A God Who is Not Sovereign is Not God

A God Who is Not Sovereign is Not God

by Marie Notcheva

One afternoon on the way home from work, I caught part of a radio program in which Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) was being interviewed. Kushner was weighing in on a tragedy that befell a family here in Massachusetts: Twin two-year-old girls drowned in their swimming pool, presumably while their mother was inside with a baby brother. It is difficult to imagine the enormity of the family’s loss, and our hearts break with them. This is every parent’s worst nightmare come true.

Kushner, who lost his son to progeria in the 1980’s, made several good points. He observed that grieving parents are incapable of consoling one another (as they would had the loss been a parent or sibling), and they often lash out. He advised the parents to seek counsel from others, and mentioned several bereavement support groups. He noted that the death of a child is something one never really “gets over,” but they may expect to get to a point where they can enjoy life again. He also very wisely cautioned others against offering advice, seeking to minimize the tragedy, or rationalizing it away (“Talk less; hug more”). Seeking solace from those parents who can truly empathize in their grief will also lead to their ultimately being able to offer that same compassion to others. This in turn will counter, in some small measure, the devastating helplessness that they felt when their daughters drowned.

Can We Blame God?

However, when the interviewer turned the line of questioning to whether or not we can blame God, Kushner essentially denied the concept of a sovereign God. (Obviously, as a Jewish rabbi, Kushner’s view of God and redemptive history differ significantly from the Christian position. We needn’t get into soteriology or dwell on self-evident doctrinal differences between Jews and Christians.) What I found interesting was Kushner’s low view of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, and his de facto denial of man’s depravity and the effect of sin’s outworking in the world (hamartiology).

Kushner stated that just as God cannot be blamed for tragedy, (which is true of course; calamity is a result of the fall of man), neither can one say that tragic events are His will, orchestrated by Him, or permitted by Him. That is a disappointingly humanistic worldview, and would be natural coming from a secular psychologist, a Deist, an agnostic, or perhaps Oprah. But follow it to its natural conclusion: if God did not have foreknowledge of a tragedy, then He is not omniscient. This is open theism, and it is heresy. (See Job 37:16; 1 Jn 3:20; Heb 4:13; Mt 10:29-30). Further, Kushner maintains that when people credit or praise God for good events, blessings in their life, or sparing them from disaster, they are actually just putting a “theological face” on their relief at not being the unfortunate victims.

The idea of an omnipotent God is also distasteful to Kushner. He passionately said,

“Given a choice between a deity that is all-good but cannot control what will happen, and an omnipotent creator who allows the death of innocent children, I find the compassionate god much more comforting! Where do we get the idea that power is the highest virtue?”

What disheartens me is that Kushner, who certainly embodies the godly qualities of compassion, empathy, and love for his fellow man – especially the hurting – does not seem to realize that these attributes of God in no way negate His power, omniscience, or sovereignty. If God is not sovereign, He is not God. Kushner seems to be setting up a false dichotomy: If God is sovereign, He allowed those poor children to drown. That would be, in his mind, evil. Therefore, God would not be all-good. If God is all-good, He would not have allowed small children to climb into the swimming pool and drown. If He is good, and had foreknowledge of the incident, He should have done something. He did nothing. Therefore, He is not all-knowing.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that God is both all-good, and in His sovereignty, knew what would happen to the girls. He did not intervene (for reasons we cannot understand, and should not try to speculate upon); and tragically, they died. An additional truth here, which should not be glossed over too lightly, is that His heart is as broken as those of the parents. God is close to the brokenhearted and is moved to compassion by our grief. (See Psalm 34:18; Psalm 147:3; John 11:35; Hebrews 4:15). By contrast, Kushner seems to imply that by allowing what is such a horrific tragedy that the human mind recoils, God is callous or indifferent to human suffering. It is arbitrary; unfair.

Are People Really Good?

Why does the notion of God allowing terrible events seem so repugnant to Rabbi Kushner? A word he kept using was innocent: “What kind of God would allow two innocent girls to drown?” I would counter, “The same kind of God Who let His innocent Son suffer and die on a Roman cross for my sins.” While I agree with Kushner that no family deserves what these folks are going through, if we really examine his argument for innocence (not just of the girls, but of all victims of tragedy), it is flawed. None of us is truly innocent. Only Christ was, and God not only allowed Him to suffer; He ordained it (Isaiah 53:10-11). Does the atonement mean God is unjust, uncompassionate, indifferent?

Even without getting into a debate about Penal Substitution, we can see from the Torah, Law and Prophets alone that we are all, from birth, guilty sinners who inherently deserve nothing but eternal separation from God. We are, in fact, guilty through Adam’s representative act (federal headship), and are born corrupt and therefore oriented toward sin. This is not to say, of course, that individual sin is the reason for calamity (Jesus emphatically dispelled that notion in Luke 13:4); but that when sin entered the world, part of the consequence was misfortune and tragic circumstances. Ultimately, this is the reason for earthquakes and other natural disasters, bloodshed, famine, genetic mutations, childhood illnesses, and the ultimate curse: death (both physical and spiritual). See Genesis 3:14 ff.

Kushner, as the name of his book implies, seems to see human beings as basically good. This is part of the problem with his view of God: He does not see man’s true position in relation to Him. Because Kushner holds a flawed, high view of man, of necessity his view of God’s sovereign will is skewed.

While God is completely holy and completely loving, we humans strike out on both counts. Throughout the entire Scripture, the inherently evil condition of man is set out over against the impeccable nature of God. The term total depravity doesn’t mean we are as bad as we can possibly be; it means that there is no part of our being that has not been tainted by the effects of sin. The following are just a few of the verses pointing to man’s natural condition: Ecc. 7:29; Rom. 5:7-8; 5:12,19; Psalm 143:2; 2 Chr. 6:26; Isaiah 53:6; Micah 7:2-4. Kushner also says that expressing anger at God is fine, and that He can take it. Let’s be clear: Being angry with God is a sin. It is, in essence, denying that He is perfect, and putting one’s self in the seat of autonomy. Jerry Bridges, in Respectable Sins, equates blaming God/being angry with Him to blasphemy. At best, it is certainly unbelief.

I should note that I have not read Kushner’s book, and my observations are based solely on the radio interview he gave. As a biblical counselor, flags go up when a man-centric worldview attempts to understand God through a faulty hermeneutic. Because there is often truth mixed in with erroneous beliefs (both about God and man), the idea of a compassionate yet impotent god may seem more palatable. Many listeners probably swallowed the whole message, without comparing Kushner’s view of God to the One portrayed in the Scriptures.

Këshillimi Biblik Lulëzon në Tokën e Shqiponjave

title.jpgNga Marie Notcheva

(ky artikull është publikuar në “Ilira Revista”, shtator 2016).

Çfarë është këshillimi biblik?

Në vitin 1656, puritani Riçard Bakster shkroi se vetë Shkrimi është i dobishëm për të krishterët “për t’iu hequr dyshimet, për t’i ndihmuar në luftën kundër mëkateve të tyre, për t’i drejtuar në detyrën e tyre dhe për rritje të njohurisë dhe të gjithë hirit shpëtues”.1 Ndryshe nga psikologjia, e cila ka një pikëpamje për jetën që është e përqendruar te njeriu dhe e kundërshton konceptin e ‘mëkatit’, këshillimi biblik bazohet në bindjen se Perëndia na ka folur përmes Shkrimit. Përmes Biblës, Perëndia na ka zbuluar gjithçka që duhet të dimë për Të, për veten tonë dhe për botën përreth nesh (2 Pjetrit 1:3).

Këshillimi biblik, i cili disa herë është quajtur “një hibrid mes dishepullimit dhe miqësisë biblike”, ka përfitimin shtesë të përgjegjshmërisë. Kur një i krishterë kërkon ndihmë nga një këshillues biblik i trajnuar për një problem shpirtëror të vazhdueshëm, ai apo ajo do të duhet të bëjë detyra shtëpie, të mësojë përmendësh disa pasazhe nga Shkrimi dhe të bëjë punën e vështirë të ndryshimit biblik ndërmjet sesioneve. Të mësosh ta kuptosh drejt Fjalën e Perëndisë dhe të ndihmosh njerëzit ta zbatojnë atë në jetën e tyre nuk është ide e re, por këshillimi biblik është rritur shumë në Shqipëri këto vitet e fundit.

