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How Spiritual Growth Happens … Overcoming Arrested Development (part 2 of 2)

This is the second in a two-part series. In the previous article, I made the point that the normal and expected pattern of our lives was to move away from not only emotional childishness, but also spiritual childishness. The goal of our lives is to grow towards wholeness or completeness, which includes becoming spiritually “mature” or “complete.”

I then made the point that, too often that growth is hindered by the fear — often stoked by misguided spiritual teachers — of entertaining or exploring our questions and doubts. The assumption is that doing so will cause our faith in God, and our spiritual union (or relationship with God) to be diminished, if not lost altogether.

My contention is that often, the exact opposite is true. What we need to do, in order to move towards a deeper, more authentic, fully integrated faith is to explore the new information and experiences, and find ways of integrating them into our spiritual lives. As I said in the previous article, this might mean letting go of some of our assumptions and beliefs (“putting away childish things” as Paul says in I Corinthians 13:11).

In my work with people as a spiritual teacher and counselor, I’ve come to see that periodically, people will reach points of serious questions about what they’ve been taught to believe about God, the Bible, and life. Sometimes this happens because of new information gleaned from studies in science, philosophy, or comparative religion. Other times questions arise, because of experiences people have, where it seems that the actual unfolding of their lives — and observations about their neighbors — seems very different than the things they were taught.

The Map and the Ground

In his book, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart,” Gordon Livingston offers a collection of life lessons. The opening chapter is devoted to the first lesson, which he titles: “If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, the map is wrong.” Here’s how he tells the story of how he learned this:

Once, a long time ago, I was a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, trying to orient myself on a field problem at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As I stood studying a map, my platoon Sergeant, a veteran of many junior officers, approached. “You figure out where we are, lieutenant?” he asked. “Well, the map says there should be a hill over there, but I don’t see it,” I replied. “Sir,” he said, “if the map don’t agree with the ground, then the map is wrong.” Even at the time, I knew I had just heard a profound truth.

That is the experience — and struggle — of many people I have known and worked with over the years. The actual territory of their lives — their experiences and what they see going on around them — do not match the “map” they have (in this case, the Bible teaching they’ve been exposed to).

When our spiritual map doesn’t agree with the ground in our lives, it creates a crisis. We are taught, when this happens, that we need to trust the spiritual map, and assume that we are in error, that we just don’t really understand what we’re seeing in our lives. Sometimes this is good advice, and interpreting our experience through the lens of scripture is helpful.

But sometimes it’s not helpful at all. Sometimes the things we learn reshape our understanding of the map. One extreme example would be how Christians resisted the insights of science about the earth revolving around the sun, because of Bible passages the used the phrase “the sun stood still.”

When people reach these crisis points in life, and start to question the things they’ve been taught, they interpret this crisis as a sort of spiritual breakdown. But instead, this crisis could lean to a profound breakthrough.

Those questions and doubts need to be looked at. People need to come to terms with what they’ve learned and what they’re experiencing. If new information or experiences call into to question the things they’ve been taught, maybe they need to re-look at what they’ve been taught.

It’s not all-or-nothing

What is unique about the Bible — and the whole of Christian teaching — is it’s confounding diversity. Many — if not most — people who grow up in church contexts do not understand or appreciate this. They tend to assume that whatever slant of Christian teaching they’ve been exposed to is the only form of Christianity there is. They tend to assume that whatever method or approach to Bible interpretation they were exposed to is the the only way to understand the Bible. So if they encounter things that contradict what they’ve heard and believed, they assume that Christianity itself must not be true, and that God must not exist.

This is the damaging error of the New Atheism. It creates a simplistic all-or-nothing mentality. They poke holes in Fundamentalist beliefs about God and interpretations of the Bible, and jump to the immediate conclusion that it all must be rejected.

Maybe the Bible isn’t “untrue” … maybe we’ve been interpreting it wrongly. Maybe the Bible isn’t “untrue” … maybe we’ve been reading into it and expecting it to teach us more than it intends to teach. Put another way: Maybe the map isn’t wrong … maybe we’ve been reading it wrong.

When we come to these points of question and concern … there is indeed a spiritual crisis. But that crisis may actually lead us to a deeper understanding and experience of God and the Bible, and the spiritual life. Maybe this is the crisis that will lead us to a new stage of faith.

