Dear Keith, I don’t know what the matter with me is. I have a good job and a caring family, but inside my head when I’m alone I seem to have some sort of secretive and self-defeating mental/emotional disease. I find myself drinking and eating too much, and masturbating while looking at pornography. And I’m a church-going Christian.
I can’t bring myself to go for professional help because I feel like I couldn’t deal with the shame of admitting these behaviors to another person. But I’m getting more and more isolated and frightened because I have nearly gotten caught at one or more of these habits several times recently.
I feel like I have a terminal disease that is out to kill me. I know that’s ridiculous, but it feels true. Do you have any ideas about what I’m describing?
Oh yes! Although the specific behaviors vary a lot, the disease beneath the behaviors you described so clearly is the experience of virtually all people on a serious spiritual journey. The apostle Paul describes the way it worked in his life near the end of his ministry.
“I’m full of myself…what I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for me and then do it, it becomes obvious that…I need something more! For I know the law but still can’t keep it, and the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions such as they are don’t result in action. Something has gone wrong deep within me, and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that its predictable…Parts of me rebel and just when I least expect it, they take charge.” (Romans 7:15-23)
Although there isn’t space here to describe all that happened to me before I got to the place of powerlessness you described in your question, but I finally did. I went for help to a treatment center, faced this spiritual “disease,” and although I’d been a sincere converted Christian for years, I discovered how to surrender to God the parts of my life that I was afraid to face with anyone and enter a process of spiritual transformation with a group of other people who wanted to face their conflicting inner lives and desires.
That was twenty-six years ago. All I can tell you is that one day at a time—sometimes one hour at a time, I have learned how to face the hidden inner urges and pain that is part of every spiritual life. I wrote three books about things I learned that have helped me face the powerful inner compulsions that once seemed impervious to change (The Secret Life of the Soul, A Hunger for Healing, and Compelled to Control).
But I believe the most striking thing about this spiritual disease (that Paul called sin and that others call the addiction disease) is that even though the kinds of things and solutions that can bring you all the help you need are available by admitting you need help and surrendering to God—the disease “tells you” that these things will NOT in fact help YOU.
To let you know how strong the negative message coming from this spiritual disease is, after twenty-six years in a spiritual recovery program that has changed virtually all my relationships and ways of letting God transform my life, last Saturday morning I almost did not go to the men’s group that has been most helpful to me for years in facing my problems and finding new solutions. Recently I have been dealing with pain in my neck and right shoulder that is evidently connected with a broken neck I experienced in a car wreck when I was nineteen years old. Now this pain is not even about something sinful or bad but it has been keeping me from sleeping. I was starting to isolate and believe there was no help or support I could receive from the group. (After all my issue was about physical pain that I could not get to stop, not compulsive behavior.)
But at the last minute, I went to the meeting and shared what was happening to me. As I did so, I addressed some of the young men saying, “One of the worst things about this spiritual disease we share is that it tells us that meeting together will not help us. But I want to tell you that in the next 30 days some of you will be tempted not to come share what is happening to you. But if you listen to the disease and don’t come and share, the disease is just waiting to get you to believe that only what it tells you to do (like drinking, over-eating or compulsive selfish thoughts or sexual escape) will bring you relief. And that’s the way it will finally ruin your life and kill you.” When I had shared, I sat quietly and realized that I was calm and that the pain had quieted somehow.
Christians have an especially difficult time believing that going to church can help them. And of course, if you attend a church where neither the clergy nor the congregation is dealing openly with the real areas of life that need healing, it may be very difficult to find a safe place to share. But Jesus spent a great deal of his time alleviating the pain of the people with whom he worked and taught and I believe he was telling us that surrendering our lives to the God he called Father is the beginning of a life of healing.
Dear Lord, Thank you that when we have the courage to face who we really are, you can accept us and help us to become the persons you designed us to be. Help us to find and walk with others walking with you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man’s life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
“How often we hide behind masks and hug delusions with compulsive passions, because we are afraid to be known, to be loved. … We cannot really respect a person unless we know him. We cannot love what we do not know.” Fr. William McNamara, The Art of Being Human
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:24-25)
Keith, After I decided to surrender my life to God, how should I go about finding my vocation?
Good question. At first I didn’t know what to do. I was a land man for a major oil company. It was a good job but hardly considered to be a training ground for Christian disciples—which I definitely wanted to be after finally trying to turn my life over to God.
