Why I Let My Kids Trick or Treat

We’re going to stand for Jesus this Saturday night, just as we do every day. And we’re going to have fun doing it.

by Marie Notcheva ©

Halloween 2009
Halloween 2009

This post is not so much in response to the so-called “culture wars”, as it is to younger Christians who have asked my opinion on the matter. Halloween, and all its related festivities, is definitely one of the “gray areas” of conscience. I am certainly not writing this to sway the reader’s opinion one way or the other; as in all matters of conviction, observing Halloween is an issue you will have to work out before God yourself (Romans 14).

I’ve noticed that the strongest opinions (“Halloween is satanic and Christians should not participate!”) come from brothers and sisters in Europe (specifically Albania), and this makes sense. They are not wrong, and I applaud the believers who stand up for their convictions. Halloween is a Western import – not part of their cultural tradition at all – and of course, the worst elements (read: the occultic overtones) are going to run completely counter to Christian life. My Albanian and Bulgarian brothers and sisters did not grow up bobbing for apples and collecting chocolates while dressed in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes. Neither did their parents. It makes sense that they would reject this cultural observation – very much rooted in paganism – as inappropriate for Christians.

“When the Americans start wearing “martenitsi’ (verore), then I’ll start celebrating Halloween!”

However, I am going to approach the issue from the perspective of an American…..a former Irish Catholic (ok, I’m still Irish; but haven’t been Catholic since 1990), who grew up in New England (where everyone and his brother is a Roman Catholic) and even churches have Halloween celebrations. I am not justifying blending of the sacred with the profane – far from it – my point is to demonstrate how culture and what is “acceptable” does play a part in what we condemn as “unChristian”.

To give an example, many American Evangelicals frown on drinking alcohol, even in moderation. (This is especially true in the South). Smoking is even more taboo – in fact, the main reason I quit 14 years ago was exactly that. Educated, middle-class, Christian moms simply don’t smoke in the United States  – unless they want to “damage their Christian witness”. This mentality (which I do not agree with, by the way) is bizarre to our European brethren. Many Christians there smoke, drink in moderation, and – gasp – send their children to secular ‘government’schools for their education. These spiritual judgement calls are a product of one’s culture; not careful exegesis.

And they’re dumb, and have nothing to do with following Jesus.

Apples and Candy Corn

Which brings me to the age-old question of Halloween in New England.

As some of my readers know, I was raised Catholic. Not just “Catholic”, but uber-conservative; traditional; pre-Vatican II, by-the-book IRISH Catholic. Only trouble was, that “book” wasn’t the Bible; but rather the Baltimore Catechism. Now, before you think this is a Catholic-bashing post, stay with me on this – it’s not. A non-Catholic may be unaware of the importance of “Feast Days” and “Holy Days of Obligation” in the Catholic Church, and how that is all mixed up with costumes and Spook Walks.

Halloween (October 31st) falls on the eve of All Saint’s Day, one of 6 “Holy Days of Obligation” in the Roman Catholic Church. (Not to be confused with “All Soul’s Day”, which is November 2nd). It is obligatory to attend Mass on these days, even though they may fall during the work week. By Catholic rules, attending Mass the evening before a Holy Day of Obligation (including Sunday) “counts” as attending on the day itself, and so most Catholics go to the evening Masses. What this means to a Catholic kid is that before you go out Trick or Treating, you attend Mass with your parents (or risk being in a state of mortal sin, and burning in hell for all eternity….unless, of course, you make it to Confession first).

In addition to a Halloween party (with costume parade and Spook Walk), my childhood church had a “Costume Mass” on All Saint’s Day eve. Both children and adults were encouraged to attend Mass in costume, and even the priest said Mass in costume. (I remember one year he dressed up as the Easter Bunny, and the attendant priest was a carrot. I thought it was hilarious. My mother didn’t.)

Me in 1975. Wasn't I cute??
Me in 1975. Wasn’t I cute??

An extremely religious woman, my mother was horrified by this and would never let my brothers or me wear our costumes to church – although we did Trick or Treat around the neighborhood; put ourselves into sugar-induced comas the next day; and that was the end of it. We went to a number of Halloween parties as kids; got our hair wet bobbing for apples; ripped our fillings out on Sugar Daddies; and got excited planning our costumes. None of us, to my knowledge, ever began worshiping the devil or practicing Wicca.

Honoring God in All Things

However, I began reading the Bible and became a Christian years later, as a college student, and now I see my mother’s point. The Catholic Church, from it’s foundations in the 4th Century A.D., has been riddled with syncretism, and while that is not the reason I left, it is a serious problem. Blending pagan (or purely secular) practices with the worship of God does not honor Him – it really doesn’t matter if the costume is a devil, witch, or angel….don’t bring it into a liturgy. But where does that leave us outside of church – is any and every observation of Halloween inherently wrong?

This was the question I struggled with as a young Christian mom.