Stages of Faith

In 1981, James Fowler wrote the groundbreaking book “Stages of Faith,” which developed the idea that the spiritual life of people wasn’t simply linear, but advanced through various stages. This was not a new concept by any means, and Fowler was building on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Carl Jung’s stages of human development.

Fowler’s work has been widely quoted, and used by many to gain deeper understanding of how spiritual growth happens. He suggests that, just as human beings move through distinct stages in the biological aging process, in intellectual and moral development, so too do we move through stages in our spiritual development.

Fowler puts it this way:

“A stage then, we may say, is an integrated set of operational structures that constitute the thought processes of a person at a given time. Development involves the transformation of such “structures of the whole” in the direction of greater internal differentiation, complexity, flexibility and stability. A stage represents a kind of balanced relationship between a knowing subject and his or her environment. In this balanced position the person assimilates what is to be “known” in the environment into her or his existing structures of thought.

“When a novelty or challenge emerges that cannot be assimilated into the present structures of knowing then, if possible, the person accommodates; that is , generates new structures of knowing. A stage transition has occurred when enough accommodation has been undertaken to require (and make possible) a transformation in the operational pattern of the structural whole of intellectual operations.”

As I said, Fowler was not the first to suggest this, and he was not the last. Carl Jung before him, and psychologist and author M Scott Peck, and philosophers Ken Wilber and Jim Marion have also put together their own understanding of stages of faith. It’s important to note that they describe the stages in different ways … they don’t agree on all points, by any means. But they do agree on this one thing: spiritual growth involves moving through stages.

An Analogy From Nature

Another way of thinking about how it works for us to “put away childish things” is analogies from nature. Like an animal shedding its skin or shell, our development often comes in crisis turning point experiences.

The late educator and columnist Eddie LeShan tells this story about how she came to think of how people go through transformations. (She’s not specifically talking about spiritual transformation here, but the principle applies, nevertheless.)

“There was a time in my life when I was thinking about writing a book about middle age. I was at a social event, and I was introduced to an oceanographer who started a conversation with me, asking if I knew that lobsters have to de-shell. He told me that they get crowded inside their three-pound shells and they’re uncomfortable, and it’s not possible for them to go on living if they stay in the shells. So what they do is go out to the seas unprotected. They might get eaten by another lobster or some large fish, but they must de-shell. The whole, hard shell comes off, and the pink membrane that’s inside grows and eventually becomes a harder shell and a bigger one.

“At first, the story didn’t hit me, but soon I became preoccupied thinking about lobsters. I even was dreaming about them. I told my therapist about my dreams. She said, ‘That’s exactly what you’re writing your book on middle age about…going to the reef and taking off your familiar shell even if it’s dangerous.’ That has become my philosophy of life. You know, if you stay where you are, you’re dead before you’re dead.

“I’ve learned that the thing you need most as you age is the courage of the lobster. You’re going to go through things where you have to become much more flexible. You have to be willing to change, and courage is the most essential part of it. I believe courage implies a lack of denial, that you really are willing to face the issues, whatever they are, and the you grown from there.”

As I hope is becoming clear in all this, the experience of facing our struggles, questions, and doubts is often the crisis point that marks a transition from one stage of faith to a deeper stage of faith … assuming that we keep working on it. Assuming that don’t simply abandon the spiritual pursuit altogether. We let go of the shell we once carried that gave shape and protection, but no longer fits. This doesn’t mean an abandonment of our faith, or a disruption to our union (relationship) with God, it means a deepening and strengthening of it … unless we choose to give up the process.

This is Threatening … Especially for Certain People

Of course, not everybody understands or appreciates this. Your questions and struggles might be threatening to other people. Going through the process will involve some discernment on your part, as you evaluate who in your life are the safe people to talk to about these things.

It’s doubly challenging for people to go through this if they are in a public position of leadership. If their experience causes them to question some of the assumptions and beliefs of their particular group, they are thrust into an uncomfortable position. John Pavlovitz writes about this in his book “A Bigger Table,”

“Spiritual growth is often misdiagnosed as simple vacillation, or worse, ‘backsliding.’ When Christians, especially pastors, begin to evolve in their understanding of the Bible, their view of God, or even their core theological principles, those around them tend to hit the panic button. Often there is an overreaction around these leaders, an implication that they are somehow less faithful or less committed, when in reality the opposite is almost always true.