I prayed about what to do and at that time there seemed to be only one way for really serious players to go: go to theology school and become ordained to be a full time Christian minister. So I studied the Bible and theology and the history of the church and preaching under some good professors. Along the way I sat with my parents when my older brother was killed and with my father when he died of a heart condition and with my mother when she died of cancer—all before I was 30. All during this time I was praying and reading the Bible and the lives of the saints—the people in the past who had given their lives to God.
I decided that the playing field I was called to in which to help people find hope and real love was in the ordinary life I was trying to live as a businessman. I made a decision that God had my address. Instead of spending all my time “deciding what I would become for God,” I would treat my own ordinary life as a father and husband who commuted in a car pool twenty miles one way to work five days a week—that I would commit that life to God and to learning how to live for him all day long.
I made that decision because I simply didn’t know any ministers at that time who talked, preached or shared individually about having real problems in their own lives and relationships with their spouses, children, parents or fellow clergy. I was still in my thirties and just couldn’t believe that I was the only committed Christian who wrestled with lust, jealousy, and the many faces of fear of failure. None of these pastors seemed to have that terrible three-day silence warfare with their spouses or had to be right in arguments with a spouse or feel like a wimp, or worry at night about developing a retirement plan or squeezing in vacation time. In fact, since I did wrestle with all of these things, for a number of years I thought I must not be a good Christian.
But at another level I was learning that the way out of the fears for me was not courage, which I’d prayed for, but love. When I was worried, I discovered that if I helped someone else, my fear left me—and that maybe Jesus was right (J) when he said that it is “love that casts out fear.”
At twenty-two I had met a man who encouraged me to keep a journal about the things in which I was interested. He helped me write a small book of ballads. And after a few years of talking to lay people about the hope I was finding in an intimate relationship with the God Jesus called Father, I began writing books about the simple yet agonizing discoveries concerning what it might mean to try to live one’s whole life for and with God.
As I’ve written in blogs before, I kept trying to be open to finding out the truth about my own character defects. And that process has made me face many of the denied self-centeredness and control issues with which I had never before been confronted—either in church or school. But because I’d learned a lot about Jesus and his life, teaching and self-limiting love, I knew that when I learned about my sins and character defects, to confess them to some Christian men also trying to live for God. And I began to see how I’d hurt many of the people I love most.
The incredible thing to me is that in spite of my flaws—many of which didn’t surface until I had become a best-selling author and lecturer and had traveled in many foreign countries around the world, teaching about how God can change our whole perception of what it means to live intimately with him and other people. The bottom line about the discovery process is that I would have bet anyone that I would not do the immoral and hurtful things I wound up doing. And they happened to a man who was very disciplined and had “kept the rules” all his life. I was baffled. And when I faced and admitted what I’d done, it was too late to mend some of the fences I had charged through.
What does this have to do with finding a vocation? For me, a great deal. After having a number of best-selling books translated into many languages and having trained with and learned from many powerful and wealthy people as a young man, I finally realized I am just a person. And that I can sometimes love and help people who are struggling with the questions of life and who have discovered the hard way that they are powerless on their own to change their lives at a deep level.
I go to group meetings of people, some of whom I have known for twenty-five years, with whom I share the pain and joy of trying to live for God. When guests and new people come, we discuss our scariest and most fearsome problems. I was writing books and lecturing in different places in foreign countries, but for twenty years I didn’t find it helpful or necessary to tell them that I was a writer and lecturer. But lately, since many of the people who read my books are very old or deceased, I have told some of these people I love and meet with that my vocation is being a writer and a sort of talent scout for God—helping a few people discover the vocational dreams they buried along with their self-centeredness and control issues. That’s come to be the focus of my vocation.
The short answer to your question about choosing a vocation as a Christian is that since God seems to want loving representatives in every culture and every financial, political, educational and medical field, it doesn’t much matter what you do vocationally as long as you love God and surrender the center of your life to God. So I’d advise you to pray about it, ask God’s will, and then pick something that you really love to do. Then go and find out if you can do it.
Will there be pain and sorrow? Of course, but you will find that in the long run your ability to navigate through pain and still be loving will have more effect in spreading the Good News into other people’s hearts around you than all of the sermons you could preach and all the books you could write.
Lord, help me to keep listening for your voice in the pain of other people’s lives and in my own. And thank you that you let me fail enough to wake up and see that I don’t have to “win” to be the person you will love “someday,” but just to open my eyes and see your loving presence in Andrea, our families and the other people we get to walk with on your crazy adventure. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice.”
