How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling

Dear God,

Ministry is wearing me out, and I’m not seeing the kind of fruit I envisioned at the beginning. I’ve become so busy doing your work that my devotional life is a distant memory. I know that I should practice what I preach, so I’m recommitting myself to daily spiritual discipline.

I’m confident that this will improve my life. Spending time with you will lead to a deeper sense of peace, joy, and wisdom, making me more attractive to others. I’m also convinced that more devotional time will help me write better sermons that draw bigger crowds.

As these crowds are transformed by my anointed preaching, they will gain buy-in to what we are doing around here and the money will finally start to flow! The church will pay all of its bills—including one-hundred percent of apportionments. The excess that is “pressed down, shaken together, and running over,” will be used to improve our environments, technology, production value, and programing. We will hire new staff and start new building campaigns. Since people want to feel like they are part of an organization that really makes a difference in the world, we will increase our missional giving and constantly remind everyone of the difference their money is making through heartwarming stories. All of this will bring in more people and expand our influence in the surrounding community.

Given the world in which we live, all of this will be highly visible on social media. As my colleagues see posts touting my accomplishments in ministry, I’ll be admired (and maybe even envied). The District Superintendent will promote my church as a model of vitality, and (knowing how important I have become) exempt me from mandatory clergy meetings. The Bishop will see me as a rising star in the Conference, and my hard work will be rewarded with more prestigious and lucrative appointments. I will be recruited into the inner circles of the higher-ups and consulted on important issues in the life of the church. These accolades will open doors for publishing opportunities and speaking engagements. Given all this evidence, there will be no doubt that I am a good pastor.

Thank you, God, for the spiritual disciples, for the tools that allow me to advance on the way of salvation. Give me the strength to persist in daily devotion and reward my obedience with success, so that people will know that I’m living in your will.

In all of this, may you be glorified. Less of me and more of you.

In Jesus name, amen.

__________________

This fictional prayer (along the lines of parody) articulates the temptation of pastors inhabiting a culture driven by success. It is in no way intended to be an insult to my clergy friends who serve large congregations, especially since those of us serving smaller churches are probably more susceptible to this corruption of our calling. One of my clergy friends serving a huge church once told me that the only difference between my job and his was about three zeros added to all of our common problems. What is at stake in this imaginative exercise is not church size. Small, medium, and large churches can be healthy or unhealthy. The real issue is related to our call to ministry, underlying motives, and guiding value system. What drives our work? Lust for success or a desire to be counted as faithful? 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

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Steps Toward Forgiveness: Discovering Healing and Freedom

INTRODUCTION

Forgiveness is one of the most important and one of the most difficult things we do as human beings. It is also one of the most misunderstood commands of scripture.

How is forgiveness possible? What do we do with our anger, fear, and hurt? Does forgiving meaning forgetting? Is it the same as reconciliation? Does forgiveness always restore a relationship to the way it used to be? Is forgiveness something that happens in a moment of decision, or is it a process that takes time? What if the offender never apologizes? Is forgiveness for me, for them, or both? How does my willingness to forgive impact my relationship with God?

In what follows, you will find concrete steps on the journey toward forgiveness that will help you start answering some of these questions. While these steps will prove helpful for anyone seeking healing, they are intended for those who have experienced “normal” levels of hurt (for lack of a better term). Those who have experienced intense, chronic abuse resulting in psychological trauma should seek professional counseling as part of their spiritual program.

The most important thing to remember as we proceed is that forgiveness is not a magic trick. It takes time, and some people need more time than others. Be kind to yourself in the process.

 

HELPFUL STEPS IN MOVINGTOWARD FORGIVENESS:

Fully acknowledge the wrongdoing. When we say to someone, “I forgive you,” there is an implicit condemnation of wrong doing. Imagine how strange it would be if someone said to us in a first encounter, “Hi. I’m Jim, and I forgive you!” We might reply, “Forgive me! For what?” The reason is because we only forgive people who have wronged us in some way.

In the Christian tradition, honest condemnation of wrongdoing is part of the logic of forgiveness. First we say, “What you did to me was wrong,” and then we say, “but I will not insist that you get what you deserve.” True forgiveness cannot happen unless we fully acknowledge the wrongdoing and find ways to speak our pain. Sweeping it under the rug, pretending that nothing happened, making excuses, and other kinds of minimizing behavior, does not facilitate forgiveness—it hinders and prevents it.

However, in most cases, it is not wise to immediately confront the offender. Christians are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but we typically cannot do the “love thing” without the spiritual and emotional work that enables us to gain clarity, process our feelings, and seek wisdom. We often make things worse when a compulsive overreaction is triggered by emotional flooding. Unfortunately, some Christians who have a hard time disengaging when emotionally triggered appeal to Ephesians 4:26 (“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry”) as a way of forcing a conversation that should wait. Rather than compulsively reacting, consider disengaging and working the following steps (being very careful not to use the need for a break as an excuse for stonewalling, a passive-aggressive expression of anger in which we withdraw from the other to punish them).