“In their desire to know God more deeply, to follow Jesus more closely, or to understand the Scriptures more completely, many pastors and church leaders find they are at odds with the status quo, which ironically they often helped establish. They can find themselves in the uncomfortable position of publicly arguing with their former selves. But there is plenty of precedent. In fact, we see in the apostle Paul just how the Spirit of God moves us from the trajectory we were once on, even if that trajectory was formed in pursuit of God.”

Let’s be honest: most people in spiritual leadership positions have a hard enough time doing the work they are called to do, without “going there” into unexplored spiritual territory that might disrupt the beliefs they are paid to teach. I’m reminded of the famous quote by Upton Sinclair:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Sinclair was talking about politics, but you can see how the principle applies to spiritual teachers who are teaching in environments where there is strict adherence to the “party line” about many theological issues. We might paraphrase Sinclair by putting it this way: “It is difficult to get a person to question something, when their salary depends on their not questioning it.”

Be Reasonable

Please understand that I’m not suggesting that people deliberately and relentlessly seek out teaching that contradicts what they believe. Our world is awash in a sea of information, much of which turns in on and contradicts itself. I don’t think anyone needs to seek out information or experiences that will challenge or contradict their faith. Those things will come naturally.

All I’m asking is that we don’t shrink away from those things. I’m asking that we keep pursuing our faith, and that we seek to continually integrate all our knowledge and experiences into our spiritual life, and vice versa. I’m asking that we recognize that true spiritual growth often happens on the other side of The Door of our certainties.

A Personal Invitation

Does anything I’m writing here resonate with you? Are you struggling with unexplored questions and doubts that you don’t feel safe talking about? Trust me, you are not alone. Let me know if there’s any way I can be helpful to you.

What Followers Expect from Spiritual Leaders

People today have profoundly mixed — and dysfunctional — views about leaders.Especially spiritual leaders. On the one hand, we idealize them. We project onto them qualities of wisdom, spiritual zeal, and impeccable morality. We really want them be close to God, to exemplify the virtues that we struggle to live out. We want them to be uber competent in their role, but we also want them to exemplify all the virtues and character qualities that we deem to be important. We want them to be larger than life! To think about them struggling with the shameful things we struggle with robs us of the hope that we can “get over” our problems.

There is a word for this: childishness.

This is what kids do. They adore the adults around them, assign them magical qualities, and feel the need for the adults around them to be all-knowing, and completely virtuous. Part of the process of growing up involves becoming disillusioned about our parents and teachers … discovering (often to our great dismay) that they are human and flawed, just like we are. After recognizing this, we learn to come to terms with it, and begin to relate to them in a more mature way.

But there’s another side to our view of spiritual leaders, which, by the way, is the inevitable consequence of idealization and projection: we are quick to judge and condemn them when we see their flaws. There is a secret part of us that loves to read about the downfall of people in high positions. We naturally resent hypocrisy, so when people in positions of moral or spiritual leadership are found to be lacking in the very qualities they espouse, we have no mercy.

We want our leaders to be air-brushed models of morality and spirituality. We react strongly when we see their flaws. More than once I’ve heard the truism stated: “If you want a spiritual leader you can admire with no reservations … make sure that person is dead.” That way, you don’t have to worry that you’ll find out things about them that let you down.

But wait! That’s not even a safe strategy: I’ve found out things about Gandhi, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. that I sort of wish I hadn’t known.

Maybe we should amend the saying: If you want someone you can admire with no reservations, make sure that person is dead … and then don’t study their life too closely. Learn too much about them and you might just discover that they were human after all.

I have a better idea: how about we adopt the perspective that the writers of the Bible seem to have adopted — stop making human beings the heroes of our stories, and let them be flawed characters. Let Jesus be the hero and model, and be okay with flawed human leaders like the confused disciples, pricklish Paul, wavering Abraham, prideful David, and so on.

How about we give our spiritual leaders — and ourselves — an important gift: the gift of humanity. We still hold them to standards of teaching and living; but we let them be human, with strengths and weaknesses, with admirable qualities and limitations.

Several years ago I was invited to consult with a church whose pastor had been accused of misconduct. The pastor went through a process of repentance and restoration (which unfortunately was cut short, but that’s another story). In the course of this work, I preached a message to help people come to terms with his leadership and teaching, in light of the knowledge of his struggles and sins. You can see the video above.

I hope this sermon can help you — and others, if you share it — develop a more spiritually-mature, discerning view of spiritual leaders.

