Surviving and Thriving – Jen Grice Provides Encouragement for the Journey (Review)

Grice_coverby Marie O’Toole

After turning in the first draft of my own manuscript to the publisher, I was very pleased to review Christian author, speaker and homeschooling mom Jen Grice’s excellent book, “You Can Survive Divorce: Hope, Healing and Encouragement for Your Journey”.

So much of what is offered to abused and/or divorced Christian women is anything but hopeful; impedes healing by fostering shame; and even if well-intentioned, is often discouraging.

Far from accepting labels that divorced Christians are “damaged goods”, like any good Christian counselor, Grice starts off by offering the reader hope. She starts by comparing the pain of a failed marriage to Joseph’s story in Genesis 37. She emphasizes that what was a brutally painful and life-changing ordeal can be used by God for good, and to enable her to not only survive but thrive and minister to others in similar situation

In first chapter, she points out that the platitude “Time heals all wounds” is a fallacy – many women are still holding onto wounds and unable to heal, even years (or decades) after their divorces.

“Where could I turn with all of the hemorrhaging pain? Who would heal me?” was a question she often struggled with herself.

Grice does not deny the unique pain that ending a destructive relationship causes. Insightfully she states:

“We cannot bypass the process by using the world’s comforts. That only delays the process and often sets us back, because we add more pain we have to then face, once we finally deal with it. Grief is just put on hold when trying to “move on” while still healing. Not only does taking baggage into a new relationship hurt the relationship, but after that rebound relationship ends, the already hurting heart is hurting ten times more.”

Going straight to the source of healing and restoration, she compares the visceral pain to the woman with a bleeding disorder in Matthew 9:20-22 who desperately sought out Jesus. Time is not a healer, and healing will not be a “one-time thing”, she cautions the reader.

Grice also gives practical advice regarding new relationships:

“Many jump into dating too quickly without healing and dealing with their own issues first. I’ve seen countless women remarry only to divorce a second time shortly thereafter. This is because unhealthy people are drawn to unhealthy people. If you were in an unhealthy relationship in the past, the chances of getting into another unhealthy relationship are much higher. We gravitate toward what we know to be “normal……and if He allowed you to escape from oppression the first time, He doesn’t want to see you go back to that same situation again. Trust Him to guide you into this new chapter of life.”

Grice candidly shares a little of her own hardship and acknowledges: “I had felt for too long that if my husband was able to reject me in such a cruel way, multiple times, I was just that unlovable. I was tired of feeling worthless and unaccepted.” This is a common emotional struggle women in abusive marriages experience. “While married, I would often feel bad for even breathing, not understanding that my Maker, who saw me as His masterpiece, had loved me since before I even started breathing.”

Grice reminds the reader of the continual, unconditional love God has for His daughters – even when they don’t feel it. He changes the identity we put on ourselves, by making us truly know how accepted in the beloved we are.

Re-iterating the cliché-sounding “God loves you” for a woman going through the pain of divorce is crucial to her healing, because subconsciously the pain and rejection common to our marital experience makes us question (on an emotional if not intellectual level) God’s personal love for us. Trusting God to want to heal us cannot happen without a deep-rooted assurance of His love, which sounds too good to be true during such a brutal season. Grice puts it this way:

“During my lowest points, I understood “God loves you,” but I didn’t feel that in my heart. My heart was filled with words said to me and about me, throughout my entire life, which sought to tear me down. The words left scars that turned into voices that told me I wasn’t worthy. They were words I believed about myself.”

After the crisis she was in made her tell God she was “done” with Christianity, Grice felt the Holy Spirit intercede on her behalf:

“Just then I started feeling a lot of love and compassion I had never felt before. I had been a confessing Christian for over fifteen years, but it was in that moment that I finally felt I was loved and accepted. It felt as if my daddy was looking down on me, chuckling, saying, “I know you didn’t mean that! I still love you so much, my child.”

Beloved Daughters of the King

Emphasizing that God sees past our pain and into our hearts, Grice transitions to what it really means to be daughters of the King and how that should shape our identities, rather than focusing on the hurtful labels others have put on us (and we have come to believe about ourselves) or the hardships of our circumstances. While it is difficult to focus on the Cross when worried about health insurance and paying the bills, remembering that earth is not our home and God has numbered the hairs of our heads should calm our hearts, as it did Grice’s during the early stages of her divorce and subsequent healing.

In Chapter 3, Grice writes about appropriate self-care (and cautions against numbing the pain rather than working on the healing).

“Self-care had never been in my vocabulary. I was told I was selfish for wanting to do things for myself…..But all the psychological abuse I had endured, plus the stress and feeling totally overwhelmed, had taken its toll on my body. Putting everyone else first was killing me from the inside out, and I knew I would die if I didn’t start seeing myself as equally important as everyone else.”

She discusses others’ expectation that we should heal on a certain time-table, and feeling rushed through grief. These expectations often lead to a temptation to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or food (rather than walk through the grief process with God). Self-care, rather than self-hatred, enables us to love others and to serve God. Drawing these truths together, Grice effectively demonstrates how the reader may walk through a life-altering situation back into an effective life that glorifies God and edifies others (which she refers to as “producing ripe fruit”).

Dealing with toxic people by remaining calm is important way of keeping one’s stress level low, as is spending time with God, which impacts health and other relationships. Self-education on abuse issues or other aspects of healing is another practical suggestion Grice makes, as is setting healthy boundaries and closing social circles to ensure healthy, edifying relationships are in place.

Survival Strategies

The early days after a divorce are mere survival – doing the bare minimum to get by, numb, before crashing into bed to do it all over again the next day. Extreme exhaustion and the pain of grief controls one’s life in this stage. “Now is the time to get your household in order,” Grice advises, “before the kids get used to pushing over mom and manipulating the situation…Be consistent and intentional in how you’re working through the issues and reclaiming your home and your family.”

While not denying your feelings or exhaustion, this is imperative to “making progress each day toward the goals of healing your life and your home, while giving yourself grace as you move from merely surviving to enduring, and then to thriving.” Grice recommends continuing to eat as a family, pray, read the Bible together, and to call family meetings to establish ground rules for the new home situation as ways of maintaining order, normalcy, and continuing to rely on God during this difficult season. Each child should contribute in age-appropriate ways to the smooth running of the new household, which enables them to also feel a sense of responsibility and stability.

