My essays about healthy relationships with God, others, & yourself.

Category: Personal Reflections (Page 1 of 9)

These are the things God has been teaching me.

Never say “Trust me.”

A husband who was kicked out after he had an affair begs his wife to let him back home, saying, “The affair is over.  Trust me.”

A mom whose alcohol misuse embarrasses her kids at their sporting events protests when they don’t want her to attend anymore.  “I won’t embarrass you again, trust me.”

A friend who frequently asks to borrow some money asks once more, promising, “I’ll pay you back, trust me.”

A teenage daughter wants to go with her friends to the all-night “after-prom” party at the hotel.  The parents resist and she adamantly asserts that nothing bad will happen, “Just trust me.”

Each of these scenarios demonstrates a misunderstanding and a misusing of the word trust.   We should never say “Trust me” because that’s simply not the way trust works.

Trust is not a choice.  Love is a choice.  Forgiveness is a choice.   Transparency is a choice.  Compassion is a choice.   Blogging is a choice.  Trust is NOT a choice; it’s something else.  Trust is actually a feeling.

Trust is a feeling.

  • Of safety.
  • Of confidence.
  • Of certainty.
  • Of comfortability.
  • Of a lack of apprehension.
  • Of a lack of worry.
  • Of a lack of skepticism or cynicism.
  • Of a lack of anxiety.

Since trust is a feeling, commanding someone to “Trust me,” is about as senseless as telling someone to “feel nauseous,” “feel sentimental,” or “feel lonely.”  Trust is not something one simply decides to do.  Like all feelings, it’s merely a description of what is.  We don’t change feelings by imploring people to feel otherwise.  Healthy people don’t tell others to feel–or not feel–a certain way.  We shouldn’t minimize feelings or encourage others to stuff their feelings.  Feelings just are.

It’s true that feelings, including trust, can change, but we don’t change them by begging someone to change their feelings.  We change feelings by changing the conditions that caused the feelings.

Here are some tips if you want someone to trust you

1.  Be consistently dependable, principled, wise, honest, and safe–in other words, be trustworthy!   This is the best way to gain and maintain trust.  Since no one is completely consistent, when you do fail –and you will!–be sure to quickly accept responsibility and make things right.  That’ll restore trust promptly.

2.  If someone feels unsafe due to the magnitude or duration of your past hurtful behavior, this is a sad situation. Trust is easy to lose and hard to regain, and it’s entirely possible that trust will never be restored.  But if you care about the relationship, you will do whatever it takes to attempt to restore trust.  And, be assured, it will not be easy.  Here are some thoughts for you…

  • Trust is yours to earn, not the other’s to grant.  The onus is entirely on you to prove you are worth trusting.
  • Restoring trust involves the past, present, and future.  It is possible only after 1.)  owning and repairing the damage already done in the past and 2.) acting significantly differently in the present and 3.) consistently showing safe, changed behavior from here on.
  • How much time will it take?  No one knows how long it will take, not even the distrustful person.  The longer the harmful behavior lasted and the more serious its nature, the longer it will take to restore trust.  Since trust is a feeling, it’s impossible for anyone to predict when that person will feel safe–it could take a week, a month, or more than a year.  We can’t put “Trust will arrive here!” on the calendar.  But, the more aggressively you take responsibility for past mistakes and make noticeable changes from here on out, the better your chances will be.  Focus on showing consistent, improved behavior over time, while waiting, hoping, and praying for trust to someday return.

3.  Sometimes the lack of trust isn’t about you directly, but about issues pertaining to the other person (past abuse, assumptions, stereotypes, anxieties, awareness of human nature, etc.).  If this is the case, it would be wise to spend time getting to understand the distrustful person’s hurts, fears, prejudices, or anxieties.  Then you can work together on alleviating those that can be overcome. By showing empathy, sensitivity, and care, you will be increasing the chances that you will overcome the disadvantages and be trusted in spite of them.

Two Final Thoughts

It’s ok to say, “I want you to trust me”  just as it would be ok to say, “I want you to feel safe with me.”  This is a statement about a desired outcome, not a demand for the person to feel a certain way.

Only God can truly say, “Trust Me!”  Because of his faithfulness, holiness, and perfection, he alone has the right to tell us to feel safe with Him!

Never say I’m sorry.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Some of my clients and I have recently been pondering the phrase “I’m sorry” and now I want to write some thoughts on that subject.   I’ll share my conclusion before making my case below:  we should try to avoid saying “I’m sorry” as much as possible!

This announcement may come as a surprise to those who know my proclivity toward apologizing so let me explain.

Here are five reasons why I think we should discontinue using “I’m sorry.”

  1. It’s overused.  Some people use the phrase in self-deprecating ways, saying “I’m sorry” about nearly everything they do–they even seem sorry about their very existence.  Of course, when you ask them to stop saying, “I’m sorry” their response is “I’m sorry.”  Such people have a low self-concept and use the phrase either to assume more blame than is warranted or to solicit endless sympathy from others.  Either reason is unhealthy.
  2. It minimizes. “I’m sorry” can be a meaningless concession phrase just to get someone off your back (often followed by “Jeez Louise” or the equivalent).  It’s an easy out that minimally admits error without truly taking responsibility.  We can use it to get off the hook or trivialize the one who is offended.
  3. It provides an easy segue to deflection, blame-shifting, and excuse-making, especially when followed by the word, but.   “I’m sorry…but you gave me no choice…”,   “I’m sorry…but if you weren’t so pushy”, and  “I’m sorry…but if I had a little more support around here…”
  4. The phrase is too vague.  When I say “I’m sorry,” exactly what am I being sorry about?   It’s unclear.  Sorry that I got caught?  (i.e., “worldly sorrow”). That I might suffer consequences?  (i.e., self-pity).  That I tarnished my reputation?  (i.e., pride). That people will disapprove of me?  (i.e., insecurity). Or that I hurt you deeply and am deeply grieved by my actions (actual remorse).  Any of these are possibilities so the phrase lacks usefulness.
  5. The phrase is misused when empathy is needed.  We say “I’m sorry” when someone tells us of their misfortune even though we were not responsible for their pain.  Their predictable response then becomes, “Oh, don’t you feel bad; my pain is not your fault!”  This is detrimental as it shifts the focus of the talk from their hurt to our lack of culpability.  It would be more direct and constructive to simply say “I feel bad about what you’re going through” or “It pains me to hear about what happened to you.”   That would elicit the response, “Thank you,” showing that empathy was felt, not sidestepped.

