Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Beliefs”

The victimization card

A common game we play in life is the victimization game.

Something undesirable happens to us. Someone hurts us. Something is withheld from us. We make a horribly sinful choice.

Such experiences are painful. But their real power comes from the meaning or beliefs we assign to them.

We tend to give painful events great power over us. We believe they’ve robbed us of our future. We believe they take away our power. We assume we now have no options.

We’re victimized by the event.

Not just at the time the event happened, but perpetually.

The rest of our life.

Victimization goes something like this: “Because ______ happened, I cannot _________.”

Fill in the blanks.

  • Because this person hurt me in that manner, I can never be happy again.
  • Because my parents withheld the love and affirmation I wanted from me, I cannot have good relationships in my life.
  • Because I was not given that promotion, I’m stuck in this job and can never move forward.

Consciously or unconsciously, we choose to become stuck. We wait for the offending party, or some other power-that-be, to undo the hurt done to us. We believe that since they are the one who took away our opportunity, only they can give it back.

We find ourselves stuck. Helpless. And often bitter.

In the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13ff), we see this dynamic. But with an interesting twist: the disciples play the victimization card on Jesus.

The day has grown long. The large crowd is hungry and tired. It’s late.

The disciples grow anxious, feeling the responsibility to feed the mass of people who’ve been clamoring for Jesus’ attention.

How do you feed that many people on very limited supplies? All the disciples seem to have on hand are five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. That might be enough to feed their own small group (Jesus and the 12), but it won’t come close to meeting the needs of this crowd.

So the disciples do what we do when we are anxious. They shift the responsibility to someone else, in this case Jesus.

“Do something about this Jesus. Send them away so we won’t have to deal with this. We don’t want to be responsible. You take charge.”

Jesus refuses to take on their anxiety. Their perceived problem doesn’t become his.

“It’s not necessary to send them away, You go ahead and feed them,” Jesus counters.

The disciples, probably feeling backed into a corner, play their victimization card.

“We can’t feed them, we don’t have enough food here. Not even close.”

Who knows what they didn’t say that told the real story?

  • “If we start feeding them, there won’t be any for us. And we’re really hungry!”
  • “You should have told us about this earlier. You should have planned better.”
  • “This is a bit irresponsible of you Jesus to wait until now to address this problem. What did you expect to happen?”

The disciples feel helpless. They assume there’s nothing they can do to meet this challenge. And it’s obvious they are waiting for Jesus to do something to rescue them, to take care of it.

Assuming this posture, they are victimized by their own story.

Theirs is not an accurate assumption. They do have something they can use. They have some bread and fish. And they have a choice in what they are going to do with these resources.

They can hoard them for their own use. They can give up and quit.

Or they can give what they have to Jesus and partner with him. They can take this seemingly small step of faith and see what happens.

This is the nature of victimization, and our way through it.

I’m most prone to playing the victimization game with God. I perceive he hasn’t provided me enough of whatever I believe I need to have (usually clear direction for my future), and I hear myself mimicking the disciples in this story.

“I can’t go forward. I don’t have enough resources. I can’t do anything until you do something more for me.”

I blame my sense of being stuck on God. I hold him responsible for why my life isn’t working the way I want it to. I grow inactive and waste potential opportunities under the guise of “waiting on God” to act.

I want (read “demand”) guarantees.

I acknowledge there is a time and place to wait on God. Rushing ahead under my own steam is dangerous.

But most of the time, I believe Jesus is telling me to put what I already have to use.

This is both liberating and terrifying.

It’s liberating in that I don’t have to be a victim. There is something I can do. I do have a choice. I have some leverage, no matter how small it may seem.

It’s terrifying because Jesus calls me to take responsibility. To partner with him calls me to face my fears, step into the unpredictable and move forward with faith. It calls me to own my desires and choose accordingly. I no longer have the luxury of being helpless.

It’s only when I quit playing the victimization card that I get to discover what potential miracle awaits on the other side.