Creating (and sticking to) a budget is an important consideration for all single mothers, and as Dave Ramsey suggests, establishing an “emergency fund” should be the first step. Most newly-divorced mothers find that they now have no support system, including from their churches (which they have often had to leave). The Christian support group, DivorceCare (which I was also a part of), is a very helpful resource for newly-single mothers finding their way. Sacrifices, as well as government assistance, may be in order. As fathers will often have more means to provide the children with “treats” during this time, Grice admonishes guilt-plagued mothers to avoid competing for the children’s acceptance but rather to stand their ground on financial matters.

Helping the Children

While relying on support and making practical strides towards order and financial independence, Grice spends considerable time considering how to help the children of divorce suffering behind the scenes. This is a very important consideration, often overlooked in resources geared towards struggling women. While acknowledging that parents are not responsible for the choices adult children of divorce make, Grice reminds the reader that God loves our children even more than we do, and to seek Him in the day-to-day parenting choices we make to help our children through their unresolved trauma and pain.

“If you want to heal and grow as a family, and help your children to move on to be healthier adults, then you need to seek God to help you be the best parent you can be while working on your own emotional healing and growth.”

Often unable to identify their own feelings, younger children may regress in their development and older ones act out, unconsciously feeling guilt that they were part of the reason for abuse and/or divorce, or blaming the innocent parent for the separation. (Divorce Care for Kids, offered in many churches, helps provide a safe community for children to identify and articulate their feelings). Creating a safe haven in the new home where children are safe to vent and are protected from “triggers” (including violent media; unhelpful practices or new boyfriends/girlfriends) is part of the healing process for children, and re-building trust through honesty and communication (without tearing down the other parent) is crucial. Teaching our children to have healthy boundaries in all of their own relationships is part of preventing the cycle from replaying out in the next generation.

Accepting the path before her for a newly-single woman means not only embracing God’s future for her, but also trusting that God will “parent” her children in the ways she cannot control even after she has done her best to lead them.

Being Stuck in the Desert

“I heard a pastor once say (paraphrasing), “God closed the Red Sea not only to save the Israelites from the Egyptians who were chasing them, but also so that they had no passage back to their oppressors.” God knew they would think it easier to go back. Many separated or divorced women feel that as well because of guilt and shame. They get stuck in the desert because they’re unable to see God’s plan or purpose, even for their divorce.”

Understanding God’s heart for the oppressed and those cast aside leads to the trust necessary to let Him bring us out of the desert, and into the new life He has prepared for us – not merely to survive; but to thrive in His service. The “Red Sea” door has been closed; notwithstanding the judgement of others, a woman in such circumstances must learn to trust and lean on God alone for her vindication and direction. Wasting nothing, God puts the pieces of shattered lives back together so that His daughters who have been through this painful desert may be a witness and source of strength to their sisters walking the same path. “Giving the past purpose is part of your healing,” Grice writes. “Divorce doesn’t define who you are in Christ. And those who walk in the light will never walk in darkness again.”

Grice’s words to women in destructive marriages or who have been through divorce speak life and healing. It is refreshing to see a Christian author speak so candidly about the raw pain one experiences at the tearing of a “one flesh” union, regardless of circumstances; yet she refuses to leave it there. Drawing on her own experiences and those of other women she has counseled, Grice infuses the reader with hope and an unwavering commitment to the Word of God. She continuously leads the reader back into the arms of the Father she may have felt abandoned her, reminding her that her strength comes from Him alone – not the opinions of others; false identities she has applied to herself; another man; or any other ‘empty cistern’ that may give her temporary relief.

Both in this book and on her blog, jengrice.com, Grice uses Scriptural principles to guide hurting women to re-claim their identity in Christ, no matter how long they have been in the desert. She guides against bitterness, gives helpful practical advice, and gently exhorts the reader with Scripture passages to strengthen her on this hard journey. Renewing an unwavering trust in the God Who loves her is the key to renewing strength, reclaiming joy, and thriving in ministry for a Christian woman post-divorce. This book is a valuable resource not only for these women, but also for counselors and families of divorced women in order to learn better how to love them as Christ does. It is a privilege to review and recommend it.

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God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce (Review)

protection

by Marie Notcheva

For several months now, I have wanted to review Pastor Herb Vander Lugt’s booklet, “God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce”. As the senior research editor for RBC (now Our Daily Bread Ministries), Lugt’s 1982 book is a concise, yet exegetically-rich resource biblically challenging the view that divorce is never justified by abuse. Far from being a plea to reason based on emotionalism (or even pastoral experience), Lugt effectively shows how a faulty hermeneutic has led many conservative pastors and churches to teach that Matthew 5:32 is the final and definitive word on divorce.

As a former pastor of mine used to say, “Be careful about basing a doctrine on one verse.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the thorny endeavor to unpack all of what Scripture has to say about divorce (as well as abuse of different kinds; abandonment; and re-marriage). Wisely, Lugt begins with the assertion that “Moses, Jesus and Paul all recognized a range of marital conditions that are worse than divorce”. (P. 3). He then re-caps historical anthropology of women being treated as property, pausing on the Puritans who were a notable exception:

“In the spirit of the Reformation, Puritans didn’t see marriage as an indissoluble sacrament but as a civil contract that could be terminated if either party did not fulfill fundamental duties of marriage. Although cruelty was not a recognized ground for divorce in the Puritan era, there are those who thought cruelty to a wife was a type of desertion.” (p. 4).

Lugt then proceeds to demonstrate how, even in modern times, women have been overly-subjugated by a misunderstanding of the word “helper” in Genesis 2:18.

“There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word “suitable for” literally means “in front of”, signifying one who stands face to face with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his “correspondent” (“Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 666-7, IVP, Downers Grove, 1996).”

Before delving into the second section of the booklet, “Protection of Women under the Law of Moses,” Lugt then highlights the fallacy that male domination is a “right” inherited from the Fall — consistent with the rest of Genesis 3, it was a “curse” that, like sickness, thorns and discord, should be resisted and fought.

