Should Christians Go to War – The Error of Pacifism

warI attended a conference regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian formation last year.  The conference went well overall, but like all conferences there were some speakers I thoroughly enjoyed and others I believe missed the mark in their discussions about Christian spirituality.  One such speaker was adamant about Christian pacifism.  He believed it was the only authentic Christian response to the violence we experience in the world.  This speaker is well known, articulate, intelligent, and most likely a better theologian than I will ever be, but I couldn’t agree with his position.  It’s not that I thirst for violence, rather I believe taking this extreme position leads Christianity into a dangerous place spiritually and theologically.

Pacifism claims it’s never appropriate to respond to aggression with violence.  Christian pacifists argue that even self-defense violates Christian principles.  The reasons for pacifism are complex, some say it’s an ethical/moral question and others believe it’s a Christological/eschatological position reflecting the nature of a messianic community in response to the personal call to follow Christ.  This brief commentary doesn’t allow me to elaborate these positions, but suffice it to say whatever the reasons, pacifism believes acts of violence and aggression are never an appropriate response for a Christian.  This isn’t a new argument.   The need to address the appropriate nature of going to war and defending oneself gave birth to the Just War Theory in the Christian past.   Additionally, there was a time Christians believed it was inappropriate to serve in the military.  The Christian church has tried to find ways to live peacefully in a violent world for centuries.

I believe taking an extreme position of pacifism ignores the fact it’s always our duty to resist evil.  Evil isn’t something we should tolerate rather it’s a force needing eradicated wherever encountered.  Too often Christians see evil as merely a spiritual force.  We talk about “Spiritual Warfare” without pause and many pacifists want to stop there ignoring any other dimension of the human experience.  Pacifism limits the boundaries of this battle to the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and to some degree the personal corporeal elements of our condition (i.e. personal mortification as a means to spiritual growth) but ignores evil manifesting in a communally embodied state.  In many ways this reflects a neoplatonic or gnostic understanding of being human ignoring the physical nature of our being.  Pacifism believes a physical response to evil is inappropriate.  The underlying assumption is evil doesn’t need to be fought on the physical front, particularly as manifested in the social and communal setting, It’s purely a spiritual malady.  This position ignores the fact evil is not only a spiritual phenomenon, but rather one permeating the whole human condition.  Evil is something needing addressed from the spiritual perspective, but also the intellectual, emotional, communal, and physical levels.  We don’t treat diseases by merely “praying them away”, we treat them with medicine and other physical interventions as well.

Once a person persists in choosing evil and with great resolve continues in their sin, it transforms their whole being to reflect a deformed state; a corruption of what is good and holy in them.  I’m not implying this completely destroys their human dignity, but it has certainly caused it to be a very distorted part of who they are.  Just as choosing to follow Christ and opening oneself to the graces bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit transforms our whole being to be active agents of love, beauty, and holiness, the choice to persist in evil transforms the individual to be an incarnate expression of all that’s not good, holy, and beautiful.  Irenaeus captures this when he teaches what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God:

“The image was the human’s natural resemblance to God, the power of reason and will.  The likeness was a “donum superadditum” – a divine gift added to basic human nature.  The likeness consisted of the moral qualities of God, where as the image involved the natural attributes of God.  When Adam fell, he lost the likeness, but the image remained fully intact.  Humanity as humanity was still complete, but the good and holy being was spoiled.”

If we follow Irenaeus’ thinking, we can say evil corrupts the person’s ability to reflect the likeness of God.  This corruption permeates the whole person, not just the spirit.  Evil can become incarnate and needs to be countered “incarnationally.”

When a group of individuals decide they will act violently toward another group of people they are choosing to act in an evil way.  Just as it’s appropriate for Christians to defend themselves spiritually from evil through prayer, fasting, acts of mercy, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and practicing other spiritual disciplines, it’s appropriate for them to defend their bodies from acts of evil through protective force.  Pacifism imposes on the Christian a type of neoplatonism implying the body is not valuable, or at least less valuable than the spirit.  This isn’t orthodox Christianity.  Christians believe they are not simply souls in a body, but holistically integrated creatures with bodies, souls, minds, emotions, and integrated relationships.  Evil cannot be permitted to simply take over any part of who we are if we’re called to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy.  When evil makes itself known in our world, even as a choice people make to cause physical harm to another, a Christian has as much a right to destroy that evil as if it were a spiritual attack upon his or her soul.