Not long after starting a family, I became more serious about getting my life back on track and following God in every area. Naturally, I wanted to do the best I could to bring up my children to know and love Him, and so, by the time they were old enough to be dressed as pumpkins, I wrestled with the question of whether Halloween was a sin.

What I believe is sinful about Halloween is the celebration (I would even say “glorification”) of death, blood, gore, and all that is morbid. It makes me shake my head when I drive past yards that are filled with ‘decorative’ tombstones, zombies, bats and monsters (how much money did they pay for that junk?) and see adults posting pictures of themselves in either gory, macabre costumes or hyper-sexualized get-ups. What are adults doing celebrating Halloween? Is it a genuine attraction to the occult (for some it may be); or just an excuse to get wasted?

In either event, it’s dumb and it does not glorify God. Is anything about monsters, zombies or vampires (which I realize are not real) “true; noble; pure; lovely; or of good repute”? Apart from office parties, most “adult” Halloween celebrations cater to the baser side of human nature.

But what about children, who simply like to dress up in costumes; play games; collect candy from the neighbors? When I realized many of my Christian friends would not allow their children to Trick or Treat (or believe in Santa Claus), I began to feel “convicted”. Surely we would be “compromising” by allowing our kids any form of observance! I shared this with my husband, who, frankly, didn’t see what the big deal was.

Although I don’t recall ever sitting down and having a theological debate, I came to balance the opinions of the ‘Super Christians’ with his – and where the Bible is clear that some things are not clear (1 Corinthians 10:28-31; Romans 14:5).

It wasn’t ‘conviction’ I was feeling. It was ‘peer pressure’.

I simply do not see condemnation of the heart that lets little ones wear fuzzy costumes for the entertainment of the neighbors, or collect sweets. Interestingly, this tradition is very similar to the Jewish feast of Purim, where costumes are donned and behavior gets a little bit crazy! Although not biblical, the observance of many traditional holidays allows Christian license for having fun.

My youngest child -
My youngest child – “I bring you good tidings of great news!”

Whatever You Do, Do It For the Glory of God

Some years later, I’ve solidified my conviction even further that allowing our children to Trick or Treat is not only “permissible”, but is beneficial. Why? For one thing, it’s a given that no costumes glorifying sin or demonic practices were allowed (witches; devils; etc.) But the Bible goes a step further: we’re not commanded to stay morally neutral, but to glorify God in whatever we do: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). How are Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups glorifying to God?

On their own, they’re not…but we can use Halloween to engage our neighbors, and shine the light of Christ. While it may not be the case elsewhere, here in New England people keep to themselves. We rarely interact with our neighbors, and almost never set foot in their houses. Although of course there are many exceptions, (and I know Christians who are intentional about practicing hospitality), New Englanders are known for being “stand-off-ish”. The social spectrum is 180° from the “cafe culture” of the Balkans, for example. So….Halloween provides a golden opportunity to interact with our neighbors; show off our cute kids; and just generally be friendly.

….and Give them the Gospel

“Friendship evangelism” is nice, but Halloween gives you the one chance out of the year when people are coming to your house, asking for something. So give it to them (remember to be an excellent ambassador for Christ by being generous with the chocolate); and give them a Gospel tract. They might not read it. They might, and then tell your kid on the school bus that it’s “mean” to give out a pamphlet that says some people will go to hell (*true story). Or they just might take it to heart and open a Bible. You never know; but it’s as easy as handing out candy and may reap eternal consequences.

The Gospel Tract Sandwich ©
The Gospel Tract Sandwich ©

I once watched a good friend from church turn away Trick or Treaters from his porch by explaining why he and his family refuse to celebrate or condone Halloween. While his reasoning was not wrong, and he believed he was being faithful to Christ, I personally feel there is a better way: demonstrate Christ-honoring love by being generous; giving them the Truth of the Gospel along with their “treat”; and having fun. Forbidding our children the innocent part of the tradition, just because it may become tainted with darker elements, does not make them love Christ more. Any time we focus more on “rules” or putting “hedges around hedges” when it comes to behavior, it may cause our children to rebel and question the sense of it all (if not outwardly, at least in their hearts). When we “set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts” (1 Peter 3:15), we needn’t worry about ballerina and Spiderman costumes offending Him.

Agree? Disagree? Leave me a comment! 🙂 

Review: “Tortured for His Faith” by Haralan Popov

tortured_for_his_faith1by Marie Notcheva ©

“Tortured for His Faith” by Haralan Popov is a harrowing yet uplifting account of a Bulgarian pastor’s 13-year imprisonment and torture in Communist prisons and concentration camps for proclaiming Christ.

Popov’s legacy was one of the most notorious cases of religious persecution in post-WWII Europe. In this autobiographical account, Popov discusses how the kindness of a Baptist friend in pre-Communist Bulgaria led the young atheist to a curiosity about his faith and ultimately his conversion. In 1929, the 22-year-old Popov left for Bible college in England, and returned to Bulgaria with a Swedish wife to serve as pastor, for 16 years, at the largest church in the nation.

