When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

(v. 2)

Narcissism is not merely a psychological phenomenon. It’s a theological one, too. It concerns how we speak of and participate in God’s life. In the coming blog posts, I’m going to highlight how this impacts key doctrines and themes that are often used and abused by narcissists, especially narcissistic pastors, for the sake of their self-protective strategies. This in turn leads to what I often call the “narcissistic debris field” in churches and among Christians who once trusted their unassailable leader, but now question faith and wonder about God’s goodness.

I may not get to everything I’d like to get to, and I want to save some of this as further content for the book I’m writing (When Narcissism Comes to Church). But I’d love to hear how you resonate with the themes I present. How have you seen this play out? What are ways you’ve seen theology used and abused? Offer your thoughts in the comments section or via email.

This is not intended as a criticism of any particular doctrine – that would make for a much longer essay, and one I may not be qualified to write. It is to ask the questions: how do our psychological needs lead us into particular doctrinal stances? How do our self-protective strategies prompt us to re-frame doctrines? How might we become more reflective about our theology, not less, in pursuit of psychological health?

So, let’s first summarize the biggies, and I’ll go into more detail as I can in the next few weeks.

A theology of sin – It may be ironic that pastors, churches and denominations that claim “a high doctrine of sin” often protect, hide, and defend the sinner. I may see this more because of my familiarity with and work within Reformed contexts, but I’ve never seen a high doctrine of sin jettisoned more quickly than when a narcissistic pastor’s reputation is on the line. Sure, the doctrine comes in handy when the elders are tracking down folks having premarital sex or preparing their statements on homosexuality. But quite miraculously, the get-out-of-jail Grace Card seems readily available to the charismatic, grandiose, and inspiring leader who…well…probably just had a bad day. More often than not, I see sin reduced to bad behavior/actions. Sin is something he did wrong (but, of course, he repented and all is well…more on that to come). They do not see sin as a complex matrix of motivations, attitudes, and actions which are rooted in hiding, self-protection and self-preservation (Gen. 3), requiring a deep commitment to self-understanding over a long period of time. They do not have categories for psychopathology (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, etc) which are deeply resistant to change, constantly morphing into new shapes and identities, and requiring long-term care. Picture an iceberg where only aImage result for iceberg small shard of ice is visible above the waterline. This is the sin they treat, ignoring the massive mountain of ice beneath. And in so doing, the debris field of damage within and without is ignored.

Repentance – A shallow view of sin leads to a shallow repentance. Shallow repentance looks like admitting the troubling behavior and committing to not doing it again – case closed. And thus, shallow repentance leads to quick restoration. After all, who wouldn’t believe the sincerity of a pastor who preaches so wonderfully and charismatically, and who has influenced so many? Shallow repentance can look like blame dressed in the garments of personal responsibility – “I’m really sorry that hurt you.” Shallow repentance can also look ‘raw and honest’, at times – see my blog on fauxnerability. It can be accompanied by words that seem spiritual – “Saul lifted up his voice and wept…I have sinned” (see 1 Sam 24; Matt. 7:3). But it’s another manifestation of narcissism’s grandiosity and incapacity to connect with the true self. It is repentance as self-preservation, not as confession “with grief and hatred of one’s sin,” as the old Puritan once put it. And narcissists do this really well! Even more, shallow repentance only repents of the above-the-waterline behaviors, for looking beneath is harder, more timely, and would likely reveal a depth of deceit within that he doesn’t want to see. (PS: Notice how quickly these pastors demonize therapists, and switch from one to another in order to find one who will collude.)

Forgiveness – All of this (above) leads to an expectation that the narcissist and/or abuser will be forgiven (which also means restored). In this, the burden quickly switches from abuser to victim, as anyone impacted is asked to forgive quickly and fully out of a spiritual duty. Anything less than full forgiveness is narrated as angry, petty, grudge-holding, and un-spiritual. Within this is a pitifully vacuous theology of Grace – again, grace as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ah yes, it’s dressed up in pretty words like Wild, Lavish, Unconditional, Prodigious, and more. However, if you’ve done hours of interviews with staff members like I have who’ve worked under these Grace-preaching folks, it’s not pretty at all, as they will tell vastly similar stories of abuse, gaslighting, rage, manipulation, deceit, addiction, and more. Grace extended to one who is diagnosably narcissistic is indeed a reminder of God’s lavish love for every broken sinner, but is made manifest in a careful and loving process geared to each particular situation, and with expert clinical consultation.

Sanctification – I’ll need to do some more work around this, but I have a theory that Protestantism’s centuries-long failure of imagination for sanctification has led to a tragic fissure between doctrine and life, manifesting in moralism/legalism (sanctification as law-keeping) on the one end and libertinism on the other (sanctification as enjoying your get-out-of-jail-free card). I think that one of the many reasons I and others have gravitated toward the larger tradition (Catholic and Orthodox spirituality) is for a more rich imagination for spiritual maturation, for character, for discipleship – theosis! I think that one of the reasons we see narcissism so embedded in evangelicalism, from the evangelical love-affair with Trump to our obsession with grandiose pulpiteers, is because we lack a substantial spiritual theology with implications and practices for becoming more fully human. We’ve given this over to the therapeutic community, detached from the church, which privatizes the whole thing. I’ll have much more to say on this, I suspect.

