"The Look that Kills" Points Reader to the God Who Redeems

“The Look that Kills: An Anorexic’s Addiction to Control” by Michelle Myers (Crossbooks Publishing; 109 pgs.) is a moving first-person account of a young Christian girl’s rapid descent into an eating disorder, and the steadfast faith that pulled her out. Michelle, now a pastor’s wife and graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, serves in young adult ministry and is a certified fitness trainer – two of her passions. “The Look that Kills” is her memoir, but it is more than an autobiography: it is a helpful, biblically-solid resource. Young women who struggle with eating disorders will see themselves through Michelle’s candid revelations of what was going on in her heart during her anorexic years, but the book is also helpful to girls with body-image issues or exercise obsession.

The daughter of loving, Christian parents, Michelle took up an interest in sports and began dieting to lose a few extra pounds. Initially, her pride was fueled by compliments and envious stares at her figure. What started out as a healthy interest became a dangerous obsession, as Michelle purged every calorie by over-training at the gym and running marathons. As others’ concern grew, she began entering – and winning – beauty pageants. Over the next several years, Michelle’s health deteriorated; her weight at 84 lbs, she blacked out while running one morning. At this point, she cried out to God – realizing she desperately needed help – and began the hard work of renewing her mind to overcome this life-dominating bondage.

I originally purchased this book for a counselee, who, like Michelle, developed “exercise addiction” as part of her anorexic behavior. As someone who had experienced this, Michelle’s angle – describing what goes on in the mind of an “exercise addict” and how to work fitness back into her life in a God-honoring way – is a unique and helpful one.

Michelle points the reader to the principles she found in Scripture at her lowest points, and as her spiritual life improved, so did her health. Immersing herself in the Bible, she was able to compile numerous passages that directly combatted lies she had believed for years; and re-found her identity in Christ. After struggling to eat her first meal in months, Michelle turned to the Word:
“Glancing at the daily reading plan outlined in my Bible, I turned to the suggested passage of Romans 8:1-17. I could hardly believe my eyes when they fell on the very first verse I read: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.” My tear-stained journal from that day reads: “Simply because I have confessed belief in His Son, God has wiped my life clean. No questions asked, no guilt-trip. He sent His Son to die so that His Spirit could live in me, and now, I can follow Him instead of calories. If I continue on this path, I am only harming myself, but living in Him will fully restore me to the girl that I used to be.”
Woven throughout Michelle’s testimony are Scriptures defining the biblical view of beauty; reminders of God’s faithfulness; and lessons learned about perfectionism (an attribute common to anorexics and bulimics, which is a contradiction of the Gospel. Perfectionism is, in essence, trusting in one’s own merit, works or abilities as a “false savior”; a means of feeling good about one’s self – rather than resting in the finished work of Christ. Michelle underscores the importance of Scripture in combatting the self-absorbed thinking behind eating disorders, and, as I did, overcame her life-threatening eating disorder without inpatient or psychiatric treatment. She demonstrates beautifully that the Great Physician is the only Healer of our hearts and souls – where the problem of sin lies.

Another good point Michelle makes in “The Look that Kills” is that pop-psychology and self-help literature does not adequately address the root cause of eating disorders, and cannot provide soul-care solutions. She points out that every book (secular or religious) she read in the early stages of her transformation blamed the media for the proliferation of eating disorders; yet as she dug deeper into the Bible, she saw that human preoccupation with beauty went back to the beginning of time.
“That was when I decided to take the self-help books back to the library. Even my resources that claimed to be “Christian” relied more on secular teachings than biblical foundations. The very problem with these books was revealed in the genre of literature and the root cause: self-help and self-esteem…..Rather than looking inside myself to discover who I was, I needed to look at who the Bible said I was. I won’t lie to you; I was discouraged at first. If you search Scripture trying to find value and worth within yourself, you will come up empty-handed every time.”

As she brings us through her years of restoration, which ultimately meant marriage and children (a future she doubted possible), Michelle beautifully pulls together encouragements and lessons God taught her along the way. Her fears and the deliberate work of renewing her mind with the Word are things any woman battling an eating disorder will relate to, and Michelle tells her story with a touching honesty and vulnerability that points all glory back to God. Her writing is empathetic and touching, and every point she makes is doctrinally-sound. She includes questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter, and describes godly modifications she made to her daily life in the final chapter to assist the reader in “putting on” new disciplines to replace eating-disordered rituals. “The Look that Kills” is an excellent book to encourage women preoccupied with weight and fitness, as well as those with full-blown anorexia, turn to God and leave this slavery behind permanently.  


