What I Wish I Had Told My Sons

Pleased as punch, snapping photos and cheering them on, their mother and I relished each moment with our sons. We couldn’t have been prouder. Both sons were graduating from business schools within weeks of each other. Both had earned exceptional grades and accolades from professors and peers. We heaped praise on them. We told them repeatedly how thrilled we were with their accomplishments. I even posted a tribute to each one on Facebook. The more “likes” the posts received, the happier and prouder I felt.

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., Yet, in retrospect, something was missing. Not in my sons, but in me…and from me.

In addition to celebrating their well-deserved accomplishments, I wish I had also said:

I hope you know how deeply you are loved, regardless of the level of your success, or lack thereof. You never have to question your worth. There is absolutely nothing you could do to make God love you any more than he already does–and I feel the same way. My admiration and respect for you is certainly going to grow over time, but you can’t earn my love. It’s been firmly established in my heart from the day you were born. Being so deeply loved and treasured, you have all you need to genuinely love and accept yourself. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

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“You are loved just because you are our son, not for anything you have done.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t keep growing and looking for ways to contribute to society. I am trying say, What matters most is not what you accomplish or how much others praise or admire you. What counts more is the love you have known and the love you can give. You must take your self worth from God’s view of you and from what Christ does in you and through you that brings God glory and serves his good purposes.

In saying all this, I certainly wouldn’t want to take the wind out of their sails or somehow make them ashamed that they feel proud of their accomplishments. No, I simply want to keep their success in the right frame. I wish I had said:

Be thrilled about all you have been able to do, accomplish, and experience, but not from a “Look how great I am” or “See, I really am superior to others” or “Man, I have it made” perspective. Rather, humbly get on your knees with gratitude. Pray that God would not let your achievements distract you from him and his will for your life. Celebrate all that God has given you as opportunities to learn, grow, and serve Christ in unique and fruitful ways.

In other words, success without a personal relationship with God and character is shallow at best, and dangerous at worst. Don’t measure the quality of your life simply in terms of career, status, or wealth acquired. Instead, be a lover of God and keep putting Jesus Christ at the center of your life and relationships. Always desire to become a better person as well. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how you can best serve with what God has given you. Continually seek to be wise, humble, and overflowing with the fruit of the Holy Spirit—loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Galatians 5:22-23). That’s the life worth pursuing with your whole heart!

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.com; www.fhlglobal.org

Now, having grown up in our home, both of my sons would have already heard most if not all the things I wish I had said at their graduations. Truth be told, it probably wasn’t they who needed to be reminded of these truths, it was I.

I was the one who was tempted to glory in their achievements in a puffed up sort of way. I was the one who wanted to throw my shoulders back and feel just a little bit superior to other parents. I was the one who relished feeling powerful by vicariously identifying with their newly acquired status. I was the one who needed help to keep the right perspective.

I wish I had told them, I’m struggling this weekend. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to live by what I believe and know to be good, right, and true. The Christian life is a humbling journey. I embrace certain ideals and values only to stumble as I face my limitations, resist what I know is right, and outright rebel when I’d rather serve myself. It’s only by God’s grace that I am able to get my head straight again, put my heart back in the right place, and correct my course when I find myself drifting or distracted.

I hope that my experience will help you to see that you, too, are utterly dependent on God’s love, mercy, and grace. You must surrender your will to God’s and keep looking to Christ to do in you what you simply cannot do on your own. This is not something you do once. It is a spiritual program for your daily life. In other words, the real power of the Christian life does not come from you, it comes from your relationship with God, and the extent to which you are willing to throw yourself into knowing Christ and being led by the Holy Spirit in every way imaginable. This is the life you were created to have. This is the life most worth celebrating.

That’s what I wish I had said to my sons.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).

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I Am Loved!

HeadlineI was a broken person.

At age 36, I already felt like a failure. I had accomplished a lot by earning multiple graduate degrees, taking important roles of responsibility as a pastor, and impressing others in various ways. I had an amazing wife and two beautiful children. But in my heart of hearts, my achievements meant little to me. I didn’t feel very valuable as a person. Instead, I kept thinking about being unemployed. Worse, I was plagued by shame over how far short my life fell from what I wanted it to be—and from what I believed God wanted it to be. Not only was I keenly aware of all the “bad” things I had done in my life; I felt like I, myself, was “bad”.

