Monday, August 31, 2009

how we change (7) what truths do you need to turn to?

Here's where it gets exciting. Let me introduce you to what I call "the 4 Gs". For me, the 4 Gs are the highlight of Tim Chester's You Can Change, and I'm not alone: my friend, whose life was turned upside down by God through this book, turns to the 4 Gs every day. Here they are:

1. God is great – so we don’t have to be in control
2. God is glorious – so we don’t have to fear others
3. God is good – so we don’t have to look elsewhere
4. God is gracious – so we don’t have to prove ourselves
Easy to remember, bursting with the conviction of God's loving sovereignty, full of hope: I turn to the 4 Gs every time I feel anxious, overwhelmed, depressed, discouraged, or guilty. Every time I'm tempted to value the praise of others over the praise of God. Every time I'm tempted to put my hope in possessions, pleasure, or relationships. Every time I'm tempted to prove myself through my perfectionism.

Why is it so important to turn to God's truth when we're tempted? Because every sin begins with a lie (Rom 1:25, Heb 3:12-14). You can't sin unless you believe happiness is found in something other than God. You can't worry unless you forget God's wise sovereignty over your life. You can't despair unless you doubt the love of the One who sent his Son to die for you.

I love how Chester puts it: our sin lies in the gap between "confessional faith" (what we say in church on Sundays) and "functional disbelief" (what we do and feel on Mondays). "We can sin only if we suffer from a radical loss of perspective. Only if we forget that God is great and good can we sin."

If sin begins with a lie, the cure is faith: believing the truth about God and the gospel. When the Bible talks about change, it begins with the gospel transforming our minds: "be made new in the attitude of your minds", "set your hearts" and "minds on things above" (Rom 12:1-2, Eph 4:22-24, Col 3:1-4, Heb 12:1). As we fill our minds with God's truth from his word, it burrows its way deep into us and transforms our emotions and choices.

One of the things which fascinates me about this cure - the idea that change comes as we turn from our wrong beliefs to the truth - is that it's as old as the psalms, and as new as the methods of modern psychologists.

It's as new as modern psychology. Cognitive behavioural therapy, the method now used most widely for treating anxiety and depression, is just a secular form of turning from wrong beliefs to more "realistic" interpretations of our circumstances.

Psychologists recognise that what causes my emotions and behaviour isn't ultimately my circumstances, but how I interpret my circumstances: "No-one will ever love me. I'm worth nothing if he rejects me. I can't cope if that happens." The alternate thoughts they offer are void of God, but they imitate sanctified wisdom: "It doesn't matter what people think of me. This feeling won't last forever. There will be other opportunities."

As Christians, we'll turn not only to common-sense and wisdom, but more importantly, we'll turn to truths about God: "What matters is what God thinks of me, and he loves me and sees me as perfect in Jesus. God's promises are more reliable than my feelings. My loving Father is in control of my circumstances." Alison Payne says that You Can Change “is like cognitive behaviour therapy driven by the gospel and the character of God.”

This cure is also as ancient as the Psalms. Listen to the Psalmists as they argue themselves out of fear, doubt and despondency and into trust and hope in God:

The LORD is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear? ...
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God ...
Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; ... he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. ...
Has God forgotten to be merciful? ... To this I will appeal: ... I will remember the deeds of the LORD ...
Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
(Ps 27:1, 42:5, 62:5-6, 77:9-12, 103:1-2)

Can you hear them arguing, begging, pleading with themselves? Can you hear them taking their glooms and fears and beating them into submission with the weapon of God's truth? Can you hear them turning their anxiety into trust and their joy into praise?

The same cure has been handed down through the ages by wise Christian writers and preachers like the Puritans and Charles Spurgeon. Who could forget the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us! … You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. ... And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him.’ (Spiritual Depression pp.20-21.)

God's truth - his word and gospel - is our greatest weapon. Let's take the great truths about God - that he is great, glorious, good and gracious - and preach them to our souls. Let's believe God's word instead of our feelings and sinful desires. Let's take the gospel and dwell on it until it lives in our minds and hearts. Only then will true change become possible - change from the inside out.

For reflection:
When you struggle, what lies are you believing? What truths about God and the gospel could you turn to?

It might help to draw up a thought chart. You'll need 4 columns: 1 = situation, 2 = moods and actions, 3 = thoughts, 4 = thoughts and actions based on God's truth. In the 1st write what situation you were in when you struggled with a particular emotion or sinful behaviour. In the 2nd write what you were feeling and what you did. In the 3rd write the thoughts that were going through your head at the time. You might like to circle the "hot thought" - the one which was most strongly connected to what you felt or what you did. In the 4th write out new ways of thinking based on truths about God and the gospel, and on common-sense and wisdom; and some new ways of acting which will support these beliefs. If you'd like to see a worked example, please contact me.

