Counseling

How Have You Been? (Radical Honesty During Difficult Times)

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Podcast Audio:

How have you been this week? I know asking that right now is weird. I’m standing alone in a room full of empty pews, addressing myself to an iPhone strapped to a camera – you’re sitting at home in front of a laptop or tablet or tv watching this. You can’t respond and I can’t hear you.

But still – I ask the question: “How have you been this week?” Take a minute to think about it. If I were in the same room as you, what would you say? Would you smile and tell me how wonderfully you’ve been doing, recounting a story from this week of how you’ve seen blessing? Would you give me a quick “I’m fine.” and then ask how I am? Would you sigh and say it’s been a little difficult, but then quickly change the subject in hopes I don’t pry further?

So, how have you been?

I’ll be honest with you; this has been a really tough week for me. Now, I know that some of you have told me that you don’t want to hear stuff like this on a Sunday morning. Some of you have told me that I’m not supposed to talk about having a rough week, that I’m supposed to keep things positive and upbeat on Sunday mornings, that me sharing my more difficult feelings makes you uncomfortable – and you think it makes everyone else uncomfortable – and you warn me that if I don’t stay positive and upbeat, that people won’t listen to the sermons, people will stop coming to church, and that you, yourself, will stop – because – as you’ve told me – when you come to church you want to hear “things that inspire you”, that give you a “positive worship experience”, that make you “feel better when you leave”.

Well, I might not be able to do that today, because, honestly – I had a really rough week. I was emotionally depressed, spiritually dry, mentally wiped-out, and physically exhausted. Most of the days this week I felt like a worthless pile of junk and everything I did took 10-times the effort it should have. It was, by almost all accounts, a bad week.

I had a Psalm 6 type week. Turn there if you want. It begins,

“O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long?

Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.”

It was a rough week. How was your week? Honestly, how was it?

From my limited perspective, I felt like a lot of people turned an emotional corner this week and were down in the dumps. We’ve been doing this social isolation thing for a while now, and it’s not really good for us. But what makes it worse is the constant stream of news and policies and updates that keep coming all the time. I don’t know about you, but it sometimes feels like we’re all locked in our rooms on a boat being bashed by an unpredictable storm. Our room doesn’t have a window, the wind and waves keep changing direction, and the command crew – the people in charge – seem to have a lot more confidence than they have skill at sailing.

And I think that the emotional toll of being stuck in our little windowless cabins is catching up to more and more people. I know it caught up to me this week.

The Danger of Echo Chambers

I guess one advantage of doing this as a livestream over social media, isn’t that you can just turn me off, right? If you’re one of the people that just can’t handle hearing lament, you can just search up whatever message or song or speaker you want.

What a dangerous temptation that is. To just turn off people and messages that don’t tell you what you want to hear the way you want to hear it. To be able to ignore voices in your life that don’t tell you what you think you want to hear.

While I love how amazing it is to be able to google whatever we want and YouTube up some of the greatest Christian speakers in the world at any time – it is also very spiritually dangerous. Sure, we can learn about a topic of interest, but it can also cause us to live in an echo chamber. This sort of technology allows us to disconnect ourselves from the reality around us, the people nearest to us, the church family around us, to exit our own context and only hear what we want to hear, from the people we want to hear it from, in the style we prefer best. It’s a wonderful gift – but it’s also dangerous too. It’s dangerous to think we are the ones best able to decide what we need. It’s arrogant, self-deceiving, and only serves to make the blind-spots in our lives more pronounced.

And when we live in that echo chamber, one of the temptations that comes along with it is to lie when we are asked “How have you been?” In the first, you lie to yourself – in the second, you lie to others. But that lie usually comes from the same place. Fear.

Consider: When I or someone else asks you, “How have you been?” some of you are and become immediately flooded with fear, and to deal with that fear, you lie. And I’m not just talking about when we’re at church. This happens in marriage. It happens between parents and children. It happens at work and among your friends. Many people, maybe most people, live in fear of honestly answering the question “How have you been?”

