Why Love is Core :: An Antidote to our Divided Selves

Blessed are the pure in heart, Jesus says.  And we assume that by pure he means ‘that really clean cut kid who doesn’t cuss in the church youth group.’  That’s what I used to think.  The ‘pure’ were the really, really good Christians.  And I didn’t measure up.

Purity, it turns out, is about so much more.  In the original language, the word Jesus uses gets at an inner division of heart, a war within, which manifests in outer appearances of religiosity and lacks any authentic core.  In other words, the people who look pure may not be so pure.  They may actually be quite divided, quite hypocritical.  They may live like the Pharisees do, waiting on others to stumble instead of looking at their own stumblings.

Don’t take my word for it.  Charles Spurgeon reflects on the “divided heart” with an indictment of those who look particularly religious.  He writes:

You know some men, perhaps, who are very stringent believers of a certain form of doctrine, and very great admirers of a certain shape of church rule and government. You will observe them utterly despising, and abhorring, and hating all who differ from their predilections. Albeit the difference be but as a jot or a tittle, they will stand up and fight for every rubric, defend every old rusty nail in the church door, and think every syllable of their peculiar creed should be accepted without challenge. “As it was in the beginning, so must it be now, and so must it ever be even unto the end.” Now it is an observation which your experience will probably warrant, as certainly mine does, that mostly these people stand up so fiercely for the form, because lacking the power, that is all they have to boast of. They have no faith, though they have a creed. They have no life within, and they supply its place with outward ceremony.

Purity, in other words, is about something much more subtle.  I’d suggest, as Parker Palmer does in A Hidden Wholeness, that love manifests in wholeheartedness, integrity, congruity between our inner and outer selves.  And, I’d argue that if we’re really honest, none of us are very pure.  We may try to keep our theological ducks in a row, but we’re full of contradictions.  We’re just talking “baby talk,” as Calvin says, quite a bit of the time.  We may even keep our behavioral ducks in a row, but truth be told…we’re quite repressed, and may even be setting ourselves up for a significant fall.

This, I believe, is why you find Love on the lips of Jesus.  This is why the religious are indicted, and the sinners are welcomed.  This is why those of us who have it figured out are in much more danger than those who are scrounging for bread.  Hell, it turns out, is a doctrine the religious must take very, very seriously…for we are the target of many of Christ’s condemnations.

Love cuts through our pretenses, and exposes our hypocrisy.  If only we’d be more honest with how little we have this whole thing figured out.

Love breaks through our inner divisions, requiring a kind of self-compassion – an ownership of our brokenness and our need for a greater Love – which can lead to a compassion for others.  Our best theologizing is provisional.  Our best behaving is likely mixed in its motives.  This is why great thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Lesslie Newbigin could be so ecumenical, so concerned about unity.  What brings us together is far more powerful than what divides us.

I’ll leave you with a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to a friend who had recently become Catholic.  This is an extraordinary example of Love:

Though you have taken a way which is not for me I nevertheless can congratulate you — I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you, but . . . I believe we are very near to one another . . . In the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes . . . Let us by all means pray for one another: it is perhaps the only form of “work for reunion” which never does anything but good. God bless you.

(Letters to an American Lady, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967 — letter from 1953, 11-12)

Love at the Core :: C.S. Lewis and “Empty Love Tanks”

In a previous post, I pushed back against the suspicion some biblical counselors have of what they call an “empty love tank” psychology.  Presuming it to be some manifestation of humanistic psychology, it’s critiqued as too-positive a view of human nature.  The fear is understandable.  Psychology which errs in the empty love tank direction can lead to people seeing themselves as victims, and not as agents, actively sabotaging relationship with God and others.  I’ve seen this in the counseling world time and again, where a client will come in primed to blame Mom and Dad for failing to love him perfectly, thus setting him on a trajectory to depression and struggle.  I get the fear, and the reason for the corrective.  But it’s time for a path re-correction.

Perhaps, C.S. Lewis can continue to be one spiritual guide in this journey.  He once wrote: “All that you are…every fold and crease of your individuality was devised from all eternity to fit God as a glove fits a hand.  All that intimate particularity which you can hardly grasp yourself, much less communicate to your fellow creatures, is no mystery to him.  He made those ins and outs that he may fill them.  Then he gave your soul so curious a life because it is the key designed to unlock the door of all the myriad doors in him.”

This is Lewis’s “empty love tank.”  And our soul’s curiosity is its broken-but-not-ruined longing which points to the object of its longing – God Himself.