Mosaic Law

Even the most weak and vulnerable women in Hebraic society — daughters sold as slaves, wives or concubines were protected under the Law of Moses. Quite progressive for its time, Exodus 21:7-11 lists the “three foundations of marital duty” — namely, the provision of food, clothing, and ‘marriage rights’ – often interpreted as affection and marital love. (In fact, the Jewish Ketubah lays these out as a contract, not very much unlike Ephesians 4.)

Breaking these conditions is, in fact, a violation of the marriage covenant. But more significantly, it shows the principle of protection that is seen throughout Scripture, from the lesser to the greater: if God would provide protection and care even for a slave, how much more is owed to a free wife? Verse 11 makes it clear that if the husband fails to fulfill this contractual obligation, he is to “let her go free”. This has been proven conclusively by theologians to mean a formal divorce, the get. Of course, neither rabbis nor Lugt in this apologetic argues that this is the ideal; rather, the Mosaic divorce allowance was given by God for humanitarian means – to protect women from cruelty. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 similarly makes provision for the divorce, protection and remarriage of non-Israelite prisoners of war.

A slightly more obscure passage Lugt addresses in the Mosaic code is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which he points out would cause a man to think twice before deciding to divorce his wife at will (he was now prohibited from re-marrying her). Worthy of note is that the vague term “uncleanness” in verse 1 does not refer to adultery, which would have carried the death penalty. He was, however, precluded from re-marrying her, which underlines the permanence of the divorce and foreshadows Jesus’ warning in Matthew 19:8 against divorcing one’s wife “for any and every reason”. Divorce was a concession; a last-resort, and not something to be carried out lightly.

“The same law that offers penalties for murder, theft, perjury, and adultery also provides consequences when the purpose and covenant of marriage are broken by contempt and abuse.”(p. 12).

Unraveling Malachi 2:16

After demonstrating the similar intent of protection of both Jesus and Moses, (whose Law Jesus upheld completely during His ministry), Lugt turns toward the most oft-misquoted verse in the Bible regarding divorce: Malachi 2:16 (which he quotes from the New King James Version:

“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,”Says the Lord of hosts.” 

Compare this rendering with the more accurate, word-for-word translation of the English Standard Version:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (ESV).

While Lugt correctly noted that the prophet was dealing with “treacherous” divorces — men who didn’t care about their wives, and abused their power to abandon them to a live of poverty and disgrace — what he failed to do was address the etymology of that verse. As Barbara Roberts (author ofNot Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion”) has pointed out, the verse is often incorrectly and incompletely translated as “I hate divorce” and used as a catch-all conversation stopper to assert that divorce is never permitted biblically. However, this is neither the correct interpretation nor intention of the passage (written during a time period when male casual divorce was rampant). She writes:

“The incorrect translation came about as follows. The word “hates” in Malachi 2:16 is he hates. The Hebrew denotes third person masculine singular = he. The King James version had For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away. Many subsequent translations switched the third person “he” to a first person “I” without any grammatical warrant. For example, the 1984 NIV was “ ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” Possibly translators thought the switch was okay because it retained the sense of the KJV — that God feels the hatred [for divorce]. They did not seem to worry that “I hate divorce” was grammatically inaccurate to the original Hebrew.

But modern translations are starting to correct this mistake. The construction in Hebrew (“he hates… he covers”) shows that the one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband. To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he hates and divorces,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.” It is talking about a husband who hates his wife and divorces her because of his aversion for her. Therefore, Malachi 2:16 is only referring to a specific type of divorce: divorce for aversion, which could be dubbed “hatred divorce”. Divorce for hatred is treacherous divorce: if a man hates his wife and dismisses, he “covers his garment with violence” — his conduct is reprehensible, he has blood on his hands.[1]

Apart from this omission, Lugt’s treatment of Old Testament divorce laws’ protection and provision for women was solid. He correctly points out (quoting biblical scholar Joe Sprinkle) that the context of Malachi 2:16 is a limited one: taken in accordance with the allowances for divorce made elsewhere in Scripture, it is clearly only certain divorces in certain circumstances to which God is opposed. While upholding the sanctity of marriage, Lugt next turns to the New Testament teaching on divorce to demonstrate how Christ, Moses and Paul’s teachings complement one another.

New Testament Application

The reader doesn’t need to be convinced that Jesus demonstrated a concern and caring for women that went beyond the social mores of the First Century. Nor is it hard to see that the God of Scripture is a Protector and Defender of the weak and downtrodden.  Lugt asks then the rhetorical questions, “Does Matthew 5:31-32 over-ride the provision offered divorced women in Deuteronomy? Was Jesus, by this one statement, disagreeing with Moses?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)

Of course not. Just as with all of Scripture, a correct hermeneutic demands we examine context (Literal-Historical and Synthetic Principle of Scriptural interpretation.) Jesus was, in the Sermon on the Mount, addressing the Pharisees’ specific excesses and “stretches” in interpreting and teaching the Law of Moses. They had added hundreds of laws onto the original Levitical code, and the abuse of the divorce clause in Deuteronomy 24 was no exception. In reality, divorced women of the First Century were disgraced and had few career prospects outside of prostitution. It is not biblically consistent to say that He was contradicting the conditions Moses had set, but is more consistent with the passage that He was forcing the Pharisees to focus on the condition of their own hearts. Relational sin was the point; the one statement was clearly not intended to be the single and final word on divorce (as Paul later demonstrates).

Later in Matthew 19:3-9, Lugt notes, we in fact see the Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus by confronting Him with the Law of Moses on the same subject. While upholding the sacred ideal of the permanence of marriage, Jesus did not disagree with Moses in allowing divorce.

“Commenting on the allowance made for hardness of heart, Dr. Willard notes: ‘No doubt what was foremost in His [Jesus’] mind was the fact that the woman could quite well wind up dead, or brutally abused, if the man could not “dump” her. It is still so today, of course. Such is our “hardness of heart”. Better, then, that a divorce occur than a life be made unbearable. Jesus does nothing to retract this principle….no one regards a divorce as something to be chosen for its own sake…but of course a brutal marriage is not a good thing either, and we must resist any attempt to classify divorce as a special, irredeemable form of wickedness. It is not. It is sometimes the right thing to do, everything considered.” Professor Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperCollins, 1997. pp. 169-70.