By the grace of God, I was given an opportunity to attend a seminar on the subject of breaking the silence of shame. I learned that what was going on inside of me was far more serious than I had realized. Feeling guilty about our sins and failures from time to time is normal and healthy, and can even motivate us to make needed changes in our lives. What I was feeling was something insidious. I felt ashamed of myself at the core of my being, and when unhealed shame remains in the soil of our hearts, it becomes toxic.

Such shame often produces “weeds,” easily recognizable as products of feeling so poorly about ourselves. For example, our lives may be marked by persistently negative attitudes, highly visible sins, or other self-defeating, destructive behavior. Surprisingly, though, toxic shame can also produce seemingly “good fruit.”

Sometimes, when we believe that we are bad or fundamentally flawed, we try to “fix” ourselves by whatever means possible. We may even succeed at accomplishing much or creating something beautiful. We may hold a highly responsible position. We may serve others regularly and give generously. Perhaps we go to great lengths to make ourselves physically attractive, or to develop extraordinary skills. To us and everyone around us, our lives may appear to be very successful and fruitful.

However, when our efforts are driven by toxic shame (i.e., desperate attempts to do something in order to feel good about ourselves) and not by the Spirit of God, all our striving will ultimately be unsatisfying. At some point, we may give up out of frustration or discouragement. We may keep pushing and driving ourselves to exhaustion. Or, in spite of convincing everyone else that we are truly extraordinary individuals, we still fail to convince ourselves.

When I heard this teaching, the message pierced my heart. I realized that I could never do enough to truly feel good about myself. I am not ever going to find the solution to toxic shame in my own accomplishments. Instead of putting my trust in what I could do for myself, I needed to trust in God’s love and acceptance of me, despite all my shortcomings.

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.com

My two beloved sons today

The image of my holding my firstborn son suddenly flashed through my mind. We were in the hospital, the day he was born. My heart was full, and words gushed out of my mouth that I didn’t anticipate. I looked at him tenderly and said, “Son, there is nothing you could ever do that would make me not love you.” As I basked in the warmth of that precious memory, the same kind of love I felt for my son began flowing within me, filling the lonely, raw, frightened, and empty spaces that were etched as scars throughout my soul.

Our Creator loves us simply because we are his children. He sees all our faults and limitations, and He still loves and accepts us. We belong to Him. And, yes, our moral failures and resistance to God create serious problems that can hurt our relationship with God. Yet, God’s love is so great that He not only reaches out to us with loving acceptance, he also graciously provides a solution for our sin that we could not produce on our own.

With new joy, I recalled the words of the Apostle Paul on this very subject. He explained to the Roman Christians that God’s love precedes all of our attempts to establish our own worthiness. What Jesus did by giving his life for us on the cross shows us how far God will go to to keep us safely in His care forever. Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners (i.e. before we even showed any interest in knowing, loving, or serving God), Christ died for us.” (2)

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Jesus healing the blind man (Mark 8:22-25) Chartres Cathedral, France

In that wonderful moment of awakening, my brokenness was healed. My eyes were opened. My heart was touched. I could hold my head high once again. God’s extraordinary love and grace had replaced shame in the soil of my soul. I now had a healthy, life-giving source of strength for my life—firmly rooted in God’s view of me, and not in my view of myself, or in my ability to earn or prove my worthiness. I was given a solid foundation of love to stand upon that does not crumble every time I stumble, or whenever I fall short of my ideals, fail, or feel rejected.

Several years later, someone who knew me well, asked me, “Who are you? “I hesitated for a moment, surprised by the unexpected question. But suddenly, I knew my answer.

Who am I? I am loved.

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.comAuthor’s notes:

(1) Today’s post is a revised, English version of my recent post in French, “Je suis aimé!” (April 20, 2015). The original text was in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015. On May 3, an earlier English version was  published on The Full Light website, which offers hope and healing words for those suffering from abuse of various kinds, under the same title, “I am loved!

(2) Romans 5: 8, NIV. I added the words in italics to clarify the meaning of the verse.

(3) Thank you to Jill Geoffrion for the photos above.

