What is Attachment Theory and Why Do I Care?

man in gray shirt holding baby in white onesie
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The standing joke when children act out is that ‘it’s always the mother’s fault’, right? Furthermore, often mothers inwardly feel guilt or shame if emotional or mental health problems develop in their child. I wonder why? Children have 2 biological parents.

Unthinking confidence in the unfailing accessibility and support of attachment figures is the bedrock on which stable and self-reliant personality is built.

John Bowlby
in: Attachments, Why You Love, Feel and Act the way you do by Dr. Tim Clinton & Dr. Gary Sibcy

We can probably first thank American psychologist Harry Harlow, (1905-1981). Between 1957-1963, Harlow did a series of controversial experiments on rhesus monkeys. He discovered the negative effects of separating mothers and baby monkeys. In addition, he experimented with isolating them completely. The effects were sometimes catastrophic.

When John Bowlby, a British psychologist, began his study of attachment behaviors in the 1940’s, he focused on mothers in the first weeks and months after giving birth. Attachment is an emotional bond formed with another person. Bowlby believed that a child’s earliest attachment bonds were formed with their caregivers. He also thought those bonds have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life.

mother playing with child near the dog
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Attachment Behaviors

Bowlby was intrigued by the separation anxiety and distress that children experience when separated from their primary caregivers. He described attachment behavior as any behavior that results in getting mother and child physically closer, (Attachments, Clinton & Sibcy.) We have likely all heard or seen infants scream, cry, or even crawl to get closer to their mother or father. However, even children 6-10 years old like to know their caregivers are within earshot.

In addition, Bowlby made three key propositions about attachment theory.

  • First, he suggested that when children are raised with confidence that their primary caregiver will be available to them, they are less likely to experience fear than those who are raised without such conviction.
  • Secondly, he believed that this confidence is forged during a critical period of development, during the years of infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The expectations that are formed during that period tend to remain relatively unchanged for the rest of the person’s life.
  • Finally, he suggested that these expectations that are formed are directly tied to experience. In other words, children develop expectations that their caregivers will be responsive to their needs because, in their experience, their caregivers have been responsive in the past.

In the 1970’s, Mary Ainsworth added to Bowlby’s work with her own research. Ainsworth and her researchers conducted the Strange Situation with 12-18 month old children. I invite you to read about that here.

man carrying a baby
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Types of Attachment

For a very pared down description of attachment styles, I am quoting a Psychology Today article. However, if interested in more detail, the articles cited above provide that.

  • Children with a secure attachment may be distressed upon separation (from caregivers) but warmly welcome the caregiver back through eye contact and hug-seeking.
  • Anxious-resistant attachment describes a child who is frightened by separation and continues to display anxious behavior once the caregiver returns.
  • Avoidant attachment denotes a child who reacts fairly calmly to a parent’s separation and does not embrace upon their return.
  • Disorganized attachment is manifest in odd or ambivalent behavior toward a caregiver upon return—approaching then turning away from or even hitting the caregiver—and may be the result of childhood trauma.

Most children tend to display secure attachment behavior in research studies. While there is evidence that parenting can influence attachment security, it’s also clear that other factors—including genetics—play a formative role. As a result, in recent years, there has been some pushback by theorists to attachment theory.

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Attachment and Relationships

Interestingly, according to the American Psychological Association, our adult romantic partners can trigger our attachment system. You might wonder how that happens. Therapist and writer, Dr. Marni Feuerman, suggests when struggling with relationships, ask the following questions regarding your primary caregivers.

  • Were they neglectful, always there for you, or inconsistent?
  • Who did you go to when you had a problem?
  • Was there someone there you could really count on?

The first step is to learn which attachment style you are. You will likely be triggered often if you and your partner both have an insecure attachment style! Unfortunately, even if only one of you has an insecure attachment style, you will probably have relationship problems.

Bowlby believed attachment styles developed in early childhood remained with us our entire lives. Thankfully, however, neuroscience has taught us that we can change our brains. It is not an easy task, but it is doable. For example, a 2018 study shows that cognitive behavioral therapy may lead to significant changes. There is hope for all of us.

milky way galaxy during nighttime
Photo by Hristo Fidanov

One Reliable Secure Attachment

The scary thing is that it is very common for good and loving parents who do the best they can to unwittingly foster emotional insecurity in their children.

Bill Gaultiere

There are many families, many of whom are friends, who are ever-wondering where they failed their child. With heavy hearts they ask, how could our one child not feel secure in their love? Or God’s love, which they attempted to share.

I have discovered that there is only one eternally secure attachment, even with a family history like mine. Human love is fallible. Too often, our love can be selfish or have selfish motives. However, the love of the Father is none of those things.

Throughout Scripture, God’s love is evident. In addition, He promised never to leave, abandon or forsake us. These passages have been a deep comfort for me, as one who has struggled with abandonment issues for a lifetime.

One example is in Deuteronomy.

And the Lord, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.”

Deuteronomy 31:8

There are numerous promises, my friends. See Psalms 73:23-26; 94:14; Joshua 1:5, 9.

Don’t think the New Testament is silent on the the matter. Check out Matthew 28:20 and Hebrews 13:5-6 for a couple of references.

One name for God is Jehovah Shammah. The name occurs only once, in Ezekial 48:35. Jehovah-Shammah is translated The Lord is There. He will never leave you or forsake you. He is there, wherever you are.

Hold onto that, brothers and sisters. Be at peace.

Attachment Tests

Enjoy!

Growing a Gratefulness Muscle – Grace Upon Grace

Photo by Dodie Smith

In the midst of this season when we are reminded to Give Thanks, I wonder if some of us are out of practice. As we wrap up the beauty of autumn and set our faces toward winter, it may be asking too much for some of us to be grateful after a year like 2021. Our ability to strengthen our gratefulness muscle has missed too many opportunities.

Like 2020, this year has been difficult for many. Wave after wave of mandates, lost jobs, inflation, and Covid-19 illness or deaths has burdened every family in one way or another. Add to that the families that represent the depression, abuse and addiction numbers, which have skyrocketed since the pandemic began…people are feeling very discouraged.

I wonder though, can we truly not find anything for which to be grateful?

woman walking in the forest
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Gratitude and Your Health

The Bible has had a great deal to say about being thankful for a very long time. However, in recent years, science discovered what God has known since time began. Being grateful is beneficial to our minds and bodies. Gratitude protects us against depression, anxiety and stress, all of which endanger us for heart disease.

“Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress,” write Robert A. Emmons, Phd., and Michael E. McCullough, Phd., who have done research on the role gratitude plays in a person’s attitude and well-being. Emmons, who is described as “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude,” also writes on how gratitude can improve a person’s ability to cope with stress.

In addition, Emmons said that numerous studies have revealed that people who have a grateful attitude recover more quickly from incidents of serious trauma, suffering or adversity. In 2015, Dr Emmons reported:

It [gratitude] can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide,” he said.

https://www.ocregister.com/2020/03/20/here-are-5-ways-gratitude-is-good-for-your-heart-mind-and-soul/
unhappy ethnic woman puffing cheeks with hands
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The Battle Between Gratefulness & Negativity

You know people who always see the proverbial glass half-empty. They drive you mad if you are a glass half-full person.

