Archive for the ‘Reconciliation’ Category

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Phantom Affairs

March 14, 2014

phantomAuggie and Tami felt the emotional distance between them. They fought, made up, fought some more, made up less often, fought more vigorously, didn’t make up any more. They didn’t know what the other was angry about, but constantly replayed their own story of hurt in case anyone asked. No one did.

Tami filed for divorce first, but Auggie was willing too. They settled their legal differences amiably and spared the world the bother of having to listen to their public complaints. A year later and they legally didn’t have to contact each other for any reason.

Yet for some reason, they kept in close touch. They met for lunch and endlessly dissected the reasons why their marriage fell into the toilet. That’s when and why they came for counseling. They didn’t desire to resurrect their relationship, but they wanted me to do a post-mortem with them on the corpse that was their marriage.

After meeting three times, I discerned the basic reason for their marriage failure and I shared it with them. At first, they were both confused. Then they denied it was true. It was almost a year later Tami came back and admitted I was right. I don’t know if Auggie ever agreed with me.

Here was their problem. They both had someone else. They both had chosen another person over their partner.

Yet neither of them had a physical affair. Neither of them had met in clandestine circumstances to give their love to another person. But they had still chosen someone else. Once they began doing that, it was inevitable it would ruin their relationship.

We wrongly assume that affairs have to actually involve knowing and interacting with the other member of the tryst. Today, there are multiple warnings about emotional affairs, relationships between married people that do not result in sex. These can be devastating of course. As Laura Berman observes,

Emotional cheating (with an “office husband,” a chat room lover, or a newly appealing ex) steers clear of physical intimacy, but it does involve secrecy, deception, and therefore betrayal. People enmeshed in nonsexual affairs preserve their “deniability,” convincing themselves they don’t have to change anything. That’s where they’re wrong. If you think about it, it’s the breach of trust, more than the sex, that’s the most painful aspect of an affair and, I can tell you from my work as a psychiatrist, the most difficult to recover from.

However, neither Auggie nor Tami were enmeshed in emotional affairs. They discovered some of the alternative ways we can tie our hearts to another person without them being aware we are doing so. Let me outline the most common ways we do this:

Old Flames: A healthy person continues to process their memories long after they have experienced the original happenings. We must do this to be emotionally grounded. We need to understand what has taken place in our lives so we don’t develop the wrong ideas about our history. But when we spend an inordinate amount of time processing past romances–and especially when we do this to replace time spent thinking about our spouse–we conclude that those days were better than these. The current troubles always pale in comparison with these idealistic memories.

Romantic Novels and Movies: One wouldn’t think you could form attachments with fictional characters, but psychology has proven that this is not only possible, but certainly widespread. Yes, there are women who imagine themselves in the arena with Peeta, or men who see themselves as Danaerys’ companion. this explains the almost fanatical appeal of some fan-bases. This intrudes on a marriage when the spouse replaces their affection and admiration for their partner with the character they have obsessed upon. People can also imagine celebrities and read every article about them, taking time and mental energy away from their spouse and pouring it into a famous person.

Pornography: Most people reading this assume porn is all about taking affection away from a spouse. Actually, it is not as common as with the first two examples. Most men use porn as a mechanism to deal with relational pain, especially when they use porn to stimulate themselves.

But there are indeed some men and women who picture themselves with the people in the videos. This causes them to make constant mental comparisons between the porn stars and their partners. As I said, this is not the most common use of porn–it is most likely a pain manager–but it does exist. When a person uses porn to mentally replace their spouse, it can destroy a marriage.

Co-workers, neighbors and professional acquaintances: Throughout life, there are people who treat us well, affirm our value through their words and deeds, and give us comfort when we are emotionally distraught. When they do not receive these things from their spouse, they place even greater value on the person who is willing to give them these things. Though they do not approach them for a deeper emotional attachment, they remember how they gave us something desperately yearned for. Counselors find this happens regularly in the counseling office. Those we counsel with often form attachments based on appreciation for the help we give. Doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists etc. all have to set careful and obvious boundaries so clients do not expect to have inappropriate relationships. But just because there are boundaries, the person receiving help can fantasize about how wonderful it would be to have a deep intimate relationship with their help-giver. Perhaps neither party acts upon this and the two of them maintain a professional relationship. But the one person magnifies the other past the point of help to a much deeper bond. This can be done with people at work, neighbors we have come to know more than casually and family friends.