While I am suggesting we try to avoid this oft-misused phrase, I’m not suggesting we not apologize!   In fact, if we care about healthy relationships, apologizing is one of the most important things we fallen humans must do!  I’m just saying to try apologizing without saying, “I’m sorry.”  So how do we do that?

[Important note: apologizing starts with actually being remorseful.  If you can hurt someone and not feel remorse, there is something deeply wrong with you.  If you are indifferent about hurting others, or even worse, you take pleasure in doing so, something needs healing in your own heart.  This is a spiritual problem; God commands us to love others, not hurt them without regret.  Ignore everything else in this post and get to work on your own soul.   See a counselor, pastor, or spiritual mentor right away.]   But for the rest of you…

After cooling off and calming down, here are the components of a “heartfelt apology.”

  1. Name the crime in direct, first-person language.   Describe what you did in accurate detail. This takes humility.  “I yelled at you unkindly.”  “I came home drunk again.”   “I treated you like crap in front of the kids.”   “I accused you unfairly.”  “I gave you the cold shoulder.”  “I was controlling, demanding you do it my way.”
  2. Don’t minimize what you did or offer explanations.  Take full responsibility for what you did to the other person with no excuses.  Sure, there are reasons for your bad behavior, but talk to your pastor or therapist to figure out those root causes.  For now, only describe to your loved one what you did to him or her that was hurtful.
  3. Recognize how you must have made him or her feel.  Try to see through his or her eyes and think about how your bad behavior must have felt to your loved one.  Describe the wounds you caused in ways that show understanding.  “I frightened you by coming at you like that.”  “It must have crushed your spirit to hear me say such degrading things to you.”  “I insulted your character, which must have been infuriating.”  Try to include likely emotions as you describe the negative impact of your behavior.
  4. Emphasize how he or she didn’t deserve to be treated that way.   Show your loved one that he or she deserved better treatment.  “You didn’t deserve that kind of disrespect.”  “How could I have treated you so unfairly?”  “No one should ever treat you the way I just did.”
  5. Show your remorse.  “I’m embarrassed about how I treated you.”  “I wish I could retract what I said to you.”  “I’ll always regret having treated you that way.”  “I wish I could travel back in time and unhurt you.”
  6. Assure that you intend to learn from this mistake and do better in the future.   Simply confessing what you did wrong is not enough.  You must show genuine repentance by showing that you are serious about changing.  “I can’t undo my past but want you to know that I have learned from my sin and my goal is to treat you properly in the future.  Moving forward, I plan to show you significant improvement in my behavior as I learn from this blunder of mine.  I intend to learn to love you more and hurt you less.”
  7. Make amends if possible.  If there’s any way to make amends do so.  If you’ve treated your loved one with dishonor, compensate by doing something to show him or her extra honor.  If the infraction was in front of others, set things right with all those who witnessed it.  If something was broken, replace it.  If something is threatening, remove it permanently from the relationship.  If you created fear, replace it with safety.
  8. State your need for forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a subject I want to flesh out more in a future post, but it still needs mentioning here.  Stating your need for forgiveness is about you humbling yourself; it is not about putting an obligation on the other person.  Stating your need for forgiveness makes you beholden to the other person.  You’re admitting that your abusive behavior has created a debt needing forgiveness.  It is a relinquishing of the power you had over the other person and it’s giving the other person the power to forgive you or not to.   Be careful not to demand forgiveness or pressure your loved one to grant it.  Like love, forgiveness cannot be forced.   Often it takes time and likely will correspond to your demonstration of true repentance.  “I hope that someday you’ll be able to forgive me for what I did” is a good way to declare your need for forgiveness without pressuring the person to grant it immediately.  Ultimately, whether or not the other person is able to forgive you is out of your control.  You take responsibility for yourself.

Two final thoughts.

  1. Remember that tone and facial expression must correspond to the words.  In fact, these communicate more clearly than the words themselves.  Look the other person in the eyes and show genuine sadness about how you treated him or her and show honest determination about making changes.
  2. We should apologize frequently, not just over big things, but also over little hurts.  This will keep resentment from building up.   Since we will fail each other frequently, we should be quick to heal the wounds.  All of the steps outlined above may not be necessary in each case, but, when in doubt, I suggest erring on the side of over-apologizing rather than under-apologizing!

Love means never having to say you’re sorry.   A heartfelt apology is much better.

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The reasonable solution to Perfectionism!

Both in and outside my counseling office I encounter people who are seriously distressed by their own imperfections.  They want to do everything perfectly and are perpetually disappointed in themselves for falling short.  Overwhelmed and under-rested, these people spend much of their lives on the performance treadmill–yet, they seem to get nowhere.  And they often struggle to take pride in the work they do accomplish;  nothing they do is good enough.  Eventually, they become wearied and exhausted.  Some even end up despairing of life itself.

These are the perfectionists.

There are many reasons why people may become perfectionists, but I’m not going to explore that here.   Instead, I want to talk about the root problem of perfectionism and offer a reasonable solution.

The problem of perfectionism is this:  Perfection is an illusion!  Like trying to grasp a hologram, perfectionists are chasing after something that can never be caught.

Here’s why I say perfectionism is an illusion:

We are human.  As I blogged recently, the most loving husband or wife remains notably imperfect!  Truly, all of us fall short because we are fallen people living in fallen bodies in a fallen world.  Our bodies themselves are far from perfect;  our faces are not even perfectly symmetrical!  In heaven, it’s possible we’ll do everything perfectly, but that’s impossible on this side of eternity.