Be honest. How many of you have someone in your life that you can tell anything – literally anything to – and you know for certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they will not only listen to you but that there is a zero percent chance they will ever use it against you? Not many of us have that sort of person in our life. Many of you don’t have that even among members of your family. Not with your spouse, parents, or even friends. Some of you see professional counsellors – and pay good money to talk to them – but you still lie to them.

Why? Because you are too afraid to even attempt that sort of relationship. You have already decided in your heart, with no one around, in the silence of your mind, that there are some things that are just no-go-zones for any conversation.

There’s a thought that rumbles through your head, a temptation that is always at hand – but no one will ever know – no one. Do you do that? Do you have scary, or disturbing, or violent, or intensely sad thought, that you have decided in advance that no one will ever know about? Not your spouse, your friend, your mentor, your pastor, not even God? Thoughts you won’t even give voice to in your secret prayer place, not in your journal or even allow to form as a full thought in your mind, because you don’t know what will happen if you do?

What are you afraid of? You are afraid that if you do let that thought out – you’ll collapse. You spend so much time ignoring the difficult things inside you that you are basically a façade. Or, you’re afraid that if you actually tell someone what’s really going on in your life, how you really feel, what you’ve really been doing with your time, the sorts of thoughts that pervade your mind whenever the TV stops or as you lie in your bed before falling to sleep – that they will hate you, reject you, judge you, get angry with you, call you faithless, give some trite answer, compete with you, or even punish you. And that’s the last thing you want. You don’t feel good, and you figure the last thing you need is to tell someone what’s going on and have them make you feel worse.

What a terrible thing it is to have these two temptations dominating your life. On one hand you have yourself as master with no room for anyone else’s teaching, opinions, direction, guidance, or conviction – which leaves you alone, stuck in the muck and mire, unable to grow beyond yourself. And on the other hand, whenever someone tries to break through that armour, to dip their hand into the muck to help you, to take a peek behind your well-manufactured curtain, to shed light in your dark places, you are suddenly full of fear and end up lying to them – which only reinforces the wall between you and the truth. That’s fear and it’s keeping you trapped in a cycle of misery.

Before any conversation is ever had – whether it’s your spouse, parent, friend, pastor, counsellor, or God – you’ve already pre-decided that the person will hurt you – or at least that there’s a chance they might hurt you so it’s not worth the risk. All they’re going to do is dredge up things a bunch of things you don’t want to deal with, give you zero answers, and then pat you on the back, tell you “it’ll be ok” and then leave – so you put up another layer of brick between you and them, you and the world, you and God. Then because that interaction caused discomfort, because you were forced just by the words “How are you doing?” to look at the lockbox full of scary stuff you keep in your heart, you run back to the people and voices that you like to hear, that reinforce what you already think, believe, that makes you feel how you want to feel. Your self-deception reinforced by your echo chamber.

Manipulated by Agreement

Can you see the danger in that?

It’s a risk, isn’t it? Telling the truth, sharing your feelings, opening your heart to someone else and letting them see what’s really going on in there is a terrible risk, isn’t it? Sitting through a sermon or talk, or reading a book, or sitting with a person, that forces you to examine yourself, your beliefs, your preconceptions, your worldview, is dangerous and uncomfortable. That’s why a lot of people avoid it. And when you avoid it – you open yourself up to all kinds of dangers. For example, tribalism.

I’m going to describe something and I want you to consider if you have ever experienced this or watched someone else go through this.

It begins on a successful social media site. You’re not feeling very good about yourself, you don’t like something about yourself, and you want some distraction, something to make you feel better – so you log in to see what’s going on.

The first things you see make you feel more miserable because it’s just a stream of people that are smarter, better looking, more successful, more clever, more popular, more talented, with cleaner homes, nicer stuff, happier relationships, and greener grass than you. And you think, “Wow, that’s not me. Now I feel bad. But wait… I have an idea. I’ll find people like me – same age, same thoughts, same interests, same problems. People who like what I like, who don’t care about what I don’t care about, who have the same quality of life as me…” And when you find this group you feel better. “Ah… my people.”, you think. And it’s nice.

