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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“My best friend has just been hospitalized. How can I help her?”

spital

From “Ilira”

By Marie O’Toole

All of us, at one time or another, have had a friend or relative in the hospital. Sometimes it is the sudden onset of illness which leaves a patient’s family members in a bewildering situation. Other times, and unfortunate accident can lead to months of treatment and physical therapy. Whatever the situation, medical crises are times when friends and family are most needed. What are some practical ways you can be a “friend in need” while a loved one is sick or injured?

When Visiting at the Hospital

Being alone in a hospital is often frightening, and it is always boring. You will surely want to visit your friend, but check the hospital’s policy first on guests (what hours they are allowed; if she is in the intensive care unit, if she will be able to receive visitors at all). If your friend has just given birth, be sure to ask her wishes before you visit – not all new moms want visitors at the hospital, and would prefer you come to see her and the baby once they are at home.

Three things to keep in mind when visiting at the hospital:

  • Be respectful in the length of time you stay. Depending on your friend’s medical condition, she may need more quiet rest than you realize, and she may not be able to focus on a conversation for very long. This is especially true in cases of serious illness or if she is on pain medication, which cause extreme drowsiness. If she is sharing the room with another patient, do not stay longer than an hour as longer visits make it difficult for the roommate to rest.
  • Wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap before entering the room. Many infections are spread in hospitals, and the first line of prevention is frequent hand-washing. If your friend has a compromised immune system, (for example, if she is receiving chemotherapy), this is crucial. Precautions such as masks and gloves are often used by visitors with cancer patients, as well. Being especially careful with hygiene (and postponing a visit if you are sick yourself) is very important for your friend’s well-being.
  • Letters (and other personal touches) mean a lot. While enduring a tedious hospital stay, patients will appreciate the knowledge that friends are thinking of and praying for them. It’s fun (and helps the time pass more quickly) to look at photo albums and remember things you’ve done together, read personal notes, or enjoy a book you’ve selected with her in mind. Books make excellent gifts, as do electronic devices. Avoid bringing balloons, as many patients have latex allergies.

Depending on how sick your friend is and her personal wishes, it might be a good idea to avoid bringing young children to the hospital. Also, visits in the evening should be avoided, especially by several people at once. You will want to be considerate of the other patients on the unit, and noise created by visitors may make it difficult for them to rest. Keep in mind that your friend may not be able to focus on you or even stay awake for a long visit, and that is perfectly ok. Friends and family members visiting patients with extended illnesses or lengthy hospital stays often bring knitting or other things to keep their hands busy while just sitting quietly. It is not necessary to engage her in conversation all the time; your presence itself is comforting.

When She Returns Home

Don’t forget your friend still needs you after discharge. If she has a family, they have likely pulled together to take care of her and each other during her hospitalization, and practical help would be a blessing to them. Once she has gone home, some ways to serve her as she continues to recuperate are:

Shopping. This is the single-most difficult task for someone recovering from an illness or injury. An offer to take a list from her and purchase what she needs may be greatly appreciated.

Cooking. Each meal provided by a thoughtful friend means one less evening she will have to be on her feet in the kitchen. Preparing meals that can be frozen for future use (for example, soups; moussaka; roasted meat) is always a good idea.

Child care. If your friend has small children, offering to take them on outings or watch them for a few hours so she can rest can be a real blessing to her. Caring for young children, while a joy, takes much energy and so taking them for a few hours will give her some much-needed rest.

When a woman has been hospitalized, her family feels her absence very keenly and will surely need this help. The compassion you demonstrate by visiting with her and making sure her needs are met after she goes home will encourage her tremendously, and help her to recover more quickly.  Don’t forget that when you are assisting your friend, you are also serving the needs of her husband and children (if she has them) and being the “fragrance of Christ” (‘’’ 2 Corinthians 2:15) in this way.

“Shoqja ime e ngushtë sapo u shtrua në spital. Si mund ta ndihmoj?”

spital

Nga Marie O’Toole

(“Ilira”, Maj 2017). Perkthues: Elson Farka. (Lexoni në anglisht ketu).