We don’t just have one thing to do.  We have many roles and responsibilities to fulfill in life, not just one.  For my part, I am a disciple of Jesus, a husband, a son, a dad, a grandfather, an uncle, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, a counselor, a neighbor, a friend, a citizen, a church member, a homeowner, a gardener, a runner, a student, a blogger, a janitor, a nursery volunteer, a musician, an occasional preacher, and a board member of two separate non-profit organizations.  Can I be perfect at all of these roles?  Not a chance!  In fact, I can’t be perfect in any of these roles.  [If a person only had one role–such as a professional figure skater–and dedicated their life to that one thing alone, I suppose he or she could approach perfection in that singular area.  But they would be even further from perfect in all other areas!]

Our energy is limited.  We only have so much energy to spend fulfilling the roles just mentioned.  We consume and burn about 2,500 calories a day to fuel our brains and body.  We also need to sleep to recharge our brains and bodies.  God designed our human bodies with physiological limitations and the need for a sabbath rest, so we must live in that reality.  If we don’t slow down, pace ourselves, and practice self-care we will either peter out, burn out, or be taken out.

Our time is limited.  Another reality is that each of us is given exactly 1,440 minutes per day–no more, no less!   We can’t supersize our day or purchase an extension pack to gain more minutes.  We each have a finite amount of time with which to accomplish whatever we can.  [We don’t have the luxury of living like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.  He could approach perfection because he had a virtually unlimited amount of time to get it right.  He was able to master French poetry, create beautiful ice sculptures, master the piano, plan the perfect robbery, toss cards perfectly into a hat, and know every detail about everyone in his town–only because he had no time restraints!]  If Malcolm Gladwell’s theory is correct in that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at any one thing, there’s just not enough time for any of us to become perfect at much of anything!

I hate to break it to you, but you cannot be perfect–and, as I wrote six years ago, you shouldn’t expect your kids to be either!  Perfectionism is an illusion.

Yet, people keep trying anyway.   In this second half of my post, I want to explain how you can get off this perfectionism treadmill.   Just as treadmills have an emergency-stop safety mechanism, I want to show a reasonable way to stop the perfection belt from running you ragged.

The solution to perfectionism is this:  Let’s only do what is REASONABLE instead of trying to do everything perfectly.  

[Before I explain further, let me be clear that in renouncing perfection, I’m not advocating for sloppy or shoddy performance, and I’m not encouraging laziness or mediocrity.  The standard I uphold is doing a reasonably excellent job in each of our various responsibilities.]

If I spend too much time and energy trying to be the perfect employee, working overtime, etc., that will come at the expense of my family obligations.  If I invest too much time being the perfect family member, that will detract from my church responsibilities.  If I spend too much time being the perfect church member, that will keep me from practicing self-care, etc.  Each area competes for my limited time and energy.  Attending to one thing always comes at the expense of something else.  To reduce it even further, every minute spent on one area is a minute not spent on another.

So, considering all the roles and responsibilities I need to fulfill, my aim in life is to be a reasonably effective–not perfectly effective–husband, dad, grandpa, citizen, friend, blogger, runner, etc.  I don’t have unlimited time or energy, so I have to find a reasonable balance between each of these competing roles and responsibilities.

So how do we figure out what is reasonable?

First.  Let’s reconsider what roles and responsibilities we should be fulfilling.  Perhaps we are investing our time in too many things or even in the wrong things.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.  Just because it’s a good thing, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing.  Having worked as a youth pastor for over 30 years, I often observed exhausted, depressed, teenagers who were overinvolved with good activities:  multiple school sports, club sports, show choirs, marching bands, all-state competitions, AP classes, mock trial, speech competitions, theater performances, color guard, etc.   And that’s just at school!   We should step back and think about what propels us to do more things than we reasonably should.  And we should also think about things we ought to be involved with but aren’t.  Honestly, I sometimes felt jealous that the youth group was only given leftovers from some students!  But my judgments don’t matter; the important thing is what God expects.  Ask Him to show you what your reasonable roles and responsibilities should be as you go through the various seasons of your life.

Second.  Once we identify our proper roles and responsibilities, then we need to figure out how to reasonably allocate our limited time and energy between them.  Just as we do in financial budgeting, we need to discern how much of our time and energy we can reasonably apportion to each area of life.   How many hours is reasonable to spend working?  How much time is reasonable to spend on date nights with my wife?  How much energy should be reasonably spent on long-distance racing?  Or marching band?  Or karaoke?  Or video games?  Or Netflix?  Or show choir?     Again, the important thing is to discern what God currently expects of you.  He’s the one who has given you your time and talents, roles, and responsibilities for this season you’re in.  Ask Him to show you how to reasonably allocate your life.

Third.  Be ready to adjust and don’t feel guilty about it.  There will be no perfect allocation because needs constantly change and opportunities constantly arise.  We’ll need to frequently modify how we spend our time and energy.  The plans we had at the beginning of the day might have gone out the window by mid-day.  Your plans to study for the science test fell apart because you helped your neighbor whose basement was flooding.  You didn’t get the dishes done because you had to take the baby to the clinic.  You didn’t get the promotion at work because you wanted weekends with your family.  You got kicked off the team because you chose to go on a missions trip instead of the tournament.  Remember, the goal is no longer perfection–its reasonableness.   Give yourself permission to go to bed saying, “I couldn’t do it all perfectly, but all things considered, I did what was most reasonable!”

Ultimately the question to ask yourself is this: “Given my present circumstances, how is God nudging me to reasonably divvy up my limited amounts of time and energy?” This is something we ought to ask Him continuously!

But hold on a minute!  Doesn’t God demand our perfection?  Spiritually, yes, but the spiritual perfection He demands was satisfied in Jesus and is imputed to believers by justification through faith.  But in all other respects, God doesn’t seem to demand perfection.  He created us and thus understands our physical, emotional, mental, and temporal limitations even better than we do.  He sympathizes with us in our weaknesses.  God knows our frame, that we are dust.  He is a God of mercy and grace, not a cruel taskmaster.  Jesus is gentle and lowly.  His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  It seems clear that our perfect God has very reasonable expectations of us.