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“Je suis aimé” (I am loved)

Le suivant essai vient de mon petit témoignage pendant la Retraite Cathédrale, 19 avril 2015.

[A note to English speaking readers: Today’s post recalls a life-changing experience of mine in 1993, when I was profoundly touched by the love and grace of God during a seminar on breaking the bonds of shame. The foundation for my self-image was radically altered, and my reflection on my experience has become the theological cornerstone for my teaching and preaching ever since. The text is in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015.] Headline Il y avait un moment dans ma vie, où j’étais très découragé. J’avais servi bien comme pasteur. J’avais gagné un doctorat. J’avais une belle femme et deux enfants beaux. Mais, après j’ai achevé ma dissertation, je n’avais pas pu trouver l’emploi. Pas dans l’église. Pas dans l’université. Pas dans le séminaire. Alors, ma famille et moi, nous nous sommes déplacés à Minneapolis de Chicago pour vivre prés de la famille de Jill. (Nous avons décidé que je peux tout aussi bien être au chômage à Minneapolis comme Chicago.)

J’étais une personne brisée. Sans l’emploi, et vivant à côté de la famille de Jill, où il y avait eu plusieurs des générations de la réussite en affaires, je m’ai vu comme petit, sans importance. Je me suis regardé comme un échec. Pire, chaque jour, j’ai pensé de touts mes péchés, et j’avait la honte dans mon cœur. Cela veut dire, j’ai pensé que je n’ai pas seulement fait des choses mauvaises, comme tout le monde–c’est le sentiment universel de culpabilité. Non, j’ai aussi senti que j’étais, moi-même, mauvais.

Qu’est-ce que j’aurais faire? Qu’est-ce que je pourrais faire?

Par la grâce de Dieu, j’ai participé dans un séminaire sur le sujet de la honte. J’ai appris que lorsque la honte demeure dans le sol de nos cœurs, c’est toxique. Elle peut produire les mauvaises herbes. Par exemple, des attitudes négatives, des péchés très visibles, ou des choix destructeurs, évident aux autres. En même temps, il y a un autre fruit, très différent, qui vient de honte toxique. Quelque fois, la personne qui croit qu’il est malfaisant ou mauvais peut produire quelque chose belle. Il peut accomplir beaucoup. Peut-être il a un poste à haute responsabilité. Ou, il sert les autres, ou elle contribue beaucoup. Cette personne travaille beaucoup pour prouver à elle-même ou aux autres qu’elle est vraiment bonne. Mais ce n’est pas possible de se tromper comme ça.

Quand j’ai entendu cet enseignement, mon cœur était percé. J’avais accompli beaucoup en gagnant les degrés des universités, en tenant les rôles de responsabilité en tant que pasteur, par exemple, et en essayant faire impression sur les autres. Mais, en ce moment-là, je ne pouvais pas penser de mes accomplissements. Au contraire, tout ce que je pouvais penser était mes fautes, mes péchés, mes échecs.

À ce moment, je me suis rendu compte que je ne pourrais jamais trouver la paix par mes efforts. Il y a une seule solution à la honte toxique, un seul espoir. Au lieu de mettre ma confiance en moi-même, je dois mettre confiance en Dieu.

Notre créateur nous aime parce que nous sommes ses créatures, ses enfants. Il voit toutes nos fautes et nos limitations, et Il encore nous aime. Il peut nous accepter et nous pardonner, parce que nous appartenons à Lui, et parce que son fils, Jésus Christ, est mort pour enlever nos péchés. J’ai rappelé les mots de l’apôtre Paul, qui a écrit de l’amour magnifique de Dieu quand il a dit, «Mais Dieu prouve son amour envers nous, en ce que, lorsque nous étions encore des pécheurs, Christ est mort pour nous” (Romains 5:8).

Dans un moment extraordinaire, j’étais libéré. Tout à coup, je me suis rendu compte que je peux vivre, je peux expérimenter la paix et la joie, je peux tenir la tête haute, je peux reposer en la présence de Dieu, tout parce que mon identité reste ferme sur Lui, et pas sur moi. Son amour m’a donné ce que je ne peux jamais obtenir par mes efforts ou par mes accomplissements.