What is dangerous (to some) in this theology is that our love is unquenchable.  Our hearts ache.  “I cried when I was born and every day show why,” the country pastor and poet George Herbert once wrote.  Every parent knows the futility of attempting to fill that enormous love-tank.  It is impossible.  And every parent, at some point, begins to realize that the insatiable hunger in their child will seek satisfaction, in food, in relationships, in grades, in approval, in sex, in drink, and perhaps even in cutting, binging and purging, or other forms of self-violence.  The love tank scares the wits out of us.  Because we, too, continue to hunger without full satisfaction.

Of Lewis’s theology, one writer notes that the love he speaks of is not some “spongy emotion which self-indulgent man sometimes invents for his own pleasure.  It is the hard, painful, overwhelming love for which man has been grasping since the beginning of time.”  Lewis’s theology, you see, does not begin at The Fall.  It begins in eternity, in the Trinity, in the periochoretic dance of love experienced among God, Son, and Spirit, spilled over into Eden.  It begins in goodness, in the goodness of God.

It’s because Lewis has such a rich theology of Love that he can have such a well-developed theology of love-substitutes, or idols.  This is why The Weight of Glory is quoted over and again by preachers.  Yet, it is not merely a theological truth but an existential reality that Lewis speaks to, a subtle but real sense that he’s on to something very important when he speaks at the desire beneath our lust, our romantic relationships, our eating and drinking, our remembrances of nostalgic events, our late night conversations.

However, to merely name the idol and repent immediately, I’d suggest, misses the point.  Few would even suggest such a simplistic solution.  But some are not quite sure what more can be done other than continually repenting of our idols and believing the good news of the Gospel, that God forgives and loves beyond measure.  Let me take a step further, though.  Lewis would direct us to slow down at this point, to reflect, to allow our hearts time to warm to their deeper yearnings, to feel the love we profess.  Somehow, part of us is seeking to fit, hand-in-glove, into God.  Chesterton would argue that the sex addict is looking for God in the brothel.  Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, would argue that the alcoholic is seeking God in a bottle.  Every idolater, Lewis would argue, is longing, grasping for love, heartsick in its absence.  This is why idolatry is dis-ease.

Though we too easily settle for self-indulgent loves which bring about dis-ease, Lewis would have us longingly grasp for the deeper love.  On this side of heaven, however, this will only show as a taste, a moment, a whisper.  Therapy can’t cure us.  But, therapy isn’t meant to cure us.  It’s meant to point us toward Home, even if we don’t yet the have the words for Home (as is the case with the many non-believing clients I see).  Therapists are guides, maybe a few steps ahead in the journey only insofar as they’ve learned to follow the signposts ahead more consistently (for a time, perhaps…) or self-compassionately instead of pitching their tents.  And therapists who practice as I’m suggesting will never, ever be very popular among those looking for quick-fixes, whether in the form of theological band-aids or self-help remedies.  One may even leave therapy more dissatisfied…but gloriously dissatisfied.

Embracing this notion of a love tank (a metaphor I quite dislike, anyway) need not lead to a psychology of victimization.  In non-theistic perspectives, it will certainly lead to idolatry, to be sure.  But within a Christian framework, including a roadmap (the Script)  and a reliable Guide (both the Spirit and a wise friend/pastor/therapist), our deepest longings will set us on a quest for God, no doubt with many bumps and detours along the way.  It will not suffice to blame our parents, though they may hurt and disappoint us.  It will not suffice to try to drink our longings away, though we may numb them for a time.  It will not help to religiously master the way, because it will only exhaust us.  The way is slow.  The road is narrow.  But Lewis would say that if we listen carefully, God will be whispering in our longings, stirring our love toward its perfect fit.

(Please feel free to comment, to push back, to disagree, to tell stories, to say ‘Amen’, to lament…)

Love at the Core:: An Illustration

She lost her mother before she was even able to grieve.  You don’t need Attachment Theorists to convince you how extraordinarily significant this loss must have been.  She was just two…barely able to understand.  And this, some might say, is an advantage.  At two, you don’t know any better.  But, everything we know today says something very different.  At two, Mom is your world.  And if Mom goes, so goes your world.

But human beings are resilient.  I’ve seen severely abused young women become successful traders and managers and entrepreneurs.  That does not necessarily mean that they are successful. Human beings have evolved into expert compartmentalizers.  Some of the most successful young men and women I know stuffed away large parts of themselves very early on, even unwittingly, in order to become the so-called successes they are today.

And so, my client became a success, despite her mother’s death at an early age.  Her Dad’s coping strategy was to extinguish every memory of Mom.  No grieving.  No memorializing.  Soon, a Stepmother entered the picture.  And there were no conversations, photos, or side chats about Mom.  She was gone.  Quite literally.

Many years later, my client comes to me for therapy.  Her presenting problem – depression.  I find that she is a compulsive exerciser.  Her only release is in the gym.  In fact, it is there where she feels.  In fact, in the gym, she and her body become one.  Many years before, I suspect, she disconnected from her body.  She shut down her feelings.  She buried her pain.  But now, exercise brings her life.