Guilt and Shame – We also have an inadequate understanding of the theological and psychological dynamics of guilt and shame. I have a working theory that narcissistic pastors are driven by shame (which, of course, they don’t see) but obsessed with guilt (which weighs on them mightily, leading them to preach against it with their Audacious, Robust theologies of Grace). Often, their theologies are adopted in service of quieting the devastatingly loud voice of shame within, which they misinterpret as guilt, leading to the adoption of overly juridicial atonement theories. Because they dismiss guilt as a manifestation of the law, they fail to develop a mature conscience, and this emotional stuntedness appears in secret battles with addictions (sex/porn, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) and an incapacity to relate healthily. They don’t realize that their real battle is with shame, which also exists beneath that behavioral waterline, and which drives their compensatory, grandiose, empathy-deficient false self. Every single narcissistic pastor I’ve seen shows up strikingly in a pulpit, but is stuck at a much younger emotional/developmental age in a way that creates a damaging debris field. The process of growth takes a lot of time, which makes me wonder about these quick turnarounds I’m seeing among recently scandalized pastors. Note: I’m writing for the community I know best, but I’ve seen shame-fueled NPD manifest in the theological constructs of Pentecostals and Progressives, Episcopalians and Emergent.

Ecclesiology – I’ve seen the most narcissism in contexts of church plants, non-denominational networks, and low-church settings. Yes, I’ve seen it among high-church Catholic priests I’ve seen, too. But more often than not, those with NPD like the freedom of starting something new (which means building their own leadership team, where power dynamics and inadequate training come into play). They like networks where structures are loose, polity is underdeveloped, seminary ed isn’t required, and accountability is low. They like the freedom and flexibility of creating worship experiences that center on the personality and sermon of the preacher. If they are grandiose and charismatic enough, they can and will find their way into more accountable settings, but they’ll use their power and ecclesial protectors to shield them from real accountability.

God’s Sovereignty – Often, shame-based narcissistic pastors will adopt an overly transcendent and distant theology of God. The God who “holds one over the pit of hell as a spider” (not implying Edwards was a narcissist, btw) is a theology that actually revealsImage result for god as judge one’s psychology, one’s view of himself at the depths. But out of touch with his shame, he externalizes his self-deprecation in a theology that has a “theoretically” high view of sin (see above) and an overly transcendent view of God that distances himself from real vulnerability, with God and others. The last part of the last sentence is loaded, and requires unpacking, which I don’t have the space to do here. But a narcissist is incapable of real vulnerability, and an intimate encounter with Jesus requires it. With anyone I’ve ever worked with who is diagnosably narcissistic and has, with lots of time and therapy, grown into self-awareness and maturation, there will be an inevitable question they have about whether or not they ever knew God. (I’ll remind them that God is so kind that he has always known them and never left them…it was they who, addicted to the false self, lived apart from God). Note: what psychological needs might an overly immanent picture of God emerge from?

OK, that’s a start. There is so much more ground to cover. What about a theology of gender? A theology of divorce and marriage? A theology of victimization? What else?…let me know! I wanted to begin with the big categories.

Ultimately, this is a challenge to mature theologically, as well! With John Calvin and Augustine, I believe that self-knowledge is a prerequisite for any healthy God-talk. When theology and psychology become friends, wonderful things happen. I could name a number of more recent books by theologians that are beautifully self-reflective. How does this post invite you to reflect more carefully on your own theology? How does the theological tradition you are in reflect your own psychological needs or dispositions? What about this post connected with you, and needs further reflection on your part?

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When Narcissism Doesn’t Look So Grandiose – “Vulnerable” Narcissism

I thought you’d be interested in this short tid-bit I’ll elaborate on in the book.

In nearly 20 years of counseling diagnosably narcissistic individuals and in two years of writing (in fits and starts!), I thought I had a pretty good grasp on definitions. That is, until I got the big green book, the Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Paging through the dense volume, I came upon the phrase Narcissistic Vulnerability. An entirely new dimension of narcissism was opened to me.

Cover art

You won’t find a distinction between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. As it sounds, grandiose narcissism looks like the classic definition of grandiosity – supposed superiority, a lack of empathy, impairments in identity and intimacy.

On the other hand, vulnerable narcissism looks more fragile, hyper-vigilant, shy, sensitive, and depressed. It may look a bit more like Borderline Personality Disorder, but it isn’t – it is another face of narcissism.

Craving attention and approval, vulnerable narcissists may act out of a fear of abandonment, demanding love and anxiously grasping after it. This may just be the flip side of grandiose narcissism for some, a kind of ego-deflated state they find themselves in when the world isn’t admiring them or when failure comes their way. But it can harden into a chronic state of helplessness, where the narcissistic ego becomes sticky, manipulative, even self-sabotaging. This narcissism ain’t quite as pretty as the dressed-up narcissism manifesting in grandiosity.

I recall a pastor who was a self-described curmudgeon. He was constantly picking fights – often theological fights – just for the sake of the drama and the attention it afforded him, especially when congregational spectators would gather around. He reminded people often that “few people get me,” and paraded a kind of “woe is me” theology (often citing Isaiah 6 as his life verse) that highlighted his belief that “no one is good, no not one” (Rom 3:10-12). But this masked something else – just about everyone who knew him saw this as precisely the opposite, a subtle arrogance masked in words intended to show humility. He controlled through passive-aggressive means, he quietly judged all who didn’t see the world like he did, and (as his wife would later tell me) he was the most depressing, self-centered man you’d ever meet. Yet, for many who followed his weekly blog, he was a saint, a defender of truth, the last man with theological integrity.

Vulnerable narcissists secretly clamor for affirmation and adoration, but instead of claiming it as a matter of arrogant entitlement, they manipulate and maneuver in ways that are just as toxic and harmful. Curiously, this kind of narcissism manifests within systems, too, and is sometimes called “low self-esteem narcissism.” Indeed, an entire church system may be infected with this ego-deflated, manipulative, and chronically depressive state. Some churches manifest the same qualities as the pastor above, secretly proud of their low view of themselves, claiming a high doctrine of sin but failing to see their judgmentalism, control, arrogance, certainty, and more often than not racism and sexism.