Plusieurs années plus tard, quelqu’un, qui m’a connu bien, m’a demandé, « Qui es tu ? » J’ai hésité pour un moment, étonné par la question inattendue. Mais tout à coup, j’ai connu ma réponse. Qui suis-je ? Je suis aimé. Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.comMerci à Jill Geoffrion pour les photos au-dessus: 1) La guérison de l’aveugle (The healing of the blind man, Chartres Cathedral, France) 2) An arc-en-ciel capturé à Bora Bora, Polynésie (Rainbow captured, Bora Bora, French Polynesia)

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Good Happy? Bad Happy?

Kids on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

Kids on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

Ever had to try to explain to a 15 year old why glue sniffing is a bad idea? I have. Now, imagine trying to do so when he doesn’t speak much English, lives on the street without parents, has been glue sniffing regularly for four years, and loves doing so because it makes him happy! I wondered, how in the world am I going to get through to this kid? I needed to find a simple but effective way to talk about the risks and consequences of drug abuse, while acknowledging that he may indeed feel happier when he uses glue in the moment. As I thrashed about considering various strategies, the concept of “good happy” versus “bad happy” emerged out of prayer one morning. Chances are, you have never been tempted to sniff glue, and never will be. However, you probably know what it’s like to seek out or settle for a “bad happy”–enjoying a “feel good” in the moment that you later regretted or caused suffering for others. Think about the times, for example, that you made an impulsive purchase on your credit card, took one too many drinks at the party, got something off your chest in a cruel or thoughtless way, betrayed a friendship by passing on juicy gossip, looked for comfort or satisfaction from the wrong kind of entertainment, or indulged in some other self-gratifying behavior that threatened to destroy or undermine something or some relationship you really cared about. Maybe you did feel happy or happier for awhile, but, if you’re honest, you will also admit that it wasn’t a “good happy”. Your experience wasn’t something that left a clean, joyful feeling that nourished your soul and enriched your storehouse of memories. Whatever you did wound up hurting you or someone else, and the fallout from your actions was anything but happy. If you’re struggling with making poor choices that wind up being a “bad happy”, there are some things you can do to turn your life around.

  1. Think about the choices you’re making. What did it cost you last time you gave in to your impulse or desire, and what is it costing you to live this way?
  2. Make a conscious decision. Instead of just going with your feeling or desire in the moment, force yourself to deliberately choose a course of action, and explain to yourself why you are deciding as you are. When you hear yourself talk, do you buy your rationale? If someone else came to you with the same line of reasoning, what would you say to him or her?
  3. Get ahead of the temptation, and make alternative plans. When tempted to go for the “bad happy” choice, ask yourself if there is another way, a healthier way, for you to have your needs met. What else could you do to bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart that you won’t regret later?
  4. Structure your life differently. What could you do to re-structure your life to provide more support for the good decisions you want to make? Perhaps you need to find new places to go in your free time, new friends, new forms of recreation, a small group, accountability partners, or something or someone else who can help you to stay on track more consistently. In the case of the glue-sniffing street kid that we were trying to help, we found him a job, a new place to live with a caring family, and provided regular check-ins with caring adults, new routines and structures that are minimizing his opportunities for drug abuse and are helping to meet many of his needs in healthy ways.
  5. Focus on giving rather than receiving. Of course, you want to feel the warmth and joy of being loved, but when you focus mostly on loving others first, so much of what you thought you were looking for from someone else is likely to come to you in the giving. The more you focus on loving without expectation of return, the more you can avoid much of the disappointment, frustration, conflict, and even anger that floods you—and often sets you up to seek a “bad happy”—when others don’t give to you what you were hoping for.
Nativity sculpture in the Chartres Cathedral, France

