Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Rebuilding the City

If you remember a post from a few weeks ago I shared that narratives, or stories, are a good way to gain insight into who we are. Here I want to add the importance of seeing our lives within the framework of someone else's narrative. The ability to see our story in the story of others allows us to relate with others at a much deeper level. And for the individual who seeks a story that considers God, it seems the Bible is a natural place to start. But let me first set the stage with a little bit of history.

Brief history of Israel
1260 BC Moses and the exodus from Egypt to the promised land
1220-1050BC Israelites conquer the promised land and judges are appointed to rule the land (Samson, etc.)
1050 BC Saul becomes first king of Israel
1010 BC David becomes second king of Israel
930BC Israel splits into two kingdoms
587 BC Israel is conquered by King Nebudchanezzar of Babylon and Israelites are forced into exile in Babylon
458 BC Israelites are allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and city

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the stories of the Jews' return to Jerusalem. But to understand the return you have to understand why they left. If you read 2 Kings, the stories seem to almost repeat themselves. King So-and-so followed in the ways of King Whats-his-name and did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. There were some better kings and some worse kings but most just let the people worship other gods and, believe it or not, sacrifice their first born sons to these gods. Throughout this time God had tried to get their attention through prophets but the Israelites just wouldn't listen and would kill the prophets. Finally, God basically said he was tired of how the Israelites were giving him a bad name. He let them be conquerred and he took them away from the land, which for an Israelite who believed God was a local God would be a tough blow.

But God did not give up on them. By miraculous intervention, God convinced the kings to not only allow the Israelites to return to Jerusalem but also financed their building of the Temple and city walls. They took a city that was in ruins and rebuilt it. They finally confessed their sins to God and were willing to live a Godly life. They divorced the foreign wives that they had taken and committed themselves again to God.

This is what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us. But what good does the story do for us? It may be nice to know history but what impact does it have on our own lives? Well, I think it tells us a lot about God and about ourselves if we let the text speak to us.

The city was in shambles. So are we. I think about the wrongs I have committed in my life. I look at how hard it is for me to do something nice for other people. I am not a glorious representation of God. I am a city that is in devastation. Or as Mick Jagger put it, "Look at me, I'm shattered."

By the grace of God the resources and the freedom to recover is provided. We seem to never be able to take the first step. But God takes it for us. He finds us and captivates us in some mysterious way just to teach us to, at the very least, notice Him. We may be able to recognize the problem but unless we believe that we have access to a power that can bring healing, we will never believe it possible and therefore never try.

By the difficult labor of individuals, the city was restored. Perhaps we hope for the divine reconstruction. But the story of Ezra and Nehemiah didn't happen that way. The city of Jerusalem was rebuilt because the people cared deeply enough about it to spend the time, energy, and resources to work at it. Healing of our own lives takes time, energy, and resources. But it all becomes worthwhile when we believe in what we are doing. If we really see that our lives can become beautiful once again, then we are empowered to work diligently to bring it to fruition.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah teach us about confession, faith, and discipline. They teach us about what it means to be human, what it means to be in ruins. But it is a lesson of hope. We can be restored. We can resurrect the self that is dead. We can be healed.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Believe and Achieve

I read an interesting blog on Myspace which inspired me to write my own piece. I hope to present both sides of the argument. The question is: does belief require action? That is to say, if you truly believe something does that mean the belief will impact our actions? Russ argues in his blog:
"If one claims that eating macaroni on Saturday is morally reprehensible, and yet they habitually chow down on its cheesy goodness, not only is that person a hypocrite, but s/he also demonstrates that s/he do[es] not sincerely believe in this moral standard. In the same way, if one believes that giving to the poor, or feeding the homeless is a morally right, but s/he never performs these tasks, it is as if s/he is saying that it is not good to do. It is the belief in the deed that is the catalyst of action. What good is it if you say to a starving man be blessed and well fed if you do not feed him and give him shelter? If one's beliefs do not affect his/her physical reality, then they are not beliefs at all; they are simply words."
We hear such platitudes as "practice what you preach" and how could we not lean towards thinking in this way. It seems that the world is unconvinced by your beliefs unless those beliefs impact the way you actually act. So the religious believer is only a believer to the extent that they actually follow the commands and requirements of their faith.