Prayer and journaling provide helpful ways to fully acknowledge our pain, not only to ourselves but also to God. There is something healing and empowering about speaking our truth before God, as is illustrated in the complaint Psalms (e.g., Ps. 3, 6, 60, 90) and the book of Lamentations. In addition to some healthy venting that can diminish the emotional charge and deescalates the situation, the Holy Spirit can work through prayer and journaling to help us sort out our feelings, gain clarity about the real issues, own any wrong doing on our part, and reclaim our identity in Jesus Christ so that we can act accordingly.

Conversation with wise friends, spiritual directors, or professional counselors can also be helpful.  These conversation partners should be chosen carefully, and what is said should be kept in strict confidence. The goal is not to ruin the reputation of the offender through gossip, but to process our feelings and receive wise counsel in moving toward forgiveness.

One very important task in sorting out our feelings is to discern whether or not they are proportionate to the situation. If the emotional charge outstrips the severity of the offense, then it is almost certainly triggering old wounds that have not completely healed. In this case, we can ride the present pain like a horse back to the old wound and continue our spiritual and emotional work in this area. In this way, we distinguish between past and present offense and refuse to make the present offender responsible for something she or he didn’t do. The goal is to fully acknowledge the present offense without conflating it with similar wrongs in the past and projecting the whole shebang on the present offender.

All of this creates a huge challenge when trying to forgive someone who continuously hurts us. Before we can calm down, process our feelings, and discern a way forward, the offender does something else to hurt us again! Since forgiveness is a process, some people hurt us so frequently that it feels impossible to keep up! This is a complex topic that deserves its own article, but suffice it to say that if you are in a relationship with someone that is constantly hurting you, then you need to take steps to change or end that relationship. In the least, you should think carefully about establishing appropriate boundaries (see Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries).

If safe, appropriate, and wise, speak your truth assertively to the offender. Part of the spiritual and emotional work mentioned above is to prayerfully discern if and when to confront the offender. Sometimes it is wise, and sometimes it is not.

As you pray, journal, and talk with trusted friends and counselors, ask God to disclose your real motivations for wanting to confront the person who wronged you. Also, ask God to surface the outcomes that you hope to achieve and whether or not these are realistic. In terms of motivation, your primary reason for confronting another should be to speak the truth in ways that make genuine forgiveness more likely.

Importantly, while true forgiveness always aims at reconciliation, it does not always lead to that outcome. It only takes one to forgive, but it takes two to be reconciled.  However, you can still forgive someone even when reconciliation is unlikely. You can forgive someone even when you know that the relationship will never be the same, when you know that new boundaries must be established or that a necessary ending is required. Even in the best case scenarios, when someone has been seriously injured (physically, emotionally, or spiritually), forgiveness does not always restore the relationship to the way it used to be. For example, you can forgive someone for abusing you as a kid without giving them access to your children. All of this leads us the question of our primary goal in confronting an offender.

The goal of confrontation is not to make everything the way it used to be (although this might be the fantasy of a remorseful offender seeking absolution). Nor is the primary goal to create a change in the offender. Rather, it is authentic self-presentation in obedience to Christ—honestly speaking our truth in a way that is consistent with our Christian values. We might ask the other person to hear, understand, and acknowledge our feelings. We might hope that in doing so the offender will acknowledge the offense, ask for forgiveness, and work with us to renegotiate a healthy relationship. But at the end of the day, we have no control over how people interpret and respond to our assertiveness. And remember, you can forgive someone even if they refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing and reject your forgiveness. Again, the main goal is to speak the truth in love, which can help you find freedom from hurt and move on with your life.

If you have prayerfully discerned that speaking your truth to the offender is appropriate, wise, and safe, then you want to proceed assertively. Assertiveness is the healthy alternative to passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive behavior. Here is a helpful model for assertive communication.

  1. State the facts clearly. Pretend you are a reporter responsible for explaining as concisely as possible exactly what happened, without any interpretation or value judgements. Avoid generalizing (“You always . . .”) and keep a laser focus on the facts of the specific situation.
  2. Use “I” language to express how you feel. Don’t blame, judge, or condemn with “you” accusations, but use “I” language to honestly and clearly express your feelings.
  3. Focusing on the specific situation at hand, say clearly what you want to happen in the future. If you are feeling unimportant because your spouse is always late, you might say, “I want you to be on time when we make plans with each other.”
  4. Say how your relationship will improve if they are willing to negotiate that change with you. “If you are on time then we will be able to better enjoy what we have planned.”