Nativity sculpture in the Chartres Cathedral, France

“Good Happy” Holidays Whether your holidays are times of high expectations for joy and love for you, a dreaded time of loneliness and conflict, or something in the middle between these two extremes, it is a particularly good time to think about “good happy” versus “bad happy” as you make your plans for the holidays. For me, the best happy I know comes when I have spent sufficient time just talking to God about my life, my desires, my questions, my longing, and all the people and all that matters most to me. Sometimes I will simply focus on how much God loves me or on what it means that God took the form of a human being in Jesus, and that he gave his life so generously to others, even to the point of dying for us. When I genuinely seek to be close to God, alone or amid others, I feel something deeper than “happy”. Sometimes it is pure joy. Other times I feel at peace and content, and the drive to seek “bad happy” dissipates. Sometimes I find this place of peace and joy through silence and solitude in prayer. Sometimes, it’s worship that re-orients me and frees me to let go of selfishness and wrong-headed behavior. Other times, it’s doing something for someone else with no other expectation than inner satisfaction for doing good, or maybe hoping to see a smile cross their face or light up their eyes. You have heard it said many times, “Let’s not forget the reason for the season,” and “Be sure to keep Christ in your Christmas.” These are not just clichés. These words are wise counsel to help you lift your eyes off of yourself to the one whose life, death, and resurrection have given us an opportunity to experience life in ways not possible otherwise. You have to find for yourself what spiritual practices and lifestyle choices produce the “good happy” your heart most desires and that fits with Christ’s calling on your life. But before you plunge headlong into the holiday activities, pause for a moment. Think about what you can learn from your life experience. Make conscious decisions about how you want to go forward. Find good alternatives to the poor choices you are likely to be tempted to make. Structure your life in supportive ways. Focus on giving rather than receiving. Above all, seek to be as close to God as possible, as often as possible, and in every way possible. Take time, multiple times, to focus on Jesus this Christmas, so that your heart and mind will be nurtured by the only enduring Source of life, love, and contentment—the best possible “good happy” you could ever experience. [Jesus said,] Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28) I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10, NIV)

Icon of Jesus and child

Icon of Jesus comforting a child

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4 Steps to Loving ‘Hard-to-Love’ People

What do you do if you’ve just had it with someone? It may be a family member, a friend, or maybe a co-worker. You may have even been quite close at one time, but lately the relationship just isn’t working. I am not necessarily talking about someone who is actively spewing forth hostility or hatefulness, or someone you have to avoid for your own safety. I’m thinking of those people you simply don’t want to be around, but can’t avoid, or you feel as if you shouldn’t give up completely on them for one reason or another. On your best days, you would still like to be able to love them better or show Christ’s love to them. Loving such “hard (for us)-to-love” individuals is, well, hard! Sometimes the slightest comment or look by “hard-to-love” individuals can stir up a whole rash of negative feelings and even bring out your worst self. Then, there are all those times when your best efforts to try to love them actually backfire, and the relationship deteriorates even further. You’ve figured that you can’t change them, and you also probably realize that it is harder to change yourself than you might like to admit. You may already be at the point of giving up completely.

Tough times on the Camino 2006

Tough times on the Camino

So, what hope is there? Lessons from the Camino In 2006, when my wife, two sons, and I walked five hundred miles across northern Spain on the Camino, a ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, we had a LOT of time together as a family. We were deeply grateful for the unique opportunity to be together for 37 days on this kind of spiritual and physical adventure. On the other hand, our close proximity under these conditions made it impossible to avoid facing unresolved tensions in our relationships. Blow ups, sulking, withdrawing, attacking, followed by more conversation, trying to listen better, many miles to walk and think, praying, and stumbling along under stressful circumstances made the journey a lot harder than we ever imagined. Yet, facing the truth of our relational issues all led to some new insights over time. What emerged were four practical steps anyone can take to improve a broken or difficult relationship that proved to be quite helpful to us then and ever since in many different contexts. Here they are. 1. See—The first step is to open our eyes to see people for who they are, not who we want them to be, or who we’ve caricatured them to be. 2. Accept—We need to let go of any negative emotion we might be carrying from our dislike/disappointment/resentment/frustration etc. arising from the fact that they are not who we want them to be. 3. Appreciate—From a peaceful place of acceptance of another person, we are in a much better place to look for the other person’s qualities and unique gifts and contributions, and to begin to genuinely appreciate something about them. 4. Delight—From an attitude of appreciation, we can now let ourselves actually delight in this or that aspect of their personalities or way of being in the world.