But then, in a short period of time, the posts go from championing how great you and “your people” are to talking about how bad the “other people” are.

You joined the “I like green grass” group, and half the posts are about how lazy and stupid people are who don’t have green grass. Or you joined the “I don’t care about my grass” group and half the posts are about how pretentious the green grass people are, how bad their marriages are, how broke they must be…

You joined the “diet and exercise” group, and half the posts are mocking overweight people and people who don’t know how to use gym equipment. Or, you joined the “body positive” group and half the posts are about how shallow and stupid people who go to the gym are.

It doesn’t matter what group you join. Seniors are pit against teens, teens against seniors. Moms against professional women. Men against women. Sports fans against book readers.

Then come the posts about how no one understands except the people in your echo chamber. No one except you and them knows where to get the good stuff. No one except you and they know the truth. No one except you and they knows what’s funny or smart or accurate. And anyone who isn’t following what your tribe is following, saying what they’re saying, doing what they’re doing… isn’t just wrong… their evil.

It’s not just “pro us”, it’s “anti-them”. You’re good they’re bad. You’re smart they’re dumb. Your appetites are good and right and anyone who says differently is wrong and bad. Your opinions are good and right and everyone else is stupid and wrong.

Then comes the pressure from within the group to not only conform further – and to hate the other guys more – but to believe that every other opinion outside that group is not only wrong but dangerous.

Introverts can’t learn anything from extroverts. Baptists can’t learn anything from Pentecostals. Homeschoolers can’t learn anything from formal education. Christians can’t learn anything from evolutionists. Everyone else is bad and wrong and evil except us – and if you even think of listening any other group, you run the risk of your own people turning on you.

Congratulations, you just joined a cult. Does it sound like I’m exaggerating? Maybe a bit, but that’s how cults work. It’s also how social media echo chambers and tribalism works.

Those echo chambers – which can be found all sorts of places – from who you follow on Instagram, to your favourite e-mail chain, to the TV shows, podcasts and videos you subscribe to – have the danger of reinforcing the barriers between you and what you actually need to hear, what you actually need to experience, what you actually need to feel, what you actually need to share, what you actually need to experience.

Truth Sets You Free

I want you to turn with me to James 1:19-26. This passage speaks a lot about self-deception and the danger of avoiding the truth by surrounding yourself with voices that only tell you what you want to hear.

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

This passage is speaking to the one that God is trying to break through to, who needs to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit, needs to humble themselves to the voice of God, but can’t because they are so constantly deceiving themselves. It’s about breaking down those self-imposed walls that keep us from experiencing what God wants us to experience, from hearing what God wants us to hear.

These are words that I need to hear as much as you do.

It begins in verse 19 telling you to close your mouth and open your ears. To stop letting your emotions drive your decisions, but to just listen.

When someone asks, “How have you been?” our emotions flare-up. Fear, anger, sadness, whatever – and that emotion says, “Shut it down. Lie. If you don’t there will be trouble.” This passage says that listening to that emotion, acting on that emotion, is not going to produce what God wants. What will… engaging in that moment with what God is doing. Stop, listen to what the other person is saying, is asking, is wanting from you, is trying to do for you… and then speak slowly and carefully and honestly.

In your relationship with others, maybe that means you need to not throw out the “I’m fine” so fast without actually listening. Sometimes that person is offering an olive branch. They’re trying to comfort you, to get to know you, to show you love – but you are so used to letting the emotions rule and speaking quickly that you don’t even see how sincere they are. Slowing down and listening to what they’re saying will help. “What do you mean? Do you really want to know? Are you serious? Do you want me to share with you? I’ve got a lot going on… do you really want to know?”