When I say to her that exercise is the very place where she feels, she begins to cry.  I continue saying that I think that exercise is where her body feels held, where she connects to something she desperately longs for…the feeling of being held, loved.  She weeps…uncontrollably.  She knows.

Exercise may be her idol.  And sure…she may need to repent.  But what’s really going on?  She is desperate for love.  Mom’s hold daughters.  But she wasn’t held.  And her body is saying what her mind and heart long to say – that she wants to be held, loved, enjoyed, cared for.  Exercise is her entryway into belonging.  Exercise is where she comes alive.

“No one has ever seen that,” she tells me.  She feels known.  She finds a picture of her deceased mother, and places it on her dresser.

She will likely always enjoy running and exercise.  But today she’s begun a bigger journey.  She will grieve.  And pray more deeply than she’s ever prayed.  And she’ll speak to a picture, sitting atop her dresser, of a mother long gone.

And God will hear.  A God who gets to the heart of the matter – Love.

(Note: Whenever I refer to someone I saw for counseling, I am using a mosaic of clients who I have seen, not an actual client.  I cannot violate the confidential relationship counseling demands.)

Why Love is Core

“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10: 26-27

Some biblical counselors argue that love is just one form of idolatry among others.  People idolize security, approval, money, influence, and much more.  They argue that the idolatry of love is just one among others.  Remember Powlison’s words?

When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed.  For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love.  As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols.  As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols.  But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.

Now hear me clearly: this article is a must-read, a very helpful word.  But here’s where I differ.  I don’t think that an a priori love core is a humanistic addendum to Christian psychology.  I believe, in fact, that Jesus summarized the law in one word:  Love.

Biblical counselors challenge us to find this in the Bible.  I challenge them to show me that love is not central.  God made us in and for love, creatures hungry for intimacy, dependency, relationship, and connection with God.  In this vacuum, we take our hunger in many, many different idolatrous directions.  But these idols are counterfeit loves, I’d argue.  This, I believe, is what Jamie Smith argues for in Desiring the Kingdom.

Every other idol is contingent on love.  But each and every twisted human desire can also find redemption in and through redeemed relationship, in love.  True story: Consider the porn addict.  He comes to me after seeing a biblical counselor, and he tells me that he’s seen his idol of lust and repented of it.  I ask, “Has that helped?”  He says, “I’m learning that the Gospel means that I’m forgiven and that helps, but I’m still acting out regularly.”  Tell me more, I say.

He realizes that he’s got many idols – control, approval, pleasure, and more.  That’s helpful.  And it’s true.  But he’s still addicted.  I ask him this:  What do want when you look at porn?

He tells me typical things:  momentary pleasure, release, a feeling of connection.

Hmmm.  I ask about connection.  He tells me about the feeling of being with a woman without judgment.  I ask for more.  He tells me that he’s basically scared of women.  His story animates this.  He feels shame, fear, insecurity.  I take all of this in.

PG13 section:  What I know that he doesn’t know is this:  male porn addicts don’t focus on breasts.  They don’t focus below the belt.  The look at…the eyes.  The research bears it out.  Men are looking for…connection, intimacy, approval, love.  Lust may be an idol, but its roots go much deeper.  Beneath lust is a hunger for love.

My goal, then, is not to make sure he doesn’t look at a porn image ever again.  My focus is to get to this relational ache.  What is he hungry for?  Why?

Now, I’m not with those “empty love tank” folks who are looking for someone to blame, whether Mom, Dad, or a wife who isn’t interested in sex.  I’m fully aware that he is responsible, despite anything that has happened in his past.  But, I am interested in knowing his whole story.  I’m aware of his secondary idols – security, approval, sexual gratification, control.  But my focus is now squarely centered on his hunger to love and be loved.  After all, he was born into relationship, made in and for relationship, wounded in relationship, and redeemed in relationship.  This is God’s economy of things.

My client, I find out, is a scared little boy.  Yes, he’s an idolater.  Yes, he’s replaced God with many other false forms of worship and satisfaction.  But, he’s a boy trying to live in a man’s world, relating like a 16 year old to a wife who is 35.  He’s an emotional teenager.  And why?  There are many reasons, all worth exploring.  But I’m not content with merely blaming Mom and Dad.  After all, our hunger for love is innate, a priori, built-in by way of neurobiology and psycho-physiology and so much more.  Some of us just emerge from the womb more needy than others.  Our imperfect parents can’t possibly fill this need…only God can.  But we’ll look for satisfaction in all the wrong places.

Why is love core?  I’ve offered a few thoughts.  Please feel free to comment.  Disagree.  Agree.  Push back.  Argue.  That’s how we learn.