Të gjithë ne, në një moment të jetës, kemi pasur një mik apo të afërm në spital. Ndonjëherë është pikërisht fillimi i papritur i sëmundjes ai që i lë anëtarët e familjes së pacientit në një situatë të pakëndshme. Herë të tjera, një aksident fatkeq mund të çojë në muaj të tërë me trajtime dhe terapi fizike. Pavarësisht situatës, në fatkeqësi të tilla mjekësore, miqtë dhe familja janë ata që i duam më shumë pranë vetes. Cilat janë disa mënyra praktike si të tregohesh një “mik i vërtetë” kur një person i dashur për ty është sëmurë ose i plagosur?

Gjatë vizitës në spital

Të qenit vetëm në spital është shpesh e frikshme dhe pothuajse gjithmonë e mërzitshme. Ti me siguri dëshiron të vizitosh shoqen tënde, por si fillim informohu me rregullat e spitalit për vizitorët (orari i lejuar; nëse ajo është në reanimacion, nëse ajo mund të takojë vizitorë). Nëse shoqja jote sapo ka lindur fëmijë, sigurohu ta pyesësh për dëshirat e saj para se ta vizitosh – jo të gjitha nënat e reja duan vizitorë në spital, dhe preferojnë më shumë vizitat sapo ato të kthehen në shtëpi me foshnjat e tyre.

Tri gjëra që duhet të mbash mend kur të shkosh për vizitë në spital:

  • Respekto kohëzgjatjen e vizitës

Në varësi të gjendjes mjekësore të shoqes tënde, ajo mund të ketë nevojë për më shumë pushim sesa mendon ti, dhe mund të mos jetë e aftë të përqendrohet në bisedë për një kohë të gjatë. Kjo është veçanërisht e vërtetë në rastet me sëmundje të rënda, ose nëse shoqja jote po merr mjekim për dhimbjen, e cila mund të shkaktojë përgjumje ekstreme. Nëse ajo është në të njëjtën dhomë me një paciente tjetër, mos qëndro më gjatë se një orë sepse vizitat e gjata e bëjnë të vështirë që ajo të pushojë.

  • Laj duart me sapun antibakterial para se të hysh në dhomë

Shumë infeksione përhapen në spital, dhe hapi i parë i parandalimit është larja e shpeshtë e duarve. Nëse shoqja jote ka sistem imunitar të ulur, (për shembull, nëse ajo po trajtohet me kemoterapi), kjo gjë është shumë e rëndësishme. Masat paraprake, siç janë vendosja e maskës dhe e dorezave, përdoren shpesh nga vizitorët e pacientëve me kancer. Të qenit e kujdesshme sidomos me higjenën (dhe shtyrja e vizitës nëse je vetë sëmurë) është shumë e rëndësishme për mirëqenien e shoqes tënde.

  • Letrat (dhe gjërat e tjera personale) kanë domethënie të madhe

Gjatë qëndrimit të tyre të gjatë në spital, pacientët do ta vlerësonin shumë faktin që miqtë po mendojnë dhe po luten për ta. Është kënaqësi (dhe të ndihmon të kalosh kohën) të shikosh albumet e fotografive dhe të kujtosh gjërat që keni bërë bashkë, të lexosh shënimet personale, ose kur asaj i pëlqen një libër që ti e ke zgjedhur kur po mendoje për të. Librat janë dhurata të shkëlqyera, ashtu siç janë edhe pajisjet elektronike. Mos sill tullumbace, sepse shumë pacientë kanë alergji nga lateksi.

Në varësi të gjendjes shëndetësore të shoqes tënde dhe të dëshirave personale të saj, mund të jetë një ide e mirë që të mos sjellësh fëmijë të vegjël në spital. Gjithashtu, vizitat gjatë mbrëmjes duhen shmangur, sidomos kur ka shumë vizitorë në të njëjtën kohë. Duhet të konsiderosh edhe pacientët e tjerë, sepse zhurmat që bëjnë vizitorët mund ta bëjnë të vështirë për ata të pushojnë. Mos harro që shoqja jote mund të mos jetë në gjendje të përqendrohet te ti, ose të qëndrojë zgjuar për shumë kohë, gjë që është krejtësisht normale dhe e kuptueshme.