Horror stories are told of people who assumed someone else felt as strongly as they did in the relationship, only to find out the affection was completely one-sided. The mind has the ability to fill in both sides of the relationship, assuming the kind words and actions are proof of an intimate connection.

Auggie and Tami both had these phantom affairs and had maintained them for a long time. The upshot of this error is that every mistake their spouse made was compared to these phantom ideal people. In their minds, the phantoms would never have treated them this way.

In Auggie’s case, he obsessed about old girlfriends. Tami focused on a man who lived across the street who appeared to treat her with the respect she had always longed for from her husband. Neither of them sought out a romantic partner outside of their marriage, but the phantom partners provided the manure for all of their resentments to grow.

Strangely enough, a year after divorcing, Tami dated the man across the street. After the second date, she realized he could really be a jerk. Coming home that night, she cried over her lost marriage. She began to see how great a mistake she and Auggie had made.

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What Does Work in Marriage Counseling

March 1, 2014

I won’t bother giving them fake names to protect their identities. I don’t have permission to share the details of their story and I’ve lost touch with them. But it really doesn’t matter; their story is universal these days. He worked too much and distanced himself from his wife over many years of being married. Every year, she grew more angry at him. She let that anger color her decisions and, as a result, she easily entered into another relationship. Her husband found out she was cheating on him and she freely admitted it. I do know the details of that initial fight and I don’t really have to share them here. It wasn’t any more dramatic than the confrontations in a million other relationships. Both of them spent a sleepless night wondering if they should contact a divorce lawyer. They both cried. They spent that night in different places, both physically and emotionally. But for some very unusual reasons, their story did not turn out like millions of others.

Though each of them did go for counseling at some point, they never went together for marriage counseling. And they never got a divorce. They eventually solved the problems in their marriage (for the most part) even though they both unveiled other secret sins. By telling their story I am not saying they are better than other people. But their choices do shed light on an alternative approach to marriage counseling.

I can just picture many of you waiting breathlessly for the formula to their solution. I want to be cautious at this point. Though they stayed married, it cost them way more than either would have  agreed to pay that first “fight night”. The rest of this article is not for the faint of heart. There: You have been warned.

I don’t remember if they practiced all these principles in their desire to change, but I know they at least embraced the first two. These are five things I see in  marriages that overcome problems like abuse, adultery, neglect, hatred and substance abuse. I list them in order of importance and the first ones are the most difficult.

[Disclosure: Other than from the Bible, I learned most of these principles from a series of books by William Glasser on the subject of “Choice Theory”. I mention this because several readers of this blog are MFTs and could really benefit from Dr. Glasser’s observations and practice. I am also beholding to Dr. Ed Smith and the therapy method taught in “Healing Life’s Hurts” and the practice of TPM.]

Here then are five principles that will yield the healthiest motivations to preserve a marriage:

1. Choose THIS marriage. The most poignant question Dr. Glasser asks in his first counseling session is “Do you really want to be married to your spouse?” If either spouse hedges on their answer – or comes out and says “no” – he ends the counseling relationship. He contends that no one will convince a person to be married to a particular person if they really don’t want to be. Here is what I add to that. Many people who don’t want to be married to a particular person still want to be married. They like the thought of marriage: the comfort and companionship that it can have, the intimacy it seems to promise, the stability of a family. God created the first marriage and said it was not good for man to be alone. But he also knew that once a couple are joined for any length of time in marriage, they form bonds that only death can truly separate. Therefore, people may like the idea of being married, but loathe the thought of being  married to THIS person. That has to change if the marriage will work.

In the Bible, when Jesus talks about divorce, his primary concern is remarriage. His teaching on marriage goes right back to Genesis. He recalls for them that a man is to leave behind his birth family (father and mother) and cling to his wife. In our traditional marriage vows, we say “forsaking all others”. The “all others” means mentally dismissing the idea of a future spouse as well.

Divorces happen…there are many people who decide they cannot live with that person any longer. But would people change their approach and attitude if they believed this was their only opportunity to get married? What if this is your only chance and there are no real alternatives? Would that make a difference at how you worked at solving the problems in this marriage? Of course it would. But that is not how most people live. We live in a world of “alternatives”. If you don’t like what you have, there is always an alternative.