Before watching, note this important qualifier: By giving a message like this, I’m NOT intending to give leaders a “pass” on the need to exemplify what they teach.Far from it. One of the foundational principles in the Thriving Leader Blueprint program I run is that the power of our influence comes from our being — our very lives — not our words. You can read more about this in my article: “Spiritual Leadership: What it is and Why We Need It.

The message above is for the rest of us, for those on the receiving end of spiritual leadership and influence, who are trying to come to terms with the humanity of those leaders, when they (inevitably) fail to live up to this.

New Free Teleseminar: Living a Balanced Life in a Chaotic World

Date: 03.08.18

Time: 8:00 pm (central)

Join us for an important conversation about how to handle the stress of changes and transitions, in our personal lives, careers, and the world in general.

What is the format?

This event will be conducted in the form of a teleseminar. Just call into the number you’re given and listen to the audio. Registrants will also be given access to a recording.

Here’s what you will learn:

  • The main life transitions, and how they create stress and challenges for peope.
  • What the differences are between people who handle these transitions well and those who struggle
  • Observations about the difference between how people in modern society deal with stress, and the wisdom of ancient societies (especially Native American)
  • The core questions / issues that, when settled, clear away much of the stress we feel
  • Specific, actionable strategies you can put into place to help you prepare for changes that will (inevitably) be coming in your life
  • The four things to keep in mind for people who are undergoing major life changes / transitions
  • About a new program that can help you maximize your impact and minimize your stress

Who is teaching this, and why should you care what they have to say?

I (Mark Brouwer) will be interviewing Belle Berg and her husband David Burkhart. Belle is a speaker, coach, and author of “Best Seven Skills to Live By the Native American Way.” David is a corporate trainer who focuses on leadership and managing stress in the workplace.

Belle, David, and I will be hosting an upcoming retreat in Sedona, AZ.

Free Online Training Event: “Helping Others Without Harming Yourself”

Date: 09.28.17

Time: 7:00 pm (central)

  • –If you are seeking to do important work in the world, but feel overwhelmed by it, this is for you.
  • –If you are challenged by anxiety and stress, and struggle to balance your service with the rest of your life, this is for you.
  • –If you are wanting to deepen the impact that your life makes, but need help doing so in a way that works for you … this is for you.

Continue reading Free Online Training Event: “Helping Others Without Harming Yourself”

Thomas Merton on loving others: loving Christ in them

One of the hardest things for us to do is to love. It’s hard sometimes as leaders to love the people we are leading, because we inevitably encounter struggles with them, backlash against our leadership, anxiety and vacillation, criticism, and so on. It’s hard for people in organizations to love their leaders, because they inevitably experience disappointment and disillusionment with us, because they come to see our weaknesses, character flaws, and the mistakes we make. It’s hard for those of us in spiritual communities to love those outside our bubble, those different from us, because we see them as “other”, as flawed, and maybe even as a threat.

The Bible, and especially New Testament authors like Paul and John, challenge us over and over to love. Jesus offers the thrilling insight that when we do things for others (for “the least of these”), we do it for him. He doesn’t say that doing things for others is “sort of like” doing it for him. There is a sense in which doing things to/for others is actually doing them to/for Christ. Thomas Merton talks about this, and I’m going to quote him at length, because it’s so helpful:

“We have to resolutely put away our attachment to natural appearance and our habit of judging according to the outward face of things. I must learn that my fellow man, just as he is, whether he is my friend or my enemy, my brother or a stranger from the other side of the world, whether he be wise of foolish, no matter what my be his limitations, ‘is Christ.’ …

“Any prisoner, any starving man, any sick or dying man, any sinner, any man whatever, is to be regarded as Christ–this is the formal command of the Savior Himself. This doctrine is far too simple to satisfy many modern Christians, and undoubtedly many will remain very uneasy with it, tormented by the difficulty that perhaps after all, this particular neighbor is a bad man, and therefore cannot be Christ.

“The solution of this difficulty is to unify oneself with the Spirit of Christ, to start thinking and loving as a Christian, and to stop being a hairsplitting pharisee. Our faith is not supposed …to assess the state of our neighbor’s conscience. It is the needle by which we draw the thread of charity through our neighbor’s soul and our own soul and sew ourselves together in one Christ. Our faith is given us not to see whether or not our neighbor is Christ, but to recognize Christ in him and to help our love make both him and ourselves more fully Christ. …

“Corrupt forms of love wait for the neighbor to ‘become a worthy object of love’ before actually loving him. This is not the way of Christ. Since Christ Himself loved us when we were by no means worthy of love and still loves us with all our unworthiness, our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. …

“What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can. Indeed, that is one of the most significant things about the power of love. There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved–if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved–he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.”