True confessions: I can be that half-empty person.

Usually, we’re formed at an early age by a hyper-critical parent or other caregiver. Or, we had a fairly dysfunctional home and we were always waiting for the other shoe to fall. It often did. Therefore, in order to protect ourselves emotionally, we unconsciously trained ourselves to prepare for the worst.

If it didn’t happen – great! Nice surprise! If it did happen…well, it’s what we expected.

However, we do not have to remain in that negative, critical state for our entire lives. It IS possible to change, albeit it takes Jesus and a lot of purposeful work, often with a therapist. By His grace, God created these wonderful brains that can be retrained and rewired.

What a glorious gift.

Photo by Emily Jones

Building Your Gratefulness Muscle

Ten years ago, Christian author and speaker, Ann Voskamp, wrote a book by called One Thousand Gifts. In it, she frankly shared her struggle with depression. There were seasons of not wanting to live, despite being a young mother of several children. One night, Voskamp had a strikingly realistic dream about receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis.

It shook her deeply. By God’s grace, she gradually began to realize that each day held many things for which to be thankful.

I think of…all the mysteries I have refused, refused, to let nourish me…I wonder too…if the losses that puncture our world, our own emptiness, might actually become places to see. To see God…But how? How do we choose to allow the holes to become seeing-through-to-God places? To more-God places? How do I give up resentment for gratitude, gnawing anger for spilling joy? Self-focus for God-communion. To fully live, to live full of grace and joy and all that is beauty eternal. It is possible, wildly [possible].

Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, 10th Anniversary Edition

Ann began a notebook to write down 1,000 things she was grateful for. And it changed her life.

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Materialism – the Enemy of Gratefulness

Primarily Western cultures are seduced by materialism or never enough mentality. We have a constant barrage of temptations splashing across our screens telling us you want this or you need that. Billboards on the highway, commercials at the theater or on television all conspire to urge us to desire more.

In fact, the seed to acquire more begins at a young age. Children are targeted during their cartoons and children’s shows. Toy ads are sent out six to eight weeks before Christmas to remind them of what they DON’T have. Sadly, we are soaked in the seduction of wanting from cradle to grave.

As a result, giving genuine thanks requires a paradigm shift in attitude for most of us. Otherwise, our thanksgiving tends to become lip service.

These people [a]draw near to Me with their mouth,
And honor Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.

Matthew 15:8, NKJV
woman in red long sleeve shirt holding lighted cigarette stick
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Giving Genuine Thanks, Creating Muscle Memory

In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

I Thessalonians 5:18, NKJV

These words, as written on a page, appear so simple. However, everything involves not only the beauty and joys of life. When one is living in the midst of piercing heartbreak, suffered immensely from abuse or trauma, or received a terminal diagnosis, giving thanks isn’t the initial response…or perhaps any part of a response you have.

And yet…it is God’s will in Christ Jesus for us. Why? Because our Father is worthy of our gratitude. Furthermore, He knows gratefulness is good for the soul and body.

The next verse says, Do not quench the Spirit.

Like Ann Voskamp, I tremble when I consider the numerous times I have quenched God’s Spirit and missed opportunities for Him to work through painful circumstances. By refusing to trust God’s goodness and faithfulness, I/we miss His divine work in the moment of our greatest need.

But God, rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4,) has compassion on us. He forgives and restores us.

Have mercy upon me, O God,

According to Your lovingkindness;

According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,

Blot out my transgressions.

Psalm 51:1, NKJV

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion,

Slow to anger and great in mercy.

The Lord is good to all,

And His tender mercies are over all His works.

Psalm 145:8-9, NKJV
orange trees
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And Finally – Give Thanks

Dear sisters, I hope you have seen that it is good for us to be grateful people. Throughout the Bible, God has commanded us to be so, not because He is like earthly, egotistic emperors or dictators. He IS worthy of our praise and thanksgiving. It is His will for us to give thanks to Him.

Moreover, out of His abundant wisdom, our Father knows that a thankful person is a healthier, more joyful person, too.

Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!

For His mercy endures forever.

Psalm 136:1, NKJV

Happy Thanks-Giving Season…and Happy giving thanks for the rest of our lives.

Falling Back – Is It SAD?

video by German Korb

The Growing Darkness

photo by Anna Jones

Like some of you, there were many years when I could not enjoy the entirety of autumn due to my dread of winter. By Thanksgiving, I often felt the weight of depression descending upon me. With the shorter days came darker moods and darker thoughts. 

At that time, during the holidays, there was usually turmoil surrounding my extended family, (Can I hear an Amen?) Therefore, my inner dread increased as the season approached. It was difficult to navigate the joy with my children – playing in the leaves, their activities surrounding Thanksgiving and our own faith traditions at Christmas – with the growing darkness I felt inside.

I’m confident many of you can relate.

photo by Natalie Jones

One year the darkness became unbearable. I contemplated suicide. My husband insisted that it was time to seek help.

That’s when I learned about SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is depression that is more than the winter blues. It usually starts in the fall, worsens in winter, and gets better in spring…every year. Depending on where you live, it’s normal for us to feel emotionally less motivated in winter months due to the cold. Being restricted from outside activities doesn’t help.

But SAD is more than that. SAD is a form of depression. And depression needs clinical treatment to help us through the difficulties of this season in life.

photo by Natalie Jones

What is SAD?

Researchers tell us that approximately 5% of the adult population experiences SAD. Unfortunately, ladies, of that 5%, 75% are women, although scientists don’t know why. It usually begins in young adulthood and increases with age.

SAD can also be hereditary. It is more common in people who have relatives who had other mental illnesses such as major depression. However, keep in mind, those who seek treatment usually see improvement within weeks. There is no need to continue suffering all winter, every winter.

photo by Natalie Jones

Both serotonin and melatonin help maintain the body’s daily rhythm that is tied to the seasonal night-day cycle. In people with SAD, the changes in serotonin and melatonin levels disrupt the normal daily rhythms. As a result, they can no longer adjust to the seasonal changes in day length, leading to sleep, mood, and behavior changes.

National Institute of Mental Health

Furthermore, a third strike against people with SAD is that their bodies don’t make enough Vitamin D, which is believed to promote serotonin activity.

How Do You Know You Have It?

person walking in autumn forest beside lake
Photo by Alexandra Vasina

SAD is a type of depression; therefore, the symptoms are the same as those of major depression, plus a few added on. Let’s look at the following:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Carbohydrate cravings and weight gain
  • Extreme fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Limbs feeling heavy
  • Loss of interest in usual activities, including withdrawing from social activities
  • Sleeping more
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

People who have winter SAD may experience:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

If you are experiencing four or more of these symptoms, and have been every day for 2 weeks or more, please tell someone who loves you. Then, I urge you to seek professional help.

It doesn’t mean you are weak. It simply means your brain works in a different way for reasons no one completely understands. However, no one is destined to misery. Help is always available.

If you feel suicidal, please call 1- 800-273-8255. Someone will answer 24 hours a day.