In 1944, what Popov describes as a “dark menace” took power. He writes:

“The Communists slowly gained power while our country was lying prostrate at the feet of the Red Army. At first the Communist Party was most cooperative with other political parties and even formed a coalition government. In three years, the other parties were banned, their leaders imprisoned, and the Communist Party was in full control. We had heard of our fellow Christians in Russia and what they had suffered, but little did we know that Bulgaria would become so like Russia it would be called “Little Russia.”

For three years, from 1944-1947, the Christians of Bulgaria evangelized day and night to spread the Gospel and build up the faith of the believers, expecting the boon to fall at any moment. “Undoubtedly,” he writes, “our feverish work for Christ during this three years “before the storm” caused us to be singled out for the “special” treatment which was to follow in communist prisons. The very intensity of our work during the “calm before the storm” made us marked men. We didn’t have long. As soon as the Communists had consolidated their power we knew it would be our time.”

Popov’s time came at 4:00 am on July 24, 1948. A daily routine of interrogation, beating, psychological and physical torture began for one of many pastors accused of being “spies” and “instruments of imperialism”. Afraid of public outcry if the real reason for their imprisonment were known, the government had started a vicious propaganda campaign while systematically replacing Bible-preaching pastors with their own state agents in the pulpits.

For several weeks, the pastor was brutally beaten, starved, and forced to stand motionless staring point-blank at a shiny white wall for days at a time. Popov describes the tenth day of this torture:

“Still the collapse didn’t come. I lost all track of time. One day blurred into another. My swollen legs became huge, engorged with blood from complete immobility. My lips were cracked wide open and bleeding. My beard was long, for I had not been allowed to wash nor shave since the day I was arrested. My eyes were balls of fire. Yet, somehow I stood. On the tenth night, sometime after midnight I heard my interrogator snoring as he dozed off. I moved my stiff neck to the right and to the left. Off to the left about six feet away there was a window. Since it was dark outside I could see a reflection in the window, like a mirror. I recoiled in horror. It was a monster’s reflection! I saw a horrible emaciated figure, legs swollen, eyes like empty holes in the head, with a long beard covered with dried blood from cracked, bleeding and hideously swollen lips.

It was a grotesque, horrible figure. I was repulsed by it.

Suddenly, it struck me. That horrible, bleeding grotesque figure was me! That “monster” was me.

My numbed mind slowly absorbed this fact and tears came into my eyes. Suddenly, I felt crushed, so alone, so by myself. I felt as Christ must have when He cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I couldn’t weep tears, but my body heaved with unwept tears. Then, in that moment of total, crushing hopelessness, I heard a voice as clear and distinct as any voice I have ever heard in my life. It said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you…” It was so audible I dared to glance at my dozing interrogator, certain he had heard it, too, but he slept on.

The presence of God filled the Punishment Cell and enveloped me in a divine warmth, infusing strength into the shell that was my body”.

Original Bulgarian edition – “The Bulgarian Golgotha”

At this point, Popov’s ordeal was only beginning. In 1949, after many months in prison suffering sub-human treatment and inconceivable humiliation, he and 12 other Protestant pastors were condemned as spies in a travesty of justice known as “The Pastors’ Trial of 1949“. The interrogators used every conceivable means to break the men and extort false confessions from them, and succeeded in breaking several. Neither Popov nor his brother Ladin would confess to the false charges of espionage in return for a lighter sentence, preferring to die in prison if necessary. They refused to dishonor their Saviour.

For years, the prison administrators tried various tactics to force Popov to renounce his faith in Christ and embrace Communism, to no avail. One of the pastor’s favorite methods were the writing assignments his captors gave him, designed to brainwash him into accepting Marxism as ideologically superior. They also demanded essays meticulously detailing past events in Popov’s life, in order to obtain information on other “social menaces”. Popov effectively turned the tables on them by managing to work the Gospel message into each and every essay he produced for his captors. It became a daily hobby as a stack of paper was thrust into his hands to think of new and inventive ways of evangelizing to the warden. By the time Popov had produced about 2,000 handwritten pages, the prison officials finally tired of this “game” and decided Popov was unredeemable. “I often wonder,” he reflects in his memoir, “how many Communists my message reached.”

In 1952, the pastor was sent by boxcar with hundreds of other political and religious prisoners to a slave labor camp located on the island of Persin in the Danube. Deliberately left in freezing temperatures as punishments from the guards, many men froze to death, some dying in Pastor Popov’s arms. He describes the screams of a starving prisoner being savagely beaten to death by guards for killing a wild rabbit to eat. Of the six thousand prisoners at Persin, only a few hundred survived.