Miqtë dhe anëtarët e familjes që vizitojnë pacientët me sëmundje kronike, ose ata që qëndrojnë gjatë në spital shpesh marrin me vete shtiza për të bërë punë dore, ose gjëra të tjera sa për të mbajtur duart e tyre të zëna, ndërkohë thjesht rrinë ulur në heshtje. Nuk është e nevojshme të bisedosh me të gjatë gjithë kohës; vetë prania jote është inkurajuese.

Kur Ajo Kthehet në Shtëpi

Mos harro që shoqja jote ka nevojë për ty edhe pas largimit nga spitali. Nëse ajo ka një familje, me shumë mundësi ata janë mbledhur së bashku për t’u kujdesur për të dhe për dhe njëri-tjetrin gjatë qëndrimit të saj në spital, dhe një ndihmesë sado e vogël nga ana jote do të ishte bekim për ta. Pasi kthehet në shtëpi, disa mënyra për t’i shërbyer asaj teksa ajo vazhdon të shërohet janë:

Të bërit pazar. Kjo është shumë e vështirë për t’u realizuar nga dikush që po shërohet nga një sëmundje. Të shkosh të bësh pazar dhe të blesh listën e gjërave që shoqja jote ka nevojë është një ndihmesë e madhe për të.

Të gatuarit. Një vakt i gatuar nga një mik do të thotë një mbrëmje më pak për të qëndruar në këmbë në kuzhinë. Përdorimi i ushqimeve të ngrira për t’i konsumuar më vonë (për shembull, supat; mishi i pjekur) është gjithmonë një ide e mirë.

Kujdesi për fëmijët. Nëse shoqja jote ka fëmijë të vegjël, do të ishte një bekim i vërtetë për të nëse ti del shëtitje ose kujdesesh për ta për disa orë. Fëmijët e vegjël, edhe pse janë gëzim familjar, kërkojë shumë përkushtim dhe kujdesje e cila të lodh shumë dhe kështu shëtitjet për disa orë i mundësojnë shoqes tënde një pushim shumë të nevojshëm.

Kur një grua është e shtruar në spital, familja e ndien shumë mungesën e saj dhe me siguri edhe kjo e fundit do ketë nevojë për ndihmë. Dhembshuria që ti i tregon gjatë vizitës dhe siguria që nevojat e saj janë plotësuar pasi ajo shkon në shtëpi, mund ta inkurajojnë jashtëzakonisht shumë, dhe ta ndihmojnë për t’u shëruar më shpejt. Mos harro se kur je duke ndihmuar shoqen tënde, ti je duke u shërbyer edhe nevojave të burrit dhe të fëmijëve saj (nëse ajo ka) dhe në këtë mënyrë je gjithashtu edhe “aroma e Krishtit” (2 Korintasve 2:15).

Takim me Zotin në bregun e Jonit

titlepicKy artikull është publikuar në “Ilira”, dhjetor 2016. Mund të lexoni në anglisht ketu.

“A do të shqetësohesh për opinionin e njerëzve këtu, apo për opinionin e Zotit? Opinioni i njerëzve nuk do të ngrejë shumë peshë kur të jesh para fronit të gjykimit”.

Charles Studd, Misionar i shekullit të 19të

A është e mundur që ndërsa je e rrethuar nga njerëz të ndihesh krejtësisht e vetmuar? Ne duam që njerëzit rrotull nesh ta vlerësojnë praninë tonë, ta çmojnë miqësinë tonë, të shuajnë dyshimet tona, të na mbështetin në sfida, të shërojnë lëndimet tona më të thella. E thënë shkurt, ka mundësi që ne kërkojmë nga njerëzit atë që vetëm Zoti mund të na e japë: përmbushje, paqe dhe dashuri pa kushte. Padyshim, Zoti i përdor fëmijët e vet për të inkurajuar dhe për të mësuar njëri-tjetrin, por është shumë e lehtë që opinionet e të tjerëve t’i kthejmë në idhull.