Treatments For SAD

photo by Natalie Jones

Not surprisingly, light therapy has been the main treatment for SAD since the 1980’s. The idea, of course, is to replace the missing natural daylight with an artificial light. The person sits in front of a light box, which is 200x brighter than normal indoor lighting, for 30 to 45 minutes each morning during the shorter, darker days of fall and winter. Consequently, researchers believe it is effective in changing the brain chemistry in SAD sufferers.

A second treatment approach is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In a nutshell, this type of therapy teaches people how to replace negative thoughts with more positive or realistic ones. Moreover, there are now CBT-SAD therapy groups that assist people with SAD to change their thinking toward winter and the perceived hardships they equate with the season.

Furthermore, I read the Psalms daily. They were a different brand of CBT.

A Place of Refuge

cup of tea in autumn arrangement
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Shelter or protection from danger, trouble, etc.: to take refuge from a storm. a place of shelter, protection, or safety. anything to which one has recourse for aid, relief, or escape.

Dictionary.com

Throughout the years, as I battled with depression – primarily SAD, God was a refuge for me. Initially, it was difficult to understand what was happening to me. Therefore, it was equally challenging to attempt to explain to anyone else what I was feeling.

But I could talk to God. Psalms were my songs in the night. I journaled what was in my heart and God met me there. He comforted me when no one else could.

God is our refuge and strength,

A[a] very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear,

Even though the earth be removed,

And though the mountains be carried into the [b]midst of the sea;

Though its waters roar and be troubled,

Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah

Psalm 46:1-3

In Psalm 27, the Lord promises to hide us in the time of trouble. He will hide us in the secret place of His tabernacle. How wise of our Lord – to know the depressed mind and our longing to isolate and hide. He invites us to hide in Him and find rest for our souls.

Proverbs 18:10 echoes the same assurance to us: The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run to it and are safe. That word picture is powerful to me; I pray it is for you, too.

Finally, sisters, I could take you to Isaiah 25:4, or Psalms 31:20, 71:3 or 91:1-2. However, the entire Bible bears out the faithfulness of God to us. He is our refuge in times of trouble. Any of us who have faced SAD or depression at all know the challenges it presents. We need a faithful refuge while we heal. God is our loving refuge who provides our ultimate healing.

Trust Him. He didn’t fail me. He won’t fail you.

In case you didn’t know:

As a former mental health professional, I offer online mental health coaching with the assistance of Zoom. If you would like to contact me for this purpose, I have included that capability with this blog post. There is a modest fee.

Thank you.

womenjourney2gether@gmail.com

http://www.squareup/appointments/calendar/

for an appointment

Despair is Not The Last Word

Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.

Elie Weisel, Holocaust survivor

photo by Lara Pelipoer-

What is Despair?

It isn’t often that you hear someone say, “I am in despair!” A friend is more likely to admit depression than despair. Depression is a very real condition and clinical depression can be debilitating. Despair, however, is different than depression.

One of the main differences is that, while people with depression often have difficulty being motivated to take part in daily activities, those in despair can usually go about day to day tasks. Outwardly, in fact, they function normally, but inwardly they have lost all hope that their life will ever improve. In addition, they have no joy, no passion and usually anxiety and desperation accompany them daily.

According to the American Psychological Association, despair is one of the most negative and destructive of human affects, due to the lack of hopefulness. Furthermore, clinical despair leads to depression.

Clinical despair can be conceptualized as a profound and existential hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness and pessimism about life and the future. Despair is a deep discouragement and loss of faith about one’s ability to find meaning, fulfillment, and happiness, to create a satisfactory future for oneself.

Memory and Despair

Many of us have painful, even traumatic memories from our past. Some may have taken place in the not-so-distant past and the pain is still fresh. Moreover, current situations or events may ignite triggers for you, taking you immediately back there, emotionally or even physically. Unfortunately, if this occurs repeatedly, it may all serve to create a sense of despair in your heart.

Famed psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, published Man’s Search for Meaning, two years after after being freed from Auschwitz. He had begun the book before his arrest, but the Nazis had destroyed the manuscript. Frankl based his school of therapy, (called Logotherapy,) on the idea that man could survive most anything if he had meaning in his life. After observing other prisoners in the camps, he saw that his theory was true.

The prisoners who had meaning, and something to live for, fared better even in the horrific conditions of the concentration camps.

At times, we find ourselves in situations, whether emotionally, mentally or physically, when we begin to believe that things will never change for us. The pain will always be quaking through your body. The fog of depression will never lift. Your abusive husband will forever hurt you.

Our thoughts become black and white, either/or, never/always.

And for what reason does this suffering continue? This is the point when hopelessness seeps in. Despair follows closely behind.

But…despair doesn’t have to be the last word.

photo by Kammeran Gonzalezkeola

Practical Steps for Despair

There are several ways to deal with despair, ways we can help ourselves. First, as Sean Grover, LCSW said in an article for Psychology Today, take your despair for a walk each day. The fresh air and vitamin D will not only be good for you, but studies have proven that being outside is beneficial for our mental health.

Secondly, don’t isolate, despite the temptation to do so. Isolation feeds despair. Seek out fellowship with a friend or two. Our burdens feel lighter when we are with a friend.

Third, give voice to your pain. I have found that painful things seem much bigger when I hold them inside. Very often, when I tell it to someone, or even write it out on paper, what caused the despair doesn’t feel so overwhelming.

Fourth, this aligns with three – don’t pretend it isn’t there. Denying or masquerading your despair delays your healing.  Be honest with yourself and your loved ones about what you are experiencing.

Fifth, avoid people who want to minimize your pain with super-syrupy or super-spiritual quips. For example: “Oh, you’re just having a bad day. You’ll be just fine!” A long time ago I knew a man who loved to tell people he was too blessed to be depressed. UGH. Those words successfully shut the door for anyone to ever share genuine pain with him.

photo by George Desipris

Disciples and Despair

If you look for folks in the Bible who dealt with despair, it might surprise you to discover that the apostle Paul was one of them. I continually appreciate his honesty about the perilous situations in which he found himself at times.

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our [a]trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, 

2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NKJV

Have you ever felt that way – burdened beyond measure? So overwhelmed with fear and care that you had no strength left? And you wondered if you would even live?…Paul and those with him did.

Furthermore, that was not the only time. There were numerous times Paul and the disciples were persecuted for their faith in Jesus, but they were not driven to despair.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

2 Corinthians 4:7-10, ESV

Paul serves as a great model for us today.

photo by George Desipris

Hope – The Cure for Despair

I believe Viktor Frankl was right about man searching for meaning and that meaning gives us purpose in life. I also believe finding that meaning helps us overcome hardships and trials in life. However, like Paul, I believe our only hope and purpose is given to us through Jesus Christ.

From the end of the earth I will cry to You,
When my heart is overwhelmed;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

Psalm 61:2. NKJV

David knew what it was to be overwhelmed by life’s circumstances. Many times he had to flee from enemies, once from his own son. He consistently placed his hope in God.

Psalm 27, especially verses 13-14, has been my companion through many years. These words offer me comfort and hope. Verses 13-14 describe exactly my feelings when I feel discouraged.

