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Judy Lair is a licensed counselor and owner of Counselorplace Christian Counseling. She is the author of “From the Other Side of the Couch: A Biblical Counselor’s Guide to Relational Living.” Judy’s personal struggles with fear led her through the valley of hurt and sorrow. She now embraces a joy-filled life grounded in God’s truth and freedom in Christ. Judy uses her professional counseling expertise to tell stories that help people find healing and freedom. Her vulnerable, godly approach helps people find courage to move from Fear to Freedom. For more information or speaking requests, email JudyLair@counselorplace.com or sign up for blog posts at http://judylair.blogspot.com

 “Freedom is attainable. Trust me, I’ve been on the anxiety side, gone through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and now I’m praising God, eating at the banqueting table, and helping others make the same journey. Whether you find yourself stuck in anxiety, disappointment, grief, or confusion, your heart can be set free.” Judy Lair, “From the Other Side of the Couch.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Do You “know” Jesus or KNOW Jesus?

Last week I flew from Columbus, Ohio to Los Angeles, California to attend a conference. The first day I embarked on a thrilling walking tour through Sony Pictures/Columbia Pictures/MGM Studios. I hardly dared breathe on the stage where Judy Garland began her journey on the yellow brick road in Munchkin Land. Standing in the Barbara Streisand Sound Studio, I desperately wanted to break into “Funny Girl” or “The Way We Were,” but I didn’t want to get kicked off the tour! I visited the Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy studios and saw the New York brownstone neighborhood backdrop where they filmed The Smurfs. I think my favorite part was posing next to the Ghostbuster mobile! Everyone on the tour had their head on a swivel searching for celebrities, but no go.
I bravely took a public bus north on Santa Monica Boulevard to West Hollywood. Sitting at a stoplight, I looked to my left. There were four police officers with their guns drawn approaching a bank across the street which had apparently just been robbed! A helicopter flew overhead and several police cruisers arrived just as the light turned green and we pulled through the intersection. “Welcome to LA,” chirped the bus driver. How bizarre!
After snapping a photo of Adam Sandler’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for my son Ben, I made my way to Bronson Studios on Sunset Boulevard. The next several hours passed quickly as I laughed and cheered during the taping of Celebrity Name Game hosted by Craig Ferguson. A comedian named Frank got the audience revved up, telling jokes and asking us questions. He seemed really familiar and I felt like he was a rediscovered long lost relative. A married couple sitting in front of me shared they’d sat through six tapings the previous day and planned to attend all the shows the next day. Frank bantered with them like they were college buddies. Leaving the studio my sense of direction failed me. Believing I was taking a shortcut to the bus stop, I stubbornly kept walking and walking and walking, expecting to intersect Santa Monica Boulevard. As night fell in West Hollywood, a kind gentleman pointed out I was on a parallel street and needed to head west instead of south. Believe me, my anxiety was almost at panic level by that point!
The next day I again ventured out, getting off the bus in Beverly Hills to visit the CBS Studios. I enjoyed wondering around the Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market. Eating brunch in the outdoor cafĂ© gave me the freedom to drink in my surroundings. People watching in LA is amazing! Suntanned moms with long blonde hair, stylish gay men, and lots of bohemian 20somethings caught my eye as I savored the most amazing Hollandaise sauce I’ve ever tasted. I admit to eavesdropping on all the fascinating conversations around me. Everyone was talking about who they knew, who they wanted to impress, and who they wanted to “get a meeting” with next. I got caught up in listening to one young woman’s story of literally running into a famous movie director’s car, concluding they were now “in” with each other because the director gave her his Twitter handle.

Listening to all the conversations about knowing people made me realize we often do the same thing with Jesus. Christians know a lot of information about Jesus. We know stories about him, facts about his life, have heard about him from his friends—but do we really KNOW Jesus any more than I know Frank or that woman knows the director?

Stories, testimonials, and facts are a great place to start. But how do we KNOW Jesus in an intimate, relational way? We start by putting down our protective shields and intentionally showing our vulnerabilities. Turn your face toward heaven and say, “Jesus, my name is ­­­­­_______. I know you created me and I know what the Bible says about you, but I don’t really know YOU. Can we sit here while I tell you about my loneliness, hurt, and sadness?”

In most instances, folks try to establish relationships by putting their best face forward. We’ve learned how to read the other person, reinventing ourselves based on what we believe will get us a stamp of approval. Knowing information about someone helps us to anticipate what they expect and how to get “in” with them. But Jesus doesn’t want us to study up on his likes and dislikes in the hopes of gaining his favor. Nor does he want us to just be an audience member who believes proximity establishes relationship. Jesus asks us to go all in—drop all our pretenses and invite him to see our nakedness. While that approach may send your anxiety soaring, believe you me, it’s a whole lot better than finding yourself scared and alone when night falls in your chaotic life!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Order Matters

Do you remember learning how to drive a car? Living in Hershey, Pennsylvania when I was a teen, my dad taught me how to drive at Hersheypark. Lots of parking lot room for an inexperienced driver in an old Chevy. The worst I could do was sideswipe a light pole.

Dad felt it was important that I learn how to drive a stick shift as well as an automatic transmission. This added a whole lot more steps to an already complicated process.

  • Put on your seatbelt (if you’re super short like me, you have to learn how to adjust the seat belt so it doesn’t choke you at the neck!)
  • Hands at 2 and 4 (or is it 12 and 8?)
  • Adjust the mirrors
  • Make sure there are no children, animals, or peers who would make fun anywhere near you
  • Wear a cute outfit just in case you get in an accident -- clean underwear, of course!
  • Turn the key in the ignition and let go of the key before the starter makes grinding noises
  • Spin your head around in every conceivable direction to make sure there is absolutely nothing you can inadvertently hit
  • Put the car in reverse and start backing out slowly
 And that list is just to get out of the driveway. There’s a whole other list to follow depending on where you’re driving, who’s in the car with you, and who you’re trying to impress!

