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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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: “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/

Review: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Part I)

929965The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Dr. John Macarthur)

by Marie Notcheva

Some time ago, I read John Macarthur’s book on forgiveness, along with several appendixes and sermons on the subject by Charles Spurgeon and Alexander MacLaren.

This will not be a typical book review, as I’d like to get into some of the topics Macarthur brings up in a bit more depth and compare/contrast his views to what other Bible teachers have to say. As always, our ultimate authority is to be the Scripture, and fortunately systematic theology is an area in which Macarthur excels. Scripture must always be interpreted in light of other Scripture; a key point when discussing a matter such as forgiveness. Cherry-picking verses from here and there can give us a skewed view of God’s will. Unforgiveness and the human desire for vengeance is an age-old scourge – as much a part of our fleshly nature as it was 2,000 years ago.
In the first chapter, Macarthur lays out the truths of God’s mercy and justice as great virtues, and how through the Atonement both are satisfied. This is presumably not new to his readers, but it is impossible to get an accurate view of just how much we’ve been forgiven without looking at divine redemption. As Jerry Bridges writes elsewhere, ‘sin is cosmic treason’ and we are accountable to a thrice-holy God. Unable to seek God on our own initiative, God initiates and obtains the sinner’s reconciliation, while extending the offer to all.

All Are Called and Offered Mercy

Admittedly, Macarthur is more staunchly Calvinist than I (try as I might, I cannot become a true 5-pointer; it seems somewhat unbalanced to emphasize Romans 8:30 to the expense of Acts 2:2, John 5:40 and 2 Peter 3:9). It was very tempting to get caught up in the mental gymnastics of monergism vs. synergism once again, but the best explanation I’ve heard so far is that it is a mystery how our will works within the confines of God’s sovereignity. He elects, calls and does all of the saving; we are responsible for our own response and repentance. He gets all the glory, as repentance is a gift freely given anyway.

God has laid out very specific commands to His children in His Word, and understanding the nuances of Limited Atonement, fortunately, isn’t one of them. However, if we accept so great a salvation as fact, talking doctrine will get us nowhere in a hurry. Applying it (namely, forgiving as we’ve been forgiven) is a must. And NO, I’m not saying sound doctrine doesn’t matter – it’s crucial. But the main reason it is so important that we be doctrinally sound is so we can BE the salt and light God requires, from a heart that is pure, undeceived, and fully devoted to following Christ.

1 Peter 2:24 reminds us that God has redeemed us in order that we may live righteously. In view of this, and in light of the substitutionary atonement (linger at the Cross), unforgiveness = extreme ingratitude. My words; not Macarthur’s. In fact, I will probably quote him extensively as I write this series, but mostly the impressions God laid on my heart were insights into the deeper application of the truth he lays out. After discussing imputation (God put Christ’s righteousness to our credit), he states:

“That means our forgiveness is not dependent on some prior moral reform on our part. Every believer is forgiven immediately, just like the thief on the Cross. No works of penance are necessary, no meritorious rituals. Forgiveness costs us nothing, because it already cost Christ everything.”

He then goes on to explain how a true conversion will inevitably result in a changed life, as we are conformed to the image of Christ. The Bible makes no allowance for what’s sometimes called “cheap grace“, although naturally we still fall and require constant forgiveness. He discusses the need for ongoing forgiveness in light of 1 John 1:9 onward. The difference between judicial forgiveness (when we come to God for salvation) and parental forgiveness (restoration of fellowship, the “foot washing” Christ discussed at the Last Supper) is the fact that God does discipline His children in love. The difference between God’s wrath and fatherly displeasure should be apparent to the born-again believer, so I won’t spend extra space on it.

“As Christians, we should be obsessed with forgiveness, not vengeance.” 

After making the case for how much and how unilaterally God has forgiven us, Macarthur makes this striking statement. Looking at the whole of Scripture – not just the New Testament – we see that it is better to suffer a wrong for righteousness’ sake, not take offense, and be quick to forgive. Why? Because it is a reflection of the very heart of Christ, Who is One with the Father.