Lugt begins his conclusion by demonstrating again how the Mosaic Code and the teachings of Christ on divorce complemented each other. He argues that Jesus was forcing the hypocritical religious leaders of the time to examine their own hard hearts in putting women in danger           (both by abuse and neglect, and unrighteous divorce), as they were actually ignoring Moses’ rabbinical provision for women. Moses had given the Elders of Israel “a legal basis to free a woman from the neglect, contempt, and abuse of a cruel husband” (p. 21). There was no need for Jesus to cite all of these scripturally-valid grounds for divorce, any more than He explained the full Gospel of salvation by faith alone when speaking to the Rich Young Ruler. As Lugt points out, context is crucial. He was not addressing women in distress; He was addressing the self-righteous men who did as they pleased in “putting away” their wives.

Of course, Jesus also didn’t mention the additional circumstances meriting divorce later cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

 

Giving these instructions on the basis of Christ’s authority, why is there no mention of the fornication clause? It is evident here that the woman can obtain a divorce (under civil law; for unspecified reasons). And why the no-remarriage clause, Lugt asks, when Paul would have been well-acquainted with Mosaic teaching on remarriage? Lugt argues that the context of chapter 7 suggests Paul was answering specific questions raised by the Corinthian believers about celibacy (advocated by some even within marriage), and about marriage itself. He urges wives not to leave, but as a concession states that they are then to remain unmarried (which brings up another set of questions about divorced Christians re-marrying within the Church, which Lugt doesn’t address). Nor does Lugt address the fact that the New Testament uses the same word for “divorce” as for “separation” – the distinction made by the modern-day church is absent in the pages of Scripture. Nowhere do we see the Early Church pressuring divorced women to “reconcile” with their husbands, under any circumstances.

Conclusion

Lugt’s short book is a helpful resource for pastors, counselors and Christians in abusive or contentious marriages in order to understand God’s original design for marriage; as well as His protection in certain circumstances where divorce is allowed as a concession. Abuse is unequivocally one of these conditions. Actually examining the context and hermeneutic in which certain passages were written is illuminating in dispelling the “abuse is not biblical grounds for divorce” fallacy that exists in some churches, and serves to keep women in bondage. Lugt writes:

“Many…in trying to return to the ideal of marital love and permanence have not seen the wisdom God Himself showed in circumstances of marital abuse….divorce reflects a serious and costly departure from God’s original design. But the solution to the problem is not found in misrepresenting the heart of the law or in ignoring the plight of abused or unloved wives. Neither can we rightly maintain that sexual unfaithfulness or the desertion of an unbelieving mate are the only grounds for a divorce.”  (p. 26).

The brevity of Lugt’s book did not address every possible question that arises from the question of Christian divorce (such as remarriage), and while his exposition of Malachi 2:16 was somewhat lacking, overall “God’s Protection of Women” is an excellently-written and much-needed treatment of an issue that has caused much confusion and additional pain to abused women. It deserves a place in every biblical counselor’s library.

[1] https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/10/24/god-hates-divorce-not-always/ Barbara’s book can be purchased at notunderbondage.com or from any book retailer.

Review: David Powlinson’s “Life Beyond Your Parents’ Mistakes”

by Marie Notcheva ©

David Powlinson is a well-known CCEF counselor, writer and speaker at biblical counseling conferences. Also a member of the Board of ACBC (formerly NANC), he has produced many books, presentations and mini-books on a variety of practical topics. Along with Ed Welch’s writing, I find Powlinson’s material to be extremely helpful…not just as a biblical counselor in training, but for my own personal edification.

CCEF’s publishing arm, New Growth Press, made a download available of Powlinson’s “Life Beyond Your Parents’ Mistakes: The Transforming Power of God’s Love“. In the 32-page booklet, Powlinson deconstructs the Freudian myth that human beings cannot experience God as Father without having had a loving, nurturing father figure. It is just such reasoning that has led to unhealthy dependency on the counselor, which often accompanies psychology-based therapy. This view also promotes the myth that“re-parenting or corrective emotional experience” is needed in order to know God as He is. It also begs the questions Powlinson raises:

“Are there any people with bad parents who have a great relationship with God? Are there any people with good parents who have a rotten view of God?”

Powlinson uses Scripture to counter this man-centric reasoning, which distorts the nature of the human heart and the reasons why people believe lies about God. Seeing God through the lens of an abusive, remote, or disinterested parent denies the power and truth of how God actually works through His Word and Spirit. Axiomatically, insisting that one must first experience a corrective human relationship to believe the reality of God’s fatherly love is essentially to turn Almighty God into an almighty psychotherapist.

It is a sad fact that those of us who had abusive parents (especially of the “religious” variety) often project those images onto the true God. There is a hurt and a betrayal that doesn’t just go away the moment we became Christians, and Powlinson acknowledges this. However, having sinful (or even evil) parents, of course, does not mean God is that way, so why do we often twist our view of God? Powlinson doesn’t let us off so easily – and his clear, compassionate but uncompromisingly biblical angle makes us sit up and listen.

Other titles by which God identifies Himself include King, Shepherd, Master, and Savior. If human equivalents of these descriptions are corrupt, does that influence the way we see God? Not usually. Powlinson writes:

“Clearly, our fallen experience need not control us. Yet for many, the truth that “God is Father” seems to be the exception. They do feel that their knowledge of God the Father is controlled by the earthly parallel. So we turn to the second question: Must your own father dictate the meaning of that phrase until a substitute human father puts a new spin on it?”

This backwards, create-your-own-god philosophy comes from Freud and Erikson, not the Bible, and caters to our sinful tendency to find excuses and reasons for unbelief. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are prone to look for excuses and blame outside ourselves for our false beliefs and sinful behavior.