More to come.

Love at the Core

I’m convinced that love is core.  And I’m convinced that the notion that humans look for love in all the wrong places is right on.

Now, you’d think that every Christian doing counseling would agree.  But some of us nuance this differently, and the nuancing is important.  I’ve taught Psychology in Relation to Theology courses for almost a decade, assigning a wide range of works from authors like Tripp, Lane, Powlison, Crabb, Allender, McMinn, Shults and Sandage, Nouwen, Johnson, and more.  And while I think they’d all agree that we look for love in the wrong places, they might debate, a bit, on how critical and core love is.

I’m going to flesh out the reasons why I think Love is at the Core in several posts, utilizing theology, psychology, neurobiology, neuroanatomy, biology, and more.  But one question I’d like to pose to you arises from a recent debate around Christian ways of articulating the human problem and its cure.  I’ve been a bit critical (though I agree with so much) of a fairly popular article by a fantastic person and extraordinary contributer to Christian thinking on human change and growth, David Powlison.  In Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair (by no means his only work or exhaustive work), he writes:

When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed.  For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love.  As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols.  As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols.  But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.

I am one of those who does precisely what Powlison is talking about, and I don’t believe its humanistic or extra-biblical.  Indeed, I think Love is what makes us human.  I start with a positive understanding of Exod. 20 and Deut. 5 (The 10 Commandments), that God made us in and for love.  I don’t see idolatry as a priori, in other words. I see love as prior to everything else.  The law attempts to re-direct us to love.

If this makes me a humanist, so be it.  John Calvin was strongly influenced by the humanists of his day, unapologetically.  My sense, however, is that Powlison’s influence is, in fact, more Freudian.  It’s a belief that behind all good things lie hidden urges and wayward desires.  This way of thinking has so permeated 20th-21st century thinking that it has manifested in a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, as Ricouer suggested.

In other words, I’m suggesting that a Christian view of human beings move beyond a pessimistic anthropology (though never, ever denying human sin and pathology) to a hermeneutic of love, rooted in God’s Trinitarian periochoretic love.

Before I write more, what are your initial thoughts?  Am I caricaturing a certain camp unfairly?  Am I wrong to suggest that, perhaps, Powlison might be as influenced by secular psychology as I am?  Is the 20th century Freudian/Humanist psychological debate analogous to the current Christian debate on these issues?  Let me hear your thoughts.

C.S. Lewis on Emotion and Repression

In a letter to Arthur Greeves, 8 July 1930

“You have I think misunderstood what I said about the return from austerity.  I never meant for a moment that I was beginning to doubt whether absolute chastity was the true goal – of that I am certain.  What I meant was that I began to think that I was mistaken in aiming at this goal by the means of a stern repression and even a contemptuous distrust of all that emotional and imaginative experience which seems to border on the voluptuous: whether it was well to see in certain romances and certain music nothing but one more wile of the enemy: whether perhaps the right way was not to keep always alive in one’s soul a certain tenderness and luxuriousness always reaching out to that of which (on my view) sex must be the copy.  The whole thing has made me feel that I have never given half enough importance to love in the sense of the affections…

The Real Adventure for Men

Part of what I’ve been addressing in this series on masculinity is what I view as a cultural movement which, in response to feminism, attempted to re-ignite a conversation on masculinity.  I’ve referred to the pivotal work of Robert Bly, a Harvard poet whose distaste with radical feminism led him to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, and the great archetypal stories of the hero, the warrior, and the wildman.  Bly’s work was followed up by many others like Keen, Gilmore, Hicks, Levant, and Gillette and Moore, writers interested in incorporating the mythic initiatory tradition to emasculated men in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Alongside this movement came Christians who grabbed hold of the banner of masculinity for the sake of restoring male integrity in what was deemed to be a Church Impotent and feminized, a church that (if left to the hormonal wiles of women) might fall into the pits of quietism, bridal mysticism, and universalism (which may explain Rob Bell’s recent thinking!) I’m not convinced of this threat, nor am I convinced the Christian men’s cultural movement has sustainability in the future.

Now, as someone who has very much appreciated the insights of Campbell, Jung, Bly, and others, I’m convinced there is something very important to be explored here.  8 or 9 years back, a book called Mothers, Sons, and Lovers seemed to be on every man’s reading list at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, where I was then teaching.  I really enjoyed much of the book, and found its application of the initiatory traditions unearthed by Campbell, Bly and others to be insightful.  But as many therapeutic ways go, even ancient initiatory-therapeutic ways, I found it leading to a kind of individualism, a solitary healing journey that could be done apart from participation in the cruciform life of Jesus.  And it, too, seemed to move the ball down the court, but fail to score.