If you’re following me so far, you’ll sense that this is a tough form of narcissism to deal with and confront. The “superior-victim” dynamic is sticky. The self-centeredness allows for little to no real introspection. The narrative of being misunderstood or neglected shows up in blaming everyone but himself/herself. There is a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy, a belief that it will never get better with a corresponding pull for you to make it better, ultimately by seeing how special, great, humble, misunderstood, or saintly he/she is. I see an especially significant debris field of toxicity when someone divorces a vulnerable narcissist, as he/she can switch to yet another gear of manipulation, control, and victimization. Lord have mercy.

Narcissism comes in many forms – this is just one instance of a kind of narcissism that looks different than the caricature. In the book I’m writing, I devote an entire chapter to a kind of experiment – I’m looking at narcissism through the nine faces of the Enneagram. That’s a fun chapter, and reveals even more nuance. But allow me to say this – my goodness, this is the toughest book I’ve written…even tougher than the book with “tough people” in the title! Thanks to those of you who’ve said you are praying.

Peace.

 

 

so, you’re married to a narcissist and you want to leave him?

“It’s like I was a frog in a slow-boiling kettle,” she says to me, shuttering from the trauma of having to re-tell her story again. “I had no idea what was happening to me. I didn’t like the person I was becoming – bitter, passive-aggressive, emotionally distant – but never before had I connected it to the fact that I felt unsafe, fearful, used.”

Through months of counseling, she had identified in her marriage patterns of emotional manipulation, sexual aggressiveness, mockery for her appearance, vacillations of reactive anger and lustful sweet talk, restricted freedom to work and travel, entitlement, over-spending, and porn addiction. In counseling, her husband’s fauxnerability played out in gestures of seeming repentance, but their therapist called him on his lack of specific repentance and incapacity to name long-term patterns instead of mere occasional behaviors. In time, he doubled-down, blaming her “sexual unavailability, bitter spirit, and failure to submit to his loving leadership in the home.” Resigned and eager to be free of his constant gaslighting, she filed for divorce. And that’s when he released hellfire.

I’ve told versions of this story in all of my books. Maybe you read parts of your story in it. This is because I’ve seen this, not once, not twice, but dozens of times in countless marriages, from Orlando, to San Francisco, to Holland, where I now reside.

I hear it in stories you send me through email and social media. I also hear the pain of being cast from your church families, ostracized by biological family members, ignored at work, and thrust into uncertainty. “I had to learn to use a mower and fix a garbage disposal,” one of my clients said. Even more, the scarlet letter of shame looms.

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I’ve received one-too-many “you counseled my wife to divorce me” letters from spouses and “you’re counseling couples toward unfaithfulness” from pastors. I don’t cheer couples on to divorce. As a child of divorce, I felt the pain of it acutely and still deal with the implications and disruptions today. I do try to honor the Bible’s pattern of caring for the abused, the weak, the neglected, the betrayed, and those most vulnerable. My own study of Scripture was helped immensely by both of Dr. David Instone-Brewer’s works on Scripture and divorce. He emphasizes how conservative Jesus was in his re-affirmation of the sacredness of marriage. In that day, a man could divorce a woman for just about any cause. Don’t like her cooking? Don’t care for her new haircut? End the marriage. Jesus re-emphasized the sanctity of marriage, undermining shallow notions of faithfulness.

And yet, Instone-Brewer shows how lovingly pastoral and affirming of a woman’s dignity Jesus and his followers were. Even though the end of a marriage is a rupture in the shalom we’re made for, pastoral provisions were made for those who found themselves in marriages where fidelity was broken. He highlights through a careful study of Scripture three grounds for divorce:

  1. Adultery (in Deuteronomy 24:1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
  2. Emotional and physical neglect (in Exodus 21:10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7)
  3. Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, as affirmed in 1 Corinthians 7) (via David Instone-Brewer’s short article, including his response to an inevitable critique from John Piper, here)

Indeed, in a time when we’re discovering the depths of narcissistic abuse in the church, when we’re seeing major, trusted Christian leaders revealed to be duplicitous, when the supposed “good-guys” are discovered to be abusive and untrustworthy, we can re-discover afresh just how gracious Jesus was to provide a path to freedom and healing for wounded spouses. Making provisions for the vulnerable shows just how significant marital faithfulness is to God and just how important you are to God.

That said, for every spouse I counsel, whether male or female, who experiences the bite of a narcissist in a relationship, I always encourage seeing a wise and experienced therapist who gets the dynamics of narcissistic relationships, and who both honors the sacredness of marriage and employs pastoral wisdom and agility.

In the end, Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is crystal clear in its call for dignity for victims and its warnings to the powerful. In becoming the forgiving victim, Jesus demonstrates a love that provides a pathway for healing for both victims and abusers while not-at-all denying the evil of and justice for those who don’t surrender their power. Jesus provides a path of transformation for each-and-every one one of us ready and willing to give up trying to fix ourselves and ready and willing to surrender to a death-to-the-old process, which can be humbling, even humiliating. That transforming journey is available to anyone addicted to the self-justifying, self-protecting, self-admiring self-salvation project of narcissism. I personally love to work with those sincerely committed to this work, and can testify to the power of transformation.

But isn’t it kind, loving, and so in-character that Jesus would make a way for you, you the “frog in the boiling kettle,” you the one who thought her years were lost, you who endured humiliation, you who felt so guilty and ashamed, you whose God paves pathways of freedom for wholeness, healing, and transformation? God may hate divorce, but God sure does love you.