If you'd like to see or use my seminar How Change Happens, which is based on Tim Chester's You Can Change, please contact me.

Tim Chester quotes are from chapter 5 of You Can Change

images are from Giampaolo Macorig, Leo Reynolds, LU5H.bunny, twenty_questions and Dimi15 from flickr; second last image is from stock.xchng; used with permission

Friday, August 28, 2009

superman gets super stuck

One of the trials and tribulations of being a little brother with a big sister who has no sisters to play with is that you get co-opted into playing dress-ups. This time, Lizzzy dressed Andy in the fetching combination of a superman top and some clown pants. But what happens when you don't want to play dress-ups any more? Here's how it goes:

Okay, okay, I can do this ...

All I have to do is get this arm out of here...

Done! Now for the other arm...

Come on! Out of there! You can do it!

Oh, heck.

Ah, yes, I've got it now, I've just got to pull it down a little ...

A little bit more ...

Nearly there ...

Oh, heck.

Maybe if I pull it up this way ...

Hang on a minute, what's that? My belly button! There's all kinds of interesting things inside this suit if you stop to look!

Aaargh! Get me OUT of here!

Oh, heck.

At which point we took pity on poor old Andy and removed him from the straitjacket.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

overcoming the isolation of modern suburbia

Did you know that Australians now live in houses that are double the size of those they lived in 50 years ago? Did you know that the average Australian has 6-9 people in their house during one year?

We live in expensive, isolated splendour. The overseas students we meet through my husband's university ministry say that most visitors from other countries return home after years of study or work never having entered an Australian home. Most Australians live next door to people who never set foot inside their front door.

Modern suburbia eerily parallels CS Lewis' description of hell in The Great Divorce, as Ben Pfahlert pointed out during his talk on Philippians 1 at last weekend's MTS Challenge Conference Victoria. CS Lewis' words as he describes the "grey town" of hell are almost prophetic:

I seemed to be standing in a busy queue by the side of a long, mean street. ... I had been wandering for hours in similar mean streets, always in the rain and always in evening twilight. ... I never met anyone. But for the little crowd at the bus stop, the whole town seemed to be empty. ...

'It seems the deuce of a town,' I volunteered, 'and that's what I can't understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?'

'Not at all' said my neighbour. 'The trouble is that they're so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he has been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. But before the week is over he's quarrelled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarrelled with their neighbours - and moved. If so, he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He's sure to have another quarrel pretty soon, and then he'll move on again. Finally he'll move right out to the edge of town and build a new house. ...

'They've been moving on and on. Getting further apart. ... Astronomical distances. There's a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still.'

As the bus in the story rises in the air, and the grey town spreads out below from horizon to horizon, it's modern suburbia I'm seeing from an aeroplane window in my mind's eye.

It should be different for us as Christians - but is it? My friend and her husband, who work with overseas students, aim to have 100 unbelievers in their home every year! Her example and
Ben's talk challenged me to choose compassion over control, comfort and convenience, and to work harder at overcoming the splendid isolation of the modern home.

brenner_ron and icopythat from flickr

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

a question of childcare (2) implications

And so we come to the specific issue of childcare (and I'm tempted to run away very, very fast! I'm taking a deep breath now ... ). Please forgive the length of this post: this is a complex issue! You might want to print it out or bookmark it and read it over a few days.

Last week, we talked about the theology of motherhood. We saw that motherhood takes its shape from the gospel. Jesus’ death frees us from rules about issues like childcare. But Jesus doesn’t free us to live however we like. He frees us to love others with the sacrificial love of the cross. He shows us the shape of this love for mothers: to be busy at home as we help our husbands, love our children and are rich in good deeds towards others. The question each of us faces is this:

How can I, in the situation God has put me in, best fulfil my responsibility to love, discipline, teach and train my children?

What are the implications of this view of motherhood for childcare? I'll do my best to be careful and biblical in what I say, but because this is an issue of wisdom, you'll have to decide if these principles are true to the Bible and how they apply to your situation (if unsure, ask a wise, older, experienced Christian woman who can speak to your circumstances). Here are some suggestions:

we're free to use childcare if we are in need
Childcare centres are a good provision from God for those in need - a provision which has been supplied in different cultures in different ways, but which is given to us in this way. The single mother who needs to support her family financially but who is estranged from her parents. The mother sliding towards depression and burnout who has no supportive husband to help bear the load. The woman with chronic fatigue syndrome without a close Christian community to step in and help. Childcare not be ideal, but it may be the only option to keep your family fed and functioning. If so, use it with thanksgiving, and trust God to supply your children’s needs.