Part of what I see needing to be done by theologians, psychologists, liturgists, and sociologists, all in community, is thoughtful work around the Christian tradition (and particularly the Christian liturgical tradition) as it relates to male spiritual growth and maturity.  I think we’d find many interesting things to explore:

1.  Much of the initiatory tradition as it relates to men contributes valuable themes which, I believe, can be found, and re-animated, in the very Christian story and liturgical tradition in which we find ourselves.  Themes on the male initiatory way such as leaving home, stepping into a story larger than yourself, experiencing failure, understanding that you’re not in control, and more have clear connections to the Christian Gospel.  Interestingly, though, much of what I read in Christian ‘masculinity’ literature often fails to envision strength in and through weakness, a Gospel-reality which cannot be minimized or denied.

2.  Following Christ, as witnessed in the lives of the disciples, meant entering into a Beatitude life (Matt. 5).  I think that the significance of this early teaching moment (right after Jesus calls the first disciples and engages the public) should not be missed.  These young disciples were invited into an adventure which would include poverty of spirit, mourning, wilderness hunger and thirst, mercy, peacemaking, and persecution.  Men’s retreats which over-emphasize what I call “ra-ra masculinity” (lots of male super-charged energy which sometimes includes roaring, paintballing, and more…yes, seriously) miss the Beatitude emphasis.

3.  Following Christ means engaging the cruciform life, a life of self-sacrificial commitment.  When I think about real adventure, I imagine the courageous men and women of the early church, sacrificing for the sake of the budding mission, rescuing the outcasts of society, defending the poor, relinquishing status and sharing wealth and sacrificing powerfully for the community.  Sometimes, the male vision I see in recent men’s literature seems more Emersonian, the lone male in search of Walden Pond, entering the wilderness to find himself.  To be sure, journeying into solitude is extraordinary important.  But I’d argue that a man will “find himself” by losing himself, crucified to his own self-serving agenda for the sake of others…and not, necessarily, on the back of a horse or repelling down a cliff.

4.  This notion of the feminization of the church is, to me, a dramatic over-reaction motivated by fear.  Men ought to be championing the women.  Simply look to the ministry of Jesus as the most radically progressive approach to women in its time.  The strong emphasis of the New Testament is on men self-sacrificially laying down their lives (agendas, manipulation, fear, and so much more) for women (see Eph. 5).  One Christianity Today writer refers to some of the latest manifestations of hyper-masculine rhetoric, including the very popular Mark Driscoll, whose public comments seems to draw much attention.  I’m persuaded, though, that fear drives a kind of ‘musculine’ agenda which often comes at a price, and does not privilege women and fight for their dignity, as Jesus did, but seems to speak more of their inherent weakness, their tendencies to draw the church toward liberal theology, and their role limitations.  My friend Caroline James offers a necessary corrective.

5.  We would be significantly helped by exploring genuinely unique manifestations of male spiritual character, as diverse as Bernard of Clarivaux, St. John of the Cross, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Samuel Rutherford, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Stott, and J.I. Packer.  Some of these men, I fear, would fit Driscoll’s caricature of the limp-wristed sissifed male without adequate biceps.  (Not that I’ve recently felt J.I. Packer’s biceps…I’m sure they are sufficient…nay, spectacular!)

6.  We would benefit from an exploration of uniquely Christian rituals of initiation and incorporation, asking ourselves whether or not reviving these practices might not get us down the court on these things.  Let’s explore the role of catechesis and baptism, the liturgical year and its invitation to discipleship, the participation in Christ’s upside-down strength-in-weakness through Holy Communion, and the real call of blessing (benediction) and sending which call us out and into the Empire, to subvert and to redeem.  This is an adventure worth engaging.

7.  Finally, I think we’d do well to significantly re-think what we mean by “men’s ministry.”  Much of what I’ve seen done is more reflective of a recent cultural phenomenon than really good thinking on what men need.  Men I talk with are hungry for something more.  I’ve spoken at a good number of men’s retreats, and I’m simply not convinced the ‘sports-event, get ’em revved, now confess your porn addiction’ kind of stuff that is sustainable.  And, that’s not to minimize at all how much men have been helped…jolted out of complacency, engaged in relationship, confronted with addiction.  I’m interested in thinking about what’s next.

Maybe you have some thoughts, whether you agree or disagree…

Expanding on my Critique of Powlison

A few friends have asked me to expand on my critique of Powlison’s Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, as well as what I’ve said about the basic thinking around idols, repentance, and belief.  Before doing that, I’ll say that I agree with much of what I read from Powlison, and appreciate deeply the work of CCEF, the Sonship movement, Tim Keller, and others that hover in the same ‘psychic’ space.  I resonate with 90% of what I read, but where I differ is (I think) fairly significant.  This post will be too short to some of these things justice, but feel free to write back and ask me to expand where I’m too brief.  So, let’s talk.

