Q: Several years ago you changed your vocational direction. What caused you to change?
A: Two theological issues: Trinitarian theology and New Covenant theology. First, I’ve come to believe that psychotherapy, which is what I was doing, didn’t take fully into account the power of relationship. The real power in helping somebody to be transformed is not to do something to them but to join with them. The word “therapist” carries the connotation that I know what I’m doing, and I’ll do it to you, like a dentist or a doctor might. I don’t see myself as a dentist or a physician; I see myself as a friend. Also, if God really exists as a community within Himself, then He wants us to exist as a community of people. That made me switch from therapy to spiritual direction.
Second, under the terms of the New Covenant, I believe that when I’m talking to a fellow believer, I can assume that God has already put within that person an appetite for Himself. So it’s not a question of curing a person but of releasing what God has already put within the person. That radically shifts your whole understanding of counseling and therapy.
So I left behind the world of therapy, to some degree, and founded New Way Ministries, which comes out of the verse in which Paul says, “I have been delivered from the law so I can serve in the new way of the Spirit” (Cf. Romans 7:6). I thought, “If there really is a new way to live–a new way of the Spirit that contrasts with the old way of the written code–then I want to know what that is, and I want to be part of what the Spirit is doing.”
Q: Does your new approach “work better” than the old one?
A: If you are talking about relieving symptoms more quickly or more powerfully, no, I wouldn’t say that it works better. But if you’re talking about drawing the heart into a deeper relationship with God, which over time produces a deeper level of wholeness in a person, then I would say yes, it works far better.
I wouldn’t deny for a minute that many people have gone to see a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a counselor, and their marriages have gotten better, their anorexic symptoms have disappeared and their depression has lifted. Is that working? Sure. But I have to ask, “What is God centrally up to?”
I think God has great pleasure when an anorexic begins to eat or when a sexual abuse victim recovers a sense of identity and is able to function better. But that isn’t the center. The center of what God is working on is drawing our hearts more deeply into relationship with Christ. Out of that comes a different kind of wholeness, which will have an effect on depression, anxiety, anorexic symptoms, sexual abuse recovery and the like. But the center of the cure, if you will, is a deeper relationship with God, not a rearranging of internal processes so that one feels better.
Q: What would you say to Christians who keep failing and who wonder, “Can God really still love me? Can I really have a deep relationship with Him now?”
A: A mentor of mine once said to me that a Christian at every moment has reason to celebrate. When you see God working in your life and working through you, you can celebrate His power, His reality, His presence. When you fail, you can celebrate His grace.
If in fact the core of your soul is being drawn to the Lord, two things will happen at the same time. You’ll become more aware of how far you are from becoming like Jesus, but you’ll also become more grateful for the growth that is occurring. And you will see growth. For the person whose sexual addiction, for example, is continuing unabated for 20 years, we need to deal with that. If you are meaningfully celebrating grace, your sexual addiction is going to lose its power. You are going to start living a much more holy, moral life. If there are ongoing struggles, I’m not going to beat you up, but I want you to understand what brokenness means so that grace can be more richly celebrated, and there will be a change in your life as a result of that. But the change will never be perfection.
Q: People try all kinds of things, such as self-help books, to change their lives. What is the biggest problem with self-help books today?
A: Their lack of appreciation for brokenness. Self-help books focus on the word “improvement.” They send the message, “You can do better. You can be happier.” And in most cases, it is a formula mentality, a formula that says, “If you do this, that will happen.”
And then you have to ask what the real goal is behind the self-help movement. I think the goal of the self-help movement is self-satisfaction. We want to feel better about ourselves. We want to be able to look in the mirror and say, “Way to go. I am now an improved person, a happier person.”
I don’t think that is the direction of the Scriptures at all. I think the direction of the Scriptures has much more to do with whether I am more deeply a pleasure to God. So I struggle with the self-help movement. I don’t think it involves the brokenness that is required in order to reach the goal God has for us. It builds in self-sufficiency.
