Saturday, April 29, 2023

Your Life - A Dead Stump, or a Flourishing Tree?

                                                        (The Wailing (Praying) Wall, Jerusalem)

For several years Super Bowl weekend was an opportunity to get away. Linda and I would take our boys to a hotel that had a pool and a hot tub and, this one's for me, a sauna. [Pronounced "sow-na."]

This was family time, enjoying being together, playing in the pool, eating good food, and, occasionally, turning on the game to see what's going on.

One of our escape weekends was in a nice hotel in the north suburbs of Detroit. We discovered that, on Super Bowl weekends, we had the entire place to ourselves!

My background is Finnish. My Upper Peninsula relatives had saunas on their property. On one of our hotel getaways Daniel and I went into the sauna. A man was there, heating up. He had a long scar down the middle of his chest, indicating open heart surgery.

This man started talking to Dan. He said, "I have kids, I miss them. I don't get to see them much any more."

"I gave her over a million dollars in the settlement," he said. "She got the kids, and a lot of money."

Our hotel getaway was taking a dark turn.

He looked at me and said, "I had not planned for that to happen."

I was thinking, "Just what did you plan to happen, and how did you plan for it? What, anyway, was your goal in life?"

The sauna was really getting hot, so I asked the man, "Want to talk outside by the pool?"

We exited the sauna. Dan jumped back in the pool. The man and I took poolside seats. He told me his story.

He was the CEO of a corporation in the Detroit area. He had worked and worked to build a fortune that he could comfortably live with in retirement. It was clear to me that this man worked so much on making money that he neglected to work harder on his marriage and his kids. He was mostly absent, but bought them lots of stuff.

His wife was alone in the marriage. Eventually, she divorced him.

I told him that if he wanted to talk more he could contact me. As he got up and walked away, he turned around to give me a piece of advice. "Enjoy your family," he said.

Well, that is exactly what I am doing, and why we got away together, and why we were playing in the pool, and why we were having meals together.

Proverbs 11:28 says,

A life devoted to things is a dead life, a stump;
a God-shaped life is a flourishing tree.

This man's life was ending as a dead stump. Mine felt like a flourishing tree.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Self-Forgiveness and Liberation from the Past

If you struggle with self-hatred I recommend Everett Worthington's book Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free From the Past. Worthington is Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a follower of Jesus.

                        (Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio)
If you struggle with self-hatred and an inability to forgive yourself, I strongly recommend Everett Worthington's Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past.

I meet many who cannot forgive their own selves from past failures, whether real or imagined. Un-self-forgiveness is a mental and spiritual assassin. Self-forgiveness rooted in God's great act of forgiveness in Christ is liberating.

Self-forgiveness will free you from guilt. "Sometimes guilt arises over unrealistic expectations and standards of perfection that none of us can achieve. When you are able to forgive yourself, that weight is lifted." (Worthington, p. 45)

Self-forgiveness will free you from self-blame. "Self-forgiveness frees you from the chattering, accusing voice in your head." (Ib., 46)

Self-forgiveness will free you from stress-related illness. "Self-forgiveness can improve your health, 1 and here’s why. Holding on to self-condemnation elevates your stress, which has been associated with a long list of physical and psychological harm." (Ib.)

Self-forgiveness can liberate you from alcohol misuse. "Forgiveness of the self might be, for alcoholics, the most difficult type of forgiveness to achieve. But if they were able to do so, it could help control their drinking." (Ib., p. 47)

Self-forgiveness can liberate you from accusation. "By bringing our sins to God and receiving God’s forgiveness, we can then forgive ourselves and we can rest in the knowledge that the accusations of Satan are groundless. If we forgive ourselves, we can silence the oppressive voice of the enemy." (Ib., 47)

Self-forgiveness provides freedom for flourishing. "By not being so wrapped up in self-condemnation, you can enjoy more pleasurable and positive experiences." (Ib.)

Self-forgiveness provides freedom for focusing on God. "Instead of being wrapped up in condemning yourself for past failures, you can seek God and enjoy that relationship." (Ib.)

Self-forgiveness provides freedom for focusing on others. "Self-forgiveness allows you to focus on others, with the goal of helping to meet their needs." (Ib., p. 48)

Self-forgiveness provides freedom for health. "Self-forgiveness provides energy and vitality. It supplies both a freedom from the past and a forward-thinking orientation that helps you seek the benefits of exercise, a healthy diet, and energetic work." (Ib.)

Self-forgiveness provides freedom for a better quality of life. "Self-forgiveness can matter greatly in enhancing one’s quality of life." (Ib., 50)

Self-forgiveness provides freedom for peace. "People who continue to wrestle with self-blame are unsettled. They find it difficult to exhale and relax. Forgiving yourself will help you live at peace." (Ib.)