When Perversion is Called “Love” and Abuse is Entertainment

This post originally appeared on Reigning Grace Counseling Center's blog, Biblical Counseling for Women. 

There are certain things I never expected to see go completely mainstream. By “go mainstream”, I mean to reach a level of complete societal acceptance. Such things would include “Daisy Duke” shorts. The militant GLBT agenda in American education. And….pornography marketed to women.

If you harbor any doubts that this world has completely lost all moral compass, look no further than the recent “50 Shades of Grey” phenomenon. (I nearly typed, “this country”, but the trilogy seems to be quite popular with teenage girls in Europe.) This Valentine’s Day, the sadomasochistic duo of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey are coming to a cinema near you.

A disclaimer: I have not read the books, and do not plan to. I am, however, familiar with the premise: A college student begins a BDSM relationship with a businessman, which is somehow construed to be a romance. From what I read on Wiki, there doesn’t seem to be much of a plot – just a lot of “incompatibility”, leading to breakups; beatings; and violent perversion. The books portray an abusive relationship as being a romance; Ana, in fact, displays classic battered women’s syndrome by falling “in love” with the man who victimizes her. I will assume the readers of this blog are adults, and do not need me to explain what “bondage porn” is. A University of Michigan study demonstrated that women who read these books were statistically more likely to have an abusive partner (25%); binge drink (65%); and were more likely to have eating disorders.

We are about to see a new wave of counseling cases because of “50 Shades of Grey”, and here’s why: Christian women are reading this tripe at the same rate as the general population. A Barna survey shows that nine percent of American adults have read “50 Shades”, and the statistic is exactly the same for professing Christians. Shocked? Screenings for the movie sold out fastest in Bible Belt cities, too. This is not a demographic - these are our sisters in Christ. There is something desperately wrong when a Christ-follower chooses to put this kind of material in her mind. Let’s consider three specific “heart issues” involved with choosing to read or watch “50 Shades”.

The Normalization of Sexual Sin

First of all, let’s dispel the myth that lust is uniquely a man’s sin. It’s not, and we can safely say that adult women can also violate Matthew 5:28, since they are huge consumers of pornography. The difference, of course, is that it is literature designed to titillate, rather than actual photography (although the movie is said to be the most graphic R-rated movie released to date). Therein lies the difference: men are more visual; whereas women are more relational. Men are more likely to habitually view porn, while women prefer to indulge in “romance novels”. In both cases, the heart issue is the same: lust. A craving for satisfaction outside of the way God intended it.
While I am not justifying it, I understand – up to a point - why women are more likely to fall into emotional affairs than men. Or why men enjoy the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Certain weaknesses are inherent in our DNA. What I cannot understand, however, is what the attraction is in BSDM porn – the most extreme perversion of human intimacy imaginable – and how on earth porn has gone from public perception as seedy and shameful to being celebrated as a romantic art form. Philippian 4:8 commands the Christian to think on what is right; pure; honorable; lovely; and of good repute. Does this kind of “literature” fall under any of these categories?
What, exactly, does reading about a deviant, violence-filed sexual relationship do for you, ladies? Does it help you to grow in holiness? When you put it down, what does this book’s “wisdom” inspire you to do….unload the dishwasher? Pack your kids’ school lunches? Iron the family’s clothes? I like to think things over while ironing. I’m sure that’s it.

Abuse as Entertainment

A 2013 Journal of Women’s Health study stated the novels “romanticize abuse of women” and deemed the ironically-named “Christian” to be an emotionally and sexually abusive cad. No kidding, really? Did we really need a study to tell us this?

It is no secret that filmography has gotten increasingly violent and more graphic over the last decades. “50 Shades’” glorification of violence against women has been well-documented, and is reason enough for anyone to avoid the film. But there is another truth that Christian ladies need to acknowledge: By watching this film or reading these books, you are choosing to entertain yourself with the very things that nailed Jesus to the Cross.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The increase in violent films, video games etc. has led to an increasingly de-sensitized culture. Consider this: the sex trade is alive and well. Real young women like “Ana” are trafficked around the world, every day, and degraded against their will. They are all someone’s daughter. There is nothing more blatantly satanic than the degradation of another human being, who is made in the image of God.