– Thomas Merton

Continue reading Thomas Merton on loving others: loving Christ in them

RENEW Retreat for Christian Leaders … coming January 2017

amen1.1What: Retreat experience for Christian leaders

When: January 15-20, 2017 (you have access to the condo from Jan 14-21)

Where: Arroyo Roble Restort, Sedona, AZ

Cost: $800 early bird (includes retreat and condo reservation), spouse attends FREE

We’re very excited to announce the first RENEW Retreat, which will be held in sunny Sedona, AZ! This is a retreat for pastors, church staff, and leaders in other Christian contexts. Led by Mark Brouwer and his wife Charlene (a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), this is a great time for renewal and growth for couples as well as singles.

Continue reading RENEW Retreat for Christian Leaders … coming January 2017

Wayne Teasdale on How Spirituality Makes us Counter-Cultural

One of my favorite books of late has been “The Mystic Heart,” written by the late Wayne Teasdale. Just to be clear, I don’t buy all of his assumptions and arguments in the book, but there is a lot of really helpful teaching in it about what mysticism is and how it shapes our lives. I wanted to share a couple quotes from the book about how the pursuit of the spiritual life goes against the grain of our culture.

We live in a culture that is blind to the spiritual life. It is spiritually illiterate, morally confused, psychologically dysfunctional, and heavily addicted to violence, entertainment, and consumerism. It is “religious” to a point — that is, as long as it doesn’t cost much. Most Americans, we are told, believe in God, but too few realize that life is a spiritual process, a journey in which certain skills in self-mastery have to be learned. We cannot depend on our culture either to guide or support us in our quest. We must do the hard work of clarification ourselves.

Our life here is under a cloud of illusion and delusion; we are pulled now in this direction, now in that. It is important for us to be self-directed: We must decide where our life is going, what direction it will take and why. That kind of decisiveness requires courage and perspective; it means that we must cut ourselves free from our cultural conditioning.

In another place, Teasdale talks about the journey of life — the purpose of life in terms of an inner development that ultimately creates the foundation upon which our outward service and contribution to the rest of the world is built on. Here’s what he says:

Life is a journey from hypocrisy to sincerity, from self-centeredness to other-centerdness and love, from self-deception, ignorance, and illusion to self-honesty, clarity, and truth. We are all immersed in these struggles, whether we realize and accept them or not. Even if we reject them, have made a choice.

It is really only through an intense life of spiritual practice that we become aware of our human condition. As long as people are content not to look, not to embrace their ultimate vocation to [become like Christ], they will chase after every distraction that comes along as a substitute for a life of depth. In the United States, for example, entertainment has become our collective practice. We live from TV show to TV show, from The Today Show to The Tonight Show. The personal cost is great: deeper ignorance, confusion, and despair, and less authenticity.

The Bible is a menu, not the food itself

I want to know God as a follower of Jesus. The Bible helps me do that. The Bible points me to the Source of spiritual life, but it is not the source. The Bible points me to the One who I worship, but it is not what I worship. I’ve recently come across two quotes that have helped me out by articulating this in helpful ways. Enjoy …

In his book Integral Christianity, Paul Smith writes this:

Christians have sat down at the Restaurant of Life and the waiter has come to give us our particular designated menu, the Bible. Christians have studied their menu in every detail until they have understood what was offered. And, for hundreds of years, they have not ordered from the menu. Instead, they had tried to eat the menu!

No wonder they have been grumpy, under nourished, and doctrinaire. Eating the menu instead of ordering from it is the traditional church’s idea of having a spiritual experience (except for a conversion experience among evangelicals and worship among charismatics). When we learn how to order from the menu we can get a nourishing, great-tasting, wonderful meal. A cognitive framework is of great help and encouragement, but it alone is not enough. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.

On a related note, Barbara Brown Taylor has this to say about the Bible:

I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink.

The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.

The way we approach crime, punishment, and prison is terrible

I’m getting ready to conduct a recovery workshop at a prison in Texas in February. Lately I’ve been reading up about the realities of incarceration in our country … and I am appalled. Right now more than one out of 100 Americans is behind bars. We imprison more of our people than any other country.