On the journey together

On the journey together

How these four steps transformed my marriage In my own marriage, this four-step process has been extremely helpful. My wife and I share many things in common, but our personalities are quite different, and clash rather easily. Learning to “see” her for who she is has included giving up my ideas of what I thought a perfect wife should be and even who I thought I was marrying! One of the most helpful things I have tried is to consciously set aside my previous expectations for her and start over. I step back and try to see what is real about her. I keep asking her and myself, “Who is Jill?” Not, “Who do I want her to be?” but “Who is she, actually?” (step one) Seeing her for who she truly is leads then to a decision point: Will I accept her as she is? A negative answer perpetuates my unhappiness and the tension between us. A positive answer opens the door to greater peace—not resignation, but simply accepting that this is the person she is without a big, negative emotional charge. (step two)  Then it becomes a whole lot easier to stop reacting when she doesn’t meet my expectations in one way or the other. With this, I have been training myself to say, especially when the old reactions flare up, “Well, that’s Jill.” (That is, “That’s who she is, and I can live with that.”) At this point, the marriage can take a real turn for the better. I’ve decided that I don’t want to stay stuck in disappointment or resentment, thinking about all I might want her to be or to do. Instead, I choose to focus my attention on her unique gifts, her tremendous love for me, all that she does for me and for our family, and the many ways that she creatively contributes to the world. (step three) Then, delighting in her suddenly didn’t seem so impossible to imagine anymore. In my case, I begin to genuinely enjoy many of the idiosyncratic ways Jill gives of herself to love and help me, our family, and many others day after day. There’s nobody else quite like her, and I am now more sure than ever that I wouldn’t want to be married to anyone else! (step four)

Tim and Jill dancing on the Camino

Learning to dance together again

Not giving up It may be easy to blame “hard-to-love” individuals for our feelings or attitude toward them.  But Jesus’ teaching on loving our neighbor and even our enemy doesn’t really support that kind of thinking. He simply doesn’t give us much room to blame someone else for our not trying to love them. To love others is our calling regardless of how others behave, not our reward for their approved or desired behavior. So, in the end, from Jesus’ point of view, loving others is not about them, it’s about us. It’s about our commitment to being people of love, who continually ask God to love others through us more and more. It’s about our willingness to humble ourselves and to let God change our hearts. It’s about doing the hard work of learning how to see—accept—appreciate—and even delight in our “hard-to-love” neighbors, so that we may love them as God loves us and we love ourselves. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV) If you want more suggestions… Who is one “hard-to-love” person in your life? You may be at a complete loss to know what to do differently or you may feel powerless, but you still would like to learn how to let God’s love flow more freely through you to him or her.

  1. Make a list of their characteristics as fairly and objectively as you can. Who is he? Who is she? Without judging them, try to “see” them for who they are.
  2. Let go of all that you’ve been wanting them to be, and choose to accept that this is the way they are—and who they are likely going to be unless they choose to change. Take a deep breath and release all your pent up feelings as you exhale. Pray for the grace to get to the place where you can observe this person and simply say, “Well, that’s _________________ (so-and-so).” You know you have successfully completed this step when you can mention their name without an emotional charge, and you can think of them without disdain or distress in your judgment of them.
  3. Now, identify their strengths as you perceive them. What do they contribute to the world or others? What potential do you see? What of their life do you genuinely value, even if they are not offering their best side to you personally?
  4. Lastly, from a place of peaceful acceptance and genuine appreciation, is there anything about this person that you actually like or enjoy? Don’t try to force this step, but ask God to give you eyes to see what Christ delights in when he sees this person, and to free you to begin to enjoy some aspect of that person, too.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Stepping Out in Faith