13 I would have lost heart, unless I had believed
That I would see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.

14 Wait on the Lord;
Be of good courage,
And He shall strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, on the Lord!

Be of good courage, my sisters. We have a hope much greater than despair.

13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13, NKJV

When Narcissism Comes to Church

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?

Jeremiah 17:9

photo by Rod Long

Beware of Narcissist Leaders In The Church

This is the last in my series on the narcissists among us. Sadly, we are looking at the last place on earth we expect to find the most self-centered, egotistic person we’ve ever encountered – the church. Ironically, the church is a place where there is thought to be safety, love, and redemption. However, if a narcissist is the pastor or in a leadership position, BEWARE.

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 23:1-4, ESV

In the Old Testament, there are numerous Scripture passages regarding bad shepherds. Shepherds were the men God placed in charge of leading and instructing His people in His ways. Furthermore, like a shepherd of sheep, they were responsible for protecting them from the influences of the enemy.

Unfortunately for Israel, many of the shepherds enjoyed the status of their position, but didn’t want the responsibility of the job.

Sound familiar?

New Testament Leaders

When Jesus arrived, He found the same situation…perhaps worse. The Pharisees, leaders of the Jews, adored themselves instead of God! Moreover, they preened in their beautiful robes, expected the respect of their office, and the best seats in the synagogue. Jesus was not impressed.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Matthew 23:27-28, ESV

42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”

photo by Matt Botsford

Why The Ministry?

Initially, we may think that the ministry is an odd place to find a narcissist. However, upon reflection, we can understand what draws them. A narcissist is drawn to professions that guarantee the abundant and uninterrupted provision of Narcissistic Supply.

He seeks to interact with people from a position of authority, advantage, or superiority. He thus elicits their automatic admiration, adulation, and affirmation – or, failing that, their fear and obedience.

Other than a CEO or stardom, what better place than the ministry?

 

Cluster B Personality Disorders

In 2004, in an undergraduate class on a seminary campus, a psychology professor told our class that studies revealed that the majority of pastors had narcissistic tendencies or had NPD. We were horrified and, honestly, had trouble believing him.

In 2020, Chuck DeGroat, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary published a book entitled, When Narcissism Comes to Church, (my borrowed title.) He revealed research in his book of hundreds of psychological assessments of seminary students .

What I’ve found is stunning: the vast majority of pastoral candidates show elevations in the category of Cluster B personality disorders. I call this the “narcissism family.” It’s a cluster of disorders that feature dramatic, attention-seeking behavior along with a heavily armored personality that protects them from anything that makes them feel vulnerable. The two disorders with the most elevated results are narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders, two close cousins in the narcissism family.

Alarming? Yes. However, DeGroat says narcissism is on a spectrum. Not everyone who has traits has the full-blown personality disorder. However, it is intriguing that the majority of pastors test in this cluster of personality disorders.

photo by Matthew Ball

How to Spot Narcissistic Pastor

DeGroat expanded on the work of Craig and Carolyn Willford, authors of How to Treat a Staff Infection, to enable us to identify a narcissist leader within our churches.

  • Centering all decision-making on themselves
  • Impatience or an inability to listen to others
  • Delegating without giving proper authority or with too many limits
  • Feelings of entitlement
  • Feeling threatened or intimidated by other talented staff
  • Needing to be the best and brightest in the room
  • Inconsistency and impulsiveness
  • Praising and withdrawing
  • Intimidating others
  • A faux or fake vulnerability

Generally, there is a public persona and a private one. The people behind the scenes and their families bear the brunt of their rage, impatience, or intimidation. Regardless, the congregation will experience it, as well, if he senses his position of power is threatened. In addition, a narcissist is capable of thinly veiled threats toward individuals or groups amidst a sermon if he believes they are somehow against him.

Believe me; my family experienced it.

photo by Gwendal Cottin

Leaving a Toxic Church

Let me acknowledge up front that it is extremely difficult to leave an unhealthy church. The task is especially painful when you and your family seem to be the only ones who recognize it. Unfortunately, the only path to healing is out the door. Sadly, the chances of making changes from within are close to zero.

Leaving a church is like leaving a family for those who have been invested.

Over the course of many years, many have given sacrificially of their money, time and energy towards its benefit. They may have altered life goals and career plans to help the church…They are not just casual church members. So when someone leaves a church they are invested  in, they experience a loss. Such a loss is multi-faceted and affects many areas of one’s life.

The time, energy, and income you put toward what you thought was God’s Kingdom you may now realize was your pastor’s agenda, instead. These thoughts can make you feel used…angry.

Don’t allow your anger to turn to bitterness. It isn’t worth another ounce of your soul or giving room to the enemy. Pray for a day when you can forgive.

Moreover, whenever we face a loss there will be grief. Whether you attended the church for two years or twenty, it’s likely you developed friendships which are now gone. You feel lonely and isolated. Your children have lost their friends, as well, and they are sad or angry.

photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Grieve As One Who Has Hope

Please allow yourself time to grieve. This is vital for your health and recovery. Any therapist or pastoral counselor will tell you, there are no time parameters on grief. Unfortunately, when our very souls have been violated it often takes a long time before we are not triggered by the events of the spiritual abuse. This, however, is no reason to bury our grief.

In fact, that only causes it to grow and reveal itself in other places. A list provided by Barnabas Ministries is a helpful reminder for those who have been in this confusing and dark place.

  • You are not “weird”- Many figures in the Scriptures experienced spiritual losses– David, Samuel and most of the prophets.
  • Cling to God- He has not left you and wants to show you he is still with you and loves you. (Psalm 73, Hebrews 13:5)
  • Cling to Trusted Relationships– It is important to have people who genuinely love you and whom you trust to be able to share your grief .
  • Acceptance
  • Retelling- This is a key trait of how one processes a loss of any kind. Your objective in retelling is to get an accurate picture, discern good from bad and to identify areas that are not yet settled emotionally.
  • Forgiveness – There will be a need at some point to forgive wrongs done to you and to recognize areas where you also have regrets or need to repent.
  • Reshaping and Growth- Your experience has changed you forever…you can learn other good things as a result of your experience. For example, you may become more sensitive to those who are excluded or might be hurt by some program in your new church.

Jeremiah 29:11, ESV, God hasn’t forgotten you.

Don’t lose heart. Psalm 27: 13-14.

 

 

The Pain of Narcissism, Part 2

Narcissists will destroy your life, erode your self-esteem, and do it with such stealth as to make you feel that you are the one that’s letting them down.

Anonymous

photo by Caleb Woods

Where Does It Begin?

People often wonder where narcissistic behavior began. Was someone born a narcissist or were they molded into one? There are several theories, but no definite cause that is agreed upon by researchers and professionals.

