(Christian) Family Dynamics

We all know Newton’s third law:  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Or, at the least, we know it in our relationships.  Family Systems theorists have argued for decades that a principle of polarization exists in families.  When one person acts extremely, another generally reacts to the opposite extreme.  Let’s take the Smiths.  When Mrs. Smith decided to take a day at the spa, Mr. Smith was angry.  As the breadwinner, he works hard for the money.  Frustrated and motivated by not-a-little self-pity, Mr. Smith decided to work longer hours that week.  In turn, Mrs. Smith bought a $150 pair of jeans.  Late that week, a fight broke out between the two.  Mrs. Smith was angry with Mr. Smith’s distance.  Mr. Smith was angry with Mrs. Smith’s selfishness.  An exercise in missing the point.

The two wanted intimacy, closeness, connection.  Their polarized argument may have revealed grains of truth (Mr. Smith does work too much and Mrs. Smith indulges too much), but missed the real point.

Our family dynamics as Christians are similar.  Our fights don’t often reveal our real issues.

Now, our polarizations may include real and important differences (I wouldn’t deny objective differences among, for instance, those who deny Christ’s deity and those who do).  But, healthy families talk about differences.  Sometimes, differences lead to separation.  But separation, itself, marks a commitment to the healthiest relating possible amidst difficult circumstances.

However, unhealthy families explode in the midst of difference, often clouding real issues and failing to talk about what is most important.  Factions polarize.  Smaller issues divide.  Mountains are made out of molehills.  And in our anger, it’s so hard to see the real struggle.  Let’s be honest, we’re all guilty of it.  Polarization began in the Garden.  “She did it!  No, he did it!”

Having taught courses in a conservative, evangelical and confessional seminary and also in a liberal, progressive, and constructive seminary, I see these features in both.  Caricatures dominate.  In the liberal seminary where I taught a course, I recall becoming very defensive when a student challenged the notion of “God’s Kingdom” as a patriarchal and inherently violent term.  Internally polarized, I reacted with some anger.  What did I miss, though?  I missed an opportunity to hear the student’s story.  Later, I checked in with her.  My student (who was a minority, herself) was not, in fact, opposed to the language, but to a religious philosophy that champions the dominant group over the minority group.  I validated that.  And then I explained that the Kingdom of Jesus is an upside down Kingdom, where the weakness of the Suffering Servant paves the way for the redemption of broken, needy, sinful men and women.  She teared up.  “I like that Kingdom,” she said.  A new journey began for her.

Likewise, a conservative student was flustered when he found out that I was egalitarian.  He began arguing with me on the data.  But this time I stayed centered, not giving in to my propensity to argue, caricature, polarize.  I told him my story, a story which includes influential conversations with my former professor, a great Reformed theologian who taught at Gorden Conwell and RTS named Roger Nicole, lauded even among ardent complementarians (clink on the link).  He saw that I studied the Bible, and that my journey was not guided by some “misguided feminist agenda,” as he called it, but by “thoughtful study.”  He relaxed.  And so did I.  Polarization AVOIDED.

What if our family could move in this direction?  What if we asked one another more about our stories than assuming some slippery slope, or some arrogant agenda? Let’s talk.

The God who looks you in the eye

I can’t look you in the eyes.

My client said it to me.  I could hear him crying, but he buried his face in his hands. He was drowning in shame from acting out, yet again.

I’m repulsive.

And then he said something that stunned me.  I know God hates me and can’t look at me.

He was a young seminary student.  He’d been listening to some sermons from supposedly reliable guides.  He’d told me what he had heard before – God can’t look at us in our sin.  When he looks at us (and if we’re a Christian), he sees Jesus.

I asked him to look up at me.  He couldn’t.  I waited, and asked again after a bit.  And finally he raised his head slowly, and looked.  I suspect that in my eyes he saw love and felt safety.  His eyes welled up more.  At least you care, he says.

In some warped take on God’s love and human sin, he’s been told a lie.  I heard it again recently by a popular preacher who barks with force at his congregation – Some of you need to know God hates you.  He doesn’t just hate your sin.  He hates you. I’ll spare you the guilt-and-shame-filled YouTube clip.  And yet, thousands flock to it.

Like moths to a flame, many of us are simply irresistibly attracted to messages that either radically overstate our depravity or radically understate it.  Preachers, if you want to make it, tell people what they want to hear.  Two methods seem to work well.

1.  Many want to hear they’re awful. Preach shame and guilt to them.

2.  Many others want to hear they’re just fine. Don’t require anything of them.

Both are lies.  Both minimize the extraordinary and challenging love of God in Jesus.

What I told this young seminary student is to get to know the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who looks the most repulsive in the eye and smiles.  He loves and welcomes them, and then calls them to more.  The extravagant Father in Luke 15 runs toward his prodigal son, bringing shame upon himself, in order to convey his extraordinary grace and love.  You are my son. He gives him the ring, the robe, the feast.  And then he expects him to live like a son.

Original goodness preceded the Fall.  Before humankind fell, God smiled on them, bestowing dignity in his royal image.  Listening to some of these preachers, you’d think God forgot what he created.  But what Jesus sees in messed up human beings is what exists prior, that original dignity and glory.  This originally good self is hidden now, but God promises to reveal it, to reveal you.  As Frederick Buechner says, “The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all.” But because of Jesus, we’re washed, cleaned, restored.

God doesn’t hate you.  He’s not repulsed by you.

When he looks at you, he’s not wincing.

And, He’s not looking at Jesus, instead, as if in some twisted form of divine logic God can never look upon his children again, but instead must gaze upon his Son as our righteousness.

No.  You’re not disgusting.  Don’t believe the twisted, repulsion theology that has more in common with Pharisaism than Jesus.  God declares you not guilty.  He adopts you.  He loves you.  Because of his relentless covenant faithfulness, you are loved, welcomed, enjoyed.

But don’t believe the opposite lie either…that God is just some positive-thinker in the sky.  Don’t trivialize God’s love.  Don’t use his forgiveness as an excuse to discard living a life of extraordinary love for others, compassion, sexual fidelity, humility, and more.  God’s love is both welcoming and challenging. God smiles on you and invites you in, but he’ll not leave you unchanged.  By his grace, you’ll be challenged radically, not by a Divine Guilt-and-Shame Manipulator, but by the Incarnate God who humiliated himself for you.

It’s because he knows you.  He knows that original shimmering self that is you prior to the tragic cosmic Fall.  The doctrine of original goodness desperately needs to be restored, not to let us off the hook, but to let us in to a life lived free from shame, freed for a cruciform life of self-sacrificial love.

As you celebrate the Incarnation in Christ’s birth, witness Christ’s smile.  He didn’t come to remind you how bad you are, but how much you’re worth.

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?