Who knows how many we can feed with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish?

Confirmation Bias: How it Impacts What I Think I Know

Recently I was listening to a lecture on how we make decisions. The speaker identified several decision-making traps that take us down the road of poor decision making that can prove to be catastrophic.

One trap in particular piqued my curiosity. It’s a cognitive process known as “confirmation bias.” This refers to our “tendency to gather and rely on information that confirms our existing views and to avoid or downplay information that disconfirms our preexisting hypothesis” (Michael Roberto, Bryant University).

It causes us to gather or remember information selectively. Furthermore, we interpret the information in a way that confirms what we already believe to be true. Researchers note that this effect is particularly strong for emotionally charged and deeply entrenched beliefs.

Confirmation bias has been cited as a contributing factor to a variety of issues ranging from beliefs and laws concerning the death penalty and the events leading to the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003. People, including law makers and supposedly unbiased scientists, look at data through a skewed lense. They filter the evidence to confirm what they assume is correct and disregard information that would conflict with their opinions.

Research indicates that we take it even further. We interpret data, information and arguments to fit what we want to be true, regardless of objective observations to the contrary. It was found that NASA officials wanted to believe the Columbia was in safe operating order to the point they disregarded data that pointed to real danger.

It seems to me that confirmation bias is well entrenched in the church and theology worlds as well. Note how we continually buy books that we are certain will confirm what we already believe. We keep going to hear speakers who affirm what we assume to be true.

We can pretty well predict what these authors and speakers are going to say ahead of time. We like it this way. It creates emotional and psychological safety nets for us.

This isn’t all bad, I’m sure. I know I’m as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone. But it does raise questions for me in how we do church leadership, Bible interpretation and theology. If the experts are right in saying confirmation bias is particularly strong  for emotionally charged and deeply entrenched beliefs, it’s safe to assume it runs wild in the Christian community. 

Take how we manage church conflict. Left unchecked confirmation bias will distort the “facts” that are presented by both sides. We can quickly react and make decisions out of that distortion, all the while convinced we are “right.” Afterall, we have the “facts” right in front of us.

The more we can slow the process down and become aware of our own biases, emotionally held positions, and our need to self-protect, the more objective we can be.  The more open we are to genuinely consider the other side, the less we will be governed by confirmation bias. A good adage is to strive to be calm, nonreactive and self-aware in those moments.

We also need to hold the tendency of confirmation bias in one hand while we interpret our Bibles, evaluate our doctrine and define our theology with the other. Honesty about our own propensity to allow confirmaiton bias to define our beliefs will go a long way.

I notice a couple of tendencies in this area. One, when we discuss theology, doctrine and Bible interpretation, we tend to lean toward monologue rather than dialogue. In monologue (where I do the talking and I talk at rather than with) I control the direction of conversation. I dictate the ideas and content. It’s my way of ensuring that what I already believe will be reinforced and protectecd.

Dialogue is more difficult. In dialogue, I quiet down and let you share your perspective and define your position. I stay open and consider the validity of your views. I weigh them and give them respectful, careful consideration. Dialogue is risky because I choose to allow you to influence me. I may conclude that my emotionally held beliefs aren’t as accurate as I thought (and wished) they were.

How many Christian conversations are more two people (or two factions, two churches, two theological traditions) trying to “out-monologue” each other rather than true dialogue? How does that cost us in terms of valuing each other, valuing relationships, and actually learning and growing?

A second tendency is that we become rigid in our theology, doctrine and Biblical interpretation. We approach the Scripture with our theology and exegesis already established. We force our meaning upon the text and make it agree with us.

Bradley Jursak speakes to this: “Dare we let Scripture say what it says without reinterpreting what ‘it really means’ into the margins of our Study Bibles?” 

We all make our own canon in some manner. We hold to our predisposed interpretations over what the text may actually say. Again, the more honest and self-aware we are of our propensity to do this, the better we can manage it.