Dr. David Orrison, as mentioned in the last post, is one of many who espouse the idea that parents or caregivers have the greatest influence on creating a narcissist. When hyper-critical and negative words are often spoken into a child who is vulnerable, they require an inner response. For example, “You’re stupid”, You’re weak”, “You’re evil”, etc.). Some children receive those and agree. Some try to compensate; others deny those words. The children who are vulnerable for narcissism hide. The hiders feel the negative input but now try to over-compensate by:

  • Getting attention
  • Becoming popular
  • Being condescending
  • Distracting
  • Being impressive
  • Becoming increasingly controlling
  • Manipulating others

When parents lack warmth, they express little affection, appreciation, and positive affect toward their child, and they show little enjoyment of their child (). In such an upbringing, children might place themselves on a pedestal to try to obtain from others the approval they did not receive from their parents.

photo by Anete Lusina

On The Other Hand…

We’ve probably all known parents who thought their child was God’s gift to the world. Their child was the most talented athlete, the most intelligent in the school…you get it. It is possible these parents were raising a narcissist. When parents have excessive adoration for their child, which sober observation would find no occasion to do, they are creating an environment for narcissism to develop. Consequently, children might internalize the belief that they are special individuals who are entitled to privileges

Furthermore, genetics may play a role in the development of narcissism. However, researchers at the National Institute of Health stated that there is a only a moderate link between parental narcissism and the child becoming narcissistic.

 Parental narcissism…only weakly-to-moderately correlated [with developing narcissism.]. Additionally, even when controlling for parental narcissism, parental overvaluation still robustly and significantly predicted increased child narcissism over time. Thus, parental overvaluation contributes to the development of narcissism in children above and beyond parents’ own narcissism levels.

photo by Odonata Wellness Center

How Did We Get Here?

Relationships with narcissists are held in place by hope of a ‘someday better’ with little evidence to support it will ever arrive. ~Ramani Durvasula

Life is like a fairy tale when you first enter a relationship with a narcissist. They love bomb you, saying all the right things and showering you with gifts.  Once they have won you over, however, all the compliments and gifts come to a halt. Criticism and gaslighting take their place. In fact, it’s so confusing that you begin to question what happened to the person with whom you fell in love.

Most of us begin making excuses for the narcissist. It’s likely he has told us a sob story about his upbringing or another tragic life event. It’s equally likely that we are very empathic…which is why he was drawn to us in the first place. Regardless, a point is reached when we finally realize this person is never going to change…and we must leave the relationship.

photo by Liza Summer

Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome

Stop asking why they keep doing it and start asking why you keep allowing it. ~Charles J. Orlando

There are several signs of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome. The most common symptoms are:

  • confusion and self-doubt
  • guilt
  • fear
  • lowered self-esteem and confidence
  • conflicted feelings toward partner
  • trauma bonding
  • PTSD.

These symptoms indicate that it’s time to leave. However, before you do, you need to make some quiet preparations.

photo by Anete Lusina

Leaving a Narcissist

It’s also helpful to make sure that you get all your legal and financial documents in order. Make sure you have copies of any of the documents you need access to. Make sure you have the keys that you need to have. And, talking to an attorney and an accountant before you announce that you’re leaving may also be helpful.

Don’t try to have a conversation about leaving with your narcissist. It will only enrage him. Conversely, he may attempt to manipulate you into staying with him.

Narcissists are masters of manipulation.

If necessary, have someone with you when you are ready to leave. Keep it short and if possible, keep your emotions out of it.

phot by Alexandr Podvalny

Now That You’re Out

Accept that you cannot change narcissists – you can only change how you react to them and how much longer you choose to invest in them at the risk of your own sanity.

 

Set firm boundaries, including a no contact rule. You must adhere to this because he will constantly challenge it. Arrange for someone to be cc’d on emails or a third party to be with you if you must communicate by phone.

Prepare for retaliation. Some narcissists will retaliate out of hurt and rage. Proactively change all passwords and PIN numbers. Block them from your social media accounts. You’ve likely experienced his verbal and emotional abuse before so, prepare yourself mentally.

Pack away or discard reminders of the relationship. This will keep you from looking back and only remembering the “good old days.” Remember, it was all a sham.

Build a support system. Work on re-establishing the relationships that you were likely isolated from while you were with the narcissist. Those people likely still care about you and will want to help you, now.

If co-parenting, choose your battles carefully. This can be tricky as he will attempt to control every decision concerning the children. Give where you can give, but hold your boundary when it’s something that is important to you for your child. There will be decisions you will likely need to make together.

Seek professional therapy. Anyone who has been in relationship with a narcissist needs the help of a therapist who has experience working with narcissists. It’s very helpful to have someone walk with you as you heal.

photo by Brett Sayles

Christian Marriages

From a Christian context, marriage is an easy place for narcissists to do their nasty work. Spouses feel compelled to stay in the relationship in order to be spiritually acceptable.

Therefore: The intimacy brings intensely painful feelings of betrayal which the victim feels he/she deserves because of foolish choices and can’t escape because of the spiritual expectations of the marriage relationship. We can understand why Christians find the narcissistic marriage such a quandary.

And the Christian is left with no good option. Since the narcissist almost never changes, the spouse can either choose to stay in the painful relationship or leave it and suffer the consequences. Neither choice is desirable. Reconciliation, restoration, honest change: these normal relationship options do not seem to be available in the narcissistic relationship. Added to this is the fact that few churches are educated on narcissism or prepared to help victims.

Although many denominations continue to condemn women for divorcing their abusive, narcissistic husbands, a few are becoming educated concerning domestic abuse. Doctrinal statements concerning divorce should not supersede God’s overarching care throughout Scripture for the oppressed.

God Cares For The Oppressed

Time and space does not permit for me to relate the numerous stories where our Father stood for the cause of the oppressed. Please, never doubt – He deeply cares for the downtrodden and oppressed. Isaiah 10:1-3

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?

Our Father is a God of justice. His Word bears that out over and over again. When abusive husbands attempt to cut off their wives from homes, finances, their reputation, and friends, it reeks of oppression. God is never pleased with that…as the following Scriptures attest.

Psalm 9:9; 12:5; 103:6; 146:7-9;

Proverbs 22:22-23;

Zechariah 7:10;

Isaiah 49:26

Luke 11:42

Your narcissist may have abused you. Your church or friends may have forsaken you. However, our righteous, holy, loving God will never leave you or forsake you.

The Pain of Narcissism

The Narcissist Test

Step 1: Take a moment to think about yourself.

Step 2: If you made it to step 2, you are not a narcissist.

Anonymous

photo by William Fortunato

What is Narcissism?

The word narcissist seems to get thrown around often in the selfie-obsessed world in which we live. If someone is more self-absorbed than the average person, she is quickly labeled a narcissist. However, in the psychological world, the term narcissist doesn’t mean self-love. It’s more accurate to say that people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are in love with an idealized, grandiose image of themselves.

Narcissism is a mental health condition that is characterized by a egotistical sense of self-importance. He/she exaggerates achievements and talents. He expects to be recognized as superior – even when there is no evidence supporting it! (Diagnostic Manual and Statistical of Mental Health Disorders, 5th Edition)

People with this disorder have no empathy for others. In fact, they have no problem depersonalizing others, even their spouses, if it benefits them in some way. Moreover, narcissists are willing to use and abuse others to serve the image they have created for themselves. (Dr. David Orrison, pastor, author, Narcissism in the Church)

We are all aware that most teens display narcissistic tendencies, however Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) often presents itself from teen years to early adulthood.

photo by Andres Ayrton

I let him take everything, until there was nothing left for him to take.
― Eleanor Moran, Too Close For Comfort

Sandy Hotchkiss, LCSW, devised a list entitled 7 Deadly Sins of the Narcissist, which I believe will be helpful in identifying a narcissist in your life.