“Whereas Abel’s blood (and the blood of other martyrs) screams for vengeance, Christ’s blood pleads for mercy.”

Forgiveness is not a feeling – it is a deliberate choice that runs counter to our bitter feelings, which tell us to dwell on an offense. Tomorrow I want to discuss when forgiveness should be instantaneous and unilateral, in what sense it applies to unbelievers, and what Matthew 18 and Luke 17 mean. Stay tuned.

Book Review: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (Henri Nouwen)

175113The Futile, Powerless God of Henri Nouwen

© Marie Notcheva

“Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God.” – Henri Nouwen

The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 used to be my favorite Bible passage. Until a contemplative mystic priest named Henri Nouwen ruined it for me.

Several years ago, I wrote about my brief encounter with “contemplative Christianity”, which I was introduced to through the works of Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, and Basil Pennington. Although I was a much younger Christian and could not discern that their practices of “inner seeing” and “hearing” God were not biblical (through trance-like meditation, extreme fasting, repetition of mantras, “breath prayers” and other mystical practices), I started to get the sense that something was just “off” about it all. Naturally, unbiblical practice and adding “spiritual disciplines” (that have more in common with paganism than Scripture) will shape one’s theology.

These men, and many more like them – Thomas Merton; Henri Nouwen; David G. Benner – claimed to be Christians at one time, (gradually transitioning to a theistic Buddhism – Merton converted entirely to Buddhism while still a Catholic monk) but in fact their theology has more in common with Eastern religions than Christianity. Christian mysticism is itself an oxymoron – see CARM (Christian Apologetics Research Ministry) or Gotquestions.org for more info about contemplative spirituality, and it’s connection with the New Age.

Contemplative prayer, by design, focuses on having a mystical experience with God. It was while reading one of Benner’s books, “The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call of Self-Discovery” that God gave me a wake-up call. I began what would become a 10-year journey, researching theistic philosophies such as pantheism, panentheism, universal salvation, trancendental meditation (which contemplatives call “the silence”), etc. Another four years of theological training to become a biblical counselor helped solidify my ability to “test all things”, and compare teachings to the Bible’s clear teaching.

Nevertheless, it was with some anticipation that I picked up Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” recentlyon the recommendation of a friend. A meditation (in the Christian sense of the word!) on Rembrandt’s famous painting, I settled in to enjoy the sensitive priest’s insights into this beautiful picture of God’s love.

As I began reading, two things emerged by the end of the Introduction: Nouwen was a man who sincerely loved the Lord and His people. And, he was firmly in the contemplative/mystical camp (a fact I already knew), but the casual reader, unfamiliar with the New Age terminology used by contemplatives, might not pick that up. Words may be ascribed different meanings by different people, which makes doctrinal error so slippery. I began to take notes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Blasphemous

There was much that was very, very good in “Prodigal Son”. There was nothing mystical in his analysis and personal reflection on the painting per se, or in how he inserted himself into the parable – to identify with each of the three main characters. Many of his points about grace, accepting forgiveness, and the unconditional love of the Father were excellent, especially coming from a Catholic writer. “More than any other story in the Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son expresses the boundlessness of God’s compassionate love. And when I place myself in that story under the light of that divine love, it becomes painfully clear that leaving home is much closer to my spiritual experience than I might have thought.” Nouwen deeply sought fellowship with Christ. The problem, as evidenced by his faulty theology, is that he was seeking it in broken cisterns – not in the Word of God.

Before the end of the first section, a study on the younger son himself, Nouwen referred to “inner light”, “inner seeing”, and “inner healing”. All of these may sound like fairly benign terms to one unfamiliar with mysticism, but they all point towards the “going within to find enlightenment” theophostic philosophy taken from Eastern religions. (Christianity, by contrast, teaches us that we need a new spirit and a new heart – and to look to Jesus). In all of the ways Nouwen mentioned how he “heard from God” – most notably, “in the center of [his] being”, he never once mentioned the Bible. For even an immature believer, this should be a major red flag – the way God specifically reveals Himself to us is through His Word. Not through mystical means, which are condemned in Scripture (Deut. 18:9-12a).