A lot of counseling–a lot of Christian counseling–amounts to little more than a socialization of the flesh. Take the person who has been having an affair, for example. We all agree that that is sinful and that it needs to stop. A good number of people have stopped having affairs, but without repentance and brokenness they don’t grow a bit spiritually.
Q: Your book “Shattered Dreams” talks about how we should respond when our lives seem to fall apart. How should we respond in those situations?
A: I don’t think anybody has an opportunity to know God as deeply as they long to without shattered dreams. When I hear that your dreams are shattered, something in me grieves, hurts and wants to weep with you. But the opportunity is colossal. When your life is shattered in some way, there is an incredible opportunity to know God more deeply.
I am working with a woman, two of whose children have had a fatal disease. One died a little more than a year ago; the other will likely die soon. Just last week the woman said to me, “In the middle of my shattered dreams, I wouldn’t trade this pain for less pain, because this is drawing me into a relationship with God that I never thought was possible.”
I could wish with all my heart that it could be done differently. But when suffering comes, which we don’t orchestrate but which God providentially allows, it really is a profound opportunity to believe that God is doing what is central in His heart.
One thing I think we need to recognize is that God is not committed to giving me a comfortable life. If He were, He could be doing a better job! He has the resources, and I have a few suggestions–which He doesn’t seem terribly open to. So I presume He has a higher goal. Either He is not very good, or I have to redefine what God’s goodness means. And obviously it is the latter.
When my brother was killed in an airplane wreck about 14 years ago, my dad got a letter from one of his mentors, who said, “You can always trust the Man who died for you.” He meant that goodness is always flowing, even through the worst time of your life, through the darkest night.
Oswald Chambers said that the root of all sin is the suspicion that God really isn’t good. So in the middle of shattered dreams, how can I call God good? How can I call God good when He allowed that to happen? The answer is that we need to understand what His purpose is. And His purpose is not to give you a comfortable life now. It is to satisfy your soul with Him.
Q: Sometimes when we face difficulties, we figure that it is either the devil throwing up roadblocks or God testing our faith. Do both of those views perhaps miss the point?
A: I think they do. At root, both are attempts to manage the crisis. If it is spiritual warfare, then we think we’d better find some way to defeat the devil on behalf of our agenda. If God is teaching a lesson (and I don’t deny that there are lessons God teaches us), what I often hear beneath the surface is, “I want to learn it quick so I can get out of this mess. I want to graduate from this school of hard knocks and get into vacation time.”
Instead, we should realize that there is something far deeper going on, that God is up to something good in our worst moment. And the issue is not to eliminate the worst moment through spiritual warfare or through learning our lesson quickly. Rather, it is to abandon ourselves to the purposes of God in the middle of this–which, ultimately, is intimacy with Himself.
Q: What about Christians who are discouraged because they haven’t experienced this intimacy with God?
A: Well, I think we have claimed a lot of promises that God never made. After being a Christian for 52 years, I don’t feel close to God most of the time in terms of experiencing some epiphany. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been the epiphany experiences; there have been. But I think that a lot of worship is an attempt to jack up feelings that aren’t coming from the Spirit at all, but from the intensity of the music or whatever.
In some ways, I think the Christian who is disappointed with the Christian life is on the way to true maturity. Paul, in Romans 8, talks about groaning. I think if we met the Apostle Paul, he might say, “Yes, the power of Christ moves through me, but don’t assume that that is an ecstatic experience. I’ve seen the risen Lord, but my life right now is this: I’m in prison. I’m lonely. I’m cold. This is really hard. But I’m deeply content in any circumstance.”
The word “content,” however, doesn’t mean feeling good. If you look at the Greek for the word, it isn’t an emotional word. It is a purposeful word that says, “I have the resources within me to persevere, no matter what.” The person who is not groaning is not facing reality, because the Bible says that the whole creation is groaning.
C. S. Lewis said it well, I think. He said that God gives us many resting places on our journey home, but He never allows us to mistake them for home. A Christian might say, “I’ve been saved for 20 years, and I’m still a mess.” My thought is, well of course. Where is the surprise here? Embrace that; don’t run from it. It’s your opportunity to trust God more deeply.