9 Reasons I can’t buy into the Enneagram.

I first heard about the Enneagram several years ago and was reminded of it again a few years later when I heard Ian Morgan Cron, the author of a popular Enneagram book, The Road Back to You, speak at a conference. His talk was fun, winsome, and I wanted to like the concepts he espoused. I had taken an Enneagram test online many years before and I had gotten a 5. But in talking to many of my closest friends at that time many of them labeled me a 7. However, talking to work colleagues who only know me in that context, it seems they think I’m a 4 and one at the time said that I’m definitely not a 7. I’ve taken five tests in all and gotten 5, 4, 7, 3, and 6. That’s right, I’ve never gotten the same result twice.

I’m aware that Enneagram enthusiasts will all say that either that’s because tests aren’t really accurate, or it just means I don’t actually know myself, or I haven’t studied it enough, or I haven’t read the right book or taken the right test, or I need to spend more time with it all so I can really understand what I am. I’ve heard it all. So I have spent a long time – years in fact – evaluating the Enneagram and I want to share my conclusions. This blog entry has taken me four years to write, so please believe me when I say I don’t say this lightly, but first let me address those Enneagram adherents.

If you looove the Enneagram, please don’t @ Me

Look, I’m not telling you not to like it, but I am asking you to question it. If you love it passionately then you’re probably not going to love this blog entry. So let me start off by saying this: If you truly, deeply find it helpful I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong for that. I most likely won’t convince you of anything, but before you go, I would ask you to please consider one thing: Is it possible that there are more than these 9 personalities? And for the Christians, is it ok that other Christians don’t want to be defined by something non-Biblical, even if you do? I’m just asking you to consider these things. If that’s all you do then feel free to stop reading here. Again, I’m not trying to convince you that you shouldn’t like the enneagram if you do.

I only ask that if you continue reading that you afford the same respect to me that I will try to do to you. I do realize that #NotAllEnneagramLovers applies here. I might also ask the courtesy of turning off your brain’s Enneagram typing system. I know you’ll try to put me in a box the longer your read this (you may have just decided that I’m a 4 because I said ‘put me in a box’ for example, or maybe I’m a 5 because of how verbose and cerebral my wording may seem.) I’m asking you nicely, please assume for a moment that I’m just a human and not a number.

Also keep in mind that I’m explaining why I don’t like the Enneagram, not why the Enneagram is “wrong.” If you read it as me saying “the Enneagram is wrong/bad/stupid for these reasons then you’re not reading it the spirit that I’m trying to write it. I might say I believe it can be “hurtful,” for example. I am not saying it always is. If you stick around for the whole entry I promise I will talk about a few things that I do find appealing about the Enneagram, so maybe that will motivate you to get to the end.

1) There is no credible psychological research that supports the Enneagram

When I first decided to write this entry I knew it would ruffle some feathers because I have many friends who love the Enneagram. And I debated starting with this objection because it’s a very harsh reality, but I feel that it must be said up front.

There is no sound psychological evidence that backs up the Enneagram. In my experience of reading about and discussing the Enneagram, when adherents refer to “researching” the Enneagram they’re talking about reading books by Enneagram proponents and not conducting actual psychological research to try to determine the scientific validity of the typing system.

I will hasten to say that the same could be said for the MBTI, however the difference there is I actually like the MBTI (wink)… no ok, I will have more to say about the MBTI in relation to all this further down, just stick with me for now.

I actually did search a few academic databases and found startlingly few works in peer-reviewed journals that seem to offer any real validation to the nine types, let alone the idea that they are either mutually exclusive or collectively exhaustive. What research has been done is either inconclusive (one Canadian study claims to affirm the enneagram, for example, but actually only affirms that the people in the study believed in personality types) or too small, outdated, and questionable in their methods. The only real study of any size is almost 40 years old and seems to only be seen as being valid by enneagram proponents, not the academic psychology community.

What I did find was many social science researchers questioning the enneagram, if not out right dismissing it. Perhaps the best summary of this when encapsulated when Rebecca A. Newgent wrote her Ph.D. thesis entitled “An investigation of the reliability and validity of the Riso-Hudson enneagram type indicator.” In the abstract she states “While some research on these enneagram systems has been conducted, [she lists the studies] limited empirical validation has occurred.” And even her own study is largely inconclusive, only had a small sampling, and was weakened by its reliance on self-report and lack of diversity of its volunteers.

In her discussion she writes “It is generally undesirable to have ipsative scales because the scale affects the psychometrics estimated” and continues to expound upon why this weakness lead to her results. In other words: when personality assessments require you to choose between multiple desirable options regrading yourself (IE: am I more spontaneous or reliable?) they’re largely seen as unhelpful assessment tools as they fail to capture the complexity of humanity because people are more likely to select what they see as the better trait. I might feel spontaneous at that moment, or I might want to be spontaneous, or I might’ve been recently told by someone who doesn’t know me well that I am spontaneous, and I might undervalue being reliable while still actually being reliable, I might center my identity around being reliable but I might still berate myself for not being reliable enough when I make one small slip up. And this is just one of dozens of questions that are asked in these kinds of assessments.

I asked a clinical psychologist and a licensed counselor about their opinion on the Enneagram and neither of them had ever even heard of it. Both of them said approximately the same thing, however: these tests can be useful for a person to think about their personality and get to know themselves, but they shouldn’t be taken as hard and fast rules of nature.

The discussion in the aforementioned study also points out another weakness of the Enneagram. You have to pick a dominant type – you can’t mix and match things from across the circle – which leads me to my next objection-

2) It feels less like “typing” and more like stereotyping

The premise of the Enneagram is that a person has a “dominate type” which should become apparent as you “research” the Enneagram. Yes, you can have “wings” (albeit only the numbers to your left and right) and you might have slightly different healthy and unhealthy behaviors based on which number is across the circle from you (which might be the most wildly arbitrary thing in the whole typing system; more on that later) But you can’t say that I’m a 1/8 even split. Or a 4/7. So instead of seeing the broad spectrum of your various traits and comparing to others you’re lumped into a stereotypical group and are assigned several arbitrary behaviors that make you “healthy” or “unhealthy.”

If you say to a Enneagram adherent that you don’t at all feel like you fit in with the description you’re given, save for a couple of descriptors, you’ll be told that not everyone fits every part of their description. So what if you don’t fit more than 30% of any of the traits of any number? What if you’re exactly 50/50 of two different numbers that have no relationship?

They’re not mutually exclusive They’re not collectively exhaustive

Types that have no official relationship can have a huge amount of overlap. 1’s are perfectionists – well often perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with being achievement driven and vice versa, but those two types have no relationship in the Enneagram. Every type has another type in a another part of the circle that could be coupled with it if cross-typing were allowed, but instead most Enneagram authors espouse that people only have one dominant type.

I’ve found other people like me who, despite being introspective, emotionally healthy people who have done a great deal of self assessment, don’t identify with any of the types – or might equally identify with several. Despite this there’s no “spectrum” on which these types exist (unlike MBTI or the DISC assessment) which doesn’t give the wiggle room for the many complexities in human personalities.

3) The types are often used as either a bludgeon or an excuse

While I’m not saying there is no appropriate use of the Enneagram I can say for certain it has many improper uses – though this is definitely true of all other personality assessments as well. I personally have seen more of the system’s abuse than good use.

A bludgeon:

“You’re not a 2! You’re a 9!” or “You’re not a 7, you’re not that fun.” or “Well you just don’t know yourself, that’s why you haven’t figured out your type.” or “With as much as she argues? Definitely an 8” or “Have you really researched it? because I think it applies to everyone.” or “Ignore him, he’s just being a 1.” or “Sometimes it just takes a really long time for you to accept your type.”

To the people who say these things: Do you realize that every time you assign a type or tell someone they’re not a type that you’re subtly insulting them? Each type have some positive characteristics and some really negative characteristics (except 6, which might be why the study I mentioned in point one found it to be the least valid type in self-assessments due to its vague-ness) and in declaring someone’s type you’re insinuating some pretty strong intimate knowledge of that person – depending on which book you read. Also if you say that because someone doesn’t feel they fit into one of the categories that means that they don’t know themselves (and indicating that you clearly know them better) is not only insulting, it’s pretty arrogant. These uses of the enneagram aren’t helpful, they’re hurtful. Implying that because someone doesn’t identify with your system of categorizing people that they are either ignorant, deluded or in denial is not edifying in any circumstance.

An excuse

“You know that because I’m a 4 I’m not going to react well when you say that kind of thing to me” or “you have to forgive her for being a jerk, she’s an 8” or “you can’t expect any different from him, he’s a 9 and they’re kind of lazy” or “Look you just have to get out of his way, he’s a 3 and he has to do it his way.” or “I know the only thing I mentioned was the spelling error, but I’m a 1, I only see your mistakes.”

part of this is because Enneagram really drives home the belief that personality is static. To be fair, most type indicators seem to adhere to this. There was one book of those I read that tried to say personality is what you build to protect yourself like a cast around a broken bone – that was a very different take that totally clashed with the other books I’d read. Either approach doesn’t really get at the complexities of personality. If you believe that your personality is only a result of your victimhood then you’re going to lean into the victim mentality. And if you believe that your personality is static then it makes it easy for you to rest on your laurels and just say “it’s who I am” and you often either become a victim of your own traits or others do.

If your goal in taking a personality assessment is to be able to say that you’re never going to change, then you’re doing it wrong. Yes, we all have quirks that aren’t likely to change, but that doesn’t mean that we do nothing to mitigate them. Real maturity is just as much about doing things that don’t come natural to you as it is about accepting who you are. Just because it’s your natural response, doesn’t mean it was the right response. And just because you have a particular number assigned to you by some guys who made a up an assessment in the 60s doesn’t mean that you can’t do things differently! Which leads me to my next issue…

4) The “ancient” origins enneagram are false

If you’re an Enneagram apologist and you’re still reading you’re probably wondering if I’d read all the same books you have. If you’re like most I’ve encountered then you have a specific one you want me to read that you think will change my mind on this. Up to this point, the more I read the less I’m convinced and so far I’ve read three different books on the topic. It’s amazing how they somehow manage to both say the same things while still contradicting one another, but one thing all of them claim is that the Enneagram is an ancient typing system. This is easily debunked.

These books make vague references to ancient writings, which, when researched, bear no resemblance to the Enneagram of today. The only idea most of these “sources” had in common with the modern Enneagram is the concept of a limited number of types of people – meaning that these same ancient roots have equal in common with every other personality assessment in use today. And usually the “types” in question aren’t personality types, but were more abstract ideas about the soul, spirits, or facets of culture.

The word “enneagram” wasn’t even really popularized until the 20th century by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, an Armenian new-age spiritualist, but his talk of it still didn’t look much like the Enneagram we know today. It wasn’t until Óscar Ichazo invented the first modern take on the Enneagram in the 1960s that we get writings that look like what you’d read about in contemporary Enneagram literature. He had a student, Claudio Naranjo, who broke with him and started teaching the Enneagram himself in the 70s – Ichazo said that Naranjo’s Enneagram wasn’t legit, that he – Ichazo – was the only one who taught the real Enneagram, because he wanted people to come to his school and pay him to teach them about it, but he couldn’t claim a copyright on it without admitting that it was not ancient knowledge – which was a big part of his sales pitch. It’s Naranjo’s teachings that all the books, tests, and seminars about Enneagram are based on. What’s more is Naranjo actually is on video saying that the Enneagram was dreamed up by Ichazo.