But what about the addict? The nicotine addict who knows the damage that can be done to their lungs and knows that smoking cessation would improve their life must not truly believe in that if they continue to smoke. I think we often think this way. It's our way of protecting ourselves from really caring for people who do things that are obviously bad for them. Because if they would just summon the mental energy to really believe then they would be able to quit. So how can we feel for them if we think that all it takes is a real, honest belief.

But to give a counterpoint I provide this example:
A young man of about 14 is being tested for mental retardation (never mind that this would be a very late diagnosis). The young man is not retarded but he is depressed and solemnly believes that if he could get placed in a special education class then his troubles would end because he hates his current school. They ask him, "What is 2 + 2?" He really knows that the answer is 4 but he says 5. He honestly believes that 2 + 2 = 4 but that belief does not manifest itself in his actions. Instead, the countering belief takes precedence. Now to suggest that the boy never believed 2 + 2 = 4 is ridiculous but his belief did not directly lead to action.

I would argue that belief does not correlate perfectly with action. For one, the world is often filled with opposing beliefs. We may believe in giving to the poor but we may also believe that our lives would be less satisfying if we have less money. Also, although this remains speculation, the belief sometimes cannot overcome habit. The addict believes that their addiction is hurting them but the physical craving makes them feel powerless to resist. I say it is merely speculation because we cannot get inside the mind of someone who is in the habit to do something. Even the individual themselves cannot be guaranteed to be aware of their full inner workings. Finally, sometimes the bodies own limitations cause us to perform below our beliefs. We have limited attention so the belief cannot remain active constantly. We have limited resources, physical needs, and habitual mental processes that prevent us from accomplishing our belief.

What does this mean for a person of faith? Well, the fact that you do not follow the rules of your faith constantly may not mean that you do not truly believe it (though in fact this may certainly be true). It means that a person may in fact believe but that belief may not be put into action. Now before you go patting yourself on the backs thinking that it's okay that you're not faithful, I would also add that the young man probably will be affected if he continues to say 2+2=5. You can't espouse lies and not be affected by them. Part of human nature is that we start to believe in what we do. In psychology it's called cognitive dissonance. If our actions don't match our beliefs, we adjust our beliefs. We may believe in things we do not act out but those beliefs will die off.

So as people of faith we must commit ourselves to renewing our resolve to dissolve our beliefs in opposing views and break out of our bad habits by making new, good habits. Hmm I have more to say about all of this but I'm afraid it might drag on a bit. Perhaps I will discuss it further in another blog. Questions? Comments? Concerns?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Spiritual Psychotherapy Revisited

I had a post about 3 weeks ago on my thoughts about choosing a theoretical orientation. At the end I shared a few thoughts on what I thought it meant to be a "Christian psychologist." I quote it because you would never say a person is a Christian doctor or a Christian janitor because most people think the two realms never cross. I think in fact they do because a Christian janitor has a duty to perform his work as if "working for the Lord" (Colossians 3:23) which means the janitor is obligated to perform his or her work as best they can. But in conventional speech we just don't think they do anything substantially different from other janitors.

So when I hear Christian psychotherapists, I figure they must be doing something in a manner that is different from those who are not Christian. So what is it that the Christian psychotherapist does different from other psychotherapists? Well, I honestly don't have a clue... not because I'm ignorant but because I'm sure that there are many Christian psychotherapists who do exactly the same type of therapy but just throw in a couple of Bible verses and talk about the client's faith a bit more openly. That's not really what I want to do.

So here I will share 6 elements that I have come up with which I think would make Christian psychotherapy standout from traditional psychotherapy. They are sort of a step by step process. I should add that my school openly discusses this issue but I have not taken a course in it yet so these are just gleaned off of my own experience and what I have learned in other classes and in my own life.

1) Affirming openness. It’s okay to be Christian and have problems. I want the client to feel that it is okay to share their secrets and know that there are no perfect Christians. I believe deep down we all long to share our problems with others but we don't trust that we will still be accepted with our flaws.

