Friday, June 2, 2017

The Repentance Puzzle

 I have been ruminating on repentance for the last few weeks. The seed of this rumination was planted several months ago when I was stunned by an answer to a question  I posed to my audience while speaking for a conference. My question was:

"What happens when you work with someone who cannot apologize?"

The response to this question is usually head nodding and knowing looks cast at colleagues. I almost always get a real, sometimes harsh, examples. On occasion the question has evoked tears. It is also one of the most frequent topics of discussion after my presentation is finished. People come to me in pain because of broken relationships.

It's not pretty, folks.

But, this time I got an answer I did not expect. This teacher told a story of a supervisor who had hurt her and how she felt the relationship was crumbling. This did not surprise me, because I have seen it, experienced it, and caused it, before. When a sin does not result in an apology, then the relationship is hurt. Deep down, both people know the behavior will repeat itself.

But then this teacher continued. 

She told how a friend counseled her that the relationship will not be mended until someone apologizes and it looked like this teacher was going to have to do it. So, she did. The unnecessary apology was accepted and the work relationship continued - but it was not fixed. No, not by any means. You could still see the hurt and distrust on this dear teacher's face.

I have experienced this a handful of times in my life - and I'll bet you have too. I remember instances of being deeply hurt by the words or actions of a friend or colleague, and then finding that I needed to find a reason to apologize just to restore the relationship. It is as if the need for repentance hangs between two people until someone gives - even if it is the person on the other side of repentance. 

I believe that this is part of our conscience. We have a conscience because we have God's law written in our hearts. When sin happens, we feel it deep inside. But, if we cannot admit to our mistake, if we cannot admit to our sin, if we cannot admit to hurting another, then we turn from repentance rather than submit to it. We convince ourselves that we were justified in the anguish we caused and that we somehow deserve the apology from the person we hurt

This creates quite the puzzle. The relationship needs repair - but the person who was hurt ends up apologizing. This might temporarily repair a relationship - but it likely does more harm than good. Now, the injured party begins to lose trust. If a friend or coworker sins, but cannot admit to the sin - that same sin will be repeated. Now we have a relationship wherein one person can expect abuse and the other feels justified in abusive action. 

Either side of this issue can happen to any of us. Sin begets sin; it can do no other.

God has had to work long and hard to even begin to teach me how to forgive someone who is not apologetic. I still struggle with this and will until my dying day. But, I had not thought before about the consequences to others when the correct apology does not happen. Even if I forgive, the damage is still there.

God tells us to repent in order to turn away from our sin and toward Him. This is an important part of our faith life. Repentance results in forgiveness reminding us of the blessing of grace. Repentance also works to teach us what needs to be changed in our behavior. Furthermore, repentance needs to happen for our understanding of our need for salvation.

The heartfelt response of the teacher at the conference reminded me that the need for repentance is also important to our ability to maintain group fellowship. A missed, or misplaced repentance will result in a ripple effect spreading to other relationships. Think of a supervisor who cannot apologize - that broken relationship will spread and infect nearly everything that administrator does. Think about two colleagues who can no longer work together. That will spread to others on staff. Think of a parent who cannot apologize and what that teaches the child. Sin begets sin; it can do no other.

My prayer, today, is that God will show me when I need to repent.  In fact, I need to ask Him to relentlessly hound me. When God brings me to repentance, when I do not turn from that repentance and instead admit my sin, apologize, and receive forgiveness, then that particular sin can stop with me.

Even in our sin-caused pain, God finds opportunity to bless us.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tattoo Grace

In this clip Dr. Phil and a TV client get some good advice from tattoo artist Kat Von D

Sometimes Dr. Phil has a great turn of phrase. One of my favorites is

I used that one with kindergartners and university students, alike. I am not sure I made any kind of a difference, but it was fun to say.

Another one that works well for me to mentally recite before opening my mouth:


While Dr. Phil’s famous quips gain him high viewer ratings, and for all I know might be excellent therapy advice, they are most certainly lopsided theologically.

Dr. Phil is all about the law. It’s often smart law, but it is law, all the same.

The therapy we get from God includes both law and grace and that is infinitely more effective.

I really noticed this truth about grace in the clip. Dr. Phil is working with a teen, apparently engaged in some unsafe tattoo practices. He talks with her about being safe instead of being stupid. He does not seem to be getting anywhere with that line of reasoning so he asks Kat Von D to chime in.

Kat's response is completely different. She draws on her experiences as a teen and reminds the young girl that even though her mother sounds like a “mother” it’s is simply because she loves her. In a few sentences she has the young girl seeing her mother in a new light. I don’t know if the determination to get tattoos changed but she sure seemed more open to waiting until she was 18 and proceeding safely. It did not surprise me to find out Kat's parents are missionaries because she countered law with grace. And grace made all the difference.

It is a challenge to know when to apply law and when to apply grace. It is easy to assert that a confident sinner needs law and a contrite sinner needs grace, but we can’t see into the heart of an individual. This young girl seemed like a confident sinner rebelling by disobeying her mother. But, perhaps she was secretly condemning herself.

When I teach future teachers about classroom discipline I like to make the point that if a discipline technique is not working do not follow up with more of the same. If a punishment is not working it is not likely that a more severe punishment will work. Likewise, if a reward does not work, a larger one is not likely to be more effective.

Although, if United Airlines is willing  to pay thousands of dollars to get me off the plane that WILL work.