Nga Bashkësia e Hirit,  me dashuri

Në vitin 2007, Kisha e Bashkësisë së Hirit (Grace Fellowship Church) në Kentucky, SHBA, dërgoi Bler dhe Suana (Blair dhe Sue Ann) Alvidrez në Shqipëri në një udhëtim misionar afatshkurtër. Pasi u vendosën në Lushnjë në vitin 2010, Bleri dhe Suana u bënë të parët këshillues biblikë në Shqipëri. Brenda pak viteve, Bleri po organizonte konferenca trainimi për shqiptarë që donin të mësonin si të këshillonin në kishat e tyre lokale. Pastorë amerikanë nga Shoqëria e Këshilluesve Biblikë të Certifikuar (Association of Certified Biblical Counselors) erdhën në Tiranë për të ndihmuar me trajnimin. Bashkë me Pastor Genci Cesulën, pastor kryesor në Kishën e Hirit në Tiranë dhe pastorë dhe misionarë të tjerë, Bleri themeloi Koalicionin e Këshillimit Biblik Shqiptar. “Këshillimi biblik po fiton mjaft popullaritet”, thotë Bleri. Ai dhe familja e tij kanë jetuar në Tiranë për disa vjet, ku ai punon bashkë me Genci Cesulën, duke dishepulluar dhe trajnuar pastorë të tjerë që synojnë certifikimin. “Shumë njerëz thanë në fillim, ‘Kjo nuk do të funksionojë këtu’”, thotë ai. Më shumë se në Amerikë, në Shqipëri njerëzit e kanë të vështirë të flasin lirshëm për problemet e tyre. Megjithëse betejat shpirtërore me të cilat përballen besimtarët janë të ngjashme në të gjithë botën, shqiptarët e kanë më të vështirë të kërkojnë këshillë. Kjo është pjesërisht për shkak të një mosbesimi të përgjithshëm ndaj autoritetit dhe një shqetësimi të përgjithshëm në lidhje me thashethemet. Megjithatë, me këmbëngulje dhe trajnim të vazhdueshëm, shumë njerëz tani po kërkojnë këshillim brenda kishave të tyre lokale. Disa pastorë shqiptarë i kanë përfunduar provimet e tyre të certifikimit dhe po këshillojnë tashmë, dhe disa nga gratë e tyre po ndihmojnë duke këshilluar gra dhe duke përkthyer libra.

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Fryti i shërbesës së përkthimit

Deri tani janë përkthyer në shqip 23 tituj në lidhje me këshillimin biblik, duke përfshirë këtu librin e Pol Trip, “Instrumente në duart e Shpenguesit”, një numër jo i vogël, sidomos kur e krahason me vendet fqinje ku teologjia e Reformuar dhe këshillimi biblik janë pothuaj të panjohur. Bashkësia e Hirit, kisha dërguese e Blerit dhe Suanës në Amerikë ka siguruar financa dhe njerëz për të ndihmuar; megjithatë, këshillimi biblik nuk është shpikje amerikane. Apostulli Pal, në letrat e tij, na jep modelin e parë të një këshilluesi i cili është vërtet biblik. Ai përdor Fjalën e Perëndisë për të mësuar besimtarët e rinj, për të inkurajuar kishat e përndjekura, për të bindur për mëkat besimtarët dhe për të pajisur ata që ishin në shërbesë. Pasi Bibla vetë u përkthye në gjuhë të tjera, Ungjilli u përhap në më shumë popuj sesa do të kishin arritur misionarët me mësimet gojore. Në mënyrë të ngjashme, parimet e këshillimit biblik mësohen kryesisht përmes konferencave, por koncepti prezantohet edhe më gjerësisht përmes literaturës.

Disa herë shërbesa e Fjalës duket se ndodh vetvetiu. Bleri tregon një incident kur makina e tij kishte nevojë për lavazh. Ai kishte qindra librushka të përkthyera në ndenjësen e pasme të makinës, në kuti që po shqyheshin. Ai me kujdes i vendosi ato në trotuar ndërsa kishte lënë makinën në lavazh dhe dy burra shqiptarë treguan shumë interes në atë literaturë. “Çfarë janë këto? A mund t’i shikojmë?”. Bleri u shpjegoi me gëzim që ato ishin librushka që flisnin për Perëndinë dhe se si të jetosh në mënyrë që t’i pëlqesh Atij. “A mund të blejmë disa?”, pyetën burrat.

Lajmi është përhapur në vendet fqinje të Ballkanit në lidhje me këtë këndvështrim “vetëm Shkrimi” të këshillimit të krishterë. “Ne tani kemi kontakte në Maqedoni”, thotë Bleri. Disa pastorë nga Shkupi morën pjesë në trajnimin e kohëve të fundit në Kishën e Hirit, dhe një kishë në Kosovë, që e ka mbushur librarinë e saj me materiale këshillimi, ka treguar interes për të dërguar përfaqësues.

Nga qumështi te mishi… progresioni i trajnimit

Deri tani janë mbajtur katër konferenca vjetore për trajnim në këshillimin biblik, të mbajtura në Durrës, Tiranë dhe Korçë. Bleri dhe pastorë të tjerë që kanë dhënë mësim atje, janë inkurajuar nga rritja që kanë parë në besimtarët që marrin pjesë. Tani, më shumë pastorë lokalë po e marrin trajnimin vetë në seminare një herë në dy muaj që quhen “module trajnimi.” Ato fokusohen në tema më specifike këshillimi si martesa, depresioni dhe problemet e kombinimit të psikologjisë me Biblën. Bleri thotë që ky trajnim i specializuar është efektiv dhe i ndihmon pastorët të mësojnë si t’u shërbejnë besimtarëve me Fjalën brenda kontekstit të kulturës së tyre. “Ne japim një rast studimor në çdo sesion dhe pjesëmarrësit diskutojnë se çfarë do të bënin”, shpjegon ai. “Është shumë e mrekullueshme të shohësh se si pjesëmarrësit po e përvetësojnë mësimin dhe se si procesi po hedh rrënjë”.

Ndikimi i këshillimit biblik po fillon të njihet edhe përtej mureve të kishës lokale, ndërsa Bleri, Suana dhe Koalicioni i Këshillimit kanë krijuar marrëdhënie me shkolla dhe klinika mjekësore. Klinika e krishterë ABC në Tiranë ka dërguar punonjës për të dëgjuar leksionet mbi ankthin dhe depresionin dhe u kanë kërkuar Blerit dhe pastor Genci Cesulës t’u dërgojnë këshillues biblikë.

Tabloja e madhe – kisha si pjesë e jetës

Ashtu si çdo kulturë post-moderne, edhe Shqipëria po përballet me pro-blemet e saj që shumë njerëz thonë që nuk kanë rrjedhoja shpirtërore. Pastor Cesula rreshton depresionin dhe problemet martesore midis çështjeve më të mëdha të këshillimit, por gjithashtu përfshin edhe pornografinë në atë listë. Imoraliteti seksual (veçanërisht pornografia) po bëhet shumë më i dukshëm sesa në vitet e shkuara, dhe pa një themel biblik, moraliteti konsiderohet subjektiv. Një nga synimet e dishepullimit dhe të këshillës vërtet biblike, është ta sjellësh ungjillin në të gjitha fushat e jetës së personit. Burrat dhe gratë e përfshira në shërbesën e këshillimit biblik përpiqen të komunikojnë që ‘kisha’ nuk është ndërtesë, por një trup dinamik besimtarësh të lidhur me njëri-tjetrin që ndihmojnë njëritjetrin të rriten. ‘Këshilla biblike’ nuk është thjesht të japësh përgjigje apo të citosh vargje; ajo kërkon që Kisha të veprojë ashtu siç e projektoi Perëndia – si një institucion dishepullbërës. “Është ngazëllyese të shohësh se si Perëndia po ngre njerëz nga e gjithë bota që janë të uritur për të mësuar përgjigjet biblike për jetën e tyre, dhe inkurajuese të shohësh përkushtimin e popullit të Tij kudo”, tha një pastor.

Shqipëria, e bukura “Tokë e Shqiponjave”, po përtërihet në forcë. Në Shkrimet, shqiponja është simbol i forcës dhe i aftësisë për të mbajtur shumë peshë (Eks. 19:4; LiP. 32:11). Në të njëjtën mënyrë metaforike, Shqipëria është ngritur brenda një brezi nga shtypja e ateizmit në një vend me një nga mjediset më të forta të krishtera në Ballkan. Falë punës së palodhur të një brezi të ri pastorësh dhe këshilluesish biblikë, ajo në mënyrë të sigurt po “ngrihet me krahë si shqiponja” ndërsa besimtarët e rinj e bëjnë të njohur Emrin e Tij.

photonotchevabookMari Noçeva (Marie Notcheva) është shkrimtare dhe këshilluese biblike e certifikuar nga INS nga Masaçusetsi. Libri i saj i parë, “Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders” (Calvary Press, 2011) (“Shpenguar nga gropa: pendim dhe restaurim biblik nga skllavëria e çrregullimeve të të ngrënit”) është libër reference për këshilluesit që punojnë me njerëz me probleme anoreksike dhe bulimike. Maria është kontribuese e rregullt e blogut të Koalicionit të Këshillimit Biblik (The Biblical Counseling Coalition blog), dhe shkruan për revista të krishtera në Shqipëri dhe Bullgari. Ajo punon si përkthyese me kohë të plotë e bullgarishtes në Boston dhe ka katër fëmijë.
1 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, reprinted (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), p. 346

Meeting God by the Ionian Coast

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Bunec, Albania

“Are you going to care for the opinion of men here, or for the opinion of God?
The opinion of men won’t avail us much when we get before the judgment throne.”