Skenari i parë është i shëndetshëm dhe na afron më shumë me Zotin. Galatasve 6:2 na thotë të “mbajmë barrët e njëri-tjetrit” dhe të kërkojmë këshillën e urtë të vëllezërve e motrave të krishterë si një aspekt i rëndësishëm i rritjes shpirtërore. Gjithsesi, skenari i dytë, mbivlerësimi i këndvështrimit, opinionit apo sjelljes së të tjerëve ndaj nesh, ndonjëherë edhe deri në dëshpërim, është një kurth. “Frika e njeriut” mund të na largojë nga Zoti kur ne lejojmë që opinionet e të tjerëve të bëhen më të rëndësishme sesa mënyra si na sheh Zoti. Kjo mund të ndodhë kur ne besojmë që të krishterët flasin në emër të Zotit kur na lëndojnë, ose thjesht duke hequr dorë nga lutja për njëfarë kohe. Kur ne e harrojmë ‘zërin’ e Zotit, zërat e të tjerëve do ta mbytin zërin e Tij.

“Frika nga njeriu” (edhe njeriut të kishës) na thotë që nuk jemi mjaft të mirë kur të tjerët vënë në dyshim motivet e veprimeve tona, na akuzojnë padrejtësisht, bëjnë thashetheme ose gjykojnë vendimet tona, pa i ditur rrethanat ku ndodhemi apo parimet shpirtërore që na udhëheqin. Kjo është e dhimbshme, turbulluese dhe disa nga ne që janë natyra të shoqërueshme, instinktivisht do të kërkojnë njerëz të besueshëm për të qenë në shoqërinë e tyre. Në njëfarë mënyre ne do të ndihemi më mirë në praninë e miqve tanë; do të ndihemi përsëri të vlerësuar, ose të paktën do të kemi mjaft shpërqendrim, sa për të mos menduar për ndjenjat tona.

Unë e di që kjo është e vërtetë, sepse pas 25 vitesh si e krishterë, Zotit iu desh të më sillte në anën tjetër të botës (relativisht e izoluar) për të më tërhequr vëmendjen.

Kur Zoti shfaqet papritur

Gjatë vitit të kaluar unë mora vendimin e dhimbshëm për t’i dhënë fund martesës sime. Divorci është një ngjarje tmerrësisht e dhimbshme, dhe aq më tepër kur ndodh midis dy të krishterëve, për shkak të ‘njollës’ që e shoqëron këtë vendim. Megjithëse kisha mjaft mbështetje biblike për divorcin, për hir të qetësisë së fëmijëve të mi nuk i tregova detajet (përveç disa njerëzve të cilët duhej t’i dinin). Shumica e personave që e njihnin situatën tonë, treguan dhembshuri të pamasëdhe mbështetja më erdhi nga nuk e prisja. Megjithatë, ata të krishterë të cilët nuk e njihnin situatën tonë apo rrethanat që më shtynë drejt divorcit, filluan të më gjykonin. Kjo e lëkundi besimin tim te kisha dhe si pasojë edhe te Zoti.

Megjithëse miqtë e mi nga kisha të tjera më çuan në vende të qeta, më përfshinë në studime Bible dhe kaluan shumë orë duke më folur dhe duke u lutur për mua, përsëri lëndimi i shkaktuar nga personat, opinionin e të cilëve e quaja të ‘rëndësishëm’, më bëri të ndihesha konfuze në lidhje me Zotin, ndërkohë që isha duke i shërbyer Atij. Mezi po prisja të vinte gushti, gjatë të cilit kisha planifikuar të shërbeja në Kampet e të Rinjve {në Nju Hempshire (New Hampshire) dhe në Shqipëri}, të kaloja kohë me fëmijët e mi dhe të shërohesha. Një nga gjërat që më jepte gëzim dhe mezi po e prisja ishte ritakimi me motrat dhe vëllezërit e dashur në Krishtin në Shqipëri, me të cilët isha miqësuar gjatë kampit të vitit të kaluar. Unë kisha ‘nevojë’ për ta, për praninë e tyre, kisha nevojë për miqësinë e tyre, kisha nevojë të qeshja.