First, I take as a starting point that human beings are relational, made in and for love, created in the image of a Trinitarian God.  Much of what I’ve seen from CCEF treats people as individuals, “repenting of their idols and believing in the Gospel” for the sake of growth and maturity.  I don’t disagree.  But, relationally there is so much more going on.  Consider Luke 15 and the ‘Prodigal God’ story.  The story is much less about the prodigal son’s repentance, which most commentators think was half-hearted and self-serving, and much more about God’s pursuing, impassioned, relational love.  It’s only in the context of being seen and loved that deeply that we can begin to relax and surrender, embracing the depth of our brokenness and entering into relationship in more loving ways. It says a lot about relational dynamics, the human need for love and belonging.  This is why I cannot read Keller’s Prodigal God apart from Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son.  The two need one another for an adequate psychology and theology.

Second, I find Powlison’s work to be highly individualistic.  The dynamics he talks of are inner dynamics, and the work of change is perhaps prompted by a good counselor but doesn’t require one.

Third, this shortcoming in Powlison’s theology is directly tied, I think, to a typically modern hyper-intellectualism which over-emphasizes cognitive change.  Interestingly, Powlison claims to depart from the nouthetic counseling of Jay Adams, rightly critiquing its behaviorism and failure to take the human heart seriously.  Yet, Powlison doesn’t go far enough.  I do not think his theological anthropology is complex enough.  Identifying idols and repenting of them is just one part of a larger project of taking sin and redemption seriously.  Consider this thought in his article:

“People do not have needs.  We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan.”

On this alone, we could spend much more time reflecting on how theologically and psychologically unfounded this statement is.  Powlison expands on this, saying, “I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.” In saying this, I believe Powlison steps into many problems in both theology and psychology, driving a wedge between hunger/need for love and God that need not be there.

– He effectively dismisses the relational core of human beings in the image-of-God, which is shattered but not destroyed.

– He does with humans what others do with culture, forgetting original goodness, manifesting in a God-ordained relational structure capable of longing and hungering in holy ways.

– By effectively dismissing human need, he misses the beauty of a Trinitarian theology applied to relationships, manifesting in periochoresis – the dance of interdependence, of loving and being loved, and belonging, of believing, of sacrificing, of receiving.

– By dismissing human neediness, I think he undermines an opportunity to see the good desires that lay beneath our mis-directed desires.

– Powlison and others will say that you can’t find good desires beneath everything.  Consider murder, or rape, or child abuse.  I’d argue that a sufficient theology of relational love would actually bring these things to greater clarity.  As a therapist, I’m astounded by what people really long for, and the twisted ways in which they go about getting it.

– To get at these desires beneath, you need an adequate relational theology which sees beneath behaviors, and even our “repenting and believing” to deeper longings for love.  This makes therapy all the more complex, of course.  But it gets at the heart of who we are and how we change.

– Even more, the best psychology today sees love and attachment as core to human identity.  And in doing so, it convinces me that our idols run far deeper than Powlison can identify.  Sin is a systemic and relationally intertwined phenomenon.  It is a neuro-psychological phenomenon.  It is a biological phenomenon.  And more.

All of this said, I think Powlison/Keller rely way too heavily on Puritan psychology, missing a much more expansive theology/psychology of love that can be found in the Cappadocian Fathers, the Desert Fathers, the Catholic mystics (Bernard of Clarivaux, Julian of Norwich St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila), the Reformed mystics (Teellinck, the a’Brackel’s, Witsius, even Samuel Rutherford), Augustine, Calvin, Blaise Pascal, and C.S. Lewis.  In other words, while I think a case can be made for bad psychology in Powlison, I find his greatest weakness to be theological/biblical on this issue.

Humans are made in and for love.  Our hearts are restless, as Augustine says, until we find our rest in God.  We’re hungry and thirsty, Eucharistic beings who look for love in all the wrong places.  But we can trace our deepest longings beneath the “books and music,” as Lewis says, following that scent, that echo to our heart’s greatest need.

In response to my post about C.S. Lewis and masturbation last night, one friend said, “Is it really about love and longing?  Don’t dudes just want to ejaculate?”  On the one hand, you can say that a guy is looking to get his needs met apart from God, trusting his idol (masturbation) more than God.  So, it’s a simple remedy – repent and believe the Gospel.  Maybe the biblical counselor would take it a step further, identifying an idol of control, or false satisfaction, or a need to be loved.  But even that, I’ve said, misses the point.  Of course we need to be loved!