The couple I referenced at the beginning of this article decided if they didn’t make this marriage work they weren’t going to get married again. Waking up to that reality motivated them to get things fixed. For those who accept a biblical format for marriage, the best motivation for working on marriage problems is a choice to stay married to THIS person…not just a commitment to marriage as an institution.

2. Soften the Hard Heart: In the last article, I mentioned the pastor who used our counseling appointment to announce his intention to divorce. After I reined in my anger, I asked him to explain his motivations. He cited chapter and verse to justify his biblical grounds for divorce. That’s when I told him: “Those are reasons you want a divorce. But as far as the Bible is concerned, there is only one ground for divorce. You have hardened your heart”. Jesus teaches us why Moses allowed the people of Israel to get a divorce. As far as we know from historical documents, the nation of Israel was the first culture to develop a concept of divorce. Why? Jesus explains: “Because of the hardness of men’s hearts, Moses permitted divorce”. That’s it in a nutshell. There are many things that break a covenant between a man and a woman. Adultery, violence, molestation of children, lying, abuse, neglect, abandonment, yelling, belittlement, substance abuse, eating disorders, withdrawal of sex, lack of passion, workaholism – they all contribute to huge rifts in marital closeness. But with all that, there still is only one reason people divorce: Hardness of heart.

I can give examples of every one of the above problems that people have endured only to stay married and to prosper. I know a woman whose husband molested their two oldest daughters. He went to state prison for his actions and her church insisted she divorce him to protect the kids. She did not want to. She refused to hate him or to give up on him. He even filed for divorce at one point, but she resisted. Her oldest daughter refused to speak to mom again unless she divorced her dad. Was she being an idiot? Some people think so. But she had compassion, love and acceptance of him. She wasn’t denying his crime or his sin. He paid for what he did and he still carries the weight of how he hurt his girls. My point in mentioning this is that no one could fault her for getting a divorce. And she really isn’t a co-dependent person or weak-willed. She just didn’t want to harden her heart that far.

How do you deal with a hard heart? You soften it with two decisions. These are what I spend most time working on with counselees. First, let go of the bitterness for how you have been treated. Stop reserving the right to feel wounded, victimized and in emotional pain. Let go of the right to enact emotional revenge. Second, forgive the person. This does not mean  you excuse them. You simply choose to say they do not have to “make up for” their failures and sins.

3. Confront your own story: We all have aspects of our marriage story that focus on how we have been hurt. But if that is all you can see when the marriage is failing, then you are missing the other part of the story. Don’t rely on your spouse to tell you either. They are carrying their own hurt, so they will not be all that accurate in describing your problem. No one wants to hear the statement, “do you know what your problem is?” But we all need to hear what our problem is. As a counselor I have great hope for the person who comes to me during marital difficulty and says “I need to fix me”. Those people are the ones who stay married. The ones who say “I want you to fix my partner” do not stay married very much longer.

4. Give Yourself Time to Reconcile: As with most “solutions” in life, we spend way too much time causing the problems and allocate so little time to solving them. As I watch the clean-up going on in the Gulf from the oil spills, everyone legitimately wants the oil to stop flowing this second. British Petroleum’s stock is plummeting because people expected the flow to be capped overnight. Revelations are coming out about how many things went wrong to cause this disaster. This won’t be cured for a while yet. The clean-up will take years. By that time, most of us will have mentally moved on to the next disaster and the next one after that. That is often how we treat marriage counseling. We want it fixed today!

If you have 20 years of problems, it won’t get fixed today. We vastly overestimate what can change in a week. But conversely, we completely underestimate what can change in a year. I even recommend in the most serious marital problems that people creatively separate and start dating from scratch. I highly commend the book “Reconcilable Differences” and the suggested time chart of putting a marriage back on the right track. Don’t rush things and don’t despair. Rushing and despair only muddy the waters more.

5. Ask God for “perspective”, not “rescue”. As I said last time, God cannot save your marriage. That is your job. But if you want God to partner with you in this, you must let him do what God does best. God sees the inner heart of every person. That includes our own heart. Just as in the third step we must see what attitudes and beliefs have caused us to act improperly, so we also need to see our spouse as God sees them. Why does God forgive them? Why does God appreciate them? Why does God spend time with them? What does God see in them? This is so crucial at that point where you cannot say anything good about your marriage partner.