One of Naranjo’s earlier set of students were Jesuit priests who integrated Christian beliefs into the Enneagram, such as associating the nine types with the seven deadly sins, which later prompted some Christian authors erroneously claim that the seven deadly sins are a potential source of the “ancient” Enneagram. In reality there is no hard historical evidence of any concrete link between the Enneagram and Christian teachings before 1970.

So no, this specific typing system isn’t ancient at all. In fact it’s predated by Pepsi cola. That alone doesn’t invalidate it, but it does call into question the wisdom of some of the authors who continue to espouse its ancient origins despite the lack of any real evidence that there is any true connection between the Enneagram invented in the 20th century and any ancient writings.

And while I don’t like to be an alarmist about these kinds of things, I do feel that we should all consider the claims of former-Occultist-turned-Christian, Marcia Montenegro who has been interviewed on several podcasts regarding the ties that the Enneagram has to new age spiritualism and the occult. Here’s an interview with her on Cultish.

5) It’s a poor typing tool

When I take the DISC assessment I get similar results to the first time I took it. When I take MBTI variants I get similar results. But when I take an assessment for the Enneagram I’ve never gotten the same result twice.

Those in favor of the Enneagram have told me that this could be because I’m not taking the correct test, or because I don’t know myself well, or even because tests don’t work at all for typing the Enneagram and the only way to discover your type is by reading more books about it until you accept the category you fit into.

Regardless of which is true – all of these statements mean that Enneagram systems aren’t very good at fitting people into its various types. Because there is no definitive test, there really isn’t a definitive understanding of each type. While there are a handful of traits that most authors agree on, most authors have pretty different nuances in their understanding of the types. Reading the description of a 6 in one book can be pretty different from the description of a 6 in another book.

Of course, the basic descriptions remain the same across books. For example, type 2 is a helper who can tend toward matyrdom – this seems widely agreed upon. At that level those descriptions feel less like types and more like horoscopes since they’re so general, but they’re hard to argue with. However, the types really start to break down when each author does their own take on what specific secondary traits are manifested in a “healthy” and “unhealthy” 2 – often getting so caught up in the minutiae of the type that it decreases the number of people who will read and say “oh that is me.” Continuing with the 2 as an example. Most of us know someone who extremely helpful, but can tend toward martyrdom – those two characteristics often go hand in hand. In The Road Back to you Ian Morgan Cron tells a story about a supposed 2 who bought a car for a family without asking them – this is an example of a 2 who often is helpful, but only in the ways that they want. Well I know some helpful people who still struggle with a martyr complex who have that characteristic, yes. I also know others who don’t. “Ah yes,” adherents will say, “that just means they are healthy.” Well, yes and no. They still might have a big struggle with anxiety – which is a chief characteristic of a 6. “Well not every characteristic fits every person of that type” adherents will suggest, but this occurs to the point that I don’t feel comfortable saying – or even thinking that the people close to me fall into these types as I find most people might have 2-3 characteristics of any given one of these types at most.

In addition, the fact that they can be frustratingly rigid, the arbitrary relationships between these different types makes them confusingly fluid at times, but I’ll get to that in the next section.

Most typing systems have some level of flexibility in them, but the required flexibility to accept the types in the Enneagram strains credulity to me. I had a person I worked with tell me he thought I might be a 4 – I read the description of the 4 and found part of it to be somewhat like me – or at least I could see why he would think it was like me – and the rest to not only be unlike me, but rather repellent to me. I won’t get into those specifics as I don’t want to insult people who feel they have those characteristics. I don’t see how I could claim to identify with a type where half the description I can kind of see, but the other half I not only don’t identify with, but I actually don’t really even like. I also don’t see how I can identify as a type when the person hearing said Identification might be thinking of a different set of characteristics depending upon what book they’ve read, or what experience they’ve had with other people who identify as that type – that, in my opinion, makes it a very poor typing system.

6) The relationship between types is arbitrary

Ah, but Will, you might say, there are “wings” and also possibilities that people’s relative stress or emotional health might cause them to act differently – that explains why people have all these different characteristics which may seem inconsistent at first to the less trained eye.

In the Enneagram there are relationships between the different types that add to the tangled web of complexity – such that while they can be frustratingly austere (there’s no room for a person to be an even mix of two types) they can also be staggeringly fluid. For example, a 7, if “healthy” can take on the good characteristics of a 5, but if unhealthy OR stressed out (depends on who you ask, and no admission that these are two are wildly different things) they can take on the negative characteristics of a 1. A 1, if healthy can take on the positive characteristics or a 7, but if stressed/unhealthy can take on the characteristics of an unhealthy 4. Why? Because that’s the way they fall around the circle. Seriously. That’s the only reason for these relationships.

I haven’t heard a logical reason for these relationships between the types. In all three of the books I read, as well as the materials provided by the Enneagram Institute, there is absolutely no explanation given for why these supposed relationships exist. They just are. What’s more – these explanations make typing nearly impossible, but provide Enneagram adherents with a bevy of tools to keep the ball in the air when discussing the types with skeptics.

I know a person (really well) who fits a lot of the description of a 9 but occasionally acts like a 6. So an Enneagram proponent might say well he’s an unhealthy/stressed 9 because an unhealthy 9 takes on the characteristics of a 6 – but I can tell you that this is one of the healthiest people I know and, if anything when stressed he takes on the characteristics of a 2 – not the unhealthy characteristics of a 2, mind you, in fact he would never act like a martyr, but instead would just get to work being helpful. Maybe he’s a healthy 2 then – except the 2 characteristics are largely a result of stress in his case. Maybe he’s a healthy 8 who is taking on the characteristics of a 2! Nope, he hates conflict – really runs away from it. Maybe he’s just a six who is healthy and therefore taking on the healthy characteristics of a 9 – well no, because he doesn’t take on the characteristics of a 3 at all, but especially not when stressed.

Do you see why I’m having trouble buying this typing system? All of these relationships are arbitrary and they make it so that when you try to explain why you aren’t a type then you get questioned as to whether you’re healthy or unhealthy/stressed. In reality most of us have both healthy and unhealthy parts of our thought processes – making it nearly impossible to determine whether a person is a “healthy” 6 or an “unhealthy” 9.

I also want to address the confusion between “stressed” and “unhealthy.” The Enneagram institute actually uses the words “integrated” and “dis-integrated” which are terms taken directly from new-age-spiritualist roots of the Enneagram – Christian Enneagram writers have shied away from these terms and instead have chosen to use the words “stressed” or “unhealthy.” The problem is these are totally different things. As I said above, most of us have healthy and unhealthy aspects of our lives and to different degrees, but health is something that ebbs and flows – often taking hits quickly, but healing more slowly. Stress can set on very quickly or slowly and it can ease up quickly or slowly. Also stress isn’t bad. Stress is like friction – it isn’t comfortable, but it gets the gears moving. People’s response to stress is also largely dependent on how healthy they are, and there are such things as healthy coping mechanisms. Stress is to weather as health is to climate. And while they are two very different things they’re often used interchangeably in discussions about the Enneagram which makes it even more difficult to determine what a type is. Are they stressed? Are they unhealthy? Are they dis-integrated? Who knows?

7) It is a perfect example of the Barnum/Forer effect.

The Forer effect, also known as the Barnum effect is a psychological principle wherein people rate various personality assessments as highly accurate to themselves specifically, despite the types being general. This is the same basic principle that leads people to treat astrological signs as legitimate personality types.

This is also the same trick that con-artists use to convince marks that they have supernatural powers. A “psychic” with a room full of people can say something like “someone here has lost someone close to them.” That is general enough that it probably applies to half the room. From there things might get a little more specific, but only enough to allow the people who are engaged to become more certain that they’re the intended person. By the time it does get specific, the mark is willing to dismiss anything that doesn’t seem to fit because they’re hooked.

The issue is that even if you examine these individual types, they’re simplified. Someone says “perfectionist” and instantly all the perfectionists say “that’s me” without considering that there are many degrees and kinds of perfectionism motivated by different things and manifesting different ways. I’m not just making this up; depending on who you ask there might be three, four, or even five different kinds of perfectionism (click those links if you don’t believe me) – are they all 1’s? Or you say “creative” regarding 4’s and guess what? Once again – as I believe most people recognize – there could be three, four, or five different kinds of creativity. As a personal side note here, this also bothers me because it further denotes “creativity” as equivalent to “artistic.” Not everyone is artistic but everyone has some form a creativity since we’re made in the image of a creator.

Yet, the Forer effect shows that someone who has identified themselves as a perfectionist will look at the rest of the description and rate it as accurate. Especially after given a handful of other general traits with which they agree. So a person who calls themselves a 4 might be told “creative, sensitive, introverted” – three common traits that often go together – and then rate the rest as accurate because they so heavily identify with those first three.

It doesn’t fit perfectly? We’ve got wings and healthy/unhealthy relationships to explain that. – why you ask? Because that’s where they are around the circle. And soon your thinking becomes patterned around it and you start to see it everywhere thanks to the Tetris effect (the effect that causes us to make things fit together even if they really don’t) and the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (the effect that makes us ignore details until we relate them to ourselves; the way you start to see your car everywhere after you buy it). These are also common psychological effects found in believers of pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Read up on them – they’re pretty intriguing.

8) It neglects the many basic realities about people and personality

The idea that personality is static is suspect at best. In my humble opinion, it’s just demonstratively false. Physical changes in the body can drastically effect personality. Anyone who has been close to someone who has gone through heart surgery would probably tell you that they saw some personality changes in that person. I knew a woman who didn’t know she had an ovarian cyst – she slowly became a different person for a while, and once it was removed, returned to her old self. I knew a guy who I thought was the most care-free person I’d ever met. He went through a series of traumatic events and quickly became a pretty different person. I’ve had friends to whom I was very close, who changed quite suddenly and radically for reasons I still don’t understand.

Changes to personality can happen because of hormonal changes, changes in medication, trauma, age, and new studies have suggested that even gut flora plays a big role in personality changes. Often these changes are temporary and small, but sometimes they can be large and sometimes they seem to be life-long.

But perhaps my biggest issue with this belief is that it turns us or others into victims of our personality. I know personally that I have chosen to make changes in my life that have fundamentally altered who I am over the years, but more importantly I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in me, maturing me, and transforming me every single day.

When I was in high school I was fundamentally not a good listener. My youth pastor and I honestly only had an “ok” relationship at the time. We were pretty different and while he was a great guy, I probably wasn’t mature enough to appreciate him at the time. One day he straight up told me that if I could just learn to listen it would be really good for me. I actually don’t remember the last part of what he said; I doubt I was listening. But enough got through to me that between that – and my dad talking about one of the great pastors he respected only lacking the ability to listen – I decided at the age of 15 that I was going to be a better listener. A large part of my job now is interviewing people on video – often about sensitive, life-changing things, and I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m really good at making people feel comfortable and listened to.

Here’s the thing. I wasn’t unhealthy as a teenager. I was immature. I had some people I respected point out how I was immature. Instead of saying “this is just part of my personality, I’m not the best listener. That’s just not going to be a skill I have.” I decided to go against what was natural for me and instead make a concerted effort to change that part of me. I’m not perfect at it. I can still get distracted when I’m talking with someone, but the key here is that I didn’t say “that’s not me – that’s not my gifting – that’s no who I am.” I saw a clear way that I needed to improve and I went after it. Now it is much more natural for me to sit and listen to someone else tell their story.