— 19th century British missionary, Charles Studd

It is possible, while surrounded by people, to feel utterly alone. We want other people to value our presence; treasure our friendship; dispel our doubts; support us in trials; heal our deepest hurts. In short, it is possible to seek from other people what only God can give us: fulfillment; peace; and unconditional love. While He certainly uses His children to encourage and teach one another, there is a fine line between being edified by other believers, and their opinions of us becoming an idol.

The first scenario is healthy and leads us closer to God. Galatians 6:2 tells us to “bear one another’s burdens”, and taking the wise counsel of fellow Christians is an important aspect of growing spiritually. However, the second scenario – placing over-importance on how others view, judge or interact with us, sometimes to the point of depression – is a snare. “Fear of man” can drive us away from God when we allow the opinions of others to take precedence over God’s view of us. This can happen when we believe Christians speak for God when they hurt us; or simply by allowing a lapse in our prayer life. When we forget God’s ‘voice’, others will crowd His out.

“Fear of man” (even ‘church-man’) tell us that we are not good enough when others question our motives; falsely accuse; gossip; or judge our decisions without knowing either our circumstances or which scriptural principles come into play. This is a painful, confusing place to be…..and for some of us natural extroverts, our instinct is to seek out people we trust for companionship. Somehow, if we are with friends, it will make it all better; we will again be validated, or at least distracted enough not to deal with our emotions.

I know this to be true, because after 25 years as a Christian, God had to bring me to the other side of the world (in relative isolation) to get my attention.

When God Shows Up – Unexpectedly

Within the last year, I made the painful decision to end my marriage. Although I had ample biblical grounds for divorce, for the sake of my children’s privacy I have not divulged details (apart from to a very few people on a ‘need to know’ basis). Those who were aware of the situation were incredibly compassionate – while support came from unexpected corners, hurtful things were said to me by a few I most depended on to protect me. This shook my faith in the Church, and by extension, God.

While dear friends from another church brought me to retreats, Bible studies, and spent many hours talking and praying with me, the hurt inflicted by those whose opinions I judged ‘significant’ made me ambivalent towards God – all while serving Him in ministry. I looked forward to August, a month I had set aside to serve at Youth Camps (in New Hampshire and Albania); spend time with my children; and heal. One of the things I most looked forward to was seeing precious brothers and sisters in Christ in Albania whom I had befriended at camp years prior. I ‘needed’ them – needed their presence; needed their friendship; needed to laugh.

After three days in Tirana, I boarded a bus to the southern city of Saranda where I would be met and taken to camp. Deeply hurt by a friend’s ambivalence to me, I cried silently for most of the 7-hour journey. To make matters worse, most of the staff with whom I was closest did not attend camp this year for a variety of reasons. Surrounded by unfamiliar young campers, new staff, and total immersion in Albanian, I felt much more alone than I ever had at camp. With memories of happier times, I felt downcast for days and questioned what I was doing there. Surrounded by 70 people and a team of Christian staff, I felt utterly adrift and useless.

So I spent time with God – alone. Only He saw my tears. Walking down to the pier and watching the sun set over the Ionian Sea, I would just sit there. Sometimes I would read my Bible; sometimes just think. But always realizing I was in the presence of my Father; Who was my Defender and Protector. I knew that He had orchestrated everything perfectly, but I needed to experience it on an emotional level…..which is hard to do, when you are running from your emotions.

One of the English lessons we taught the children dealt with placing God’s opinion above that of men. This was far too specific to be a coincidence…He seemed to be speaking directly to me. There were mornings that I wanted to run from the discussion group I facilitated with a British team member; the basic truths about God’s love we were teaching the children were long-forgotten promises I no longer believed applied to me.

Taking us Across the World…to Get us to Listen?

It was here that healing could begin. As if to further assure me that He was there, I received a message from one of the young British staff women (who did not know me at all) the day after she left camp, asking if I was alright. After I shared a very abridged version of events with her, she responded:

“I am thankful you have spoken to people at camp and pray they have been of great comfort and support for you. I appreciate your honesty and openness so much to share with me what’s really been going on. God has a plan for bringing you to Albania this summer, and I pray you will truly find some healing over the hardships of this year….I know God has good plans for you as he has promised to his people….

“Above all it is God’s thoughts we need to care about. And please remember that He loves you unconditionally! Draw close to him and let his wings protect you…and don’t hurt yourself by not allowing yourself to rightfully have the emotions you are having. God knows above all how you are feeling. I just don’t want you to think you need to hide it or feel you aren’t getting involved in camp as you should. Because God may want this time in Albania to be where you can heal and be raw with all the feelings. It is amazing how God uses us in each others’ lives. I strongly felt the Spirit leading me to talk to you, and I am sure that was God’s concern shining through. It is incredible how He has to take us across the world to get us to listen or draw closer to him.”

Being Transparent – while Still Trusting God

The ministry leaders under whom I serve are good friends, but I feared more rejection or subtle judgement once they knew of my divorce – justification notwithstanding. Just the opposite happened. Anxiously, I sat down and explained the situation to the Albanian pastor, and later, the camp director. Not only was my decision supported, I was still embraced as the sister I’d always been. However, the lesson God taught me that week was that it shouldn’t matter.

He affirms, loves and rejoices over me. The opinion of people (even His people) pales in significance. Even so, it was very freeing to be lifted up by friends who care about me – and understand. Pastor “Erion” (not his real name) had watched one of his sisters go through an experience eerily similar to mine, and recognized that life does not always neatly follow biblical guidelines of repentance and reconciliation. More than anyone else, this Balkan brother was relieved that I was now safe; healing; and regaining my confidence.

We cannot live, as believers, in a vacuum. It is impossible to pretend that the opinions, acceptance, love or approval of others – particularly of fellow Christians – does not matter. We were created to live in fellowship, and God grieves when His children alienate one another. And yet sometimes, in order to break the walls of others-induced shame that have kept us from Him, He needs to isolate us to where we can’t run away anymore. And when we finally start listening to His voice of Truth, He may confirm His love to us through other people. Until we discover that His is the only Voice that truly matters, however, we may stay stuck listening to the sound of our own confusion and doubt.

I expected to be used to help others understand God’s Word this summer. Instead, God ministered His grace and healing to me – in a remote coastal campsite; without friends to fall back on; half a world away.

Relationship and Doctrine: Striking a Balance

Relationship and Doctrine: Striking a Balance

by Marie Notcheva

Have you ever suffered from theological burnout? I have – notably when studying for my biblical counseling certification. One hundred eighty-five hours of video lectures were tremendously helpful and informational; so were the many books I had to read. By the end, saturated in hermeneutics and systematic theology, I didn’t feel like opening the Bible anymore. I felt like God was an algorithm to be approached through diagrams, charts, and verses committed to memory. He seemed as distant as my college chemistry professor (who I haven’t seen since 1990).

There was nothing wrong with the training, of course. A correct understanding of God, human nature, and the Bible is critical in order to understand the issues we deal with in the counseling room (as well as life in general, for that matter). All of the books and training materials I was assigned were produced by Calvinistic authors, as biblical counseling tends to be very heavily Reformed. Reformed literature, by and large, tends to be heavy. Richly doctrinal but not a quick read. There is less emphasis on God’s love and relationship with us than on His other attributes, and to be honest, many times the continual emphasis on exegetical skill (not to mention total depravity) left me cold.

Christ Might Have Died for my Sins?

Don’t get me wrong; the Reformers were the heroes of the faith who rescued Christianity from the mysticism and superstition of the Dark Ages. The Reformed camp, on the whole, produces the highest quality Christian literature there is; particularly in the Christian counseling genre. Sometimes it has seemed to me, however, that in the quest for doctrinal precision and endless parsing, the relational aspect of Christ’s love is lost. Taking an extreme position on the Doctrines of Grace can leave one scratching one’s head.

For example, in one course I was taught that when sharing the Gospel with a potential convert, one should never tell him that “Christ died for [his] sins because you have no way of knowing if that individual is one of the elect or not.” Umm…alrighty then. So…what exactly should we tell him? “Hey! I have great news! Christ might have died for your sins!”

Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

Jesus looked at the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:20-22), loved him, and bid him come and follow Him. And the guy still walked away (which I find staggering). Repeatedly, we see that the invitation is open to all…we all have a chance to be one of “the elect”. We need to hold onto this truth, and not confuse counselees into thinking they can be arbitrarily ‘locked out’ of heaven by a misunderstanding of predestination. We need to give hope, not seek to be more Calvinistic than Calvin.

Overwhelmed by Theology, or Overwhelmed by Love?

