Grace (and the abuse of grace) for narcissists and abusers

I live daily with a paradox. On the one hand, grace is audacious, extravagant, immediate, and all-embracing. On the other, grace is painful, reconstructive, surgical, and slow. Grace is the deliverance from Egypt and grace is the long, grueling journey through a blistering wilderness.

I live with this paradox because of the work I do. With my multiple hats – professor, pastor, therapist, spiritual director – I become a conduit of God’s lavish grace, a steward of it, a surgeon of the soul in need of it. And because grace refuses simplification, refuses to be reduced to a get-out-of-jail-free card, we must hold the paradox when we work with particularly complex people.

I’m thinking right now of pastors I’ve worked with over the years whose narcissism was so entrenched in their psyche that lavish grace needed to work itself out over years and years. Some time ago I worked with a pastor whose masks of charm, personal fitness, and a keen intellect propelled him into success, but who was utterly disconnected from his true self. Revelations of abuse and sexual infidelity came as a shock to his adoring flock, many who were quick to say, “Who of us is without sin? Let us forgive as he taught us to forgive.” This pastor’s narcissism, now armed with a new mask of repentance, quickly turned the narrative from his sin to his redemption story, one his flock was happy to embrace.

I recall sitting with his wife weeks after as she struggled. “I feel like God calls me to forgive him, but I can’t help but feel like he gets off the hook and I’m left beaten and bruised. I’ve even had people tell me that I was to blame for his infidelity. Was I?” Mired in guilt and shame, she felt like she’d be failing him and failing the church if she didn’t quickly forgive.

As I sat with the pastor, he had many reasons for his actions – many years without a sabbatical, burnout, lack of emotional support from his wife, a ‘weak’ elder board. He was quick to say, “I failed.” But he never got specific. In one session, I asked him for permission to say something hard to him. He agreed. I offered this to him: “What would it be like to say this to your wife: For years, I emotionally abused you by mocking your effort, your appearance, your faithfulness. I played the part of obedient pastor, but in secret I abused and tormented you. When pornography was not enough to anesthetize away my shame, I intentionally and meticulously groomed women who adored me for back-rubs, blowjobs, and sex in my office, on the floor right next to my desk and our family picture.”

He sat silently, head down, as if it was the first time he’d considered something other than a narrative that would preserve his shiny veneer. I suspect he was weighing his options, as he always did, so very fearful of an ultimate confrontation with himself. He looked up at me, steel-eyed: “Chuck, can I say something to you? What would it look like for you to take the Gospel seriously, to help me gain my esteem back and to help my wife forgive me?”

I’ve had some version of this same story play out about a dozen times with pastors and/or ministry leaders of some kind.

This man needed the grace of wilderness. He wanted deliverance from Egypt and a quick flight over the wilderness to the promised land. He ultimately chose the latter. And he used his story as a real, live grace story.

When we treat grace like a bandaid rather than the major surgery it often demands, we trivialize it. Real transformation is a slow-cook process, especially for narcissists and abusers so hidden from their true selves and so prone to re-configure the masks for the sake of a new narrative and to avoid the pain of self-confrontation. The wilderness of grace is the place where the narcissist’s false self is dismantled, but it’s also the place where the systems and structures that buttressed and supported it are confronted and dismantled.

I sometimes wish I knew more about St. Paul’s three years in the wilderness. Once a murderous moralist, he was confronted by the living Christ on Damascus Road. Something new was born in him that day, but we know that he did not immediately take to the streets to evangelize. Some like to imagine these three years as an intense Bible-study training program. I like to think of them as a time of deconstruction – of old narratives, of the masks that served him in his old life, of an ideology of tribalism and abuse. I imagine that leaving his old life behind cost him dearly – relationships, reputation, income, so much more. When he did return, we know that he still had an edge, that he could be oppositional, that his words of reconciliation didn’t always match his relational style, that he wrestled with his inner contradictions. But he was an honest man – honest about his story, the toxicity of his old life, and his need for grace.