Myanmar Institute of Theology faculty and students seeking God's guidance

Myanmar Institute of Theology faculty and students seeking God’s guidance

What important decision lies before you right now? How are you going to decide what you’re going to do, and how willing are you to step out of your comfort zone to reach for what you really want or feel called to pursue? If you’re considering a major life change, John Wesley’s four-legged stool is still a very valuable guideline for any discernment process. This model seeks to balance input from Scripture, reason, tradition, and your Christian experience. You would ask yourself: “What does Scripture say about this idea or issue? What wisdom can I draw from my elders and tradition? What makes sense when I think the matter all the way through? What have I learned from my experience that might inform me now, especially as it relates to trying to listen and cooperate with the Holy Spirit? [1] Then, without neglecting the standard guidelines, often you will still need to venture beyond what you can know from Scripture, reason, tradition, and past experience. Every situation is unique, and important life-affecting decisions often require “real time” assessment of all the variables involved (who’s affected, cost to you, resources available, opportunities, priorities, capability, motivation, support, etc.). Sometimes, the Spirit may prompt you to do something unheard of or completely creative, not found in Scripture, not tried in your tradition, and perhaps quite unreasonable to reasonable folks. If the proposed idea doesn’t “make sense” by your way of thinking, ask yourself, are there compelling reasons to step into uncharted territory anyway? Without killing your enthusiasm, what safeguards need to be put into place that will limit the risks but will not undermine the new venture? A Risky Venture When I decided to leave my role as Executive Director of Family Hope Services (TreeHouse) to develop a global teaching ministry, I didn’t know if I was following a calling, a dream, or a fantasy. I was pretty sure that I needed to get back to teaching and more direct ministry, but what was the best way to do so? I didn’t want to go backwards to a conventional teaching role just because it seemed a safer route. But, how could I be sure that my being creative and taking a risk was truly going forward and not actually running away from the demands of my current position?  Would others judge me courageous or foolish?

On the Camino, trying to discern God's leading

On the Camino, trying to discern God’s leading

So many questions and self-doubts swirled in my head, but I was willing to take all the risks if I could just be sure that the Spirit was guiding me. Yet, such confirmation did not come before I had to make a decision. I knew I had to make a change, and I was willing to strike out on my own. I finally concluded that even if I could not answer all my questions with certainty, I would have to trust that God would guide me as I explored and experimented along the way.

However, at the same time, my move was not a blind leap. I had already made three trips to Bulgaria where I taught pastors and spouses and did some leadership coaching with very positive results. Over the previous decade I had developed numerous workshops, courses, and written resources. I sought the counsel of others, and conducted two more experimental mission trips, one to Myanmar and the other to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Finally, the enthusiastic response we received from each venture, combined with affirmation and support from our home church, prompted us to take the next major step.

In 2008, we created Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries (www.fhlglobal.org), a 501(c)(3) non-profit ministry as a vehicle for sending us and providing accountability, and we ventured forth. Over the past five years there have been many ups and downs and surprises, but as time goes on our step of faith has been confirmed repeatedly as we have now taught and ministered in Rwanda, the Congo, Ukraine, France, Vietnam, and Myanmar. So, on we go, more and more sure of our calling, and yet never knowing for sure if the decision we are making at any given point is from the Spirit or not.

A Dream Realized: Teaching at the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon

A Dream Realized: Teaching at the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon

Don’t Be Afraid

When it comes to stepping out in faith, how willing are you to get out of the box to try something new, creative, or otherwise unheard of and unexpected? Truly, discerning the will of God can be a complex subject, requiring a lot of thought and prayer. In seeking to learn how to listen to and cooperate with the Spirit, you should expect to stumble, get confused, make mistakes, and sometimes be completely fooled at times. If you’re self-aware and honest enough, you may never have complete assurance that what you’re thinking or feeling is truly from God, or whether the decision you made came from the Spirit or from some other source. Nevertheless, at some point you have to make a decision. You have to take some action. You have to take a chance. No matter how thorough your discernment process may be, there will always come a point when you have to step out in faith without sure and certain knowledge of what God wants you to do. This is where you need to have some guts so that you don’t just take the safe option or choose a path with a small vision, and miss out on the full and fruitful life God intends for you. Is something holding you back from stepping out in faith in some important aspect of your life? If you haven’t done your homework, do that first. But if you’re just waiting for more signs or more certainty, you may never take action. Don’t be afraid. Be brave. Take the next step as best as you can discern it, and see what happens. David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work … of the LORD is finished. (1 Chronicles 28:20, NIV)


[1] Many good books have been written on the subject of discerning the will of God, such as Elizabeth Liebert’s, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (2008).

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“It’s a Question of Love”

The voices. The voices. What do you do with all the voices in your head and conflicting motivations in your heart?

I’m not talking about grappling with audible sounds or crazy stuff. I’m referring to the many competing thoughts, feelings, and impulses that vie for your attention and make it difficult to confidently choose a good course of action. You may sincerely desire to be Spirit-led, but you aren’t sure whose voice is whose in your head.