 

fauxnerability in the church: what is it? what do we do about it?

25 years ago when I was just getting in the seminary/church/pastor game, vulnerability was not a high value. Things have changed. But with a higher value on transparency, authenticity and vulnerability in the church, there is a dark ‘flip-side’ that we need to be aware of.

Recently, I listened to the final sermon of a pastor whose affair was found out the week after this sermon, and who committed suicide not long after. Strewn throughout the sermon were phrases like “Gospel brokenness” and “unconditional acceptance” and “idols to repent of” along with admissions about the messiness of life and the power of God to transform our wounds like God had done for this pastor. Imagine the shock and sense of betrayal when the congregation found out about his year long sexual relationship with a female admirer of his who he met while speaking at a conference. The discovery was followed by days of throwing his wife under the bus for “emotionally abandoning” him. In the end, the shattered narcissistic false self led him to the tragic conclusion that if that self was gone, he was gone. And so, he acted on this belief, ending his life violently. The self-hatred was apparent in his final act.

A friend and pastor in a sister denomination reached out to me this past week in response to my last blog on narcissism, and offered a sobering reminder. He told me that many of the larger “Gospel-centered” church pastors in his denomination who, in fact, enjoy my writings or Diane Langberg’s stuff on narcissism or Dan Allender and have some passion about injustices and sex scandals are, in fact, the biggest perpetrators of narcissistic abuse. And this is what increasingly frightens me – the epidemic of fauxnerability – pastors (and many others) who are emotionally intelligent enough to share a general “messiness” about their lives (often in broad strokes admitting weakness and need), but who are radically out of touch with their true selves. They’ve dressed up the false self in a new garment – the garment of faux vulnerability, with the accompanying Gospel vocabulary of weakness, need, brokenness, dependence, idolatry and more. And they may be more dangerous than pastors who simply don’t give a damn about living vulnerably.Image result for vulnerability

When a twisted form a vulnerability is used in service of a spiritual false self, congregations are thrown into painful and often contentious seasons of gossip, opposition, choosing sides, and living in trauma and confusion. I saw it again recently. An influential church elder whose wife left him fell on the sword, confessing emotional unavailability, workaholism, and sexual addiction in a posture of ‘repentance’. He has not done the hard work of long-term therapy to root out deeper issues (which, can I just say, shows a remarkably low doctrine of sin…and I see this all-the-time among so-called Reformed folk.) He now moves from person to person, to any listening ear, sharing about his “brokenness” and “sin” in seemingly a repentant package only to groom his listeners into empathy and trust for the sake of (…wait for it….) the grand finale – a seemingly innocent, reluctant, but calculated swipe at his wife – for her impatience with him, for her raging anger, for her unforgiveness, for not willing to engage him. Before you know it, they’re all in tears. I see this happen time and again.

Commercial break for a quick and important note: When I write, I almost always receive 1-2 emails from former clients or pastors or pastors I don’t even know saying, “Why are you writing about me? I’ll sue you.” Even though my policy is to shift details to sufficiently conceal identities, I still get it…it’s always about you….which led a friend to remind me of the Carly Simon song You’re So Vain (…bet you thought this ‘blog’ was about you!) This is yet another sign of narcissism. Truth told, I’ve seen hundreds of clients, and similar storylines pop up all the time amidst narcissistic dynamics. 

So…Is there an antidote to fauxnerability? I’m not so sure. Folks susceptible to it can seem psychologically sophisticated (they know their Enneagram and MBTI and DISC) and some even go to therapy (people, there are a lot of bad therapists out there who simply polish up the false self). Like any form of narcissism, they will need to own a struggle with it and go on a long, honest journey. But, in the meantime and as we deal with this in churches, I’ll leave you with a few final observations about what to look for and do:

  • Be brutally aware of the contradictions you see in these people. They’ll be going along well, but something will trigger them and you’ll feel/see their rage or high anxiety or defensiveness, etc. Don’t let there be a “we’re all broken and have contradictions” excuse.
  • Don’t trust words, trust character change and stability over time.
  • Beware of vulnerability which focuses on the past – “I struggled with porn” or “I was such a broken sinner.” That isn’t vulnerability. Vulnerability is about showing up courageously in the present moment with how you are currently impacting someone or experiencing your inner life in that moment. These folks cannot bear the weight of the present moment.
  • Be aware of the eventual “but…” This comes out as “I shouldn’t have blown my stack like that…but…this is the weakest staff I’ve ever had, and they’re lucky they still have jobs…” or “but…as a spouse she’s never loved me the way I needed to be loved.”
  • Look for staged fauxnerability…as in, a pastor or leader who conjure up tears at will, whether during a poignant story in a sermon or in a behind closed doors pastoral counseling session.
  • Note the victim mentality. Because they are out-of-touch with inner realities, things are always talked about from the perspective of something/one outside of them or their control. Sometimes this is about how others have hurt, about a “problem” staff member, or a bad policy. They will eventually pivot to being the victim, and even present themselves as a victim of “sin” or “evil” as outside forces – “sin just got the best of me.” (hint: this is not repentance)
  • Notice the difference between their words and your experience of them. From the stage, a narcissistic pastor may tell a hard story of being abused as a child and you may feel pulled toward empathy. But in person, you will experience a sense of distance and connecting to them will feel difficult, if not impossible.
  • Note the slimy factor. Some will tell me that their narcissistic pastor or spouse or friend feels slimy or icky or…well, you know…you’ve surely felt this before!
  • Pay attention to their lack of inner curiosity. If you dare bring up the contradiction you witness, you will receive defensiveness, not curiosity. A vulnerable person is always a curious person and won’t resist your feedback.
  • Be aware of general repentance vs. specific repentance. General repentance may be “I’ve struggled with porn” while a more specific confession will not just engage behavior but a long-term relational pattern, like a pattern of misogyny or a style of relating which is condescending and dismissive. A humble person will share specifically and appropriately, to the right people. A humble person will repent ahead of hurting you, because he’s well-aware of his patterns. And he will be accountable.
  • Be aware of over-sharing – the emotional “dump” is not an act of vulnerability for some, but a way of using you as confessor or to engender sympathy or to take their side. We share more significant details with those we’re closest to, not everyone who asks how we’re doing.
  • Note how self-referential he is. Because someone who practices fauxnerability lost their capacity to mirror, to empathize, to truly be present to another, his sharing will take up all the space in the relationship. He is not sharing to connect or for mutuality.