A big part of the problem is our failed war on drugs, with mandatory sentencing in drug related offenses. I am no fan of drugs, but I’m fed up with our country’s approach to this very important issue. Isn’t it time that we declare the “war on drugs” to be a colossal failure, and instead push more money into addiction treatment? If we took just a FRACTION of the money we spend today on law enforcement and incarceration for the “war on drugs” and diverted it treatment, we could actually start to make some headway.

At the very least, we could reduce the crazy mandatory sentences we have for drug-related offenses, and institute more restorative justice approaches.

prison

Take a look at the infographic in this article, and ask yourself, “Who is benefiting from the war on drugs?” Obviously drug cartels and dealers, but also (and here’s the disturbing part) … so are police departments, which have seen their budgets grow exponentially to “stem the tide” against illegal drugs, the companies that supply weapons and technology to both drug cartels and the police departments that fight them, and — most disturbing — PRISONS.

The fastest growing population in the US is our prisons … and as the graphic shows, we now imprison 1 out of every 100 citizens. We imprison more of our citizens than any country in the world. AND … half of federal prisoners and 1/4 of all prisoners are there because of no-violent, drug-related offenses.

Who is paying for this?

WE ARE.

According to the latest figures I could find (2007), it costs taxpayers an average of $31,267 per year to feed, house, and guard each and every prisoner. I’m sure it’s gone up since then. Amazingly, NYC just released that in 2012, it cost them $167,731 per prisoner.

And of course incarceration is just the tip of the iceberg. Continue reading The way we approach crime, punishment, and prison is terrible

Overcoming Codependence

stresssed-man2
Many people struggle with their relationships. Our acting out kept us from nurturing many relationships, and damaged – or even destroyed – others. But there’s more to this story. It’s also possible that what brought us to addictive behaviors in the first place was that our relationships weren’t what they needed to be. We felt alienated from people. We felt insecure around people. Maybe we weren’t sure how to relate honestly with people when we had conflict.

There’s an interesting chapter in Charlotte Kasl’s book “Women, Sex, and Addiction,” which talks about codependence and how it often goes hand in hand with addiction. Codependence is a word with many different definitions, but generally it refers to an over-dependence on maintaining a relationship, or keeping someone happy, even at the expense of our own well-being.

If we are going to recover from destructive relationships we need to live in truth. We need to stop doing things just to please someone else. We need to let ourselves know what we really know, say what we need to say, and do what we need to do. If we aren’t willing to live in truth in this way, our emotional and spiritual well-being is compromised.

But how do we live in truth? Here is a list of principles and practices:


1. To live in truth listen to your heart as well as others’

If we were insecure as kids, if we were told we were dumb, if our opinion or input never seemed to matter, chances are we developed a mindset of not valuing what we think, feel, and know. We grow to distrust ourselves, and look to someone else to validate us. We deny what we think, what we see, and what we experience if it contradicts what other people tell us.

To overcome this, we need to remember that we may not always be right, but neither are we always wrong. We need to remember that no one else knows exactly all that we know, and our insights are important. We need to start recognizing – and valuing – ourselves and our opinions.

To do this we take time out periodically to stop, slow ourselves down, and ask ourselves some questions:

  • What do I feel?
  • What do I know?
  • What do I want?

Obviously, there are times in everyone’s life when the answers to these questions are not clear. Sometimes we’re not sure. But if we rarely know the answers to these questions, or if we never even stop to consider the questions, it means that we are out of touch with ourselves. In that state, it’s hard to relate in a meaningful way to others, because we aren’t bringing a perspective of our own to share.


2. To live in truth, give no advice

For many of us, our sense of well-being is tied to, even dependent upon, another person. We care so much for that person, and so little for ourselves, that we over-focus on them. Our mind is constantly humming with plans to help that person, plans to change that person, how that person’s life could be better. The natural consequence is that we want to offer suggestions to that person about how they could improve.

Resist this urge.

Advice – particularly unsolicited advice – is rarely well received, and hardly ever acted upon. Before we give someone else advice, no matter how helpful or well-intentioned, we should ask ourselves:

“What do I need to do for me?”
“What do I want them to do that I really need to do for myself?”

It’s hard for advice-giving and real intimacy to coexist. Advice-giving puts one person in the position of authority. “This is how things really are, and this is what you need to do.” Instead of being in it together, one person is knowledgeable and dominant, the other is ignorant and subservient.

 

3. To live in truth, ask for no advice

One of the ways codependent people keep themselves small and others big is to ask for advice. It’s one thing to talk about questions and decisions with friends, in an effort to get a broader perspective. But by asking people what they think we should do changes the dynamic in an unhealthy way.