“What am I supposed to think?”

On top of it, most of us are well aware of the power of self-deception, not to mention the lies and deceits of the devil. We know we’re fools if we think that every thought, “insight,” and impulse we have is sound and reliable, and are fooled if we believe our motives are always pure.

When torn between various inclinations, motivations, and ideas, what do you do? When seeking help from God, how do you differentiate the leading of the Spirit from all the other “voices”? Consider the following scenarios from the social domain of life:

  1. “To Give or Not to Give?” You see a homeless person on the street (or simply get a call from yet one more fundraiser), seeking money. One voice says, “Give.” Another says, “Look the other way.” Another voice judges the person asking. Still another speaks from your heart. What’s moving you? The God of compassion, basic human decency, unresolved guilt, fear, or something else altogether?
  2. “Why Am I Interested in Them?” You feel drawn to someone, but you’re experiencing a range of conflicting thoughts. Are you being moved by the Spirit, responding to a basic need for love or friendship, being driven by your physical desires, compensating for some unmet emotional needs, trying to avoid feeling so lonely, or what?
  3. “Why Am I So Smart?” You’re sure that you’ve got someone or something figured out. Has God given you insight and wisdom, or are you simply a perceptive and astute person? Are you seeing the person or situation clearly, or are you blindly projecting yourself or your desires on to others? Are you making a sound judgment or are you being influenced by unwarranted assumptions?

It’s a Question of Love

Amid the din of conflicting internal voices and our incessant tendency to want to serve ourselves, Jesus’ teaching on the priority of loving God, others, and ourselves offers a simple but extremely practical guideline (Mark 12:30-31). Make a habit of always asking yourself, “What about the Rule of Love?” As the Apostle Paul taught, always think about how you can put love into action by “look[ing] not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). That’s love. Thinking about the impact of your words, attitudes, and actions on those your life touches, and choosing to put their best interest even ahead of your own. The rule is to make love the guiding principle in all you do.

Now, back to the hypothetical scenarios mentioned earlier. How would you apply the Rule of Love in the three situations? Here’s how I might do it.

  1. “To Give or Not to Give?” My suggestion: If you want to give, give. If you don’t, don’t. But regardless of whether or not you give something, love calls for treating the person with respect. If you choose to not give money, at least let your smile communicate that you see them as a fellow human being, loved by God. And if you do give (in this scenario or any other charitable endeavor), remind yourself that God has given you an opportunity to give to serve God’s purposes in ways that bring glory to God not yourself.
  2. “Why Am I Interested in Them?” Relationships are trickier. So many factors influence our interests in others, and every relationship is different. Here I will only make one suggestion. Remind yourself that you can best love others when you have experienced the love and grace of God for yourself, and when your relationship with others is not a substitute for the love you can only know in God. The less you “need” to love someone or be loved by him or her, the more free you will be to truly love others in ways that are life-giving rather than life-imprisoning or even destructive.
  3. “Why Am I So Smart?” There’s a difference between “judging” someone, behavior Jesus forbid; and “making a judgment” based on your perceptions and evaluation, our human responsibility for survival and good citizenship. Judging is prejudicially thinking you can know someone’s motives or evaluate their choices. Making a judgment, on the other hand, is carefully determining what is good, right, and true in a given situation. When you must make a judgment, remind yourself that love cares more about building up others and restoring broken relationships than “being right” and securing your identity or status vis-à-vis someone else’s.

I keep going back to the Rule of Love especially when I’m in the midst of a complicated or confusing social situation. I do so, not because I’m so loving or spiritually mature, but because on my own, I’m not.  I need help. I need a simple way to get the right perspective, quickly.

The Rule of Love may not give you a complete answer in every complex or confusing situation. Yet asking and praying with the question, “How are my actions an expression of God’s love for those God wants to love through me?” is what Spirit-led living is all about in its purest and simplest form. The more you ask yourself this question of love, the more you will be able to discern the Spirit’s voice amid all the other voices, and feel confident about how to proceed.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-8, 11-12, NIV)

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Filed under Sacred Love, Spirit-Led Living/Spiritual Growth