My wife and I have times of struggle like every couple. This is not the venue to give examples of that. But one solution we have found is when we are feeling stymied by the bad course our marriage takes, we sit down separately and ask God to show us the good qualities of the other person. I do remember that horrible day when Kat came up with 20 things and I only had five. That only meant she was listening with more conviction than I was. I was still bitter and used my time to tell God how rotten she was being to me. God didn’t agree, so I wasted my time. But if you come to counseling with the attitude of hearing God about your spouse, things will change. They really will.

The couple who saved their own marriage at the beginning of this article did so over a period of several years. I don’t know all the details and I don’t have any idea how many times they wanted to give up. But now they both help other couples find the same path. These principles work much more effectively than the confusing and ineffective process of three-way counseling.

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Ten Healthy Ideas – Day 3: Honor To Whom Honor is Due

December 22, 2013
eric liddell

Eric Liddell in the 1924 Olympics

In the 1924 Olympics, U. S. sprinter Jackson Schultz sent a note to British runner Eric Liddell. Both of them were Christians, and Liddell had refused to run on a Sunday because it violated his beliefs that Sunday should be a day set apart for God. (In the movie, Liddell is seen as finding out about his heat being run on the Sunday as he gets on the boat. In reality, he found out months before and pulled out of the competition before being chosen. But his stance was known throughout the world.)

In his note, sent weeks before the Olympics, Schultz told Liddell how he admired him for standing up for what he believed. Schultz also believed this stance would be the deciding factor whether Liddell won his race–the 400 meters. At the end of his letter, he wrote: “As the Good Book says, “He who honors Me, him will I honor.” History records that Liddell did win the 400 meters and beat one of Schultz’s close friends to set the Olympic record.

But was Schultz right? In the note he sends Liddell he quotes 1 Samuel 2:30, which says:

“Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.”

Schultz apparently believed that if someone takes a stand for God, in the end, God will honor that person. I’m not sure I totally agree. Many who have stood for God have seen their dreams shattered and been made fools of by this world. But I also believe that those who do what God commands will make more out of their lives than those who dishonor God.

I think there is a principle here that would certainly do us well to remember. Our relationship with God is a covenant. It requires both parties to maintain an honorable place in order for all the benefits of the relationship to be experienced.

A covenant relationship is one that is supposed to last for the rest of one’s life. There are very few of these because of that. A parent and child, husband and wife, certain lifelong friendships, God and a believer and fellow members of God’s church are examples of true covenant relationships. One of the great benefits of those relationships is the concept of honor.

The word honor means to  show respect to someone, to show how they are important and special in our lives. I believe there are spiritual things which happen when we honor another person. We strengthen the bindings between us and them and we allow for spiritual blessings to come to both parties. But, of course, the same is also true for dishonor. When we dishonor someone with whom we share a deep covenant relationship, we weaken the ties between us and allow spiritual destruction in our lives. I explore this concept in marriage in an earlier article.

The Bible tells children to “honor their parents”. Husbands and wives are supposed to show honor to their spouses. Friends are to honor deep friendship by telling the truth, giving aid when needed, coming to the rescue, keeping confidence and not betraying one another.

In the case of children, we are told it is the first commandment with a promise:

Eph. 6:2, 3 : “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise, so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

Honoring our parents releases health and life blessings upon us and them.

Jim suffered from multiple ailments all the time. He had over 40 pills he took each day for one problem or another. As he and I worked together in counseling over a year, our goal was to eliminate most of those medications. During therapy, we identified a number of false beliefs he carried with him and other detrimental elements related to unforgiveness. At one point, he had eliminated a good portion of his drugs. That’s when we came to the hardest part of the counseling journey.

“Mike, I want nothing to do with my kids. They are all whiners and they never do anything but bring me grief. I can’t really stand to be around any of them.” I explained to Jim that it was proper to have boundaries so others cannot hurt us. But I also asked Jim if he had ever blessed his children. He had really never spoken blessings over any of them. Had he praised them? He said they had never done anything worth praising. Had he told others how much he appreciated any of them? Had he bragged about them? On the contrary, he often criticized them to anyone who listened.

I explained to him why honor is important. God sets the example for this. Even though we have all treated God poorly, God never gives up on us. He never stops loving us. And God will never curse us. God will warn us and discipline us as children, but he always wants blessings for our lives. But when we refuse to honor those who are in covenant relationships with us, we allow the enemy of our souls to attack us and defeat us. Our bodies, minds, emotions and life goals are often destroyed. Those who are critical and dishonoring of their loved ones will often pay the price in personal destruction.