Popov led other prisoners to Christ over the course of his 13-year captivity, at times by tapping out messages between cells. Laboring in a stone quarry, he used 22-pound sledge hamers to break up huge rocks – and started up a Bible class at the quarry barracks, right under the noses of the guards. Popov quips, “Even the ever-present informer evidently didn’t report me. I could only conclude that he was enjoying the Bible classes, too.” In solitary confinement, he prayed continuously for his tormentors, steadfastly refusing to hate them. Lashed by a guard for not running fast enough, he thought of Jesus being beaten and prayed, “Lord, help me to bear it for Your Name’s sake!” When he was finally released from prison, in 1961, his brother explained that he had just passed from a smaller prison into a bigger one. The entire nation had become a police state.

In a chapter entitled “Church Spies Spying on Spies”, Popov describes the state of the underground church juxtaposed with congregations reduced from several hundred members to fewer than two dozen. “A police apparatus of total control had reached it’s octopus-like tentacles around the churches in a deadly embrace,” he writes. Pastors who were “uncooperative” with the state-run strangulation were replaced with puppets of the state who preached no gospel but Communism, attempting to white-wash the evil, atheistic philosophy with humanistic, high-sounding pep talks. The net result would be an undiscerning population unable to distinguish Lenin from Christ. Destroying the church outright would produce Christian martyrs, which would have been detrimental to the Communist agenda. Subtly undermining the Gospel and exerting control over believers was a far more insidious and evil design.

Popov’s illustration of the social situation and political agenda gives his story depth and context. Understood against the backdrop of hard-line Communism, the methods of interrogation and systematic indoctrination he endured make sense. The danger of the slightest compromise, no matter how easy it might have been to rationalize away in a moment of torture, opens the door to much bigger crises of conscience – and not all in his position were able to pass the test. Popov’s is a testimony to an extraordinarily strong faith in God, not only for salvation, but in His power to sustain. Likewise, even given the unbelievable amount of torment he endured, Popov was able not only to refrain from hating his captors, but even to feel compassion for them as ones completely lost in their sin. He noted often that there is no bottom to the depths a human being can sink in utter depravity without Christ. Facing the epitome of evil, he felt sorry for the soul he saw as being used of Satan.

Much like “Voice of the Martyrs” founder Richard Wurmbrand’s “Tortured for Christ”, Popov writes a detailed account of similar circumstances in the propaganda machine that post WWII Eastern Europe had become. (Wurmbrand was a Lutheran pastor from Romania). While not quite as graphic as Wurmbrand’s account in it’s description of physical brutality, Popov actually does a better job at explaining the reasoning and tactics behind the psychological mind-games and brainwashing of the Secret Police. Rather than simply condemning them outright for what his Western audience already knew was an insidiously evil social system, Popov draws the reader in by explaining how each leading question was baited in an interrogation; how a simple seminary course description could be twisted to sound sinister in the hands of a skilled propagandist; why the government chose to bide time and systematically destroy the church from within rather than closing them by force.

Written a few years after his release, (the edition I have was published in 1970, although an earlier edition was published in 1967 under the name “Torture and Triumph in a Communist Prison”), the book shows an uncanny recollection of seemingly mundane detail. Transcripts from court hearings could be produced, (at least in theory), but how could Popov remember that he killed exactly 539 bedbugs on his first night in prison? Detailed inventories of seemingly endless days, all with dates, reveal either a photographic memory on the part of Popov or possible embellishment while reconstructing his story.

Also notable, Popov never once mentions or alludes to the fact that he was a Pentecostal pastor. In fact, based on his early pre-and post-conversion attendance at a Baptist church in Russe (and his continuous identification with the “Evangelical” church), the reader would logically conclude that he was a Baptist. Nowhere in the book does he discuss sign gifts or argue for continuationism; and his faith was clearly not based on esoteric experience. If anything, Popov’s ultimately triumphant ordeal demonstrates the fallacy of superficial faith based on experience or emotionalism – true roots are needed. His is a story sorely-needed by lukewarm believers today that demonstrates the depth of selfless commitment Christ expects of His true followers. His courage and commitment, given him by the Holy Spirit, was truly remarkable. Looking back on his own thoughts as he neared his release date, Popov wrote,

“I knew that men I had never laid eyes on were serving Christ because I had the opportunity of “tapping” the Gospel to them. I don’t label myself a hero or martyr, but as I neared my release and looked back I could honestly and truthfully say that it was worth those 13 years of torture, beatings, starvation, suffering and separation from loved ones to be a “pastor” to the thousands of Communist prisoners my path had crossed.”

Popov in the late ’70’s

In 1972, Popov founded “Door of Hope International” to help the Underground Church in Eastern Europe and smuggle Bibles (banned by the Communists) behind the Iron Curtain. Nowadays, youth leadership and humanitarian aid is more of the organization’s focus in these same countries. Pastor Popov passed away in 1988, and his son Paul (asleep in his crib the night his father was taken away) now heads the ministry, which has expanded it’s mission to help the persecuted church in Asian and African countries as well.