Having a high view of God precludes focusing on our own “felt needs.” It is unbiblical (some would say blasphemous) to think in terms of our own value. I understand and agree that we are totally depraved, and the Atonement speaks of HIS infinite worth, glory and value, but there are several places in Scripture where God’s Word indicates that we are precious to Him. If we were truly worthless to God, He never would have sent His Son. I can see where there’s a danger to making the cross all about us, rather than about God (and people do); but even the Puritans recognized Christ’s love for the individual.

I agree God does not exist to meet our emotional needs, but what do you do when you have a tough day? What do you teach your counselee to do? Or do Reformed folks never have a tough day, because of God’s majesty and sovereignty? Do we pour our hearts out to God, or do we text a friend, who seems more approachable?

Sometimes, after reading about the proper view of God, I actually would have a tough time praying. I find it intimidating and don’t really know what to talk about. The Reformers themselves were passionate, emotional, introspective people. Sometimes in today’s literary Reformed camp, one can learn much but feel nothing. One believer I know wrote: “I love Reformed people, but I loathe their “We are the Christian Intellectual Elite” complex. When Christianity is all head and no heart… yep, the balance is lost.”

Getting Back to Basics – with the Puritans

This might be an over-correction made by the modern biblical counseling movement, in response to the touchy-feely theological fluffiness that graces the shelves of today’s Christian bookstores. In stark contrast to the modern “Jesus is My Homeboy” attitude, the correct relationship with God that Reformed writers historically have tried to convey is one of awe-struck intimacy. Consider the following passage, penned by Frances Ridley Havergal in the 19th century:

Some of us think and say a good deal about a sense of Christ’s presence – sometimes rejoicing in it, sometimes going mourning all the day long because we have it not; praying for it and not always seeming to receive what we ask; measuring our own position, and sometimes even that of others, by it; now on the heights, now in the depths about it….It comes practically to this: Are you a disciple of the Lord Jesus at all? If so, He says to you, “I am with you always.” That overflows all the regrets of the past and all the possibilities of the future and most certainly includes the present. Therefore, at this very moment, as surely as your eyes rest on this page, so surely is the Lord Jesus with you. “I am” is neither “I was” nor “I will be.” It is always abreast of our lives, always encompassing us with salvation. It is a splendid, perpetual now. [i]

Does this read as if it were written by someone who saw God as distant, obscure, or harsh? Far from it. The beauty of some of the classical writing of the Puritans (and other early Reformed writers, such as Spurgeon) is that they maintained that balance between holding a high view of God’s majesty, and enjoying an intimate relationship with Him. Humbled by His interest in their lives, the desire to know Him in spirit and in truth fueled their deep study of His Word. Far from seeing theology as dry or irrelevant, we may think of these early Reformed writers as the original biblical counselors.

Learning to Enjoy God all Over Again

It took me a long time to get back to reading devotionals after completing my certification. I got the impression from my courses that devotionals are considered “fluffy” and generally promote bad theology. The answer is to find truly good devotionals – writing that spurs one on to seek God more, and to go deeper in our walk with Him. We needn’t suffer from ‘theological burnout’ or view Reformed/biblical counseling literature as dry or overly heavy-handed.

The answer, for me anyway, was to drop the intellectually-induced guilt over not always having a desire to peruse concordances, categorize passages on index cards, or learn koinos Greek. Of course, if one has the time and desire to do this, by all means she should! Proper interpretation of the Scriptures is not optional; and I have taught on this very subject many times. But there comes a point where the human heart wants to put down the books, and just spend time with the Father. We biblical counselors can easily get out of balance when the very thing we use to know God – doctrinal study – can stand in the way of desiring fellowship with Him. Simply being on guard against this trap (and being honest with ourselves about how we wish to spend devotional time with God) is crucial to our spiritual health, which in turn makes us able to minister to others.

 

[i] “Seasons of the Heart”, compiled by Donna Kelderman, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013.

Eye contact. Smile. Speak Shqip. Repeat as needed.

noli
A language school in Boston is named after Noli

By Marie Notcheva

Jet-lagged and jacked up on caffeine, this morning finds me answering interpreter services’ emails and breaking into the kashkaval and fiku reçel stash I brought back with me from Albania. I arrived back at my apartment last night (praise the Lord for teenage sons with drivers’ licenses to pick one up from Logan Airport!); and managed to unpack. Already this morning I have interpreted for a lengthy Bulgarian medical call….and it felt gooood to be back in a language I’m confident in!

(Side-note: Why did I bring a bag of makeup and eyebrow tweezers to camp in Albania? I always do that. It always stays at the bottom of the suitcase.)

My primary purpose in going to Albania was to serve at AEM’s English camp, held every summer for Albanian teens; staffed by British and Albanian volunteer counselors. I have been through a painful several years, and due to recent events in my life I was dealing with a lot of emotions I wanted to escape when I arrived at camp. I am still trying to process what God did through my time at camp – which was very different from what I had experienced in prior years – and will want to write an introspective piece on the spiritual ramifications of that week sometime soon.

However, today is not that day.

After my eleven days at camp, I returned by myself to Tirana (where I had spent three days before camp re-connecting with old friends). After a seven hour bus journey, I disembarked and decided to make the most of it…as a tourist….in a (somewhat) unfamiliar city.

This time, I went it alone. With confidence; a sense of humor; a limited budget; and even more limited command of Albanian. Oh yes I DID.

My Rule of Thumb

There is a Rule of Thumb to getting along in Albania, (or, I suppose, most other places where you are a tourist and do not speak the language well):

Make eye contact. Smile apologetically. Preface your sentence with, “Më falni. Nuk flas Shqip mire, por….” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Albanian well), and then launch into whatever it is you wish to get across. Your mouth, unfortunately, cannot keep up with your brain; while it all seemed a simple matter to conjugate those verbs in kohë e kryer e thjeshte (simple past tense) while doing ushtrime in your textbook, I promise you it is another matter when you are nervously standing before a complete stranger; and you need help, advice, or simply directions to the national museum.

However, never fear!! This is the Secret of the Smile. In my experience (four brief trips to various parts of Albania), people there are friendly; extremely patient with your faltering linguistic attempts; and will actually encourage/compliment you on your efforts. Grammatically speaking, there is very little that will not be forgiven if you smile and are willing to laugh at yourself. (Of course, close friends will correct you and the mild embarrassment will help you to remember the correct way to say something. And if ever you forget to laugh at yourself, they will be happy to laugh at you. Get used to Balkan bluntness). Statistically speaking, there must be a few rude and/or negative people in Albania. All I’m saying is that I have never met them.

Eye contact and friendliness will get you far, my friends……..but there is one exception to this rule:

The Tirana Bus Station.

Until this week, I had always been dependent upon local friends to help me navigate the transport, although I had embarked at camp down in southern Albania and had a straight seven hours on board this time. When I got off in the blazing city heat, I had only two thoughts on my mind: strong Balkan coffee; and avoid eye contact with the taxi drivers who swarm the exiting passengers. This is where my Independent Albania Adventure began.

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This photo does not to do justice to the chaos of the Tirana bus station.

Taxi Driver: “Taksi, Zonjushë?”
Me (looking away): “Jo, jo.”
Other Taxi Driver: “Ku po shkoni?”
Me: “Tualet.”

(Hey, seven hours on a bus. I wasn’t joking. This also bought me some time to gather my thoughts and get a coffee.)

Me (entering bus station café; smiling and making contact with waiter): “Mirëdita. Kam nevojë për kafe, ju lutem. Një kafe e madhe…..dy kafe në një gotë, po të duash?”

(I was aware that I accidently switched from polite to informal “you”, but I really needed that coffee and the waiter didn’t seem to mind. He smiled indulgently; I got my coffee. Score, baby!).

Thus fortified with caffeine, I ventured out into the Taxi Driver Madness once again, with my Tough Girl game face on. (Just kidding. I don’t have a “Tough Girl” look. I am many things; but “tough” is not one of them.) However, having lived in Sofia, Bulgaria years ago, I’ve learned to fake it around taxi drivers (as a side note, previous years’ experience has taught me that Tirana taxi drivers are much more honest than their Sofia counterparts. I have never been ripped off by anyone in Tirana, and they tell you the price upfront.)

Here we go again……..

Taksi, Zonjushë?”

I explained that I was going to the American Hospital II (the one corner of Tirana I’d gotten to know well); and asked about the price. “1000 lek” (about $8). I sigh tiredly.

“Eshtë i shtrenjtë” (“it’s expensive”). Taksi driver shrugged and held up seven fingers. “Mirë. 700 lek.”

Check out my bad-ass negotiation skills, y’all!