At the end of my life, I don’t expect to be judged by the impossible standard of perfection, but rather, by whether or not what I did was reasonable.  People who know me, know that “reasonable” is one of the theme words of my life–I talk about it a lot!   In fact, at the end of my life, I hope I’m remembered as the guy who did what was reasonable…reasonably well!

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If Wedding Vows Were Honest

People love weddings.  I should know because I officiated over 50 of them!  Everything is arranged to make the perfect day.   Everyone cleans up, dresses up, covers up, and gets made up.   Friends and family converge from all over the world and sit expectantly through the prelude.  Then the elegant wedding party glides down the aisle until the real head-turner appears–the radiant bride.  Then we blush with the stunning groom who is grinning from ear to ear as he beholds her approach.   She arrives, the bride is given, he takes her arm, they come forward and, as the ceremony proceeds, they gaze into each other’s eyes transfixed.  Everything is picture perfect!   As Uncle Herman reads 1 Corinthians chapter 13, “the love chapter,” eyes are moist all around.

And then we get to the culmination of the whole event–the exchanging of vows.   A holy hush occurs as everyone strains to listen to what the lovers will pledge to one another.

In a Christian wedding, they’ll traditionally sound something like this.

“I, Ken, pledge my undying love to you, Barbie, as I invite you to share my life. I promise to be kind, unselfish, respectful, and trustworthy, serving you and putting your needs before my own.  I promise to love you with unconditional, agape love, like Christ loved the church.  Barbie, today, before God and these witnesses, I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, remaining faithful to you as long as we both shall live.”

Beautiful words of promise fit for such a beautiful day.  Everyone melts.  Tears flow.  Cameras capture it for posterity.

But is it honest?   Will Ken really love her unconditionally?  Will he really put all of her needs before his own?  Will his love be unwavering when things get worse, or poorer, or in sickness?   No.

The problem is, Barbie is not marrying Jesus, she’s marrying Ken.  And Ken is a fallen human being, just as she is.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, it is a guarantee that all of us will miserably fail at consistently delivering Christian agape love to those we care about.  1 Corinthians, chapter 13 vividly describes God’s perfect love, but only He demonstrates it without fail.   Though hopefully, we are growing in Christlikeness, we will demonstrate it intermittently at best.  This is because we are humans with some serious limitations, which means…

  • we get distracted
  • we forget things
  • we get overloaded
  • life depletes us and wears us down
  • we get tired, hungry, and uncomfortable
  • we run out of energy
  • we sometimes speak before thinking
  • we lack sensitivity
  • we see things from our limited perspective, etc.
  • we don’t know how others interpret things
  • we don’t know what it’s like to be our spouse
  • we are ignorant, not always understanding what is needed in certain situations
  • we lose momentum
  • we lose focus
  • we misprioritize
  • we get lazy
  • we get selfish
  • we think our way is better
  • we can only hold it together for so long
  • we have limits

We can’t keep it together for a single day, let alone ’till death do us part!

So if wedding vows were honest, I think they would sound more like this.

I, Ken, take you, Barbie, to be my wedded wife.  As your husband, God calls me to love you as Christ loved the church, with unconditional, agape love.  With God’s help, I will strive to love you that way, but I know that my love will often fall short of that ideal because I’m human, and because my pursuit of Christ is a work in progress.  I promise that it is my intention to treat you with the kindness, respect, and trust that you deserve, putting your needs before my own.  I also promise that when I fail, and treat you in ways that are not loving, I will admit my sin against you, repent of it, make things right with you, and then learn from my failure how to love you better in the future.  I also promise that when you fail at loving me, I will be quick to forgive you and will do everything I can to restore our relationship and grow from it as well.  Barbie, today, before God and these witnesses, I promise to work on loving you more and more, repairing things with you when I fail, and making our home one that models perpetual grace and forgiveness–through better or worse, for richer or poorer, and in sickness and in health. Whatever God brings our way, I promise to remain faithful to you for as long as we both shall live.

Now please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting every future bride and groom needs to change their traditional wedding vows to match my honest ones.  In fact, at our own wedding,  Cindy and I shared traditional vows that were very similar to the ones in the first sample above.  If there was ever a day to celebrate idealism, it would be on your wedding day!  I’m not wanting to kill the mood!

But what I am saying is that–regardless of promises made–we should live with the expectation that we will regularly fail to love our loved ones and they will regularly fail to love us.  That’s the real promise!   So let’s adjust our expectations and be prepared for that.  And then when we do hurt each other, let’s be quick to heal the hurts and grow from them so that we might learn to love more and hurt less.

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Relational Temperature, Part 3: Temperature Definitions

In my past two posts, I framed relationships as having temperatures.  Part 1 talked about what factors cause relationships to either warm up or cool down, and Part 2 told what to do if others choose to remain cold despite your attempts at warmth.

In this post, I will define each of the twelve temperature increments on my graphic.  I’ll explain the warmer ones first, followed by the colder ones.  I’ll begin each grouping with the absence of temperature–what I call Complacent.

Here’s how I describe the increasing levels of warmth in relationships.

COMPLACENT   Again, this level is neither warm nor cool.  Indifference or ambivalence characterizes such relationships.  No positive or negative interactions or feelings exist.  This category can describe people with whom we have little or no interaction, such as neighbors we haven’t met.  To move to the next level of warmness often begins with introducing ourselves and learning names.

CORDIAL   This is the level where people are polite and respectful toward each other, but there is still a formality to the interactions.  Cordiality is seen in the pleasant conversations between people who just met–involving an ever-so-slight amount of relational warmth.  Moving to the next level requires viewing the other person as someone to bless.

COURTEOUS  Here, the people show gracious consideration toward one another involving small acts of kindness that have minimal cost.  Shoveling a neighbor’s driveway is an example of being courteous.  Moving to the next level of warmth requires becoming aware of the particular needs of others.