Pas tri ditësh në Tiranë, unë mora autobusin për në Sarandë, ku do të takohesha me ata që do të më çonin në kamp. E lënduar nga sjellja e miqve të mi dhe e shqetësuar nga ideja që duhej të flisja me drejtuesit e kampit për situatën time, qava në heshtje pothuajse gjatë gjithë udhëtimit 7 orësh. Si për ta rënduar edhe më keq situatën, shumica e personelit me të cilët isha miqësuar më shumë nuk erdhi në kamp këtë vit për arsye nga më të ndryshmet. E rrethuar nga kampistë të rinj dhe të panjohur, personel i ri dhe nga gjuha shqipe, u ndjeva edhe më e vetmuar se më parë. Kujtimet e bukura të së kaluarës më bënë të ndihesha akoma më e trishtuar për ditë me radhë dhe fillova të pyesja veten se çfarë bëja unë në atë vend. E rrethuar nga 70 persona dhe një skuadër të krishterësh shqiptarë, u ndjeva plotësisht në ajër dhe e panevojshme.

Kështu që kaloja kohë vetëm me Zotin. Ai ishte i vetmi që shihte lotët e mi. Ecja mbi skelë, shikoja perëndimin e diellit mbi Jon dhe ulesha e rrija aty për orë me radhë. Disa herë lexoja Biblën; disa herë vetëm mendohesha, por gjithmonë e kuptoja që isha në praninë e Atit tim, i cili ishte Mbrojtësi dhe Mbështetësi im. Unë e dija që Ai e kishte orkestruar gjithçka në mënyrë të përsosur, por më duhej ta përjetoja këtë në nivel emocional dhe kjo është shumë e vështirë të ndodhë kur ti je duke u arratisur nga emocionet e tua.

Një nga mësimet në anglisht që po u mësonim fëmijëve tregonte si ta vendosje opinionin e Zotit mbi atë të njerëzve. Kjo ishte tepër specifike për të qenë një rastësi. Zoti po më fliste mua drejtpërsëdrejti. Kishte mëngjese kur doja të largohesha nga grupi i diskutimit, të cilin e drejtoja bashkë me një anëtare skuadre nga Britania; të vërtetat themelore për dashurinë e Zotit që po u mësonim fëmijëve ishin premtime të harruara prej kohësh, për shkak se nuk e besoja më që mund të zbatoheshin në rastin tim.

Na tërheq në anën tjetër të botës… për të na detyruar ta dëgjojmë?

Këtu filloi edhe shërimi im. Si për të më siguruar mua që Ai ishte pranë, mora një mesazh nga një anëtare e re britanike e skuadrës, (e cila nuk më njihte aspak) një ditë pasi u largua nga kampi, duke më pyetur nëse isha mirë. Pasi i tregova një version të përmbledhur të ngjarjeve, ajo u përgjigj:

“Unë të jam mirënjohëse që ke folur me personat në kamp dhe lutem që ata të kenë qenë mbështetje dhe inkurajim për ty. Unë e vlerësoj shumë ndershmërinë dhe sinqeritetin tënd me mua, duke më treguar atë që po ndodh realisht. Zoti ka një plan për ty, që të solli në Shqipëri këtë vit dhe unë lutem që ti me të vërtetë do të gjesh shërim nga gjithë vështirësitë që ke kaluar. Unë e di që Zoti ka plane të mira për ty, ashtu siç ka premtuar për popullin e tij.

“Në fund të fundit ne duhet të shqetësohemi, mbi të gjitha, për atë që mendon Zoti dhe të lutem mos harro, Ai na do pa kushte. Afrohu pranë Tij dhe lëri krahët e Tij të të mbrojnë. Mos e lëndo veten duke mos lejuar të përjetosh ato ndjenja që të vijnë. Zoti e di çfarë ndien ti. Unë nuk dua të mendosh që duhet t’i fshehësh ndjenjat e tua, apo që nuk po përfshihesh aq shumë sa duhet në kamp. Ndoshta Zoti do që kjo kohë që po kalon në Shqipëri të shërbejë për shërimin tënd nga lëndimi dhe ndjenjat e tua. Sa e mahnitshme është mënyra si na përdor Zoti në jetët e njëri-tjetrit. Unë e ndjeva fuqishëm Frymën e Shenjtë teksa më shtynte të bisedoja me ty dhe jam e sigurt që Zoti të ka rrethuar me kujdesin e Tij. Është e mahnitshme sesi Zoti na tërheq në anën tjetër të botës, për të na detyruar të dëgjojmë dhe për të na afruar te Vetja”.