The vast majority of what Nouwen wrote about our propensity to “flee to the wilderness”, away from God’s love, and the thought-patterns (insecurity; pride; comparison and jealousy) that harden our hearts was excellent. His insights into the human condition and how we relate to God rivaled those of any Reformed biblical counselor. I would just start to relax and enjoy the book when I would be blind-sided by a heretical statement such as “Judas sold the sword of his sonship” (and thus lost his salvation), or “I am touching here the mystery that Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake.”

A Powerless God?

According to Nouwen, God is “powerless” to prevent His children’s rebellion (p. 90); “naive” (p. 99); “both Father and Mother” (p. 94); “she” and “her” (p. 96); “needs me as much as I need Him” (p.99) and the real sin is “ignoring [our] ‘original goodness’ (p. 101). The final section of the book, on the Father, is where Nouwen’s faulty view of God became most apparent and the entire analysis fell apart.

Let’s compare Henri Nouwen’s god with the God of Scripture. Sovereignty means that God, as the ruler of the Universe, has the right to do whatever he wants. He is in complete control over everything that happens. (Psalm 115:3; Daniel 4:35; Romans 9:20.) He has no need of anything outside of Himself; and He is not standing like a beggar, hat in hand, needful of our love (as is the case with Nouwen’s god.)

Further, Nouwen’s idealistic view that ALL are children of God and have “original goodness” completely contradicts what Scripture states about unregenerate man: Abominable – Rev. 21:8 Sinners – Rev. 22:15 Fault finders – Job 41 Corrupt – Psalm 14:1,3; Rom. 3:10 Evil – 2 Tim 3:13 (just to name a few unsavory characteristics).

Perhaps most bizarre was Nouwen’s dogged insistence – straight out of Wiccan and New Age belief systems – that God is feminine as well as masculine; both Mother and Father. The Bible clearly teaches that God is Father; it’s not really open to debate or interpretation.

The Price of Error

False teaching is often hard to spot, precisely because it sounds so good. It’s usually mixed in with just enough Truth to be palatable. But to anyone with a strong grasp of Scripture, the problem with Nouwen’s doctrine – especially his view of salvation and the nature of God – should have been obvious. (I had deliberately NOT shared my personal opinion while pointing out the book’s shortcomings, but followed a clear-cut format: “Nouwen says: X. The Bible says:Y.”) Scripture speaks for itself.

How can Bible-believing Christians, when faced with such clear-cut instances of deviant theology, not spot the error? We should be horrified by Nouwen’s powerless God; rejection of original sin and depravity of man; universal salvation (many paths lead to God), and blasphemous statements that God is “Mother” and Christ “became the Prodigal Son”? It is willful deception that, when shown the clear words of Scripture, rejects them for the sake of defending the heretic. I will never be able to read Luke 15 again without the bitter taste of false teaching in my mouth.

Book Review: The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller

3116205The Savior from Both “Spiritual Dead Ends”

Tim Keller sheds light on his paradoxical title, “The Prodigal God”, in his introduction: “prodigal”, (a term usually applied to the wayward younger son in the parable of Luke 15), literally means “recklessly extravagant” and thus applies equally well to the Father’s great love for sinners. “Ahh,” we say – “a great treatment of grace…for seekers and new Christians!”

“The Prodigal God” is that, but Keller goes much deeper. While not justifying or condoning the obvious rebellion of the world’s “younger sons”, Keller zeroes in on the heart issue of the self-righteous elder brother – and how pervasive that attitude is in the Church today. Like Henri Nouwen in “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, he notes that the parable might be called “The Parable of the Two Lost Sons” – the Elder Brother’s “lostness” being more insidious and dangerous than that of the Younger. Unlike Nouwen’s open theism (God is “powerless” to do certain things), however, Keller staunchly upholds the Sovereignty of God – and the depravity of man.