we will generally choose not to use childcare
Studies have shown that childcare centres aren't usually ideal for young children. Childcare is a good gift of God for those of us in financial, physical or emotional need, when we have no other sources of help. But it's not the ideal. While some other kinds of childcare may be preferable for young children (for example, a trusted grandparent) even this shouldn't dominate our children's week. Here's three reasons why:

  • it's our responsibility as parents to love, discipline, teach and train our children, a responsibility we can't hand over to others, but which will require us to be engaged, involved, aware, willing and wholehearted in our parenting*
  • young children need the security of a loving, consistent care-giver, and the best person to fill this role is their mother, to whom God has given this responsibility and the unique characteristics to carry it out, with the support of their father, extended family and the Christian community
  • I want to be around for my children's first years - for all the joy of milestones and those few, precious years at home!** I'm often tempted to put this reason first in my thinking, but really it's a distant third, and it may not feel relevant to everyone.

we won’t put these things before caring for our children:
1. career
On the day I conceived my first child, I received a new “career” from God: motherhood. It demands more than any career, but receives less recognition and no remuneration! Many of us will need to make the difficult decision to fall behind in our career or training in order to fulfil our responsibilities to our children. We may also need to plan for a lifestyle (home, education, place and standard of living) which is compatible with a single income. If work is so important to me that I can’t give it up, I may need to examine myself to see which hole it's filling in my heart (approval? security? meaning? affluence?) and remember that my meaning, security and joy come from God.

2. outside ministry
If I'm doing outside ministry because, at some level, it feels more "important" than motherhoood, then why aren't I valuing the ministry of motherhood more highly? A wise older woman asked, When you look back on the years when your children were at home, will you regret spending so much time discipling others that you never discipled your own children?” We shouldn’t idolise our families to the extent that we neglect people in our church and community, but during our years with young children at home it’s probably best to focus on ministry we can do from our homes or with our children.

3. relaxation
We all need rest and recreation. We're creatures, not the Creator, and it’s pride to think that we can work forever without a break. I think that it can be wise to take a few hours away from children each week to pray, reflect and rest, although we shouldn’t think of it as a “right” just because other mums or our husbands get a break. There are better alternatives to professional childcare during this time for most of us (see below) but looming depression or burnout, or a lack of other options, may make childcare necessary or helpful for some of us.

we’ll look for wise alternatives to professional childcare
If childcare centres aren't usually ideal for young children, perhaps there are better alternatives, especially if it’s for a few hours a week. Here’s some ideas (not all will be possible in your circumstances, for example if you live away from family and friends):

  • ask your husband (or accept his offer!) to care for your children for a couple of hours a week so you can have some time to pray or relax
  • structure “down time” into your day and train your children to respect it – a homeschooler I know instituted “reading hour” so that she gets a quiet hour after lunch every day
  • ask a trusted grandparent to mind your children for a regular time each week, or to care for children for longer periods if you are in need (but don’t presume on this – your parents are not your child’s parents!)
  • swap the care of children for a morning week and week about with a trusted friend
  • pay for a trusted individual – perhaps a young woman from your church – to care for your children for a few hours a week, to supply consistent one-on-one care
  • ask for help from an older Christian woman, or accept help when it’s offered by someone you trust

we'll love each other by caring for one another's children
You have to ask why professional childcare is even necessary for Christian women, since we belong to a new extended family: the body of Christ. If I see my sister in need of a break, or a single mother bearing the load alone, why does she need childcare? Aren't there women (maybe me!) in the church who can rally round and help? If you don't need to work for financial reasons when your kids go back to school, why not plan to become a Titus 2 woman who can help younger women in this way? I thank God for the young woman who cared for our children a morning a week so that I could rest and recuperate when my babies were little, but who consistently refused payment. Open your eyes and have a look around your church, and I’m sure you’ll see mums in need of help!

when possible, we’ll choose work and ministry we can do while still being available to our children
I think it's helpful to choose ministries you can do from home (e.g. missional mothering) or where you can take your children (while being fair to those you minister to! – e.g. a mum’s Bible study). If you’re in financial need, perhaps you could work from home or choose a job which is child-friendly. My friend cleaned houses and minded a friend’s children rather than pursuing her professional career to give her kids consistent care. Sometimes our exhaustion in parenting comes from the idea that we need to provide intense one-to-one activities every moment of the day, when it can actually be good for our children to be with us, observing us as we pray, rest, work and serve others, but not having all of our attention all the time.

what about the Proverbs 31 woman?
A number of you have asked about the Proverbs 31 woman, and about women in other cultures and at other times. Didn’t the Proverbs 31 woman work while servants helped care for her children? Don’t women in other cultures and didn’t women in other times share the care of children between members of an extended family or community? I wonder if their situation is less like using professional childcare, and more like what I’m suggesting: doing work (for the sake of our families, not ourselves) and ministry from a home base, and being part of a Christian community where we help one another care for our children.

meaningful motherhood
I know that what I’m suggesting is counter-cultural and challenging: that we put caring for our children above career, outside ministry, and relaxation, and generally don’t use professional childcare unless it’s necessary for emotional, physical or financial reasons. Thinking about this issue has certainly challenged my own priorities!