CARING  In this level, people demonstrate a greater level of kindness through costlier actions, empathy, and personalized compliments.   Examples would be bringing over a meal for someone in crisis, helping someone move, offering a listening ear to a neighbor who needs to vent, or building up someone who feels like a failure.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people were better at caring!   And think of the influence we would have if we were better at this; people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.  With many of the people in our lives, this level is as warm as we need to get.  But for others, we will have even warmer relationships.

CONNECTED  People in this category find community with others, often through group involvement, shared experiences, geographical proximity, ethnic backgrounds, and shared interests such as sports, hobbies, politics, beliefs, or church involvement.  Such connections offer an antidote for loneliness and provide a sense of belonging.  In connected relationships, it is safe to share opinions, values, and passions.  Here, we enjoy camaraderie and a sense of we, not just me.  People can feel connected with dozens and even hundreds of people; however, the final two levels necessarily involve much smaller numbers of people.

CLOSE  This level describes relationships where there is a much higher level of vulnerability, safety, and trust.  The people within this level find it safe to share difficult experiences, controversial views, emotions, hurts, fears, and dreams in the context of unconditional support and encouragement.   Bible studies, accountability or support groups, support groups, and close teams often provide such close connections.  We usually have only a handful or two of family and friends within this category.

CORE  The most intimate relationships belong in this final category which is characterized by complete vulnerability, transparency, and support.  These are the closest of friends and they enjoy safe, secure, attachment bonds.  A person may have one or two core people in their lives and spouses in the healthiest of marriages relate at this level.  For Christians, our relationship with God should also be at this level of intimacy.

And here’s how I describe the levels of increasing coldness.

COMPLACENT   This level is neither warm nor cool.  Indifference or ambivalence characterizes such relationships.  No positive or negative feelings or interactions exist.  This category can describe people with whom we have little or no interaction, such as neighbors we haven’t met.

COLD  This is the first level where the interactions are chilly.  People here are stand-offish or resort to brief answers to questions without elaboration.  Sarcasm, eye-rolling, and sighs of exasperation may also occur in cold relationships.  When people are cold toward us, it is difficult–but important–not to reciprocate; returning coldness for coldness serves only to propel us toward the next level.

CRITICAL  Relationships at this level contain a lot of criticism, focusing on the other person’s failures.  Harsh words are spoken, flaws are highlighted, complaints are levied, and disparaging words are shared.  It is the opposite of encouragement and there is no granting  any “benefit of the doubt.”   When people are critical of us, it is nearly impossible not to strike back with criticism, but we are wise when we listen to the criticism, looking for kernels of truth that we might learn from.   But, instead, if we deflect their criticisms and turn the attention back to their flaws, we only lead the relationship closer toward the next level of coldness.

CONTEMPTUOUS   Criticism eventually grows into an internal attitude of contempt, which dwells under the surface with feelings of disdain and resentment.  Contempt is sometimes expressed through external cutting remarks and negative generalizations.  According to acclaimed marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, contempt between spouses is the number one predictor of divorce.  When we harbor contempt toward another, all compassion is gone.  We would be wise to check our attitudes and look for the image of God in others.  But, instead, if we keep viewing them with contempt, we are heading toward the added coldness of the next level.

CONFLICT-RIDDEN  By this point, the gloves have completely come off–wounding the other is the primary goal.  Relationships in this level are characterized by constant bickering, arguments, shutting down the other, deflection, blame-shifting, avoidance of responsibility, and unforgiveness.   The goal is to defeat them at all costs, opposing every statement, getting the last word in, proving them wrong, and cutting them down.  If we are wise, we will become convicted about the damage we’re causing and will see the importance of standing down.  If we don’t, the only option will be the final level.

CUT OFF COMPLETELY  These relationships are so icy cold that one or both parties have cut the other off completely.  The hurts are so deep that the parties refuse to interact at all.   [Note: in abusive relationships, this level may be the only safe option.  But in all other situations, see my previous post on how to warm things up.]

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Thoughts about Relational Temperature, Part 1

To varying degrees, relationships can feel warm and intimate or they can feel chilly and estranged.   I’ve created this graphic to illustrate the wide range of “relational temperatures” that we might experience.

Healthy relationships involve warm connections with others; these are represented by the six “yellow zones” of my illustration.  We engage intimately in the center zones with just a few people; there are more people–with less intimacy– in each subsequent circle.    Regardless of the amount of closeness, intimacy, and warmth, all of these yellow-zone relationships are healthy.

Unfortunately, we are sinful people who don’t always get relationships right.  Our brokenness affects all areas of life, including how we interact with others.

Unhealthiness exists when relationships operate in the blue zones.   A relationship that includes cold-shouldering, hostility, or shunning can be crushing, especially when it involves family and friends.   The biblical story of Jacob and Esau and the account of Joseph and his brothers illustrate the pain that comes from living in these circles.  Such pain can sometimes last for generations!

The pain caused by blue-zone relationships keeps us counselors in business.

Almost all of us would prefer to relate with others in the yellow zones; only the seriously dysfunctional would want their relationships devoid of warmth.

All relationships have a temperature, but as with the weather, temperatures can either warm up or cool off.  So let’s look at some things that might cause variations in relational temperatures.

List 1.  What may help relationships Warm Up?

  • Listening for understanding
  • Pursuing clarity
  • Seeking reconciliation
  • Assuming goodwill
  • Heartfelt apologies
  • Forgiveness
  • Humility
  • An “others orientation”
  • Expressions of love and care
  • Being fully present, staying engaged
  • Mutual respect
  • Making others feel safe
  • Acts of kindness
  • Choosing to be unoffendable

List 2.  What may cause relationships to Cool Off?