I learned very quickly how important it was to follow my dad’s instructions. Over and over I'd repeat his instructions to myself.

  1. Left foot on the brake
  2. Right foot hovering over the gas pedal
  3. Move the left foot to push in the clutch
  4. Right hand shifts into 1st gear
  5. Ease up on the clutch while at the same time gently pressing on the gas
 Everything got all messed up if I got the order wrong. There'd be loud, grinding transmission noises, not to mention exasperated exclamations by my dad. Trying to shift gears without pushing in the clutch or attempting to accelerate to 50mph while still in 1st gear resulted in frustration and a trip to the mechanic. After much practice, the steps flowed in an orderly fashion allowing for a smooth drive. Parallel parking, however, is still a whole different subject!

Process is based on order. Driving, baking, playing an instrument, planting a garden, learning math -- anything that involves process requires orderly steps. I love reading Bible passages that set out the order in which we are to grow. When I wonder why I’m sitting in a ditch of despair or I’m frustrated because nothing is working out, I usually find I'm hitting the gas instead of the clutch!

One of those order passages is 2 Peter 1:5-8.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)

Are you feeling defeated and discouraged in your life despite working hard at all the right things? Take a good look at the order of these qualities to see if you're skipping ahead. Beating yourself about not feeling kind or loving towards someone? Maybe you need to go back and pursue goodness or self-control first. Every human being picks the quality he/she believes is the most important and starts there. But God gives us a specific order for a very good reason. He knows what we need each step along the way to successfully learn and grow in maturity to love ourselves and others well.

Take a look at the order in this passage. Peter assumes we have faith first, then we grow from there. But how do you define faith? How do you define knowledge or self-control? Many clients look at me like I’m deranged, but the definition we live out may not actually be the one God wants you to embrace. If your definition causes you to feel heavy and discouraged, you might want to have a conversation with God!

Before you can walk out the order, you need to be sure you and God are both looking at these qualities from the same viewpoint. Someone living an Outcome-based perspective looks at this list and immediately beats themselves up for not being able to live it out perfectly. But God is relational, and He gives us this list as a direction to follow, excited to reveal how each of us uniquely grow in goodness, perseverance, love, etc.

One of my clients this week brought this passage to my attention. As we talked about the order, he realized he’d put self-control at the beginning. He felt ashamed at not being able to reign in certain behaviors. When he understood God wanted him to follow these steps in this order, he was hopeful and encouraged. Understanding and living out faith, goodness, and knowledge will give him the tools necessary to move on to self-control. When I feel stuck, discouraged, and frustrated with how my life is going, I go back and ask God if He can give me another driving lesson!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Garden of Gethsemane

I had the amazing opportunity to visit Israel a few years ago. It was surreal driving down a rocky road passing a Palestinian settlement on the left, a heavily protected Israeli settlement on the right, and seeing road signs for Jericho ahead. Standing on top of a hill overlooking Samaria, I felt the presence of God and sensed the sandaled feet that had passed this way. Psalm 121:1 came to mind.  “I lift up my eyes to the hills--where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”  (NIV) What an amazing opportunity to lay my eyes on the same mountains that prompted David’s praise to the Lord.

It was awe-inspiring to stand in the center of the Old City, looking at the Wailing Wall to my right and the Temple Mount’s golden dome to my left. Viewing the City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, I had a profound sense of living in the past, present, and future all at the same time. 

The account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane shows the genuineness of living an emotionally open life. Being able to actually see the ancient, gnarled olive trees surrounded by white stone allowed me to capture the feeling of what it was like for Jesus that night. He’d been telling the disciples for weeks that going to Jerusalem would bring about his death. Talking about it was preparing both the disciples and Jesus for the upcoming events. Jesus knew he was going to not only experience a great deal of cruelty and physical pain, but also overwhelming emotional and relational sorrow.

As Jesus was praying, he began to be sorrowful and troubled, sharing those feelings with Peter, James, and John. (Matthew 26) Jesus was so burdened with the enormity of the task that lay ahead of him, he asked the disciples to stay awake and pray for him to be strengthened. He was asking them to mourn with him as he mourned. Jesus could have asked God to send a host of angels to care for him, but angels are not made in God’s image and couldn’t join with Jesus in a deep, emotional way.

I’m most struck by Jesus’ humanity. The Bible reports his deep emotional state caused him to fall to his knees, his face to the ground. Jesus honestly, fervently begged God to find a way to take the cup from him. This God-man Jesus was in agony knowing what excruciating pain he would suffer and he did the human thing of asking God if there was a Plan B. Without this picture of Christ in his humanness, I would forever feel like a coward when I ask God to take away the hardships in my life.

Jesus honestly and genuinely allowed himself to feel all the emotions surrounding his impending death. He wasn’t ashamed to be vulnerable and transparent in front of the disciples and God. I love that Jesus didn’t use some sort of rationalization or minimization of his feelings. He didn’t sound like a pompous martyr, saying he knew it would be hard, but he would clench his teeth and march through it. No, he wept.

At some later point, Jesus returned to the disciples and found them sleeping, exhausted from sorrow. Jesus woke them, encouraging them to pray so they would not fall into temptation. I disagree with opinions that villainize the disciples, saying they were lazy or didn’t really care about Jesus’ concerns. The text says they were exhausted from sorrow. Have you ever grieved and cried so deeply that you were exhausted? Then you know this type of mourning comes from the bottom of your soul because someone you love is hurting. Jesus’ words were said to put them on high alert because he knew his arrest was imminent.

We are uniquely vulnerable to the discouraging voice of the enemy in the midst of a heart-wrenching season. The enemy can be found in words spoken by hurtful people when we need compassion or in our own condemning words about what we should have said or done. But almost always, the enemy takes on the form of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, making us question whether God really loves us. The disciples would soon be surrounded by this enemy.