A Grief Like No Other: When a Friend Loses a Child

ChildLossGrief

This article (A Grief Like No Other: When a Friend Loses a Child by Marie Notcheva) originally appeared on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website.

When my older son was 11 years old, he lost his best friend to cancer. Sitting here at my laptop, exactly four years later, I still feel the sting of a mother’s grief as sharply as if it had happened yesterday.

His name was Josh. I am using actual names in this article, because they werereal children. With real names. Who really mattered.

So many of my friends have gone through the unspeakable agony of losing a child—whether in utero, in infancy, or adolescence—but this is a lonely, solitary agony that even those closest to the parent cannot really shoulder. We want to enter into grief with a friend, and yet cannot fully. Empathy is the closest we can come.

There is something inherently selfish even in the most compassionate of us that stops us from really experiencing, even vicariously, what a parent is going through in this kind of loss. There is no real comfort we can provide; and we don’t even want to contemplate the full horror of their experience. Our human instinct is to detach. Emotional detachment is necessary in medical fields, and even to a certain extent in the counseling office; but it never feels quite right—especially when you are a parent.

Professional Detachment vs. Personal Involvement

As a medical interpreter in Boston, I occasionally see pediatric cases (which are rarely terminal). These children are usually flown here to receive medical treatment not available in Bulgaria. Two years ago, I had a late-afternoon pediatric assignment when I was a bit impatient to get home and make my 8-year-old daughter’s birthday cake for her party the next day. I had no idea that within a few minutes I would have to tell a woman, just like me, that her daughter was dying.

The little girl’s mother had come alone for a consult with the oncologist while the child, also 8 years old, received a blood transfusion at another hospital. She and Natalia might have been friends. It took nearly an hour just for Mom to give the medical history, and as I interpreted the painful details of the little girl’s neuroblastoma treatment, my heart broke. Her cancer was so advanced that there was nothing more that could be done. The oncologist advised Mom, with tears in her eyes, to take her back home to Bulgaria.

In 15 years as a medical interpreter, this was one of two times where I cried. (The other was a phone call. I had to tell an 18-year-old MIT student’s mother that her son had been killed in a motorcycle accident. His name was Georgi, by the way.) But the problem was, there was nothing I could do. I hugged her in the elevator, told her “I’m so sorry,” and drove home. I couldn’t even let myself dwell on this poor mother’s plight, because I wouldn’t have been emotionally available to my own children. It was an unpleasant feeling, and I felt mildly selfish for forcing myself to “detach.”

It’s different when the grieving parent is a personal friend. It may not be different “biblically,” but it’s still different. When a woman from church buried her 18-year-old son several years ago, I found it difficult to make eye contact at the funeral or casually ask “How are you?” afterwards. Stephen should have been a college student. Josh, my son’s buddy, passed unexpectedly just before Christmas. The grief that consumed the parents, siblings, and our church family was so raw and heartbreaking the natural instinct was to withdraw, even while wanting to offer comfort.

“I am a parent. I don’t want to feel this horror; I don’t want to go there in my mind. The Bible tells us there is comfort. Let’s remind each other of that. It is not ‘spiritual’ to feel this grief, especially when we know the child is in heaven. No pain. At all costs, stop the pain. We do not grieve as the pagans do; we have hope.”

As Kate, who lost her 1-year-old son Alex to a heart defect said, “It still tears you apart.”

‘Comfort’ is a relative word when we are talking about the loss of a child. There is no substitute love, no biblical promise, no futuristic hope of glory strong enough to wipe out the aching, relentless pain of emptiness when the child you carried, nursed and nurtured is suddenly gone. Sometimes all you can do as a friend is to be there–not run from the other parent’s pain, not deny it, not gloss over it with spiritual-sounding platitudes. Months after Josh died, after the cards stopped coming and the meals were no longer delivered, his mom and I cried together over the phone. “I just miss him so much…this wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said.

Never Minimize Grief

I have always been struck by the scene in John 11, where Jesus wept with the two sisters, Mary and Martha, over the death of their brother Lazarus. Even knowing He was going to raise Lazarus and the story was going to end “happily ever after,” so to speak, the Savior of mankind was moved so much by individual, human grief that He chose to fully enter into it. There is not a human emotion Jesus has not fully experienced, and this fact alone brings us a measure of comfort in our own pain. Notice He never minimizes their pain; our Redeemer is moved by His children’s suffering. God never says “pull yourself together” or “just get over it.” And neither should we–grieving is a long, lonely, and highly personal process.