Why Writing on Narcissism in the Church is So Hard

I was reading a description of my “INFJ” personality this week and it hit me again – I’m a mess. My head spun as a I read painfully true quotes about my personality type:

You may become easily entangled and absorbed in how others are behaving or what they think of you. 

Due to their high sensitivity, they tend to be very compassionate people who are overly generous and conscientious to the needs of others. This makes them a target for predators like narcissists who seek to exploit them. That’s why it’s important for INFJs to develop a “radar” for emotional con artists and move slowly in relationships to ward off these toxic types.

They are easily overwhelmed by bullying types who treat others with a reckless disregard or abrasiveness. The exception being, of course, manipulative charmers who can “present” a more gentle personality type at the onset, but later unmask themselves to be cruel and callous. INFJs can have a more difficult time detoxing from these types of manipulators simply because of the trauma this “unmasking” reveals.

Ouch. Of course, there were stunningly positive lines that should have soothed my self-deprecating, INFJ/E4 soul. But these, and a few choice others, sent me spiraling. That, and perhaps the fact that I’m slowly tapering off of Zoloft after 20 years.

I’ve been pastoring and counseling and teaching for two decades now. That ought to provide some sense of self-assurance, confidence, even a sense of “expertise,” as these new friends described it when I did a recent podcast on narcissism.  But as I put it in a book on narcissism I’ve been chipping away on for 2 years, narcissism’s bite stings, and it stays with you a long time. I hear those lines above and they say to me: “You’re too broken, too confused, too enmeshed, too gullible.”

For years, I’ve watched the debris field – on a personal level, in close relationships, with clergy, in clients I care about, on church staffs. I am personally involved in this book in aImage result for narcissismway I’ve not been involved with any other. But, as the INFJ article also indicates, people with my personality see things – we see systemic issues before others do, we have an eerily intuitive sense of impending crisis, we have a highly active imagination which plays out multiple possible scenarios. This makes me a pretty good counselor – one who can see the contingencies, who can imagine multiple pathways, who can assess troubling systemic dynamics. It’s also…exhausting. Thus, my on-again-off-again relationship with this book I call When Narcissism Comes to Church. 

It is coming along. Seven chapter are complete, and I think they’re helpful. But a final piece is tough – I am mindful of all of the possible pieces I’m missing, whether I’ve just neglected to follow a lead or whether I’ll be courageous enough to say the hard things or whether my own issues blind me to something or whether I’ll write something worthy of the courageous people who’ve been bitten by narcissism’s angry bite. Mindful of this during my times of contemplative prayer, these sessions have been more difficult than usual, as my sense of focus, presence, and clarity is all over the place.

So, if you’re inclined to it, pray for me. If you’re up for it, send me a note to say, “Please write on this.” If you want, send me some encouragement! If you’ve got an idea – I’m all ears. I’d love to offer the church the most helpful, the most honest, and the most challenging book I can on narcissism.

 

“Just Become Yourself”: A Bad Line from a Disney Movie or the Wisest Counsel of All?

Become yourself.

It might sound like a bad line from a Disney movie. Or a trite piece of advice from a self-help guru.

I was working with a client in the first years I practiced as a therapist. After six weeks of work, she spontaneously uttered, “I think I’m done with counseling. I’ve found myself!” To which I uttered kiddingly, “Wow, I’m really good at this.”

Her revelation was real and deeply felt. In week 5 of counseling, she’d left a manipulative abuser. We celebrated her courage! In her first five days of freedom, she cut her hair (he insisted she keep it long), she burned a photo album, and she bought two new outfits she’d wanted for months. She came in to our session beaming, convinced of her lasting freedom and blessed autonomy.

While I celebrated her very real experience of life and vitality, I (perhaps for the first time) used a story I’d later draw upon in my first book. I said, “I imagine you feel a lit bit like the Israelites felt on that first day out of slavery, released from their oppressors and overwhelmed by the promise of freedom. But, I suspect for you, just like them, the wilderness lies ahead. And that’s where we’ll do the real work together. That’s where the real freedom is found.”

I like inviting men and women to become themselves, and I’ve retitled my blog in this season because I want to reclaim this invitation, allowing it to be enriched by a larger story, a better promise, a rich spirituality of becoming. Becoming oneself is not like flipping a psychological light-switch within. It’s not about finding your autonomy. It’s not about becoming an individual, but a person, not about finding independence, but a surrendered dependence. Aleksandr Kutakh walking 1

Listen to Thomas Merton’s depiction of this journey:

“Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive uncontrollable dynamic of fabrication designed to protect mere fictitious identities – ‘selves,’ that is to say, regarded as objects. … Such is the ignorance which is taken to be the axiomatic foundation of all knowledge in the human collectivity: in order to experience yourself as real, you have to suppress the awareness of your contingency, your unreality, your state of radical need. This you do by creating awareness of yourself as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fill.” (from Raids on the Unspeakable) 

My tradition says it this way:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ

I’m convinced that becoming oneself is the work of a lifetime, as each and every one of our clenched fists of control relaxes as we discover that we’re unfathomably held and loved. I’m convinced that becoming oneself happens as we identify and remove every mask we’ve hid behind in our effort to make ourselves, and as we discover the beauty of those fatherly words from Luke 15: Everything I have is yours. 