Three times Jesus begged the disciples to stay alert and pray because temptation was upon them. But for all their good intentions, Matthew tells us their bodies were weak. Next thing they know, a large armed crowd shows up and arrests Jesus. Bedlam breaks loose as Peter grabs his sword and starts swinging it around in panic, threatening everybody, even cutting off someone’s ear. We then hear the strong, confident, powerful voice of Jesus call out to Peter. The same voice that calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee restored order to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus reminded Peter he didn’t need Peter’s protection. He had the power to ask his Father in heaven to send down legions of angels. Jesus also reminded the crowd he had made himself available in the temple courts every day, so their armed show of strength now was obviously unnecessary. In fact, Jesus declared he had known all along he was the fulfillment of the writings of the prophets. By his words, Jesus gave notice he stood ready to take on all the pain and suffering those next days would bring.

So how did Jesus go from weeping in the garden to exhibiting strength and determination in the moment of his arrest? He poured out his heart and emotions in prayer to his Father. In return, God sent an angel to give him strength when the disciples had none to give Jesus. Every week I have folks weeping in my office, pouring out their hurt and disappointment. Most of the time they know I don’t have any answers to change their circumstances. They walk out my door and nothing is fixed. Yet their burden’s been lifted, allowing them to continue to persevere. When we’re given the gift of someone praying and waiting with us in that emotional time, we receive comfort which comes directly from God’s heart. Knowing in our soul that God sees us in that difficult place, that His heart hurts with us, and that He is bringing joy out of ashes allows us to press forward with determination.

Photos by Judy Lair

Information & Energy

Feelings give us two important things necessary for transformation: Information and Energy. Emotional information is critical in being able to live a relational lifestyle. Empathy, compassion, and sacrificial love are all fueled by our ability to be emotionally vulnerable. When we’re standing on the emotional river bank watching other people struggle with waves of feeling, our heart is not engaged. We shout out directions or vent our frustration with their process, but they cannot receive from us.

If we’re sitting in the other person’s boat, we become overwhelmed with their feelings and codependently take on their burdens. A healthy lifestyle is where we navigate our own boat through the river of life with God as our Captain, allowing others to pull alongside us with encouragement, and empathetically supporting others ourselves.

When feelings are shut off or dismissed, we miss out on valuable information God uses to reveal personhood. We’re not created as “one size fits all” people. Just as God created multiple varieties of birds, animals, and plants, He created each of us as unique and special. Wanting to feel special is one of the core longings God instilled in our soul. When this message isn’t communicated from our parents, we shut down our feelings and often go into victim-mode. Owning our feelings allows God to show us how we respond to the world in our own, unique way. Knowing what shuts me down emotionally allows me to protect myself in a healthy way from harmful people and situations.

Clients ask me how to clearly hear from God, wanting to know how to discern God’s plan for their life. There’s no way to establish walkie talkie communication with God without being an excellent student of our emotions. Feelings allow God to communicate through the Holy Spirit to our soul. I spend a lot of time with God discussing how I experience people. Every time I talk with a new client, I’m trying to open myself up to how I feel in their presence, what they say, what they talk about, and what God shows me about their heart attitude. I ask the Holy Spirit to sort through all my thoughts and feelings and give me insight into the client’s character and discernment about whether we will be a good fit for each other. I get a red light/green light sense in my gut that I’ve learned is God speaking to me.

Learning to correctly interpret our emotions is a trial and error process. Most of us are much more comfortable living in fear, relying on black and white facts to make sure we are “right.” Giving up the illusion of certainty is brutal. It feels like God is asking us to jump off a cliff without knowing how far we will fall.

Trust in the transformation process gives you courage. Most of us desperately cling to certainty for safety, but living free is about risk. I began stepping out in small ways to find out if I could trust my gut. When I got a red light feeling about a person, I asked more questions and watched their life for a while. It really did became clear what God was communicating to me. I became bolder, asking people if they had certain thoughts or felt a particular way, and usually they agreed with my discernment. When I missed the mark, I learned it wasn’t a fatal, catastrophic failure but a learning experience.

Emotions also give us energy to overcome fear. In some households, anger was used to overpower, intimidate, and harm. But emotions can be used positively to push through fear barriers. I’ve read amazing accounts where adrenaline provided people the physical strength and courage to act in a crisis. King David was the only one able to harness his outrage and use it to step out on the battlefield and challenge Goliath.

When I need to have a difficult conversation, I first squeeze out all the worry and fear. Venting all my knee-jerk self-protective defenses allows me to anchor to what God has shown me is true. John 8:32 says that God’s truth will set us free. I now know what freedom feels like, so I can use that knowledge to give me the needed boost to enter into that scary conversation with courage and confidence.

Graphic used by permission from Creative Commons (Office.com)

Become as a Little Child

Woundedness causes us to shut down, but the transformation process requires vulnerability and openness. No one is more vulnerable than a child. Choosing to be vulnerable feels unsafe and counterintuitive to most adults because of the hurt they’ve experienced as a child. Jesus’ relationships with his heavenly father, earthly family, disciples, and friends were characterized by openness and a willingness for his heart to be seen. Vulnerability and transparency with safe, caring people are essential for wounds to be healed and our life to be transformed.

Every human being has a variety of needs; physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual. Although a newborn has all these needs, they have almost no ability to meet any of them. As a child grows older, needs become more complicated, but the ability to empower ourselves to meet some of the needs grows as well. There will, however, always be some level of gap. God’s plan to address this gap is to facilitate meeting needs primarily through other people. Sometimes God intervenes directly himself, but most of the time needs are met by living a “one another” relational lifestyle.