Grace is not about saving face. Grace often plunges us into the depths of despair. It requires the loss of everything that buttressed the old self. As much as we’re culturally conditioned to good, old American quick redemption stories, we’ve got to reclaim a biblical imagination for the wilderness of grace. I’m suspicious of those who are quick to return to ministry, quick to write their redemption story, quick to embrace the adoration of their devoted followers. Those who I’ve seen do the real, hard wilderness work of transformation go away for years, and have no expectations for what will happen. All is given to the surgical work of grace under the care of experienced practitioners.

I reconnected with someone like this not long ago. I hadn’t seen him in years. His ministry fell apart when he cultivated a relationship with an old girlfriend on Facebook, and began secretly meeting with her. He resisted the wilderness of grace, at first. He scrambled to save his marriage and ministry. But he had a wise community. They held him firmly, in painful love, and showed him a desert path. They knew this Facebook affair was just a symptom of deeper unhealth. They held his wife, and didn’t allow her to be gaslit in the process. He completely left ministry, quit social media, and gave himself to the work prescribed for him, which included finding a completely new way to make ends meet. His church entered into a hard season of honesty, as well, mindful of its need not just to grieve but to address what allowed this pastor to slowly spin out-of-control.

It’s seven years later and he looks great. His marriage is healthy. He’s decided to start coming back to ecclesial gatherings, ever under the watchful care of his therapist and a few close advisors, with a tempered curiosity about re-entering ministry. Because so much of the old, addicted self is dead, he doesn’t feel the drive he once did to change the world. He wonders what it might look like to serve a small congregation somewhere, but he’s profoundly attuned to his family’s needs and hesitations about this. Seven years into the work, he suspects he has another seven to go. He’s in no rush. In fact, he’s waking up to a life that is so much more beautiful than he knew before, and little matters more than waking up each day whole and healthy, and loving and being loved by those closest to him. He says that for the first time in his life, he feels like Jesus smiles at him.

He’s a man who has experienced an extraordinary Grace.

 

Bill Hybels and the Future of the Church After #ChurchToo

When I read Phyliss Tickle’s The Great Emergence five years ago, I couldn’t help but think of that oft-misquoted line about Mark Twain’s imminent demise: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I’d read Regele’s The Death of the Church more than a decade before, but after watching the so-called Emergent movement emerge and stumble, never quite getting traction as an ecclesial reformation, I had my doubt that the behemoth of the American Christendom church could die.

That was all before #MeToo and #ChurchToo.

Intellectual critiques of church as Empire are powerful, but it often takes experiential learning for change to happen. Many pastors (like me) who were trained in the 90’s and fed a diet of Peterson, Brueggeman, Wright, and others like them learned to ask hard questions about Christianity’s collusion with Empire. Some of us experienced painful lessons in churches that were run like corporations and led by clergy-CEO’s. There might be a quiet advocacy for marginalized women, abuse victims, or the silenced, but it felt like nothing would ever change. Even in my early experience of a supposedly-accountable Presbyterian context where polity was a friend, the systems preserved the powerful and the influential. Ideas weren’t enough to change entrenched systems designed to protect the powerful.

If there is to be a great emergence of some kind, a new reformation, a dying-and-rising of a new kind of church and a new kind of Christianity, the moment is now – at least for the American church. It was never about becoming more progressive or more conservative, I don’t think – it was about us, our character, our health, our willingness to give ourselves over to the dying-and-rising necessary for growing up. The big new idea wasn’t going to change us fundamentally – it would take a revelation that we have a disease within us to wake up to our bad habits, seek out the treatment we need, and encounter profound change.

Revelations of scandal and coverup in the Catholic church have been trickling out for years. Televangelists have been exposed as counterfeits. And megachurch and movement leaders in the evangelical church like Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, and Tullian Tchividjian have experienced their own reckonings for abuses of power. But these were not enough to shake us, evidenced in remarkably quick restorations inspired by a cheap form of grace. However, the revelations about Bill Hybels in this #MeToo and #ChurchToo moment are exposing much more than the ‘sin’ of one leader. The church is waking up to the nature of systemic sin, the embedded narcissism of institutions, the impotence of those called to govern and hold leaders accountable. This time it’s not just about the man – it’s about an entire system.