As I close, I can’t help but wonder: 1) How my confirmation bias has influenced what I just wrote? and, 2) How is your confirmation bias influencing how you’re reading this blog?

The Wonderful Discomfort of Change

I noticed in his recent blog, Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years) addressed the difficulty in making changes.  I’ve been thinking of that very fact lately, too.

The difficulty of change is tied to our natural resistance known as homeostasis. We resist change, even beneficial change. We and the systems we are a part of fight to keep things the way they are, even if those ways are detrimental and destructive to us and those around us.

Change is anxiety producing. Maintaining homeostasis temporarily relieves our anxiety. We typically opt for immediate gratification. Eventually, the scales tip, and we launch out into the change process. Or, an external force pushes us headlong into the change process.

I’ve heard it said that, “Until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change, we will choose to stay the same.”

This is challenging because God is all about change. He embarks with us on a journey throughout the life process. Any movement down that path incorporates change. We constantly come face to face with this tension between wanting to maintain homeostasis and the demand to move forward and grow. 

I find my greatest challenge  in the change process is faith. Is God strong enough to hold me through my change? Will He have enough grace to cover me, especially if I don’t get it right? Is God going to be there on the other end of change?

One of the more difficult areas of change is when our theology shifts. I’m convinced that the willingness to adapt our theology and doctrines are crucial and inevitable to growth. They reflect the normal progression of our development.

Many of us assume that theology and doctrine are supposed to be fixed and unchanging. But when they become rigid they don’t serve us well. Rigid things tend to break under stress. Our belief system is no different.

When we undergo inevitable changes in our belief systems we naturally feel uncomfortable. We may be embarrassed for “getting it wrong” in our earlier positions. We might be angry at those who taught us the prior doctirnal views that we now question or discard. Saying goodbye to old belief systems is like saying goodbye to an old, trusted friend. We’re not sure what to do without them. We fear the rejection of the community that helped form our beliefs. The risk of heresy stares us down and stirs anxiety.

There is no easy way through this. Change is difficult, no matter how we slice it. Transformation only occurs when we can master the anxiety inherent in the process. It’s a people growing machine.

I’ve found some ideas to be helpful in the process. One, I need to accept that change is normal, including change in my theology, doctrine and beliefs. It’s not only normal, it’s healthy. It’s part of maturing.

Two, God provides many resources for the process. Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are vital. In my experience, they were the only tools I was taught to rely on. I’ve since discovered another crucial resource–the community of faith. I can get myself in all sorts of trouble if left to my own thoughts. I need the input of others. This assumes that the community creates a gracious and safe atmosphere that tolerates questions, creativity and differences of positions.

Finally, trust that God is at work is critical. God isn’t nearly as concerned about getting it right as I often am. He’s more interested in the process than the destination. He’s much more focused on me developing into a loving and gracious man than my capacity to cross all my t’s and dot my i’s. He’s committed to leading me into all truth, and I can trust Him to fulfill His goal for my life.

Wrestling with Loss, Pain and Faith

I’ve been talking to a guy who recently experienced a significant loss in his life. A close family member died at a very young age. He’s struggling coming to terms with his loss, his sense of powerlessness when it comes to death, and questions about God’s involvement with this death. He’s convinced that God is testing him  to see how much pain and discomfort he can tolerate.

I’ve struggled with knowing how to respond to his questions and his pain. I don’t share his beliefs about God pushing him to the limit, but I’m taking  it slow as far as challenging his assumptions. If I were in his shoes, I have no idea how I might struggle with my faith. Pain has a way of distorting our thinking when it’s raw and fiery.

I have to admit that I was a bit relieved when our last conversation ended–relieved that once we parted I could go back to the comfort of being insulated from first-hand pain. I returned to the safety of my own theology. While I genuinely hurt for him, I needed to create emotional and theological space.

I noticed some weariness in my soul as he left. I was thankful for the distance.

That all changed the next afternoon. While relaxing after Sunday church, I got a phone call from our oldest son. I could tell immediately something was not right. His got straight to the point. “Something bad happened. We lost Juan. He’s no longer with us,” he said.