I see this principle in Matthew 11 when Jesus explains we need to become like little children. Kids understand and accept dependence, so they aren’t shy about freely sharing wants and needs. Kids will volunteer all sorts of information about what they like, what they don’t, how it’s unfair their brother got the bigger piece of cake, and every overheard comment their parents don’t want shared with the world! When Jesus told the disciples they needed to be like a little child to enter the Kingdom of God, he was talking about vulnerability; approaching life with openness.

 The Bible clearly tells us God wants us to experience an abundant, full, prospering life, even in this broken, troubled world. That can only come about when we understand loving well is the key and put all our energy into identifying and pushing through the barriers. The abundant life encompasses love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There’s no way we can achieve any of these fruits without a vulnerable and transparent heart.

Many Christians find it shameful to admit it feels unsafe to trust those parts of us that are most precious with anyone, even God. One of the hardest parts of the healing process is tolerating that horrible exposed feeling while trying to connect with what is true. Being able to trust God’s motives and receive love from Him cannot take place without the uncomfortableness of feeling weak and vulnerable.

In William Young’s book, The Shack, each member of the trinity pursues the main character, Mack. Their intimate, probing questions shine a light on his deeply buried thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Like most of us, Mack is caught off guard by God’s ability to look past the surface and he feels acutely uncomfortable at his transparency. When Adam and Eve were in relationship with God in the Garden, they lived an open, vulnerable lifestyle. The decision to protect themselves introduced fear. It’s at that point the Bible tells us they saw their nakedness and were ashamed.

I imagine this was what Judas experienced at the last supper when Jesus said someone there would betray him. Jesus didn’t mention Judas by name, but I’m certain Judas felt like there was a huge spotlight from heaven showing the darkness in his heart. Jesus loved Judas dearly and was giving him an opportunity to confess his heart attitude. But Judas was not able to tolerate his own guilt at being exposed. Rather than clearly seeing Jesus’ loving motives and responding to his loving kindness, Judas ran away from what Jesus offered and betrayed him. The weight of seeing his own cowardice and inability to receive Jesus’ love sadly brought Judas to despair and he chose death.

Are you willing to become vulnerable, trusting in the heart of your heavenly Father?

Photo from Office.com clip art

How Big is Your Child's Backyard?

God’s plan is for parents to be an integral part of meeting needs, teaching skills, and facilitating their child’s journey into their own personhood. This concept is different from an Outcome-based model where parents are judged by others based on whether their child meets certain societal standards. In a Relational Model, the goal of parenting is to help our kids see themselves the way God sees them and to live out of that knowledge. When they do so, they’ll learn to make decisions and choices in daily life that lead to a happy, healthy abundant lifestyle. Helping our kids, especially, teens learn how to make wise decisions is a huge part of parenting. Young children need clear parameters as they balance self-empowerment with safe options. As they grow older, kids need to experience a bigger choice backyard while still under your roof.

I absolutely love teenagers. They are full of energy, opinions, and attitudes. It’s like they’re being energized by the world. Talking to teens is like riding a roller coaster. Teen gals want to talk about everything relating to their life in the minutest detail. Who said what; what they wore; what they felt. Absolutely everything. Talking to teen guys is like waiting for water to boil on the stove. I ask a question, they stare at me, or the wall, or the floor for a while, then give me a one word answer.

Adolescence is a time for self-exploration. “Who am I and how do I relate to the world?” When parents don’t allow mistakes and demand adherence to rules and expectations, teens can’t develop their own identity. In an Outcome-based system, the high school years are seen as preparation for entry into adulthood. Teens are required to learn how to master adult values, adult behaviors, and how to play the adult game of climbing the corporate ladder. In God’s Relational model, teens are encouraged to try all sorts of things on for size, seeing each item fits with who God made them to be. Giving teens the freedom to experiment with how they express their individuality allows them to develop a solid sense of self.

Unfortunately, most parents live out of fear. They want their child to be a happy, healthy, productive member of society, have a strong faith in God, and not make the same mistakes. While those are admirable hopes and dreams, the way most parents try to make that happen is to micro-manage their child’s life, damaging the parent’s relationship with their child and wounding occurs.

When children are young, parents have almost complete control and strive to make perfect choices for their children. As the child grows, parents allow the child room to make their own decisions within a selection of “good” options. When a child begins to find their own individuality as a teen, parents need to allow room for “bad” choices. Instead of lecturing, listen. Ask how they made the decision and whether they feel like the consequences are worth the choice. Kids need to "try on" choices to see if those decisions fit their understanding of who God made them to be.

As Ben’s parent, I will always step into my son’s life if he’s making catastrophic choices that will cause actual harm to himself or others. Giving him room, however, to make bad choices is one of the most difficult examples of sacrificial love. I don’t want Ben to have his feelings hurt, lose money, fail a class, etc. I can foresee a lot of things he can’t at his age. But to protect him from making mistakes prevents him from growing and maturing. I wanted him to experience the consequences of bad choices while he was still under my roof and we could process those events.

There are many accounts in the Bible where God allowed his kids to make "bad" choices, allowing them to experience their own learning curve. I think about Moses hitting the rock to obtain water when God told him to talk to it; Sarah tried to have a son in her timing her way; Peter made impetuous decisions numerous times. God's priority is not about perfect choices -- He looks at decisions as opportunities to learn about ourselves, others, and God.

How is it possible that folks who were so immature, made a lot of bad choices, did not trust God, caused pain and suffering to themselves and others can be held in such high esteem? Because God knew their potential and allowed them to grow and mature into their personhood through the process of making good and bad choices. 

Dr. Banner vs. Incredible Hulk

Why does God create us with messy, complicated feelings? How frustrating is it when the head and the heart are not in sync? We try to arm wrestle our emotions into agreement with our belief system by telling ourselves or others, “Stop worrying about that,” “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” or “It’s not that big of a deal.” When those admonitions don’t work, we usually resort to condemnation. “You’re just a drama queen,” “I must not be good enough,” or “Stop being so sensitive.”