Isn’t this what we long for – to be held, to be known, to discover infinite worth and delight?

And so…

Our becoming is a part of a larger story.

Our becoming is a lifelong journey.

Our becoming leads us into a relationship of surrendered dependence.

Our becoming requires many little deaths along the way.

Our becoming awakens us to a life not of hiding, but of hiddenness – “hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3).

Disney tells a pretty good story. This one is just a whole lot better.

 

God is always present. We’re not.

I had one of the those soulful conversations today you have with someone who can finish your sentences. My friend Josh is a spiritual director, and he and I share a conviction some might find outlandish. We feel like we’re on pretty solid ground, though. After all, the venerable St. Augustine said it first.

God is more near to you than you are to yourself.

Let that sink in for the next 50 years. God is home. But we are away. God abides. But we wander. God pursues. But we drift.

When I was younger, I had a strong theology of God’s sovereignty, God’s omniscience, even God’s judgment. But I must have missed the best news of all – God has made his home in me. And in you. And God is infinitely and unfathomably delighted in you.

I shared this while teaching a group of twenty-somethings at a large evangelical church this past week. They’re sincere and passionate. They pray hard. They circle up and call upon God to show up, to be present, to come near. But then they blow it. They drink a little too much, or click on a pornographic website that links to another and to another, all-the-while wondering what God must think. They raise their hands in praise, but five minutes later find themselves gossiping about the person who hasn’t shown up for a few weeks. In other words, they’re like you and me.

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.

And then the guilt and shame sets in. Damn it, God. I’m sorry. You feel so far away right now. And I’m so bad. How can I make it up to you? Guilt…that’s it. I’ll just feel worse about myself. And really wallow in it this time. But seriously…you’re so far away. So, I’ll do my best to deserve you. 

Like the prodigal, we wander. But God is at home all-the-while, residing in the very depths of your soul, not-at-all surprised by your restless spirit, smiling at your silly attempts to win approval. Did you think you could wander away from Love? Do you think I’m that fickle? 

God is more near to you than you are to yourself.

Let that sink in.

Reflections on Two Years of Every.Damn.Day Contemplative Prayer

A little more than two years ago, I set out on an inner adventure. Contemplative practices came and went over the years, but I was ready to commit. A few things conspired to motivate me. A deep dive into neuroscience convinced me that our brains are malleable, and that with intention and practice we can literally die to old neural pathways and live into new, healthier neural pathways. A second realization was connected to my pace of life and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which served me well in the first half of life but seemed insufficient, at best, and just plain unhealthy, at worst. Finally, I was on the verge of my first sabbatical, and rather than writing a book I intuited that this season required something far more difficult – a wrestling match with my “many selves,” as Elizabeth O’Connor might put it. I needed to venture into the dark wood and die. Sounds like a fun sabbatical project, huh?

These are my reflections on the good, the bad, and the ugly of this two year odyssey.

The good.

At 47, I feel more at home in my being, held inexplicably and unfathomably in Love. The paradise of God is not a destination, it is within. It is not acquired, but realized as gift, as already ours. On a cruise a week or so ago, I could not help but look around at the tropical beauty and feel as if I don’t need to travel 1500 miles for it – beauty resides within, the paradisal temple is as near as our own breathe. Augustine says, “Why are you always rushing out of doors but are unwilling to return to your own house. Your teacher is within?” The “interior castle” is not some faraway place, but the center of our being.

My contemplative practice usually involves 20 or so minutes of silence, breathing, and dwelling in Love, like a sponge in the Ocean of God. A line from a Cavanaugh poem accompanies me – “Me I throw away, me sufficient for the day.” Silence opens you to every inner obstacle to union, and the distractions pummel you like hail on an April day in Michigan. The ‘many selves’ have been large-and-in-charge for years, and in my case they’ve served me well. Our “false self,” as Merton puts it, isn’t bad, it’s just stubborn and egocentric. And in these 20 or so minutes, I’ve felt the grip of these imposters loosening, maybe just a bit, giving way to Self, in Christ. Old neural pathways which led to destinations called Envy, Comparison, Control, and more are giving way to new pathways which lead to Love, Rest, Belonging.

That’s the good. Some call this “experiential union,” and it feels like a daily bath in Love. Me-sufficient-for-the-day was a ‘me’ that pushed hard for a very long time, burying my shame under a mound of achievements, constantly creating, producing, and never able to turn off the inner after-burner. I returned to my colleagues after sabbatical without some major accomplishment. (Some say self-publishing ‘Falling Into Goodness’ served as that, but writing that felt like rest to me). Rather, I had this palpable sense, maybe for the first time, that I belonged, to them, to God, to the world. I’ve always felt like I was born on the Island of Misfit Toys. My Enneagram 4 inner narrative has repeatedly whispered, “You don’t belong. You’ll be found out as a fraud.” And I’ve continually tried to do as much as I can to make myself invaluable, even uniquely special. But emerging from sabbatical, there was a sense of – it’s ok. You are here. You are held. Be here now. Show up as you. You don’t have a shiny ‘sabbatical report’ to present – you have you. That’s enough.

So, that’s good, right? What’s the bad, then?