The world tells us that motherhood is of very little significance. It asks why I haven't got a "real job", why I'm not "pursuing my interests", why I'm "neglecting myself" for the sake of my children, why I'm not "achieving" something "important", why I’m not working for a better “lifestyle”, why my husband has a right to his career while I'm falling further behind in mine.

The gospel gives motherhood eternal significance. It asks bigger questions: why I'm not responding to Jesus' sacrifice of his life by giving my life in the service of others. Why I'm not fulfilling God's call to love my husband and children. Why I'm not absorbed with the kingdom goal of raising my children to love and serve Jesus, and using our home to reach out to others.

I pray that whatever decisions you and I make about childcare, that we will make them in wisdom and love, and that we will stay faithful to the great responsibility God has given us: to love, discipline, teach and train our children.

*I'm aware you could extend this reasoning to pre-school and school, and I have great respect for those who home-school because of this principle. We send our kids to school so we can be involved in evangelism with them, and so they can learn to relate to unblievers and to respond to non-Christian worldviews with our guidance, but I know that many would save this on-the-job training for a later date! In Australia, pre-school often doesn’t run for too many hours a week, and it's a good bridge between home and school.

**see Steve Biddulph's "Seven Shameless Reasons For Staying At Home When Your Kids Are Small" in More Secrets of Happy Children

images are from stock.xchng and from Castle Gonyea, R.Motti, locket479, and zumerzetbill at flickr

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tim Chester on how suffering reveals our hearts

If you saw me in the study at 7.30 in the morning reading my Bible or praying, you might think me the most godly of men. There I am: calm, peaceful, trusting. But observe me half an hour later as I attempt to marshal my daughters out of the door for school and you’d see a man who’s far from godly. I used to think of myself as that calm, gentle person – the 7.30 me – and concluded I was pretty godly! If I’m provoked to sin, then the problem must be whatever provoked me. But I’ve come to realize that the real me is the 8.00 me – the person revealed when the sinful desires of my heart are exposed by trying circumstances and annoying people. The real me is revealed when I’m too tired to keep up the pretence.
Tim Chester You Can Change 75-76

image is by ahe753 at flickr

Monday, August 24, 2009

how we change (6) when do you struggle

When do I struggle? Ah, yes. Let me tell you.

When I've had no sleep. When our new baby is waking me up every few hours. When I'm 6 weeks into babyhood and I'm coping pretty well, really, until I get the flu, which results in 2 years of persistent illness and mild PND. When I'm so exhausted that every muscle in my face aches, and I cry into the nappy bucket.

When, in my exhaustion, I give way to irritability and despair. When my tiredness pours itself out in constant, draining, undeserved anger at my husband. When I can't find a kind word for my kids. When I stare into space, wondering how it's possible to feel this bad. When I wonder how the "me" that I'd thought had grown in godliness could give way - again! - to this childish petulance.

I'm behaving like this because I've had no sleep, right? It's the sleeplessness talking, isn't it? Who do I blame in this scenario - me? Because I'm not usually like this.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post on sleep deprivation. One of you asked, "How do we measure the fruit of the Spirit when a good night's sleep is all it takes to be more godly? Is God's work in us hindered when our bodies and minds are not functioning?"

Well, I've finally got an answer. I've realised that the me I see when I'm suffering is the real me. This is me giving in to bitterness and irritability. This is me overcome by discouragement and despair. This is my heart talking. Jesus says,

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. ... The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. (Lk 6:43-46 cf Mk 7:14-23)
Suffering can't make me sin. Suffering doesn't change what's in my heart. Suffering reveals what's already there, biding its time, waiting for an opportunity to show itself.

Just before he died, Moses said to the Israelites, "Remember how the LORD your God led you ... in the desert ... to test you in order to know what was in your heart." (Deut 8:2) In the heat of suffering, their hearts produced immorality, idolatry and grumbling. (Exod 17:3, 1 Cor 10:1-14) Compare this to Job's response to suffering: "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." (Job 1:21)

It's easy to blame our behaviour on our circumstances. I was brought up this way. I was mistreated in the past. I'm just this kind of person. My kids push my buttons. My husband doesn't treat me well. If only things were different. I'm in a difficult situation. It's too hard. I've had no sleep. I can't help it! Sound familiar? As Chester says, our circumstances can trigger sin or change the shape of our sin, but they can't cause it.

