The Spiritual Life – It’s Not About You!

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I teach a class on marriage and family. Recently we explored different theoretical models for understanding relationships within families and how individual family members connect to one another. One of the models we discussed is called “Social Exchange Theory.” The theory generally states relationships within a family are based on a conscious (And sometimes unconscious) analysis of the costs and benefits of remaining in them. To explain this further, it’s as if you ask yourself, “What’s the least amount of time I have to spend with my wife (or husband) to ensure I get the support and affection I want from the relationship?” You could translate that into other family relationships as well. A mother might ask herself, “What’s the least amount of affection I need to show my children to make sure they behave the way I want them to behave?” Again, the theory doesn’t state we have to explicitly think this way, only that in either a conscious or unconscious way this is continually playing out in our minds.

Unfortunately, as ugly as it sounds, sometimes this is exactly how we view our family relationships. I don’t think it defines everything about relationships but because we’re fallen broken human beings, we often think about ourselves first and then consider how much of “our self” we need to give up to continue in a relationship that benefits us. This model assumes most of us are self-interested and too often we prove that assumption to be true. When we fell from God’s grace, our “self focus” became the lens in which we view all of reality, including our relationships with one another.

Yet, here is the paradox. The more of ourselves we keep from one another the more isolated and “unrelated” we become. This is most evident when we consider Christian spirituality. We are created for relationships, thrive when we give and receive love, and it’s when we encounter other people and invest ourselves in their lives that our lives become most fulfilled. The Christian religion isn’t a religion of isolated hermits sitting on mountains gazing at their bellies to discover who they are. Christian spirituality is something poured out of oneself and offered for the benefit of others.

I remember when I first started praying the liturgy of the hours. This ancient spiritual practice of stopping what you are doing at certain points in the day to pray the psalms and meditate on scripture became a priority in my life. In fact, I would often step away from my family, friends, and other people to sit quietly and pray the hours. Normally this is a fine practice but a wise spiritual director listened to me describe how I often got frustrated when my wife and children interrupted me while performing this important spiritual work. He reminded me this practice, while admirable, needed stopped immediately because it was becoming a stumbling block to my spiritual progress. I was taken back by his comments, particularly because he knew as a Benedictine Oblate (A lay person who tries to live by the Rule of St. Benedict in the world, not in a monastery) I made promises to pray in this manner throughout the day. My spiritual director was wise. He reminded me if any spiritual discipline pulled me away from investing myself in the lives of others it’s not one that honors God. By making this spiritual practice more important than the relationships God placed in my life I wasn’t growing in grace but rather recoiling in self-absorption. Self-absorption forces us to “Count the cost” of the relationships to determine if they are worth continuing. I was indeed in a bad place.

What I learned from my spiritual director is that a solid Christian spirituality begins by being invested in relationships and doing so without counting the cost. We can’t do that on our own, it requires the grace of God to lift us from mere human love to reach the pinnacle of divine love, what scripture refers to as agape love. When the Christian realizes his choice to love God and others is a choice to selflessly pour his life out so others may thrive he’s at the starting point for beginning the spiritual life. Christianity is a faith that teaches one finds his life by losing it, and in losing it we rise from our losses to encounter God himself. So, if you think you’re spiritually mature because of the spiritual practices you perform but never seek ways to pour your life into the lives of others, think again. A Christian cannot thrive spiritually if he doesn’t love others unconditionally. Start your spiritual life by asking yourself every day how you can love others better. The more you love, the more God pours himself into you. After all if you empty yourself of “you” while connected to God, he will fill that space with his Holy Spirit and empower you to be a great force of love in a broken world.

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The Fingerprint of Sin – Signature Sins

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 As many of my readers know I’m a professor of psychology for Regent University as well as a priest in the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. One of the courses I’m teaching this fall is Abnormal Psychology. Abnormal Psychology focuses on behaviors, cognitions, and emotions considered disordered. One area psychologists explore in regards to abnormal behavior is why particular abnormalities emerge in the first place. In other words psychologists ask the question, “Why are some people clinically depressed, suffering from clinical anxiety, have schizophrenia, etc.,while others seem to go through life without any problem?” A popular model used today to describe the source of abnormal behaviors is called the “diathesis stress model.” While the name sounds very technical, it really isn’t that difficult to understand.