This goes for your relationship with God too. It means that you don’t just jump into the bible verse, prayer book, prayer list, or whatever. Stop. Listen. Wait. Be slow to speak. “God, do you want to say something? Do you really want to listen to me? I know you see what’s going on inside – will you help me get it out? I’m not sure I can… can you give me the words? Let me hear what you want to say about what’s going on inside me.”

Next, in verse 21 we see the importance of repentance. It says, “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls”. In other words, God has already planted a seed in you… but your filthiness and wickedness, your sin… has made it so that the seed won’t grow. You are dry, your soil is polluted, and you need purity. First, you wait, listening to God – then God always follows it up with, “Ok, now repent. See your sin. Acknowledge your sin. Hate your sin. Give your sin to Jesus. Let Jesus die for that sin. Accept forgiveness.” As long as you continue in your sin, you will never be able to hear what God wants to say, because the sin won’t let the implanted seed of God’s word grow!

Next, verses 22-25 speak of ridding yourself of your self-deception. You stop and listen, asking God to speak. God says, “Repent from your sin.”. Then, immediately, fear rises up. “Ok… I’m going to confess some of them – but there’s some stuff in the basement I’m not bringing up.”

These verses say, “You’re not fooling God, you’re only deceiving yourself! God already knows what’s in the basement! You’re the one who denies what they really look like. You’re the one who sees their deepest sins reflected back by the scriptures and then choose to pretend like they don’t exist. God already knows! So He invites you to tell the truth, live in the truth, and to persevere through that truth.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this. It happens in mere moments, microseconds even. God, either in your spirit or through another person says, “How are you doing? Let’s talk. I need to do some heart-work in you”. You want to speak quickly and lie. But this time you don’t. You listen, accept their love and desire to help, and are ready to speak.

But then, before your mouth opens, you realize what you are about to say. It’s not going to be “nice”. It’s going to be “real” and that scares you. What does God say in that moment? “It’s ok. Tell me. We’ll get rid of the garbage together. Just tell me all of it. Share it all. Let me see everything. Then I can make that seed grow.”

But you’re so used to pretending that it’s almost habit to make yourself forget. You want to say how you’re doing, and you’re ready to repent, but you’re afraid and you want to turn away and pretend the conversation isn’t even happening. Shut it down. Walk away.

What does God say? “Look in the mirror. I see you and I want you to know that I see you too — and I want you to see what I see. This is the only way you’re going to be free. I need you to look at my word, listen to my Spirit, and have the courage to say outloud the things that you are too afraid to admit — and then see that I love you. Tell me the sins I already know you commit. Tell me the terrible thoughts I already know you have. Tell me about the fear I already know that dwells within you. I can handle it because I already see it. But I need you to see it, you to acknowledge it, you to drag it into the light, and give it to me so that I can finally let you be free of it. Don’t just say you want my help – actually accept it. I’m standing right here. I see everything. Just be honest.”

This can happen in prayer – or it can happen when you’re talking to a fellow Christian. Remember, James 5:16 says,

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

The healing comes by Christians confessing and praying together.

Finally, look at verse 26. I think this is written to the religious hypocrites who think that they need to pretend for the sake of looking like a good Christian, or to not bring shame to Jesus, or because it might make them or the church look bad. I think it says here, in effect, “The religion that makes you pretend to be good and deny reality is fake – real religion is the one that tells the truth to God, others, and themselves – regardless of how it makes them look.” Because if you lie with your tongue and lie to your own heart – God says your religion is worthless.

Conclusion

What’s my conclusion today? Well, this little series here is about “Building Faith in Difficult Times” and I think the foundation of that is going to be honesty with yourself and with others.

This week, I was not “fine”. I was sad, tired, and made some bad decisions. It does me absolutely no good to hide that from you. Likewise, it doesn’t do any of you any good to hide what’s really going on inside you from God or the people that love you.

Am I saying you should dump your emotional truck on the next cashier who asks you “How are you doing today?” No. What I am saying is that the only way you are going to be able to grow into an emotionally and spiritually strong person, with a robust faith that can withstand difficult times like these – is to be honest with yourself and with others, even if it is risky.