God’s Love for the Elder Brother

Keller brings us through the usual historical observations (what the Younger Son’s request would have signified in the ancient Near East; the significance of the Father’s response;)and reminds the reader that legalistic rule-keeping, condescension and forgetfulness of God’s mercy is essentially an attempt at self-salvation. This “anti-Pharisee” theme is often written and preached about, but Keller goes deeper….exposing the insecurity (fear of man) that often drives a judgmental, condescending attitude in moralistic rule-keeping:

“The last sign of the elder brother spirit is a lack of assurance of the father’s love. The older son says, “You never threw me a party.” There is no dancing or festiveness about the elder brother’s relationship with his father. As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough for him. You simply aren’t sure God loves and delights in you.” (page 63; emphasis mine.)

The Feast of the Father is Eternal

This is not a message just for new believers; but for hardened or cynical long-time Christians on their way to becoming “elder-brotherish“, as Keller so tactfully puts it. The solution, of course, for both “brothers” (and their counterparts in the modern Church) is, of course, the same – to recognize their need for a Savior, and accept that grace that will change their lives from the inside out.

Keller puts into simple terms what many biblical counselors have explained, exegeted and diagrammed over the years: true, lasting inner heart-change is not catalyzed by a “just try harder” attitude. The grace-infused life does not come about by behavior modification; rather, by gazing on and appreciating the beauty and all-satisfying love of Jesus Christ. Like John Piper, Keller illustrates plainly the necessity of believing, experiencing, “tasting-and-seeing” that the Lord is good.

“You must sense, on the palate of the heart, as it were, the sweetness of his mercy. Then you will know you are accepted. If you are filled with worry and anxiety, you do not only need to believe that God is in control of history. You must see, with eyes of the heart, his dazzling majesty. Then you will know he has things in hand.”

Keller makes the reader feel and empathize with the soul-sickness and insecurities of each brother, including the common human longing for “home”. The desire, hard-wired into the human race since the original exile from Eden, is designed to help us find our way back to the Father. While we may know He stands at the threshold waiting to welcome us back, our desire to be our own “savior” (either through self-fulfillment or moralistic piety) tends to keep us away from the Father’s house longer than necessary…and we never “outgrow” the need for welcoming, lavish, “prodigal” grace. This small book is a convicting, yet encouraging reminder of why we run – and that Jesus, the perfect, redeeming “Elder Brother”, has paid our way back into the family.

Book Review – Phil Ryken’s “Loving the Way Jesus Loves”

Loving_the_Way_Jesus_Loves_195_300This review of Phil Ryken’s “Loving the Way Jesus Loves” was originally published on The Biblical Counseling Coalition website.

Marie Notcheva©

Love Is a Person

Loving the way Jesus loves is a daunting task, yet one to which every one of His followers is called. Phil Ryken approaches the central calling of the Christian’s life by walking the reader, slowly and deliberately, through 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter of the Bible.” Less an exegetical treatment of the text than a life application, Ryken’s approach in Loving the Way Jesus Loves is to show us that love is a Person—Jesus Christ—and not a “feeling” nor an abstract theological concept. He states it plainly: “The biggest challenge for us here is not to understand what Paul meant but to do what he said.” (76).

Ryken establishes the necessity of biblical love more than any other attribute, then goes on in subsequent chapters to demonstrate how each characteristic of love mentioned in verses 3-13 is personified in Christ. Throughout the book, he emphasizes that all of the virtues mentioned in this passage are verbs; attributes we are to put into practice by imitating Christ. Interwoven throughout his discussion of each aspect of love—patience; kindness; selflessness; trust; etc.—are scenes from the life of Christ which underscore how He Himself demonstrated each virtue. Christ’s refusal to become provoked or irritated takes us to the shores of Galilee, at the end of a long day of ministry (Mark 6:7-13). Forgiveness is tenderly demonstrated in His restoration of Peter (John 21:15-17).

Examining our own hearts in light of Christ’s responses to people, we learn how to anticipate our own temptation to become irritable (what Lewis Smedes calls a “spiritual readiness to get angry”), and where it comes from: putting our own wants ahead of other people’s needs. By dissecting irritability (and the other opposite attitudes of those mentioned in the passage), Ryken illustrates in an every-day, non-judgmental way how we fail to love people and hinder our relationship with God. “Love lets the needs of others set our agenda, rather than letting our agenda limit how much we are willing to serve” (55).