I’d argue, however, that masturbation is a complex phenomenon which can be understood only as we see our deep hunger for relationship.  So much of it has to do with relational fear, a longing to be loved but a fear of moving toward another in relationship.  Some of it is neuro-psychological, as chemicals are released that create a feeling that human beings are made for, but which is intended for a bond of intimacy.  The conversation must go beyond identifying the idol and repenting of it.  It’s got to look at how we love, what we feel, the ways in which we connect to others, what we fear.  In other words, beneath it all we’ll find that we’re longing for love.  And what we’ll find, as we open ourselves to the love we need most deeply, is that God moves toward us with more intimacy and an even greater experience of ecstasy which will make masturbation pale in comparison.  He wants us to experience an even deeper security, belonging, and love.  For me, St. John of the Cross has been most helpful on this.

Counseling, in this context, is all-the-more complex, to be sure, but richly enhanced as it invites a deeper conversation about relationship, and even about the relational interactions between client and counselor.  I am not against “biblical counseling,” to be sure, as some good friends practice it.  I do think its better thought of as short-term pastoral counseling, and that the further work of therapy requires a more expansive theology and psychology.

These are some preliminary thoughts.  Feel free to push back.  I’ll write more if I think of more…

C.S. Lewis, Bob Newhart, Masturbation, and Those Damned Longings

If I had a nickel for every Christian guy that came to me for counsel about masturbation when I lived back in Orlando, I’d not need this pastoral housing benefit I’ll probably be losing pretty soon…

We, Christians, are great at pointing out bad behaviors.  We’re experts at diagnosis.  But our remedies often stink.  We’ll pile on guilt or give Gospel quick-fixes or raise expectations of some long-sought-after victorious Christian life.  But very seldom do we tell them to dive deeper into the very thing that repulses them.

Enter C.S. Lewis, the great 20th century writer and literary critic, who early in his faith (and probably later, too) wrestled with that great demon of masturbation, and lived to talk about it!  To a good friend (and presumed fellow masturbator), Lewis writes:

Lying on that study sofa…I had sensations which you can imagine.  And at once I knew that the Enemy would take advantage of the vague longings and tendernesses to try and make me believe later on that he had the fulfillment that I really wanted.  So I balked him by letting the longings go even deeper and turning my mind to the One, the real object of all desire, which (you know my view) is what we are really wanting in all wants…

As a Christian counselor, I’ve interacted with many Christian counselors who believe that our desires are the problem. This, in itself, is a much longer post worth writing.  In short, desire takes us into our deepest hunger, our original goodness, our truest selves.  Jesus was no prude.  He didn’t live to avoid wine, women, and song.  In fact, Jesus steps into the epicenter of desire, and points to its real origin.  In Jesus, we hear, “What you’re really looking for is…”

What many Christians offer to those who lust and masturbate and dream bad dreams is a kind of Biblicized version of Bob Newhart’s “Stop It” therapy session, one of my favorite moments of MadTV.  Watch it here.  We don’t deal with the underlying hunger and thirst.  We deal with what we perceive to be a sinful behavior.  And our call to “repent of our idols and believe the Gospel” can often be forms of sin-management.  Even David Powlison, a well-respected biblical counselor, steps in to this awful morass in his oft-forwarded article, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”.  He’s trying hard not to step into the same pit of behavior-and-sin management, but in his critique of “love-need psychology” he misses the point, saying, “But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well.  A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model.  In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.”

This kind of pessimistic hyper-Calvinism does not find its origins in Augustine or Calvin, or its more recent expression in C.S. Lewis.  It owes its origins more to the wormology of Puritanism more than anything else.  It devalues humanity to the point where it seems as if God cannot even look upon us – no-good, sinful creatures that we are.  I’m not buying it.  Gerald May comes much closer to a biblical understanding of humanity when he writes:

There is a desire within each of us,
in the deep center of ourselves
that we call our heart.
We were born with it,
it is never completely satisfied,
and it never dies.
We are often unaware of it,
but it is always awake.

It is the Human desire for Love.
Every person in this Earth yearns to love,
to be loved, to know love.
Our true identity, our reason for being
is to be found in this desire.

Sitting on his lonely couch, C.S. Lewis recognized his deeper longing for love.  He didn’t rack himself with even more guilt, saying, “Even my longing for love is an idol!  I’ll repent of that!”  In his longing, he found an inner navigation system reorienting him to God, the origin and object of his deepest desires.  The self-satisfaction of masturbation, though a temporary pleasure, couldn’t compare.  His heart expanded in love, and he found himself raptured by God’s love.

Lewis stands in the tradition of Augustine, Calvin, and St. John of the Cross, and even anticipates what Gerald May writes, as he affirms the original goodness of the human heart, putting the doctrine of Creation where it rightly belongs…before the doctrine of the Fall.  He affirms the double-knowledge of Calvin, that looking within really leads us to look to God.  Calvin, you see, was influenced by the humanists in the best of ways, and his redeemed humanism ought to save us from the awful introspective and idol-driven dehumanizing of those who’d question every desire.