Worthington cites empirical studies supporting these conclusions. Given the great benefits of self-forgiveness, why would anyone choose to wallow in self-condemnation?

My Books


I (and others) have been saying for some time that identity is the issue of our time.

Here are some things I have written about human identity.

IDENTITY #1 - I Find My Identity in Giving Myself to My Maker

(Rift Valley in Kenya)

Until you have given up your self to Him
you will not have a real self.

C.S. Lewis

Allow me to get hypothetical.

If...   there is a God..., and...

If...   God is a personal agent..., and

If...   God is the cause of us...,  and

If...   God has made us in His image..., then

My identity is: child of God.

If...   my identity is given to me...,  and

I am not left to create my own identity..., then

I will find my meaning and purpose in life in giving myself to my Maker.

(See, e.g., J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism.)

Identity (#2) - Don't Let Your Sufferings Define You

(Lake Erie, Maumee Bay (Ohio) State Park)

Some people, even Christians, define themselves by sufferings they have undergone. They refuse to let go of their painful past, since to do so would be to lose their identity. They have become, they are, their sufferings. 

In this, they feel unique. No one really understands them. Howard Thurman writes: 

"There are many people who would feel cheated if suddenly they were deprived of the ego definition that their suffering gives them." (Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, 56)

Some are self-defined by their suffering. They are men and women of sorrows, and little more. To free them of their sufferings, to redeem them, would be to deprive them of their core identity.

Such people resist the redemptive activity of God. They need their sufferings. They will feel like a nobody should their being-abused cease. Prisonhood is their "normal"; freedom is abnormal and threatening to them.

Their chains define and delimit them. To escape this horrible life-condition requires a revelation of their true self, their true identity, as children of God and made in God's image. Only then will they be horrified by the chains and suffering and cry out for release and redemption.

If that happens, they will be free of the idea that no one understands them, and therefore free to understand and love others.

If you are a Jesus-follower and relate to this, read this and apply. 

Identity (#3) - Masks & Authenticity

I'm on the left
One of my seminary students, in their spiritual journal, wrote that God was speaking to them about their inauthenticity before others. They spend a lot of energy performing and acting before others, and not allowing others to see the "real them." 

A few days later, in another journal entry, God began speaking to them about their "fear of man"; i.e., the fear of what others think of them, or of what others might do to them. 

Fear of others is the root of mask-wearing inauthenticity. This is why people wear "masks," and don't let others inside of them.

The key to authentic existence is to bring one's fear of others before God and let God get his hands on this. The way God frees people of the fear of others is through his love of us, as our Father. This is what it means to say that God is perfect love, and perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)

As the truth of how much and why God loves us becomes less theory and more experienced reality, authentic existence begins.

As we discover the freedom and acceptance of an unmasked relationship with God, the mask comes off.

Identity (#4) - Our Masks Are Not Our Reality

Ann Arbor store

What level of wisdom could come from a person dedicated to dwelling in God's presence, from someone not captured by the idols of technology and media? We see wisdom in Thomas Merton. Merton never watched television! What could he have to tell us? 

Merton exudes prophetic words of ontological realities. One ever-relevant Merton-theme is the stripping away of the false self, accomplished by God, in God's presence. He writes: 

"If we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities - "selves," that is to say, regarded as objects. Selves that can stand back and see themselves having fun (an illusion which reassures them that they are real)." (Merton, Raids On the Unspeakable, 15)

Merton published Raids in 1965. That's fifty-four  years ago. He discerned the creeping shallowness of American culture. Were he alive today he would see the same, only multiplied, magnified, and glorified. 

The American social milieu profits on sustaining hypocrisy. A "hypocrite" (Greek ὑποκρίτης) is: an "actor," a "mask-wearer." We are a world of false personas who don't merely hide behind culturally constructed masks but who believe our masks are our reality. Halloween, our preferred holy day, has become every day.

Identity (#5) - In Solitude God Peels Off the Mask

My spiritual life is a dialectical movement between solitude and community, solitude and community, solitude and community... Solitude with God, koinonia, alone with God, together with the Jesus-community...  I need both.

Ontologically, solitude comes first. Solitude is, as Nouwen has said, the "furnace of spiritual transformation." In solitude God purges my soul. This is good. 

experience this, I know this, as a good thing. 

Without time alone with God "community" (koinonia) becomes a costume party. 

In solitude the mask gets peeled away to reveal the true self. Spend much time in solitude with God and the masks will get removed by the Holy Spirit. "You" will then go to the party, interact with people, in authentic ways. 