Many clients tell me their goal is to cut feelings out of their life. This makes sense if you’ve chosen to live an outcome-based lifestyle. Pushing the feelings into the emotional holding tank does allow you to be more dependable, responsible, accountable, and all the other qualities prioritized in that world view. 

It reminds me of the Incredible Hulk TV show. Dr. Banner turns into a huge, scary, green monster when he becomes emotionally overwhelmed. The Hulk destroys things and causes mayhem, but he also rescues people and delivers justice to wrongdoers. Dr. Banner’s goal was to find a cure so he could live a quiet, peaceful, controlled life. In my view, the Hulk is formed out of all the emotions Dr. Banner failed to process. While Dr. Banner was educated, intelligent, and focused on his work, the Hulk embodied his most important, interesting, and unique qualities! I’d love to invite both Dr. Banner and the Hulk to sit on my couch and talk about how they can bring their strengths together to live an integrated, empowered life. Or we could just talk about what it’s like to be huge and green!

Truth is, our ability to be moved emotionally is another area where we’re made in the image of a relational God. Compartmentalization happens because our capacity for feeling complicated emotions is in place before we can intellectually process and interpret their meaning. It’s impossible to have healthy relationships and love ourselves and others well without experiencing feelings. While emotions do not equal truth, they do give us valuable information as to who God made us to be based on how we experience the world. 

Embracing permission to own and feel your feelings is like standing on the top of Mt. Everest. The exhilaration clients feel when given permission to view the world through their own experience is awe inspiring. Were you were told directly not to have feelings or given indirect messages that others were uncomfortable with your emotions? Permission creates a drawbridge to the tank holding past wounds while allowing you to process feelings differently in the present.

For some clients, it takes months or longer to become comfortable with acknowledging and experiencing their true feelings. They’ve trained themselves to take cues from others as to what they “should” think and feel. Kind of like Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride. Her character had literally run away from three different grooms during three different wedding ceremonies. A news reporter was sent to do a story about the bride. He interviewed all three men asking the question, “How does she like her eggs?” Each one answered, “Same as me.”

As the reporter observed the bride interacting with family and friends, he observed she wasn’t living her own life, but became a chameleon to please others. When the bride finally saw the fortress she had built, she decided to focus on learning who she was, what she felt, and how she liked her eggs. Several months later, the runaway bride sought out the reporter to report she preferred eggs benedict. Giving herself permission to emotionally experience her own life allowed the bride to eventually enter into marriage as a whole person.

What is your view about the role of emotions?

Feel Better or Be Better?

Jesus used parables as a way to illustrate the differences between godly principles and immature human behaviors. The prodigal son, like Adam and Eve, decided he wanted to make his own choices about his life and have control over his own destiny. He brazenly asked his father for the inheritance he would receive when his father died. I wonder what the prodigal son missed in the relationships at home that he needed to go out into the world looking for something else. Did he feel put down by his older brother or ignored by his father? Most likely he had unprocessed disappointments that kept him from receiving all that his father provided for him. Otherwise, he never would have needed to try and fill such an emotional void with unhealthy people and activities.

The prodigal son focused solely on what he was missing, causing him to leave the people who loved him dearly. He gravitated towards those who only cared about using him for his money. When we’re unable to move towards people because of deep hurt, it leaves us vulnerable to those who prey on lost souls.
When the son had spent all he had, a famine came, putting him in a horrible situation. The “friends” he had surrounded himself with were gone. Selfishness shows its true colors when we no longer have anything of value to offer. These users either punish us for what we no longer bring to them or disappear, leaving us alone to our fate.

The prodigal son was now in desperate need and anxiously realized he had messed up big time. When we get that “oh no” feeling, most of us jump from the frying pan into the fire -- and the prodigal son did just that. He found a job feeding pigs, but his employer was as much a user as his friends. Hard hearted and unsympathetic, the employer would not even allow the prodigal son to eat the same pods he fed the pigs.

Luke 15:17 NIV says, “When he came to his senses….” How many of us have been in that same place! Sometimes it takes a long period of time under significant duress before we reach out. When we take our focus off ourselves and put it onto God, we can be overwhelmed by the huge hole we’ve dug for ourselves. It’s human nature to panic and want to be rescued. That’s why it’s so difficult to choose long term transformation over immediate relief. I often tell my clients my prayer is they choose to BE better rather than FEEL better. Had the prodigal son been rescued at that moment, he probably would’ve landed right back in similar circumstances a short time later. Transformation requires insight, confession, grieving, and vision -- all of which take time and work.

When the prodigal son finally pulled his head out of the sand and looked at his perilous situation, he jumped right into problem solving mode. Remembering how his father treated his servants well, the son decided he would ask his father for a job. The account doesn’t ever say the prodigal son had a change of heart at this point. Instead of searching his heart and character to see what he was lacking, the son focused on coming up with a good enough sounding speech that would convince his father to give him a job. It doesn’t record any soul searching by the son about how much his father showed love to him by giving him his inheritance early. There’s no account of this son grieving the sorrow he caused his father by his words and actions. It appears the prodigal son only focused on getting his own needs met. And that’s the problem with a non-relational approach to life, it’s selfish, unloving, and unfulfilling.

When we allow God to change our paradigm, it causes us to look at ourselves and our life in a completely different light. Most folks are overwhelmed with feelings of failure for not having seen the truth earlier. Our learned response to failure is self-condemnation. Feeling stupid, embarrassed, and disappointed causes us to push away from God and others. That’s because we’ve adopted the human Outcome-based view of learning rather than God’s Relational approach. When we view life as a process, we have an expectation that God will continually reveal things to us over time. God works with each one of us in our own individual timeframe. He doesn’t set one-size-fits-all standards.