There is a tremendous desire for the parent to rejoin their child in heaven; the best thing you can do for a grieving friend is sit quietly with her in the waiting room. It’s not much, but with a burden they are carrying alone they need not be alone in their grief. Two years later, after having moved away, Josh’s mom wrote me:

“Mom to mom…I am pressing on. I have really hard days and some good ones. God has been extremely kind in all the blessings He has brought our way, yet I seem to be half here and half fixed on heaven. God says his people perish for lack of vision…I have been asking Him for His vision so I can bring glory and honor to His name. I have changed, but I know God is strong and able to still use me. Marie, some days I miss him so much that I feel like my heart will burst. Surely God had a very good reason for this plan…I know one day I will understand and even praise Him for it.”

The Lonely, Secret Pain of Miscarriage

One might rationally ask, “How is it possible to love someone you have never known?” Any mother who has carried a child, to full term or not, knows that love for a child is not “rational.” In biblical Greek, there are four different words for “love,” and one, “storge” (στοργή) describes nurturing, parental love. It is rarely used in ancient works, and then almost exclusively as a descriptor of relationships within the family. Modern ultrasounds allow us that wonderful moment when you see and hear your 8-week baby’s heart beating deep within you, but from the beginning of time God has planted that deep, loving parental instinct within us as a reflection of His own heart. It cannot be explained, or rationalized.

Losing a child through miscarriage is a unique loneliness. There is usually no grave, no memorial service, no cards or sympathetic phone calls. One has to “keep it together” and go on as if all is normal. But it’s not normal, and it never will be again. Life has been turned upside down, even if no one else sees it. You have lost a part of yourself that can never be replaced; a wound that only God sees. You grieve because you never held that child, never knew him or her, couldn’t even give the gift of a name. And there is guilt—“Was it my fault? Did I exercise too much? Was I eating enough? Maybe God is punishing me…”

And the nagging questions about God’s goodness: “Why does He give someone a child, only to take it away again? He could have done something to prevent this from happening. He did nothing. Is He really ‘for’ me? How can I trust that God will always be faithful, even when I am not?” The death of a child—at any age—is a tragedy, and if a friend confides this “hidden” loss to you, the best thing you can do is to understand that and allow her to grieve.

Comforting a Friend in Any Affliction

The hardest thing about trying to help a friend who has lost a child is that even with all the biblical truth and promises of God’s goodness we have, the pain never really goes away. It dulls, but it stays with the parent and nothing we say can “make it all better.” Like with depression, the most important thing your grieving friend needs from you is to know that you care. And you will not leave her, no matter how long or difficult this season is. When you don’t know what to say, it is a good time to say nothing…sometimes tears are the sincerest reflection of one’s heart.

It is not necessary (or wise!) to be like Job’s friends—offering advice; admonishing her for a lack of faith, telling her grief is unspiritual. On the contrary, 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4 tells us plainly that God Himself comforts us in all of our afflictions, so that we may in turn comfort others with the same grace.

Not preach.

Not lecture.

Just comfort.

God knows exactly what it feels like to lose a Son. While it may seem He is silent, the sure and simple knowledge that He is there, and He cares about the grieving heart is exactly what a parent going through this tragedy needs to know experientially. Don’t worry about saying the “right thing.” Even on the worst days, His personal love is like a cushion that protects us, so that nothing can hurt quite as much. By being available, just to listen…to empathize…and yes, even to cry together—on a small scale, you are able to demonstrate the caring heart of Jesus to your friend in their loss.

What Can I Do to Show I Care?

There are a few very practical things you can do to help a grieving friend get through the day.

  • Bring a meal to a friend. When someone is grieving a sudden death, the concentration needed just to get through the steps of preparing a meal is too much.
  • Help with funeral arrangements. Funerals put tremendous stress on the family of the deceased – not just financially, but practically. Help with organization and administrative details; clean her apartment; run errands so she can rest.
  • Call your friend. Even months after the death of a child, when the flowers have wilted and condolences stop coming. A parent’s grief is still fresh. Invite her for coffee; let her talk about anything she wishes.
  • Let her know you are praying for her. Just the knowledge that a friend is praying for her, even when she is too weak to do so herself is comfort that will sometimes help her get through the day.

Because we all carry some heavy burdens these days. We need to “carry one another’s burdens, and in so doing fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Review: “Because He Loves Me: How Christ Transforms Our Daily Life”

fitzpatrickby Marie Notcheva ©

Elyse Fitzpatrick is who I want to be when I grow up.

Of course, I mean that completely in the Ephesians 4:15 sense of “grow up”. The ability to articulate the simple, profound truth of the Gospel and its implications for day-to-day life as beautifully as Elyse has in “Because He Loves Me: How Christ Transforms Our Daily Life”speaks of a real spiritual maturity. Her passion, from the first page of this encouraging book, is for her reader to have the same joyful, settled assurance of Christ’s love that she herself has found in the pages of Scripture.