The bottom line is if rewards and punishments (both law, by the way) are not working you have to try something else. In the classroom that usually involves finding out what motivates the student. For example, if a student is motivated to avoid a behavior because of fear, than no amount of punishment or reward will change that. The fear needs to be addressed. For that, grace will make all the difference.

Romans chapter eight has much to say about what law can and cannot do:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Romans 8: 1-6

Law has its purpose in our lives. It brings us to our knees so we realize our need for forgiveness. It keeps us in check, and it gives the forgiven Christian a rightful path. But it does not have the power to change us. Only God’s grace can do that. Grace changes us from a condemned sinner to a Spirit filled child of God. Jesus conquered our rebellious disobedience when He gave His life on the cross. We still need the law, but we no longer walk under its condemnation. We walk in the peace of grace and forgiveness.

Not even Dr. Phil can top that.

Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.  How’s that workin' out for ya?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Creating Catastrophe

Because many pain medications do not work well for chronic pain, science is looking for a better understanding of how chronic pain works and how to treat it. One significant factor recently seen is that many people who suffer chronic pain have a practice of catastrophizing. This is a tendency to magnify the threat of pain. It is not that their pain is “all in their head” but rather that their head makes their pain worse by fearing it.

I learned this lesson while teaching young children. I suspected that for some children the fear of what had happened, falling and scraping a knee for example, was the real reason behind the tears of pain. In fact, when I addressed that fear the pain was soon forgotten. Whereas, when I did not address the fear and instead only treated the wound, the pain seemed to live on longer than necessary.

Catastrophizing is not just a pain enhancer. It also nurtures anxiety and depression. It does not cause any of these conditions, but it sort of grows pain, anxiety, and hopelessness by focusing on the fear surrounding these conditions. It is as if fear and pain, whether physical or emotional, get mixed together and this action creates more of the problem.

Just like with my former kindergartners, I often have to talk myself out of catastrophizing my worry and pain.

I misread a social cue and fear that someone is angry.

I find a new ache and fear it will grow into pain and prevent me from doing things I love.

I worry over a situation and fear it will never resolve. 

I condemn myself for a mistake and fear it will mark me as stupid. 

I stand up for myself and fear I have destroyed a relationship.

There are days when my head is itself a catastrophe. I don’t like feeling anxious or depressed, but I also know that fear often makes things appear worse than they are.

This all comes back to, what is for me, a familiar theme. In whom do I trust? If I trust myself then catastrophizing is not a misunderstanding of the situation; it is likely an accurate assessment. If I trust God, then catastrophizing only works to chip away at my God-given faith.

Over and over again in Scripture, God brings peace and prosperity out of catastrophe. In fact, given our propensity to muck things up, God has nearly a full time job to fixing, calming, and curing. Certainly we cannot accomplish this on our own. With God we can set aside fear and deal with pain on a fair standing. We can look anxiety, depression, or pain in the eye and know that while these three can attack they cannot defeat. 

Without faith, Jesus' death seems a catastrophe. With faith, we understand the victory. Jesus' victory over death and the devil assures that while we may fight with pain, anxiety, and depression, they will not defeat us. 

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing  that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. I Corinthians 15: 56-58

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Headwinds or Tailwinds?

The other evening I listened to an interesting podcast on behavioral research called the Headwind/tailwind asymmetry. The study describes a human miserception that our barriers are always greater than our benefits. It seems that when we are struggling we are very aware of our struggle and wish for the time of trial to be over. But, when we are no longer struggling we can afford to ignore the situation and so we lose awareness of how we may be benefiting from a particular blessing.

This leads to some troubling problems. It leaves us with a sneaking suspicion that others have it better than we do. Other pro teams have easier schedules than our team; the opposing political faction has an easier time of raising money; and of course we all know that our siblings had it easier than we did growing up.

Wait . . . is it really possible that everyone’s sibling had it easier? The research suggests that at least the perception is real.

The other problem this “poor me” attitude promotes is the rationalization for cheating. Apparently the thin line between ethical behavior and cheating gets blurred when one is convinced the deck is stacked. I suspect we just begin to think that minor cheating simply levels the playing field, a bit. Well, it’s only fair, right?

I am thinking the corollary to “God is good. God is good; all the time.” must surely be “Sinners are sinful. Sinners are sinful; all the time.” We have even found a way to turn blessings onto sins. We simply ignore our blessings and pacify our hurt feelings into justification for creating our own blessings.

Next think we know we will be insisting that Lent is all about us. It is about our suffering and our afflictions. This must be true because we seem to be suffering all the time. Yet, Luther reminds us that “We should, therefore, always have an eye on the long list of divine benefactions, both natural and spiritual. Then we shall see that where there is a drop of evil, there is also a veritable sea of God’s benefactions.” 

If we take an accurate account we need only remind ourselves that sin earns us nothing better than constant affliction. Yet, Jesus offers constant grace.

Even when we sin, forgiveness waits for us.

Even when we imagine we suffer ill treatment, salvation has been earned for us.

Even when we find it difficult to love ourselves, God loves us:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's. Psalm 103:1-5

No, Lent is not about our suffering. In spite of the fact that our suffering is deserved, our God blesses us and stands with us, providing strength and comfort. We have no reason to complain and every reason to rejoice in gratitude. Furthermore, even that gratitude is a blessing given by God.

We are blessed and loved, indeed.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the same, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12: 1-2