  • Poor communication
  • Withholding the benefit of the doubt
  • Assuming ill-will
  • Making assumptions
  • Judging motives
  • Stereotyping
  • Victim mentalities
  • Resentment, bitterness, and unforgiveness
  • Seeking revenge or retribution
  • Prejudice, condescension, judgmentalism, –any of the “isms”
  • Selfishness, greed, and pride
  • Withdrawing or stonewalling
  • Inattentiveness
  • Anger, out-of-control emotions
  • Exaggerations using “always” and “never”
  • Fear, intimidation

Doing more of the things on list 1 above and doing less of the things on list 2 ought to warm up any relationship.   It’s worth noting that all of the “one another” passages in Scripture would fall under list 1.  The church is to be a place of exceptional warmth!

But even so, there is no guarantee that things will always be warm with our families, friends, and churches.  Some things remain out of our control.   In Part 2 on this topic, I will talk about how to handle it when coldness remains in a relationship even after doing your part.

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Philosophizing about experimental vaccines.

 

In my last post, I made the point that those of us who are confident in having an eternal future in heaven ought not be overly concerned with self-preservation.  We, of all people, can afford to be risk-takers.

I have two friends who have made me think about this same concept as it relates to experimental vaccines.

My one friend, I’ll call him Jacque, said there is no way he would ever take a vaccine until it was proven safe, evidenced by long-term studies of side effects.  Over pizza, I asked how long those long-term studies would need to run before he would be comfortable taking a vaccine?  Thinking about it for a bit, he decided a large sample size would need to take the treatment over a lifetime to give him confidence that there would be no latent side effects.  Only then would he be willing to take a vaccine.  He was not willing to take any risk.

My other friend, let’s call him Pierre, had a completely opposite view.  Riding with him in a car almost a year ago, he mentioned his eagerness to participate in an experimental trial of a new vaccine, effectively signing himself up to be a human guinea pig.  His view was, “I’m a Christian and I know I’m heading for heaven, so who better than me to help scientists find a cure?  Why should those who only live for this world be putting their lives in jeopardy when I can do it with everything to gain and nothing to lose?”  This was a view I had not contemplated before, and I was inspired by his courage, faith, and selfless attitude.

These two friends represent polar opposites on the scale of risk vs. safety.  Who is right?  Was one prudent and one reckless?  Was one walking in faith and one walking in fear?  Was one putting God to the test and the other living wisely?   Where is the line at which reasonable risk is acceptable?  Sorry, I only have questions today, not answers.  You’ll have to decide on your own.

And just to be clear, this post is not at all about the Covid vaccine.  I have treasured friends on every side of that controversy and this post has nothing to do with whether or not a person should get a Covid shot.  (In fact, I’ll delete any comments about Covid because that’s not the discussion I want this post to generate–there are plenty of other places to debate that.)

And another clarification is important:  I’m isolating the risk vs. safety aspect of experimental medicine.  I’m not addressing any ethical, moral, or spiritual dilemmas or information gaps that may affect medical decision-making.  That is a separate topic that I’m not addressing here.  A Holy Spirit-guided conscience should guide one through such quandaries.

Here, I’m only speaking philosophically about whether Christians ought to consider taking medical risks.

If a vaccine or inoculation or new treatment is to be developed to eradicate a human disease, it makes sense that at some point, human guinea pigs would be needed.  Clinical trials would likely involve experimentation on humans to see if it works as expected and to discover unintended side effects.  It would likely involve a bit of trial and error and the treatment would be modified and improved with each round of testing.  I don’t know this for sure, but I would imagine this is the way scientists developed vaccines and inoculations for eradicating smallpox, polio, and other diseases that we thankfully no longer have to be concerned with.

Speaking of smallpox, I will end this post by telling the story of the demise of one of my heroes of the faith, Jonathan Edwards, who died when he took an experimental smallpox inoculation in 1758.  He was 54, three years younger than me.   He took a medical risk, guessed wrong, and died, but there are a couple of interesting takeaways from his story.

Who was Jonathan Edwards?   He was the third President of Princeton University at his death, but, prior to that, was highly regarded as one of America’s most brilliant philosophical theologians.  A prolific preacher and writer, he helped start the religious revival known as the “Great Awakening,” and inspired the Protestant missionary movement of the 19th century.

Smallpox was a highly contagious virus that killed hundreds of thousands of people each year.  According to one Edwards biographer,

“Smallpox was spreading through the colonies.  Inoculations against the disease had well-known risks and were controversial, but were also proven to improve chances of survival.  Edwards, who always kept abreast of the latest scientific developments, had the whole family inoculated in late February…he soon contracted a secondary infection that eventually made it impossible for him to eat.  He died on March 22, age 54.”

(A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George M. Marsden)

Edwards had certainly weighed the pros and cons of the experimental smallpox vaccine and decided the risk was worth it for himself and his family.  But then, too late, he discovered that he had guessed wrong; his choice had inadvertantly delivered to him a death sentence.   I wondered what he thought about his decision during those final three weeks.  Did he feel angry?  Misled?  Guilty?  Ashamed?  Was he wringing his hands with regret as he learned that his bad decision was about to kill him?   According to his doctor, he did none of those things.

“Edwards’s physician, William Shippen, described the pastor’s posture on his deathbed as “cheerful resignation and patient submission to the divine will through every stage of his disease”

(The Life of President Edwards by Dwight, Sereno Edwards).

Can you imagine that?  He welcomed his pending death cheerfully.  He obviously saw his death not as the end, but as his gateway to Heaven.  “To die is gain.”  He didn’t despair over the prospect of his pending death, right to the end.

Just as significantly, he also viewed his fateful inoculation decision not as a mistake to be mourned, but as God’s divine will–and he patiently submitted to that.  He had such a high view of God’s sovereignty that he even saw his apparent miscalculation as something God had orchestrated.

Do you know what Edwards’ final words were?  “Trust in God and ye need not fear.”    He summarized well the main points of these two posts:

  1. We Christians mustn’t concern ourselves too much with life extension.
  2. Christians can afford to take risks, even medical ones
  3. and even if we guess wrong we win.

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Someday, I’ll likely discover that… I killed myself.

 

My guess is that someday when I arrive in heaven, I’ll find out that I’m there because I killed myself.