Who are we really blaming when we talk like this? It's God, isn't it? But the real problem is my sinful desires:

When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (Jam 1:13-15)
So what does suffering reveal about our hearts? Chester says it reveals two things:

Humans are always interpreters and always worshippers. ... There is a two-fold problem in the heart: what we think or trust and what we desire or worship. Sin happens when we don't trust God above everything (when we interpret in the wrong way) and when we don't desire God above everything (when we worship the wrong thing). Sin happens when we believe lies about God instead of God's word and when we worship idols instead of worshipping God.
We believe lies and we worship idols (Rom 1:25) - which is why the only solution is faith (trust God instead of believing lies) and repentance (worship God instead of idols - Mk 1:15, Eph 4:22-24).

Over the next couple of weeks we'll take each of these in turn, and talk about the practicalities of how to turn to God's truth in faith, and from our idols and sinful desires in repentance.

For reflection:
1.When you sin, do you ever think “I can’t help it”, “It’s not fair”, “If only …”, “Anyone would …”? Can you think of subtle ways you make others feel guilty for your behaviour? Who or what are you blaming?

2.Think of a particular struggle. What's happening in your heart? What lies are you believing? What idols are you worshipping?

If you'd like to see or use my seminar How Change Happens, which is based on Tim Chester's You Can Change, please contact me.

quotes are from chapter 4 of Tim Chester's You Can Change, emphases mine

images are by Olivier GR, tlonista, and Jiri Sebek at flickr

Saturday, August 22, 2009

God's cure for weariness

Weary (adj.) Physically or mentally fatigued. Having one's interest, forbearance, or indulgence worn out. Extremely tired: bleary, dead, drained, exhausted, fatigued, rundown, spent, tired out, wearied, weariful, worn-down, worn-out.
It was a weariful week. It came right at the end of three months of draining ministry. I’d been looking forward to this week for months. I'd been telling myself that I just had to make it through the next month / week / day and then I could rest.

As I spoke the final words of my final seminar, I could feel the burden lifting. Yes! Time for relaxation! But it seems God had other ideas. My week of rest turned out to be a week of sickness, exhaustion and discouragement.

Do you ever think like that? “Just this month, and then I’ll rest.” “It’s been a hard year, but I’ll be okay after our holiday.” “If I can just make it through the day, I’ll put my feet up.” If you do, you’ll know that things don’t always turn out the way you expect. Sickness intervenes. Holidays disappoint. People interrupt.

At the end of my weariful week I stole some time from child-rearing to spend alone with God in his word. I looked up the word weary and chased it through the cross-reference trails of my Bible. Here's some of the treasures I uncovered ...

... you can read the rest at Sola Panel.

Friday, August 21, 2009

first piano lesson

I gave Thomas his first piano lesson the other day. Have you ever seen anyone looking so proud?
But for Thomas, it's really only a stepping stone to this:

I keep trying to convince him that bass guitar is cooler than drums, but I'm losing the argument.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

a question of childcare (1) attitudes

Never ask a question if you're not willing to be laid bare by the answer.

What started as an academic question for me - "Should SAHMs with young children use childcare so they can have a day off?" - has challenged me in unexpected ways.

It's driven me back to questions of first importance: how should we address questions of freedom? What's the meaning of motherhood? It's made me think about the broader issue of childcare. It's forced me to take a close look at my own life and priorities. Thank you so much for your comments, which have helped to sharpen and clarify my thinking.

I don't think I can tackle the issue of childcare in one short post. I'll cover it in a number of posts:
1. attitudes - how do we decide issues of freedom? What is God calling us to as mothers?
2. observations - what implications does this view of motherhood have for childcare?
3. research - what do studies show about childcare?
3. practicalities - what are some of the specifics we need to take into account as we make decisions about childcare?
4. examples - stories of friends of mine who have used or not used childcare with love and wisdom

Let's start with first principles.

motherhoood and the gospel
Have you ever noticed how many books on womanhood and parenting are dominated by rules, programs and "how to's"? We're left with a view of motherhood shaped more by rules than by the gospel, leaving us proud or guilt-ridden. But the gospel does two things:

  • it frees us from the condemnation and rule of the law to live in the freedom of God's grace
  • it shows us the shape that this freedom takes: the shape of Jesus' sacrificial love
Jesus gave up everything - glory, honour, happiness - to become human and die an ugly death under the anger of his dear Father for our sake. God calls us to be like his Son: to lay down our selfish ambitions to pour ourselves out in sacrificial love (Phil 2:1-11). Every mother knows that motherhood demands great sacrifice. It's a sacrifice we make not only because we love our children, but because our hearts have been captured by the gospel. The shape of motherhood is the shape of the cross.

free ...
As many of us have observed, there are no rules in the Bible about childcare. This shouldn't surprise us: as Christians, we're under grace, not law (Rom 6:14). When Jesus died, he set us free from law (Rom 8:2). God doesn't give us a set of rules and tell us to live by them. It's incredibly easy as parents to stand over one another in proud judgement on matters of freedom.