The Message to Our Daughters

Knowing she had not read the books, I asked my 17-year-old daughter if they were popular among girls her age. She snickered, and admitted she didn’t know anyone who had read “50 Shades”. “It’s women your age who are reading that stuff, Mom…and older women, in their sixties. We laugh at it.” (Most of the readers of “50 Shades” are between the ages of 29-66). While I was glad that the book isn’t popular among American teens, the fact that my generation is popularizing “Mommy Porn” (and thus “normalizing” it) is tragic. If I didn’t have two daughters, who I want to raise as godly young women, it might not disturb me quite so much. But it does.

While we’re here, let’s dispel another myth popular among evangelicals: we cannot “guard” our daughters’ purity. In fact, we cannot guard anyone’s purity, except our own. We can only give them the Gospel; show grace, and pray that they will follow Christ. We do not want them to embrace a moral code and think they are Christians – we want them to embrace the living Christ; and follow His moral Law out of love and gratitude. If Christian moms are reading “50 Shades”, what message about God’s plan for marital love does this send? Does it keep the marriage bed pure (Hebrews 13:4)?

Renewing the Mind Defiled by “50 Shades”

While Christians may be reading “50 Shades”, I do not believe they are able to do so without conviction. The shame attached to this particular sin makes it harder for female porn users to admit they want help in forsaking it, although they are not unusual in the counseling room. The first step is in admitting that reading or viewing erotica is, in fact, sin. For the believer, this shouldn’t even be a question. This is simply not a gray area.

Next, she needs to see the behavior porn depicts as God does: filthy. While images and thoughts cannot be “unseen”, all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and are no longer enslaved to sin. We can control what we think about, and self-discipline is a fruit of the Spirit. It is wise to start with 2 Corinthians 10:5 (“Take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ”) to break the stronghold of sexual sin.

Throughout much of Scripture the process of choosing to think pure, godly thoughts is described. Renewal and transformation of the mind with the Word of God is crucially important for women who have become enslaved to porn, and “taking thoughts captive” is a good metaphor. Jay Adams wrote, “We do not have to let our minds go wandering down every alley; poking into every garbage can along the way.” Since all sin begins in the mind, I think of the first step of repentance as closing a door in my mind: “This is not an option. Period.”

Looking Upward; Not Inward

Unlike psychotherapy, which delves into the deeper reasons of why we may be prone to certain desires or behaviors, biblical counseling is more concerned with the solution: turning around and “putting on” the godly alternative. Forsaking a sinful thought pattern or behavior does not mean constantly ruminating on it or asking for deeper revelation into the reasons why we went in that direction. We sin because we are sinners; it is our nature. For example, when counseling bulimics, I do not ask them to keep a food journal - it focuses undue attention on the food itself; rather than the idols in their hearts. Likewise, a woman repenting of erotica/porn use needs to be in the Bible, but not necessarily fixating on every verse that deals with sexual sin. The whole of Scripture renews the soul by revealing the character of God – a start contrast to the dark, demonically-inspired world of “50 Shades”.

In the Gospels, one sees the character of Jesus as one filled with compassion – whether He is healing a leper; forgiving an adulteress; or calling a tax collector. We see it implied everywhere (and stated explicitly in Romans 2:4) that it is His kindness that leads us to repentance – not guilt; shame; or fear. Coming to know the true character of God and receiving His grace is what will change the heart of a woman seeking fulfillment in the broken cisterns of literary porn. 


Review: Gospel-Centered Counseling by Robert Kellemen

Re-Discovering the Father of Compassion

By Marie Notcheva

One of the characteristics of a truly good biblical counseling book is that believers who are not actually ‘counsellors’ may gain just as much from it. Such is the case with “Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives”, one of three books (“Gospel Conversations” and “Scripture and Counseling” being the other two) by Biblical Counseling Coalition Executive Director Robert Kellemen.

In the Introduction, we are presented with a beautiful picture of mutually-encouraging Christian friendship:

"Christ's triumph in the drama of redemption guides our interactions in our one-another ministry. We engage one another in gospel conversations, encouraging each other to ponder: "Why give up when we lose one battle, since we know we have won the war?" "Why choose mere survival, when we are more than conquerors?"
This ‘one-another’ ministry is the framework through which the “Good News” will become more ‘real’ and not simply an abstract doctrinal concept.