Often, we look at the Cross as the example for saying Christians must imitate their master and submit to the violence inflicted upon them.  The problem with this interpretation of the crucifixion is it stops with the cross and ignores the rest of the story of salvation.  The Christian church believes after Christ allows violence to overwhelm him, he is victorious over it.  His victory over evil is also the first battle of a larger war in which the forces of good do battle with the forces of evil and in the end God is victorious.  This present and coming battle is a cosmological war described in the book of revelations involving not only our souls, but our bodies as well.

In the end, a holistic approach to eradicating evil requires more than Christian intellectual and spiritual exercises, it requires a holistic response involving the physical act of self-defense.  While Christians should do all they can to convince the world peace is the most important choice people can make they must also be ready to defend what is good, holy, and beautiful with all they are.  It’s in that way we give all we are to the purposes of God and not keep any part of ourselves from him.



The Responsibility of Pastoral Counselors and Spiritual Directors to Create Sacred Space

sacred_space2 Spiritual direction and pastoral counseling can be incredibly transformative experiences when the proper elements converge upon one another. Some of these elements are the development of a good relationship between facilitator and client, solid theological and pastoral education in the facilitator, and a willingness on the client’s part to be open to the movement of the Spirit (Note I will use the word facilitator for spiritual director/pastoral counselor to keep things simple since this discussion relates to both of these experiences). One element I want to discuss in this brief article is the facilitator’s ability to create something I call “Sacred Space.” Sacred space is that slice of time and location where two souls meet and encounter the divine presence so intensely that it profoundly shifts both parties sense of reality. When client and facilitator leave this sacred space they’re no longer the same people who entered it. A good facilitator can cause sacred space to emerge in a pastoral counseling or spiritual direction meeting if they’re intentional about what they do. Too often facilitators believe sacred space is something that just happens but the truth is there are ways to facilitate this experience. It’s not magic nor is it some psychological trick; it’s merely a way to intentionally experience what ‘s already there, the Holy Spirit in the midst of desiring believers.

One of the first things a facilitator can do is be prepared to receive whatever the client brings to the meeting. It might be joy, pain, sorrow, or excitement, but whatever it is, let the client offer in this particular space and time whatever they want to share. Within spiritual direction and pastoral counseling the space we occupy and the time shared together is like a sanctuary ready to receive whatever gifts the client wants to place upon the altar. We do not choose what ‘s brought before God, the client does. By helping them recognize their emotional experience is acceptable and something God wants from them, clients understand this place and time in which they dwell is an intimate meeting with God, not merely a meeting with another person. The facilitator sacramentally represents the receiving nature of Christ, taking from the client whatever they have to offer God. In a sense the facilitator is demonstrating the sacrificial love of God. He or she is saying to the client, “I love you in your pain, your joy, and in your sorrow. You are my child.” When a facilitator is strong enough to withhold from giving advice or judging what’s brought into this metaphysical sanctuary they convey a message of love and acceptance. Carl Rogers often taught for clients to heal they simply need to experience unconditional positive regard from the therapist. While I believe there’s more to good counseling and direction than conveying unconditional positive regard for the client, I do believe the sacredness of the meeting is initiated by the experience of God’s unconditional love sacramentally expressed through the facilitator.

The second initiative facilitators can employ for creating sacred space is the power of presence. I read a wonderful BLOG post by Susan Bryan reminding coaches, healers, and therapists about the effectiveness of presence when engaging clients. Presence is the ability to be actively engaged in the “Now” of what’s happening. When we’re present we’re not thinking about what to say next, what the client “should” do, or a myriad of other things needing done after the meeting is over. Attending to what someone is saying, their body language, your sense of how they feel, your own reactions to their comments and expressions, and a great many other things are all part of being present to someone. Yet there’s more to presence than utilizing attending behaviors you learn through professional training. The client must unconsciously experience the fact you’re with them at this very moment of dialogue. The sense of your presence reminds them they’re in a space with “others” and not alone in their situation. Then, the facilitator uses the client’s sense of “other” to guide them beyond the interpersonal encounter between two people to a God encounter through the Holy Spirit. Many therapists working from a mere mental health perspective stop with an interpersonal encounter providing the client with the sense that they’re being heard and understood. When providing pastoral counseling and spiritual direction this sense of being with others includes acknowledging God is in the midst of those gathered together. This meeting is a sacred space because it involves more than two human beings engaging in a discussion, it involves two human beings open to an encounter with the divine presence.