... to love
But this doesn't mean we're free to live however we like. God has written a new law on our hearts by his Spirit: the law of love (Jer 31:33, Rom 13:8-10). "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Gal 5:13 - see this talk HT Simone). The shape of freedom is the shape of love. When making decisions as mothers, the question is not "What can I get away with?" but "How can I best fulfil my responsibility to love those God has given me to love - my husband and children?".

the shape of mother-love
Love isn't some general, vague concept for mothers. Mother-love takes its shape from God, the life-giver, the God of compassion and comfort (Gen 3:20, Is 49:15, 66:13, 2 Cor 1:3 - see this talk). God gives mums and dads the awesome responsibility of loving, disciplining, teaching and training their children (Deut 6:5-9, 2 Tim 1:5; 3:15, Tit 2:3-5). Men fulfil this role primarily as they lead, love and provide for their families; women as they help their husbands and bear and nurture their children (Gen 1-3, Eph 5:22-33). God reminds mothers, tempted in the first century, as we are now, to escape the small world of raising children for publicly recognised work and ministry, that Jesus died to save us as we work within this role, not as we escape it (1 Tim 2:15). He describes the shape of mother-love: loving our husbands and children, being self-controlled and pure, and being busy at home and rich in good deeds (Tit 2:3-5, 1 Tim 5:9-15).

the high calling of motherhood
It's so easy to lose sight of the privilege of motherhood when we're changing a nappy, settling a quarrel, or waking to another long day at home with kids. I found Sharon James' chapter "Only a Mum?" in God's Design for Women a helpful reminder of what motherhood is all about: helping my children to love and serve Jesus and to introduce others to him. This eternal perspective gives meaning to the mundane tasks of motherhood. The world tells us that motherhood is demeaning and unimportant ("Is that all you do? Do you work?"). God tells a different story: that motherhood is of infinite value in his eyes.

wisdom and motherhood
While it's right to talk about the "high calling" and "sacrifice" of motherhood, we mustn't forget that we're creatures, not the Creator. God made us to need sleep, rest and exercise. This includes mums! If we saw someone working 24/7 without rest, we'd rightly be concerned. But we often have this expectation of the ideal SAHM. It doesn't help that mums in our society are often shut away from adult company and the support of extended family. Some women thrive in this context, but others struggle. It's important to be aware of what helps us stay emotionally and physically healthy as we serve our families (exercise? mental stimulation? adult company?), and to try to work out ways to make these things happen - but only to the benefit, not harm, of our children.

evaluating our decisions
The question isn't really "Is childcare evil?" or "How many days a week should Christians use childcare?" This is a bit like asking "How far can I go?" when talking about sex before marriage!** The real question is much bigger, and it confronts every married woman with children: "Am I fulfilling the high calling that God has given me - to love and help my husband and, with him, to love, teach and train our children as we raise them up in Christ?" The details of our decisions will vary according to our individual circumstances, and some of us may well need to use childcare, but all of us who are mothers need to examine our choices in the light of this priority. God has entrusted our children to our care: how will we respond?

love, not judgement
I hope that if you see me getting off-track in my priorities as a wife and mother, whether it's an issue of sin or wisdom, that you'll love me enough to speak gently to me about the choices I've made. In the same way, one of the ways I will show my love to you is to do that for you. This isn't a matter of me sitting in proud judgement over you, or you over me: surely we both know that we make mistakes in mothering every day! God gives us one another so that we can teach, admonish and encourage each other, without quarreling or back-biting (Col 3:16, Eph 4:15, Heb 3:12-13, Gal 6:1-2, Jam 5:16, 2 Cor 12:20). One of the ways we can do this is to speak the truth in love to one another, even in this public forum, as we talk about how the gospel shapes the decisions we make as mothers.

There are all kinds of ways we can neglect the high calling of motherhood. For me, it's by piling (good) ministry on (good) ministry until the far more significant ministry of loving, teaching and training my children is downgraded or squeezed out. My sister in Christ may tick all the SAHM boxes, but ignore her children's needs as she chats with friends on the phone or cleans the house a dozen times a day. Another friend may give her children over to the care of others, not because she's in real need, but so that she can pursue her career or because her husband has his interests and she has a right to hers as well. We all need to rethink our priorities in the light of this question:

How can I, in the situation God has put me in, best fulfil my responsibility to love, discipline, teach and train my children?