Jim decided to begin blessing those around him. He stopped putting down his children and wife to other people. He asked God regularly to bless them. He sent them notes encouraging them and telling them why he was proud of each one. He began to keep a journal and wrote down why he appreciated his wife and each of his kids.

Six months later, he didn’t need any more medications. He has seen a remarkable change in his life since then. As he has honored the people in his life, the effects of dishonor are being eliminated.

This works with people at church, our relatives and friends and our spouses. We may not like all they do, and we cannot endorse wicked and misguided schemes. But we can honor them and their relationship to us even if we have to maintain a few boundaries.

If  you do that, you will see health come to you and them.

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Ten Healthy Ideas – Day 2: The Well of Resentment

December 21, 2013

deep wellHe had married her 22 years before; and now he stood in my office in front of her and said “I don’t love her any more. I want a divorce.” I actually thought he had asked me to be there so he could reconcile with his wife. Why else would he want his counselor there for what he had to say? But no–he wanted me to be a witness to his final declaration.

I couldn’t leave it at that. I had counseled him for several months and never had any idea he was thinking about divorce. So I asked him to go through his train of thought leading up to this decision. He mentioned a number of grievances he had stored over the years. He chronicled a long line of things which hurt him, annoyed him, bothered him and made him angry. He carried a long list with him.

However, he failed to mention a single thing that most people would associate with marital failure. She had not committed adultery, been violent, lied to him, appeared on a Reality T.V. show, hit the children, poisoned his food, withheld sex, had her mother stay for a year or joined a cult. Even though he carried a laundry list of grievances, none of them were that serious.

The biggest problem he carried with him to the end of his marriage was Resentment. Resentment is the idea that someone has done wrong by us and we refuse to let it go until they apologize or give retribution. We can resent someone for a small infraction or a huge sin. It really doesn’t matter how big or small the resentment is, it has the same effect: It sucks the life out of our love.

I tried to convince him to let go of his resentment and move on in his relationship with his wife, but he was not interested. A year later, their divorce was final and their lives in turmoil. I could have saved him a lot of hassle if he had just dealt with this like an adult.

Children cultivate resentments like a farmer grows corn. They can complain if someone gets a bigger portion of dessert. They will whine if someone bumps into them. They don’t like it when their brother looks at them funny. They will hit back when hit and curse back when cursed. But we expect that out of them–they’re children.

If you want to be a mature adult and have meaningful and long-lasting relationships, then resentments have to go. But that’s a lot easier to say than to do. I believe resentment is the most prominent disease known among mankind. We do not let go of them at all and certainly not easily. But I have an exercise that helps.

In the 4th century, there were a group of men and women called the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They lived in the Egyptian desert and taught many people about the deeper ways of living as a Christian. One of these, Abba Poemen, taught a practice called “The Well of Resentment”. (Note: This is a translation…it has been called the Well of Longing and the Well of Bitterness).

He taught his disciples to do the same thing at the end of every day. He said they were to picture themselves coming to the edge of a large and deep well. As they mentally look into this well, they should consider how things went for them that day. Each person was to probe their soul and see if there was anything that happened which caused any resentment. If a person identified resentment, they were to visualize casting that resentment into the well and watch it fall into the depths. Then they were to keep doing this until all resentments were gone. At the end, they should pray the Kyrie Eliason (“Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy on me”).

I have taught hundreds of people to do this the end of every day. I have yet to have someone come to me and tell me it doesn’t work. Rather, I have heard from many that it has revived their love for spouse, parent, child, co-worker, fellow-Christian and others. It is a practice which refuses to allow the little or big resentments from gaining hold. The Well of Resentment is like powerful vitamins which bind to viruses and snuff them out before they get destructive.

Try it for three days and see if it doesn’t begin to change your heart toward others around you.

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The Person You Really Need

November 19, 2013

I don’t like this particular guy. His voice grates on my nerves and the things he talks about are annoying. I have called him “fake” and “plastic” to people who know me well enough to not take everything I say too seriously. This guy rarely listens to anything I say, and he perpetually lets me know all his life accomplishments. He pretends to always be successful, even when other people know it’s not true.

In recent months, he has said some nasty things about me to other people. These people are friends of mine and told him he was wrong to his face. Because they are my friends, they haven’t told me what he said, only that he’s been saying things to them and other people.

I wish he would go away. Why do I have to have him in my life?