 

  • Perhaps I will discover I died by my own poor judgment, not looking both ways before walking out into an intersection.
  • Or perhaps I’ll find that I should have paid attention to that noisy wheel bearing, which made my front wheel fall off, which made me lose control on the highway, which caused my fatal head-on collision with the semi.
  • Maybe I’ll learn my death was caused by the Roundup I sprayed upwind on that one blustery day, which entered my lungs and started the cancer that would kill me.
  • Perhaps I will have died from keeping my cell phone too close to my bed at night, slowly frying my brain cells.
  • Maybe my undoing will have been caused by the taurine (whatever that is) in my Rockstar energy drink.  Come to think of it, there are a lot of things I ingest without a clue about what they are–any one of them could have been my undoing.
  • Maybe it will have been due to the butter I used to eat, then the margarine I replaced it with, then the butter I went back to.
  • Perhaps the thing that will have killed me is some adventurous thing I ate overseas:  the silkworms, the cow udders, the goose intestines, the 1000-year-old egg.  None of those had nutrition labels, which I would have likely disregarded anyway.
  • Perhaps, in my obsession with fitness, I’ll learn that I ran a few too many miles per week, which actually weakened my heart instead of strengthening it.
  • Possibly I’ll learn my demise was caused by one of the many vaccines I took in my lifetime, not knowing much (or caring much, quite frankly) about any of their long-term effects.
  • Maybe I’ll find I died from a currently-unknown long-term side-effect of the Covid virus that I wasn’t careful to avoid contracting.
  • Perhaps it’ll be revealed that I died because I believed and followed the wrong medical advice from those who I thought seemed credible at the time.

Of course, it’s entirely possible I’ll end up in heaven due to no fault of my own: I was murdered by a robber, hit by a drunk driver, or killed by a tornado.  But if I had to bet, I’ll bet it’s more likely that I will have contributed to my own death.  And I’m actually ok with that.

Why am I reflecting on all of this?

Because many people today seem consumed with doing everything possible to not kill themselves.  They seem bent on eliminating all health risks, trying to live as long as humanly possible.  This would be an understandable and appropriate view for those who do not believe in the afterlife.  After all, if this life is all there is, then maximizing one’s number of days makes total sense.  Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.  Now there’s a consistent worldview!

But the Christian belief that we are currently living in The Shadowlands–as C.S. Lewis phrased it–and that paradise is our eternal destination means we mustn’t put an inordinate amount of focus on health, life preservation, and life extension.

Am I saying we should throw caution to the wind and live reckless lives?  Not necessarily.  But I am saying that those of us who hope in the afterlife should only take reasonable safety precautions–not absolute safety precautions.  We could spend our entire life fearfully consumed with avoiding every health risk, making safe choices, and joylessly striving to prolong our days, all the while potentially missing what we’re actually here for.  That would be an inconsistent worldview!

Christians like me who are convinced that heaven will be a far better place than earth should spend more energy dreaming of that life rather than holding-on-for-dear-life to this one.  The Apostle Paul said it well, “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far (Philippians 1:22-23).  Paul wasn’t suicidal, but he kept a proper perspective on life and death.  For the believer, death is a promotion, not the end.

This eternal perspective allows us to worry little about life extension.  In fact, it goes the other way and even enables us to become risk-takers since the self-preservation of our mortal bodies is no longer our ultimate goal.   I have history on my side here;  we see the Christians’ disregard for health and safety throughout church history.  Look at the physical sufferings of the apostles. Look at generations of martyrs who chose to surrender their bodies to death rather than recant their faith.  Do we accuse them of self-harm or commend them for their strong faith?  Faith.

Consider the physically reckless way the early church cared for those with communicable diseases.  This morning I was reading how the early Christians in Carthage responded to the great plague of 251 AD.  “Cyprian urged them to nurse sick people and touch them.  He reminded them that they could act in this mortally dangerous way because their faith in Christ, which gave them hope for everlasting life, had healed their fear of death.”  [The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, 2016, by Andrew Kreieder, p. 111].

Someday I may learn that I killed myself.  It will likely have been due to ignorance, inattentiveness, or personal failure.  Oops.  Nevertheless, what I really hope to discover on that day is that my brief earthly life was characterized more by “fruitful labor” than life extension.

For part 2 on this topic, click HERE

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Honesty is not the best policy

 

I don’t want you being honest with me — and I promise not to be honest with you either.    I want us to withhold the truth, avoid transparency, and be pretenders.  In fact, I don’t want anyone in the world being honest with each other.  Honesty is not the best policy.

My friends may be surprised at me saying such an outlandish thing.  As a God-fearing person who often speaks about truthfulness, integrity, and accountability, this doesn’t sound congruent.

Here’s what I mean.

We don’t need to disclose everything we’re thinking.  Just because it’s in my head doesn’t mean it needs to be spoken.   Before talking, I need to consider whether speaking my thoughts would be beneficial.

Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Here, Paul tells the Ephesians not to let everything in your head come out of your mouth.  In other words, “Put a filter on it!”   Prior to opening up your mouth, make sure your words suit the occasion, build up, and give grace to the hearer.  Less is more.

James, in 1:19, agrees, telling us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Our culture today completely fails in this area.  People are slow to listen, quick to speak, and filterless — particularly in our online communications!

Less is more.  We don’t need to share all of our opinions or always get in the last word.  Why do we feel it so necessary to tell others all the things that displease us about them?  How about putting a stop to our constant critiques and obeying Philippians 2:3 instead, which tells us to treat others better than ourselves!

We’ve drifted a long way from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous Sonnet 43.  “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  If written today it would read, “How have you offended me?  Let me count the ways.”  People are quick to point out their dissatisfactions, grievances, and disappointments in brutally honest, hate-filled attacks.  Let’s be different;  let’s never insult others by our honesty.

But what if the honesty of others insults us?  What then?

