11/23/14

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.

11/1/14

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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10/20/14

Superb Review of RFTP from Vision of Hope


Resource Friday: Redeemed from the Pit

by  | Vision of HopeOct 17, 2014dark-dawn-dusk-1820-825x550
This week in our “Resource Friday” series, we would like to talk about a great book we use for many of our ladies who are struggling with eating disorders, Redeemed from the Pit by Marie Notcheva. This book has truly been instrumental to our ladies here at VOH and offers great, biblical help to those who are struggling with destructive eating habits.
Marie writes in a way that is compassionate, yet challenging; speaking the truth in love. In her book, Marie helps the reader think through what is actually going on in the heart, what true repentance looks like, and how to live in freedom from enslaving habits through Christ. Marie does an amazing job of getting to the heart idols that drive destructive eating habits, and leaves no room for excuses.
As she writes about changing behavior, Marie addresses the issue of having a “works righteousness” perspective. While striving to change destructive habits, it can be easy to fall into the error of focusing solely on changing the behavior, missing the heart that is driving that behavior. Marie assures this does not happen in her book, as she wisely teaches her readers what it looks like to change the heart along with the behaviors. She writes:
Trying to change behavior without dealing with the underlying motivations is doomed to failure. Superficial change does not acknowledge the lordship of Christ – a deep heart change is not necessary simply to break a habit. True transformation requires us to hate out sin passionately; not just seek to avoid the consequences of it (2 Corinthians 7:10). Simply trying to change our actions means we are still trying to be our own god – thinking we can change ourselves apart from the Holy Spirit. Rather, Jesus reverses the order: “…first, clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.”(Matthew 23:26)
We are so thankful for this amazing resource that has helped so many of our ladies find freedom in Christ! If you would like to purchase this resource, get it here.
Bethany SpenceBethany Spence
Bethany heard about Vision of Hope while attending Word of Life Bible Institute in Florida. When she began praying about what God wanted her to do after graduating, He kept bringing Vision of Hope to her mind. Knowing that there was an internship available, Bethany applied, was accepted, and began her internship with VOH in July, 2012. Since then she has been amazed at the opportunities God has given her to learn more about His Word and how it applies to everyday life. Bethany now serves on staff at Vision of Hope.

10/3/14

New Resource from Focus Publishing - "Eating Disorders: Hope for Hungering Souls"

I was recently asked to write the Foreword to Dr. Mark Shaw's latest biblical counseling book, written with co-authors Rachel Bailey and Bethany Spence. Bethany and Rachel both serve in the field of eating disorders at Vision of Hope and Houston Eating Disorders Center, respectively.

It was a huge honor to be involved with this project, and I believe God will use this important resource to help many struggling women!





9/21/14

My Eating Disorder Journey During Pregnancy

(Originally written for a friend of mine, who is a doula with a special ministry to pregnant women with eating disorders.)


For a young woman with body image issues, the prospect of carrying a baby and watching her body grow and change (in ways she cannot control) is frightening. In addition to the physical aspect, pregnancy is a bit of an enigma to young women: in high school and college, the unmarried but sexually active fear it. There is shame and stigma attached, which partially accounts for the high abortion rate. Once married, pregnancy is desired and greatly anticipated – the joyful promise of a new baby awaits. Where, exactly, does the woman suffering with an eating disorder fall into this spectrum?

That is a complicated question, as many of us who have been through this experience can attest. The life-dominating obsession of anorexia or bulimia is an intensely lonely experience, and many women with eating disorders truly want to become nurturing mothers to a little one who loves them unconditionally. Having an eating disorder during pregnancy is not a matter of selfishness; of putting one’s vanity or pride before the child’s needs. The pregnant woman struggling with anorexia (or, more commonly, bulimia), needs compassion more than ever in order to reach out for the help she needs.