I see some of this language in the prodigal son’s speech when he tells his father he’s no longer worthy to be his son. That statement is all about how the son negatively sees himself and has nothing to do with the son seeing what is true about the father. In a relational exchange, the son would share how his own issues blind him from seeing his father clearly and how grieved he is to now see the truth. King David shows us the healthy response to conviction is to take our feelings to God and ask him to change our heart. David’s approach to God is not one of martyrdom or abasing himself, but just agreeing with God about his immaturities.

Other unhealthy responses include negative comparisons, rationalizations, minimizing, and blame shifting. In an outcome-based society, showing weakness brings ridicule and hurt. Mankind has learned how to employ self-protective responses to shield themselves from non-relational consequences. A significant hurdle in the transformation process is our fear that God will reject us when we show immaturities. I continually pray for courage and strength for myself and my clients to seek God when we see our weaknesses. Choosing faith in God’s heart for us over and over empowers us to hurdle these barriers.

Fear of disappointment is the enemy of hope. How many times have you wanted to be excited about a potential new job or the outcome of a relationship, but didn’t want to set yourself up for disappointment? One way we put a lid on hope is believing we shouldn’t burden others. Mistakenly, we believe keeping our needs to a minimum and not imposing too much on others will keep us from being disappointed. We see an example of this belief when the prodigal son chose to only ask his father to become a servant rather than returning to sonship. He had a completely mistaken view of himself and his father.

His father had been waiting and watching for his son to come home. Rather than being angry and holding a grudge, the father felt loving compassion and ran to his son, kissing and hugging him. Yes, there were barriers they needed to address, but the father wanted his son to hope into a full restoration of the relationship rather than settling for something less.

I believe it was at that moment that the son was able to clearly see the truth about his father’s heart. David often speaks in the Psalms about how loving kindness brings us to repentance. True repentance only happens when our heart connects with the heart of God. As the son begins to recite his prepared speech, I believe he now speaks from a different place. Opening up to receive his father’s genuine loving welcome changed the son’s heart. It gave him the courage to see and confess his own brokenness, but also hope into change.

I can’t give you a list of “5 Easy Steps to Transformation” nor can I tell you exactly what it looks like when transformation takes place. What I can say is there’s a shift in your soul when you move from a place of needing self-protective, condemning life strategies that lock you into fear. You will feel the difference in living a life strategy that embraces the freedom to be vulnerable and passionate.

Transformation is not a one-time event, but a progressive revelation that will continue to unfold throughout our lifetime. Do you want to FEEL better or BE better?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Are You Choosing to Live in the Matrix?

One of the most detrimental counterfeits to relational living is the Outcome-based model. It promises a direct correlation between working hard and reaching goals. If I work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, the outcome-based formula tells me I will receive all the benefits of the “American Dream.” On its surface, striving to reach goals and benchmarks appears to be helpful and motivating. That’s why this model is enticing. It’s much more convenient to independently meet our own needs without relying on God! The “health and wealth” theology uses this same formulaic approach. If I pray and believe hard enough that God wants me to be blessed in specific ways, then God has no choice but to make it happen.

In the Relational model, each person invests in helping one another grow and prosper in loving God, themselves, and others. The Outcome-based model preys on the fear that our legitimate needs will not be met and offers a counterfeit solution to a manufactured problem. Just look at how products are marketed. Instead of focusing on the qualities of a product and letting the consumer decide what they need, commercials appeal to our emotional vulnerabilities. We’re told there’s a direct correlation between wanting to be loved, accepted, admired, etc. and a particular product. 

God’s leadership style is repeated throughout the Davidic Psalms: “His love endures forever.” Leadership without sacrificial love eventually becomes self-centered and punitive. The Bible shows how exasperating and difficult it was for God to lead households and nations of stiff-necked, stubborn, immature people. Trying to lead when you’re immature in loving relationally is exhausting and potentially tempting.

Humankind decided to create a shortcut and instituted their own leadership model. Most outcome-based leaders tell us what goals are godly and institute a set of rules and standards designed to reach those self-determined one-size-fits-all goals. In this model, there’s always a set of negative consequences for broken rules or unmet goals.

God gave us the Ten Commandments to show humankind the futility of using rules to replace relationship. What God wants most is for us to draw near to Him so He can draw near to us. Jesus cried over Jerusalem like a mother hen cries over her missing baby chicks. Our worth and value can only be understood through our soul connecting with our creator. When human leadership creates a general set of standards, it leads us away from God’s heart and we lose our personhood.

Outcome-based systems connect value and worth directly to achievements. In many homes, schools, churches, small groups, etc., you must follow the rules or meet specified goals in order to receive approval and be recognized as valuable, competent, or good. Not living up to those expectations means letting people down, an unthinkable sin. I’m not taking issue with setting up systems to encourage people to grow individually and contribute to the community. The Bible talks a lot about having a vision and pressing onward to run the race well. But when humankind use their own standards to judge worth and value, we are putting ourselves in the place of God.

There can be an internal and external tug-of-war when we’re conditioned from childhood to connect our character, worth, and value to pleasing someone or meeting goals set by someone else. If an authority figure we respect uses guilt and shame to ensure compliance, we get a warped view of what God expects from us. When Adam and Eve chose independence over relationship with God, humankind learned how to deeply hurt each other. Rather than focusing on ways to support, encourage, and care, people became objects to use and manipulate for personal gain.

One of my favorite movies is The Matrix because it beautifully portrays this tug-of-war. Its basic premise is that the world known by most humans is actually a simulation created by living machines to manipulate and control humanity for their own benefit. Computer hacker Neo begins to find and question computer anomalies and he’s recruited by a band of truth-seekers. The most important scene in the movie is when Morpheus tells Neo he has the choice to open his eyes to the simulation. Morpheus warns Neo if he chooses to see the truth, he cannot go back to ignorance. Such an immense decision reveals Neo’s character. Does he want to shut his eyes to seeing the world in bondage and continue to do what is best for him or is he motivated by truth, even if it means personal hardship and fighting against oppression?