We’re slow to wake up. When I consult with churches entrenched in narcissistic systems and led by narcissistic leaders, I often see a kind of collective “Stockholm Syndrome” among staff and leaders. If I pull a thread and things begin to unravel, I watch as one-by-one they awaken to the toxic waters they’ve been immersed in. Narcissistic leadership in the church is especially toxic because, unlike politicians, we tend to believe that the pastor is saintly. Narcissistic pastors are adept at waving their magic spiritual wands, putting those that follow them in a trance. It is gaslighting, plain and simple, as followers, staff, and leaders question themselves well before they question the omnipotent pastor. When the thread is pulled and the systemic narcissism begins to unravel, the wake-up can be abrupt and deeply painful. Those around the narcissistic leader will question themselves, their faith, even reality as they’ve known it. This experiential crisis is the only hope for lasting change in the church.

When scandal hits Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, we take notice. But when scandal hits Willow Creek and Bill Hybels, we wake up. It hits us in the gut. Bill Hybels? Willow Creek?

The thread has been pulled, and we are all beginning to see the toxicity of narcissistic systems. Our systemic disease is no longer a story for Christianity Today, it’s a story for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Our illness has been exposed and the watching world has taken notice. The icon of ecclesial leadership has fallen, and it wasn’t just a misdemeanor offense. The sins of Hybels are not just his, but an entire system is implicated – other pastors in the system, governing leaders in the church, allies outside the church, and more. This isn’t a Hollywood scandal we can gawk at, this is our scandal, our reckoning, our moment to wake up.

Academic conversations about a great emergence or the end of Christendom have made for interesting conversation, but Willow Creek is our moment of experiential learning, our opportunity to die a painful death to our collective ego, grandiosity, celebrity worship, and more. Willow Creek is happening in small rural churches, suburban multi-sites, and city center churches, in black churches, liberal churches and evangelical networks. Many of us who’ve been working in and consulting with churches for decades have seen this virus at work, subtly spreading it’s disease. Now we see that it’s not just about a few fallen men, but about a collective.

It’s systemic narcissism.

It’s embedded in our structures, rampant in our institutions, spread throughout our networks and denominations – it’s the toxic ecclesial water we swim in. It protects the powerful, mocks and silences victims, and covers it all in a shiny spiritual veneer. It’s en-trancing effect led the evangelical church to overwhelmingly vote for a morally-vacuous narcissist whose manufactured daily reality show reveals how prone we are to being gaslit, how ignorant we’ve become to unhealth, to moral bankruptcy, to sin. It’s time to remove the blinders and look long and hard at our disease. Our collective disease.

This is an experiential moment of reckoning for the Christian church – for Catholics and Protestants, for progressives and conservatives, for each of us. We can’t not take a long hard look at our church, our pastor, our institution, our network, our denomination. We can’t chalk this up to a few bad eggs, a few big egos. We’ve got to wonder – together – how did we get here? What about us even craves narcissistic systems and leaders? Why is our American culture a perfect petris dish for narcissistic systems and leaders? How do our structures and systems cultivate this quick-spreading virus?

Our addiction to success, to grandiosity, to winning has gone unchecked. We forgot that we were followers of a suffering servant, bearers of the Cross, participants in a cruciform story. Willow Creek became the ultimate how-to-do-it-and-succeed counterfeit story. That isn’t a knock on everything it is and was, just a gut check for every pastor who thought – why isn’t my church growing like that one is OR if only we could discover their secret formula. Again, it revealed a lot about us. If you’re reading this as a post about Hybels or Willow Creek, you’ve missed the point – this is about us. Their story reveals ours.

What’s next? I hope it’s something beautiful, something remarkable – not the next-big-thing but a real death-to-resurrection story for the church in the United States. It won’t happen if we ignore our disease, though. How might you begin?