As with any false belief or assumption, this view of God as remote, severe or capricious must be countered with Scripture itself – the living and active Sword of the Spirit, and the only way God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Powlinson points out that we change when we see what God tells us about Himself, as portrayed in Isaiah 49:13-16 (a nurturing Comforter); Psalm 103:10-13 (compassionate Father); and 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12 (gentle, encouraging and comforting Father). Ultimately, the sacrificial love of Christ in coming to die for rebellious children displays the pinnacle of what God’s fatherly love is – an historical fact from which counselees often feel disconnected.

Of course, these are only a very small sample of all the Scriptures revealing God as the perfect Father; one of the specific steps Powlinson recommends the reader take is to go through the Bible, finding specific truths that contend with the lies and cravings he identifies in his thinking about God. “There ought to be a battle going on within you daily as God’s light and love battle your darkness,” he advises.

This booklet is extremely helpful not only in defining the problem, but also in countering it on biblical terms and pointing the reader back towards the only source of truth and help – the Word of God – for the solution. Additionally, in true biblical counselor form, Powlinson leaves the reader with nine well-thought-out, probing questions to work through in order to identify and change warped thinking about God, due to parental abuse or poor relationship. I plan to tackle them myself, and expect it will take me at least three months to fully explore and resolve them. God desires His children to know Him as He is, not to view Him through the warped lens of fallen humanity! This little book is a helpful, convicting resource to help Christians struggling with a “dysfunctional” past not to use that as an excuse to keep God at arm’s length. I highly recommend it for counselors and counselees alike.

“Plugged In” Makes Top 15 Biblical Counseling Books of 2015 List

I was extremely happy and honored this week to make the list of “Top 15 Biblical Counseling Books of 2015”, published by Rpm Ministries. With other authors including Tim Keller, Kevin DeYoung and Paul Tripp, my little book was in very exalted company! See the full list and reviews here.

Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age, by Marie Notcheva, Pure Water Press

Plugged In

The Internet, like anything and everything that is of human origin, can be a blessing or a curse. In Plugged In, Marie Notcheva outlines how we can use the Internet as a blessing in evangelism and in biblical counseling. She addresses practical and profound issues like, “Is virtual counseling a good idea?” “Can we effectively disciple someone through the Internet?” “How do we share the gospel and encourage believers in cyber-space?” In answering these questions and many more, Notcheva demonstrates how to use technology wisely to God’s glory.

In other news this week, my article “A Grief Like No Other: When a Friend Loses a Child” was published in the Bulgarian Christian women’s magazine, “Списание Лия”. It makes me feel great knowing that my words are being read around the world, in multiple languages, and hopefully blessing someone!

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Review of “Redeemed from the Pit” by Julie Ganschow

This review of my book, “Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders” was written by author and biblical counselor Julie Ganschow. It originally appeared on The Biblical Counseling Coalition website on January 29, 2014. 

Redeemed_Hi-Res_CoverSample-02a
Redeemed from the Pit is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource.

In the Pit of Despair

As a biblical counselor and as a person who was once diagnosed with bulimorexia, I took on the challenge of reading Marie Notcheva’s book, Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders book for both personal and professional reasons. I have had a love/hate relationship with food all my life. Like Marie, I once struggled with binging and purging and I alternated those behaviors with starvation.

From the introduction to the end of the book, Marie makes it clear to the reader that eating disorders are not a physical disease from which a person recovers but a spiritual disease from which a person must repent.

Marie’s personal story is weaved throughout this great book. She gives vivid details of how her early years provided the perfect mental and emotional set up for the development of her eating disorder. The culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s that subjected women to consistent expectations of thinness and beauty fueled the fires of shame ignited by her family’s careless words about her weight and appearance. Her mother in particular (who appeared to struggle with her own food issues) was exceedingly fearful Marie would be overweight and suffer consequences to her health. She enrolled Marie in a toddler dance class to slim her down and restricted her access to sugar and starches.

At age 11, Marie began taking gymnastics. By 14, with gymnast Nadia Comaneci as her idol, she began a lifestyle of severe calorie restriction and over exercise. The highly competitive worlds of gymnastics and dance fueled her desire to become sylphlike. While she got the desired results through constant exercise and living on Slim-Fast and vegetables, the following year she determined to eat as much as she wanted, eliminating the food binge through vomiting.

In a very short amount of time, Marie’s binge/purge lifestyle was out of control. It was clear to everyone around her she needed help. Her health was in serious jeopardy. While referred to psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, they were unable to breach the concrete protecting her heart.

A Way Out

In her sophomore year at college, she joined Campus Crusade and put her faith in Christ. She continued her secret lifestyle while active in Cru, Bible study, and discipleship. A job abroad followed college and her slavery to bulimia remained an active part of everyday life. She also began to drink heavily as a way to medicate the constant guilt and shame she lived with.

Marriage and children did not expose or alter her bulimia, although her husband did express concern about her drinking.

Marie writes at length about the self-disgust she experienced. It caused her to question her salvation and consider herself a hypocrite. She felt hopeless and at times she feared God had rejected her. However, she had such a desire to return to Him that she continuously tried to turn away from her sin. In desperation, she met with a small group of Christian women who prayed over her. It was then that she began to find freedom from alcohol and bulimia.

From this point forward in the book, Marie develops the inward battle of change at the heart level. She describes her battle with overcoming her eating disorder both on the physical and spiritual level and does not shrink away from describing the difficulties she faced or her failures in overcoming the desire to binge and purge. She notes, “Overcoming an eating disorder requires our constant, active commitment to inward change” (7).

Living Free

She urges the reader to “be one who believes” in the power of the Gospel as the means to transform life from victimhood to victorious in Christ, rightly emphasizing the critical need for repentance in overcoming an eating disorder.

“Forgiven, cleansed, and given a new start, He expects you to get up off your knees and get started—walking in repentance” (6).