  • Shamelessness – Shame is the underlying factor in all cases of unhealthy narcissism, but they come across as shameless.
  • Shame is processed in a normal manner in a healthy person, however, narcissists have difficulty processing this feeling in a healthy way. Narcissists also tend to inflict shame on other people, a concept referred to as projection.
  • Magical thinking – Narcissists tend to perceive themselves as perfect and flawless. This distorted thinking and illusion is called magical thinking.
  • Arrogance – Arrogance and disregard for other people’s feelings are typical characteristics of narcissism. Narcissists often have a low self-esteem which they try to relieve by insulting or degrading others. This helps to re-inflate their ego when they are feeling deflated or lacking in worth.

Are you thinking of someone you know, yet? Statistics reveal that it’s 75% likely that it’s a male.

photo by Shvets Productions

The List Continued

  •  Envy – Due to their sense of superiority, narcissists may feel insecure when faced with another person’s ability. Therefore, they may try to belittle by demonstrating contempt or be dismissive.
  •  Sense of entitlement –  Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment. They expect automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply may be perceived as an attack on their authority and superiority. A person who disregards their authority is often considered to be a difficult or awkward person by the narcissist, who will proceed to demean them or their opinion, especially in front of others. Defiance can also trigger anger in the narcissist, which is referred to as “narcissistic rage.”
  •  Exploitation – This refers to the narcissist’s tendency to exploit others and show no regard or empathy for their emotions or interests. This often occurs when the other person is in a subservient position, where it is awkward or impossible to resist the narcissist. On some occasions, this subservience is only assumed rather than real.
  • Lack of boundaries – Most narcissists fail to understand their boundaries and recognize that other people are individuals rather than extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who support the self-esteem of the narcissist are expected to always do so, with the narcissist failing to recognize the independence of the other person.

photo by Pexels, Lisa

Since narcissists deep down feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault.” – M. Scott Peck

Covert versus Overt Narcissism

Overt narcissism is what we typically think about when we hear the word. This is the charismatic, boisterous type who must be the center of attention in every situation. These individuals flaunt any attribute they possess – money, looks, career, attractive spouse, etc. In fact, they believe you should feel honored when they spend time with you.

The covert narcissist is less easily identified. There are 10 Signs that may help you identify a covert narcissist:

  1. Extreme sensitivity to criticism – act as if they are above criticism by dismissive, sarcastic remarks
  2. Passive-aggressive behavior – sabotaging, mocking others, giving others the silent treatment
  3. Tendency to put themselves down – but with the goal to receive compliments
  4. Shy or withdrawn nature – People with this type of NPD are deeply insecure and afraid of other people seeing their failure.
  5. Grandiose fantasies – often spend more time thinking about their wild successes than talking about them
  6. Feelings of depression and anxiety – due to their deep fear of failure and unrealized perfectionistic ideals
  7. Tendency to hold grudges – if they feel they have been treated unfairly, they may wait to have revenge
  8. Envy – they are envious of others for what they feel they themselves deserve
  9. Feelings of inadequacy – due to the inability to meet their own unrealistic standards
  10. Insincere empathy – can seem empathetic and compassionate, but it’s usually self-serving and just for show

Covert narcissists can drain the life out of you and make you feel guilty about it at the same time!

Photo by Dziana Hasanbekava

 Scripture and Narcissists

I love what 2 Timothy 3:2-5 says, especially in light of what we have learned regarding the characteristics of a narcissist.

“People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

Writer Jen Grice uses this passage to compare with the nine narcissistic traits outlined in the DSM-5. It’s an interesting read, one which I think you will find enlightening. I did.

Many Christians who study the subject of narcissism, especially in the area of domestic violence, believe that the Proverbs dealing with fools aptly apply. Although the word itself isn’t in Scripture, the characteristics of narcissism are spelled out clearly. Grice deals with a few of those, as well.

One truth is clear throughout the Bible, God resists pride and loves humility. James 4:4-6 (ESV) says:

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The Problem of Pain & Suffering

When pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all. ~ C. S. Lewis

photo by Liza Summer

As we finally begin to welcome a few clear, crisp days of autumn in our area, my personal pain level rises as the temperatures lower. It’s nothing new; fibromyalgia and arthritis don’t like cooler temperatures, despite my love for this season. The majority of us take pain as a personal insult, especially when it becomes chronic. Pain, whether physical or mental, is a problem.

An interruption…and definitely not on the schedule.

There would be various answers if you were to interview a group of people who live with chronic pain or ongoing mental anguish. However, the majority would likely tell you that this type of pain is a game-changer,

a dream-thief,

and a life-stealer.

Unfortunately, for 20.5% of Americans – or 50.2 million people, pain is a daily reality.

photo by Ron Lach

Effects of Chronic Pain

Many studies have shown the far-reaching effects of chronic pain on the body, brain and emotions.

Sadly, chronic pain is often associated with other health conditions such as anxiety and depression, resulting in a low health-related quality of life.

Living with daily pain is physically and emotionally stressful. Chronic stress is known to change the levels of stress hormones and neurochemicals found within your brain and nervous system; these can affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Disrupting your body’s balance of these chemicals can bring on depression in some people.

photo by Cottonbro

Chronic pain can also have long-lasting effects on the brain.

When you have acute pain, your symptoms stop when your injury heals. This happens naturally because your peripheral nervous system stops sending pain signals to your spinal cord and brain.

If you have chronic pain, however, your pain receptors continue firing. With all of the constant messaging, your brain becomes overwhelmed, causing changes in both emotional and cognitive areas of your brain:

  • thalamus remains open to keep routing the pain signals, which can lead to more intense and heightened feelings of discomfort.
  • The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain responsible for managing social behaviors, personality, and emotions. When it experiences excessive activity in response to chronic pain signals, neurons in this region can die, causing this part of your brain to shrink. As a result, you can experience higher states of anxiety, fear, and worry as your prefrontal cortex becomes unable to manage these emotions properly.
  • Your hippocampus is a small structure in your brain responsible for forming new memories, learning, and emotion. Living with long-term pain can shrink this important area, causing increased anxiety and problems with your memory and learning.

Consequently, pain like this can be equated with a deep, dark hole of physical and emotional darkness.

photo by Liza Summer

Emotional Fall-Out

As mentioned earlier, people who live with daily pain, especially severe pain, are highly susceptible to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. In fact, nearly half of the people who see doctors for chronic pain report emotional health problems, as well. Therefore, it is extremely important to address these issues as soon as they arise.

Remember that you are not atypical, oversensitive, or weak for experiencing emotional distress because of pain. These are normal, reasonable responses to physical suffering and its associated limitations.

It’s a vicious cycle. Hurting people see their doctors for pain relief, but fail to tell them of their depression. The undiagnosed depression can lead to lack of appetite, sleeplessness, lack of energy, which all make the pain worse. And so the cycle goes.