  1. Begin with you. What are your blindspots? Where are you unhealthy? How might you be a participant in systems that are unhealthy? Who in your life is brutally honest? (Ask people how they experience you) Are there repercussions for those who are honest with you?
  2. Start learning about systems – how they function in health and unhealth. Read Friedman’s Generation to Generation or Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church or Steinke’s How Your Church Family Works. Understand how your own family-of-origin story plays out in your current system.
  3. Learn more about narcissism. Become curious about your own. Follow this track and learn about narcissistic systems, about psychological abuse, about gaslighting.
  4. Seek out the resources at NetGrace, become Grace Certified, and follow and read people like Diane Langberg. Lindsey/Justin Holcomb, and Wade Mullen.
  5. Engage in 360 review processes in your church, org, networks. Invite consultants in to advise and assess the health of your church or org.

That’s just a modest start. Keep exploring, but don’t ignore the hard work of personal change and honest engagement with the systems in which you participate. Become stewards of the healthy dying – in yourself, in your church, in your org’s – so that we may become witnesses of something beautiful and new.

 

no kingdom without a cross

There is no rescue without suffering, no transformation without a wilderness, no kingdom without a cross.

This difficult message, more often than not, is rejected by Christians, not by skeptics.  Skeptics, in fact, are strangely attracted to the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus draped in the American flag or the Jesus whose message apparently sells self-help, victorious-Christian-life books.  No, skeptics are suspicious of this Jesus, and rightly so.  Rather, it is us – Christians – who are more apt to embrace a kingdom without a cross.

Somehow, we’ve come to believe that since Jesus ventured into the wilderness and suffered, even to the point of death, that we don’t have to.  Many of us live with a sense of entitlement – religious entitlement (if I live by faith, my life should be successful), economic entitlement (want to offend someone? – tell them their taxes are being raised!), political entitlement (supposing the world is going to hell in a handbasket if supposed ‘Christian’ policies on the left or right are not embraced), social entitlement (our desperately codependent need to be connected all the time), and psychological entitlement (my parents shouldn’t have failed me).

I saw so much of this on display over the past week during the healthcare debate, which seemed to draw out every angry, embittered, idealistic emotion our culture corporately carries.  On the one side, evangelical friends were outraged that they’d be forced to be inconvenienced (taxed!) for the sake of others, or at least this was my take.  On the other, those on left seemed, once again, convinced that real community and care could be somehow mandated by law.  I struggled to see the Gospel in any of it, in the sense that I didn’t see an honest wrestling with what it looks like, as a society, to come together wisely to care for the least of these – bringing in the kingdom through the cross of personal suffering and inconvenience for the sake of the other.  Let me assure you – sprinkling a little Jesus on Ayn Rand or Karl Marx does not make for a cruciform kingdom…

…which leads me to wonder – will we, Christians, need to suffer more to see that becoming followers of Jesus requires crucifixion?  Our confidence in changing and transforming the world politically – whether you’re on the left or the right – is false security.  It is an idol that will break in a thousand pieces.  And I say this no matter the method.  I tell my clients – those who think psychology will make it all better – that good psychology only leads you more deeply into the wilderness in order to meet God.  The idol of optimistic self-help will also explode.  Moreover, the confidence in the all-powerful, all-knowing Market may be our biggest idol.  Thomas Hobbes warned John Locke that the humanistic belief in well-intentioned, altruistic people was nonsense, and would come back to bite us.  His prophecy was too true.  What the market has produced is wealth for some, to be sure…and many cultural goods.  But it has also produced a thriving porn industry which degrades young women, the idolization of image, obsession with people’s tragic lives on reality television, the false belief in the 2000s that middle-class families could actually afford 2000 sq foot homes, psychological dependence on each new technology, the collective narcissistic false self of the American, a growing psychological sense that we deserve more and more, the militarization and economization of ‘security’, the church as “small business” in competition with others, the professionalization of the clergy, and the marginalization of those who don’t fit the collective narcissistic image of success.