-Jesus to the Twelve in Matthew 10:42
“But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!”
-Ephesians 1:18-19, The Message
“Always continue the climb. It is possible for you to do whatever you choose, if you first get to know who you are and are willing to work with a power that is greater than ourselves to do it.”
-Ella Wheeler Wilcox—American Writer (1850-1919)
“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
-Theodore Roosevelt—26th President of the United States (1858-1919)
This is a response to the second question of a two-part question that came up after John Burke (Lead Pastor at Gateway Church) interviewed me last month. I responded to the first of the two-part question on last week’s blog. Last week’s question was about why I think the kind of small group I had mentioned was important. My response is that Jesus spent approximately two-thirds of his three-year ministry with a small group of twelve men—the same twelve men. And all Jesus left was that small group and the Spirit in their midst. Further, Paul’s ministry was largely devoted to starting and continuing to correspond with and mentor a few small groups scattered in cities around the Roman Empire.
So now I’m getting to the second question: “What is the purpose of the small groups you talked about, and do these groups prepare Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment to issue God’s invitation to the world?”
What is the overall purpose of an “adventure” group?
Although the members of an “adventure” group learn about and experience ways to pray as Jesus taught the Twelve, and they examine relevant scripture passages, the overall purpose is for the group members to experiment with and actually experience receiving and giving the love of Jesus in their real time everyday lives and relationships. The experiment begins with every member agreeing that for thirteen weeks they will assume that the God Jesus called Father is real. And for the thirteen-week period the participants will live as if they had actually surrendered their entire lives to God. This includes an agreement among the group members not to argue about God’s existence or different interpretations of the Gospel. Instead they will be guided to experiment with how to love the people in their personal and vocational lives beginning with the other group members. They learn how to share in the group meetings by listening without interrupting or challenging what anyone else says they have experienced, and by reporting what happens—the failures as well as positive experiences—when they consciously take God with them clear through their days and nights. Each group member agrees to pray for the others every day during the experiment about the things shared in the group.
This group experience is not like any Bible study or sharing group most people have ever been in. The purpose is not to evangelize your neighbors or become expert Bible students; it is to learn (by doing) how to carry out the new command that Jesus gave the disciples when he was about to leave them: “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (Jn. 13:34-35, The Message)
Since we are also called to love the world, the primary purpose of Jesus’ group and these groups is to learn how to love God and do his will in all areas of our own lives, secular as well as “religious.” And as we try to do some simple things to learn how to receive and give love—with the Father and each other, we will be acquiring the core characteristics, attitudes and behaviors that we will need later when we go out to meet the needs of those who have been marginalized in our culture—the hungry, the sick, those without clothing and shelter, etc. I’ve always thought it was strange that Jesus didn’t send the Twelve out on missions until not too long before the crucifixion. He evidently wanted them to be sure to go out with love as well as a perspective in everything they did.
Bruce Larson and I worked for years with dozens of groups to build a course that is emotionally safe. We did this by developing rules (and making these rules clear) that keep the members from putting people down who risk sharing their reality, (i.e. not “fixing” them, offering suggestions or corrections) that would shame them for not participating or for “making mistakes”. The leader and all the group members will help each other to learn how to love and assure every person’s safety in the group. (This experience can be invaluable later in missions to people who have been abused in their worlds.)
Almost anyone can lead an Adventure group. In the meetings, Bruce and I face and respond first (on CD’s) to every question to which group members are asked to respond. And the group leader responds third. So an appropriate level of vulnerability is established before other group members are asked to share, which allows the group to become safer and closer more quickly than is usually possible otherwise. Also, any participant can choose to “pass” on responding to any of the questions or exercises without being shamed or criticized. These guidelines create a safe and more free and open atmosphere than many participants have ever experienced anywhere. An atmosphere in which the real issues, the fears, the joys and the reality can be shared—of trying to commit their lives and relationships to God in the real life contexts of their own families, church situations and vocational and social lives.
So in this safer atmosphere, the participants try various experiments in their real life situations (outside the group, between sessions) of praying, handling the many disappointments of admitting when they are wrong and asking forgiveness. As they do so, they are building a library of experiences—living stories—from the experiences they will personally go through and share with the group during meetings. And while they are carrying out these experiments between group meetings, the group members will also be examining some of Jesus’ stories (parables) and considering with which character they identify—thus adding more living stories to their educational base.