Longing is our lifeline to God.  Desire, if followed, leads us to the love that will satisfy.  So, don’t beat yourself up with too-much idol-talk.  And, curiously, you might even stop beating off.  (Yes, I said it…don’t beat me!) 

When “Believing the Gospel” Doesn’t Work

Maybe you’re like the many men and women who I’ve talked to.  Having been through Sonship (a fairly well-known discipleship program in conservative Reformed circles) or having digested the writings of Keller or Powlison or Tripp, your still struggling.  Or, maybe your version of “believing the Gospel” came from a preacher who told you that the answer to your lifetime of guilt was greater “Gospel depth” or deeper “Gospel transformation.”  And so, you searched high and low for that newer and better way, the Gospel way, only to try to believe better and repent better and be less guilty.  And that, too, didn’t amount to much.

Just recently, I was talking to yet another person whose digested all the writings and listened to all the sermons and read all the tweets, and ‘Gospel repenting and believing’ isn’t working.  He went through Sonship.  And each time he talked to his Gospel phone coach, he’d confess his latest idol.  “I’m justifying myself through my attempts to repent better, and repentance is now my idol.  So, I’m repenting of my repentance, but I’m still neck deep in feelings of guilt.  What’s wrong with me?”

“Gospel Tweeting” is the latest phenomenon.  The answer to all our problems is this:  Just believe the Gospel!  If it was that easy. This seems to me to be the newest quick fix, the most recent Christian cliche, and I’m growing weary of it.  I’ve counseled people who’ve done the full Sonship workout only to be more racked with guilt than ever.  They are repenting of their failed repenting and repenting of their failed attempt to confess their failed repenting.  They’re more twisted in guilt than ever.  And the ‘Gospel Twittersphere’ isn’t helping.

This is oversimplified Calvinism.  Period.  It doesn’t take the complexity of sin seriously enough, though it claims to in every way.  It doesn’t take it seriously because it oversimplifies the remedy, leaving troubled and struggling people feeling even worse.  Gospel counselors tell people that their troubles amount to a failure to believe the Gospel.  Freedom is available, we’re told.  Just repent and believe! Over and over, preachers are trying to boil this down to 140 characters on Twitter.  And I think it’s Gospel arrogance.

The problem is that we’re far more complex and psychologically broken that we’re often aware of.  It’s not just “unbelief” that bears down on us.  It’s a whole host of things – neural pathways grooved by years of living a certain way, a “divided heart” that thrives on its habitual polarities, weakness of will, and the extraordinary brokenness manifesting in the systems we inhabit, whether in our families or workplaces or churches.  And if I’m not being pessimistic enough, consider John Calvin’s words:

“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)

But the problem extends beyond understanding the complexity.  It’s the cure that is far more difficult.  Having counseled too many men and women who beat themselves up for not growing fast enough by repenting and believing, I’m convinced we do many people a disservice (and harm!) by oversimplifying both the problem and the cure.  Those fearful of modern psychology need to begin listening at this point, because what we’ve found is that growth and maturity isn’t found in a method or a discipline or a repentance exercise.  In fact, growth is harder, longer, more painful, and more puzzling than many of us care to admit.  People who we serve in the church would like microwavable strategies, but the fact is that growth and maturity isn’t microwavable.  It defies programs and methods.  It frustrates the most competent pastor or therapist or spiritual director.  And, it can’t be captured in a tweet, even a well-formed Gospel tweet.

I admire the hearts of my friends out there who attempt to tweet Gospel cures.  They mean well.  Most are pastors, and you know who you are.  And I really do like you a lot.  But, hear me when I say that people are suckers for your 140 word fixes.  Why do you think you get re-tweeted so much?  We’re suckers for remedies and methods.  We love a sound byte.  But I’m asking you to step back and consider the complexity.  Do you really see people growing that quickly in your churches?  Do you really see ‘Gospel transformation’ happening in a “repent and believe” moment?  I’m prone to think that this is where we need a good dose of those old stories, like Pilgrim’s Progress, that highlight the long and difficult journey.  Because most people I know don’t find that the methods work.  Most people I talk to struggle day to day just to believe, just to utter a one word prayer, just to avoid another outburst of anger or another deluge of cynicism. Most people find that it takes a lifetime to believe that they are the prodigal who is lavished with a Father’s prodigious love.

Gospel tweeters:  Relax.  You are far more screwed up than you think.  And your cure is far too simplistic to help.  This journey requires more than a 140 characters of Gospel happy juice.  A big and good God requires a long and difficult Exodus journey for real change to happen.