I believe in the paschal mystery – the path of life through death patterned in Jesus – and this leads me to wonder, at times, if we might not need to face a cultural death in order to experience real life and revival.  We, Christians, may be most in need of this humiliation, and perhaps ought to pray for it.  We seem to excel in hard times.  I was reminded by a white South African friend again recently how black Christians in Africa led the call to forgiveness and reconciliation for those who systematically abused, tortured, imprisoned, and even raped them.  May we suffer so as to learn forgiveness like this.

As an election season heats up, we’d do well to extricate ourselves from the back-and-forth which is so enticing and addictive, as if a Supreme Court opinion or an election can save us from our desperately entitled, narcissistic selves.  This is my own spiritual discipline in this season – God help me.  I will be asking myself – what is the way of the Cross?  What false securities have I embraced?  But watch out what you pray for.  That which we hold to, cling to, attach our identity to may be taken from us – our business, our secure portfolio, our reputation, our idealism.

And may God’s peaceable kingdom emerge amidst the rubble in a way that skeptics might see Jesus in us, instead of despite us…

Moving Beyond Polarization into Mission

I’m moving on.

I’ve spent the last decade-plus in the midst of a sad and frustrating polarization.  In other posts, I’ve talked about it as the Emergent-Resurgence polarization.  It’s the newest episode in a long series of polarization-episodes.  We, Christians, are Academy Award winners in the Polarization Genre.  Best debates.  Best books.  Best blogs.  Best condemnations.  Best wars.  Best schisms.  Best denominational debates.

Recently, I realized that I was being emotionally-tugged into its black hole.  That’s what this polarizing debate does, after all.  It sucks you in.

Anne Rice quit organized Christian religion because of it.  It tires many.  It energizes many others.  Having taught in both conservative and liberal seminaries, I’m aware of both ditches.  But I get too emotionally involved.  I find myself triggered by what seems to me  to be crazy-talk.

I’ve been slowly trying to wean myself of this.  I’ll admit it.  I’m drawn in to the craziness.  So are many of you.  I see the tweets and get the emails, but sadly I’m not often wise or courageous enough to maturely move through and beyond them…

I decided to do my degrees in counseling and psychology not just to figure myself out (that’s almost impossible, and even frightening!), but to better understand the complex and dysfunctional world in which I live.  In my best moments, my calling is clear – to help men and women live more spiritually and emotionally healthy lives, which in turn propels them into mission – into the lives of others with great faithfulness. In my worst moments, I’m tired, cynical, sarcastic, embarrassed of myself and other Christians, and ready to throw in the towel.

In recent days, I’ve plowed back in to the personal baggage of my own life, and seen my own dark recesses.  More importantly, I find myself drawn back to the center – God, in me, whispering the truth – “You are my beloved.” This penetrates through the bitterness and cynicism.  It reveals my own crap, helps me to own it (repent), and propels me to move beyond it.  That’s where I am right now.  

I am deeply troubled by what I see in me, but also what I see around me in both fundamentalist/evangelical circles and in liberal/progressive circles.  I’m grieved by the division.  Jesus said in John 17, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

We are not one.

My deeper passion, personally, is to help men and women heal the dividedness in their own souls.  I really do believe that healing this divideness is a very big key to a more profound healing between men and women.  Throughout Lent, I will be praying through this, blogging about it, and working toward a next book I hope to write that I am calling “The Mission of God’s Beloved.”

Only as we realize that we are the Beloved can we possibly move toward others with compassion instead of caricatures.

I’ll only continue to write as I do the hard work of doing business with my own inner dividedness.  Thankfully, I’m in a community and among people who demand more from me.

The Mission of God’s Beloved…

Let’s reflect on this throughout Epiphany and Lent, and into Holy Week.

The Four Security Strategies of Contemporary Evangelicalism

I’m thinking out loud right now about the kinds of security strategies we employ which actually represent ‘twisted’ ways of participating in the life of Christ in our world today.  I’ve taught about this a bit in my Psychology in Relation to Theology seminary courses and wrote about it a bit in Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. But I’d love your feedback and thoughts.

