrote books in the field of codependence, control issues, the twelve-step spiritual process and business management. And although these were dramatic years of working with other troubled people in different countries, many of whose languages I did not speak, it was a time in which my prayer life became more who I was than what I did. Communication with God was often all through my days and nights.
Finally, I realized that although I was no longer recognized in airports or when attending public meetings, I was more at home with God, myself and people who were running from God (and secretly hoping God would catch them) than I was with many of the Christians I’d known.
During the last five years my prayer life has become more of a running dialogue with God that seems somehow natural for me. Prayer is not so much a series of staccato cries or requests for help as it is an attitude of intimate listening and sharing in a life in which I am learning how to love other people as I have felt loved by God and some of his other recovering children.
Almost every personal encounter becomes a chance to listen to and learn about the wonderful stories of all kinds of people. And sometimes now as an old man I can see small ways in which I can help some of them see the good things and value in who they are—things which self-centered parents (like me) may never have gotten around to telling them. All this is part of what I now see as my prayer life. And at the end of the day I feel inside like a little boy who has an intimate contact with a Daddy who created the whole game of life, about which I have an insatiable hunger to learn.
Lord, thank you for your invitation into a healing relationship with you. As I move through my days, help me to hear your guidance and feel your love and to learn how to share that life with other people. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.”
– Matthew 6:14, The Message
“He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life.”
– William Law (1686 –1761)
British minister and one of the writers/translators
of the King James version of the Bible
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”
– Sören Kierkegaard (1813 –1855)
Danish Christian philosopher, theologian and religious author
“Prayer may not change things for you, but it for sure changes you for things.”
– Samuel M. Shoemaker (1893–1963),
Episcopal priest, instrumental in the
founding principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
* My first name is John.
How come some people like you keep going into your inner life and wrestling with deep problems all the time and yet claim to have the Holy Spirit? I don’t do this, and I’m a happy committed Christian. My wife is like you and says I’m just not sensitive to spiritual things. But I know some great Christian leaders who say they don’t have to wrestle the way you do (and they imply that your faith must not be very strong if you have to wallow around inside yourself after you become a Christian).
How about this? Who’s right, you or them?
That’s a good question.
I believe that there are (at least) two basics types of personalities. One (of which I’m an example) is the person who must look at the inner struggles and the meaning of the darkness and light he (or she) sees within—almost for survival. I can no more help my need to find out what life behind my face is like—however scary the darkness or however unacceptable the discoveries—than I can stop breathing. When I became a Christian, I was told to confess my sins against God and other people and ask forgiveness. To do that I have had to go inside to recall how and when I had hurt other people and God (because I couldn’t remember many sins. And it was very difficult for me to go to people I had harmed, confess my sin against them and ask them and God for forgiveness. But when I finished that task, I experienced a new kind of freedom and love for other people and for God that I just hadn’t experienced before. And the big surprise was I even loved myself more easily.
Those of us who are like this often see the Gospel in terms of a struggle between light and darkness within. We come to God with the question (whether we can articulate it or not): “Will the light overcome the darkness or will I be overwhelmed?”
When we are grasped by the Living Christ inside where the world cannot see, we suddenly realize that we are loved and that the Light is and will always be victorious in the end. At such times we can live with and face more often the darkness within ourselves and in the world we see outside of ourselves. And we have a fresh passion to tell the story and sing the song that there is Light, Life and Hope in Jesus Christ, for those who are compelled to face the mystery of life.
On the other hand, there are many people (no one knows which group is larger because we don’t talk much about our inner fears and longings) who live their whole lives being primarily conscious of the world and people outside themselves. These men and women may get baptized and confirmed but not think much about what is going on inside their own lives and motives. Some of these may come to God in a different way if and when they experience first hand a situation or relationship they can’t control in their outer circumstances. But as long as they can’t see evidence that they are powerless to save themselves, they may not ever be aware that they actually need a savior. They feel that they can help God get his work done. And these people often get lots done in the Church and in the world and may become great leaders in the church.