Be completely honest with your doctors, my friends. Get ALL the help and relief you need.

Another Perspective of Pain & Suffering

But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, p. 83

Truly, when our lives are running seamlessly, we have little need of God. Oh, if we’re practicing Christians, we likely go through the rituals and routines of Christianity, but when we are satisfied with our lives, it’s secretly difficult to think that there is something to surrender to God, isn’t it?

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We “have all we want” is a terrible saying when “all” does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full…”

C. S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, p. 85

At times, the upside-down kingdom of heaven is difficult for us to grasp. In order to shatter our illusion of self-sufficiency, our Father is willing to allow pain into our lives, for it is indeed a bugle call. Notice that I said allow, not cause because there is a vast difference.

photo by Steven Arenas

Why Pain & Suffering?

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I was often asked the “Why” question: Why did God let this happen to my loved one?

I don’t possess existential answers for individual situations, but I do know this with all my being. When sin entered the world in Genesis, Adam opened the door to suffering and death for all of mankind.

Our Father doesn’t cause the pain – that is a consequence of the Fall – but He will use it at times. Furthermore, Jesus suffered and died that He might know personally what we endure. He, therefore, is able to walk with us and comfort us as no other can. When we find ourselves neediest, we are more willing to seek Him.

photo by Karolina Grabowski

Pain, Suffering, and Our View of God

For centuries, non-Christians have used suffering and evil as their argument against a loving God, and Christianity in general. In fact, pastor and author Tim Keller said:

At the heart of why people disbelieve and believe in God, of why people decline and grow in character, of how God becomes less real and more real to us—is suffering.

One common misconception is that our suffering is related to personal sin. This is called retribution theology. However, this theology was for those living under the Mosaic Law, not for those living under the new covenant. Moreover, Jesus corrected this mistaken theology several times, (see John 9 as an example.)

Writer and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright asserts that there are no simple answers to why there is evil and suffering in the world. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, Wright tells us:

…the Old Testament tells us first that the problem of evil begins in our hearts, second that God is sovereign and there is no tidy philosophical answer for it, and third, that God will resolve the problem of evil through his own intervention.

In addition, Wright says the New Testament teaches us:

The New Testament shares the story of a God who does not just stand back from evil, but who intervenes. And yet his intervention isn’t as we might expect. Jesus heals those broken by evil, he seeks out sinners, he confronts those who believe they are righteous…The cross defeats evil, not because it defeats something out there, but because it defeats the grip of evil and death in our own hearts.

I can recall so many instances in the New Testament when Jesus entered into the suffering of the people and comforted or healed someone. He isn’t a God who stands back from us in our suffering and pain.

God defeated evil and suffering through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He will remove evil and suffering totally from our future world, (see Revelation 21-22,) when every tear will be wiped from our eyes forever. That is our future and our hope.

For now, He is Immanuel, God with us – through every trial, in every painful day, even on days when we wonder if life is worth living…

God. is. with. us.

Community: Experiencing Little, Needing Much

We are living in a time when there are more ways to be in touch with one another than any other time in history. Phones, texts, emails, FaceTime, social media, Zoom are all avenues that can keep us connected wherever we are in the world. The personal, near ancient art of letter writing? Practically non-existent. With each deeper foray into the cyber world, culture suffers more from little sense of the community which we need to lead healthy lives.

In addition, and further isolating, working from home is the new normal, thanks to Covid-19. Yet, even before Covid-19, (since 2018), we have been experiencing less community and more loneliness than perhaps ever before.

What is Community – The Bare Minimum?

What comes to mind when you hear the word community? For me, I imagine friends gathered around a table of food, talking, laughing, and sharing life together. I don’t mean in a commune sort of way, but being close enough to genuinely care about each other.

There are several definitions available, depending on whether we’re dealing with a business, health, or non-profit culture. However, the most basic definition of community remains the same:

a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

Additionally, we must have the element of trust if we are to add the warm sense of togetherness for which many are longing. Too long we have lived in, and are continually fed distrust and skepticism. Community is a place where we can go to find a listening ear. Furthermore, we know what we say can be entrusted within our community.

photo by Fauxels

Where to Find Community

Historically, communities were formed around the places people lived. Imagine the 1950’s in America or the UK when most urban families lived in small homes or apartments. These places were called neighborhoods. This is where people usually formed friendships, socialized together and raised their children together.

Technology and jobs moving us around the country changed that. Now, a type of  community can be found in online groups, book clubs, churches, support groups, and so on. However, they all require some basic, key, components to be recognized as a genuine community.

One writer believes community involves four elements.

Our definition, based on our experience is, a group of people existing in a place that shares a purpose, a sense of belonging, and who communicate with each other.

On the other hand, businesses use the term differently. Business leaders seek community in the light of how it benefits their business.

  • Having a community is having a support network.
  • They are a safe space to share knowledge and can foster collective creativity and innovation.
  • Communities offer valuable networking opportunities.
  • Provide opportunity for authentic mentoring relationships

Furthermore, there are education communities, health communities, and I could go on…but won’t.

Photo Tima Miroshnichenko

Benefits of Community

It would be difficult to overstate the role community plays in our state of well-being. Every human being has a deep desire to belong. A healthy community provides that.

Having a sense of community embraces spirit, character, image and pride and is a vital element of a healthy community. It is a feeling that people within the community matter to one another with a shared faith that their needs will be met through commitment and togetherness. Being a part of a community can make us feel as though we are a part of something greater than ourselves.

Moreover, this writer believes other benefits include:

  • support – for you and other members of the community
  • influence – participation in a community can cause one to feel empowered to make a difference
  • sharing – sharing ideas helps everyone grow and gain knowledge
  • reinforcement – can be an effective learning tool to encourage desirable behaviors and provide motivation. 
  • connection – An open bond with new connections is what builds valuable relationships, and gives us a deeper sense of belonging.

There are a few others that you can check out for yourself at the link provided.

photo by Dmitriy Ganin

If It’s So Great, Why Aren’t We All In Community?

Thank you for asking! However, the answer likely has less to do with us than with the culture in which the we live. Western countries such as the United States and Europe, Australia, and S. Africa are considered individualistic cultures. People living in these cultures generally value independence.

Within individualist cultures, people are more likely to “see themselves as separate from others, define themselves based on their personal traits, and see their characteristics as relatively stable and unchanging.” An individualist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are on the “inside,” minimizing the influence of factors, contexts, and people “outside” the individual. Individualists tend to communicate in direct styles—they say what they mean, prioritizing that information is conveyed explicitly and unambiguously. European and “Western” cultures are typically more individualist.

photo by Kindel-media

Collectivist cultures value the group over the individual. Countries with the collectivism culture are Japan, China, Venezuela, Guatemala, Brazil, and a few others.

Collectivist cultures emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual. In such cultures, relationships with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between people play a central role in each person’s identity.

Therefore, we can understand why it is difficult for most of us to wholeheartedly align ourselves with a community. Initially, at least, each of us needs to overcome a hardwired, cultural individualism, which minimizes the influence of others in our lives.

photo by Matthew Devries

Christian Community

Unfortunately, people outside of the Church sometimes think that Christian community means living in a commune on a farm somewhere in the country. For a very small percentage of Christians, that is what it means and I applaud them.