In the Christian faith there is a fundamental doctrine that we are all born sinful. Because of Original Sin, the world we live in is cursed and so are we. As such we have a sin nature. depending upon which theological camp you belong to you may or may not believe that your sin nature can be overcome in this lifetime, but either way it is there. This idea isn’t present at all in any discussion on the Enneagram – even the Christian discussions on it. In fact it’s almost the opposite – the concept is often presented in a way that says our personalities cannot be sinful – that it can only be “unhealthy.” Therefore there is no need for repentance and sanctification, there is only need for “growth.”

I, for one, believe that there are personality traits that are sinful – we all have them – and that the process of sanctification is a supernatural course that goes far beyond character growth. This by the way is not just my opinion.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here”

2 Corinthians 5:17

I have definitely seen people’s personality radically changed by the presence of God in their life and that leads me to my final thought…

9) It asks me to define myself – at the core of my personality – using something other than Jesus or scripture.

Both of the Christian books I read about the Enneagram mention the root for the word personality coming from the word persona – which is true, but I was surprised none of them talked about the fact that the concept of a “person” as we think of it today; largely came to being during the 13th century thanks in no small part to relating this word to the Trinity and discussing the three persons of God. It was odd to me that in a Christian discussion on personality this was not mentioned.

I want to again emphasize here that introspection is important to the Christian walk – self reflection, seeking counsel, having honest conversations – these are important components to growing as a disciple of Jesus. So don’t hear me saying that there is no value in taking this or any other personality test. Don’t hear me saying that there is no value to seeing what non-christian assessments can teach us about ourselves and the way the world sees us.

This is, however, where the rubber meets the road for me when it comes to total acceptance of this or any other typing system – the Myers-Briggs included. As believers in Christ we can learn about ourselves from anything, but we can only be defined by Jesus.

Submitting to God is a difficult but necessary daily component of Christian growth. What I dislike the most about the Enneagram is it asks me to submit my identity to something other than He who is revealed in scripture.

Yes, there is a ton of truth to be learned outside the bounds of the Bible. However, there can only be one place where Christians find their identity. Yes, we can learn much about ourselves, but there can only be one person who can tell us who we are.

There is only one love language. Die. to. self.

Christine Caine

I was at a conference years ago when I heard Christine Caine explain that it bothered her when people said “I can’t do that because it’s not my love language” she really challenged my thinking because I like the idea of love languages, I like the idea of personality types, and gifts assessments because they let me say “no, you should’ve approached me like this…” or it gives me that smug sense of superiority when I can guess a person’s MBTI or DISC type.

When she finished her thought she said “there is only one love language. Die. To. Self.” The last three words she emphasized as if each were it’s own sentence. I was, as the kids say, “shook.” Because she’s right. The christian life is a continual death-to-self. There is no room for us to submit to any label, name, or identity that Christ himself hasn’t bestowed on us.

Ok, but what about the MBTI?

For me personally the Enneagram has provided what all personality assessments try to and that is an opportunity to look at myself – which isn’t a bad thing. One thing that it taught me is to stop relying on personality types to define who I am. As I said at the start, I am a fan of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I used to make a practice of trying to guess people’s types and if someone wanted to talk about the MBTI, I would gladly oblige ad nauseum. What I realized from looking into the Enneagram (and talking with people who love it) is that I was allowing the MBTI to be a hitching post instead of a guide post in my life. Sure, I’ve got personality traits that I like about myself, but that shouldn’t stop me from dying to self as I am called to in scripture.

Honestly I’m grateful for the Enneagram rubbing me the wrong way because it revealed to me how much I’d come to see the MBTI as a defining factor in who I am. And while I do think it is better (and far more flexible) than the Enneagram – many of the same arguments I make here against the Enneagram could be said of the MBTI. Assessing the Enneagram has forced me to reassess the MBTI and as a result I’ve become more cautious of what I anchor my identity to.

After all that, what can possibly be good about the Enneagram?

Having said all this, fair is fair and I promised I’d tell you some of the good things I can see about the enneagram:

  • It gives me a mirror, even if an imperfect one. And this list of traits can be used as a guide of things that I need to put in check, rather than things I’m just supposed to accept about myself
  • It does emphasize “growth” and “health” even if these terms are often used in vague, new-age ways – they’re still components to the Christian faith and important to reflect on.
  • Obviously some people do find it helpful in seeing themselves and becoming more self-aware – both are important first steps in any journey toward maturity.
  • The fact that different friends of mine would each label me as different parts of the personality actually shows me what parts of my personality I’m showing to others and it makes me ask myself what does that mean – I don’t think I’m being disingenuous, but I’d like to believe that I’m becoming better at being content in any circumstance and recognizing what is needed for the moment rather than being reactionary based on my whims.
  • For many people I’ve encountered, the Enneagram seems to have been their first foray into this kind of introspection and self-assessment – it’s not a bad place to start that process.
  • It gets us all to look at other personality types and encourages us to think bout the vivid complexities of others’ thought-processes and how they might actually be totally different from our own.

I will be a little surprised if anyone who is passionate about the Enneagram has actually read this whole thing, but I do want to thank you if you have. I know back when I was a big-time MBTI evangelist that I didn’t take it well any time someone mentioned these kinds of criticisms. Because of course I wouldn’t take kindly to people criticizing the thing I’d used to define myself. I often say that what angers me reveals what my idols are.

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended…”

If you’re upset with me or my tone or something I’ve said or implied here then I want you to know that I’m well aware that I’m a sinner saved by grace and I do humbly ask for God’s grace to be at work as these words are read and considered. I probably haven’t convinced any Enneagram adherents to change their minds, but that wasn’t really why I wrote this. I wrote this largely for other people like me who found the Enneagram to be lacking. I wanted you to know that you’re not alone. And for any people who truly love the Enneagram I hope maybe you’ve come to understand those of us who don’t. Thanks for reading.

A Firm foundation Week 4: The Church and Discipleship

Introduction:

1) What negative thoughts come to mind when you hear the word “church?” What positive thoughts?

The Church:

2) Last week we talked about sanctification –AKA “Holiness” – John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement once said “You can no more be a Holy hermit than a Holy adulterer” – what does he mean by that? Have you seen this to be true in your life, or in the lives of others?

3) Read Hebrews 10:22-25, why are church gatherings necessary for believers?

4) The word church can have lots of different meanings. The word we use comes from a German word that could be interpreted “house of God,” but in Christian theology we don’t believe that God resides in our church buildings. The Greek word that we translate as “church” in the Bible is “ecclesia” ἐκκλησία – which at the time referred to a democratic gathering of Greek political leaders. Given this information, what is the difference between “a church” and “the Church?” (also known a the universal church, or the ecclesia.) Why is it important to know the difference?

See: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?strongs=g1577 for more info on the word ecclesia (as well as any other greek words you have questions about)

5) Read Acts 2:42-47 – what would you say were the goals and purposes of the early church? How is this different from the modern, American church?

Discipleship

6) Jesus preached to thousands during his ministry. Why do you think he chose 12 to spend more time with? Do you have someone discipling you?

7) Throughout the new testament there is one word that is translated as “disciple” or make disciples, mathēteuō, as seen in acts 14:21 where it says “after preaching and making many disciples…” And the word didasko as in acts 15:1 where Luke talks about the false teachers who came to said that all Christians had to go through the Jewish right of circumcision to be saved. What do you think the difference is between making disciples and teaching?

8) Read 1 Tim 2:1-2 – What does this passage tell us about our roles as disciples?

9) If you are being poured into by people who are discipling you, are you discipling anyone else?

Closing

10) How are you engaging with a gathering of believers at least once a week for worship and discipleship? What next step can you take? Serving in a church? Discipline others? How can this group help?

Firm foundation week 3 – Holy spirit & Sanctification

Holy Spirit/Sanctification:

Opening:

1) What are some negative things that come to mind when you hear the word “Holy?” What are some positive things?

Holy spirit:

2) Did you grow up hearing about the “Holy Spirit?” or “Holy Ghost?” what have you heard about it?

3) Read John 14:26, Romans 8:26, Acts 1:8 – what roles does the Holy Spirit play in our lives according these passages? Have you seen that in your life or the lives of others?

4) Read Galatians 5:22-23, have you seen these “Fruits” in your life or in others? Have they ever surprised you?

5) Read 1 Corinthians 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

see: biblereasons.com/holy-spirit for more reading on the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification

6) Sanctification is a big, churchy word. It simply means to be made Holy. One definition of it “Becoming the kind of person who would be comfortable in heaven.” Have you heard people talk about Sanctification before? What comes to mind when you hear it?

7) Read 1st John 1:8 then read 1 John 3:6 – why do you think these two verses seem to conflict? (notice the verb tenses) and what can they teach us about a Holy life? Is holiness just about avoiding sin?

…This is a big topic that theology nerds love to talk about, so if you’re having trouble grabbing hold of it, remember Jesus told us in last week’s passages to simply “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.”

8) read 2 Peter 3:18 – do you think Sanctification is a process or does it happen in a moment? What has it looked like in your life or in the lives of Christians around you?

9) Read Romans 12: 1-2. Be honest, do you believe that you can be made Holy in this life time? Do you believe that God’s sanctifying grace is at work in your life? Why or why not?

Closing:

10) What practical steps can you take this week to allow the Holy Spirit to work in your life?

Firm Foundation Week 2: Grace

Opening:

1. What comes to mind when you hear the word grace?

2. What is the difference between mercy and grace?

3. Can you think of a time that someone (other than Jesus) extend irrational seeming grace to you or someone else you know?

Prevenient Grace:

4. Read Jeremiah 1:5 , Ezekiel 34:11, 16, John 12:32 what do these verses tell us about what we call “Prevenient Grace” or grace that goes before us?

5. Look back at your life, can you think of specific ways that God was at work to call you to him before you even knew him? Maybe even before you were born?

Justifying Grace:

6. Read Ephesians 1:7, Titus 3:7, and Romans 5:21 – Do you have trouble believing God justified all of us on the cross? That he forgave you? That he forgives others?

7. Read Ephesians 2:8 and James 2:14-26. How would you explain the balance between faith, works, and grace in salvation?

Sanctifying Grace:

8. Read 1 Corinthians 6:11 and 2nd Corinthians 5:17 – After being Justified – or made right with God, there is another work of Grace, called “Sanctification” or being made Holy by God. Have you ever heard of this word, what does it mean to you?

9. Read Matthew 5:48. (if you have time read all of Matthew 5 beforehand) At the end of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, after talking about all the ways his followers should live he hits us with this. But don’t freak out just yet. Read Matthew 6:33 what does this tell us about how we can be made Holy and Righteous?

Application:

10. How can you live into God’s grace this week? Is there someone you need to show grace to? Are you seeking his Kingdom first?

Firm Foundation Week 1: Jesus & Scripture

1. When you hear the name of Jesus what comes to mind first?

2. Read Philippians 2:6-11 – what does this verse tell us about the character of Jesus?

3. What are some ideas about Jesus that you or your friends/family have had that you now believe are wrong? What caused those ideas?

4. Read John 1:1-4 & v14 – what do you think it means that the “word became flesh?” What could this mean about Jesus’ relationship to scripture?

5. Is there a difference between the paper Bible and “the Word of God?”

6. Read Hebrews 4:12 – what does it mean that the word of God is living and active? Have you seen that activity in your life?

7. Read 2 Timothy 3:16, Matthew 5:18, and John 14:15. Some people want to put Jesus’ words in scripture above the rest of the Bible. What do these passages have to say about that?