Next time I'd like to talk about the implications of the theology of motherhood we've talked about today for the decisions we make about childcare.

* I've covered a lot of theology in an extremely small space here! If you want to chase up the issues, I suggest you start with Sharon James' wonderful and very readable book God's Design for Women then move on to John Piper's (ed.) Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
** Yes, I know the parallel is not exact - sex before marriage is wrong, although the stages towards it may not be; childcare is not wrong, although it can be misused. But in both cases there's no exact line - "This far and no further" - but only the higher goal of protecting and loving the other person.

first two images and images of sign and mug are from stock.xchng, other images are from WolfSoul, hugrakka, and Lucy Suzy at flickr

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ed Welch on legalism (2)

Ed Welch is talking about guilt. He's talking about a "resistant strand of guilt" - the kind of guilt which can plunge you into anxiety and depression. "No matter how much you offer the wonderful forgiveness of sins, the person still feels guilty. It's like this virus that there's no treatment for. ... We call it legalism."

He tells a story about some of the different varieties of legalism. I found myself in several groups, but especially in group 3, at which point I have to admit I started crying with relief that I wasn't alone. Have a read: you'll find yourself there somewhere, I guarantee it!
Let me tell you a story of legalism …

Consider yourself in a wonderful banquet-hall. There is fellowship, there is celebration, there is joy. Jesus Christ is the centre. … You’ve known something about this banquet hall. ...

But here’s this peculiarity. On this side of Christ returning, sometimes, while we’re in the banquet hall, these old memories kick in. There’s a sense of nostalgia. And so we drift away … and end up moving towards the back door. … So we wander out … We find another place. ...

One time I was taken to a bar. ... In Texas there’s no such thing as a tiny corner bar. … We went to this place, and it was basically an entire city block called Billy Bob’s. … It’s just immense. It’s smoky in some place, people are drinking in some places, people are playing pool in some places, people are going to a concert in the back room. We have come into Billy Bob’s.

And you see all these people drifting around. ... You’re a little disoriented initially. Where do I go? Who do I fit with? ... You’re looking for ... some group ... where you can feel comfortable. So you’re wandering around, and there is this group over here.

1. scrupulous legalists
They’re all dressed very well, they’re clean as can be, they’re perfectly well-groomed, and immediately I don’t think I’m going to fit in with them. … This is the group that would be scrupulous, ...the ascetics, ... the ones that are very, very careful with laws, ... the anorectics, ... the obsessive compulsives ..., concerned about fine points and details, crossing t’s, dotting i’s. ... Their entire life is, have they done the right thing? Every five minutes, there’s something judging their life. ... So I see that particular group, and I recognise very quickly that I don’t belong there. Even though some of you do. But it’s not my place. So I look around some more.

2. successful legalists
I find another group. Their appearance is somewhat similar, but their ethos is different. ... There don’t seem to be as many laws. They seem a bit more casual. They are the successful legalists. This is the group that have made it. They have the right amount of money. They come from the right family. They go to the right church. Their kids have gone to the right schools. They have the right intelligence. … This is the group that has successfully measured up to the law, whatever the law might be. ... I personally don’t tend to feel as though I have measured up. So I stop and listen to this particular group, but I move on.

Now in actuality, I do fit in that group, because the vast majority of times that I have frustration or anger in my life, it’s because I’ve measured up, and that person hasn’t. But I’m not recollecting all those things at this particular moment. So I move on some other groups.

3. striving legalists
Here’s one that’s a little bit more familiar. Call them people who are striving. They’re trying to make it. They don’t quite feel okay, but they want to be okay. The over-achievers, the productive people. They keep working and working, but it’s like that myth where you’re pushing the boulder up the mountain, and just when you think the boulder is almost up there, it comes screaming down on you, and you have to start all over again. That’s the experience of this particular group. ...

My father lived in this group his entire life. My father was a wonderful example of a person who followed Christ. But my father never, ever felt like he did enough. Ever. Depresssion and anxiety were constant companions. He wouldn’t evangelise enough. He wouldn’t save enough people. That was his constant prayer in the home, which is admirable; but the ethos of his life, the feel of his life, was not a feel of joy. The feel of his life was a feel of never being able to measure up to the standards that God had for him, always saying “Lord, next year I’m going to be doing better.” ...

That's a place that I fit into fairly well. There’s not a whole lot of joy there. There is no joy there – just like low-level, low-grade depression all the time. It’s not like you feel like you’re going to die; it’s just like you feel sort of a little bit miserable all the time.

Are you finding any places where you can hang out yet?