Also, it’s one thing to seek out a professional or expert in a given area, again as a way of gathering helpful information. But stop short of asking “What should I do?” Good therapists, pastors, and life coaches will not take that bait. If you ask “what should I do?” and the therapist tells you, now you are no longer responsible. If you proceed with their recommendation, you’re just doing what you’re told. If it doesn’t work out well, then you can blame the therapist for giving you bad advice.

That’s not helpful! It’s your life, and you are responsible to live it and choose wisely.

The next time you are tempted to ask someone for advice, stop yourself. Pray about the decision. Look within, asking “What do I really know to be true?” “What do I really want?”

As Christians we believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. When we are spiritually mature and emotionally congruent, we are in touch with divine guidance in such as way as to experience something as a deep, inner knowing. We can’t always explain it, but “we know that we know” it. Having this inner knowing is very empowering.

If we pray and search within for a sense of knowing what we need or what to do … and nothing comes to mind … then what? Go for a walk, go to bed and sleep on it. Trust that the answer — or at least as much as we need to know of the answer — will become clear.

This can be hard for some of us who feel the need for certainty and clarity in all situations. Life is not like that. There are times things are not clear, and we simply must take the step we believe is wisest … the one that is the “next right thing.” Don’t be tempted at this point to seek the false sense of certainty that comes from trading your sense of self for the advice of others.


4. To live in truth don’t try to fix other peoples’ feelings

Colossians 3:13 tells us to “bear with one another,” and this can be really hard to do. “Bearing with one another” means that we care for and support one another in the good and bad times. It can be hard to bear with someone when they are dealing with intense emotions.

I work with a lot of men who really struggle to do this with their wives. When their wife is really angry, or really sad, they don’t know how to handle it. I suspect that it’s also hard for many wives to do too. I certainly know that it’s hard as a parent to do this with our kids.

What do you do when someone you love – spouse, friend, child – is upset? I mean really upset. Really angry, or really sad?

Many of us get very uncomfortable in that situation. Think about the logic of this progression: If we don’t feel okay and secure about ourselves – then we will tend to over-rely on some other person(s) to help us feel okay about ourselves and about life. So then, if that person who is our rock and source of security is really struggling, if that person is really sad, or (God forbid) if that person is mad at us … we have a hard time dealing with it.

If we’re not in touch with our emotions, chances are we’re afraid of our emotions. And if we’re afraid of our emotions, we’ll be afraid of other peoples’ emotions too. So what we often do is – instead of listening to them, instead of just being with them in their sorrow – we try to snap them out of it. We try to smooth things over. As Charlotte Kasl says, we “quash other peoples’ anger and expressions of strong feelings because we are afraid of our own.”

There’s an important line between comforting someone, and trying to shut them down. We cross that line when we are uncomfortable with their sadness and we just try to shut them down. We cross that line when we try to tell people not to feel something, by saying things like:

  • “It’s not that bad”
  • “Stop crying”
  • “You should be happy”

One of the ways that we bear with one another when someone is really distressed and upset is this: we let them be upset. We don’t try to get them to calm down, we don’t try to “fix it,” or get defensive.

Learning this was a turning point in my relationship with my wife Charlene. For a long time in our marriage, if she was upset, I would want to fix it right away. Often her being upset would make me sad and stressed out. I generally assumed that if she was sad or angry, it was because of something I had done, or hadn’t done.

You’ve probably heard that saying, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” That speaks to a way of living that is like a thermometer … you just reflect emotionally whatever the other person is doing. If they’re up, you’re up. If they’re down, you’re down. And that’s how Charlene and I related together.

At some point I started learning to separate myself. If she was sad or angry – it might not be about me. If it was about me – and it was something I could do something about … obviously then it would be my job to do that. But if it was not about me, if was not something I could fix … then the most important thing I could do would be to just listen and be there. I didn’t have to solve it. I didn’t have to get all bent out of shape to help her “snap out of it.” I could just be there for her … and sometimes it was helpful just give her some space to work things out.


5. To live in truth learn to gripe at the right time

Some of us grew up in homes where we didn’t get heard. If we had things that were bothering us – making us sad or angry – and we tried to give voice to them, we got shut down. Maybe we grew up in a home where only one parent could be angry. Or maybe it was super-Christian, and if we were sad we got a Bible verse and sermon thrown at us. Or maybe our parents were caught up in their own problems – or maybe just gone – and so we had to fend for ourselves, and we learned to do that by just shutting down.