8. Read Revelation 22:18-19, Proverbs 30:5-6, and Deuteronomy 4:2, – What are some examples you’ve heard of or seen where someone has tried to take away from or add to scripture?

9. Is it possible to idolize scripture? How do you make sure you’re worshiping Jesus and not the Bible?

10. What can you do this week to make sure that both Jesus and the Word of God are given their proper place in your life?

There are no after photos in the Christian Faith

You ever see those commercials for workout programs and equipment? I always find it so amazing to look at the before and after photos on these things. Men and women, many of whom are my age, who may have struggled with their weight for years and just decided that they were tired of it. They then worked hard for months, sometimes years to develop healthier habits. They asked for help from friends and family and made alterations to their lifestyle to reinforce these changes and after lots of hard work they finally arrived at their goal weight and were able to take the victory lap of weight loss: the “after” photo.

funny-before-and-after-photos-73948
Some of these transformations are pretty extreme…

Before and after photos are often really cool to see – the first image looks like a totally different, but similar person from the second, as if they might’ve been related – perhaps siblings. I like seeing these because they’re a physical and visible example of life transformation. The problem is that they don’t tell the whole story. Not only do they not tell you about the struggle in-between the “before” and the “after” even more importantly they don’t tell you the story of what happened after the “after” photo was taken. Did they stay on track? Did they backslide a little? Were they carried into heaven by a flaming chariot now that they reached physical perfection?

I think that because the church is so aware of how much everyone needs Jesus and the dramatic transformation he brings about in peoples lives we tend to think of people in one of two ways: they’re either a before or an after; meaning that either they haven’t surrendered their life to Christ (and therefore are a terrible mess) or they have surrendered their life to Christ (and therefore have things totally figured out.) But we know that there are usually many more steps in Christian maturity and growth beyond salvation.

Obviously the importance of the first step of accepting Christ cannot be overvalued, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only step. Yet the church often seems to believe that the people outside of the church are the only ones who need the church. As if to say that once you’re in the church you no longer need teaching, guidance, financial assistance, community, or counseling. That’s what everyone outside the church needs, but now that you’re in the church you no longer need it. This breeds the idea that when we, as Christians, do have issues, we’re the only ones. If you struggle with depression, marital issues, addictions, or meeting your family’s basic needs – it can seem like the church isn’t the place for you, because the people of the Christian church have it all figured out, right? The resulting effect is either that people either try to hide those issues or they don’t engage with the church because they feel like they don’t belong. Either way the very thing they need; the church isn’t able to help them.

Meanwhile, the truth is that there are no “after” photos in the Christian faith. There are only “during” photos. The Christian life doesn’t end with Jesus, it begins with it. We don’t believe that Salvation is the only work of grace. There’s sanctifying grace that continues to work in a person’s life until they go to be with Jesus at which point I fully expect they’ll take an “after” photo of you upon your arrival in paradise.

Yes there is a definite before and after in the Christian faith. Jesus’ impact on a person’s life should create a transformation that may be dramatic. This can be a very clear “before” and “after,” but the reality is there is more to it. To be accurate the after photo would have to be a video time lapse of a person as they continue to live their life. The time-lapse might have moments of pure happiness; where joy seems obvious on their face. Then they might have moments of frustration and doubt, where they’re angry with God. There might be moments of obedience where they trusted and God were faithful, despite their feelings. Then they might have moments where they feel like they’ve messed up again and aren’t deserving of forgiveness. They’ll have moments of assurance, and moments of despair. Hopefully they have moments where they grow closer to God and find that it’s easier to resist temptation as they know him more. That would be quite a long “after photo,”  but it would be more accurate then a single-frame snapshot of a person’s life depicting them at one high moment.

it might look kinda like this.

I think I too often appear to people who see me from afar as an “after” photo when I’m really a “during.” While I don’t think it’s wise to broadcast every struggle – after all it’s not about me – I do think there is some merit to admitting that we all have them and that I am a part of “we all.” So let me proclaim: any snapshot you see of my life is a “during” photo. I have moments of joy, moments of obedience, and moments of growth, but I also have moments of despair and moments of embarrassment. While I’m growing closer to God and learning to follow him better, it is an ongoing process. I do not say this to excuse my shortcomings, I say this to acknowledge them and declare that my hope and righteousness is in Christ.

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 8.19.41 AM

This is especially tough to keep in mind in today’s social media- driven world. You see a friend post about their marriage, or the birth of a child, or the fact that they just got another degree, bought a house, got a promotion, or are on an expensive vacation. Or maybe it’s not material success; they post photos of their family in worship, or the scripture they read this morning, or the theologian they’re reading. You look at this and think they have it all together; that they’ve arrived. In reality, they don’t post about the fight they had with their kids before getting to worship. They don’t tell about the fact that they lost their temper with a co-worker and they got reprimanded at work. They don’t explain that they’re struggling financially because they’re in a huge amount of debt due to the new house, expensive degree, and crazy vacations they’re taking. Those “after” pictures, don’t show the whole picture.

Also – don’t be afraid to unfollow those people that are only posting things that make you jealous or angry. You’re not obligated to keep up with them. I’m sure you realize all of this, because you’re smart, but I’m amazed at the number of people who complain about the kind of things they see on social media – which is a totally customizable medium; tailored to the way you make it. You don’t have to unfriend those people, but you don’t have to follow them either. If seeing those things aren’t edifying to you, then why choose to continue to see them? And while we’re on the topic – don’t contribute to the noise by being dishonest about your situation. You don’t have to broadcast every high and don’t be afraid to ask for prayer as a way of letting your friends know that you’re human. Otherwise your highlights might be someone else’s struggle.

 

To sum it up simply: The Christian walk isn’t a sprint wherein you might run hard for a few hundred feet, but then once you reach the end you get to soak in the hot tub for the rest of your life. It’s an ultra marathon that lasts for days and nights and is longer than anything else you encounter. Some days it’s uphill. Some day’s it’s flat and boring, if you’re fortunate, you’ll have a few days wherein you’ll run through a stretch where the crowds are lining the road, cheering you on. There are no “after” photos in the Christian life, so enjoy the during – it’s the during, the journey wherein we grow closer to Christ as we constantly rely on him in our struggles.

 

Stop being crazy about mental illness

It might start with an elevated heart rate. Then you can’t catch your breath. It feels like you’re looking at your life through thick, foggy lenses. You can’t stop the wave of panic. Then it subsides and you wonder when it will return. You start waiting for the other shoe to drop. You don’t want to do anything for fear of triggering those feelings again and you think you might never return to a normal life. At the prospect of never feeling just “ok” you start to feel low. You disconnect from family and friends and you can’t get motivated to do anything. This is the cycle and anxiety and depression and I’m far more familiar with it than I’d like. If you’re one of several million Americans who suffer from these symptoms you’re not alone and you need to speak out and seek healing.

When people talk about physical disease, there’s an understanding that it’s a normal part of life. People get sick, and many people have chronic diseases that limit their diet, or may occasionally cause them to stay home when they have a flare up. But thanks to Hollywood when people hear the words ‘mentally ill’ they often picture a deranged psychopath or some dangerous doctor Jekyll/Mr Hyde type. In reality mental illness is a relatively normal part of life, just like physical illnesses. And, just like physical illnesses, mental illness can have a variety of causes. Some people think mental health is only determined by life experience and genetics, when in reality, your mental health can be hugely influenced by diet and exercise, viral diseases and even bacterial infections.

It’s a bigger problem than the Flu

[milestone_box animation=”fadeInUp” count=”26″ title=”Percent of Americans with anxiety or depression”] [milestone_box animation=”fadeInUp” count=”20″ title=”Percent of Americans who will get the flu”]

26% of Americans are dealing with some kind of mental illness right now. I say ‘right now’ because not all mental illnesses are life-long, many last a few years and some last shorter than that. In 2013 there were over 41,000 suicides in the US making it the 10th most common cause of death in the US. 20% of Americans will get the Flu this year and on average it causes fewer annual deaths than suicide (36,000 compared to 40,000), and yet we spend more time talking about, avoiding, and treating the Flu. We need to think of it like a physical disease – like asthma or bad allergies.

We need to treat it like a physical disease

Because it is; mental disorders are combination of factors, but persistent anxiety and depression disorders have many causes that are more closely linked to physical health. As long as we’re seeing depression as a mysterious ‘boogy-man’ disease we can’t treat it. Just like a cold, allergies, asthma, or the flu, a person suffering from an anxiety or depression disorder can’t help it. They don’t always know what’s causing it, they can’t choose when it happens and they can’t just “snap out of it.” The worst forms of anxiety and depression don’t have any obvious triggers. No reasonable person would tell a diabetic (a condition that can be caused by diet or by genetics) to not take their medication. Nor would anyone say that by taking medication an asthmatic not following God’s will. The medication used by anxiety and depression sufferers has saved many lives, and while it’s not always a long-term solution, it gets people to a place where they can think clearly enough to address their issues.

Treating it like a physical disease doesn’t de-spiritualize it, nor should it remove all responsibility from the sufferer. I think people in the church believe that if we call someone’s struggle with depression an “illness” that we’re somehow excusing it, or we’re saying that the person cannot do anything about it and therefore is absolved of responsibility. If a person has the flu, do we still not pray for God’s healing? We still treat physical diseases as if they had a spiritual element. By the same token, if someone doesn’t get a flu shot, doesn’t take care of themselves, doesn’t wear a jacket in the cold, misses sleep, and doesn’t eat healthy – would we be surprised if they got the flu? Their immune system in compromised and it was their fault. In the same way people can do things that put themselves in an unhealthy mental state, and yes it is their fault and they need to realize that. Once someone has the flu, do we say it’ll just pass and tell them to get back to work? No, they need to go see the doctor, rest, and take meds. Visiting a doctor, seeking treatment, taking medication – these don’t remove the spiritual element from illness.

Causes of mental illness

The first step in dealing with depression or anxiety is understanding where it comes from. If you can determine a likely cause then you’re more likely to be able to find an effective treatment. Having said this, most will have an issue caused by one factor and exacerbated by other factors, as such it is good to examine each area and consider lifestyle changes that will put you on a track toward spiritual, emotional, and physical health all at once as it can’t hurt anything to get better.

Spiritual

In the midst of explaining the physical aspects of mental illness we don’t want to lose sight of the spiritual aspects. After all it’s like Paul says,

[parallax_quote animation=”fadeInUp” author=”Ephesians 6:12″]“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”[/parallax_quote]

In Matthew 8, Luke 8, and Mark 5 we have an example of one of the few passages to occur in all three of the synoptic Gospels; Jesus casting the demons out of the man called “legion.” Obviously this is a dramatic example, but the fact that all three Gospel writers wanted to include it goes toward the fact that they saw the need for hope and healing in a world where many people were probably struggling with lesser demons. Note that according to scripture demons can cause physical illness as well – so if you want to victim blame Christians for being mentally ill because it “must be” caused by demons, you have to apply the same logic for anyone suffering from a physical illness as well.

The good news is that Christians have authority to cast demons out. Sounds crazy but its true. Luke talks about this a lot in his gospel, which is interesting because he was a physician, and likely saw the link between the spiritual and the physical.