We’re assuming that we are legalists. The Scripture is speaking to a universal dimension of the human heart. When we look around the world, we find that every single religion is legalistic. So we are anticipating that we are going to find it as well. We’re also anticipating that we are going to find ourselves in multiple groups. ...

Let me give you a few others if you haven’t found your place of comfort yet.

4. deal making legalists
If you do this, then I’ll do this. ... In other words, “Lord, I will pray extra long this time, if you ...” “I am too bad to be a Christian. I am too bad to be able to go before God. What I have to do, is I have to be able to clean up my life first, and then, I will be able to go before God.” ... It’s deal-making with God. It’s penance. ... Every single religion has its form of penance. I will do this to hurt myself to pay God back for my sin, and then God will somehow be appeased. I fit there.

Some other groups if you haven’t found yourself yet.

5. unsuccessful legalists
They’re not even trying anymore. They know they won’t make it. “I’ve done something too bad and I can never be forgiven.” ... “I just can’t believe that God can forgive me.” … Doesn’t that sound religious? ...

Can you hear the apostle Paul ... starting to seethe? Can you hear him call you names ... ? Can you hear him say, “How dare you minimise the glory of God? How dare you think that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is just like a bull with a blemish on it? How dare you think such a thing? How dare you?” ...

I’m sure I’ve said it in my own life before: “How could God forgive me for this?” It sounds very religious. It sounds very pious. It sounds very contrite. And it might be on some level. But it is also speaking against the sufficiency of what Christ has done on the cross. It’s saying that there is something beyond the pale of forgiveness. And that is an abomination. …

“I believe God forgives me, but I just can’t forgive myself.” It sounds very pious, but do you see the arrogance in that? Can you see that my judgement ... is higher than the judge of the land? God’s judgement is good, but I haven’t satisfied the highest level of judgement, my own ... and I just can’t forgive myself. You will hear those things in the church all the time. …

6. demanding, angry, accusing legalists
They take the law, and they massage it and shape it and twist it until they have kept the law. … All of a sudden I’m authorised to stand in judgement of the rest of you. That’s what Pharisees do. You just keep shaping the law until finally you’re in and other people are out. … “How dare that person treat me that way? This is what they deserve!” Demanding, angry legalists. …

7. nice legalists.
If that doesn’t get you – and by the way, if you’re really good at this, you see yourself in every one of the groups – if that doesn’t get you, this one definitely will. The nice legalists. The people who can’t say “no”. They’re people you love to have in your church, because whatever you ask them to do, they’ll do it. The people who are overworked. They people who are burnt out. The people who are just plain nice!

What’s the law? The law is “I want you to like me. I want you to think that I’m spiritually okay. ... I want to look as good as possible to you ... ” So what’s the law? What’s the thing that you have to measure up to? Your standards. What you determine is nice and not nice. ...

Have you found yourself within these groups yet?

Here’s what happens. If we have been in the banquet of the king, … we will never last long in this Billy Bob Bar. At some point, the King will come and get us. At some point the King will come. You know how some bars are, they’re dark and a little bit dingy, and everybody looks good when it’s dark and dingy. At some point the lights go on, and all of a sudden you find that you’re in this sort of ugly place, and you’re looking pretty ugly yourself. That’s what happens. ...

It’s familiar, granted. And so there’s something comfortable about it. But is this where you feel like you’re home? We have a God, we have a Spirit who pursues us, who turns the light on when we have been living in darkness, and who calls us back to himself. And that’s called repentance.

Repentance is leaving Billie Bob’s, and moving back into the banquet hall.

Which group(s) do you belong to?

from talk 11 of Ed Welch's Issues in Biblical Counselling; emphases and headings added

images are from Wolfgang Staudt, Keeli Rhiannon, Round America, Backwater Blues Band, Stephen Witherden, evrimsen, Stephen Witherden (again) and Xerones at flickr

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tim Chester on how we change

We become Christians by faith in Jesus, we stay Christians by faith in Jesus, and we grow as Christians by faith in Jesus ...

Grace wins our hearts ...

[W]e need a kind of re-conversion every day. ... Each day we turn afresh in faith and repentance towards God. We rediscover our first love all over again so that we're not tempted into spiritual adultery. 'The key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel'.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens would sing enchanting songs, drawing sailors irresistibly towards the rocks and certain shipwreck. Odysseus filled his crew's ears with wax and had them tie him to the mast. This is like the approach of legalism. We bind ourselves up with laws and disciplines in a vain attempt to resist temptation. Orpheus, on the other hand, played such beautiful music on his harp that his sailors ignored the seductions of the Siren song. This is the way of faith. The grace of the gospel sings a far more glorious song that the enticements of sin, if only we have faith to hear its music.
Tim Chester You Can Change 49, 56, 64-65

image is by noe_carrillo at flickr