This is all about true freedom, who God has made you to be, who you truly are in Christ.

Thomas Merton has written:

"The truest solitude is not something outside you, not an absence of men or of sound around you: it is an abyss opening up in the center of your own soul. And this abyss of interior solitude is a hunger that will never be satisfied with any created thing. The only way to find solitude is by hunger and thirst and sorrow and poverty and desire. The man who has found solitude is empty, as if he had been emptied by death." (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 80-81)

Learn these things and live:

  • Redemptive solitude is a condition of the heart.
  • In solitude God morphs the human heart.
  • All persons have a hunger within that cannot be satisfied by created things. That includes you.
  • Stop questing after created things.
  • Hunger and thirst for the real thing. In this way consider yourself impoverished and needy.
  • What you and I need is God.
  • Therefore, meet often with God.
  • He loves you. So, in his presence, you won't need the mask.

Identity (#6) - Followers of Jesus Have Been Given an Identity

When Linda and I were in Columbus we entered a store and saw this sign on the wall.

Image result for johnpiippo awesome facebook

A person's identity is either given, hence to be discovered and grown into, or self-created, like an avatar in a video game. If someone fails to believe in a God who is their Creator, they will be left on their own to invent themselves. The implications of what you believe here will determine the life you live.

James Houston says:

“What we face in the world today is a self-achieved identity. As Christians, we believe in a given identity, not an achieved one. The Christian is found in Christ. The self-achieved identity is very fragile because we have to sustain it. Nobody else is going to sustain it for me when I have built it up myself. The result of this is a tendency toward narcissism, because there is a depleted sense of self. This is not what God ordained that we should have for an identity.”

(In Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, p. 41)

Identity (#7) - Who You Are, and Who You Are Not


In my spiritual formation classes for pastors and Christian leaders I begin by sending the students out to pray for an hour, using Psalm 23 as their meditative focus. My instruction to them is: when God speaks to you, write it down.

Upon returning from their hour with God, I have found many have heard God tell them, "I love you." Some have not heard thos
e words in a long time.

Henri Nouwen wrote that he was "firmly convinced that the decisive moment of Jesus's public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, "You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests." (Spiritual Direction, 28) When God tells someone "You are my beloved," or "I love you," the most intimate truth about that person is revealed. 

God loves you: this is the ultimate truth about you. 

Nouwen says "the ultimate spiritual temptation is to doubt this fundamental truth about ourselves and trust in alternative identities." (28)

Who are you? Nouwen counsels us not to define ourselves by the following alternative identities.

1. Do not define yourself as: "I am what I do." He writes: "When I do good things and have a little success in life, I feel good about myself. But when I fail, I start getting depressed." (Ib.) To define yourself by what you do is to live on a spiritual and emotional roller coaster that is a function of your accomplishments.

2. Do not define yourself as: "I am what other people say about me." "What people say about you has great power. When people speak well of you, you can walk around quite freely. But when somebody starts saying negative things about you, you might start feeling sad. When someone talks against you, it can cut deep into your heart. Why let what others say about you - good or ill - determine what you are?" (Ib., 29)

3. Do not define yourself as: "I am what I have." Don't let your things and your stuff determine your identity. Nouwen writes: "As soon as I lose any of it, if a family member dies, if my health goes, or if I lose my property, then I can slip into inner darkness." (Ib.)

Too much energy goes into defining ourselves by deciding "I am what I do," "I am what others say about me," or "I am what I have." Nouwen writes: "This whole zig-zag approach is wrong." You are not, fundamentally, what you do, what other people say about you, or what you have. You are loved by God.

Today, God speaks to the deep waters of your heart and says, "You are my beloved son or daughter, and on you my favor rests." To hear that voice and trust in it is to reject the three alternative ways of self-definition and enter into freedom and joy.

Identity #8 - A Way to Authentic Self-Knowledge

(Monroe County)

It is good to know the truth about one's own self. The Jesus-POV is that self-truth lies inside a person, in "the heart." The heart is what Jesus is going after, not the appearance.

While the outside of a cup may look nice, we want the inside to be clean. A tomb may be white-washed to look pure, but the bones of a dead person lie inside. It's what's inside that counts. The "inside" defines the real you.

Many convince themselves that their persona ("mask," "false self") is a manifestation of their inner person. Occasionally, the smiley mask or confident mask or hard mask slips off, and there is a moment of rage or weakness or tenderness. At that moment we have a window into the heart, a glimpse of who that person really is. What is in the heart is the person's "normal"; the mask is the person's "false normal."