The God Who Cares

Much of biblical counseling literature (and Reformed writing, in general) is very exegetical, solid, intellectual, Scripturally-solid, uncompromisingly biblical. We need this study of systematic theology in order to know how to rightly divide the Word, know which principle to apply to a given situation, and not read our own interpretation into passages of Scripture. At the same time, however, we must be careful not to present God as an emotionless, detached Deity Who is so far removed from humanity that He cannot sympathize with our human struggles. Kellemen gets the balance just right – portraying the personal, involved and loving God Who comes running to meet the wayward child – without sacrificing the biblical truths of His holy perfection; His need for nothing; and man’s total depravity.

In his typical style, Kellemen engages the reader as if having a coffee together. While emphasizing from the outset the importance of sound theology, as it relates to every aspect of life, the reader never feels lectured or bogged down in hermeneutic explanation. When Kellemen insists on a proper understanding of the God of Scripture, he is not arguing the finer points of supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism. He is asking the reader (or counselee) to consider, “What is my image of God?” and, by extension, the implications of “His great love for us” (Ephesians 2:4). With this starting point, Kellemen guides the reader to consider eight important life questions (and, chapter by chapter, how the Person and work of Jesus Christ answers them). Undergirding all counseling issues, life problems, doubts and faith is how we answer the two most basic questions:
"We all ask two central questions about God: "God, do you care?" -- questions about God's love; and "God, are you in control?" -- questions about God's holiness. "Every problem of the soul includes a distorted, unbalanced answer about these two questions about God's infinitely perfect character." (p.71)
These questions are equally important, whether I am in the counseling office with an eating disordered patient - or encouraging a burnt-out high school student on the other side of the world. We all have been hard-wired with a need to know that God is aware of our plight; and that He cares for us deeply, personally, and purposefully. Kellemen has successfully tapped into this deepest of questions, and devotes the rest of the book to showing how a right understanding of the Trinitarian, relational God is foundational to lasting change (and joy). He does not leave the reader with a list of “put offs” and “put ons”; rather, he demonstrates how “cropping the cross of Christ back into the picture” (a proper understanding of grace) transforms sin-shattered lives.

Woven throughout “Gospel-Centered Counseling” are case studies from Kellemen’s family counseling experience. This is a helpful approach, because we see how doubts about God’s attributes or character surface in the counseling room in “real time”. Faulty views of God (common to many of us) are brought to light, then countered with the Word. Unbiblical lies that keep people stuck in life-dominating sin (rather than running to the cross) are exposed:
“Satan seeks to fill our souls with shame that separates us from God. "Give up on life. Throw in the towel." Paul labels this "worldly sorrow" that produces death (2 Cor. 7:10). Satanic shame involves self-contempt and self-disgust that cause us to despair of all hope that God could love a sinner like us. Condemning shame convinces us that God has forever justly rejected us. Godly sorrow, on the other hand, is guilt that leads us to return to God. It is guilt that escorts us to grace. It reminds us of our absolute dependence on Christ's grace and invites us to return home to our forgiving Father. Shame separates; sorrow connects." (p. 87).
From Vertical to Horizontal Relating

Kellemen demonstrates throughout “Gospel-Centered Counseling” how a right understanding and relationship with our Creator is foundational to edifying relationships with other human beings, a reflection of an being made in God’s image. Moving beyond the simple fact that we were made to glorify God, we understand that we were created to relate; experience; engage; and live fully. Thus, we increasingly reflect the inner life of Christ. Knowing, understanding, and compassionately caring for people in their fallen state is the biblical counselor (and Christian friend’s) goal.
The compassion with which Kellemen writes, and longs for all counselors to employ, comes through on every page. Never does he portray God as aloof or too holy to be approachable; even when writing about sin (‘spiritual adultery’) or the pit of despair that (gasp! God as the ) even Christians find themselves in.
“Like Equiano and Paul, we’ve all endured hurt that has driven us to the precipice of despair. Unfortunately, we’ve likely been sent subtle messages: “Christians don’t hurt.” “Spiritual Christians don’t talk about their struggles.” Paul, inspired by God, tells us that that’s a lie. In fact, he shows us that when we deny our hurt, we deny our need for God.” (p. 172).
We cannot expect someone to “renew [his] mind with the Word” until he truly knows God as the Father of Compassion and God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3). Kellemen then discusses how we reach out to others with the same hope and ‘Christ-received comfort’ that has sustained us – a key component of ‘one another’ ministry.