2) Awareness of one’s own defects. Learning that it is okay to have problems and be a Christian we lose the fear of searching our soul for our secret sins. We come to the conclusion that the manner in which we live our life is unacceptable to God and causes deep hurts within ourselves and to others. We begin to see our need for God.

3) Acceptance of God’s grace. As we get in touch with our true selves, we realize that the simple forgiveness of sins that we thought we knew is not enough. We realize we need forgiveness of self because we realize that we are defective at our core. We learn to accept that our thoughts, actions, and emotions have all become tainted with selfishness. But we see the magnitude of God's grace when we realize that Jesus died for that wretched me I become aware of and we experience real forgiveness, the kind we were missing before.

4) Forgiveness of others. Seeing our own defects and God's willingness to forgive us, we are empowered to give what we have received - forgiveness to others. We learn to accept that others, just like us, are broken at the core. By doing so, we are released from the slavery of resentment towards others.

5) Surrender of one’s will to God. Becoming aware that God's path of living is better than our own, we start trusting God with our lives. We begin to recognize the ways in which our lives clash with how God wants us to live. Although we feel entitled to the way of life that we are familiar with - we feel like we have a right to be angry at someone, a right to control others, a right to do things our own way - we surrender this entitlement because we are convinced we cannot trust our own ways.

6) Need for fellowship. As we experience this new life and begin to see ourselves as continually dependent on God and others, we form real friendships. The client is empowered to be real with others because they see that being real was the first step towards greater faith in God.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Top 50 Must-read Christian books

I'm trying to assemble a Top 50 list of Christian "must-read" books. I think I have about 41 here but I'm sure some will eventually get cut. I censored myself from putting too many C.S. Lewis books, seeing how we have the same initials and all, but I'm a huge C.S. Lewis fan.

CAUTION! I have only read 11 of these so I'm not recommending them all! Here's how I found these books: I have a book which contains an appendix that contained answers to questionnaires to the top Christian authors today about what books impacted their life the most. These authors include Charles Colson, James Dobson, Elisabeth Elliot, J.I. Packer, Charles Swindoll, among others. Then I asked a few of my friends and also found this blog which gave a few more suggestions. I usually only included the ones I had heard of or that were recommended more than once but there may still be some non-deserving ones here.

Anyways, if you have any suggestions or requests for removal of any of the books I'd like to hear it. This is mostly just a reference for anyone, like myself, that might be searching for some new Christian books to read.

In no particular order:
The Practice of the Presence of God - Brother Lawrence
Confessions - St. Augustine
City of God - St. Augustine
Mere Christianity - C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce - C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis
The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis
A bunch of other books by C.S. Lewis
Institutes of the Christian Religion - John Calvin
The Pursuit of God - A.W. Tozer
The Knowledge of the Holy - A.W. Tozer
My Utmost for His Highest - Oswald Chambers
Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan
Shadow of the Almighty - Elisabeth Elliot
Through Gates of Splendor - Elisabeth Elliot
The Imitation of Christ - Thomas a Kempis
Knowing God - J.I. Packer
Loving God - Chuck Colson
The Cost of Discipleship - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Religious Affections - Jonathon Edwards
The Divine Conspiracy - Dallas Willard
Spirit of the Disciplines - Dallas Willard
New Way to Be Human - Charlie Peacock
The Gayety of Grace - Edna Hong
The Myth of Certainty - Daniel Taylor
The Ragamuffin Gospel - Brennan Manning
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made - Phillip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brandt
In the Name of Jesus - Henry Nouwen
How Should we Then Live? - Fracis Schaeffer
Systematic Theology - Wayne Grudem
Desiring God - John Piper
New Testament Survey - Merrill C. Tenney
The Purpose Driven Life - Rick Warren
Orthodoxy - G.K. Chesterton
The Holiness of God - R.C. Sproul
It's Not About Me - Max Lucado
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind - Mark Noll
Summa Theologica - St. Thomas Aquinas
Blue Like Jazz - Donald Miller
Celebration of Discipline - Richard Foster
Love your God with all your Mind - J.P. Moreland