The third way a facilitator creates sacred space is by experiencing compassion. I don’t mean faking it or presenting compassionate expressions for the client to see, I mean actually feeling compassion for the client. The client must be seen as a fellow human being walking on a journey toward God, not merely a problem to be solved. No matter what the client brings into the meeting, the facilitator must have compassion for the client and recognize this is a person to love. The word compassion has its roots in the Latin phrase cum passio meaning “To suffer with.” The client can sense if you’re willing to “suffer with” them or if you’re indifferent to their experience. This almost subliminal sense allows them to feel the “other” described above. The importance of compassion in spiritual direction and pastoral counseling reaches another level in comparison to other forms of coaching or therapy because the “suffering with” experience transcends what you bring into the relationship and points the client to the God who is willing to “suffer with” them. Remember, an important distinction of the Christian faith is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is willing to suffer for and with his creation. Compassion conveyed to the client in a purely natural way brings that element of sacred encounter into the relationship.

The fourth way sacred space is created is through the silent moments arising in the meeting. God is not only experienced kataphatically but also apophatically. These theological terms convey the sense prayer can include images, symbols, words, and actions (Kataphatic prayer) as well as a transcendent emptying encounter with God (Apophatic prayer). Often the meeting between facilitator and client places a great emphasis on kataphatic content. Facilitator and client pray together, share experiences, and use religious symbols like candles, Icons, and the scriptures to explore God within the meeting. All of these are wonderful tools yet to truly create sacred space there must also be moments of pure silence in which the Spirit empties both client and facilitator to fill them later with holy inspiration and gracious love. Clients purely kataphatic in the session rely too much on reason to understand God ignoring a myriad of other means to encounter the divine. Spiritual direction and pastoral counseling should be a more holistic experience and rely on more than cognitive techniques for interpersonal exploration. They also need to explore the emptiness frequently filled with things other than God. If within the sacred space the client is allowed to experience the emptiness and transcendent nature of God they can see how quickly they fill themselves with things other than the divine. This understanding can then be corrected and the client can develop a deeper experience of God in this emptiness.

Lastly, it ‘s the facilitator’s responsibility to invite the client to experience “active receptivity.” Within this sacred space an encounter with the divine can be profound but not because of any spiritual exercise or techniques being utilized, rather it’s because our gracious God wants to share himself with us. God wants to be invited into your very being. Unlike other spiritual traditions in which the individual meditates, practices yoga, recites mantras, and performs special rituals to experience ecstatic states, the Christian approach to spirituality makes oneself available and open to the grace of God by simply surrendering to him. God is perpetually willing to pour himself into the believer. The believer must make himself or herself available to God. This process of making oneself available is called active receptivity. By actively making oneself present to God and surrendering to him we passively receive his grace and comfort. It’s the facilitator’s role to invite the client into that place.

So often we believe we must be in some ancient cathedral or emotionally hyped up worship service to experience the divine presence. Spiritual directors and pastoral counselors often rely on the assumption sacredness simply appears because one is “doing” spiritual things.  By expressing sacrificial love, presence, compassion, silence and the invitation to active receptivity, the very space and time occupied at that moment could be sacred space where God is encountered and lives are changed. Intentional efforts to create a sacred space for is a key role we have as pastoral counselors and spiritual directors actively seeking to help souls who want a closer relationship with God through their meetings with us.

A New Year of Costly Grace

bonhoefferI know, another year and another set of resolutions to draft. While a number of people are dead set against New Year’s resolutions I actually find them helpful. When done right, they really can guide your life to reflect what you value instead of just letting another year go by without ever living a life worth living. In my life I value academics so I make resolutions that reflect this part of who I am. For example, I might resolve to publish two journal articles, present at one academic conference, etc. By determining what one values and then developing goals around them the whole New Year’s resolution experience can be quite fulfilling. This is a system that works for me so yes, I like to make New Year’s Resolutions.