‘Bad’ is not the best descriptor. ‘Challenge’ might be better. The challenge is this – if I’m not my drivenness, what am I? If I’m not accomplishing, who am I? One of the messages of my false self (selves!) is that I need to create a sense of worthiness. A challenge of contemplative prayer is simply to sit in a way that isn’t doing, accomplishing, or mattering in the typical way, but simply being. It is inefficient. And it opens you up to the ugly demons you’ve been running from – shame, depression, insecurity, anxiety.

People see me (mostly) as winsome and confident. My highly intuitive friends and students can see through this sometimes, and sense my anxiety and insecurity. However, in the past couple of years, I’ve had to greet these old companions, facing them, acknowledging them, inviting them to be held in Love. Depression and anxiety have lived just below the surface of my life for decades. And my drivenness, living always a few feet off the ground and above my limitations, has kept them at bay. That…and Zoloft. But the Lenten invitation to return to the dust of my limitations reminded me that I’m only human, that in my mid-forties I can no longer push as hard as I used to, that my strategies are unsustainable. And through this practice of contemplation, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the ‘me’ that is emerging, at times. The question is: will you like me? That’s been the age-old question, I suppose.

I was speaking with my two good friends who sit with me every Wednesday afternoon in a space where we can show up with these questions. I shared with them that I’ve felt less comfortable in the classroom this year. My other selves could show up as funny, sarcastic, sage-like, academic (for whatever occasion!)…but who am I when I’m not wearing the dressing of the false self? I’ve felt young and insecure, at times. In trying to befriend my depression, I’ve been melancholic instead of witty, flat instead of manic. A great gift in this season has been yoga, but yoga puts you in touch with your body, and it, too, conspires to prevent me from avoiding what lurks underneath. Sometimes, I’m not sure if the ‘me’ emerging from the transformative chrysallis is a beautiful butterfly or an ugly moth.

The dying sucks. Living this contemplative journey, however, feels like the only authentic way. It is a journey into and through the dark wood, so controlling the narrative, controlling the process, controlling the outcome isn’t possible. Merton writes, “There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” What if the new self isn’t special? Isn’t cool? Isn’t relevant? What if the new self is an ugly duckling? What if the new self is rejected?

I fear that the disciples didn’t recognize the Resurrected Jesus because they were looking for someone else. We’re always looking for something else, someone else, someone more spectacular. The first contemplatives used the wilderness temptations of Jesus as the basis for contemplative prayer – we do battle with our demons, with our ‘many selves’, with every voice within which seeks to rival the true self. Jesus knew who he was, though, refusing to become spectacular and powerful. He was Loved, inexplicably held in an embrace that allowed him to walk toward suffering. Jesus is the ultimate ‘grown up’ in this sense, and I want to grow up too – to become myself, hidden with Christ in God. The work is hard, though.

Two years ago, I committed to these practices in earnest. Every damn day, as they say. Parts of me are still rebelling – “What are you doing, Chuck? – we had a good thing going.” I’ve become convinced that there is no other way, though. You can’t think or theologize your way there. You’ve got to submit to the dying-and-rising, even when parts of you cry out in rebellion. I’ve called this in my writings the journey to “wholeheartedness,” oneness and worthiness in Jesus. It’s beautiful, as I said at the outset, and it’s scary as hell.

I feel compelled to write more about this ‘growing up’ – I’ve been hesitant, and just wanted to honor the journey for some time. So, if you’re up for it, I may write some more in the coming days and weeks. For now, a sacred love poem to God from Rilke that has become a prayer for me, and maybe can become a prayer for you.

“I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing—
just as it is.

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
or alone.

I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.”

 

 

RETREATS AND CONFERENCES OFFERED

*New Retreat! The Seven Paths to Transformation

Based on new material for my next book, I explore seven unique paths or stages of growth and transformation toward union with Christ. Inspired by St. Teresa’s “seven dwellings” in her Interior Castle, I integrate the wisdom of Scripture, developmental psychology, spiral dynamics, and more to imagine the places of challenge, growth and grace for a transformative journey. This unique “inner pilgrimage” was first inspired by St. Augustine who wrote: 

Why do you go away from your selves and perish from yourselves? Why do you go the ways of isolation? You go astray by wondering about… You are wandering without, an exile from yourself. Return to your heart! See you there what perhaps you perceive about God because the image of God is there. In the inner being Christ dwells; in the inner being you are renewed according to the image of God.

This unique offering can be designed as a standard conference and it can be adapted as a contemplative retreat. 

 

Wholeheartedness: Experiencing Oneness and Worthiness in JesusIMG_0361

Based off of my book Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion and Healing the Divided Heart, we explore our lives of fragmentation, exhaustion, and never feeling quite enough. This very human experience is not new – its roots are ancient. But we need not live any longer feeling pulled in a thousand different directions, playing our futile worthiness games to satisfy unattainable expectations. Wholeheartedness is not a goal – it’s a present reality that we surrender into. Together, we explore what this journey looks like. 

Toughest People to Love: Becoming Courageous Lovers of Ourselves and Others

We all experience difficult people in our lives. More significantly, we experience our own pain and brokenness! Relationship is difficult, particularly in a world filled with people formed with unique stories and wounds. The self-help industry has provided recipes for fixing ourselves and others, but deeply biblical, historical and psychological framework reveals that we are far more complex than we realize…and not easily fixed, like machines. In this conference/retreat, we explore our unique image-bearing identity, what makes us human, what gets us stuck, and how we get unstuck. We explore the dynamics of disorder, addiction, wisdom, and self-knowledge. And in so doing, we gain a vision for courageous love for ourselves and everyone else, even the toughest people to love.