It got better…..during the drive across Tirana, Taksi Driver ignored the painfully obvious fact that my Albanian was quite poor, and indulged me in a (mostly one-way) conversation about the Ottoman Turkish domination of Albania…which, to my delight, I was somewhat able to follow. After a week at camp which was almost totally in Albanian, my listening skills had improved ever-so-slightly (as had my confidence). I found that smiling and just opening my mouth with the children was appreciated; they laughed but mostly with delight at hearing “Zonja Maria” string basic sentences together, or practicing the imperative mood: “Afroni! Nxitoni! Ejani!”

Gjyshë the Key Lady

Once at the American hospital, I confidently strode down the street and rounded the corner to where I had seen a “Hotel” sign. “I’ve got this,” I told myself. The previous week, I had successfully found and purchased a half kilo of figs, (that elusive delicacy Albanians take for granted until they emigrate abroad) from a grandfatherly street vendor. Looking him straight in the eye and apologizing for my poor command of his language, I smiled winningly and walked off with my prize. He called after me, something about money….I had given him too much money and he was trying to return some. (My math skills are even weaker than my Albanian skills). I decided this time to ask how much a room cost, and to make it clear I wanted one room, with one bed, for two nights. YES, I had been paying attention in lessons! A small office was in the courtyard of the 2-story building, inhabited by an elderly lady in a black dress and apron eating her lunch.

Starting with my usual eye-contact-apologies-for-butchering-her-language-coupled-with-big-friendly-smile, I slowly stated my case. “Gjyshë” (“Grandmother”), like everyone else in Albania, was extremely patient with my explanations and wanted to know where I was from and how many kids I have. She, evidently, has a sister in Detroit and the room for two nights was 3,000 leks ($24 USD). That’s $12 a night; hey, I’ll take it!

hotel
My room at Tirona City 

After recording my name and passport number in an ancient-looking ledger, she gave me the key and led me upstairs to a room which, blessedly, had enough hot water in the boiler for a nice, long shower. Gjyshë re-appeared a few minutes later with freshly-ironed sheets for the bed, and a towel right off the line. She instructed me to lock the door, which I deduced mainly from sign language; and helpfully pointed me to the café across the alley when I inquired about the wireless password. (The gentlemen working at the carwash next door to the café actually gave me the password. Boom! Free wifi; Albanian-style.)

“Friends” Bar

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Friends in Tirana…But first, let’s take a Selfie!

The 90’s sitcom “Friends” is so insanely popular with the 20-something generation in Albania that it has given rise to a coffee-bar of the same name. Since I met buddies there before going to camp, it seemed a logical meeting place – close to the Center and well-known to people in the age bracket of most of my friends (what is it with me and 20-somethings?) I texted a young friend of mine and had a lovely afternoon chatting at “Friends”. An added bonus is that as with other local cafes, the “Friends” staff understand the need for “kafe e madhe”. As an American, I have a weakness for large coffees – put two small ones in the same cup, please. There you go: “Big coffee”.

One thing about Albanians, although they smile back and appreciate the good-faith effort with their language, is that they rarely plan ahead and plans change on a moment’s notice. I am learning, along with my 19-year-old daughter (who has friends in Bulgaria afflicted by the same condition), not to take it personally and go with the flow. Prior to my traveling to Albania, several friends had made specific plans to meet me in Tirana when I came (none of whom were actually anywhere near the city in August; some weren’t even in the country). Not wanting to inconvenience anyone, I had decided to stay in a hotel the previous week at camp – and was glad I did, upon returning to find everyone out of town.

Not that solitude is a bad thing, mind you – I had had a wonderful time with several close friends two weeks prior in Tirana; followed by a week and a half sleeping in a tent with giggling teenage girls. I was happy to spend a night wandering around Tirana’s center by myself; window-shopping and cheese-shopping. Balkan yellow cheese, or “kashkaval”, is an expensive weakness of mine…..and both sheep’s milk and cow’s milk were available. I realized then that my headache was probably hunger-induced, and braved a fast-food stop.

The Importance of Food…

cheese
Wine. Cheese. What more do you need out of life?

Except….I wanted them to wrap up a sandwich for me so I could take it back to the hotel and eat it there. I couldn’t remember if “to go” is best explained by saying “me këmbë” (“on foot”) or “për shtëpi” (“for home”?), but I tried both and elicited both a smile and a “s’ka problem!” from the cashier. Feast intact, I headed home to Tirona City hotel.

Of course, having lived (somewhat) long-term in Bulgaria, the comparisons are inevitable. In an interview done two weeks prior, my online Albanian teacher Elson asked me what some of the similarities and differences are between Bulgaria and Albania. Of course, the language is the biggest difference (Bulgarian is a Slavic language; related to Russian and Serbian; whereas Albanian is a completely separate Indo-European tongue which shares only a few Turkish loan-words with Bulgarian).

…and national identity

There are many more similarities. The infrastructure and architecture of Tirana is reminiscent of Sofia; the food is remarkably similar (although with less cumin and pork than in Bulgaria); and the penchant for asking personal questions seems to be a Balkan thing.

However.

As a neophyte in the language, I have noticed a significant cultural difference between the two countries each of the four times I’ve visited Albania: Bulgarians note you are a foreigner; dismiss your attempts to learn ‘their’ language; and, with some exceptions, generally try to exploit you. Albanians do the opposite: they see you as a guest in their country; patiently indulge your attempts at ‘their’ language; and encourage you to keep at it.

This difference in attitude extends even to national identity.

Typical exchange with Albanian:

“How do you like Albania?”
FOREIGNER: “It’s a very nice country; very beautiful!”
ALBANIAN: “Yes, it is! We have some beautiful beaches here. Have you been to the seaside?”
FOREIGNER: “Yes, I enjoyed it very much.”
ALBANIAN: “Oh, I am glad! And do not miss seeing Berat. It is on the UNESCO list. Beautiful city with much heritage.”

Contrast this with a Typical exchange with Bulgarian, some version of which I have had many, many times over the past 25 years:

“How do you like Bulgaria?”
FOREIGNER: “It is a very nice country; I like it very much!”
BULGARIAN: “Why? It’s awful here.”
FOREIGNER: “No, it isn’t. It attracts much tourism to its ski lodges, and Black Sea resorts. Why do you say that?”
BULGARIAN: “We are a very poor country. Those guys betrayed us. We are the poorest country in Europe.”
FOREIGNER: “But…but….everyone seems to be well-dressed here. The cafes and restaurants are full….everyone and his brother drives a Mercedes….you can’t be that badly off!”
BULGARIAN: “Yes we are. It’s a terrible place; we are all starving and we all need to leave to work somewhere better. Bulgaria sucks.”
After such an exchange, is it any wonder that no one would appreciate one’s efforts to learn their language; insisting only upon English? Once one is safely out of Sofia, eye contact may, indeed, be made; attempts may be more appreciated – but memories of my 21-year-old self being degraded while attempting to speak Bulgarian made me nervous to even try here.

Football Jerseys and the Bazaar

My fears were in vain.

Have you ever been to an Eastern European outdoor bazaar? You can buy anything from plumbing supplies to dental floss there – usually knock-off brands at low prices. I spotted soccer jersey/short sets I thought my boys would like, and took the plunge: Smile. Eye contact. State case. Hope for best. I was short on leks and long on dollars, so I had to ask where to exchange money (without actually knowing the verb for “to exchange”. I’ve since learned it. It is “këmbej”). Since it was early on a Monday, Soccer Shirt Sales Guy escorted me across the street to his friend’s television repair place; but his friend lacked sufficient leks. Alas, I had to go to the official change bureau – during which time, Sales Guy wrapped up my chosen shirts. All was well until later that day…when I unwrapped the outfit, and realized with horror that it would be far too small for my 13-year-old son.

Full-scale panic set in.

How can I exchange it for a bigger size?? This is not Walmart; this is an Albanian street vendor! I thought. What to do…what to do? There was only one thing to do. Return to vendor; smile; state case; hope for best. A woman was there, as it was already afternoon, and I took a deep breath.

“Më falni…nuk flas mire Shqip. Mëngjes, e bleva kete veshje. Eshtë shumë e bukur! S’ka problem,” I reassured. (“I’m sorry….I don’t speak Albanian well. This morning, I bought this outfit. It’s very nice! There’s no problem.”)

Now Elson’s lesson on superlatives kicked in – far different when you’re trying to exchange an item, in 100 degree heat, with an actual Albanian salesperson, than in the air-conditioned comfort of your office when listening to a lesson.

“Problemi është….djali im është më i madh. Kjo bluza është më e vogël….gabim ishtë i imja.” (“The problem is….my son is bigger. This shirt is smaller. The mistake was mine.”)

The saleswomen understood immediately, wagged her head, and said in Albanian (something like) “You want a larger size? No problem.” To say that I was relieved is like saying that the Grand Canyon is a hole. I almost couldn’t believe it….and, no doubt a mother herself, the lady assured me “better a bit bigger than a bit small.”