Something I value is spiritual development. To continue to develop spiritually I try and read books from great spiritual leaders. I started my New Year’s reading by tackling “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I must say, it has been difficult. It’s not that the book is hard to read, but the challenge from this great witness for Christ is powerful. It has forced me to look hard at how much I have ignored being a true disciple of the master. In many ways I have relied on what he calls “Cheap Grace” instead of true discipleship which requires “Costly Grace.” If we are to be true disciples of the Lord Bonhoeffer states we must commit ourselves to embracing costly grace. He describes costly grace in the following way:

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.”

And how should the disciple respond to this vocation to embrace costly grace? Radical and unconditional obedience. One must follow the master and imitate his life of self sacrifice and service for the salvation of the world. The things that stop us from accomplishing this radical single minded obedience are the same today as they were for the disciples of the first century. Bonhoeffer lays this out beautifully when he says:

“The forces which tried to interpose themselves between the word of Jesus and the response of obedience were as formidable then as they are today. Reason and conscience, responsibility and piety all stood in the way, and even the law and “scriptural authority” itself were obstacles which pretended to defend them from going to the extremes of antinomianism and “enthusiasms.” But the call of Jesus made short work of all these barriers, and created obedience. That call was the Word of God himself, and all that it required was single-minded obedience.”

To be a disciple of Christ is a great New Year’s resolution. We need to wake up from our slumber. Christ is born and we must take up the cross of Costly Grace and radically obey his commands. By our obedience to the Son of God we proclaim Christ! I’m struggling like many of you to respond to this radical call, but there really is no other way to follow Christ. With each page I turn I’m challenged by this great saint to be a true disciple; one willing to lay down my life for what’s good, true, holy, and beautiful. Won’t you join me in this? Will you embrace Costly Grace and Radical Single Minded Obedience and take up our Lord’s cross?

Why Helicopter Parents Cause Children to Crash and Burn

parent protective

Does being a helicopter parent impact how your child is able to flourish and handle life when they grow older?  Does being overprotective of your child impact how well they develop later in life?  Well, to some degree over-parenting can become a problem.  Parenting is a complex task and one requiring patience, humility, and a willingness to learn what’s best for your child, even when it doesn’t feel right.  We like to say things like, “My parents did that to me and look, I turned out okay!” as if we should be held up as the most well adjusted human being in the world.   And who believes “okay” is the target we should shoot for in our child’s life?  I don’t know about you, but I want my children to experience parenting that makes them the best human beings they can be.  Just being “okay” is not good enough when we’re talking about building people of character.  Because I want the best for my children I spend time reviewing the psychological research to identify what really works.  The research might not always be perfect, but it provides a great place to start.  I know what you’re thinking, there’s so much advice about parenting out there can any of it really be helpful?  Why are there so many people telling us to do so many different things if it can be explained so easily by research?  First, it’s important to recognize there is indeed a specific type of parenting that produces the most well adjusted people.  There’s no guarantee it will work 100% of the time with every child, but of all the parenting styles people use, authoritative parenting is found to be the most effective for raising well-adjusted children.  Authoritative parenting is a parenting style that provides parameters for attending to your child’s needs and setting clear boundaries and punishments for their behavior.  Here are two ways we can understand this approach to parenting:

  1. Responsive parenting – Attentive and responsive parents provide the psychological foundation children need to experience the world as consistent and safe.  Responsive parents know their child’s talents and  encourage them to use these talents to engage and explore the world.  These parents know how to communicate with their children in an age appropriate way making sure the child understands what’s being asked and what’s expected of them.  Warmth, love, understanding, and empathy are important elements of being responsive to your child’s needs.
  2. Definitive parenting – Authoritative parenting means providing clear and understandable boundaries for behavior.  Parents discuss what’s expected and behavioral guidelines are presented in a way that’s clear and understood by their child.  They reason with the child  in age appropriate ways and have age appropriate expectations about what children should and shouldn’t do.  Authoritative parents develop guidelines leading to a child’s independence and celebrate the steps their children take in that direction.  When there’s a need to discipline the child he or she is told why they’re being punished, that it’s done to help them learn to behave appropriately, and even though they’re being punished it doesn’t affect the love mom and dad have for them.  Power-assertion and discipline are only used as a means to help the child learn, not as a result of frustration and anger on the part of the parent.