The diathesis stress model simply states everyone has within them the potential to experience a psychological disorder of some sort. We’re all vulnerable to particular disorders. We may not know what they are, but given our genetic make up, life choices, and the circumstances in which we live any one of us could have a psychological disorder just waiting to emerge. This risk factor is called a “diathesis.” What causes the disorder to emerge is the fact environmental stressers impress themselves on the individual and trigger the start of the problem. This model is no different than how we explain certain physical disorders. We may have the genetic predisposition for diabeties, but because we exercise, eat right, and maintain a healthy lifestyle our body never experiences the stress of unhealthy living which causes diabeties to emerge. The key is to mitigate the disposition toward the disorder by keeping our environmental stressors low and practice healthy living. We may have a disposition for depression but if we make sure we have down time, coping mechanisms in place, and a support system available we may never experience depression at a clinical level. The key to maintaining physical as well as mental health is to be sure we understand our vulnerabilities and maintain a healthy set of coping mechanisms to keep us from experiencing problems at a high level

This model is very helpful for understanding how we develop physical ailments and psychological ailments. It also translates nicely for understanding our spiritual ailments. First, we must all recognize because we’re born into a fallen world we have a fallen nature. This fallen nature creates in us a proclivity toward sin. All of us have a sin nature, not a nature of virtue and holiness. While I recognize there are a number of theological positions regarding the state of the soul, I think most Christian can agree the natural state of the human spirit when born into this world is broken and fallen. Additionally, each of us carries within us a proclivity toward a certain sin, or pattern of sins, something called “Signature sins.” Michael Mangis wrote a book called, “Signature Sins, Taming Our Wayward Hearts” in which he explains what these particular proclivities toward abnormal spiritual behaviors are. He writes the following:

“My life, like my home, carries unique markers of my own experiences, relationships, likes, dislikes, gifts and vices. My life displays patterns, consistencies and habits. Even spontaneity occurs within boundaries. My sin is similarly patterned. I can predict my temptations by the choices that have enticed me before. Other temptations may afflict my neighbor but cause me no struggle at all. My patterns of sin are unique to me.”

Like having the risk factors that could lead to a psychological disorder, we all have risk factors that can lead us to display spiritual abnormalities. All it takes is the appropriate environmental stressor to have them kick in. A man may be susceptable to lust and all it takes is watching a sexually explicit movie and he finds himself lusting after women and thinking about them as if they are mere objects of his desire. Having a particular proclivity toward a configuration of sins and living in a world that provides a number of opportunities to experience those sins can lead us to be spiritually disordered. In the end, we’re people struggling with the potential breakdown of not just our bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships, but our spirits as well..

If we truly want to grow spiritually we need to make ourselves aware of our signature sins. These risk factors have the potential to lead us down a path of destruction. They need to be identified as well as the environmental factors causing us stress and in the end, activating our sin pattern. Working with a good spiritual director, practicing spiritual disciplines, and being connected to a great community support system is the first step for growing in the life of grace. In the end, our natural proclivity toward sin can only be transformed by the supernatural life of grace coming from a relationship with Christ. Begin your new life in him by finding ways to destroy the old life in you.

Spiritual Congruence – Fear God, Really Fear Him!

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If you’re mentally and spiritually healthy what you believe drives what you do.  In technical terms therapists describe their client as “congruent” when a person’s behaviors are driven by their beliefs and values.  This is also important for a healthy spirituality.  I find clients who participate in spiritual direction often profess a “belief” in some spiritual truth but behave differently.  When I encounter this incongruence I ask them about it.  While the goal of spiritual direction is different than therapy, it’s still an important point to address.  A healthy spiritual life is a life lived in truth.  Sin hides us from our very selves and when we see these blind spots in one another we need to point them out allowing all that’s true, beautiful, and holy to emerge from the embers of our purified souls.

In our small home church, we’ve been watching a series by Francis Chan called “Basics” where he addresses key elements of the Christian faith.  In the first video he addresses the fact many Christians no longer know what it means to fear God.  We’ve turned the fear of God into feelings of “respect” and “reverence” but as Chan notes, when you read the scriptures, people truly understood the “Fear of God.”  I’ve experienced this in myself and in a number of my spiritual direction clients.  Because we don’t want to deal with the “Fear of God”, we change the meaning to be something else or attempt to ignore this disturbing reality by putting it out of our minds.  In other words, we either shift the meaning of the words of scripture making them mean something they were never intended to mean or we try and live with the incongruence they elicit which never works out well.  In the first instance we merely lie to ourselves and in the second we just ignore the truth.  Either way, our spiritual lives suffer.

Fearing God should be a natural response to an accurate understanding of the nature of God.  God is the ultimate power and if we believe he is all powerful, we will fear that power.  Why do so many nations do everything they can to keep nuclear weapons from as many other nations as possible?  Because they fear the power of those weapons.  If nuclear power can elicit that kind of fear, shouldn’t the ultimate power of God elicit the same experience from us?  Do you really believe God is all powerful?  If so, why don’t you live like it!  Yes, like the song says, “We have a friend in Jesus” but we also have a God who is an awesome and mighty God.  If I fear God, I do what’s asked of me, I’m humbled by his incredible presence before me, and I recognize my place in the God-man relationship.  But if I don’t “really” fear God, I say things like, “Oh, I guess I’m headed to hell for that!” in jest not realizing without God, hell is indeed a reality I may face.