So in those kinds of situations, we don’t learn how to deal with the things that bother us. Now as adults, when something ticks us off, or makes us sad, or fearful — we haven’t learned how to deal with it in a healthy way. So we try to suppress those feelings. We minimize how bad something is, or we just deny that something bothers us.

But of course it doesn’t go away … and eventually it comes out in some dysfunctional way. Often the way it works is that we find someone else to gripe to. So something – or someone – is bothering us and making us angry, but we aren’t able to admit to ourselves that it bothers us. Or maybe we do know that it bothers us, but we don’t dare say anything.

Then we have a chance when we’re talking to someone else … and we then have our BMW sessions. You know what BMW sessions are? It’s an acronym I learned in coaching school. It stands for “bitch, moan, and whine.” It’s a gripe session.

Healthy people gripe just like everyone else. The only people who don’t need to gripe are the people who have perfect lives. So if there are things going on that make you mad, sad, or stressed, you’ve got to find a way to deal with that.

So here’s the question: when is the right time to gripe? The answer is (almost always) NOW. Codependent people are always telling you what they were feeling yesterday. How they were mad yesterday – usually at someone else – and instead of dealing with it then, with that person … they are now sharing it with you. The difference between healthy and unhealthy is a matter of when and where.

It’s okay to let someone see your anger. And the best way to do this is to name it, to be honest about it: “I’m angry that you are late again to our meeting.” or “It makes me angry that when we talk, we seem to spend most of the time talking about your kids. It makes me feel jealous and bad about my own family.” You don’t have to go on and on … just be open, and then you can move on.

One qualification: Sometimes it may be necessary to hold on to gripes for a short time, and not deal directly with the person who is frustrating us. This is the case if it’s not a safe person, or if it’s a relationship where you have a pattern of fighting a lot. It may not be a safe or wise thing to deal with it in that moment … but the general principle still applies:

As soon as you can …. as close to “in the moment” as you can … get the gripe out of your system.

Think of it like food that you eat. If you have some food that is bad, and hard to digest … imagine that it doesn’t get digested in your stomach … and it goes to your intestine and stays there. It’s too big to go through your system, but you haven’t digested it yet, so it just stays stuck in your intestine.

That undigested material is going to be toxic to your system. It’s going to mess you up in all kinds of ways. You’ve got to find a way to get that back into your stomach and digest it … then you can move on.

That’s how it is with having things that bother us. We’ve got to digest those things. We’ve got to find ways of processing them so that we let them go. If we don’t, they’ll stay within, and become more and more toxic.


6. To live in truth stop telling stories that could be titled: “What he/she did to me.”

Telling these kinds of stories keeps us in the victim role. And when we stay in the victim role, then it’s also easy for the person who is the perpetrator to stay in that role.

When we tell stories to other people about what this or that person did to us, instead of focusing on what we did, and what we allowed, and what choices we made — it just reinforces our powerlessness and dysfunction.

Let’s be honest: when someone tells the “What he did to me story” — what’s the goal? The goal is to get the hearer to say “Wow he’s really a jerk!” Isn’t that right? It’s a way to get validation for yourself … get some sympathy, some recognition, some reinforcement.

Rather than create the energy for change – and solutions for change, you’re just reinforcing the dysfunction of the relationship … you can repeat this pattern of feeling superior because of how bad he treats you, and then you might even talk to other people about it, and feel even better.

Notice the difference between these two statements:

  • Did you hear what he did to me again?
  • I feel angry with him for criticizing me in front of our friends at the party last night. I need help deciding what I need to say to him about this.

We need to set limits or understandings with our friends about this, and we also need to set limits about this in the support groups that we’re in. When we allow people to tell “what she did to me” stories, we become partners with them in their dysfunction. It’s like with addiction, we become enablers … it’s like we’re buying the drugs for them. “Oh really? Tell me about it. Oh it must be so hard for you. Oh man, what a jerk … I don’t know how you do it.” We’re not being helpful when we let people go on with those kind of stories … we’re reinforcing the victim and martyr mindset.

How about this as a guideline. The next time someone comes to you with another “what he/she did to me” story, you can say this: “I’m willing to support you if you are working to find solutions. However, I’m not willing to hear you repeatedly talk about how bad it is.”

What do you think about these principles for living in truth? Anything you would add? Let me know in the comments.