A Question…

From the beginning of the book, a question may linger in the back of the reader’s mind: “If love is primarily a choice, and not a feeling (as biblical counselors often exhort), is what Ryken calls ‘loveless social action’ worthless? Do we not have to choose to demonstrate love sometimes—even when we don’t feel like it—out of simple obedience?”

The answer is yes, but to think of love in terms of duty is to miss the point. The problem, as Ryken summarizes, is that “we are less loving than we think we are, and a lot less loving than we ought to be.” Therefore, we need to learn how to love—and this begins our journey into understanding the heart of Jesus. Love is as love does; and through His interaction with other people (most of whom did not reciprocate any kind of affection, let alone charity), we learn to see what love looks like. The Gospel, the Good News that we are loved undeservedly and unconditionally, is what transforms our hearts – from that of dutiful servants to joyful heirs.

Outward Behavior and Inward Heart Change

Throughout the book, Ryken draws the connection between outward behavior and inward heart change. In Chapter 4, Love’s Holy Joy, he explains that rejoicing with the truth (v. 6) goes beyond theology and morality by taking us to the dinner table of Simon the Pharisee. More than warning against participation of sin, however, love does not rejoice in the wrongdoing of others. A subtle sense of satisfaction may creep in when another—especially a rival—falls into sin. What Paul is pointing to (and Christ demonstrated through forgiving the sinful woman) is the joy that comes with a personal experience of God’s grace—and what we rejoice in vicariously when another tastes it. This transformational, selfless, joy-sharing love is what motivates true Christ-like compassion. What better way to cultivate patience towards a fellow believer, than to appreciate a holy God’s patience with us in coming to repentance!

In order to appreciate the multi-faceted love we see in Scripture, Ryken probes deeply into the self-centered human heart in order to understand how and why we fall short. In every failure to forgive; to be long-suffering; to trust—there is an idol. We prize our own comfort; security; reputation or convenience. By contrast, a heart transformed by the forgiving grace of God will be preoccupied with extending the same blessing to others. Ryken shows how our hearts can be truly transformed by grace: “First it takes our failures and forgives them. This gives us so much gratitude that we start loving Jesus in return. But that is not all. The love of Jesus then enables us to serve others with the same kind of love.” (171).

This attitude—giving freely what we have freely received from the hand of God—applies, of course, not only to forgiveness; but to every other loving behavior-attitude listed in 1 Corinthians 13. Far from being a “behavior modification” chapter, Ryken shows, through simple anecdotes and the life of Christ, how to “put off” unloving human reactions and “put on” their godly opposites. His life, example, and personal involvement in ours is what transforms our attitudes and motivation towards others. In this practical and compassionately-written book, Ryken helps Christians of all stages see how walking in love is a natural consequence of living in the overflow of God’s intense, personal, and active love for the believer.

Book Review: Winston Smith’s “Loving Well (Even if You Haven’t Been)”

This review, which I wrote in 2012, originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition’s site.

William P. Smith. Loving Well (Even if You Haven’t Been). Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2012. 288 pp. $15.99.

William Smith and I have a lot in common. We are both biblical counselors. We both write about God’s grace. And we both go bananas when our kids slam the doorknob into the drywall.

In Loving Well (Even if You Haven’t Been), Smith, director of counseling at Chelten Baptist Church in Dresher, Pennsylvania, explores the believer’s need to internalize God’s love for us as individuals in order to build strong, edifying relationships with others. In this well-written and easy-to-identify-with book, Smith explores 15 aspects of divine love and how, through grasping them, we grow more intentional about extending grace.

The timing of this book coincided with a personal rediscovery of the God who, as he puts it, “moves toward me, inviting me to know him” (xxi). In a dry spiritual season, I admitted to a fellow Christian my struggle to believe God really loves me and my tendency to see the cross as an historical event with little bearing on my life. “Don’t you believe [the Word] has the power to change you?” my friend admonished. His advice was so simple as to be common sense: read the Gospels. Again. Double-read the parts about Jesus’ crucifixion, which he went through “willingly, because he loved you.”