Correct-sized gift in hand, I went on to the Center, where I was to meet an American missionary couple and travel to a meeting with the publisher of “Ilira”, an Albanian Christian magazine for which I write. I got a bit disoriented trying to find the correct street of the meeting place (The Stephen’s Center), and asked a kindly-looking woman who ran a souvenir kiosk for directions. “Djathas? Majtas? Ose drejt?” (“Right? Left? Or straight?”) I asked, complete with hand gestures. Souvenir Lady recognized me as having bought a doll from her the previous week (for my little girl), and asked me how old my daughter is.

I finally found The Stephen’s Center, right where I remembered it to be…..and watched David Hosaflook exit before six Mormon “elders” (wearing long trousers and backpacks in the sweltering Tirana heat) left the café and took off down the street. Grr. Mormons. Too busy to engage them in a debate, I made it to the meeting and learned I was expected to take on a more editorial role in the magazine’s production. Dream come true? In a beautiful country, six time zones away from where I live. Just….wow. Kathy Church, the current editor of “Ilira”, gave me a precious gift: a textbook she had authored to help me improve my Albanian!

bok
I will learn, and I will speak…with confidence! 

Leaving Tirana

My final night…what to do? After answering several emails, a friend and I decided not to meet up as he lives a half hour away (by taxi) from where I was. I enjoyed the time I had left alone; ventured out; braved a fashion boutique by myself where I bought shirts for my older daughter. (In Albanian. And yes; the shop clerk was patient and polite!) So was the vendor from whom I bought spinach byrek in the morning. Sometimes a little encouragement is all you need to gain confidence enough to open your mouth and talk.

And receive smiles in return.

An hour left in Tirana, Gjyshë calls her grandson who lives up the road, and just so happens to drive a taksi. Very concerned for my physical comfort and well-being, she neither lets me carry my own suitcase down the stairs (Hello?? I’m in my FORTIES. You’re in your EIGHTIES), nor lets me make up the bed with the sheet. We wait together, and entertain some small talk. Gjyshë wants to know what I do for a living (I’m an interpreter); and if they pay me well (they do).

“How much per hour do they pay you?”

My last half-hour in Albania, and finally someone pops the question.

I would have been disappointed if she didn’t.

Balkan people are endlessly fascinated by how much other people are paid, and I assume it only made her day to know my hourly rate of compensation! Off to the airport….she assured me that her taksi driving relative would be happy to accept dollars, and would give me 500 leks change. (Which I used up on Kinder Eggs for my children at the airport.)

The last words spoken to me on Albanian soil were from the baggage check-in woman, who complimented me on my Albanian…..and smiled.

It costs nothing to smile. It may make someone else’s day, and it goes a long way towards helping a foreigner feel like a welcomed guest in your country. Thank you, Shqiperia. Jam e çmendur pas teje!

square
Skanderbeg Square. The National History Museum is fascinating. 

Who are you? Leave me a comment.

Hello!

I am leaving for Youth Camp in Albania for 2 weeks. Will blog when I get back.

It is always fun checking the StatCounter to see who is reading my blog, and where they are from.🙂 I’ve noticed that while most of the people clicking here are from the US, a number of my readers are from Albania and a couple from Germany. This really interests me, and I’d like to know who you are!!

Please leave me a comment, and tell me who you are and how you happened across my lowly corner of the blogosphere. Thank you, and nice to “meet” you!

God Has No ‘Foster Children’

SevFoster Childreneral years ago, I read a book called “Three Little Words,” a memoir of a girl’s horrific childhood in the foster care system. Eventually she was adopted, as a teen, by a loving family. (This wasn’t something I read for pleasure – it was on my daughter’s public school summer reading list, and I was screening it.) While the material was inappropriate for 13-year-olds, it was a painfully raw and all-too-accurate glimpse of what some foster children experience.

Being shuffled through countless homes of indifferent or abusive foster parents obviously scars children. They come to see themselves as unloved, and presumably unlovable. Even the fortunate ones who are adopted face problems – they cannot trust adults, believe that they are loved, or understand what a permanent place in a family means. Many adoptions are actually disrupted when youngsters lash out and display belligerent behavior. Growing up in foster care means existing in constant limbo. Natural parents who don’t come through and foster parents who aren’t “for keeps” breed a deep-seated insecurity. Foster children often expect to be rejected – even after adoption.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, the author of this particular memoir, describes an incident of teenage rebellion some time after her adoption had been finalized. When confronted by her parents, her first thought was that the adoption was over. She had long since steeled her heart against loving or being loved by anyone, and spent the first several years of her family life waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. She anticipated another rejection and ultimate return to the group home. Against her expectations and previous life experience, her parents assured her that she was irrevocably their daughter, and that it was high time to drop the “poor orphan” act. (They then punished her for her infraction).

That was the turning point for Ashley. Finally, she was able to begin building trust in her mother and father, knowing that no matter how “bad” she was, there was nothing she could do to make them reject her.

An awful lot of Christians are walking around with a “foster child” mentality, it seems to me. This is a mindset I’ve encountered in counseling, and it’s something I have fallen prey to myself at times. What we need to internalize is this: we are adopted sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ, and have a permanent place in the family (Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5; and John 8:35, respectively). Why is this so hard to believe? My answer, and it’s a fairly simplistic one, is because it takes humility to see this.

We did nothing to earn our status as His children; it was all of His grace…completely, freely, and lavishly bestowed on the unlovely delinquents we were when He found us. Pride wants us to earn our keep; to do something that will merit God’s approval. This is the carnal nature that prompted the Prodigal Son’s request to be made a hired servant. Humility, on the other hand, rejoices in the fact that we are fully known, completely loved, and sealed with the spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15). We can cry “Abba, Father” no matter how distant we may feel from God, because He has set His love on us for Christ’s sake (Romans 1:5) and called us His own (Isaiah 43:1; 1 John 3:2). In fact, He loves us even as He loves His only begotten Son, Jesus (John 16:27).

By human standards, this is a difficult concept to grasp. Repeated rejection by human authority figures (and especially by parents) can pervert one’s view of a benevolent God. Nevertheless, the One Who has redeemed our unworthy selves loves us unconditionally, and has made our identity secure. Legal adoption is a binding covenant. John 1:12-13 illustrates this clearly:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

We have assurance that God really is as good as He says He is. He will never reject any who come to Him (John 6:37).

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ” Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).

Foster children are literally slaves to fear. They live in constant anticipation of the next infraction – or whim of the legal system – to be the end of whatever tenuous family situation they are in. How does this sad mindset play itself out in a child of God?

Shame.

Guilt over failure and indwelling sin drives the insecure Christian away from the Cross, rather than towards it. He or she cannot face a God who is still perceived as a righteous Judge rather than a loving Father. God is both, of course; but what the fearful believer fails to grasp practically is that His righteous judgment has already been poured out on Christ, and there is no longer condemnation (Romans 8:1). She fails to realize that her sin was already foreseen by God, has been forgiven, and is no longer held against her. As Jerry Bridges writes,

…He is, as it were, coming alongside me saying, “We are going to work on that sin, but meanwhile I want you to know that I no longer count it against you.” God is no longer my Judge; He is now my Heavenly Father, who loves me with a self-generated, infinite love, even in the face of my sin.

Pride.

While on the surface shame and pride may seem at odds with each other, actually they work in tandem. When a Christian sees herself as a foster child of God, she will seek to avoid Him when plagued with guilt – at least until she can “get her act together” enough to approach Him. However, it is actually the height of arrogance to believe that there is ever a time when we are more acceptable to God than another. Putting merit in our own works-righteousness or penance actually demeans the centrality of the Cross. C. J. Mahaney writes,

Paul called himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16). He wasn’t paralyzed by condemnation. He was exalting God’s grace by recognizing his own unworthiness and sin as he marveled at the mercy of God.

Fear of Man and People-Pleasing.

A child of God who does not realize her true identity is constantly anxious about where she stands with God. Desperately trying to earn the favor of her Father, which she doesn’t recognize she already has, she tries to impress others or appear more spiritual. For example, I had one bulimic counselee tell me she wanted to “redeem [herself] in God’s eyes by becoming a nutritionist, and hopefully help others.”

I confess that I have fallen prey to this mindset myself, when I make idols out of goals or “splendid vices” (George Whitefield’s term for spiritual activity done with wrong motives). Getting my book, “Redeemed from the Pit” published is very important to me, and now that it is becoming a reality I have been preoccupied with obtaining endorsements from well-known authors in the biblical counseling field. When they like my work, I somehow feel God approves of my endeavor. When they decline or suggest revisions, I despair – their opinion of my writing overshadows pleasing God. It becomes too easy to forget that my work is ultimately all for His glory, anyway. Although I would never say so out loud, being thought well of by “celebrity Christians” can eclipse the truth – that God neither thinks more nor less of me based on man’s opinions; and I have nothing whatsoever to commend myself to Him in the first place. He loves me with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) simply because I am His daughter.