Të jesh transparent ndërsa i beson Zotit

Drejtuesit e shërbesës, nën autoritetin e të cilëve shërbeja, janë miq të mirë, por unë kisha shumë frikë se mos më refuzonin apo më gjykonin pasi ta merrnin vesh për divorcin tim, pavarësisht arsyeve që kisha; por ndodhi krejt e kundërta. E mbushur me ankth, u ula dhe i shpjegova situatën time pastorit shqiptar dhe më pas drejtorit të kampit. Ata jo vetëm që e mbështetën vendimin tim, por më përkrahën si motrën e tyre, ashtu si përherë. Megjithatë, mësimi që më mësoi Zoti atë javë ishte që kjo nuk duhej të kishte rëndësi.

Ai më pranon, më do dhe gëzohet për mua. Opininoni i njerëzve (edhe i njerëzve të Tij) zbehet për nga rëndësia përpara Tij. Gjithsesi ishte çliruese të mbështetesha nga miq që shqetësoheshin për mua dhe më kuptonin. Pastor “Erioni” (ky nuk është emri i tij i vërtetë) kishte parë vetë një nga motrat e tij të përjetonte një eksperiencë të ngjashme me timen dhe ishte i vetëdijshëm për faktin që jeta jo gjithmonë ndjek besnikërisht udhëzimet biblike të pendimit dhe pajtimit. Vëllai im ballkanas, më shumë se çdokush tjetër, ndihej i çliruar për faktin që unë tashmë isha e sigurt, e shëruar, dhe po rifitoja vetëbesimin tim.

Ne si besimtarë nuk mund të jetojmë në boshllëk. Është e pamundur të hiqemi sikur opinionet, pranimi, dashuria apo aprovimi i të tjerëve, veçanërisht i vëllezërve dhe motrave të krishterë, nuk kanë rëndësi. Ne jemi krijuar për të jetuar në bashkësi dhe Zoti trishtohet kur bijtë e Tij krijojnë mëri me njëritjetrin. E megjithatë, për të shembur muret e turpit që nga largojnë prej Tij, Ai detyrohet të na izolojë në një vend nga i cili nuk mund të arratisemi më; dhe kur më në fund fillojmë të dëgjojmë zërin e Tij të së Vërtetës, Ai e pohon dashurinë e Tij ndaj nesh edhe përmes njerëzve të tjerë. Megjithatë, derisa të zbulojmë që Ai është i vetmi zë që ka rëndësi, ne do të ngecemi midis zërave të vetë konfuzionit dhe dyshimeve tona.

Unë duhej të ndihmoja të tjerët të kuptonin Fjalën e Zotit verën e kalredemption_picuar, por Zoti e përdori atë kohë për të sjellë hirin dhe shërimin e Tij mbi mua, në një kamp të largët bregdetar, pa miq të cilëve t’u besoja, gjysmë bote larg nga shtëpia ime. Shqipëria gjithmonë ka qenë shumë e veçantë për mua, por tani unë do ta kujtoj edhe si një vend ku Zoti më takoi në një mënyrë unike dhe thellësisht personale.

A God Who is Not Sovereign is Not God

A God Who is Not Sovereign is Not God

by Marie Notcheva

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

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

Can We Blame God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are People Really Good?

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting God by the Ionian Coast

bunec1
Bunec, Albania

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

— 19th century British missionary, Charles Studd

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

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

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

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

When God Shows Up – Unexpectedly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Transparent – while Still Trusting God

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

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

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

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

Relationship and Doctrine: Striking a Balance

Relationship and Doctrine: Striking a Balance

by Marie Notcheva

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

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

Christ Might Have Died for my Sins?

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

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

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

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

Overwhelmed by Theology, or Overwhelmed by Love?

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

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

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

Getting Back to Basics – with the Puritans

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

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

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

Learning to Enjoy God all Over Again

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

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

 

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

Five Phrases to Strike from Your Counseling Repertoire

Five-Phrases-to-Strike-from-Your-Counseling-Repertoire

by Marie Notcheva

Platitudes & Christian Clichés

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog-Russia-in-Chains

by Marie Notcheva

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

Here is some of what the new laws cover:

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

Why does this matter to Americans?

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

Let that sink in for a moment.