Last night, I was thinking about a gathering I was invited to, a party I know he has also been invited to. I don’t doubt he will be there, which is why I was considering not going. I am still considering that. But last night, I read something which has made it harder to keep feeling the same way about this guy.

I was reading some quotes from The Lord of the Rings and one of them slew me with its truth and intensity. (Note: If you don’t know the story, let’s just say it’s an epic book about people on a journey to get rid of the cause of so much grief). In a scene in the underground mines of Moria, the wizard Gandalf is speaking to one of the young hobbits.Gandalf-Gollum-Wide-560x282 This young man is complaining about the wispy phantom who is dogging their steps through the mine: Gollum. To everyone’s minds, Gollum is the epitome of all things rotten in the world. Yet he will not leave them alone. Pippin complains to Gandalf that Bilbo should have killed Gollum when he had the chance. Gandalf’s answer is remarkable:

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.

Gandalf knows one thing about all men, even Gollum: He has some part to play in the events of the future. Even though some of those events may be evil, his part is important. If you know the end of the story, if it were not for Gollum, Frodo could never have cast the ring into the fire. His heart could no longer bear to part with his “treasure” and he pulled it back to himself with fierceness and stubborn will. As Gollum bit off his finger and ultimately fell into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo and the rest of the world was released from the ring’s wretched power.

Without Gollum, Frodo’s life would have been easier; and he would have become a slave to that ease. The ring would have become his jailer and his death.

In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul says “Therefore, I was given a thorn in the Flesh, a messenger of Satan…three times I plead with the Lord to take him away. Then the Lord said “My grace is sufficient for you.” Many people believe that Paul is referring to a physical ailment. But the word “messenger” – the same word used for Angel in the Bible – always refers to a personal being, not an illness or injury. Paul is asking God to take away a person who is causing great pain in his life. But God has no intention of doing that. We know now that Paul had several people who followed him around talking him down and stirring up trouble for him. Maybe this is who he asked God about.

But God said “No way, Paul. This guy is yours to deal with, and I will allow it.”

Why? Often in life, we cannot become the person we were always meant to be unless there is a foil, a person we consider a villain and a rotten person. I am not saying we should welcome every horrible person into our lives, or live without boundaries. But, perhaps it is best to see that some of these people we can’t stand are actually there for a reason. And maybe we won’t find the “best” that God has for us unless we accept these people have to be there.

After hearing Gandalf and the deep truth of Paul, I thought about this guy I am having trouble accepting. My meditation did not instantly make him more palatable to my taste. I still don’t like him. But I can now embrace his place in my life. He may turn out to be one of those people who shape me in ways my friends cannot.

Perhaps.

Therefore, I will stop asking for God to take him away. I am still wary of him and I don’t have to like him. Now I am asking God to use him in my life.

Let’s see what happens.

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Exercises That Will Help When You’re Offended

April 2, 2013

OffendedSeveral years ago, I was counseling a woman who had severe depression marked by suicidal tendencies. After a month of counseling, most of the depression had lifted. But every time we made progress, she would return to issues regarding her sister. She could not let go of the pain her sister had caused.

She refused to talk about it. She would get choked up, and the knot in the center of her brow tightened. Finally, after we had exhausted every avenue of getting past this hurt, I told her I didn’t think there was anything else I could do to help her.

I could see her struggle internally – and then she decided to tell me.

“She told everyone in the family I was always going to be fat!” As she said this, her skin became flushed, she knotted her hands together in the middle of her chest and she bent over in pain. This hurt so badly it even caused somatic symptoms. It had happened 27 years before, when the girls were teenagers.

John Bevere, in his book “The Bait of Satan” calls this “personal offense”. He believes that personal offense is the root cause of almost every relationship problem on the planet. I have taught on this truth in seminars and no one ever disagrees with it. Unfortunately, the solution most people recommend is to “gut it out” and “just forgive them.” I really wish it were that simple.

But it isn’t. You cannot  just will away the hurt others have caused you.

But I have found we can dig up the root reasons for why personal offense burrows into our soul and eats away at our peace of mind. Here are eight exercises (and one final healthy response) I recommend to my counseling clients when they struggle to let go of past pain and move forward into forgiveness.

1. Think of a time when you did something similar to the thing you are offended by. Part of the ache we experience comes from a sense of injustice. It is not fair that others lie to us, gossip about us, take advantage of our trust. It is fascinating though, if I ask people to think about a time recently when they did something similar to the way they have been mistreated … people often feel the internal knots start to loosen.