Why is it that so many of us recognize our need for the Gospel – the Person and work of Jesus Christ – for salvation; then slowly move past the Good News in our daily strivings to “please God”? We come to the Cross for justification, but practically live as if sanctification depended solely on us. Elyse spots this tendency – which often leads to a moralistic, defeated attitude – and reminds the reader of the only antidote: applying the finished work of Christ to our continually sinning hearts. Weaving the entire thread of Scripture around a central point – that God FIRST loved us – Elyse shows how getting this knowlege of His deep, abiding, personal and unfathomable love for us down into the very marrow of our bones completely changes everything. In fact, it transforms our whole identity – who we reckon ourselves to be.

If we see ourselves as “foster children”, who can be evicted or abandoned at any moment, we will live like it. Realizing we are a permanent, cherished part of the family – His adopted children – transforms our hearts and enables us to live for Christ in His strength. As she writes on page 148, “Any obedience that isn’t motivated by His great love is nothing more than penance.”Well said.

How does the Gospel message impact our walk, 10, 20, even 30 years after our conversion, when we can rattle off the Doctrines of Grace like the days of the week?

“If we don’t consciously live in the light of His love, the gospel will be secondary, virtually meaningless, and Jesus Christ will fade into insignificance. Our faith will become all about us, our performance, and how we think we’re doing, and our transformation will be hindered.”

This tendency to take our eyes off of Him and focus inwardly on our failure becomes a viscous cycle, especially when one is battling a life-dominating sin. Many of you bear witness to this fact. I once received the following e-mail from a reader:

“…I have been REALLY struggling again lately. I have trouble turning to God, because I feel sometimes like I don’t deserve His forgiveness, or to ask Him for help. Lately I have been obsessing about food and eating all day long, and binging and purging A LOT! I work as a nanny, so I am alone with kids and in a house full of junk food I wouldn’t buy, and have found myself unable to keep from destructive eating behaviors. Please pray for me that I will go back to Christ for guidance, and be able to truly repent for my sin. Please also pray that I will stop worshiping false idols of food and thinness, and instead live to glorify Him…”

(emphasis mine).

This young lady sincerely loves God and wants to please Him, but her words reveal that she has fallen into the trap so common to all of us: living as if our position before God is based on our own merit. When did any of us, in our “best” moments, EVER “deserve” His forgiveness? We didn’t. Christ secured it for us – while we were still His enemies. We forget this. When we succeed, we feel good and can worship. Failure brings shame and a fear of approaching God, which naturally leads to more failure and despair. We are, as Elyse points out in this book, essentially not trusting God that He is as good as He says He is.

This is unbelief, and it leads to idols. When we don’t feel fully secure in our position in Christ – solely based on His righteousness and grace – we seek the satisfaction that should be found in Him alone through counterfeits. Putting our trust in these “earthly treasures” leads to fear, worry, and anxiety – which leads us ever further away from the Cross. Freedom from fear comes from contemplating and remembering the love of God, manifested in Christ. As I have written before (and Elyse so much more articulately), change in our behavior can only come from truly realizing and appreciating who God is and what He has done for us. Knowing that His kindness is what has led us to repentance (Romans 2:4) motivates us to love Him back, and approach Him with confidence. Our ‘identity in Christ’ (as Elyse refers to it; I might use ‘position’) is permanent and irrevocable. It is what frees us up to walk in love.

In the final section of “Because He Loves Me”, Elyse demonstrates how remembering and contemplating this unfathomable love God has for us is the true motivation for lasting change. She writes,

“Our natural unbelief will always cast doubt on His love for us. It is the awareness of His love and only this that will equip us to wage war against sin. Until we really grasp how much He loves us, we’ll never be able to imitate Him. We won’t come near to Him if we’re afraid of His judgment. We won’t repent and keep pursuing godliness if we don’t believe that our sin doesn’t faze His love for us one bit. We won’t want to be like Him if we believe that His love is small, stingy, censorious, severe. And we’ll never be filled with His fullness until we begin to grasp the extent of His love (Eph. 3:19). As a member of His family, you’re the apple of His eye, the child He loves to bless. You’re His
darling.”

“Every failure in sanctification is a failure in worship.”

Far from minimizing the seriousness of sin, Elyse reminds the reader how costly it was to God – and invites her to rest in this reality. At the same time, we are thus enabled to “wage a vicious war against sin” – the imperative (command) that naturally follows the indicative (what God has already declared to be true). Every sin, from greed to sexual immorality, is a failure to love as we’ve been loved – at its root, unbelief. The key to walking in freedom and joy, then, is remembering that we’re beloved children, redeemed by Jesus, set free from the power of sin. This settled confidence produces thanksgiving ane edifying speech, rather than complaining and bitterness. This is what applying the Gospel to every area of our lives looks like in practice.

I have been recommending “Because He Loves Me” to women who write me about their specific struggles, as well as counselors and anyone else who would benefit from the reminder of what Christ’s perfect life, love, cross, resurrection and intercession really mean to us as we grow in Him. In short, everyone reading this would likely benefit from the encouraging and joyful explanation Elyse presents on the synergy of God’s grace and our response. Like C.J. Mahaney’s “The Cross Centered Life”, “Because He Loves Me”trains the reader to reflect more deeply on the finished work of Christ on her behalf as a catalyst to worship, rather than presenting sanctification as a spiritual self-help plan.