[parallax_quote animation=”fadeInUp” author=”Luke 9:1″]“Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases.”[/parallax_quote]

Later on in Luke talks about how the very name of Jesus casts out demons

[parallax_quote animation=”fadeInUp” author=”Luke 10:17-19″]“And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name, And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”[/parallax_quote]

Being far from God is another cause of depression and anxiety. I hesitate to say this one because this is the most misused cause, but it is a cause. For some reason, with all the many different potential causes this is the only one some Christians pick out. While being far from God is a cause of depression, I haven’t met many Christians for whom this was the cause. Many Christians struggle with anxiety and depression despite being active in a church, engaged in prayer, plugged into a small group, and reading scripture. If you haven’t ever struggled with a mental illness be careful about the way you assume it works.

Emotional

This is the most obvious one to most people, but also the one that can take the longest to untangle if left untreated. It’s normal to experience depression and anxiety if something happens in your life that makes you depressed or anxious, but if you don’t deal with those normal emotions in a healthy way, you may be setting yourself up for more depression and anxiety later on. Most of us are terrible at being honest with ourselves about what is causing our depression and anxiety and yes, there are often deep-seeded causes from our childhood that may need to be discussed.

It is also normal to feel depressed or anxious if you’re not living in community with people, or if you’re having trouble connecting with friends, or family. Sometimes the emotional cause has to do with personal goals and life focus, and while it isn’t the only cause, being exclusively focused on yourself is almost a guaranteed recipe for depression and anxiety, this can lead to a frustrating spiral effect; you think about yourself and you get depressed, you think about your depression and wonder if things will ever change and you get more depressed and anxious. Throw in a little guilt for feeling so self-focused and you’re a prefect, self-sustaining storm of angst.

I want to emphasize that I’m not talking about normal emotions that occur in the immediate wake of tragedy, or because of a specific circumstance to which the normal response would be depression. Getting upset about bad things is a healthy emotional response. However, if after the upsetting circumstance has passed, or if you are still finding yourself having trouble coping with a loss even years later, that is likely a sign that you need to treat it as an illness.

Genetic

We now know better than ever that many common mental illnesses can be glitches be in our DNA passed from parent to child. This isn’t any different from genetic causes for heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and auto-immune diseases. But just like with those diseases there are ways to curb risks and be proactive about dealing with your predisposition. This also does not mean that sufferers have to be victimized by their biology. “I was born this way” has never been ok with God because thanks to Adam, we’re born sinful, and God has given you the power to over come your flesh through the Holy spirit.

Physical

There are many different physical causes of mental illness that doctors are only just now beginning to understand. Really anything that can cause you physical illness can cause or contribute to mental illness. Viruses, Bacteria, Physical trauma, Diet & gut flora, (lots of research supporting this now) and a sedentary lifestyle can all contribute to your mental state. Too often we don’t account for the fact that being obese, being sedentary, eating unhealthy foods, and even just getting sick can have a profound impact on the way your brain is functioning and lead to systemic problems in our regular thought patterns that, if unaddressed, lead to worse and worse things.

Treatment for Mental illness

It should be liberating, and very encouraging to know that there are many effective ways to treat mental illness. And while most treatment takes time, making a plan to fight back can be in and of itself a therapeutic act. While most mental illnesses have a variety of factors, its important to understand how to treat them based on their cause that way you can form a plan of attack and begin to be proactive. Think of it like the the fable of the bird that chipped away at the mountain by pecking his beak at it, only each time you return the bird gets a little bigger and a little stronger.

Spiritual

Prayer – you’re thinking ‘of course you’d say prayer, you work at a church’ we’re not the only ones: “The findings add to the growing body of research confirming a connection between a person’s perceived relationship with God and mental and physical health. In fact, a recent study by Oregon State University found that religion and spirituality result in two distinct but complementary health benefits. Religion (religious affiliation and service attendance) is linked to better health habits, including less smoking and alcohol consumption, while spirituality (prayer, meditation) helps regulate emotions. Another recent study by Columbia University found that participating in regular meditation or other spiritual practice actually thickens parts of the brain’s cortex, and this could be the reason those activities tend to guard against depression — especially in those at risk for the disease.” (source here)

Reading scripture – Today in Frazer’s contemporary worship service Emily Roach talked about a doctor who encouraged her to read scripture as a part of her mental health regimen. Reading a Psalm a day is an example of a simple prescription for spiritual peace. And having a readular scripture and prayer quiet time will help you be sure that you’re not feeling depressed simply because you’re far from God.

Attending church & Going to a small group – according to a study by the university of Maryland found that people who are happier engage in a few common activities “We looked at 8 to 10 activities that happy people engage in, and for each one, the people who did the activities more — visiting others, going to church, all those things — were more happy,” Dr. [John] Robinson said. (source here)

Serving others – even secular psychologists are seeing this “People who volunteer tend to have higher self-esteem, psychological well-being, and happiness” – Mark Snyder, a psychologist and head of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota (source here) Think about the dead sea versus the sea of Galilee. The dead sea only ever receives, yet nothing can live in it. What’s more is despite the fact that it only has water flowing into it, it’s water level is receding and we can’t figure out why. The sea of Galilee has water flowing in and and flowing out. Not only is the water level staying healthy, it has a whole resort-like atmosphere and fishing economy built all around it. It is what Jesus commands us to do:

[parallax_quote animation=”fadeInUp” author=”John 13:34″]“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another”[/parallax_quote]

So if you’re not serving you’re actually being disobedient. Matthew five has Jesus’ sermon on the mount, probably the most well-known part of this is the beatitudes. They’re the ones that all start with “blessed are the…” which is another way of saying “happy are the…” Just read those and do them – I don’t want to copy and paste them all here and make this entry even longer – so I’m going to ask you to just go and read your Bible.

Emotional

Counseling – Counseling isn’t for ‘crazy people’ any more than marriage counseling is for bad marriages, or going to the doctor is for people who don’t take care of themselves. Anyone can benefit from going to a counselor. And just like physical therapy, it can take several sessions to feel the benefits. The greatest benefit of a counselor (and the reason that counseling is the best treatment in all circumstances) is the fact that they’re an objective observer who can help you develop a plan for fighting your depression. Keep in mind that finding a good counselor can take time, don’t give up if you don’t click with the first one you visit. This might be the most important step you can take, so take the time to make it happen. Counseling isn’t free, but it’s worth it.

Expressing it to close friends and family who know you well – try to explain your feelings to your family, guys this is especially difficult and you don’t have to take forever and draw it out. It might just be as simple as saying to your wife “I really miss my dad tonight” or calling a friend up and saying “I saw something that happened on TV that reminded me of the car crash.” Or simply admitting  “Work really has me feeling down today” You don’t have to analyze it; you don’t have to draw it out, just talk about it. The more you talk about it the easier it is to deal with it. And you also gain allies who can help you through things. If you currently don’t have any friends then visit a few churches in your area until you find some. Also, try not to dump your issues out on the table the first time you meet them – wade in slowly.

Exposure therapy – when trauma happens in our life the natural tendency is to shield ourselves from anything that reminds us of it. This often makes things worse as it can eventually cause a person to withdraw from everything: work, relationships, and church. As hard as it is, it is just common wisdom that little by little you have to be willing to expose yourself more and more to things that may trigger depression or anxiety. This, coupled with counseling and the support of allies who know your struggles, is an important part of overcoming trauma. You may even consider working up to sharing your own story as a goal in this.

Genetic

Parents who have dealt with anxiety or depression can be proactive about seeing the signs of it in their children and teaching them early on about how to manage it so they might be able to overcome it in adulthood.

Don’t be afraid of medication or counseling – both can be helpful, especially when you’re being overseen by a Christian doctor. Counseling is always helpful for someone who wants to get better. At the risk of sounding like a drug commercial – talk to you doctor. Seriously. If someone in your family suffers from depression and you have symptoms of it too, it might be something to talk about with a physician or a counselor.

There are counseling therapies to help change your thought patterns, just because your parents struggled with this doesn’t mean you have to also.

Physical

Physical causes can be cumulative and the only way to be sure that none of them are the cause is to see to all of them; a healthy life style goes a long way to dealing with depression and anxiety.

Frazer has an activities center, they’d love to help you make a lifestyle change that might help assuage symptoms.

Lots of simple diet changes can contribute to a healthier mental state Google “depression/anxiety diet” to read more about it.

Stay healthy – simple things that we all know to do, like avoiding disease, getting enough sleep, and not overexerting ourselves all make huge strides to reducing symptoms of mental illness

You’re not Alone

In addition to the millions of people out there who struggle with mental illness today, many of our church leaders both past and present suffered from some form of mental illness at some point in their life.

David’s psalms indicate many times that he dealt with both anxiety and depression and called out to God over it.

Some believe Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2nd Cor 12:7 could’ve been related to anxiety or depression – it may have even been panic attacks.

Martin Luther may have struggled with depression when he was young, and wrote much about how to address depression in the church.

John Wesley was very depressed in the wake of his failed missionary journey to the US and some believe he may have had some obsessive compulsive tendencies.

Modern church leaders like Erwin McManus, Louie Giglio, and Carlos Whittaker have all been honest about their very real, very had struggles with mental health. Giglio was almost bed-ridden for three months due to what’s called “fear of death syndrome” about eight years ago. McManus has always been very honest about his life-long struggle with anxiety. Carlos Whitaker has a brief, honest blog entry where he confesses his own anxiety struggle.

Things to keep in mind

It isn’t (always) self centered – often times people assume that those who deal with anxiety and depression are simply too self focused. Certainly self centeredness can cause depression, but not all people who struggle with anxiety or depression do so because of self centeredness. Also, for a person who is struggling in the midst of also being self focused, it isn’t helpful to tell them that they’re too self-focused. They need to arrive that on their own. It’s better to assume there are other causes and focus on those to help them get to a healthy enough place to be able to see themselves.

Mental illness is temporary – even for chronic mental illness sufferers, with the proper help, you can work toward a life that overcomes your illness such that when it does rear its ugly head, it doesn’t have to take over your life and withproper treatment you spend less time dealing with it and more time living your life. There is hope for healing and it can come in many forms. Never get tricked into believing that your illness will last forever. It can get better if you seek help

You may need to deal with the physical and emotional causes before you can effectively deal with the spiritual causes; James talks about this when he says

[parallax_quote animation=”fadeInUp” author=”James 2:16″]“If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”[/parallax_quote]

Or consider the fact that when Jesus talks about doing for the “least of these” in Matthew 25 he talks about meeting physical and emotional needs.

Total rabbit trail here: Psychologist Abraham Maslow identified this in 1943 when he developed what we now call “Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs” Basically it works like this: If you’re about to die because you’re sick or starving, you don’t care about your safety. If you’re worried for your safety, you’re not as concerned about your emotional needs, if you’re emotionally compromised at a deep level you’re not as concerned with being productive or being respected by your peers, if you’re not being productive or respected, you’re not going to be able to do all those wonderful things that us humans do best like think critically, be creative, overcome prejudices and accept difficult facts. – while spiritual needs exist at every level of the hierarchy of needs, we can be of more use to God the more our physical and emotional needs are taken care of.

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You have to decide that suicide is not an option. If you are reading this and you are and have recently found yourself considering suicide, please know that it is not the answer and my home church and I so much want to help your realize that. Do not be embarrassed; millions of people deal with suicidal thoughts. Whatever lies you may be telling yourself, know that the truth is this: The creator of the universe loves you and we here at the church want to help get you to a place where you can experience that love fully, so please let someone know if you’re struggling.