A Biblical Counseling Model Based on Grace

The final chapters of the book are devoted to progressive sanctification, and what ongoing reliance on Christ’s finished work, redeeming power, and relentless, pursuing love looks like. Do we see God as forgiving Judge, or welcoming Father? Do we – or the people we counsel – ‘accept our acceptance’; embrace our forgiveness? Kellemen demonstrates how Hebrews 10:19-25 draws our justification in Christ together with the mutual encouragement that is crucial for vibrant Christian life. He then turns to the regenerated heart – the believer has a new ‘want to’, and because of the Holy Spirit, a new ‘can do’. This is a welcome message that needs to be internalized by many struggling within the Church – whether in formal counseling for specific problems; or quietly enduring self-loathing for spiritual ‘failures’.

I have met many brothers and sisters in Christ, across different generations and of various cultures, who live with the nagging sense that they are letting God down. The Holy Spirit does the work of conviction and encouragement, of course; and He calls people individually in His own way and through diverse circumstances. “Gospel-Centered Counseling” is a grace-infused, Christ-oriented, empathetically-written resource whose message can help the process.

Counselors and “average Joe Christians” alike will find much truth here – simply stated and beautifully written – to point their fellow sojourners to the Great Physician. Kellemen quotes Puritans and Reformers; draws spiritual truth from Clint Eastwood films and Smurf cartoons; introduces us to real people, and reminds us – like the Apostle Paul – that we are never alone. A truly inspiring and helpful book to assist both reader and counselee growing in grace.


When Our Theology Stifles Our Compassion

This article appeared last month on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website, and was re-posted around the web. Thoughts I have gleaned while counseling those with eating disorders.

When Our Theology Stifles Our Compassion

When our Theology Stifles Our Compassion
Yesterday, I received a disturbing phone call. A young woman I had been counseling attempted suicide over the weekend. In God’s mercy, He intervened before the overdose could do its lethal damage. But in the aftermath, “Mary’s” soul remains raw and bleeding. She doesn’t have the strength to fill in a “Discovering Problem Patterns” worksheet or memorize verses right now. Mary needs to grasp the biblical reality that she is precious to the Savior Who will not let her go. The promises of Scripture—which are just words to her right now—need to be real in her life.
And I realized anew that I am utterly powerless.  
The training in systematic theology and hermeneutics we have is valuable, in terms of ministering the Scriptures to people who seek answers. Yet, there are times, if we are not careful, when our “sound doctrine” may sound like a clanging cymbal, and push hurting believers away. This can happen both in the counseling room, and in our friendships.
Does this sound like a false dichotomy? It isn’t. One of the things God is teaching me lately is that while our words may be true, and biblical, andspoken in love, there is a depth of understanding and compassion that cannot always be expressed verbally…yet is crucially important.
Sometimes, when faced with another’s pain, one simply doesn’t know what to say. I have the opposite problem—I always know exactly what to say (and usually which verses to cite).
It’s knowing when to shut up that poses the problem for me.

Being Grace-Oriented before Solutions-Oriented

The plumb line for all counsel is, of course, the Bible. Scripture dictates what we do; not culture. Sound doctrine matters. I want those words engraved on my tombstone! However, a sticky truth is that people are not formulaic, like computers: we cannot simply re-program them with a “string code” of certain verses, and expect that their hearts will be automatically transformed. Unwittingly, the homework we give to help counselees think biblically may even add “performance pressure,” leading to additional condemnation.
As biblical counselors, trained to identify the problem and then apply the biblical solution, this can be frustrating. “Faith is not determined by feelings,” we want to protest. We think, “Empathizing with someone is not going to help them—the Word of God is what will fix their problems!” However, Christ-like compassion never pits Truth against Love.
We want to help. We love our friends, our family, our counselees. In our desire to help, we need to understand that it is perfectly “theological” to minister to someone who is hurting just by moving towards them in their pain, without preaching. A phone call or e-mail can simply communicate that we care, are praying, and above all, that we are there for them.
There is a time to give a theology lecture; and there is a time to give silent hugs.
Different situations call for different approaches, as Jesus demonstrated in His ministry. Of course, He is the only Counselor with perfect insight into a hurting heart, yet we can and must still learn from His example. In John 11, after the death of Lazarus, Jesus comforts Martha with the promises of God and bolsters her faith. Mary, however, threw herself at His feet weeping. The Lord, far from remaining emotionally detached, cried with her (John 11:32-35).
Mary needed compassionate empathy in the midst of her pain. Likewise, my suicidal counselee will not hear a theology lecture right now. She needs the Jesus Who will pick her up off the floor, dry her tears, and remind her that her life still has value—to Him, even if to no one else.
Encountering severely depressed believers requires a special patience and sensitivity that we need to seek from the heart of God. Yes, biblical encouragement includes using Scripture wisely. But when one is immobilized in their Christian walk, it is not the best time to unpack all of Ephesians 4. “Putting off” the sin nature and “putting on” the new man seems impossible when just getting out of bed is difficult. While it may be difficult, in these seasons showing Christ-like love may mean just sitting next to our friend (or counselee) in the pit. Once they are strong enough to take the first tentative steps of faith, then we can come back to applicable doctrine.