I recently read a book about apologizing, where the author contends that we must honestly tell people whenever they hurt us.  I completely disagree.  As I’ve blogged elsewhere, we can forgive someone who has hurt us without needing to inform them of the hurt they caused.  Let me take my hurts to Jesus, who understands mistreatment better than anyone, and then let me treat the offender with undeserved, unconditional mercy, grace, and love.  Only if it would benefit the other person do I suggest telling them what they did to me.

Is honesty ever a good policy?  Certainly.  Here are occasions where I think honesty is vitally important:

  1.  We need to be honest with God, ourselves, and others about our own weaknesses.  To hide our fatal flaws is foolish.  That’s why one of my personal Life Resolutions is to “keep no personal secrets of any kind, but rather disclose any areas of weakness to trusted friends that they may hold me accountable…”
  2. If I become aware that I’ve hurt someone, I should confess my sin honestly, request forgiveness, and seek to restore harmony.  Matthew 5:23-24 says, “…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
  3. When a person has hurt me AND it would also benefit him or her to understand the effects of that hurt, my honesty would actually be a kindness.  But make sure our motive involves his benefit, not our vindication or comeuppance.  The goal of such honesty must be to help him learn the ways others may be adversely affected by his actions.  The focus should be on educating more than confronting.
  4. When someone’s performance is sub-standard, a supervisor’s honest feedback and possible discipline are necessary.
  5. When someone exhibits behavior that is unethical, self-destructive, or harmful to you or others, honest, constructive criticism is essential.  Such honest communication may help reveal the person’s blind spots and prevent further harm or abuse.  But be sure the motive behind such honest feedback is protection and reformation and not judgment or condescension. Galatians 6 admonishes us to restore a straying person gently, something that takes great sensitivity, courage, and honesty.

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I’m Confronting You About Confronting

In my counseling practice, I often deal with relational conflicts, where one or both people have a grievance against the other.   They’ve been confronting each other about what the other person needs to change, but unfortunately, that usually doesn’t end well–which is why they’re in my office!

So I’d like to share some thoughts about confronting and then propose an alternative.

When I confront someone who ticks me off, I’m pointing out what they are doing wrong;  I’m spotlighting the ways I’ve been mistreated or how disappointed I am.   I’m taking someone to the proverbial woodshed.  For example, I might say…

You never listen to me and you don’t care about my feelings.

You’re never home to help with the kids.

Stop trying to fix things all the time!

You always leave the house a mess and expect me to clean up after you.

You drink too much.  You need to stop.

Notice all of the “you” statements I’m using as well as the exaggerated terms “always” and “never”.   And the use of direct commands.   In confronting this way, my focus is clearly on the other person’s deficiencies.  If that person was to put on one of those adhesive nametags that says “Hello my name is…:, I’d be taking a Sharpie and writing the words “MY PROBLEM” on it.  That’s what my opponent is to me…a problem.

The response from such a confrontation is predictable.  It will likely be denial (I’m not that way), defensiveness and deflection (yea, but you treat me this other way), distancing (I can’t stand being around your constant criticism–I’m outta here), or despair (I give up: I will never be able to please you.)

Rarely, does someone who has been confronted this way respond with, “Oh, that was so insightful.  I’m a changed person because of your confrontation!”

Can you see why some people avoid confrontation at all costs?  It’s precarious for both people and it usually doesn’t end well.  For them, it seems best to stuff their feelings and live at a distance–relationally and emotionally.

I’m suggesting an alternative to that kind of interaction.  Let’s stop Confronting and start Educating.

What if I look at the person who is displeasing me, not as my antagonist, but as my friend who simply needs to learn how to care for me better.  What if the nametag I stick on that person is “Unaware Learner” rather than “My Problem.”  Do you see the difference this would make?  What if we took the person to the classroom instead of the woodshed.   That’s far less risky!

To educate simply means helping my friend learn how to care for me better by letting that person understand me more.  It includes positive reinforcement just as much as disclosing the things that bother me.  Here are some examples:

It meant a lot to me when you asked how my day went.

Thanks for letting me vent just now.  That made me feel not alone.  It makes me feel closer to you.

I sometimes find myself feeling like I’m getting your leftovers when you work so late so often.  I don’t want to feel this way.  I love you and I appreciate it so much whenever you make me feel more important than work.

Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed in caring for the kids and I find myself feeling angry sometimes when I see you on your phone so much.  I’m not saying this to beat you up, but to let you know how this affects me.  I don’t want to feel that way about you. Whenever you remember to set down your phone and help with the kids please know that I will be so grateful to you.

We both know that a tidy house is obviously more imporant to me than it is to you!  I know you don’t share this value, but this is something that is very imortant to me. I suppose I feel like the condition of my house is a reflection of my success as a woman.  I realize that it doesn’t come natural for you, but I want you to know how much it means to me when  you do remember to pick things up for me.

I get nervous when I see you drinking so much.  Sometimes I can’t even sleep because of it.  I worry about ways that alcohol might harm our family like I’ve seen it do to others.  If you were able to cut down on your drinking that would be such a blessing to me.

I find myself getting defensive when I feel criticized and I don’t like that about myself.  I want to share something with you that I think will help:  it would help me to grow and change if you could educate me rather than confront me.  I think this might draw us closer and I’d appreciate it so much if you could give it a try.

Each of these statements will likely lead to increased heart connection, understanding, and improved behaviors.

Notice the prevalence of “I” statements, the avoidance of commands, and a complete lack of blame and shame.   Educating like this is not soft-peddling or minimizing issues; it simply involves discussing the same issues with a different tone and a different goal.  The focus is on strengthening the relationship, not on controlling another person.  It involves kindness, honesty, straightforwardness, polite requests, patience, and hope.

So whenever we remember to, let’s replace Confronting with Educating!   In fact, let’s change the title of this blog post as well!

 

[Disclaimer, in this post I’m speaking of confronting as it pertains to personal conflicts in the everyday frictions of life.  Certainly, there are times when outright confronting is necessary, such as with addiction treatment interventions, poor performance reviews, or to stop harm from being done to others.]

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