But I think that for either group to claim that its way is the way is a kind of spiritual blindness and naiveté. For those of us who must go on the inner journey to discover and confess to God and ask forgiveness for their sins and harm we have caused in the past there is a Gospel of redemption and possible reconciliation with those we have harmed. And for those who—for whatever reason—are not compelled to open themselves to the depths within, I would bet that there is also a Gospel of Redemption and Love that I don’t understand (because of the amazing grace of God I have experienced when I didn’t even know what I needed). I just don’t know how those people discover the sins of the past that they have done or know what to confess and with whom they need to be reconciled. For years I had no idea that I was hurting the people I loved most with my self-centeredness, so I could not hear what it means to hear the words, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healthy.” (James 5:16)
Your question was who’s right—you or them (those Christian leaders who don’t have inner issues). I’m sorry I can’t help you. I feel closer to God and more at peace than I ever have but I am also more aware of the power of my self-centeredness and need to be right, and how much more I need God’s help in order not to try to fix people who are different from me.
Thank you for writing. I hope this is a good time in your life. If you ever find yourself having to deal with inner problems in your life or religion, write again. I might be able to help more then.
Lord, thank you for the wonderful diversity among your children and that you evidently love and communicate with every personality as each can hear you. Remind me when I need it that my way of approaching you is not the only way to approach you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Have you been loved well by someone? So well that you are secure that person will receive you and will forgive your worst fault? That’s the kind of security the soul receives from God. When the soul lives in that kind of security, it is no longer occupied with technique. We don’t condemn people who don’t do it our way. All techniques, spiritual disciplines are just fingers pointing to the moon. But the moon is the important thing, not the pointing fingers.
– Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs
I‘m hoarse from calling for help, Bleary-eyed from searching the sky for God.
– David, Psalm 69:3, The Message
I’m happy from the inside out, and from the outside in, I’m firmly formed.
– David, Psalm 16:9, The Message
Keith, some people at my church asked me to lead a Sunday School class, and I agreed. One Sunday recently the subject of living by faith came up. After I talked about a couple of my own experiences of faith, I was surprised by the reaction of some of the people in the class. Most of them had a very different idea about it and thought I was being too narrow and rigorous. I’m trying to live my entire life for God, and I began to doubt myself. Now I feel uncomfortable going back to teach for fear I might cause another argument. Yet I want to be free to say what I think God wants me to say. Have you ever had a hard time standing for what you believe in?
Yes. I was converted in a car, alone, when I first tried to give my life to God. And because I hadn’t been in a tradition that even talked about “conversion,” I didn’t really know what had happened. But my experience of life was very different. For a long time after I became a Christian I did not speak about my faith publicly. But after a while people began to ask me to “tell my story,” and I began to travel and talk about the Christian life as it was unfolding in my own experience as a businessman.
This was a good experience, but a strange thing began to happen. As I traveled further and further from home, wrote a book, and spoke to larger groups, some people stopped treating me as an ordinary layman who had made an exciting personal discovery, instead reacting to me as if I were something other than a struggling Christian. And a few even started to treat me as some sort of “authority” or a “program personality” and to look after my personal comfort with great care and thoughtfulness when I was with them.
Naturally I found this very pleasant. And before long, without ever realizing it, I began to expect this little bit of special care and status being bestowed upon me. And, in retrospect, I noticed occasionally more than a tinge of resentment for those who invited me to speak and did not make “adequate” arrangements for me while I was in their city. After all, I thought, I was often exhausted, since traveling and being with people constantly is very tiring for me.
But one day when I was praying a new thought hit me about what was happening. I was becoming the thing I have rebelled against all of my life: a pampered professional “religionist.” With a kind of shocked reflection I could see what may sometimes happen to ministers, bishops, and traveling evangelists. People seal them into a sort of emotionally padded traveling compartment and pass them from one religious group or situation to another. They do not treat such visiting pros at all the same way they treat so-called “regular” people.