To believe what scripture tells us and to act on that belief is being spiritually congruent.  The paradox elicited when thinking about the fear of God is that just when we fear him, God tells us to “Fear not.”  Yet, without that initial fear, we can never appreciate the great gift the command “Fear not” is.  We must have the fear of God to gain the wisdom to know the love of God.

My challenge this week is for us to grow in spiritual congruence.  Do you believe God is real?  Live a life reflecting that belief.  Do you understand his power and awe inspiring presence in your life?  Do you open the scriptures and find yourself bowing down to his awe inspiring presence?  Then, just when you fear for your life because you’re in that presence, do you lift your heart in joy because in his graciousness he reveals his power is fueled by his love?  Seek the places where you’ve transformed what scripture teaches plainly to be more acceptable to the modern ear.  Then, allow these hard truths to stir discomfort, paradox, and angst in you.  You may find these spiritual stirrings put you in touch with who God is rather than who you want him to be.

Don’t Go to Church – “Do” Church

young churchI work a great deal with young people.  Young college students are often an enigma to their older professors.  I don’t claim to have any great insight into their way of life, but I have spent time listening to them about a number of topics.  Additionally, I am a psychologist so I tend to listen with a different ear than other adults.  Because it’s my passion to help people live healthy, flourishing, resilient, passionate, and balanced lives, I like to talk to people about the things research finds helpful in regards to being a healthy, happy person. One of those “things” I talk about is religion.  Numerous studies show people participating in religious services and communities live much more meaningful and healthy lives than those who don’t.  Yes, there are a great many ways to explain why that’s the case, but in the end, religious participation and a commitment to a religious community is good for you.  That’s why it disturbs me when I read how many young people are straying away from church.  When I see young people moving further from church I see the future move further from an institution that promotes pro-social and positive values.  But maybe that’s the problem, I see church as an institution.  The first images that come to my mind when I hear the word church are those of a building, place, and institution, in which people gather and learn a set of beliefs about how to live.  I think I’m wrong.  In fact, I’ve been well schooled in this area by a number of my young college students who get church better than I do.

A key insight I gleaned from discussing church with these students is that church is not a noun but rather it’s a verb.  Younger people “do” church, they don’t necessarily “go to” church.  They may gather together in their dorm room, meet at the quad, or go to a local coffee house, but when they get there they “do” church.  If they can, they sing some worship songs together.  One might play the guitar or they just sing the songs without instruments.  They pray and lift their voices and hands together, thanking God for what they have.  They read scripture and discuss it.  Each brings their perspective to the Word and they may even disagree about how each person interprets what’s read.  At some point they lift each other up in prayer and intercede for one another.  They do these things and leave with the understanding they’ve “done” church regardless of where they are.

I really love this movement.  I think it speaks volumes about what church could look like.  Yes, I think some things are missing, but it’s a strong reminder that we “do” church because church is what we “are” not a place we go.  If we met our young Christians in their church experience and provided the missing components, church could really look different.  Here are a couple things I think missing in their experience that could really spiritually deepen what they’re doing.

First, church needs to be done from a multigenerational perspective.  Older individuals can bring experience into the reflections they are discussing about scripture.  Also, some training in the scriptures is important because some scripture can be confusing.  I’m not suggesting older people “tell” them what’s absolutely right and wrong, merely that we can give structure and guidance to the reflections to help them discover what God really says in a passage.  I’m all about allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to the whole gathered body, but sometimes it takes someone with experience and learning to keep the body focused on the essential aspects of the Christian experience.  After all, that’s what the apostles did in the assemblies they were a part of.

Secondly, I think along with worship and scripture reading the breaking of bread is important.  Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, it seems the most basic elements of Christian worship include prayer, singing, confession, Scripture, and Eucharist.  When we do these things we’re doing church like those who walked with Jesus.  Lastly, I think it’s important to include The Lord’s Prayer in worship.  It’s a uniting force in the assembled body and sanctifies our petitions to reflect what Christ prayed for to the Father.

We can indeed learn from our young people and we can provide some leaven and guidance to what they call “doing church.”  I’m encouraged they find unique ways of being church and I welcome the movement.  Yes, I would change some things as mentioned above, but church should be an action and not just a place we visit.  In closing let me add this; I read a book many of you have probably heard of called “Unchristian – What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters” by David Kinnamen.   In that book Kinnamen stresses that while young people may view the church differently, the church continues to have the same mandate since Christ proclaimed the Gospel for the very first time.  This mandate consists of worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism.  Notice these are not places to visit but rather action words; things that we do.  Maybe our churches need to be less concerned about the place we “go” to church and focus more on how we “do” church. Maybe that’s how church continues to be a positive force which gives us healthy, flourishing, resilient, and a balanced perspective on living life well.