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Saved is a Verb not a Noun

I read something in Modern Psychotherapies by Jones and Butman that I really connected with. I've thought about it before but I like the way they say it, in paraphrasing the work of White:
Salvation is biblically more than a one-shot harvesting of the ephemeral souls of the believers in one instantaneous conversion. Biblically, salvation refers to the healing and restoration of wholeness to the entire lives of believers, though especially in their relationship with God (White, 1984).
The reason I like this is because I am becoming more and more appreciative of the knowledge that I am not "saved" but I am being saved. I am in the process of restoration of wholeness to my entire life. I'm a work in progress.

This is where the focus on forgiveness of sins falls short. The cliche that goes, "Christians aren't perfect, they're just forgiven," suddenly sounds hollow and meaningless. I believe in a faith where I receive much more than forgiveness. I receive restoration of my entire being.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


What's my purpose in life? Some people search it out. Others avoid it like the plague. I think it would be safe to say that very few people actually come to the conclusion that they will, are in the process of, or have completed their purpose in life. Then there are some who think they have no purpose - they may or may not be bothered by this - who simply try to enjoy life as best as they can.

Being the opinionated person that I am, I have a few thoughts on the matter. I guess you might say I'm presupposing God in all of this. But I'm fine with that since I gave you all fair warning.

1) Could it be that we do not have one single purpose in life? It seems much more plausible that we have infinite amounts of small purposes. If we think in this manner then we can see how we fit in the world much more readily. Our small acts of kindness can really be part of our purpose for being alive. I could have a purpose of smiling at someone, of doing my job well, of getting 8 hours of sleep. Life is more meaningful if you see purpose in everything you do.

2) Perhaps we are searching for a single vision for our lives, something to shape our purposes around. A vision would mean we center our life around some core values, like fighting poverty, raising a family, or contributing to a functioning society. I think this is fine as long as it does not narrow our focus so much that we forget what is on the periphery of that vision. I think of the pastor who becomes so engrossed in the work of the church that he neglects his family. And sometimes if we have no vision for our purposes in life then we fail to center our life on anything except our own selfish desires, which is dangerous in and of itself.

3) For people of faith the most obvious purpose of your life is to contribute to your church. That means giving of your time, money, and energy to help your local or global body of believers. I think of my retired grandfather who volunteers at his church by doing gardening and picking up trash. Not only does it keep him fit but it serves those people he cares about. So perhaps the first thing you should do if you are questioning your purpose(s) is to look how you might serve your church. Even just one hour a week might bring some inner peace to your life.

4) A job is not a calling. I'm stealing that line from my professor. But I have to agree. As you can see from above, I don't view my purpose in life to be limited to my vocation. In truth I have been fortunate to pursue a career path where I will in fact be able to offer back something to others and to my church. But I look around me and I see that people are living lives that are much bigger than their careers. If you are looking for a purpose in life, try your best to avoid making your job your purpose - it will most likely lead to burnout and workaholism.

5) Building on #4: think globally, act locally. Again, I'm stealing that line, I forget where it's from. But start thinking about what you can get passionate about. Then start making an impact in that area close to home. You won't be able to get passionate about everything, I'm well aware that I just don't get passionate about fixing some problems in the world even if I recognize how tragic they are. But I focus on what I'm passionate about and I start to implement change close to home.

6) Don't neglect those close to you. Again, you have purposeS in life not just one purpose. You will soon realize how much you need your family; but maybe not until divorce papers are before you. So just make sure to do a reality check every once in awhile. The biggest impact you can make in the world is usually on your own family. Treasure that delicate gift. Treat them well.

Okay that's all the preaching I can dish out tonight. I hope it bestows some hope on you.

Instruction Manuals

When someone buys something that needs to be assembled, they often start with the parts that they can figure out on their own. If they encounter trouble in putting it together, they will resort to the instruction manual and glaze over the details to try and figure out what needs to be done next. If that doesn't work, they admit that they cannot figure it out even with assistance and entrust the instruction entirely to the manual and follow it faithfully. At least that's the stages I usually go through when assembling something.