My eating disorder began 10 years before my first pregnancy in 1996. Although severely underweight in high school, I had managed to maintain a normal-enough weight throughout my early twenties to conceal my bulimia. At 5’5” and 110-120 lbs., I weighed enough to menstruate regularly and had no trouble conceiving and carrying my babies to term. (I had stopped menstruating from age 15-19, as I had insufficient body fat to produce the estrogen needed to ovulate. Many women with eating disorders permanently lose their fertility; it should be noted that I was extremely lucky.)
As a pre-teen, I had casually made the comment once to my mother, “Being a fashion model seems like a fun job to have,” to which she caustically replied: “What would you model – maternity clothes?” This comment stayed with me my entire life…causing me to associate pregnancy with being overweight. As a young married woman, I do not recall, however, being unduly concerned about weight gain or looking “fat” during my pregnancies. However, as I was regularly bingeing and purging (up to four times per day), I did not gain as much weight as the average woman would have. During my first pregnancy, I gained 15 pounds – and delivered a healthy, 8 lb. 4 oz. baby girl. My second pregnancy was similar – the bulimia continued, undetected….and I gave birth to an 8 lb. 1 oz. baby boy.

Towards the end of my third pregnancy  in 2003, protein was noted in my urine. Tests were done to check my creatinine clearance – a measure of kidney function. Knowing that long-term bulimia can affect the kidneys, I became worried. Thinking I had been drinking insufficient water, I began fluid-loading…..which skewed the results of the tests and caused my ob-gyn to think my kidneys were failing. Knowing nothing about my bulimia, she assumed I was pre-eclamptic (despite my low blood pressure) and scheduled an induction at 37 weeks gestation. A difficult and painful delivery followed, although my son was healthy and strong at 7 lbs. 6 oz. Several months later, I saw a nephrologist who assured me my kidneys were completely healthy….and that compromised kidney function was often present in late-term pregnancies.

Nevertheless, the experience scared  me…..and it was part of the wake-up call God gave me to turn my life around. While Stefan (my third child) was an infant, I began the process of repentance from the eating disorder that could have claimed my life. Intercessory prayer by others, as well as regular time in the Word and personal prayer were tools that I used to overcome the bondage food had become in my life. (See my book, “Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders” , (Calvary Press) for helpful information on the process of renewing the mind.)

In 2005, I unexpectedly found myself expecting once again – this time, with a second daughter. In between buying pink outfits and nursery toys, I was by this time talking to women online who found themselves in the same predicament I had years earlier – pregnant;  trapped by eating disorders; and scared. I shared with them the same hope that God had given me – and explained that there was freedom available in Christ. I encouraged them to get help, either through their churches or with a local counselor. Eating normally, this time I gained 30 lbs. (although I had slightly more edema) and came home from the hospital 20 lbs. lighter. Without reverting to restriction, purging, or any other unhealthy mechanisms, I was back down to my pre-pregnancy size 3 within a few months. Natalia, who weighed 8 lbs. 6 oz. at birth, was the only one of my children conceived, carried and born post-bulimia.

The physical risks of eating disorders to a pregnant woman (and her unborn child) are sobering. Dehydration can lead to severe cramping, which may be mistaken for miscarriage. Malnutrition causes key nutrients and minerals to be leached from the mother’s bones, in order for the baby to obtain what he/she needs. Worse, in the case of anorexia, miscarriage is common and low-birth weight (along with insufficiently developed brains) is a major risk. Although my children were fortunate not to have been physically affected by my eating disorder while I was carrying them, while practicing bulimia I could not have been the mom that they needed. Constantly being preoccupied with thoughts of food and the takes time, energy and attention away from the little ones who need it most. One of the first things I noticed when I stopped the bulimic behavior was how much more energy I had. I was also able to concentrate and stay focused much more easily.


Overcoming an eating disorder is never easy, and because the mindset and behavior pattern is so difficult to break the motivation to “just do it for the baby” is simply not enough. Moreover, such statements (however well-intentioned) may add to the guilt a pregnant woman with an eating disorder already feels. She needs to feel safe enough to confess the bulimia (or other eating disorder) to her doula or trusted medical professional, in order to get nutritional and spiritual help. Pregnancy can be an added incentive to a woman’s recovery, but transformation is never automatic. If you are pregnant and suffer from an eating disorder, there is hope. Do not be afraid to tell someone you trust, and allow others to help and support you!