There were at least four established Jewish movements in Jesus’ day, according to most scholars – The Pharisees, The Essenes, The Sadducees, and the Zealots.  Of course, like most movements today, each was complex.  But generalizations can be made about the particular way in which each represented a security strategy for the Jews of that day.  These are psychological strategies. Often, our theological strategies are masked in psychological ones, and I’m proposing that this was the case then as it is today.  The Jewish people in the two centuries before Christ, after all, restlessly coped with multiple anxieties – the loss of a central place (Temple, land), an anxiety around Messiah’s return (manifesting in an array of apocalyptic and militaristic scenarios), conflict around accommodation to Empire (withdrawal vs. participation), and more.  Perhaps, their theological positions were not merely developed in a vacuum.  Maybe, they were attempting to cope with a very real disappointment with God and anxiety about their future?  Let’s take a look:

The Pharisees – a complex group (with multiple camps within it) who were the Torah-zealots of their day, rigidly guarding the boundaries of Jewish orthodoxy.  Their security strategy was a hyper-vigilant protectionism which provoked the ire of Jesus, who did not come to abolish Torah but to see it come to life.

The Essenes – A group of ancient ascetics who had given up on a Temple-centered Judaism, who lived by a strict code, and who imagined wildly apocalyptic scenarios for the coming of Messiah.  Their security strategy was withdrawal and avoidance, a self-protective strategy to keep them from mingling with the sellouts, their Jewish brothers and sisters who mixed and mingled with Empire.

The Sadducees – In contrast to the Essenes, the Sadducees were accommodators, who rolled with the upper echelon of society.  Though we don’t know a whole lot more than that, it appears that their security strategy was political in nature.  Hanging with the influencers kept them from having to feel the incredible powerlessness many Jews of the day felt.

The Zealots – Anxious for the kingdom to come, Zealots would take up arms to speed its day.  These warriors of God adopted a militaristic security strategy which bred a sense of power and control amidst extraordinary anxiety about the Jewish future.  Even despite the radically cruciform way of Christ, Christians would take up arms for their cause for generations after.

Now, do these four movements correspond, in any way, to our contemporary evangelical security strategies?  Do we see ourselves in them?  Do we define Jesus through them?

Here are some initial thoughts with some initial descriptors.  I welcome push back, as I’m developing some of these thoughts for further use down the road.

Modern-day Pharisees – Policemen for Jesus.  Guardians of tradition.  Hyper-vigilantly aware whenever someone appears to cross the line.  Black and white.  Noble in their passion for truth, but dangerously close to forfeiting intimacy with God in their fervor for rightness about God.  A security that comes from certainty of doctrine rather than confidence in Jesus.

Modern-day Essenes – Monks for Jesus.  Guardians of purity.  Prone to see everything in this world as a distraction from real relationship with God.  So noble in their heavenly-mindedness, yet prone to be of little earthly good.  A security that comes from self-protection rather than bold and cruciform engagement in the life of Jesus.

Modern-day Sadducees – Salesman for Jesus.  Players in the game of faith.  Willing to accommodate in any way to advance the cause.  Passionate in their desire to be “all things” but in danger of selling a hollow faith.  A security that comes from being important, relevant, striving to become a power-player for Team Jesus instead of enjoying the freedom to have influence (…rather than need influence).

Modern-day Zealots – Warrior for Jesus.  Ready to fight alongside General Jesus in the battle for truth and goodness over heresy and sinfulness.  Aggressive in every endeavor.  Passionate for a faith-in-action, but prone to run people (and especially women) over.  A security in a dominant and forceful presence (in preaching/media/web/relationships/etc.) instead of resting in the cruciform, self-sacrificial, powerless way of Jesus.

Send me your thoughts.  And, if you’re being honest, you’ll likely see yourself in one or more of these, as I do.  The bigger question is how we go about doing the hard work of self-evaluation, as well as evaluating our churches, our denominations, our movements, and institutions.

How do I cope in one of these ways?  How do I lead from this kind of posture?  What anxieties/disappointments are really operating behind the scenes?  What values have I adopted (and defended, as if from God) as a result, perhaps, of my own unconscious needs?  What movement have I aligned with because it scratches this psychological itch?