In all of this, do not get distracted by argumentativeness, and if you feel yourself getting emotionally flooded, disengage, calm down, and try again later.

While proceeding in this way will make it more likely that our concerns will be heard and addressed, it is not a magic formula that makes people acknowledge wrongdoing and conform to our expectations. Again, our goal is authentic self-presentation. We express our feelings, make our requests known, and invite the other person to join us in working on the relationship. But then we release the situation to God and take the other person’s response as information as we find our next steps.

Make a decision to let it go. This is the heart of forgiveness. Instead of seeking revenge, punishment, or vindication, instead of insisting that the offender gets what she or he deserves, we decide to forgive—we let it go so we can move on. This should not be confused with rescuing people from the natural consequences of their actions. In fact, natural consequences are life’s best teacher. If your husband will not sever all ties with his mistress, you can forgive him and file for divorce. A natural consequence of serial infidelity is a loss of trust, and you cannot have a healthy marriage with someone who is fundamentally untrustworthy. So the suggestion is not to rescue people from natural consequences, but to resist the temptation to willfully dig-in and stick-it to the person who hurt us.

Part of letting it go means refusing to bring up the offense in the future for the sole purpose of hurting the offender or ruining his or her reputation with others. We don’t forever forget the offense, and trying to do so is often unwise. Remembering what someone did to us can provide valuable information for discerning healthy and wise next steps. Also, there are situations in which it would be appropriate and necessary to discuss the offense (either with the offender or with someone else) later down the road. But all of this is different from using the offense as a weapon for the sole purpose of ongoing punishment.

The most difficult battleground for the task of letting go is our imagination. When the offender or offense comes to mind, we are tempted to fantasize about retaliation, but generating and dwelling on these imaginative scenarios can be like drinking poison. The initial adrenaline surge might make us feel powerful, but ultimately the fantasy will trigger and intensify the very feelings we are trying to resolve, making us feel even more powerless and victimized. And if the content of the fantasies is contrary to our value system as a Christian, they will have the added effect of creating unnecessary guilt.

(Some psychologists suggest that we can heal memories by reexperiencing them through fantasy with compassion and power. For example, if we cannot confront a parent who abused us as a child because they are deceased, then we might fantasize about a memory of abuse and imagine our adult-self standing beside our child-self and speaking-up in assertive ways. Or if we cannot confront someone as an adult because she or he is violent and unsafe, we might fantasize about standing-up to him or her and speaking honestly about our pain. What distinguishes this kind of fantasy from what is discouraged above is that it is not punishing, vengeful, or retaliatory. It is self-healing not self-wounding.)

Rather than getting lost in punitive fantasies, pray for the offender every time they come to mind. Pray that God will heal whatever brokenness drives their bad behavior, and that God will help them honestly see what needs to change. We consciously choose to let go of the offense and then pray for the offender, not primarily because it has some good psychological effect for us (although it does) but because this is what Jesus commands:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).

This is an essential part of being a follower of Jesus, and true forgiveness happens only when we come to see the offender through the eyes of compassion. This usually doesn’t happen unless we pray for them so that God can change our hearts in the process.

Finally, forgiveness includes consciously and continuously rejecting any toxic messages about ourselves that are triggered by the memory of the offender or offense. Sometimes conflict makes us fear the worst about ourselves, leading us to accept false, negative judgements made or implied by the offender. (See my article, “Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism.”) If we are not careful, we find ourselves myopically focusing on our failures and growing edges, which generates distorted stereotypes and leads to relentless self-recrimination. This is not to say that we should avoid honestly owning our part in conflict, but beating ourselves up with false stereotypes actually makes it more difficult to accurately assess the situation and move toward genuine forgiveness (which might include forgiveness of ourselves too). As those toxic message pop into our minds, we should ask, “Is it true? Is this what God says about me? Is this what people who know and love me say about me?” If not, surrender it in prayer and reclaim your identity in Christ.

 

CONCLUSION:

As stated at the beginning, forgiveness is a process that takes time. There is no magic formula or quick fix. It is difficult spiritual and emotional work. Some people have been so betrayed or traumatized that forgiveness seems impossible. For those people, I would suggest that it is an “impossible possibility.” It might be impossible for you on your own strength, but it is not impossible for God to do through you, if you are willing to stay close to God and give yourself time to heal. Wherever you are on the journey toward forgiveness, I pray that God give you courage, strength, and hope, as well as a couple of good friends who can walk beside you.

(If you liked this article, you might also like “The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence.“)

 

Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

(This article by Pastor Mark was originally published on “Philosophy Goes to Church” and is reprinted here with permission.)

Introduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

Success: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

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Notes:  

[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.