C.S. Lewis shows us how this can work in an opposite way. He writes:

"We imply, and often believe, that habitual vices are exceptional single acts, and make the opposite mistake about our virtues - like the bad tennis player who calls his normal form his "bad days" and mistakes his rare successes for his normal. I do not think it is our fault that we cannot tell the real truth about ourselves; the persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence, simply will not go into words. But the important thing is that we should not mistake our inevitably limited utterances for a full account of the worst that is inside." (
The Problem of Pain, 53-54, emphasis mine.)

Here are two inauthentic conditions.

1. Wear a false-self mask to hide who you really are.
2. Mistake a rare spiritual or moral success for who you really are.

Think of yourself as a patient in the doctor's office. You smile and say, "Everything's fine," but the doctor says, "Let's take the MRI to make sure." Or, you say "I felt great for an hour yesterday!" The doctor says, "Let's take the MRI to make sure." We may be afraid to know the truth of our physical condition, but I hope you agree that we need to know this, and it will be best to get it treated.

Who are you, really? God knows, surely. 

A way to authentic self-knowledge is this. Make it your habit to enter God's office regularly. Sit before God and pray, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Psalm 139:23-24) God will show you the truth about your real self, and begin restoring your heart (removing layers of veneer to get at the original finish), and then transforming it (meta-morphing it; changing its form into Christlikeness).

This is who you are. This is who were were always meant to be.

Identity #9 - Don't Doubt Who You Really Are

(Green Lake Conference Center, Wisconsin)

I'm sitting on my back porch with a hoodie on over my head and my legs wrapped in a blanket. There's food in my various bird feeders, nectar in my hummingbird feeder, a few snacks, a cup of coffee in my favorite mug, my journal, a pen, James Cone's God of the Oppressed, Henri Nouwen's Spiritual Direction, my Bible, and my laptop. I've got a few hours to dwell closely in God's presence, listening, praying, writing, as God leads me.

Nouwen's book is spectacular. I'm reading what he says about self-rejection, and acceptance of our core identity, which is: I am a son of God, and God finds favor with me. Self-rejection concerns "the darkness of not feeling truly welcome in human existence. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that declares we are loved." (31)

Self-rejection manifests itself as either shame or pride. Either arrogance or low self-esteem. Nouwen writes: 

"Self-rejection can show itself in either a lack of confidence or a surplus of pride." (31) 

"The greatest trap in life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection, doubting who we really are." (31)

It has taken me a long time to experience this great truth in my heart. I've known it in my mind. But what's needed here is not theory, but experience.

Identity #10 - The Myth of Ontological Uniqueness

(World Trade Center Memorial, New York City)

The young woman, in her twenties, told me she was a Jesus-follower. I think she was, and anyway, I'm not the ultimate judge of such things.

She struggled with others, and herself. She smiled and said, "The reason people can't deal with me is because they've never met anyone like me before."

I told him I've met many people like her. This upset her. 

She insisted on her ontological uniqueness. This was the heart of her problem; viz., believing she was different, in essence, from anyone else on the planet. 

Her false sense of ontological uniqueness isolated her. If there's no one else on earth like you, then you are alone. You are an alien, one of the X-men, and everyone else is a stranger. This is the myth of ontological uniqueness. It was this young woman's prison.

Ontological uniqueness is not the same as saying, "No two snowflakes are alike." But of course. And of course they are alike in that they are both snowflakes. My young friend saw all of humanity as snowflakes, except for her own self. If that were true, then community (koinonia; what we have in common) would be impossible. No wonder she felt isolated. No wonder others could not get near to her.

The truth is, the deeper we go inside persons, the more we are all the same. I refer to the elements of our ultimate same-ness as 
"ontological dualities." Everyone struggles with things like Life vs. Death, and Trust vs. Control.

One of Satan's strategies is to persuade us that our sin, our failure, is so horrible that no one could ever relate to it. Thus no one could understand or have compassion towards us. Or, the enemy could persuade us of having an other-worldly giftedness, so we would think we are above all the rest of failing humanity.

The truth is that, in a deep, ontological way, we are "Everyman." Christ died for us all. God became one of us.

That is the cure for our isolation. 

Identity #11 - The Identity That Makes You Free

(Redeemer sanctuary)

Our freedom is a function of our anchorage. The more we are attached (addicted; French attache) to the affirmation and rejection of other people, the less free we are. 

I know this from personal experience. I have been too attached, too connected, to what people think of me. This has prevented me from thinking of other people, without conditions. Which is how Jesus thinks about us.

The way out of this bondage is to discover your true self, who you are, and what you are intended to be. Which is: a child of God, forgiven, loved, and restored to community with God. 