Marie carefully breaks down the numerous issues of the heart that a person with eating disorder behaviors must repent of to overcome this sin and live victoriously. There is an entire chapter devoted to the believers position in Christ, which is very important for a woman with an eating disorder to understand since so much of her thinking is performance oriented. Marie brings forth the truth about the role emotions play in how a person thinks about food. This is vital since those with unhealthy eating habits believe many lies about food.
Throughout the book, there are application steps that make use of charts and Scripture memorization. There is also an entire chapter on practical issues that a person with disordered eating faces. Marie highlights the refining benefits of a biblical counseling relationship and involvement in a local church.
This book is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource.
julie

Olympic Champion Scott Hamilton is Not First (and why we love him for it)

by Marie Notcheva

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Sarajevo Olympics, 1984. With Canada’s Brian Orser (left) and Czechoslovakia’s Jozef Sabovcik 

Two-time Olympian and 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton is happy being in second place, and he delights in sharing the secret of his contentment. The semi-retired figure skater has a vibrant faith in Christ, Whom he credits for sustaining him not only on the heights of the medal podium, but in the depths of cancer treatments; failed relationships; and self-doubt.

As hard as it is for me to believe, it was 31 years ago that I watched Scott take the gold medal in Sarajevo. As a wide-eyed middle school kid, I was fascinated by the Cold War drama of East German Katerina Witt vs. American Rosalynn Sumners; the impossible heights of Scott’s and Canadian Brian Orser’s triple jumps and Russian splits; and the incredible beauty and pageantry of the sport of figure skating. I was hooked.

We all were rooting for Scott to win – not because his long program was the best (by his own admission, it wasn’t a clean skate); but partly because he was just so darn likeable. That shouldn’t be a factor in determining athletic championships, but in figure skating – the most subjective sport there is – we fans cheer hardest for the most authentic-seeming competitors.

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Scott in the 1980’s

As an aside, one podium moment that made a great impression on my 12-year-old self was Rosalynn’s graceful demeanor taking the silver medal next to Katerina Witt. It is hard for today’s generation to understand the pressure and tension of certain sports during the Cold War, and how much was at stake. As disappointed as she had to be, Ros smiled sweetly and was very gracious during the post-medal ceremony press conference towards her arch rival – no hint of the diva-like behavior that often characterizes high-level skating.

But I digress. The fact of the matter is, Scott Hamilton was, and is, a Really Cool Guy© – before, during and after his National, Olympic and World Championship wins. However, that fact completely misses the point and he would probably find it patronizing – because Scott wants the world to know that he is Second – second to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Recently, friends of mine in Albania translated and subtitled Scott’s “I Am Second” video for use in a Christian students’ meeting….a fact Scott himself found so cool he sent a personal video message. He seemed as tickled to know he has friends in Albania as a student was to know they have “a brother who is an Olympic champion”. It was an extremely thoughtful and much-appreciated gesture.

The Backstory – and New Life

One lesson I learned as a student was never to “idolize” sports stars or other celebrities, even “Christian celebrities”. More than elsewhere, we Americans do tend to put our “sports darlings” on pedestals; granting them near saint-like status. This is particularly true of female figure skaters and gymnasts. Then, when the tabloids report unflattering news about them, we have the nerve to be collectively surprised. Our idols have “fallen”, because we forget that sports stars, (while exceptionally talented), are still flawed human beings with clay feet like the rest of us. Many athletes are, indeed, truly good role models and have given back; helped others; and deserve personal respect and accolades – including Scott Hamilton. But they all have had personal journeys and setbacks. Scott is transparent enough to share these with his fans, and point them to the lessons he’s learned along the way.

In 1999, Scott published his autobiography, “Landing It: My Life On and Off the Ice” (Kensington; 340 pgs.) I read this at the time, and it was a wonderful, in-depth and personal look at his rise as a figure skater; the details of touring and competitive skating, and his relationships with other champion skaters. The reader really got to know Scott personally, as he transparently shared about even highly personal details of his life. Diagnosed with cancer the previous year (while on tour with Stars on Ice), he included details about his treatment, and the support of other skaters. One line in particular stands out from “Landing It” – Scott mentioned fellow champion skater, Paul Wylie, “who is very religious, asking how he could pray for [him]”. Scott described himself as not being particularly religious, but was touched by Paul’s concern.  “Landing It” was a very enjoyable memoir which any skating fan would enjoy.

And then……Scott became a believer; met and married the love of his life Tracie; and a benign brain tumor was discovered. With his trademark self-deprecating humor, he added this to what he calls his “personal collection of life-threatening illnesses”. And then, he wrote another book: “The Great Eight: How to Be Happy (When You Have Every Reason to be Miserable)”. In this second book, targeted to a more mainstream-audience, Scott illustrates through anecdotal experiences and biblical principles, what helps to keep his mind and emotions on an even keel – and live a satisfying, successful life of joy, no matter the circumstances.

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Biblical yet Relatable

What makes “The Great Eight” so good is that Scott’s writing is personable, down-to-earth and relatable, but not too heavily “doctrinal” which might put off some readers. Released by Christian publisher Tommy Nelson, Scott’s message remains faithful to Scripture; yet the reader never feels “preached to”. As a biblical counselor, I am used to reading tomes that connect “orthodoxy” with “orthopraxy” (doctrine with practice), and subconsciously screen all books for how true they are to Scripture. While the title has a “positive thinking” connotation, Scott demonstrates throughout his “eight principles” how correct and positive thinking is, indeed, the fruit of a renewed mind.

Scott does not write like John Macarthur, or Charles Spurgeon. He writes like a friendly figure skater who really loves his family, God, and fans – and we appreciate him for it. And he is thoroughly biblical, without being overtly theological. In Chapter Two, “Trust Your Almighty Coach”, he makes a strong case for the sovereignty of God – although he never uses the term. He shows, through his own difficult life experiences (including childhood illness, failed relationships, and even a growth-inhibiting brain tumor he was born with) how nothing is coincidence in God’s grand plan.

“The divinely-scripted pattern goes back to the very beginning of my life when I was an unwanted pregnancy and was adopted by my parents. I went from being somebody’s unwanted orphan to being a prized child who couldn’t have had more love showered upon him……Trust your Almighty Coach, and beautiful things can happen.”

In subsequent chapters, he exhorts the reader to embraces losses and failure as opportunities for growth.