What Does a Supportive, Christian Friend Look Like?

Most of the people we love are not counselees, and are not usually looking for cut-and-dried spiritual advice. Nevertheless, Scripture portrays the Christian life as one of mutual encouragement, correction, and exhortation—both within our families and churches (where authority comes into play), and within friendship.
In these precious, rare Christian friendships reminiscent of David and Jonathan, “building up of one another” flows naturally. When a “log jam” in a friend’s life occurs, our first instinct is to get proactive and fix it. What better way than to point them to Scripture? Especially when we believe they may be—gasp—backsliding believers.
A popular catch-phrase among Evangelicals a few years ago was “What Would Jesus Do?” This is a valid question, but there is just one problem when attempting to discern another’s heart: we are not Jesus. We do not have the benefit of His omniscience, nor His insight into all angles of a particular situation. Obviously, in cases of blatant sin (e.g. adultery; theft; habitual drunkenness; pre-marital sex), the loving response would be scriptural confrontation. Supporting someone is sin is neither loving, nor Christ-like. But in real life, situations are rarely so clear-cut. What we may consider disobedience may simply be questionable judgment. In our minds, we may be discerning; in our friend’s, judgmental. If we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit, God shows us what it means to be “A friend [who] loves at all times” and a “brother in times of adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
Recently, a dear friend said to me, “If you know anything about me, you know I can line up all those Bible verses and teaching and the doctrine and all…so there is no point in telling me this, as if you’re saying something new. I just need to talk to God right now and listen to Him, because right now that preaching doesn’t help me.”
Love constrained me from retorting: “If you want to ‘listen to God,’ open the Bible!” I understood the heart behind my friend’s words. Where people’s lives, situations, emotions, and biblical principles converge, a simple verse (or worse, a sense that they are being lectured in a self-righteous way) is not going to encourage them.
And the ultimate irony? I don’t want to “be right.” I don’t want to win an argument; prove a point; or beat my friend at a game of Bible Trivia. What Ireally want is to have a coffee together; put an arm around her shoulder; and most of all, see the joy of Christ flowing in her life. Likewise, when I am confused or feel alone, knowing that a trusted friend is praying for me brings far more comfort than being hammered and peppered with confrontation.
Once God has “poured out His love in our hearts” (Romans 5:5), loving people comes more naturally. While it is often not easy or automatic, we long to share the liberating Truth of the Gospel with others—and help those close to us apply it to their lives. Even when our motives are pure, godly counsel may not be received that way if we wield it without tenderness. It is far more difficult to patiently support, silently love, and unceasingly pray than to exegete a passage of Scripture. We need to seek the Holy Spirit regularly for discernment in our approach, in order to be truly competent counselors andcompassionate friends.

Join the Conversation

What do you think of this summary statement?
It is far more difficult to patiently support, silently love, and unceasingly pray than to exegete a passage of Scripture.


Loving the Way Jesus LovesLoving the Way Jesus Loves by Philip Graham Ryken

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love Is a Person

Loving the way Jesus loves is a daunting task, yet one to which every one of His followers is called. Phil Ryken approaches the central calling of the Christian’s life by walking the reader, slowly and deliberately, through 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter of the Bible.” Less an exegetical treatment of the text than a life application, Ryken’s approach in Loving the Way Jesus Loves is to show us that love is a Person—Jesus Christ—and not a “feeling” nor an abstract theological concept. He states it plainly: “The biggest challenge for us here is not to understand what Paul meant but to do what he said.” (76).