The Enneagram: Nine Obstacles to Union with Christ, Nine Invitations to Freedom

Having studied the Enneagram since the early 2000’s, I am grateful to see the growing interest among all stripes of Christians in this tool for self-awareness and transformation. The Enneagram’s roots are ancient, and its imagination is deeply Christian. It reveals our basic obstacles toward union by illuminating unique ways in which we get our needs met other than from God. Pulled toward power, security, or affection, we often find ourselves stuck in self-sabotaging patterns that rob us of joy and disrupt relationships. In this retreat, we explore the nine habits of the Enneagram, and imagine new ways of living and loving toward health and wholeness. 

Dying to Be Loved: Embracing the Transformational Journey of Marriage

Every good marriage experiences many deaths. While the young couple in premarital counseling might proclaim proudly that they’ve never fought, veteran couples will reveal to you their battle scars borne through conflict and disappointment, woundedness and reconciliation. We cannot avoid the inevitable struggles of marriage, but we can learn to identify them, embrace them, and be transformed by them. In this retreat/conference, we explore the difficult dance of lovers, the ways that we stumble, and the pathways toward deep love and attachment. Employing the ancient Trinitarian wisdom of Scripture and the invaluable insights of psychology, we weave together a picture of participation in a divine dance with the One who made us to thrive together. 

The Three Movements of Faith: A Retreat Through Luke 15

The story of the runaway son whose journey home to the Father brings drama and delight may be one of the most beloved in Scripture. It reveals insights about how we cope and relate, how we self-sabotage and secure happiness, and how our deepest original dignity is ultimately revealed. We trace three movements of faith we all experience in unique ways: fragmentation to security, fear to freedom, and from fixing to (courageous and self-giving!) loving. I’ve also done this as a men’s retreat and a women’s retreat. 

Finding God in the Wilderness

Based off the insights from my first book Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places, this retreat invites participants on a journey from their own unique and personal “Egypt’s” through the wilderness of life’s winding and rocky road into the promised freedom of union with God. We explore four signposts along the way: Egypt, Sinai, Wilderness, and Union. Each awakens us to new depths of how we’ve been hurt and how we’ve hurt others. Each invites us to examine where we are on our own journeys, and what might keep us ‘stuck’ in a particular rut. We discover that our stories are ultimately revealed in the beautiful, honest, and gritty Story of God. 

The Spiritual Life of the Leader (a retreat uniquely designed for all kinds of leaders, but offered on occasion to specific leaders like church planters)

This leader’s retreat is designed to address the core spiritual and emotional needs of leaders, the common obstacles for leaders, and pathways to health and wholeness. I share many personal stories and adopt many of the key concepts in a course I teach called Pastor as Person, along with my own experience founding two counseling centers and co-founding Newbigin House of Studies, SF. 

BOOK RELEASE: Falling into Goodness – Lenten Reflections

Lent is nearly upon us! Ash Wednesday is Wednesday March 1. I’ve been working on a little side project – a Lenten devotional – complete with short Bible readings, reflections, and prayers. The Kindle version is available now, with the paperback releasing within days. I invite you to use this personally, with a friend, in a small group, or in a variety of other ways you might imagine! To whet your appetite, I’ve included the first reflection for Ash Wednesday. If you like it, buy it today, write a review on Amazon, and share with friends!

RETURN TO THE GROUND

Ash Wednesday

All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Ecclesiastes 3:20

Ash Wednesday may be the most formative day of my year. On Ash Wednesday, we hit RESET. On Ash Wednesday, we return to the ground.

I don’t like the ground. I’ve designed my reality so that I can avoid the ground. I hover three feet above the ground at all times, resolved to avoid the calamities, the humiliations, the shame of life on the ground. The pace of my life, the avoidance of my pain, my perfectionistic tendencies – all reveal my fear of the ground.

When I was young, I remember Ash Wednesday as a rather morbid affair. I recall it as a day when pastors hammered the message of human sinfulness into our stubborn ears. I imagined the pastor waking up that morning like a delighted little child, anxious for this Lenten season of sanctioned guilt-driven preaching. To my young mind, the whole dark season felt like a manipulative ploy led by robed and hooded “sour-faced saints”[i] scheming to remind Christians just how scandalously sinful they really are. I didn’t know why we couldn’t just skip to Easter.

No one ever told me.

No one ever told me about the power of these words:

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

No one ever told me what a gift it would be to return to the ground of my being, to relinquish the exhausting attempt to fly just a bit above everyone else, to relax my fatigued ego. No one ever told me that Lent was an invitation to rest.

Have you heard about this gift to us, to the church, called Ash Wednesday? Could it be a gift to you, as well?

For years as a pastor, I had the extraordinary privilege of imposing ashes on foreheads. Sometimes I longed to say, “It’s alright…come on down. Return to your ground. It’s so much easier down here.”

On the ground and in the dust there is no façade. No more hiding. Only rest.

And it’s where Jesus can find you. Jesus came down, you see. To the dust. In the flesh. And so, you no longer need to prove yourself or protect yourself. There is no ladder to climb, no stairway to the pearly gates, no performance strategy, no purity ritual.

Only surrender. Only rest.

“Come to me, all you who are weary,” Jesus says. “Not up there…down here!”

No more ladders. No more climbing. Into the dust, where God meets you and renews you.

__________

Prayer:

Creator God, you made me from the dust, but that has not always been a pleasant thought. Can you help me imagine dust as a welcome place, however, where I’m enough, just as I am, just as you’ve created me, just as you hold me in Jesus? I long for the rest this might bring. Amen

[i] St. Teresa of Avila

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