Neo chooses to take the truthful red pill and when he wakes up, he finds himself attached to an electrical machine by an elaborate cable system. This is what reality looked like for those humans who were enslaved in the dream simulation. Reality was not as pretty as the dream world, but embracing it showed strength and integrity. Neo makes it his life’s work to help the Zion brotherhood bring truth to the world. The movie shows another man named Cyber who decides he’s tired of living in reality and schemes to return to the matrix so he can live a comfortable, pretend lifestyle. Like Judas, Cyber betrays the Zion brotherhood to the enemy machines for his own benefit.

The price for embracing the outcome-based system is a life of fear and despair. Life is a never-ending worry cycle that you won’t measure up. Every day you work feverishly to reach a goal set by someone else and when you do, you work even harder to stay ahead of the curve. This cycle eventually ends with you crashing in despair, wondering what makes life worthwhile. We keep insanely believing that doing the same things will bring about a different result. Instead, we need to question the beliefs on which we base our life efforts. 

At some point, every person asks the question, “Is this all there is to life?” We may ask it when we’re at the top of the mountain or in a deep pit from which we never seem to climb out of -- but we all ask it. The Outcome-based, logical strategy dangles the carrot, telling us to pull up our boots and to put in extra effort and time. It promises if we work hard, we can achieve all our dreams. Has that been true in your life? For me, all that hard work left me burned out and exhausted.

For Christians, this strategy usually means we throw ourselves into church and ministry. We desperately seek emotional highs during worship and obsessively spend our time giving to others. But even these “good” things leave us feeling exhausted, empty, incompetent, worthless, and desperate for happiness and joy. In such a place, we are vulnerable to manipulation and self-destruction. Rather than continuing to do more, why not re-evaluate your life strategy?

Living an Outcome-based lifestyle means enduring never-ending fear, self-protection, bitterness, and resentment. How do you know which system you are living in? Pray Psalm 51 and ask God to show you if any of these Outcome-based themes are present in your heart and mind on a regular basis:

o   Blaming others
o   Refusing to take responsibility for one’s own issues
o   Living in learned helplessness
o   Taking on the identity of a martyr
o   Giving up on life, living in despair and hopelessness
o   Attempting to fix others through manipulative techniques
o   Demanding obedience while denying personhood
o   Denying the role of emotions
o   Striving to be independent rather than interdependent
o   Living life as Martha instead of Mary
o   Choosing to prioritize ministry at the expense of relationships
o   Denying immaturities and defending them to others
o   Refusing to allow others to know you for fear of being hurt
o   Creating rules legislating worth, value and acceptance

Excerpt From the Other Side of the Couch: A Biblical Counselor's Guide to Relational Living

Realizing We Are Naked

Relationships on earth began the moment God breathed life into Adam. Dysfunctional relationships began the moment Adam and Eve believed the serpent’s lies about God’s character and intent.

Genesis tells us that in the beginning, God walked with Adam and Eve every day. God already knew every detail of his creation, yet chose to experience both Adam and Eve in a personal, intimate way; walking and talking with them, delighting in their enjoyment of all He had created specifically for them. That relational connection allowed them to know and believe in the righteousness of God’s character. Because of that belief, they were able to trust that God’s heart was always loving towards them. Then entered doubt.

Most likely, the serpent had been whispering to Adam and Eve for a long while. Every time they walked past the forbidden tree, the serpent probably whispered doubts about God’s motivation and questioned his trustworthiness.

Did God really want their best? Why did he deny them something that was good to their eyes and not let them make their own choice? What exactly was God’s motive in creating them and giving them such a temptation?

Every human being has these big picture questions, whether whispered deep down or shouted with a fist raised to the sky. Human beings question God’s motives. When circumstances do not line up with what we believe we deserve or what we’ve been taught God should allow, we blame God. Sometimes we tell God he’s unfair. Other times we’re so disappointed, we distance ourselves from him.

The serpent tempted Adam and Eve with the ability to take full control of their own decision-making. Why risk someone else, even God, not having my best interests at heart? I suspect each one of us would have made the same decision to have autonomy and ultimate control over our own life. I know at one time I would have made that decision.

At the moment when Adam and Eve acted upon their conclusion and chose control over relationship, their eyes were opened and the pair realized they were naked. I don’t think this passage was talking about their physical eyes. Instead, this talks about looking at themselves and each other through relational eyes. In that instant, realizing they were cut off from the source of love, all the responsibility for loving well rested solely on each individual. What an unimaginable heavy burden that realization must have been. How, in the name of all that is holy, were they supposed to know themselves, each other, and God so intimately well that they could do relationship perfectly?

I imagine panic set in pretty quickly, especially as they heard God calling for them in the Garden. This was the first relational test on their own and how did they handle it? They hid, lied about it, and then pointed fingers at each other. The ability to be humble, sacrificial, and truthful was decimated when the connection to God was severed. How utterly tragic for them and for all of humankind. The relational consequences experienced by the generations following Adam and Eve’s removal from the garden have been devastating.

Prior to banishment, the relationship between husband, wife, and God was an unending flow of care and love between and among them. Adam and Eve understood who they were and embraced their worth and value from within the relationship with God. Now separated from God, Eve would look for her worth and value from her husband. But Adam’s heart would no longer be turned toward Eve or God as his relational needs could now be met solely by the work of his hands.