Ryken establishes the necessity of biblical love more than any other attribute, then goes on in subsequent chapters to demonstrate how each characteristic of love mentioned in verses 3-13 is personified in Christ. Throughout the book, he emphasizes that all of the virtues mentioned in this passage are verbs; attributes we are to put into practice by imitating Christ. Interwoven throughout his discussion of each aspect of love—patience; kindness; selflessness; trust; etc.—are scenes from the life of Christ which underscore how He Himself demonstrated each virtue. Christ’s refusal to become provoked or irritated takes us to the shores of Galilee, at the end of a long day of ministry (Mark 6:7-13). Forgiveness is tenderly demonstrated in His restoration of Peter (John 21:15-17).

Examining our own hearts in light of Christ’s responses to people, we learn how to anticipate our own temptation to become irritable (what Lewis Smedes calls a “spiritual readiness to get angry”), and where it comes from: putting our own wants ahead of other people’s needs. By dissecting irritability (and the other opposite attitudes of those mentioned in the passage), Ryken illustrates in an every-day, non-judgmental way how we fail to love people and hinder our relationship with God. “Love lets the needs of others set our agenda, rather than letting our agenda limit how much we are willing to serve” (55).

A Question…

From the beginning of the book, a question may linger in the back of the reader’s mind: “If love is primarily a choice, and not a feeling (as biblical counselors often exhort), is what Ryken calls ‘loveless social action’ worthless? Do we not have to choose to demonstrate love sometimes—even when we don’t feel like it—out of simple obedience?”

The answer is yes, but to think of love in terms of duty is to miss the point. The problem, as Ryken summarizes, is that “we are less loving than we think we are, and a lot less loving than we ought to be.” Therefore, we need to learn how to love—and this begins our journey into understanding the heart of Jesus. Love is as love does; and through His interaction with other people (most of whom did not reciprocate any kind of affection, let alone charity), we learn to see what love looks like. The Gospel, the Good News that we are loved undeservedly and unconditionally, is what transforms our hearts – from that of dutiful servants to joyful heirs.

Outward Behavior and Inward Heart Change

Throughout the book, Ryken draws the connection between outward behavior and inward heart change. In Chapter 4, Love’s Holy Joy, he explains that rejoicing with the truth (v. 6) goes beyond theology and morality by taking us to the dinner table of Simon the Pharisee. More than warning against participation of sin, however, love does not rejoice in the wrongdoing of others. A subtle sense of satisfaction may creep in when another—especially a rival—falls into sin. What Paul is pointing to (and Christ demonstrated through forgiving the sinful woman) is the joy that comes with a personal experience of God’s grace—and what we rejoice in vicariously when another tastes it. This transformational, selfless, joy-sharing love is what motivates true Christ-like compassion. What better way to cultivate patience towards a fellow believer, than to appreciate a holy God’s patience with us in coming to repentance!

In order to appreciate the multi-faceted love we see in Scripture, Ryken probes deeply into the self-centered human heart in order to understand how and why we fall short. In every failure to forgive; to be long-suffering; to trust—there is an idol. We prize our own comfort; security; reputation or convenience. By contrast, a heart transformed by the forgiving grace of God will be preoccupied with extending the same blessing to others. Ryken shows how our hearts can be truly transformed by grace: “First it takes our failures and forgives them. This gives us so much gratitude that we start loving Jesus in return. But that is not all. The love of Jesus then enables us to serve others with the same kind of love.” (171).

This attitude—giving freely what we have freely received from the hand of God—applies, of course, not only to forgiveness; but to every other loving behavior-attitude listed in 1 Corinthians 13. Far from being a “behavior modification” chapter, Ryken shows, through simple anecdotes and the life of Christ, how to “put off” unloving human reactions and “put on” their godly opposites. His life, example, and personal involvement in ours is what transforms our attitudes and motivation towards others. In this practical and compassionately-written book, Ryken helps Christians of all stages see how walking in love is a natural consequence of living in the overflow of God’s intense, personal, and active love for the believer.

This review was first published on The Biblical Counseling Coalition's website: http://biblicalcounselingcoalition.or...

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