See more about this wonderful book at the official website:http://beta.becausehelovesme.com/

Empathy and Involvement – the “One Anothering” of Biblical Counseling

empathy-3by Marie Notcheva ©

Life is a messy business. Before kindergarden, most of us have figured that out – and life doesn’t stop being messy once Christ pours grace into our mess. Within the Church, real spiritual growth happens in community – what is commonly referred to as discipleship”. Sometimes, there is a “logjam” in a believer’s life, and in those seasons, the counsel of a more mature believer can be invaluable.

As biblical counselors, trained in diagrams, models, and Scriptural principles, how do we relate to the struggling brother or sister in our office? Is empathy enough? Should we remain detached, or get involved? And what is the difference between “empathy” and “involvement”?

Developing involvement with a counselee encompasses how the counselor relates to the person in front of him. How will he (or she) use Scripture and instill hope? The first session of counseling is geared towards how to develop this involvement, using biblical methods. Wayne Mack writes,

Ultimately and preeminently the purpose for that involvement [between counselor and counselee] is to enhance the counselee’s involvement with Christ. This vertical dimension is what makes biblical counseling different from all other forms of counseling.” (Wayne Mack, quoted in John Macarthur’s “Counseling”, p. 281).

This effective type of involvement demands a genuine compassion, such as that demonstrated by Christ towards the masses. We also see this characteristic in Paul, when he counseled and corrected people (i.e. 2 Cor. 11:28-29; Acts 20:31). Besides cultivating heartfelt compassion (recognizing how one would feel in counselee’s position; seeing him or her as a family member; humbly recognizing one’s own sinfulness and considering practical ways of showing compassion), a counselor must develop involvement with the counselee through respect. This includes proper verbal and non-verbal communication; trust and confidence in the counselee; and sincerity. The counselor must be honest and transparent about his or her qualifications, weaknesses, limitations and goals and agenda for counseling.

Empathy is far more limited than actual involvement, because empathy stops short of any action to solve the problem and help the counselee change. Empathy and “support” are synonymous – empathy feels another’s pain and sympathizes, but it is “passive”. Empathy offers understanding, which is important – both in friendships and counseling – but does nothing “active” to help.While the knowledge that one is cared about is important and can bring a measure of comfort, the biblical model of love goes a step further: it is always active when possible.

Offering empathy and assurances that you care, sympathize and understand helps the sufferer’s plight much more effectively when it is coupled with action. The book of James illustrates this principle well:

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (James 2:15-17).

In a spiritual sense, this is what empathy is: it feels another’s pain, but does not seek to implement a solution to stop it.

When the Problem is “Unfixable”

The difference between passive empathy and involvement is significant, because Scripturally love is always active. It feels another’s need, and seeks to fill it. God is the ultimate example of this: He gives, seeks, restores (John 3:16; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:25) and commands the same from His followers. Naturally, there are many cases when nothing can be done directly to help a struggling friend or counselee (times when advice is not appropriate; no action can undo an unfortunate event or situation). When one suffers through no fault of their own (for example, the death of a child; a spouse leaving; the sting of rejection), no amount of counseling (no matter how biblically-sound) is going to rectify the situation – or stop the pain. Yet even in such situations, counselor or friend can both empathize and get involved by helping with day-to-day tasks.

Practical help, such as bringing meals; running errands; helping to organize finances can be a very beneficial part of bereavement counseling. However, most people seek biblical counseling because of a problem of sanctification in their life – something is “messed up”, and they don’t know what to do about it. When the extent of a counselor’s involvement in a situation is mere empathy, the counselee may take fleeting comfort from the appearance of compassion (“someone understands me”), but no change will occur because nothing is confronted (and subsequently changed).

When the Problem is Sin

Many of the issues (such as addictions, pornography, and infidelity) we see in the counseling room are matters of life-dominating sin. When “support” is what is meant by “empathy”, it is the most unloving thing a counselor can offer. “Supporting” someone stuck in a sinful lifestyle is harmful, and indicates that there is no answer (and thus no hope) for the problem. The failure of behavioral psychology to address and change counselee’s problems is primarily rooted in the practice of “talk-therapy” – the idea that emoting about one’s problems is sufficient. In fact, simply talking about a problem and not addressing it biblically does more harm than good (Proverbs 14:23). Such empathy gives the counselee no impetus to change and live as God wants him to.

Both empathy and personal involvement are important aspects of Christ-like soul care. Counsel that is truly biblical does not remain detached; but rather rolls up its sleeves and gets involved in the messy business of life. We do this by offering compassion, empathy – and solutions rooted in the hard work of God-honoring change.