Why is it so prevalent in the US? Some people point to the statistics that say that US has higher occurrence of anxiety and depression than other developed countries because of our affluence, that may be true. Keep in mind it also might be true that we are better at diagnosing it, and in some cases we may over-diagnose it. (We’re keeping children’s ADD diagnoses out of this discussion for now) Well first I would point you back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, which does show us that as more of are needs are met that new needs arise. Next I would also point to the obesity epidemic and repeat; physical health is inextricably linked to mental health. And finally consider this: if Satan sees that in the US we have the most advanced medical tech and we’ve conquered most major diseases, how would he choose to attack us next? He’d attack in a way that would go unnoticed until it was too late.

To those who have friends who deal with this:

First off, you need to understand that if you’ve never dealt with clinical anxiety or depression you cannot understand how it feels, and knowing that will be the most helpful thing in helping us. You will need to be patient and you cannot be bothered by repetition as you may hear the same thing thousands of times and you may have to repeat the same comforting words thousands of times. “This will pass” and “this is temporary” and “you’re going to make it through this” are usually helpful if said in a loving spirit.

Being told to ‘snap out of it’ isn’t as helpful as you might think. Similarly telling someone who struggles with anxiety that the object of their anxiety isn’t really an issue will only ever make things worse. Imagine if you knew that aliens were coming to kill us all, being told that it was crazy wouldn’t make you calm down either would it? You don’t have to agree with the cause of the anxiety to recognize the reality of the anxiety itself. The same goes for depression. The quicker you acknowledge the legitimacy of a person’s pain the sooner they can start on a path to healing.

To those who suffer from anxiety and depression:

We, the church, want to be part of your healing. We believe that depression is a spiritual struggle and we’d to talk with you and offer counseling. We do offer counseling in our chruches, but we know that because of the stigma of mental illness for some it’s a struggle to come to a church. If you’re from Montgomery, AL where I live, I highly recommend the Samaritan counseling center here in town. I’ve enlisted their services for my own struggles. Focus on the family offers a great counselor locator to tell you where to find Christian counselors. If you don’t jive with your first counselor, don’t’ give up. It may take a few tries to find a good fit.

I’d believe that I speak for all of the evangelical Christian church when I say that we all want to be a community of people who can be there for you in these times. Which is why at Frazer, the church where I work, we believe one of the greatest steps you can take for your own mental health is to join a small group. This isn’t group therapy, but it is community and having a support network is one of the best steps you can take for your emotional and spiritual health. You can find out details about small groups at Frazer here. But if you don’t live in Montgomery, I still really encourage you to seek out a church where you can be yourself and speak honestly about what’s happening in your life.

It’s all connected, the physical, the mental, emotional, and the spiritual. Getting healthy in one will help you with the others. So spend time with friends, make time for cardio, meditate, eat healthy, and if you don’t know Christ as your savior I’d like to introduce you. Meet me at church this Sunday.

I hope you find this helpful

Seeing Dad’s Hands

[parallax_quote animation=”fadeInUp” author=”From How Beautiful by Twila Paris”]How beautiful the hands that served the wine and the bread and the sons of the earth. How beautiful the feet that walked the long dusty roads and the hill to the cross.[/parallax_quote]

 

Yesterday in worship we played a video that had a shot of Matthew Gamble, a Frazer Staff Member, filling out our new connect card. Matt happened to be walking by when I was shooting the video and I asked if he could be my hand model. We got the footage and I threw it in the video.

As I was leaving church of the day after service, I saw Matt and his family heading out. Matt’s oldest was saying to him that she recognized his hands in the video and it occurred to me, that’s exactly what children of God do: we recognize our dad’s hands.

[parallax_quote animation=”fadeInUp” author=”Psalm 104:24 NLT”]O Lord, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; The earth is full of Your possessions. [/parallax_quote]

I’ve been known to indulge in a disagreement with an atheist from time to time. I was in one a while back in which we very quickly reached a premise upon which we could not agree. He clearly believed that the good that the church does is in no way an evidence of anything greater, but simply something it does on its own without any outside help. I’m sure he would say the same about the cosmological argument of God, that all the beauty of creation manifested entirely on its own.

I realize now that to someone who doesn’t know the father, he just sees a generic pair of hands; it could science, it could be man, it could be luck. But when we see it, we recognize our father’s hands. We know what his hands look like. We know the way they look. We know they can look like regular people’s hands. We know that his hands often look like happenstance. But we know the difference between mere chance and our father’s hands at work. After all, when the disciples didn’t believe Jesus when they saw his face, they believed when he showed them his hands.

[home_circle_callout animation=”fadeInUp”]
[home_circle_callout_line]After he said this,he showed them [/home_circle_callout_line]
[home_circle_callout_line highlight=”true”] his hands and side.[/home_circle_callout_line]
[home_circle_callout_line]The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. [/home_circle_callout_line]
[home_circle_callout_line]John 20:20 NIV[/home_circle_callout_line]
[/home_circle_callout]

So, in what unexpected places have you recognized the father’s hands?

My last day in my 20s: What I’d wish I’d known then, and what I hope to do next.

This entry is more to express my feelings, goals, and blessings at this point in my life.  As well as maybe to offer some thoughts on what I’d wish I’d known when I was 20, so that anyone who’s younger than me might could benefit from my ignorance.

When I turned 20

I remember having a moment on September 17th, 2005 – it was my sophomore year of college. That evening was Asbury’s Fall Variety show which always came together last minute and seemed to be comprised of a lot of duct-tape and chewing gum to keep the wheels from coming off the bus. Dodderidge Holland, a gymnasium with a stage at one end that was itself held together by duct-tape and prayer, was the location of these events and, showing no regard for fire code, it was totally packed that evening. The act I was a part of, a dance-heavy rendition of Tunak Tunak Tan, an Indian pop song sung by the incomparable Dahler Mendi, was to be last act of the evening and the show was already half-way through. Between the staggeringly poor acoustics and the total lack of air-conditioning, all compounded by a room crammed full of college students sitting on the floor, the show was neither particularly audible nor was it comfortable to watch.  I’ve never been too good at sitting down within a couple of hours of a performance. As such I sneaked out the back and sat on the steps next to reasoner green, across from the old library (that would eventually become the new student center.) I remember this moment because that was when it hit me: I was no longer a teenager.

One of the characteristics that really makes me a Millennial is the fact that I never enjoyed growing up. Some call us the “Peter Pan” generation. Because there were many who put off getting their license and other rights of passage that would push us toward independence. But unlike my parents’ generation, we Millennials never said anything like “don’t trust anyone over 30” – to the contrary ours was the first generation to respond to the US high school exit survey by saying that our heroes were more likely to be Mom and Dad than a young, hip celebrity or athlete. So while I wasn’t looking forward to leaving my childhood behind, I remain hopeful that future generations will continue the trend back to respecting and seeing the value of the generations who have come before them, because after all it’s like Christine Cain said, If you live as if there aren’t generations that have come before you, you’ll be in danger of forgetting that there will be generations after you.

To people in their teens and early 20s, here’s what I’ve learned

So, here’s what I wish I’d known that night in September of 2005.

A coworker of mine printed a dozen of these out today and posted them all over the break room
A coworker of mine printed a dozen of these out today and posted them all over the break room

  • You don’t have to get it all right over the next ten years – I knew that my 20’s weren’t a throw away decade, as talked about in this great TED talk, but I was more convinced of the opposite; that because I was given so much in my childhood, that I was going to be expected to save the world by the time I was 29. If you wonder why this is, just look at the Millennials. We’re a generation full of people many of whom simply invented an app, launched a website, or started a non-profit and seem to have experienced instant success. We celebrate those successes, but often we don’t realize that there are many people who don’t experience that kind of success until they’re in their 40s or 50s and not only is that ok, it might actually be preferable. Mark Zuckerberg may be my age, but far more common is the story of those who climbed the ladder of success over years of diligent and hard work to receive a well-deserved place in their career, family life, and community. Yes we can all name a dozen people who, “by the time they were my age” had already accomplished unprecedented things. There are also thousands of other successful people who weren’t over-night successes. And how many of those meteoric rises ended up being a flash in the pan? A relative blip on the radar? When you’re put into a position of influence, wouldn’t you rather be aided by a decade or two of wisdom and experience? Take advantage of this time to soak it up. Don’t just sit back, but don’t feel rushed to have accomplished a certain amount before any age milestone – take this time to focus on learning and putting in several good years of solid work that you can be proud of, even if it doesn’t look like the most impressive thing on a resume. The point is you’re getting better at being who you’re called to be so that when the opportunity arises you’ll be ready for what’s next.

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  • Learn from the mistakes you make, and take note of the lessons others are learning – You’re going to have some of your biggest screw ups before you reach 40. (I say 40 because I want to make it clear that I don’t think I’m out of the woods yet) and while you’re never going to be perfect, young adulthood is the period wherein you’ll be making some big life choices and you’re probably going to get a few of them totally wrong. You’re going to also get lots of little things wrong as well. THAT IS OK. DON’T FREAK OUT. Ok, the reality is you will freak out, because you’re young and you don’t know better. But take comfort in the fact that we’ve all done it and will do it and that it’s how we learn. Failure is OK. Not learning from failure is not OK! If you experience something that isn’t pleasant in your life and you never take the time to ask the question “what was my role in that, and how can I improve next time?” Then you’ll smuggle your baggage into the next job, relationship, project, or season of your life. Also, as a bonus during your 20s you’re probably going to see a few friends go through some rough times – maybe they’ll be their fault, maybe they’ll just be the harsh reality of life, but don’t miss an opportunity to learn from their circumstances – oh and don’t miss an opportunity to be there for a friend, aside from that fact that you will probably need them to help you out later, it’s just the right thing to do.

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  • Set goals that are solid, but don’t limit what God wants to do with you – When I was 20 I was convinced that it wasn’t a good idea to have really solid and specific goals. I still believe that to a large degree, but I wish I’d realized more that often times God works in our goals and, as long as we’re willing to change course, having even a somewhat vague ambition can be the primary way God accomplishes his goals through you. When I was in high school I had lots of specific ideas of what I wanted to do. Then I realized the foolishness of having your life planned out. We’ve all seen people who either didn’t get what they wanted in life and couldn’t handle it, or tried to force their goals to come to fruition through some tragic means. At the same time, having absolutely no idea of what God’s calling looks like can result in a life without intention. I was so focused on being available for what God called me to do, that I didn’t realize that I was using that as an excuse not to set the God-sized goals he was calling me towards. While I had some general ideas of what I wanted to do, you have to take intentional steps to accomplish God’s calling, it’s not as if filmmakers typically get handed the reigns to direct a feature film without having first directed a short film. I’ve heard it said like this: God can’t drive a parked car. While I knew this on one level, I wish I had been more intentional about setting some of those Goals and following through with them regardless of where I was, not goals that are so specific that they put God in a box, but goals that gave God an opportunity to work out his calling in my life. As such you may have some hard primary goals that are more abstract. And some secondary goals that are more concrete, though they may change as life happens.