You can see over-parenting, or what’s commonly called helicopter parenting, breaks a few of these “rules” for good parenting.  First, it assumes the child cannot do things independently and doesn’t celebrate the growing sense of autonomy that should naturally occur in human development.  Additionally, over-parenting might send the message that “The world is a scary place and you should be afraid of it.”  That message can create anxiousness in the child and limit the child’s desire to explore the world.  One can see how this sense of fear and anxiousness could limit an individual’s healthy development.

Recently, there’s been some interesting findings being discussed in a number of psychological periodicals about the fact many college students lack something called resilience (See the article in Psychology Today here.)  Resilience is developed in a person through a number of practices and experiences learned over a lifetime.  People who experience self-exploration, allowing oneself to fail, developing a positive view of oneself, and maintaining hope, seem to develop into resilient people more so than those who don’t.  You can see that over-parenting tends to limit the development of these experiences for people as they mature.  Resilient people adapt to stress and adversity well, manage relationships in an effective way, navigate interpersonal conflict appropriately, and overcome failure and disappointment in ways that facilitate growth.  

If we want our children to be resilient people we need to avoid becoming helicopter parents and adopt an authoritative style of parenting.  Being a successful parent means raising children who become people of character.  There’s no greater virtue a person can have than to be someone who deals with life’s problems well and learns from their mistakes.  Not only do they become a better person but they become an inspiration to others.  Isn’t that something you want your child to become?


Discerning Sacrificial Love – Getting Married


One of the greatest things about working with young Christian couples is I can draw on a rich history of marriage as a sacred spiritual calling. Marriage is more than an agreement or contract; it’s a covenant, a vocation, and a means by which human beings image the very God who created them.

It concerns me some Christians have lost this sense of vocation in regards to marriage. In many of the Christian couples I’ve counseled this sense of discerning a vocation seems to have been absent in their preparation for this sacred institution.

There are a number of options Christians have for living their lives in service to God. Some are called to the mission field, some to ordination, and many to be married. What does it mean to have a vocation for marriage?

Romantic visions of two people happily spending their lives together often get pushed aside the first time couples have to negotiate where they will spend Christmas and how to spend their extra money.

If marriage isn’t about being with someone and having the time of your life, what’s it about? It’s about joyous sacrifice. I know, it doesn’t sound like anything anyone would want, but it’s the essential element creating a vocation from what’s too often seen as a negotiable partnership.

To really live up to the vocational demands of marriage requires suffering. To suffer with someone is to make yourself vulnerable to their pain and struggles. when one partner is ill the other suffers as well. If one partner needs time away the other needs to patiently bear a sense of isolation. Individual needs have to come second to the primary needs of the marriage.  Sometimes one partner needs to carry the burden of two so the marriage can thrive.  It’s indeed a selfless vocation.

Joyous sacrifice in marriage requires both partners to spend a great deal of time in discernment. Marriage gives witness to the Christian virtues of selflessness and sacrifice with a joyful heart. Children will leave, youth will vanish, possessions come and go, and ultimately the very thing couples become vanishes as one partner must selflessly allow the other to go home to be with God.

Marriage is about joyfully letting go one’s own wishes so the creative power of God can make something new of what’s left.

This sounds like such a harsh and difficult vocation, but joy is evident in the selfless love found in marriage. Why? Because the grace God provides is more powerful than the sacrifices the couple is asked to make. Without the grace of God no one wants this life, just as no one would want to be a minister charged with a large church and more work than any one person can handle.  No one wants to think about giving up their needs for the needs of someone else.

I urge many young couples to think about the implications of their vocational choice to be married.  Marriage is both infinitely pleasing and exceptionally sacrificial. Couples must be open to the grace required to love each other when it seems impossible.  It might mean giving up careers for the benefit of family, to be prepared to be alone when you really want company, and to be open to the love and grace flowing from these sacrifices that can only be appreciated when viewed through the eyes of God.

Marriage is a profound gift and an admirable vocation deserving the serious discernment any vocation requires. When well discerned, couples encounter the transforming power this sacred institution provides and come to know God more deeply in the gracious sacrifices they offer one another.

Want to learn more about discernment?  Attend this free webinar on January 28th.  Learn more here