My young friend was on to something: experiencing the love of God is foundational to transformation. Smith observes that how we perceive God will inevitably affect how we treat others; therefore, we need an accurate view of God. Seeing him as the initiating, pursuing God of all comfort (rather than a dictator or detached deity) enables us to reach out to others. Moving toward suffering friends, building others up to reach their full potential in Christ, and enjoying genuine fellowship are three categories Smith examines.

Part I deals with comforting love, confessing struggles, and forgiveness. Moving sympathetically toward those in pain is the model of how God approaches us. In his humanity, Jesus invited the presence of others in his own deepest trials (e.g., Gethsemane). The suggestion that we may actually help a hurting person by our mere presence is refreshing to those of us trained not to let a counselee “vent” or just talk about the problem. Is “just listening” beneficial? Doesn’t compassion move us to action? Yes, when appropriate. In later chapters, Smith explores the outworking of serving and giving, but when a friend suffers, often the most loving thing to do is simply be there.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

True intimacy demands letting friends see the depths of our hearts. Drawing on Christ’s transparency with his followers, Smith gives helpful ways to respond to a friend who opens up her life. However, two realities coexist: we sin, and we’re sinned against. Smith demonstrates that a truly forgiving friend must see the lengths to which God will go to forgive and restore relationships—beginning in Eden and culminating at Calvary. Smith asks the rhetorical question, “Did God set himself up to be sinned against?” (52) and explains that God allowing sin in no way undermines his sovereign plan to reveal his mercy and goodness. Relieved that Smith upholds a high view of God, I agreed that incidents of sin, unavoidable between friends, lead to opportunities to extend forgiveness and thus chances for others to behold the goodness of God through us (Rom. 6:1).

While Smith promotes reconciliation, a discussion of repentance was largely absent (though he later touches on the subject of gentle confrontation). Likewise, we read of Smith seeking forgiveness from his child after “losing it,” but how did he then deal with the child’s defiance that preceded the angry confrontation?

Love That Reaches Out

In Part II, Smith examines the importance of edification and service. Understanding we’re served by Jesus marks the difference between believing we’re “here to be served” and joyfully extending service to others. Drawing on Paul’s example with diverse individuals, Smith demonstrates true friendship is based far less on commonalities than on a mutual friendship with Christ. The “pursuing love” he unpacks depicts “lost sheep diligently pursuing each other” (101), since that’s what they’ve experienced themselves from the Good Shepherd. Accountability, then, is simply an element of transparent friendship.

Smith provides an apt metaphor for counseling: “Do you see God’s gracious attitude toward those who are in trouble? He wants shepherds who will give themselves to the work of building up and pursuing people who are damaged and lost . . . who actively pursue the hurting sheep in order to nurse them back to health” (105). Encouragement lies at the heart of “one-anothering” in healthy churches. God deals with straying children by pleading, warning, and instructing—expressions of his love, and the foundation upon which all counsel, exhortation, and edification must be based.

Love That Enjoys Heaven on Earth

Though “fellowship” is a somewhat overused term in evangelicalism, it is the true sense of Christian fellowship to which Smith devotes the final section of the book. The image of Christ emptying himself and the Father welcoming unfaithful sinners shapes how we greet and interact with one another. “Reshaping our world for the sake of someone else” grows out of reverence for Christ. Smith also discusses unbiblical submission by denouncing the error of domineering, one-sided relationships. Verbal and emotional abuse are too rarely addressed in biblical counseling literature, but Smith encourages change motivated by concern for both persons’  spiritual health.

All of God’s commands regarding love reveal his relational heart. The warmth Christ has for his “friends” (John 15:15) comes through the pages of Loving Well. Enjoying true friendship with a personal God doesn’t diminish his majesty; it enables his children to display his likeness in their own relationships. Tying Scripture to real-life situations, Smith takes a relational approach to the process of biblical change—change that cannot help but occur once we’ve tasted God’s goodness personally.