Juan was one of my son’s best friends. Just two weeks earlier, Juan was in our home as he served as a groomsman in my son’s wedding. We all immediately fell in love with him. We instantly recognized the qualities and personality strengths in Juan that our son had told us so much about. We celebrated and laughed with Juan. His smile exuded the generous spirit he possessed.

And now, just as suddenly, he was gone. A freak car accident–one that seems so random and senseless–claimed his life.

I grieve for my own sense of loss, even though I only got to meet Juan briefly. But much more, I grieve for my son and his new wife. They lost a dear, dear friend. The impact and implications of their loss is only just beginning to hit them. There will be layers that will unfold over time.

Hearing the pain in my son’s voice over the phone was nearly unbearable. It still torments me.

The wrestling of questions that my friend expressed are now my own.

I find myself resonating with Mary and Martha as they conversed with Jesus after their brother, Lazarus, died. The first thing out of their mouths was, “Lord if You had been here, our brother would not have died.”

My version is, “I know you care Jesus, but couldn’t you have prevented that accident? Would it have really been that difficult to alter Juan’s timing just a few seconds so that he could still be with us? So my son and his wife (and all of Juan’s family and friends) wouldn’t be suffering now? And what about my friend’s daughter? You could have kept her alive, too.”

At this point, I join with my son in saying, “It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t make sense.”

I do find some comfort and strength in Jesus’ response to Mary and Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus emphasized to the grieving sisters that this resurrection isn’t some far-off idea. He is the resurrection and the life right now, in the present moment.

While that encourages me, I am a bit envious of the sisters’ experience. Jesus acted right then and there in bringing Lazarus back to life. They got immediate relief.

We’re left to wait and to struggle with our faith and what it means for us that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, now, while we still have funerals to go to. While we have empty places in our lives. While we have children who are experiencing immense pain.

Lessons from a Tragic Leader

The other day, a pastor of a Florida “mega-church” was found dead in his hotel room in New York. Investigators found a packet of white powder inside his pocket. While toxicology reports won’t be in for a while, the signs point to the unfortunate possibility that his death was drug-related.

The pastor was in his early 40’s. While I don’t consider myself old, I do consider early 40’s young. Especially to be dying. Tragic.

I regret to say that there would have been a time in my life I would have judged this pastor. I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond appearance of drug use and the other issues he’d been involved in. I would have been quick to use the word hypocrisy. Compassion  would have been in short supply.

This situation elicited a much different response. I found myself experiencing two primary emotions. The first was sadness. What a tragedy for a young man’s life to be cut short for any reason, much less under this cloud of suspicion. He leaves behind children, family, and a host of grieving church members. Regardless of whatever vices he wrestled with, he was no doubt a talented, gifted and creative leader.

The second was understanding. Part of me understands, at some small level perhaps, how a man in his position could end up like this. Pastoral leadership is a demanding and often lonely world. Amplify this by the mega-church status his congregation earned. He no doubt was forced to be a celebrity, a superstar, a hero. Throw in the financial pressures such mega-status involves, the favors and entitlements that accompany affluence, the temptations and perks that follow along being surrounded by folks who mix friendship with chicanery—well you have a pretty lethal mix. My hunch is that he could ill-afford to be human. It makes sense how this guy ended up where he did.

Every pastor can relate to this world to some degree. Even in a small church (perhaps especially in a small church?) the demands can be unrealistic and suffocating. Many a pastor have fantasized about driving away and calculating how far they can get before anyone knows they’re gone. I remember occasions when I secretly envied guys who had heart attacks. At least they had a legitimate reason to quit and be free from the demands.

Congregations often demand a Messiah. While giving lip-service to Jesus the suffering servant, many aren’t any more interested in that kind of Messiah than first century Judaism was. Congregations expect a super-hero–someone with all the right answers, correct political views, unfaltering faith, powerful and charismatic leadership, infallible doctrine, and untouched by sin or personality faults. They lust for three B’s of church growth that measure success: Buildings, Bucks and Bottoms in the pews. They clamor for lots of all three.