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Touring in the late ’90’s, before his cancer diagnosis

I especially enjoyed Chapter Four, “Keep the Ice Clear”. In it, Scott warns the reader against his lifelong Achilles heel – people pleasing (what the Bible calls “fear of man”). “Pleasing others may seem like a noble, selfless pursuit, but when taken to an extreme, it is a recipe for unhappiness,” he writes. As transparent as he is a polished performer, Scott tells us about the strain his unwillingness to confront others in love has put on some of his most treasured relationships. He then goes on to demonstrate the connection between positivity, happiness and smiling throughout trials – and being happy. James 4:7-8 reminds us to “resist the devil”, he writes; and reminds us that God gave us the gift of humor to ward off avoid negativity. A healthy dose of humor, and being able to laugh at yourself is also key:

“In 1978, I put together a routine to the tune “Short People,” by Randy Newman. There I was, nineteen years old and all of five-foot-nothing, skating around the rink to this song that proclaimed “short people got no reason to live.” The crowd just ate it up. …..If you are the kind of person who takes yourself too seriously, then pray that you are never the subject of a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live.” P. 113

Nature abhors a vacuum, and happiness doesn’t germinate simply by refusing to give in to negativity. Scott rightly points out that practicing one’s true passion – regardless of setbacks – increases day-to-day satisfaction. Of course, for him this meant ice skating – including in middle age, following his cancer treatment. As much as I love skating, his advice resonated with me as a writer. Whether a book contract or a blog post well-written and published, I enjoy the same deep satisfaction from writing as he does from landing triple axels. It was sage advice to anyone – don’t just sit there; do something to hone your craft. The satisfaction of a job well done after investing hard work is part of cultivating positivity.

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Scott and son Maxx at 2015 show

Putting Yourself Last

Fatherhood was one way Scott learned the value of putting others and their needs above his own, and the example of his mother Dorothy’s selflessness was a model he learned early on. Again, while Scott doesn’t quote Scripture to illustrate this beautiful principle, he gets the message across by sharing self-deprecating anecdotes from his youth. After “The Great Eight” was published, Scott and his wife Tracie adopted two Haitian children. Tormented by the plight of children orphaned by the earthquake in 2010, they became parents of four (the Hamiltons already had two biological sons, Aidan and Maxx).

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The Hamilton family in 2014. L to R: Aidan, Jean-Paul, Tracie, Scott, Evelyne and Maxx

Scott has also given back by establishing his own foundation, the Scott Hamilton C.A.R.E.S. Initiative (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education and Survivorship). Scott has spoken at and done a tremendous amount of charity work to help cancer sufferers, and radiates caring – even for people he’s never met. An empathetic friend to family, fans and strangers alike, he himself recognizes the importance of compassion and empathy:

“I firmly believe that God made us in His image, and that is a perfect one….One of the biggest barriers to people feeling happy about themselves is that they feel inferior, or shameful and bad about their looks or something in their past. But once you see yourself as a truly perfect creature created in God’s image who only needs to get in touch with that, the pressure of all those negative feelings lifts and you can move on. It is life changing.” (p. 176)

This is not some vapid “self-affirmation” nor a denial of our sinful condition – Scott deals with how he handled guilt over past sins earlier in the book. It is an embrace of grace, and a realization of our identity in Christ – the One to Whom Scott joyfully points. Scott Hamilton was the most enjoyable male figure skater ever to grace the ice, and he is a truly inspiring brother in Christ. His book, as well as his personal gesture to my friends and me, is a true encouragement.

Scott’s website is here: http://www.scotthamilton1984.com/

 

Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ (Review)

Gospelconv

Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ
By Bob Kellemen
Zondervan, 2015
400 Pages
ISBN-10: 0310516153
ISBN-13: 978-0310516156
Publisher’s Price: $18.99

Review by Marie Notcheva

“Gospel Conversations” is the second in Zondervan’s Equipping Biblical Counselors Series, following “Gospel-Centered Counseling” (which I reviewed here). This project came out of a seminar author Bob Kellemen gave for decades in local churches, “What to Do After the Hug”. Kellemen noted that attendees certainly didn’t lack a heart to care for the hurting, but that “they often feel ill equipped to know how to care in a Christ-like way”.

Kellemen caught my attention in the Introduction: “Through [Gospel Conversations] you will develop twenty-one biblical counseling relational skills so you can care like Christ.” Terrific! I like to give hugs. I often feel inept to help my friends in their struggles; let alone formulate an agenda for a formal counseling session. So reading not only about our end goal (helping counselees apply the whole Gospel narrative to their whole lives) but also organized, nuts-and-bolts advice on relational skills promised to make me a better counselor.

In all of his writing, Kellemen’s emphasis on personal involvement and caring for the counselee comes through, and “Gospel Conversations” is no exception. We are not, as he says, like the “UPS deliveryman”, simply delivering the hope of the Gospel and leaving fellow believers there. Detachment is not a biblical principle – like the author of Hebrews, we exhort, encourage and point one another back to Christ with our whole lives. Each chapter is concluded with probing questions for counselors in training, designed for use in a small-group setting. Kellemen also includes his trademark “Tweet-sized summaries” of each chapter’s main theme.

To Give Biblical Answers, We Must Ask Biblical Questions

In the earlier book, “Gospel-Centered Counseling”, Kellemen outlines eight questions to answer the biblical counselor’s foundational question: “What would a model of biblical counseling and discipleship look like that was built solely upon Christ’s gospel of grace?” The starting point is, of course, the Word of God – the end goal, progressive sanctification. Sandwiched between these “bookends”, we need to examine our view of the Triune God; who we are in the grand narrative of Scripture; the root source of our sin problem; how redemption changes us; the role of the Church community; and how our future hope of glory changes how we struggle with suffering and sin.

Once we have the foundational questions in mind and understand that our role is to be “dispensers of Christ’s grace”, we can turn our attention to developing “Biblical Counseling Relational Competencies”.

“Relational competence is our ability – given by grace and cultivated by our dependence on the Spirit – to express the character of Christ in our relationships with people so they experience our love as a small taste of Christ’s grace and are changed by His grace.”(p. 129).

Kellemen then devotes a full section to each of the following: sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding.

“Competent to begin counseling, we now have someone sitting in front of us whose world has caved in on them. In their suffering, how do we help? What do we do after the hug? How do we care like Christ?” (p. 120).