  • Focus on the problem not the solution – I know, this sounds like the opposite of what you normally hear, but hear me out. I have to give total credit to Ken Roach for this wording, but he identified something that I’ve learned recently. I think part of the way that we can set Goals that are being obedient to God is by making them Goals that are based around attacking a problem rather than making them Goals about enacting a specific solution. For example you may be called to help impoverished children and you have a really creative plan for doing work with inner city kids, but when you try it, your funding runs out and you have to drop it to start a new job somewhere so you can support yourself.  You didn’t fail at fixing the problem, you just failed at enacting a specific solution. When you’re first starting off in a career, ministry, family, non-proft, or any other group, job, calling or community, you’re going to come up with an idea that is the obvious solution. It’s 100% for sure the right solution. It’s the plan that clearly everyone will see needs to be enacted to fix the problem. Only they don’t see it that way. And not only are you ignored, but the window closes on the opportunity for you to execute your perfect solution. This may have been because you were wrong, or it may have been because they were wrong, but now it doesn’t matter. You need to be willing to let go of your ‘solution’ and be willing to come at the problem from a different angle. We see this all the time when people change careers because they realize they want to attack the problem at it’s root. I’ve known of an insurance salesmen who became a nurse, a prison guard who became an educator, and a advertising executive who became a pastor.  These people were willing to change careers because they had a clear focus on the problem they were supposed to be attacking, and realized that they needed to change the solution. It may not be as extreme as changing career paths, it may be simply changing goals within your career, but rarely does someone’s first plan end up being the plan that they get to carry out, so don’t get upset when your first solution doesn’t work right away. Be willing to come up with a new one. Keep in mind that if you are a hammer, the whole world might appear to be a nail, but don’t be disappointed when you realize that there aren’t any nails around. God will use you somehow, don’t limit him by saying it only has to be in this one way.

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  • In short, even when you reach 30 your life is still very much ahead of you – one of my favorite talks that I’ve heard at Catalyst, my favorite leadership conference, was given by Craig Groeschel in which he talked about the relationship between the younger and older generations in the church. While addressing the younger leaders he said “Don’t over estimate what God wants to do with you in the short-run and don’t underestimate what God wants to do with you in the long run.” In a culture obsessed with youth, it’s hard to keep in mind that your life doesn’t have to end at 30 or 35, or 40 or 50. Sometimes I feel a little disappointed when I compare myself to my friends who are married and starting to have kids. But then I think about the fact that when my parents were both 30 I was still seven years down the road for them and nowhere on their life’s roadmap. In your 20s when things aren’t going the way you think that should’ve gone, or when something happens and it feels like your dreams have been crushed, or when you start dealing with a new challenge that makes you wonder “is this the new normal?” just know that it doesn’t have to be the end of your dreams. You may just need to attack the problem from a different angle, or you may need to get to work and gain some more wisdom and experience, or you made need to set some new God-sized goals and run after them. No, you won’t live forever, but you still have plenty of time to leave a legacy.

Counting my Blessings

It is easy for me to take stock of the things that I had hoped to accomplished at this point in my life and simply wallow in my disappointment. Being totally single at 30 is a bit of a let down, but if I’m honest I’m actually more happy about being single now than I was a few years ago. (before responding to that statement be sure that you’ve read my blog entry on how to encourage single people) I have had a number of huge blessings over the past ten years and I want to celebrate them, I really am just thanking God for these things, but if you think you’ll be tempted to compare your accomplishments to mine, skip this. I won’t hit everything, but here are a few things that stick out to me, at least today.

I thank God for:

  • The birth of more nephews and nieces, bringing the total to 5 nephews and 4 nieces.
  • A Loving Family that has offered support to me in many different ways, even when I wasn’t very lovable.
  • The rest of my time at Asbury, some of the most fun, fulfilling, meaningful years of my life so far.
  • Going to the 2008 Olympics to be part of the Broadcasting in Beijing will remain one of the high points of my life.
  • More recently going to Israel Greece and Rome with NT Wright.
  • Getting a play produced here at the church, and seeing the surprising ways God used it.
  • Never having been in a messy relationship that ended poorly. I probably don’t praise God for this enough.
  • My house. This is one I can easily take for granted, but the fact that I’m a home owner is pretty amazing when I think about it.
  • My many friends, new and old, near and far. In my 20s I’ve lost a few and gained others. The friendships I have now are stronger than ever.
  • My dog Zeus, I’ve only had him for a year and a half, but he’s been the cutest means of grace God’s given me yet.
  • My small group – it’s been through many iterations, and God has been at work in and through it all the way.
  • Reawakening my passion for writing; something that I loved as a child, and realized is a means of Grace for me as an adult.
  • Jujitsu, Ultimate Frisbee, and jogs around my neighborhood – I’m grateful God’s given me ways to keep from being a total couch potato
  • Getting half way through Grad school – my midpoint review will be next month, there’s no way I could’ve done it without God’s help, especially through family and friends.
  • God’s continued daily provision for my life.
  • A (mostly) able body, a (relatively) sound mind (I mean, it could be worse, right?)
  • Hard experiences that taught me important lessons.
  • Dark times that drew me closer to God.

My goals for the next ten years.

In the interest of practicing what I blog, I want to have a few abstract Goals that are primary, that I can use as the “problem” so that if these others don’t work out, I can change course knowing that the ultimate goals remain intact, but also have a few specific, secondary goals that are opportunities for me to trust God with my talents:

Primary/abstract goals: (the what)

  1. Find new ways to reach my generation (the millennial generation) for Christ
  2. tell stories that are truthful and make people laugh
  3. Advance (however that might look) in my field (whatever that may be)
  4. encourage and teach other Christians

Secondary/ Specific goals: (the how)

  1. Finish grad school, earning my MFA
  2. Direct my first feature film
  3. Get a book published
  4. Do more teaching at the college level

As I said, I think that while I’ve hid behind the guise of “being available” for God’s calling, much of why I’ve resisted too-specific goals in the past has to do with a fear that I’m not actually capable of accomplishing them. The funny thing is that I haven’t become more brave, in fact I’ve probably become more convinced than ever that I cannot accomplish these goals. I do believe, however, that I’ve grown in my faith such that I now realize that I was never supposed to chase after these for my sake, and therefore I shouldn’t be depending on my own strength to accomplish them. I’m looking forward to the next ten years. I know they’ll be challenging, and know God will work in every part. My prayer is that the next ten years will be dedicated to Christ and that he’d bless my creativity more this decade than he has ever before. I pray that his had will be upon me and that he’ll give me peace.

Listen to the Rocks and Donkeys: How Christians should approach Movies, TV, & other media. (Videos)

If you’re not letting the rocks cry out or donkeys speak to you occasionally I think you’re missing out, because it happens to me all the time.

How it started for me:

When I was a kid, like most children who grew up in a Christian home, my Mom was concerned about the kind of media I consumed. She wanted to be sure that the TV shows I viewed, video games I played, and movies I watched were at least somewhat consistent with a Christian worldview. The problem was both my parents were working full-time by the time I was four and I was a fourth child ergo Mom didn’t have the time to sit and watch every cartoon with me or sit as I played through all 40 hours of The Legend of Zelda.

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As such, if my mom came in from play practice and I was watching a show, instead of freaking out and telling me to shut off the TV (ok she did that a few times too) she would usually put it to me to explain why I thought this show was ok. She would ask me to explain it. I soon realized that if I was going to be allowed to watch TV I had to start looking at the deeper meaning behind the media I was viewing. So I quickly learned to identify the good, the evil, and the values being espoused in a narrative. That’s where it started with me, as a child who wanted to watch TV and play video games.

Now…

The most recent step in this process for me came this past spring when I was taking a class for my MFA studies called Motion Picture Theory and Style. We did a lot of discussion of “film as text” and how to “read” a film. In the middle of this rather lofty, graduate-level class I had to write a lengthy paper analyzing the work of a director discussing his style across at least three films. (explan-a-brag incoming) When my professor returned my paper she commented that it was clear that I was far advanced in this area. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that it was because I started analyzing TV shows as a kid that now I was viewing everything as a text to be read. Suddenly I’m a good student, because I’ve been studying for this most of my life.

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Beyond the academic analysis and using words like “formalism” and “intertexuality” even in my papers I have to subtly note when I see a figure who shows sacrificial love, as well as portrayals of good and evil that are consistent with a Biblical worldview. Still today, I’m looking at popular media to see where God’s truth is. It’s like a treasure hunt, a game I learned as a child that I see as more important now than ever.

Still there’s the question of Scripture, what arguments could be made, looking at the whole of scripture, for the importance of seeking truth in popular media? I believe there are several to examine.

The Word

When turning to scripture, I try to avoid developing a belief system and then looking for verses out of context that, when combined, support my position. At the same time, I can’t totally avoid seeing God’s truth played out in the larger world and then seeking confirmation in his Word, while at the same time realizing that if the confirmation isn’t there, I might be missing something.

To me the first evidence that media matters to God is in the Gospel of John verse 1:1.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

John 1:1

This scripture was brought alive for me recently over and over again as I traveled to the lands of the New Testament with Tom Wright. Every time I asked for a sound check with him he would quote this passage, often times swapping to the original Greek.

What does this have to do with media? Well, the Word was the first medium, the original means by which truth was communicated, and one of God’s three persons was and is characterized as being both that medium and its message. The Word, John goes on to say, became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus Christ was the Word before he was Flesh. That to me says that God cares deeply about the media through which his message was communicated, the most important one, of course being Jesus and the second most important one being us, that’s why he became human, but before he did, he was first The Word.

philosoraptor
I think you may be overextending this metaphor…

No, I’m not saying that the Holy Word of God is somehow equivalent to every other form of the various media out there, but I am saying this: God the father is often said to be cosmic and indescribable, the Holy Spirit is often compared to elements in nature like water, fire and wind. But other than human titles like Warrior, King, Brother, Master, and Lord – the object lesson we’re given for Christ is him as “the Word.”

The word used for “Word” there is “logos”, and it is where we get the English word ‘logo,’ a visually distinct identifying mark. It is often also translated as “plan” or “reason” and it is used by philosophers as shorthand for all of life’s meaning and purpose. When we examine a film for the Biblical narrative, we’re looking for that Logos.

Whatever

Paul uses this word three different times in three different books and when you hear it, know that Paul means everything, and I believe that we should include the media we consume with that.

Whatever you do,

Whatever, meaning everything, should especially make our ears perk up when we read the scriptures.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
 Colossians 3:17

This is a popular passage and for Good reason it seems to cover a lot of ground, but if you don’t read the rest of the Chapter, especially the first sixteen verses leading up to this you might miss how exactly Paul says to “do it all in the name of Jesus.” Paul lists off all the sins that the church members in Colossae used to participate in, and says they’re no longer part of that life. Then he says to do everything in the name of God.

Whatever

Whatever you Consume,

Next in Corinthians Paul says this:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 10:31

This context is pretty interesting, Paul is responding to concerns about eating food that may have been used for sacrifice to Apollo. I was recently in Corinth and part the temple to Apollo there is still standing, as well as a nearby market entrance – it was likely that people would go and buy animals there, take it to be used as a sacrifice to Apollo and then bring it home for dinner. Obviously this concerned the early Christians who might be served this meat, unknowingly  eating something that was intended for the worship of another God.

In the passage Paul basically says not to worry about it, as long as you are doing it to God’s glory it doesn’t matter if it was intended as a pagan sacrifice.

This speaks hugely into the way we view secular media. We find these various popular narratives and we ask, should we even engage with this? I think Paul would say yes, as long as you can do it to God’s Glory – whether in word or deed, whatever you consume – do it unto God.

Ok, this isn't a post on gluttony
Ok, this isn’t a post on gluttony

I should point out that in Corinthians he does say that if you know for certain that a particular meat was used as sacrifice to Apollo, not to eat it to be a good witness of your faith. I do feel like Paul would say that anything you know a show or movie is definitely made to worship a false god, you shouldn’t consume it. You’re not going to find a Christ figure in 50 Shades of Gray.