However, for the rest of us, Christian community is simply sharing an authentic life together. It moves us beyond ourselves and our isolation to invest in the other. In addition, it’s more than superficial social contacts that’s called “Christian fellowship.”

Pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote an entire book about community entitled Life Together. It created a deep longing within me for this depth of fellowship the first time I read it. (https://amzn.to/393P4eC)

The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us, (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together).

Indeed, the biblical idea of community can be found in the one another passages of Scripture, which I’ve been taught all my adult life. We find that we are committed to one another because we love one another, John 13:34. We want the best for each other because we are members of one another, (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25.)

Moreover, we need the community of faith to gain maturity in Christ. To underscore this, I’m going to share a list that a professor emeritus from George Fox University believes a community of faith provides.

  • a way to see Christ in others
  • a source of accountability and guidance
  • a place to pray and worship
  • a place to serve
  • a model and witness of Christ to the world
  • ambassadors of God’s love

I encourage you to read the article to see how he explains each point.

What About You?

photo by Dim Hou

I’m an American, thus, an individualist. Add to that a past with trauma, violated trust from more than one spiritual leader and… I get it. Trusting a group to have a sense of belonging can be very difficult for many. However, let me comfort and assure you, when I have experienced genuine Christian community, it is the sweetest thing this side of heaven.

Please don’t give up, dear sister. It is available. Go find it!

A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

 

 

 

Empathy A Sin? You’re Kidding, Right?

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photo by Drew Hayes

Empathy has been getting a lot of press recently, and not in a good way. Past controversial statements by John Piper came to light recently concerning empathy. This occurred amidst the July resignations of staff members from Piper’s former church, Bethlehem Baptist Church, (a church he pastored over 30 years.) The seminary affiliated with the church, and the president which Piper appointed, have also taken a stand against empathy.

In a podcast in March of this year, the president of the seminary, Joe Rigney, even called empathy a sin.

I had to read that a few times. Empathy a sin?

photo by Youssef Naddam

What Is Empathy?

According to pastor and professor Scot McKnight, (author of A Church Called Tov), the naysayers of empathy are distinguishing the virtue of compassion from the potential vice of empathy. (A Church Called Tov, https://amzn.to/3h0TEyK)

The former means to “suffer with” and the latter “to suffer in.” Or, to “feel with” and “feel in.” The former is rational; the latter appears to be less (than) rational, and perhaps irrational. At least in their constructions, it’s OK to suffer with but not to suffer in.

Furthermore, McKnight continues by saying, This may be the most unwise piece of pastoral theology I’ve seen in my lifetime. Pastors without empathy are not pastoring. 

Warren Throckmorten, professor of psychiatry at Grove City College, defined empathy as following:

Empathy is simply understanding the inner world of other people. It is all about being able to relate to them and understand what they are going through. It quite important in human functioning and when absent, is associated with cruelty and antisocial behavior.

Isn’t Sympathy Enough?

Potentially, there are several reactions each of us has when we learn of a life crisis which a loved one, co-worker, or a neighbor is facing. Very recently, we all learned of the plight of thousands of people in Afghanistan who were attempting to flee from the brutal regime who is now in control. Tragically, we now know many of those were left behind to a fate that is difficult for Westerners to imagine. What stirred within you during this event?

A few had apathy. Some felt sympathy. Others felt empathy. Still others felt compassion, but which ones were moved to take some type of action?

I like how Dr. Allan Schwartz, LCSW, PhD, described it in his post discussing the three.

Sympathy carries with it more than a small dose of pity for the other. Of course, the problem with pity is that it strongly implies a superior attitude to the one in pain or need. In other words, it is never helpful to feel sorry for the other person.

Consequently, sympathy feels sorry for the hurting person. However, if I understand him correctly, sympathy feels little more than pity for the one in distress.

Throckmorten’s definition sounds a bit harsh. Nevertheless, in comparison to compassion and empathy, sympathy takes the least action. We may share a feeling with someone, then move onto the next thing on our schedules.

photo by Iluha Zavaley

Empathy & Compassion

McKnight looked to Merriam Webster to define compassion and empathy.

Compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Schwartz sums it up well:

In fact, empathy precedes compassion. Empathy without compassion leaves the individual drained of energy as a result of feeling what the other feels. Empathy occurs immediately and leaves no emotional room between the individual and the one who is suffering. Compassion is more cognitive in nature. There is a sense of self awareness that provides some necessary space between the two people. The empathizer experiences the same suffering with the other, leaving the empathizer overwhelmed. As a result, compassion allows the individual to be more helpful than the individual who experiences empathy alone.

Truthfully, both are necessary  – empathy and compassion. As Schwartz stated, empathy precedes compassion. Without empathy, there would not be compassionate action.

photo by Rodnae Productions

The Fear of Vulnerability

Shane Moe is a marriage and family therapist in the Twin Cities area. He also provides care for trauma survivors, many of whom attended Bethlehem Baptist. He views the empathy-as-sin folks in a different light. Moe looks beneath the theological posturing and sees men who fear vulnerability. Traditionally, vulnerability in men signified weakness.

Revealing emotions is for women. Men are expected to be stoic and tough.

Additionally, and disturbingly, a lack of empathy is a characteristic of narcissism.

There are reasons some of my clients’ family members who exhibit narcissistic traits and who have engaged in consistent patterns of spiritual and psychological abuse toward my clients have been attracted to this ‘empathy is a sin’ teaching (and to this church): It feeds perfectly into their narcissism and psychological dependence upon maintaining power and control.

Sadly, there remain many patriarchic church cultures where male leadership distance themselves from feelings and emotions. Furthermore, they label them as sinful and isolate women, (whom they deem too emotional) who cry for help from abusive husbands. The traumatized and abused find no empathy and therefore, no compassion.

photo by Gus Moretta

Jesus, Our Example

Contrary to this, the New Testament Jesus is frequently said to have splanchnizomai. This word means – to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity.) McKnight paraphrased its meaning as follows:

It means to be moved with emotion and pity for someone in pain and pastoral neglect, and it leads from understanding to actions that help alleviate the pain (like healing, teaching).

Let’s look at just a few of these instances.

Matthew 9:35-38, ESV

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

Matthew 20:29-34, NKJV

Mark 1:40-41, ESV

40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”

Mark 5:18-19

Luke 7:12-13, NKJV

12 And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.

Luke 10:30-33

Our Response

Throughout His time here on earth, our Lord was moved with pity and compassion to take action in assisting those in need of His care. He moved to meet basic needs for food, needs for healing, and miraculous needs by restoring a widow’s son to life. Jesus met people where they were, (empathy) and took them by the hand (compassion) to deliver them to where they needed to be.

In 1 John 3:15-18, ESV, we have a clear admonition from ‘the disciple Jesus loved.’

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Theologians and preachers can quibble over word definitions and etymology until they are breathless. However, no one can argue with the simple truth of the words of Scripture. Furthermore, the example of the life of our Lord Jesus is all we need to know how to care for our brothers and sisters.

Can I hear an Amen?