Sustaining – Meeting Counselees on Their Road to Retreat

Counsel that is biblical sustains people by encouraging them to face suffering face to face with Christ and His Body. It doesn’t deny doubts (about God’s personal interest; His goodness) but rather “climbs into the casket” with the counselee and confronts their doubts. It embraces the sufferer and reminds them of God’s ever-present care, even in the midst of their fears. To help counselors sustain their fellow believers, Kellemen uses the acronym “GRACE”. Over the course of two chapters, he lays out the importance of Grace Connecting; Rich Soul Empathizing; Attuned Gospel Listening; Comforting Spiritual Conversations, and Empathetic Scriptural Explorations. Listening well to both Scripture and our counselee’s story enables the heart attitude that sustaining another’s face demands. As Kellemen explains, connecting with our counselees graciously is not a counseling intervention; it is a mind-set of personal involvement with deep commitment to their maturity.

Healing – Where is Jesus in Our Faith Story?

In several of his books, Kellemen discusses the need to “crop Christ back into the picture” of a counselee’s devastated life. In “Gospel Conversations”, he explores ways to help believers find Christ’s healing hope: Redemptive, Relational Mind and Soul Renewal; Encouraging Communication; Scriptural Treatment Planning; Theo-Dramatic Spiritual Conversations (how we interact in the “drama of redemption”); and Stretching Scriptural Explorations (RESTS). Spiritual healing “involves journeying with people back to the heart of God”, and enabling them to understand anew, through the Gospel narrative, that His heart is good.

“Rather than going astray, and thus moving far from God and becoming less like Christ, Christ’s prayer for us in our suffering is that we would conform to His image. As His suffering in the garden led Him to cling to His Father, so our suffering can lead us to abide in Christ. Our suffering can bring us to the humble realization that without Christ we can do nothing (15:5). As we abide in Christ, we become like Christ, and we produce much fruit through Christ for the glory of the Father.

Jesus models in His life and ministry that suffering well involves honestly facing, and deeply feeling the pain of life in a fallen world, which drives us to cling desperately to the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort…” (pp. 186-7).

In this section, Kellemen effectively paints a portrait of the God Who truly understands, is ever-present, and fully empathizes with us in our sufferings. As in his previous books, we come to see the God of All Comfort so intimately that we want to make others know His healing love as well. (True story: while reading this chapter, I typed several pages-worth of his discussion of John 10, and sent it to a struggling friend through Facebook Messenger.) His reflections are just that moving.

Reconciling: Facing Sin Head-on; Being Changed by Grace

As we move forward through the counseling process, sin is exposed. Repentance and the familiar “put off/put on” practical exhortation of Ephesians 4 becomes part of the counselees’ homework. The need for grace becomes apparent, and we counselors, as Kellemen writes, have the privilege of being “dispensers of grace”. True to form, he gives us a helpful acronym to outline the relational competencies needed for reconciling: Probing Theologically; Exposing Heart Sins; Applying Truth Relationally; Calming the Conscience with Grace; Enlightening Spiritual Conversations; Empowering Scriptural Explorations (PEACEE).

Correct theology is crucial to understanding the heart-motives behind our behavior, and every social or relational problem ultimately points back to our relationship with God (p. 247). Before we diagnose or correct issues that arise, we need to probe the root cause of “spiritual adultery”. There are a number of reasons one may be “drinking from broken cisterns” to replace fellowship with God, and these are the points Kellemen explores – with the end goal of reconciliation between Christ and counselee.

A very important point is that repentance is between the counselee and God – “our job is to care-front” (p. 261). This is a crucial distinction in understanding biblical confrontation correctly, and Kellemen spends several pages on the goal and spirit in addressing sin in another. Our role is to assist the counselee to put on the armor of God and attack Satan him or herself; not to attack the counselee. We are not able or called to “play Holy Spirit” to another; but rather, as Kellemen points out, to “leave the conviction to God”. In this way, our counselees can ultimately receive the message that they are forgiven, welcomed home, renewed and empowered to live holy lives.

Guidance that Fans Struggling Faith into Flame

In the final section, Kellemen cautions counselors against seeing reconciliation (dispensing grace; seeing change) as the end of counseling, or viewing counseling itself as a “problem-centered reactive response to trouble”. He characterizes biblical counseling as a form of discipleship, which I thoroughly agree with. Therefore, ongoing discipleship which focuses on progressive sanctification (guidance) is the ideal model for the local church. His acronym for guidance entails: Fanning into Flame the Gift of God; Authoring Empowering Narratives; Insight-Based Action Plans; Target-Focused Spiritual Conversations; and Heroic Scriptural Explorations (FAITH). This is not “Take-Two-Scriptures-and-Call-Me-In-the-Morning” biblical counseling; it is shepherding a fellow sojourner on to vibrant, life-long, Christ-following.

“To grow in Christ, we must understand and apply who we are in Christ,” Kellemen states at the outset. Underlying any real soul-transformation is a deep recognition of our identity and position in Christ, whether the struggle is adultery, social anxiety, or addiction. Remembering who we are (and Whose we are) is the cornerstone of ongoing guidance. Kellemen also cites the distinction between Christians’ “universal” identity in Christ, and their “unique identity in Christ. A large part of offering guidance – the “one-anothering” work of discipleship – is affirming both types of biblical identity.

Throughout Gospel Conversations, Kellemen focuses on maturing as counselors before and while providing Christlike soul-care to fellow believers. Far from listing a litany of “principles and practices”, he skillfully demonstrates, through historical anecdotes and case studies, how to expose the heart issues present in different scenarios, and how to empathize fully and presently. Knowing how to listen well; see how the whole Gospel narrative relates to the counselee’s whole life, and ‘crop Christ back into the picture’ lays the groundwork for ongoing discipleship that is truly biblical.

By working the “relational competencies” Kellemen discusses into all encounters, biblical counselors will be more effective ministers of the Gospel in all of their relationships – both inside the counseling office and out. Gospel Conversations is a comprehensive and much-needed book that addresses the whole person – empathetically; compassionately; and perceptively – just as Christ would.

The reviewer hard at work.
The reviewer hard at work.

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.

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/