When people close to Jesus (including the Twelve) asked about the stories he pointed out that they (whom he was teaching) were getting a good picture of how the Kingdom of God works in their lives. But other people whom they encountered along the way—people who hadn’t had this much teaching from Jesus and so didn’t understand—for those people stories created readiness—readiness to hear more. (See Mark 3:10-11, The Message, quoted at the end of this blog.)
What usually happens—invisibly at first—is that in the process of being heard and accepted as they are, people who may have been church members for years, come to realize that love has crept in and replaced loneliness and the sense of not fitting—feelings that apparently all people long to overcome.
As to the sharing, it often happens that when someone who has “passed” several weeks in a row finally speaks, he or she may be a different person than the one whom you met at the first meeting.
We believe that these experiences are all parts of the transformation process Jesus said was essential. It is like being “born anew from on high.” And friends, when you see a fellow adventurer being transformed before your eyes, week after week, it is impossible to tell you what this can do to your faith and ability to love God and other people. It seems that one must experience this personally to understand how important it is.
There is also a strong rule about keeping everything that is said in the meetings confidential. At first this seems strange but in the end, this creates an unbelievable sense of freedom and honesty. I remember when I started the first group of this kind in a church in Norman, OK in the 1950’s I had explained the group plan to the pastor and gotten his permission to start the group. We were meeting in our home. After several weeks the pastor called me and said, “What are you telling the people about money?”
I said, “Why are you asking?”
He said, “Well, three of the couples have started tithing since the group started meeting and they were a little vague when I talked to them.”
I laughed because tithing hadn’t even been mentioned. But the minister was so happy that he said, “I’m sending another couple over to join your group.”
“I’m sorry, Joe,” I said. “The rules are that no new members are allowed to join a new group after the second week. In this intimate atmosphere running in new people every week means starting to build the trust level all over again. We may do another group later if some people want to.”
The minister then asked, “Well what is this ‘secrecy’ all about? Where did you ever come up with a rule about people not sharing what’s going on in a group?”
I smiled and said, “Jesus. Several times Jesus told people who’d been helped by his ministry, “Don’t tell anyone.”
This may sound like an unusual way to operate a group, but people who have been together for thirteen weeks sharing their reality, the good news and the bad, sickness and celebrations, have reported time and again that long before the thirteen weeks are over, participants report that they find themselves becoming more caring for people around them outside the group, even difficult people and even in painful situations. But these feelings and attitudes of really beginning to trust and share are new and a little scary for people at first. And we are convinced they need a safe, non-critical place to report failures as well as successes. (We still attend such groups after all this time.)
This sort of group experience can create a spiritual culture of people who want to experiment with really trying to offer to God the living out of their eating, sleeping, working, walking around lives for Christ. (See Romans 12:1, The Message)
No group structure or process is for everyone, of course. But we have found that unless a large church finds a way for new people to learn to love each other and pray specifically for each other in a face to face atmosphere, over a period of time the back door of that church will become bigger than the front—no matter how gifted and committed the teaching pastors are. And our experience indicates that many group graduates go on mission trips after a thirteen-week group, or join a mission group in their own city, or teach a class in the church. They report that because of their experience in these groups, they find themselves listening to and praying for or with the people they are going out to help.
I have not tried to give you a comprehensive picture of the course content. If you would like to read about the course materials, click here.
And one last thing: because of years of being in adventure group meetings of various kinds, I realize that people are all different in their needs, hopes and dreams. And I have discovered that my job is not to change anyone—even any of you who may be reading this blog. So if what we have learned is not something that you feel comfortable trying, we won’t bug you. But this is just my answer to the person who wanted to know the purpose of this kind of group experience.
We are starting up again working in local churches after many years of working in different cultures here and overseas. If you choose to use this group experience as a part of your Christian formation effort, we’ll be glad to do what we can to help that happen.
“When they were off by themselves, those who were close to him, along with the Twelve, asked about the stories. He told them, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom—you know how it works. But to those who can’t see it yet, everything comes in stories, creating readiness, nudging them toward receptive insight. These are people—
Whose eyes are open but don’t see a thing,
Whose ears are open but don’t understand a word,
Who avoid making an about-face and getting forgiven.”
-Mark 4:10-12, The Message
“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s.”
-1st Jn. 4:17, The Message
Lord, Thank you that you took the time to live the life of love with the few people you chose to deliver the Father’s invitation to the rest of us, so we’d know it’s really livable. Give me trust at this time to believe that I will get my work done if I risk interrupting my busy schedule long enough to live your life with a few others…again. In Jesus’ name, amen.