Will everyone react perfectly? No.

But the benefit of living an honest and open life far outweighs the dangers of living in an echo chamber of self-denial and dishonesty.

So, what I want you to do this week is to commit twofold:

First, tell God what’s really going on inside you. Use words you’ve never used before. Say the things you’ve been refusing to say, that you’ve been pretending aren’t inside you, that you are too afraid to voice to even God. Dump it all on Jesus – and then accept that not only can He handle it, but that He still loves you, still forgives you, and will never leave you.

Second, after you’ve talked to God, I want you to commit to finding and telling one person who you trust, someone who you already have a relationship with, what’s really going on in your heart. Whether it’s your sibling, your parent, your Christian friend, your spouse, or your counsellor – tell yourself that, in obedience to God, you are going to confess all the horrible stuff, the scary stuff, the dangerous stuff, the stuff that you never wanted to voice, but that bounces around like a ping-pong ball in your head.

And to those who are about to have this person open up to them – James 1:19–20, “…be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Shut up and listen. Don’t judge. Just listen. Don’t give advice. Just listen. Don’t try to solve the problem. Just listen. “I hear you. I love you. I’ll pray for you. I’m here for you.” That’s it.

Pretending To Be F.I.N.E.

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I'm fine...
I’m fine…

How are you?
– Fine.
Really?
– Yup, Fine.
Are you sure, ’cause you don’t sound fine?
– Totally fine.
Ok.

Have you had that conversation with someone? Someone once told me that F.I.N.E. stands for “Feelings I’m Not Expressing”, and while I agree that there are times and places to keep things to yourself (or to gush), there are a LOT of people who are filled to the brim with F.I.N.E..

What an enormous load some of you are carrying.  In my position as pastor I have the privilege and honour of being trusted to help people shoulder their burdens, be a counselor in times of confusion, a defender during times of spiritual attack, and a conduit by which they might come closer to Jesus.  It is a wonderful, though challenging, part of what I do.

One of the great discoveries I’ve had over the past years is how good people are at pretending like they are on top of the world. And I was honestly fooled for a long while. But, as I’ve gotten to know more people and they have confided in me, I’ve learned that behind every single Sunday mask is a hurting person — without exception.  Secret pain, secret sin, bitterness, anger, fear, confusion, loss, family struggles, money problems, loneliness, depression, anxiety, addiction, feeling distant from God… everyone is going through one or more of these. Everyone.

Since I know you are one of them, I want to tell you two important things:

1. You’re not alone.

You are not the only with that issue.  Some of Satan’s favourite lies are to tell you “no one will love you if you tell them this”, “no one will understand how you feel”, “you shouldn’t be a burden others”, and “you don’t need anyone — you can deal with this problem all by yourself.”  They are LIES! God gave us to each other because it is not good for people to be alone, and His church is where people can get the best help. (Gen 2:18, 1 John 1:3, Heb 4:15, James 5:16, 1 Peter 4:10)

2. God hasn’t left you.

There’s nothing you can do to earn God’s love and nothing you can do to lose it.  Forgiveness is and divine strength are available to everyone who would ask. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt guilty, filthy, or tempted, and thought “”I’m too messed up to even pray. God doesn’t want to hear that again. I should only pray when I feel more spiritual, otherwise I’m just going through the motions, and God doesn’t want me to just go through the motions.” Those are LIES. Don’t listen to the voice that says, “You’re dirty (or useless, or a burden) and God doesn’t want you until you’re clean (and useful and fruitful).”  God LOVES to take dirty, broken, addicted, messed up people and make them clean and whole! Pray anyway! Pray when you don’t feel like it. Pray when you don’t want to. Pray because you need it, and God honours prayer. (Matt 28:20, John 14:16, 1 John 1:9, Rev 3:5)

If you would like some counselling or need to be connected to a group of believers, contact me and I’ll do what I can to help.