Whatever is true,

Finally, for me the simplest filter for me as a question of whether I should be participating in any popular narrative, is in Philippians chapter 4.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

If you can’t find truth in it, then it isn’t worth your attention. If it isn’t pure then it isn’t in God’s will. If it isn’t admirable, then don’t waste your time on it. That’s the standard that has been set for you. Don’t stoop to anything less.

 Three approaches

There are three approaches that Christians can take to secular media. Only three – meaning that whether you intend to or not, you have taken one of these views.

Compartmentalization

Cause they’re totally separate things!

If you’ve never given this any thought, then it’s likely that you’ve been compartmentalizing things. Compartmentalizing is placing boarders between your faith and the other parts of your life. You may have learned that your faith needs to be at work in your family, that it should have an impact on your work life, and obviously you’ll be thinking about it most during church events. If you’re like most Christians, you probably haven’t given much thought to how your faith should be at work in the entertainment you consume.

To be clear: this is about more than sex, language, and violence – this is about the truths and worldviews that you are allowing to enter your mind week after week as you sit in front of your TV, watch a movie, read books, or surf the web. Some of the most truth-filled programming may contain violence, occasional foul language and perhaps even some suggestive material (though I’d be cautious of that because it is the one we’re told to flee from in 1 Corinthians 6:18.)

If you are a regular consumer of media (watching approximately 30 hours of TV a week and going to a movie about every two weeks) and you’ve never quit watching a TV show or walked out of a movie because you felt convicted, then it is likely that there is some compartmentalization going on. If you’ve ever clicked the “Private Browsing” option on your phone, Tablet or PC – then you’re definitely compartmentalizing your faith away from the media you consume and that is never God’s best for you.

Rejection/Protest

Naughty Naughty
Naughty Naughty

In some ways, this is the one Christians are most known for, even if we more often compartmentalize our faith, Christians are thought of as people who vehemently oppose pop culture. Though this has and is changing, as Hollywood has seen that Christians are a market and creating stories that are respectful to our beliefs will behoove them at the box office. I hate that people think this of Christians, but at the same time there are things we need to reject, as I talked about in my entry about my three rules for watching movies*.

This one is more complex, because whereas compartmentalization is always wrong, rejection is oftentimes right, though if you always choose this approach then you’ll likely miss out on some of the blessings God has for you. Taking that “Rejection View” obviously means that you take the view that says ‘because much of, or most of the various forms of popular media are not God-honoring I will not participate in it.’ And of course, that’s based on a very, true, truefact™with which all of us can agree, but that doesn’t mean it’s the whole truth.

There are times where we have to take this position; parents need to reject some media from their lives to protect young children. There will always be things in the media that we need to protest and say ‘That is Wrong!” when we see it depicted as if it were right. Young Christians, upon first coming to Christ may be in need of a ‘cultural cleanse’ where they remove themselves from the larger culture and immerse themselves into the word, similar to Paul’s seven years in Antioch, studying the scriptures and becoming “the Apostle Paul” who would go on to speak to the Greeks about their own poetry, and understand the scholarship of most of the major cultures in the Roman empire.  It seems clear that Paul didn’t stay in this position his whole life, and for good reason; there is a danger to rejecting things indiscriminately and for too long.

While a person who compartmentalizes is definitely being “of the world,” A person who totally rejects the culture risks no longer being “in the world.” When you’re disengaged from the cultural narrative then you loose your ability to speak the vernacular and therefore effectively communicate with non-Christians. This isn’t a problem if you have no intention of teaching the Gospel outside of the church, but if you plan on engaging with people who don’t already know Jesus, it is important to know the stories they’re hearing on a regular basis and be able to use them in such a way that they can hear see Jesus even in the secular media; that the meat that was used to sacrifice to Apollo can be used as healthy food for them.

Finally, if you’re not engaging with the culture then it is likely that you’re missing out on God speaking to you through some surprising means. Like Balem’s Donkey in Numbers 2, or Jesus’s warning that the rocks will cry out in Luke 19:40. You don’t want to miss the unexpected places from which God will speak because you were determined that God can’t use rocks or donkeys.

Appropriation

This is ultimately where I believe we need to all land on this issue. We need to be willing to engage with the popular narrative up to a point such that we can be willing to learn from it, and that we can appropriate it for the use of the Kingdom.

Can this go too far? Yes. I’m not a fan of people trying to shoe-horn every film into some super-specific allegory for the gospel. I love Star Wars. I believe there are Biblical truths in Star Wars. There are truths about anger and fear dominating your life, truths about temptation and redemption, truths about good overcoming evil and truths about the nature of wisdom and choosing your mentors well. But I can say this for sure: it is not an allegory for the Gospel. There are many preachers who have tried to say things like “the Force is the Holy Spirit” or “Obi-Wan is Jesus” or maybe “Luke is Jesus” or “Yoda is Wisdom personified as in Proverbs.” Okay that last one might hold water, but for the most part Star Wars cannot be made into an allegory, and when watching it with your kids, I think you need to explain that while “The Force” is cool, it’s fictional and largely equivalent to pantheism in the real world, and while it may be similar to The Holy Spirit, it is not an allegorical one to one equivalent. Saying otherwise is theologically dangerous.

Having said this, that is exactly why you should examine the movies you watch, so that you can see where there are both truths and inconsistencies in the stories you’re consuming. You should do so with discernment*, looking for areas where it is true and areas where it isn’t true, and also understanding that you’ll come up with some different answers than your friends. You may have read my review on Disney’s Film, Tomorrowland*, but you’ll be interested to know that my friend Ken Roach, who I’d say is easily much smarter than I am, took a very different approach than I did on the same film. We have a little debate in the ensuing episode of the mid week mix up

When appropriating, you can find media that can suddenly bring to life a scriptural truth to you personally, as I did while listening to a totally secular (and very not-family-friendly) podcast when I discovered a new way to express my calling as a creative working in the Kingdom, as I explain further in this entry about what I want to hear God say – click hear to read more*. That was something that I totally was not expecting, but I found myself tearing up as I was driving along listening to this actor describe his experience of working with a master director. Appropriating the truths in secular media leaves room for those kinds of wonderful experiences.

Also it gives you in-roads to speak to other people. So this should surprise no one: I once was in a debate with a group of fellow nerds about the nature of God. Some of them didn’t like me using the word “fear” in reference to God. I reminded them that it is in the Bible multiple times, and that the word is ‘fear’ not ‘respect’ or ‘revere’ as some believe. They didn’t like that – they wanted God to be all feel-good all the time. And I understand that, because when the idea I should fear God was introduced to me, I was bothered too. But aside from the fact that it is in scripture, it just makes logical sense; the being that created the universe, when you see him don’t you think you’ll be afraid? Why do you think that every time in scripture when the angel of the Lord shows up the first thing he says is “Fear Not” if he wasn’t terrifying to the people that saw him? But the debate wore on and I actually was accused of being Pharisaical for using too much scriptural evidence. That’s when I realized that these people are not going to be convinced by scripture because they think they’ve made up their minds. That’s when I realized I had to show them that they already knew this to be true in the stories they love. So I posed this:

Let me put it in a way perhaps more tactile to this crowd: say you’ve never heard of Batman. You’re walking in the street late at night and you see a tall muscular guy lurking in a corner dressed in dark armor and a cape, you’d probably be afraid, right? Then another guy with a knife comes out of no where and batman jumps out at him- knife guy didn’t see batman before and now he’s terrified and you’d be thankful. You’d love batman, you’d do anything for batman. In the end it doesn’t matter what we think God is, what we want God to be, what kind of God we’d run to. Scripture is clear on multiple occasions: it’s the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom, love comes after that. Also this is why God sent Jesus, so we do have a person of God we can chat with, identify with, run to, etc. but that doesn’t make God any less powerful. God installing fear is a good thing for us, because he’s on our side. . . but Fear is only the beginning. 1 John 4:18 says perfect love casts out all fear. But there has to be fear first to fully understand that love. I’m totally about God’s Love and mercy. That mercy, however, is cheap if we think that God isn’t also righteous, Holy, and powerful. All I’m saying is it is not out of God’s character to do things that may seem unpleasant to us, even violent- but it’s the fact that he is capable of such that makes his love more amazing, and frankly far more comforting; in the battle of Revelation, I’d much rather take sides with a God I can fear.

Suddenly I had their attention. I had demonstrated a scriptural truth using a comic book character. Now theologians much smarter than me can debate the exact accuracy of the metaphor, but the point remains. It was Batman that ended the argument. That was all it took – It was Batman that put it in a place where they could understand. Yes scripture has to be paramount as the standard by which all stories are judged, but often the easiest way we can get the truth of Scripture through to people is resting in the the stories to which they cling.

 

Now the real question is did you picture batman as Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, or Christian Bale? (Note that George Clooney was not an option, and the jury’s out on Ben Affleck.

How?

The process of watching a movie to look for God’s story is different for different people, that’s why Ken and I often come up with different readings from different films. You may look for the Christ figure, the higher power, the values, or the depiction of good and evil. But if you want to start doing this for yourself, I think it comes down to a few things:

  1.  Know scripture. If you don’t already have a consistent and full foundation of Biblical knowledge, you need to sit down and read the Bible. Like I’ve said, you need to give the Holy Spirit a vocabulary. You’re not going to be able to read films for what they’re worth if you haven’t learned the story for which you’re looking.
  2. Look for scripture’s story. Once the stories of scripture are written on your heart then you will likely begin to see the stories everywhere. Much in the same way that binge watching a TV show makes you relate everything that happens in the following days to that TV show, immersing yourself in the Biblical narrative will allow you to see when it shows up in the popular narrative.
  3. Talk about it. Find someone else and discuss your thoughts – ask questions, debate if you disagree, and use it as a way to get to know each other and more importantly, get to know God’s story.

Wrap it up already

To me it comes down to the simple fact that any given medium in itself is just that, a medium, and while the medium does say a great deal about the message, it doesn’t change it’s meaning. As long as we’re clear on scripture then things will be clear to us. And if there’s one takeaway from this it really should be that reading and understanding the scriptures will give the Holy Spirit vocabulary in such a way that will allow God to speak into your life in ways that are often surprising and powerful. He might use rocks, a donkey, a profanity-ridden podcast, a comic book character, or any number of things to speak to you, but he will only speak if your hear is prepared to hear from him.

I love this clip from the 1939 version of the hunchback of Notre Dame because it shows the tension of the transition from the old way of communicating the gospel to the new way, but in a much earlier time. I love the bishop’s words as he looks at the cathedral and considers the power of the printing press. Also notice who in the scene takes a “rejection” approach and who takes an “appropriation” approach. It’s only three minutes.

Don’t miss that last part – this was the old way, the printing press is of our time. Then know where the printing press used in that scene sits today; in the lobby of the Asbury University commuincation arts building where students are taught about film, television, graphic design, and interactive media. Just like the cathedral of Notre Dame represented the old form, now the press does and it sits as a symbol of the passing of the torch from one generation of story keepers to the next.

If you haven’t watched it yet, this past Sunday I had the honor of sitting in on a discussion as part of the message at Frazer, to discuss the importance of Story and how it is at the core of who we are. If you missed it, it covers some more ground around the importance of story as well as some of what I’ve discussed here. If this topic interests you I really recommend  you check it out below. Also think about hopping over to my friend, Ken’s blog. Where he talks about many of the same topics.

So what do you think? Where do you see God at work in popular media? Comment below!
*shameless plug to get you to go back and look at old entries