What’s a pastor to do? Many of us fall in line. We are seduced by the fantasy that we can be the one who can foot the bill. We busy ourselves concocting the formulas and methods that promise to deliver, and then we sell our soul trying to deliver the goods. Our greed and pride eagerly embraces the idol of success. We want to be the very type of Messiah Jesus had no interest in being.

The result is often some form of being found dead, all alone, with a pocket full of white powder. Such a value system is toxic. It kills relationships, personal integrity, ministry, joy, strength, perspective, and sometimes, literally, people.

It leads to isolation. We don’t believe we can trust anyone with our real selves–our struggles, weaknesses, failures, doubts. We can’t afford to associate with the lowly, to get our hands dirty with humanity. Often times people quit wanting to be around us because we’re moody, arrogant, edgy, and insecure.

The white powder speaks of our secret life. Living in such a system forces us to drive our sin, our vulnerabilities, our brokenness underground. We bury our stuff. But it’s still there; it doesn’t go away. We end up living two lives–the public life of super-Christian hero, and our private world of sin, habits and vices. We work hard to keep them separate. We go to great lengths to hide our private life. We’re careful to only act out when we’re out of town. We keep the evidence safely locked in our closet. But in the end, one way or the other, our container of white powder is exposed. It won’t stay hidden forever.

How much wiser and better we would be to pursue the good enough pastor model. This concept strives to create a different system, one where it’s the norm to embrace our humanity and resist the seductive pull toward perfectionism. Such a system allows us to lead as whole beings, a glorious mix of strengths, gifts, successes, failures, struggles and weakness. It embraces grace, which doggedly believes that we are accepted and loved as we are–that we are good enough.


The Slippery Slope of Being Good

Pastoral ministry attracts people who want to do something meaningful and good with their lives. They genuinely want to help people and further the Kingdom of God. This is good.

But like many things in life, our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.

One of the breakdowns in this pursuit is the shift of thinking that says our parishioners well-being depends primarily upon our performance as a pastor, that the health and success of our congregation sit squarely on our shoulders, and the whole of the Kingdom of God rises and falls on our performance as a pastor.

From an objective viewpoint, these assumptions seem absurd. And they are. However, what we believe rationally and what we believe emotionally are often two different animals. When push comes to shove, our emotional beliefs typically trump our rational thinking.

Such assumptions trap us into problematic beliefs and ministry patterns that become self-defeating, tormenting, and interfere with accomplishing meaningful service and work.

For starters, when that much responsibility rests on our shoulders, we’re left with only one option–perfectionism. There is simply no room for error, no room for weakness, no room for failure. In the end, there is no room for being human. We must be divine. Unfortunately, ministry seems to be a magnet for perfectionists. This deserves its own discussion, which I’ll tackle at a later time.

Another outgrowth of such belief is the over-functioning, people-pleasing pastor. When the welfare of others, the church and the kingdom rises and falls on our performance, we must “be all, for all.” We have to have all the answers, be at every event, provide support in every crisis, have the right direction for every decision, etc. We confuse serving with making sure everyone is happy. Others define our ministry philosophy, our values and our job description. We end up exhausted. Personal and professional boundaries can be crossed.

Finally, we usually end up angry. When we have to be perfect and “be all, for all,” there’s not much margin for disappointments and glitches. Our self-esteem rises and falls on what others say about us, what our numbers show, and how good our church performs. When our church people struggle, fail to show up for meetings or disagree with us, we’re ticked. Truth be told, we end up using people to prop up our sense of self.

The constant demand wears us out. Inevitably we feel unappreciated. We burn out. We resent that ministry is so demanding. Many of us don’t like our Boss so well.

Thankfully, there is another way to approach ministry. Shifting to the “Good Enough Pastor” model allows us to relax, to be gloriously human, to rest, to experience God’s grace.

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