And after a while the effect can be very corroding to the speaker’s integrity. At least it was for me. At one level or another I began in self-defense to fit the expected role of being a religious authority, instead of just being a person who wants to live out his or her life trying to find and do God’s will in the nitty gritty business of ordinary living. And to the extent to which I surrendered to this temptation to be “outstanding,” I felt uneasy, and woke up one day realizing I might be on the brink of becoming an “approval-holic:” hooked on constant favorable attention and approval like an alcoholic gets hooked on alcohol. And when I move in that direction—wanting to fit the role that people expect— it subtly affected the content of my speaking as well as its freshness. Looking back, I’ve heard myself toning down the unpleasant aspects of what I am discovering about my own sin and selfishness. Finally, I realized that I was accentuating the points that affirmed the existing beliefs and prejudices of the group to whom I was speaking. I caught myself justifying the whole procedure by telling myself that I should “be gentle and go slowly with people.” And of course there is an important truth in that.
Several ministers over the years have told me in one way or another, “Keith, I really believe in a serious committment of one’s whole life. But my people are not ready for that kind of commitment yet, or that kind of confrontation.” So they admit they preach something less than the best they know and have experienced, because they are afraid people “are not ready” for the best.
But when this happened to me recently and I said these same words to myself, I discovered that the meaning hidden behind the words in my case was that it was I who was not ready to risk a certain group’s rejection of me if I said things that were too threatening to their beliefs…and thus to the status quo. And I was horrified to see whenever I spoke from the perspective of that “ non-threatening, no-risk” mindset— for that occasion I became what the scriptures call a “false prophet”—more interested in approval and admiration than in speaking any creative, freeing truth God had given me for which people “might not be ready.”
But the tragedy was that with all of my recognition of and rebellion against these things, I sometimes still find myself very subtly doing them. At the time my reasons seem so sound, and sometimes I realize they are sound. And often I catch myself, come out of denial, and am able to speak the truth as I see it. And I’m grateful that I am part of a small group of people who meet regularly to deal with these kinds of fears, and from whom I receive encouragement and help to be more real and loving
But here in this time of prayer I know that often I am still full of myself and concerned about what people think of me. And even with the incredible increase in my willingness to face my faults and sins, I know that in an instant I can become again a living example of the problem for which Christ died.
“He broke fresh ground—because, and only because, he had the courage to go ahead without asking whether others were following or even understood. He had no need for the divided responsibility in which others seek to be safe from ridicule, because he had been granted a faith which required no confirmation—a contact with reality, light and intense like the touch of a loved hand; a union in self-surrender without self-destruction, where his heart was lucid and his mind loving…”
– Dag Hammarskjold, Markings
Character or Tolerance?
“All too easily we confuse a fear of standing up for our beliefs, a tendency to be more influenced by the convictions of others than by our own, or simply a lack of conviction—with the need that the strong and mature feel to give full weight to the arguments of the other side. A game of hide-and-seek: when the devil wishes to play on our lack of character, he calls it tolerance, and when he wants to stifle our first attempts to learn tolerance, he calls it lack of character.”
Lord, help me to begin again with your strength and Spirit, and to be one of the free and honest loving children of your family. Help me to speak whatever you would have me say—and not to try to please important or “brilliant” people. Allow me to transmit something of the love and creative courage you showed us in Christ to people I meet today. Forgive me when I am afraid to chance rejection or failure to tell people about your amazing love and forgiveness. But thank you for the times I am willing to risk being honest and lovingly vulnerable. May there be more and more of these times. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“We had just been given rough treatment in Philippi, as you know, but that didn’t slow us down. We were sure of ourselves in God, and went right ahead and said our piece, presenting God’s Message to you, defiant of the opposition…. Be assured that when we speak to you we’re not after crowd approval—only God approval.
– Paul, the Apostle
1 Thessalonians 2:2-4, The Message