Most of us commit offenses on a semi-regular basis, but we often don’t see the troublesome nature of our actions. It is only when it is done to us that we get upset. As we go through the exercise of thinking how we have done the same thing, it gives us a measure of empathy for those who have sinned against us.

2. Ask God to show you how He sees the situation. Several years ago, a friend of mine made a list of things I needed to improve upon. It was not a pleasant list; many of the items called into question my intelligence and choice-making. I was deeply hurt by the list. After marinating in my inner irritation for several days, I asked God to show me how He saw the situation.

First, God pointed out how some of the list items were actually true. Second, he showed me how my friend had been feeling cut off from me and didn’t know how to express his own hurt. This gave me enough solace so I could forgive him and set up a meeting. During our time together, I expressed my regret at how I had cut him off recently. Then I proceeded to tell him how some of the items on the list were very true. I also ended by helping him see how he had gone beyond the truth in some items as well. We re-established our relationship at the end of that meeting. (By the way, I have his permission to share this story).

3. Ask yourself who the person who offended you reminds you of. If the same person keeps offending you, and especially if your reactions to these offenses seem more intense than they ought to be, ask yourself if this person reminds you of someone else you were hurt by in the past. Often, we have trouble letting go of a personal hurt because the person reminds us of a person or situation we have not forgiven years before.

4. Put yourself in their shoes and ask how they would want others to react to the situation. If we can begin to see how it probably looked from the point of view of the person who hurt us, we may perceive the incident differently. Perhaps what we interpreted as a criticism was just a simple question. Or maybe the attack was motivated by fear for our safety. Even if the offense was truly offensive, we may discern how it was motivated by something we had done. Seeing things from the other person’s perspective softens the blow.

5. Keep short accounts. Wherever possible (and it’s always possible) try to let go of the hurt before the end of that day. Each day you coddle an offense, the larger it grows. Think of it as a debt. The longer you take to pay off a debt, the more you will have to pay and the more onerous the burden.

6. If feasible, talk to the person who offended you. Don’t just assume they know what they did or how you reacted to it. I can’t even begin to count how many times couples have said to each other in counseling, “You know what you did”. The reality: they often don’t.

7. React in the Opposite Spirit. One of the great teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is this concept of giving people back the opposite of what they give you. If a person speaks hurtful words, speak a blessing. If they take something from you, give them even more. If they force you to do something you don’t want to do, help them in love. This will completely leverage your own soul and feed it while they witness you are not affected by their hurtful behavior.

Early in my walk with God, a man cheated me at a local business. The details are unimportant. I made plans to go to the local Better Business Bureau with the hope of causing him some kind of grief. My roommate in college offered to pray with me about it. As we prayed, I had a sense I was supposed to go into his shop and ask if I could pray a blessing over it (even though we both knew he had broken something of mine). When I went down there and asked him if I could pray, he mumbled that I could do whatever I wanted. So I prayed God’s blessing on his business. I left that place a free man.

8. Forgive and Release. When you have done some of the exercises above, then meditate on this question: Do I feel free now to forgive them? If you don’t, do some more exercises. But keep testing the water of your soul until the release comes.

9. Set boundaries that are safe and healthy. If a person keeps on hurting you, and if there is something you can do to prevent that hurt from happening, do so. The best medicine, after all, is preventative medicine. I have a friend whose husband had cheated on her four times. At one point, as she concluded he was going to keep doing this, she asked him to move out and get his own apartment. She told him not to tell her about any of his extra-marital relationships. In the end, she fought through her personal offense and decided not to divorce him. She often had him over for family dinners with her and the children.

So why did she ask him to move out? He had truly broken the marriage bonds between them and she didn’t want to keep hating him. If he stayed in the house while continuing to trample their marriage vows, the pain would not end. She truly forgave him, but she put a boundary so she didn’t have to keep looking at his offense.

The woman I mentioned at the beginning of the article did several of the exercises written here. What finally helped was going to God and asking how He saw her sister. God showed this woman that the sister was jealous because the mother favored the older sister. She got revenge by criticizing her sister in public. My client realized she had carried all this pain for years and had no idea what her mother’s favoritism must have done to her sister. Within a year, they had reconciled and now have a healthy adult relationship.

This works wonders if you’ll allow it.