This tendency to think God sees us as others do takes many different forms, but the root is the same – doubting the reality and immutability of God’s personal and tender love.

The Solution

Let’s think about this logically: An omniscient God knew from eternity past exactly what you would be like, He saw every sin and dark thought that would enter your mind, yet He set His love on you anyway by electing you as His child. He called you out of darkness, then transferred you to the Kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). Jesus Himself is not ashamed to call you His brother or sister (Hebrews 2:11), so on what grounds would He decide to kick you out of His family? What, exactly, would you have to do to “disrupt” your heavenly adoption, and get sent back from whence you came?

It’s time, as the Courter parents so bluntly put it, to “drop the poor orphan act” and realize we’re God’s for good. And that’s Good News. Intimacy cannot grow apart from relationship, and the entire New Covenant proclaims that our relationship as children is irrevocable. We didn’t do anything to earn it in the first place – we were all broken and flawed when God called us – so what makes us think we can lose His parental bond? Fellowship may be broken, just as in human families – but God promises to forgive and restore each and every time we humble ourselves to seek Him (1 John 1:9). Craven fear and cringing supplication have no place in the life of a child of God. Repentance is a gift freely offered to all who will accept it and return to God on His terms…no running, hiding, and fear of the boom lowering anymore. The writer of Hebrews poetically banished any possibility of seeing ourselves as foster children when he wrote:

“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

Five Phrases to Strike from Your Counseling Repertoire

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by Marie Notcheva

Platitudes & Christian Clichés

In biblical counseling, as in all forms of Christian ministry, we are called to exhort and encourage; listen and learn; love and give hope. Sometimes, however, words can hurt rather than heal. Although a counselor, friend, small-group leader or pastor may say something with the best of intentions, falling back on a platitude or Christian cliché can sometimes cause more harm than good to the listener.

Based on my experience as a biblical counselor and conversations with other women, I have identified five of the most damaging phrases that have made their way into the counseling room. Over the years, I have heard all of these used, and while I understand the intent behind them, they make me cringe.

Let’s look at the five phrases you should eliminate immediately from your counsel, and why.

  • “In order to feel good, you must DO good.” This is an old maxim of biblical counseling, often said to depressed counselees who find themselves in a rut. The problem is that it’s often not true, and usually adds to the counselee’s guilt and self-recrimination. A better approach? Get to the source of her depression. A woman who is depressed because of a verbally abusive husband will not be helped by this phrase; she very likely is already “doing good things” to the point of burnout, to no avail. Is the client depressed because of a death? Telling her to get her act together and wash the dishes will not help. The phrase implies that laziness is partially responsible for the depression, which is a dangerous assumption to make.
  • “How can I/we come alongside you?” This is a Christian cliché that is so vague it is usually impossible to answer. Say what you mean. Perhaps make a suggestion: “I’ll show up at your place at 11:00 am, do your laundry, and take you out to lunch. You could use a break!” Or, “Now that I know your family is struggling financially, let’s talk to the elders about getting a scholarship for your son to go to youth camp. By the way, there’s a fund in place to help pay heating bills for folks going through a rough patch.” The “coming alongside” offer can also be a thinly-veiled but heavy-handed way of saying, “I’m going to interfere in this very private matter you’ve divulged to me, whether you consent or not.” Don’t spiritualize your offer of involvement. Spell it out, and respectfully ask the counselee, friend, or parishioner for permission.
  • You have a very low view of Scripture (or Christ; or God).” This is usually a callous way of dismissing what the other person is saying, simply because you don’t agree with it. It is presumptuous in the extreme to assume you know her heart on such matters, and it is lazy counseling. If a counselee or member is attending an evangelical church of any stripe, and especially if she is seeking out counseling, it is safe to take her at her word that she believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. It is doubtful that she has a low view of Christ, and to tell her this is confusing and hurtful.

One woman I counseled several years ago had been told at her prior church that she had a low view of God, because she had taken a tough-love approach to her son’s drug addiction. Although I don’t know the woman’s pastor, I have counseled addicts enough to know that she took appropriate steps – and indeed had a very high view of God. If you don’t agree that the individual’s conclusion is biblical, do some research. It’s probably a matter of interpretation and you, as the biblical counselor, probably have the benefit of exegetical training. Engage the question; look at different angles and commentaries; reason together. Never dismiss her by telling her she has a low view of Scripture/God/Christ. Such sweeping statements are designed to be conversation-stoppers, and have no place in the counseling room.

  • “Stop carrying around a root of bitterness/bitter spirit.” This one is tricky, because it’s clearly a biblical warning. Bitterness is a sin, which ultimately destroys a person spiritually. The author of Hebrews cautions against letting such a spirit grow up within the Body, because it “corrupts many” (Hebrews 12:15). We see this all the time in the fallout of church splits, in the gossip and hard feelings that are left in its wake. The problem here is being careful not to lump every angry emotion into this category, and gloss over it with this verse. This approach is what has given nouthetic counselors the reputation of “throwing the Bible at people” or a “take one verse and call me in the morning” attitude.Having hurt feelings or struggling to forgive someone who has seriously wronged you is not bitterness. Often, counselors and pastors make the mistake of rebuking wounded believers for “bitterness” before they’ve even had a chance to start healing. At that point, what hurting people need is to be listened to; have their experience validated; have the wrong of what was done to them validated. Then you can begin to help them work through the process of forgiveness. Bitterness is a heart attitude that comes about when one sees all others as enemies; deliberately refuses to forgive; and usually is a result of a non-existent prayer life. Please do not forget that in some serious circumstances (such as sexual abuse, fraud, injury or murder of one’s relative), forgiveness may be a long, extremely painful process. Be very careful of bringing out the “root of bitterness” trump card.
  • “Thank you for sharing your heart.” Usually said with the best of intentions, this is the single most meaningless, cringe-worthy, condescending, cliché-sounding phrase in the ecclesiastical lexicon, according to women I’ve spoken to. It is meaningless because it is a non-answer, offering no resolve. It is condescending because it dismisses whatever the counselee (or parishioner) has said to the level of emotionalism. It is insensitive at best; insulting at worst. And rank-and-file church members know that.

One woman told me that this sounded like a pat-phrase taught in biblical counseling courses as a buffer; something to pull out when one doesn’t know what else to say. I know of another incident where a woman carefully documented details of incidents – with dates, names, witnesses and details – to give credence to a serious situation of abuse she had brought to her pastor’s attention. She was thanked for sharing her heart. “My heart had nothing to do with it,” she said. “They wanted facts? I gave them very specific facts. I’ve never felt so dismissed and unheard in my life.”

A better alternative to thank you for sharing your heart might be to thank the person for the trust they demonstrate in you by sharing this information with you; and then ask what action steps she would like you to take. This not only validates that the issue they’re addressing is important; it puts feet to the faith we profess to have. Faith and love both lead to action – there’s usually a reason they’re telling you something, and unless it’s over a coffee in Starbucks, it’s rarely just for the sake of sharing [their] heart.

As Christians, whether in the counseling room or out in the world, we’re called to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Although certainly none of us does this perfectly, thinking about how to make our words more meaningful (and edifying) might mean changing some of the ways we phrase things. Always try to consider how the listener will receive what you say, in her personal experience and situation. Frame your words accordingly, and in this way you will be demonstrating the love of Christ.

Russia is Again in Chains for the Gospel. The Lesson to Americans

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by Marie Notcheva

Earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law some of the most repressive restrictions on religion since the days of Stalin. Known as the “Yarovaya” laws, the pretext for this crackdown is an anti-terrorism stance that supposedly restricts “extremism”.

Here is some of what the new laws cover:

  1. Foreign guests are not permitted to speak in churches unless they have a “work permit” from Russian authorities.
  2. If a friend or relative from outside Russia wishes to share his/her faith in your home the guest will be fined and expelled from Russia.
  3. Any discussion of God with non-believers is considered missionary activity and will be punishable.
  4. Missionary activity will be permitted by special government permission. Example: If one traveling on a train shares his faith without written permission the offender will be taken into police custody for the duration of the journey and will be fined 50,000 rubles ($1,000). Offenders from the age of 14-years-old will be subject to prosecution.
  5. Religious activity is no longer permitted in private homes. (Most churches in Russia are, in fact, home churches).
  6. Every citizen is obligated to report religious activity of neighbors to the authorities. Failure to be an informant is punishable by law.
  7. One may pray and read the Bible at home but not in the presence of a non-believing person. You will be breaking the law and be punished.
  8. If the church has purchased property it cannot be converted into a place of worship.
  9. In church buildings, it is not permitted to invite people to turn to God. Worship services are permitted but making a non-believer a follower of Christ is against the law.

Why does this matter to Americans?