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

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

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

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

The Early Days of Hope  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Expectations Destroy Relationships?

Do Expectations Destroy Relationships?

Posted July 7, 2016 on Biblical Counseling for Women

by Marie Notcheva

Recently, a friend of mine posted a quotation on social media from a female Christian writer. The citation exhorted other Christian women not to expect their husbands to help with housework; meet any of their needs except to economically provide for the family, and to simply try to “make his life as easy as possible.” What most caught my attention was a portion of the quote which was underlined:“Expectations destroy relationships.”

While undoubtedly well-intentioned, this sort of advice targeted towards Christian wives concerns me. It is not about the housework or a division of labor based on traditional gender roles. That is an individual arrangement that can be decided by couples based on preference. If a husband does not feel it is his role to give the baby a bath, fine. If she does not want to mow the lawn or snowplow the driveway, that is reasonable. However, as another reader pointed out, the quote seemed to imply that a woman who is honestly overwhelmed is sinning if she asks for help. She is not.

Many women fall into serious depression because they are overwhelmed by the demands of running a household (often while homeschooling children) and are made to feel guilty if they expect assistance from their husbands. Would we tell men they are wrong to expect their wives to cook their dinner? Iron their shirts? Meet their sexual needs? It would be hard to find a male writer willing to take this stance.

Even so, household chores are not the main issue I had with the quote. It is the notion that in a relationship, it is wrong to have any expectations of the other person.

The Bible sets forth some very clear expectations for both husbands and wives – they are to love and submit to one another (Ephesians 5); he is to be patient and gentle with her (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7); she is to be industrious at home and assist with running the household (Proverbs 31); not contentious (Proverbs 25:24). He is not to be a drunkard (1 Cor. 6:10 and elsewhere); both are to be sexually faithful to each other (Hebrews 13:4), and the list goes on. God has set these expectations – why would it be wrong for either spouse to hold them? It would be extremely unhealthy to enter into any kind of relationship with no expectations whatsoever, but particularly into a marriage covenant.

Expectations are Necessary and God-ordained

Telling women “You won’t have a happy marriage if you expect anything from your husband” is dangerous for at least three reasons. First, it demeans men. A godly man seeks to honor and obey God by loving, serving, protecting, encouraging, comforting and helping his wife. He is the spiritual leader in the home, and is the one to whom his children look to see an example of Christ. It is rather condescending (if not insulting) to tell women to “expect nothing” of them.

Secondly, it saddles Christian women with the responsibility of their husbands’ happiness, and additional guilt if they fall short. These women are often already burdened by self-recrimination, trying to live up to their own standards of perfection, and usually blame themselves for their husbands’ short-comings. The last thing they need is to be rebuked for having “expectations.”

Lastly, telling women to have zero expectations in the marriage relationship opens the door to abuse. I have written about this before, and I firmly believe that sanctimonious messages like this contribute to the problem. The implication is that the woman is somehow responsible for any failings in the marriage; that it would all go so much better if she would just be a better “helpmeet” and stop expecting her husband to obey God. When women internalize such unbalanced messages, they are less able to recognize emotional abuse and the Church, by extension, continues to perpetuate the cycle. “Doormat theology” is not biblical.

Live up to It!

While it is certainly not correct (or realistic) to marry expecting perfection of one’s spouse, a healthy regard for the other’s spiritual well-being (as well as that of future children) demands a certain set of expectations. That is, in essence, what the marriage vows are: a commitment to live up to one’s God-given responsibilities (including to love, honor and cherish one another). If a woman does not expect at least this much of her husband, the relationship is already in serious trouble.

Expectations do not destroy relationships. Selfish people destroy relationships. The most important relationship men and women can ever have is with their Creator, and Christ Himself laid out some very clear expectations on His followers: “If you love Me, you will do as I command” (John 14:15). He expects us to live up to what we have already attained (Phil. 3:16), and part of this means behaving in a selfless and Christ-like way in our relationships with other people (most of all, our marriage). Failing to have any standards or expectations in a relationship, on ourselves or other people, is a sure-fire way for it to fail. God has given us the standard of what a healthy relationship should look like, and women need to work toward what God has called them to do – while expecting no less of their husbands.