But what about when we're trying to assemble our life? We start out and perhaps take the advice of our parents as a child. But gradually we start trying to just figure it out on our own. The problem is we aren't very good at it and we end up losing friendships, breaking promises, hurting others, developing addictions, and a vast array of other problems. (Doesn't describe you? Well maybe you're lucky... or maybe you're deceiving yourself. I suggest doing what a previous blog suggested and write an autobiography - a narrative of your life. It will either prove you right or prove you wrong, but it would be nice to know either way right?)

So what do we start to do once we realize that we can't just do it on our own? We start to glean the best parts of religion and incorporate it into our life. I believe all people steal the principles of faith - that are based on some notion of value of human life - and apply it to their life. We all have some sort of moral system that we believe in. But the problem is that we're not starting at the beginning of the "instruction manual." If you do that you not only get instructions for living, you get instructions for becoming a better liver. More clearly, you learn how to follow the instructions for living.

The problem is most of us know how to live better lives. Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't let anger overcome you. But we don't know how to follow the principles we believe in.

[An aside from a psychological perspective:
I believe the problem is attentional because humans have limited attentional capacities. My research in multi-tasking as an undergraduate showed that we never do two (non-automatic) cognitive things at once but rather we merely switch back and forth in attention regarding them. So it is impossible for us to consider principles when we are cognitively engaged in another activity. I also believe that the problem is based upon improper orientations of moral beliefs. In Fruedian terms, most people implement moral beliefs using the superego, or the inner voice that tells you what you should and shouldn't do. But if we were to honestly believe that morals are based in self-preserving and society-preserving processes, then we could accept them rationally using the id.]

Is there a solution? Yes and accepting your own limitations and believing in the goodness of the moral principle is the first step. But here I will return to the assembly analogy - you cannot assemble yourself unless you accept that you cannot do it on your own and realize that you need to follow directions. By doing this we learn not to trust our intuitions and to merely follow directions to the letter.

So where are the directions to living, or spiritual directions as I prefer to call them, that I have been talking about? Well here are some of them: Bible study, prayer, confession, encouraging friendships, simplicity, fasting (from food, internet, radio, etc.), and solitude. Sound intimidating? You're not alone. Some of them I only do rarely because they seem so overwhelming. There are two things we do: stay humble by accepting that we can't figure it out on our own and study the lives of those who did live good lives (i.e. Jesus, Ghandhi, Mother Theresa). We make ourselves into students of living and we humbly accept the wisdom of those farther along than us. By doing so we get access to timeless wisdom about what it means to become more fully human.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Functional Faith?

As I study Psychology and Religion, an interesting question soon begins to present itself. What kind of truth do I want to believe? Do I want to treat Biblical truth as superseding psychological truth or vice versa? If I find something that contradicts some of the assumptions I've made about my faith over the years, such as abstaining from certain sins is good (i.e. sex before marriage creates relationship deficiencies), then how do I resolve that conflict. So if I find that people who have premarital sex have better marital satisfaction, would that mean that abstaining from sex was meant as a deterrent before the times of birth control and holds no ground in the present age.

The comforting thing is that, overall, I tend to be reassured by what I find. Forgiveness seems to be an effective way to gain emotional health. Those who view God as loving are better off than those who seem him as distant and uncaring. But I find myself asking, "Do I follow truth wherever it goes?" Or do I "in faith" believe the Bible as truth. In general I ascribe to a bit of both. I anticipate that I will be wrong on some of my beliefs but I don't expect to believe psychology at face value. I've already found articles on humility that show that the more religious people are, the less humble they are. The problem: humility was defined as claiming that 'others' follow Biblical commandments more than you. I'm absolutely amazed that such a premise could be held. Personally, I would expect that the more religious people are, the more they would follow God's commandments and so what was called "humility" might actually be self-deception.

So I recognize that there is much to be learned but that everything that claims to be true is not really truth. I just believe that to be healthy Christians, we must be willing to accept that what we believe may not be true.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

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