Ironically enough, the atheist Putin has been seen as a conservative ally by some evangelicals because of his anti-gay policies and lip-service to “family values”. (Considering the abortion rate in Russia is three times the live birth rate, I doubt the preaching of “family values” is much of a priority to the government). More significantly, however, the Western media has been largely silent about this draconian step backward. While everyone was out chasing imaginary Pokemons last week, Russian believers are threatened with arrest for reading the Bible in their own homes, or preaching Christ in their own churches.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The Church in the largest nation on earth is being forced back underground – a full generation after the fall of Communism.

Over 7,000 evangelical churches are fasting and praying for a repeal of these laws. I don’t believe that we Americans are apathetic towards our Slavic brothers’ plight; rather, most people are just unaware with the limited media coverage given to international news – especially stories dealing with the persecution of Christians. But there is another reason it might be hard for Americans to know how to respond: We cannot even relate to legislation restricting religious liberty to that extent.

At least theoretically, this could never happen here. The First Amendment to our Constitution protects our freedom of religious expression and prevents government interference in worship and religious practice. Of course, we American Christians bristle when our Nativity displays are removed; prayer in public school was abolished and God was removed from the public square. Even those of us who are proponents of public education have to admit the progressively anti-God slant the curriculum has taken, and the lack of morality both in education and in society in general. The issue, and this is what leads to many of the problems we see in the counseling room, is that people don’t notice what’s being taught. (As an example, our town’s  middle school sex ed week includes making models of reproductive organs out of cardboard tubes and tinfoil. In a school of over 600 students, I was one of only 2 parents who would not permit her child to participate).

Whether across the world or in our own towns, we tend to miss a lot of attacks on the Christian worldview. Busy with careers, preoccupied with petty concerns or entertaining ourselves, much of what is damaging the Church flies below our radar (including entertainment itself, for that matter. I cannot understand how Christians can be comfortable watching the series, “Game of Thrones”). What’s going on in Russia is not so much a warning to us, as it is an object lesson of what a society whose leaders have rejected God can do to believers.

The Early Days of Hope  

In 1991, following the coup and disintegration of the Soviet Union, evangelical leaders were invited to the Kremlin for meetings and discussion of how to bring Christianity back into the public sphere. In an initiative called Project Christian Bridge, the Supreme Soviet publicly acknowledged the importance of Christian faith and morals, and how the lack of them had led to a spiritual vacuum in their country. They requested mass-production of Bibles; Christian schools and seminaries to be established; charitable organizations to help the poor and disabled. This ran counter to everything they had taught for the 70 years that Marxism had dominated their nation, and represented a massive turning to God when an evil system was proven to be a failure. In “Praying with the KGB,” Philip Yancey wrote this:

“Everyone is looking for a society so perfect that people don’t have to be good,” said T.S. Eliot, who saw many of his friends embrace the dream of Marxism. What we were hearing from Soviet leaders, and the KGB, and now Pravda, was that the Soviet Union ended up with the worst of both: a society far from perfect, and a people who had forgotten how to be good.

Twenty-five years later, and a demoralized nation has again put despotic rulers into place who, again, will try to stamp out the Gospel. However, as a Bulgarian pastor imprisoned by the Communists once wrote, “The Church is strongest when she is most persecuted. Christianity spreads most rapidly when it is oppressed.” This is unlikely to be the motive for Russian believers’ steadfast faith. When put to the test, the individual is either strengthened or broken.

The Russian Christians currently being put in chains for the Gospel demonstrate what faith under fire looks like. There are at least three lessons American believers can draw from this horrifying new trial:

  • Be informed about the persecuted Church. It’s not just Russia – the Middle East; India; Africa; many places all over the globe, believers are suffering terribly for their faith, yet do not renounce Christ. (Russia claims an Orthodox heritage dating back to the 8th century, which makes it somehow more stunning). In 2 Thessalonians, we see the godly character of a persecuted church, and how the faith of those under fire “grows exceedingly.” We are reminded to pray for these believers, that God may again be glorified through them.

    Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)

  • Rejoicing in all circumstances is possible. Realizing how minor and trivial most of our concerns are in light of what these laws mean for millions of Christians is sobering. I get upset over having to pay $30 for an oil change; I cannot imagine being fined $1,000 for sharing my faith. In fact, I’m usually too lazy to share my faith. I have sisters in Russia willing to risk arrest for the sake of Christ. Paul reminded the Philippian church that his chains actually advanced the Gospel and for that, he rejoiced! We have so much more to rejoice over: including living in a democratic society where we are free to proclaim Christ.
  • Our freedom should lead to gratitude and action. Our response to the oppression in Russia doesn’t necessarily have to be political, although that is one option. We have privileges such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and expression of religion that are being denied to millions of other believers, and we should be good stewards of them. Although we cannot build a Utopian society any more than Lenin could, we have the example from recent history of what a society completely devoid of Christ and Christian morals can look like. This should inform how we raise our children; how much attention we are paying to what they’re learning in school; our entertainment choices; how we vote; even how we pray.

Much is said in counseling about giving hope; but the emphasis needs to be on the object of our hope: The Person and work of Jesus Christ. Before we discuss how Christ must reform the culture, we need to focus on how he reforms our individual hearts. And, as the furnace refines silver, it is through trials that our faith grows stronger and impacts others. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson from our Russian brothers and sisters.

What Does it Mean to Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness?

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by Marie Notcheva

For the last several weeks, I have been doing a study on the Beatitudes with a friend. Today I realized that I have been reading Matthew 5:6 incorrectly for my entire Christian life.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” always sounded to me like a yearning for social justice. As believers in Christ, it naturally follows that we should want to see justice served in this world. This is not incompatible with the Bible’s teaching on caring for the orphans, the widow, and not looking down on the poor – or its many warnings against cheating and falsehood. An earnest desire to see the social structures of this world controlled by Christian morality sounds like a noble desire; certainly something that Christ would call “blessed.” It is reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your Kingdom come; Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10; emphasis mine).

We want to see righteousness in this world, as the nations turn to Christ.

Social Justice or Personal Righteousness?

Except….that’s not really what Matthew 5:6 is about. It helps to take a step back and look at the preceding beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (verse 3); “Blessed are those who mourn” (verse 4); “Blessed are the meek” (verse 5). We see a progression here – in personal holiness. Being “poor in spirit,” as I wrote about several weeks ago, means acknowledging our abject moral failure before God. It means coming to the table empty-handed; which leads to a “mourning” over one’s personal sin. These two verses center on our sinfulness, whereas being “meek” reveals a spirit that is already seeking righteousness. Why? Because meekness centers on God’s holiness, not our sinfulness. We see in the beatitudes not a grocery list of qualities to add to our spiritual resumes, but rather a progression in sanctification.

“Meekness is a by-product of dying to one’s self,” preaches John Macarthur, and it is a result of deliberately yielding to the Holy Spirit. The characteristic of meekness is commanded in Titus 3:2, where believers are instructed to be “gentle and meek” to everyone; and in Colossians, God’s children are told to deliberately clothe themselves with meekness (along with other virtues such as kindness and humility). So, when we get to verse 6, and are told we are “blessed” if we “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” it is not specifically an end to racism or halting political corruption that is in view. It is the believer’s personal holiness and inner striving for righteous thoughts and behavior that Christ is referring to.

How Are We Satisfied in God?

This is a good starting point for almost any context in counseling. While we would all surely say we “hunger and thirst after righteousness” in the global, general sense, the question for heart-examination is deeper. Do we (or a counselee) still have that burning desire to be holy, just as Christ is holy, purely to please our Heavenly Father? Do we still have that sense of awe at His Majesty that we had when we were first saved?

The word in Greek for hunger is peinao, which means to suffer from want or be in need. Metaphorically speaking, it means to crave and seek intensely. Dipsao is the Greek word for thirst; spiritually, it describes those who painfully feel their want of (and eagerly long for) things which will refresh and strengthen their soul. So when Jesus says that such a hungry person will be satisfied, what does He mean?

John 6:35 links Christ’s reference to hunger and thirst to the spiritual realm: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” So, He is declaring “blessed” those who truly hunger and thirst for the “living water” and bread of life that only He provides. Earnestly desiring what Christ came to grant and fulfill leads to receiving from Him the greatest satisfaction there is – a right relationship with Himself. This is the Gospel – the whole Person and Work of Christ; and sincerely desiring His will in our own lives is what He means by “hungering for righteousness.”

The Spiritual Barometer

A sure-fire way to test if we have gone lukewarm is to consider how strongly we desire the righteousness of Christ – not in the abstract, but tangibly. A counselee may be asked what is satisfying her now; what would really satisfy her in the near future? Does she desire acceptance, fame, money, security or another (not necessarily bad) thing that can become a heart-idol? What do we do when we are not seeking or desiring God? A study of the Prodigal Son provides an excellent lesson on consequences of hungering and thirsting after the wrong things (as well as a portrayal of the Father’s extravagant grace in drawing us back to Himself). Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God” is superb reading material for counselees who are prone to seek spiritual satisfaction elsewhere.