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Stop Reading the Bible Like a Cookbook

March 5, 2013

foodieBeing a “foodie” I like to peruse cookbook sites. My favorite is Punchfork which collects the offerings of a hundred websites and brings them together into a Pinterest format. Today, for instance, I am drooling over recipes for Spicy Salami sandwich with Olive Tapenade and French Onion tarts.

Selah.

I read Punchfork the same way I read cookbooks. Even though we may start reading a cookbook the first time from the front to the back, after that we jump around to the recipes we want to make. We don’t keep reading them in order.

I find people make a mistake if they read the Bible like a cookbook. They may have a subject they want to look up and they jump to a verse that contains a key word. Then they use that verse to justify (or sometimes change) their theological position. So why is this a mistake?

Let’s take an issue like the role of women in the Bible. If someone went through the Bible and looked up all the Bible said about women, it could get very confusing and even dangerous. One example should suffice. In the Old Testament, there were rules concerning how a woman was to act when she was having her monthly menstrual period. These rules were given in the context of regulations concerning the giving of the Mosaic Covenant between God and Israel. That context is extremely important; without it, these verses about women are at best meaningless, and at worst harmful and can be used to abuse women.

All of the regulations in the Mosaic Law are designed to point people to their role as the “set apart” people of God. Food laws, clothing laws, ceremonial laws and even sexual laws were laid down to show that Israel was a unique nation, called by God to carry the knowledge of God to the world. Read Galatians chapters 3-5 to get a full understanding of this.

But the story of God’s working in this world has moved past the Mosaic Covenant. To use verses from that covenant understanding and apply them to today is to read the Bible like a cookbook and not like the narrative of God’s actions with mankind as it truly is. The rule about menstrual bleeding is typical of this misreading of the Bible.

When Jesus was ministering in a town one day a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years came up behind and touched him secretly. She wanted to be healed from her bleeding. She also was reluctant to come up to him because her bleeding made her unclean by the standards of the Mosaic covenant. That is why she touched his cloak without anyone knowing it. But Jesus knew that power had gone out from him.

He looked around and asked “Who touched me”? The woman had done it secretly, because the Mosaic Law had said no one was to touch a woman while she was bleeding. Now, we do not know if this woman’s bleeding was gynecological, but it is safe to assume it was. She was therefore treated as an outcast.

But when she touched Jesus, she was healed. When he subsequently brought her before the crowd, he told the world she had been healed. Jesus, as a rabbi had the authority to declare a woman ceremonially clean. But in truth, this is a sign of the New Covenant. All who are fouled by sin can be cleansed by touching Jesus. To show this, His touch restored this woman…not just her body, but also her place in the community.

 

The coming of Jesus and the way he treated women altered our understanding of the role of women in the life of God’s people. The Old Testament understanding of women was not wrong; it was incomplete. Jesus brings the final story and that is the one we must adhere to.

The story of Jesus is the climax of the story of God with man. We are told in Hebrews 1 that Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s message to mankind:

Hebrews 1:1-3

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

My point is this: Not every page in the Bible carries the same weight. We read the entire Bible through the lens of Jesus. If Jesus declares women clean when they are going through the time of their period, then they are clean. He is the one who allowed Mary to sit as his feet and listen to his teaching. He is the one who addressed the woman at the well with dignity and as an equal. All of the Bible points to Jesus, who is God and who brings all of the other chapters into focus.

It’s like reading a mystery novel where you do not find out the key to the whole thing until the end. I was watching a movie called “The Spanish Prisoner”. The director, David Mamet, claimed that you could guess how the movie ended by the clues in the first ten minutes. I watched the movie three times and then (and only then) did the first ten minutes make sense. The Bible is the same way. You need to understand what Jesus teaches so that you can go back and make sense of the beginning of the Bible.

For instance, Jesus is one who tells us to put away our swords. So when the rest of the Bible contains violence and national warfare, we are supposed to read that in the context of what God was doing at that time. God was showing his abhorrence for how some nations were acting. God has one way to live and the nation of Israel was not to share a worldview with these other nations.

But the fullest expression of God in Jesus shows a man who would not defend himself, but rather counsels that we turn the other cheek.

If you read the Bible like a cookbook, you take a verse you like and apply it to fit your understanding of how God worked during times that are different than ours. That is monumentally dangerous. The Bible is the story of God’s actions among men. The heart of that story is God becoming a man. When you know the heart of the story, then you can go back and see what God was doing in the plot leading up to the heart of the story.

 

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