Once the connection to God was gone, humankind needed to learn how to love well on our own. Important relational skills needed to be re-learned such as communicating needs, listening to each other without becoming defensive, and moving toward each other when hurt or angry. Without direct access to God’s compassion, empathy, grace, and forgiveness, Adam and Eve must have begun to distance from each other. I can draw this conclusion both from personal and general human experience, but also from looking at the account of Cain and Abel. Children learn from the relational model they see at home. It seems pretty clear that Cain did not know how to communicate and process his hurtful feelings towards his brother and God.

I wish I could have heard what Adam and Eve told their boys about God and their actions in the Garden. Did they take responsibility for their decisions or did they continue to blame each other? What we do know is that each son had a different view of God which showed up in their sacrificial presentation. Abel evidenced his reverent heart attitude by bringing the best sacrifice to God. Cain, however, seemed to be resentful from the beginning. Maybe he was angry at missing out on the positive benefits of living in the Garden. Maybe he thought God judged Adam and Eve too harshly and he was bitter, believing the lies the serpent told about God’s tainted motives.

When Adam and Eve were cut off from all the goodness of God, it negatively affected the physical world and our physical bodies as well. To me, the account of Cain is the first evidence of a person being fundamentally broken. In my definition, broken people have either lost or were born with (and never developed) the capacity to form a relational connection. They do not value the feelings of anyone other than themselves; therefore, they can treat others cruelly without feelings of remorse. Genesis fast forwards in time and shows us what happened when this brokenness spread through the land.

The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5 NIV)

In a comparably short amount of time, humankind become so broken that the Lord was grieved and filled with pain that he had even created life (Genesis 6:6). How heartbreaking for God, whose sole purpose in creating us was to teach us to love. God decided to give humankind one more chance to choose a lifestyle of love, and he sent the flood to cleanse the earth of its brokenness.

Once the ark came to rest, God lovingly began protecting humankind from themselves by giving Noah, Moses, and Abraham guidelines and commandments designed to show us our need for God. Kind of a reverse psychology approach. By trying to live up to a set of behavioral standards we could never meet, we would hopefully recognize the futility of figuring it out on our own.

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do -- this I keep on doing.”  Romans 7:18-19 NIV.

We hear Paul’s frustration and confession that in and of himself, he cannot live life well. Such an admission leads him to the truth that Jesus Christ came to free us from striving to follow the law so we can live according to the Relational model. This model is based on continuously communicating with God about our self-protective barriers. It’s humbling and embarrassing when I get those light bulb moments and a blind spot is brought to my attention. My first reaction is to defend and cover up -- exactly what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. But these days I want to receive healing more than I need to hide so I’ve learned how to endure the initial anxiety and welcome the revelation. How about you?

Critiquing Your Life Strategy

Jesus' interaction with the rich young ruler in Luke 18 gives us an example of how to critique our life strategy. This ruler had worked hard to follow all the commandments since he was a young boy. The account leads us to believe he was serious about his relationship with God. He had put time, effort, and energy into following the guidelines set out by the religious establishment. But even after being a model pupil, this ruler recognized the religious system could not assure him of God’s acceptance.

The ruler heard about a new teacher named Jesus and sought him out to ask him the burning question of how to achieve eternal life. I find Jesus’ response fascinating. The first thing he did was to challenge the ruler on the issue of Jesus’ credentials. When people are not ready to hear God’s answer to their question, they go shopping. Hearing something they don’t like from one source, people often rationalize and discount the source, then go searching for another opinion. I wonder how many “good teachers” this ruler had approached with this question. Jesus immediately established the fact that only God alone is the “good teacher” and if we ask God a question, we need to be open to hearing and receiving His truthful answers.

Jesus led the ruler to the heart of the matter by exposing his flawed life strategy. The ruler had been taught to keep every single commandment, assuring him he would receive God’s approval. Jesus points out that knowing information and blindly following rules never results in knowing God or others intimately. God’s strategy for our life is based on inner heart attitude rather than outward obedience. Jesus told the ruler to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, then leave home and come travel with him as a disciple. Luke 18:23 says the ruler sadly turned away. Unlike following a straight-forward set of commandments, Jesus’ words necessitates wrestling with heartfelt sacrifice as well as external cost.

Humankind has developed a hierarchy that relies on wealth, rules, status, etc. to bestow worth and value. God tells us,

The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (I Samuel 16:7 NIV)

We set up rules and systems that make it possible for people to build their own Tower of Babel and reach up to God. But we are fooling ourselves because God always talks about heart attitude, intent, motivation, and character -- and those things can never be achieved by simply obeying commandments.

The rich young ruler was saddened that the cost of being with God meant bankrupting himself financially in the present life. The life strategy he was taught caused him to ask Jesus the wrong question. Rather than seeking to know what hoops he needed to jump through to get the prize, he should have been asking how to draw closer to God’s heart. Viewing the world from God’s heart changes our perspective on everything.

I want to believe this ruler eventually sold all he had and went to follow Jesus. I hope this encounter with Jesus caused the ruler to come to the Apostle Peter’s belief that only Jesus has the words of life. Transformation of our humanistic life strategy brings us into the presence of the Almighty God, a gift that trumps all earthly treasures. But maybe all he could see was what he would give up and he learned how to shut off his disappointment so he could continue living by the rules.

I do acknowledge the rich young ruler was apparently living a very good lifestyle, making it easier to focus on the positive. That’s not the case for most of the people coming into my office. They tell me stories of hurt and heartache that has or is presently happening to them or to people they love. Everyone on this planet hopes for a quick solution that will stop pain and head them toward happiness. No matter which position you are in, the Bible is clear that the price of healing is truthfully seeking out all the self-protective ways that separate us from the love of God.

John 8:32 promises that God’s truth will set us free when we commit to a lifestyle of asking hard questions and sitting in painful feelings. Truth is not a scientific conclusion arrived at by examination of data. It cannot be separated from the person of God. What is your life strategy?

Exerpt From the Other Side of the Couch: A Biblical Counselor's Guide to Relational Living