You are beloved of God. The more this truth has descended from my mind into my heart and has become my being, my core identity, the more I experience the freedom Christ has called me to. Included in this is freedom to love others as God loves me. One sign of this true experiential freedom is: compassion towards others.

I love the way Henri Nouwen expresses this. He writes: "The identity that makes you free is anchored beyond all human praise and blame. (Nouwen, 
The Inner Voice of Love, 70)

Identity #12 - Do Not Let This World Interpret You

(Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio)

The prescient, prophetic, praying follower of Jesus, Thomas Merton, wrote: 

"We have a vocation not to be disturbed by the turmoil and wreckage 
of the great fabric of illusions." 

We have a vocation... 

A calling. 

We have a calling.

From God. 

God calls us.

... not to be disturbed...

To not be agitated.

This is about the heart.

Washing machines have "agitators." They move back and forth, back and forth, with force. They are going nowhere. They make no forward progress.

Disturbances halt forward progress. Disturbances interrupt the calling.

said, "Let not your hearts be agitated."

ταράσσω,v  \{tar-as'-so}
1) to agitate, trouble (a thing, by the movement of its parts to and fro)  1a) to cause one inward commotion, take away his calmness of  mind, disturb his equanimity  1b) to disquiet, make restless  1c) to stir up  1d) to trouble  1d1) to strike one's spirit with fear and dread  1e) to render anxious or distressed  1f) to perplex the mind of one by suggesting scruples or doubts. the turmoil...

Let not your hearts be agitated by the agitation. By the upheaval. By the 
irruptions. By the roiling waters.

Let not your hearts be arrested by the peace-thieves. the wreckage...

Do not be captivated by the incessant effluence of cultural carnage.

Put a compress on the bleeding media.

...the great fabric of illusions.

The systematic sham that is "the world."

With all its pretension and arrogance.

Do not let this world interpret you.

We have a calling from God to remain in Christ where agitation and turmoil are not to be found and the great fabric of systemic spell-casting is broken.

Identity # 13 - Love Is the Measure of Our Identity

(Michigan International Speedway's Christmas Light Show)

"The measure of our identity, of our being (the two are the same), is the amount of our love for God. The more we love earthly things, reputation, importance, pleasures, ease, and success, the less we love God." 

Thomas Merton

The more things we love, the more our love, and hence, our identity, is dissipated. Our love, and our self, gets spread thin. We become dissipated among things that have no real value. "Then," wrote Merton, "when we come to die, we find we have squandered all our love (that is, our being) on things of nothingness, and that we are nothing, we are death."

Because we have wasted our lives; we have squandered our love.

Sometimes, when I read an obituary, I see that the deceased, John Doe, "loved to hunt and fish, and loved his sports teams." So, who was John Doe? He was an avid hunter, fisherman, and sports lover. Are these wrong? No. But if they are the things that define John Doe and nothing more, then how sad and meaningless a life he led. Especially if John Doe has been a Detroit Lions fan.

Merton wanted his life to be measured by his love of God, and from that, measured by his love for the least of His children.

Devote yourself fully to loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Out of this great love, discern how to dispense this love to others, in both word and action. 

You are what you love. (See here.)

Identity # 14 - The Identity That Makes You Free

(Tree, in my backyard.)

Our freedom is a function of our attachment. The more we are attached (addicted; French attache) to the affirmation and rejection of other people, the less free we are. 

I know this too well from personal experience. I have been too attached, too connected, to what other people think of me. This attachment has prevented me from thinking of other people, without conditions. Which is how Jesus thought and thinks about us.

The way out of this bondage is to discover your true self, who you are, and what you are intended to be. Which is: a child of God, forgiven, loved, and restored to community with God. 

You are the beloved of God. The more this truth has descended from my mind into my heart and has become my very being, my core identity, the more I experience the freedom Christ has called us to. Included in this freedom is: freedom to love others as God loves them. One sign of this is compassion towards others.

I love the way Henri Nouwen expresses this. He writes: "The identity that makes you free is anchored beyond all human praise and blame. (Nouwen, 
The Inner Voice of Love, 70)

The amazing love of God transcends all earthly loves, refers to us as loved by God, and sets us free.

Identity #15 - C.S. Lewis On the Real Self

(Window, in our house)

Here's a quote from C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity on the "real self." I'll add some parenthetical comments.

"There are no real personalities apart from God. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self. [In Jesus, we see what humanity is. Some say, "Well, I'm only human." If only that were true! The Jesus-idea is that, without God's kingdom-rule in our lives, we're sub-human.] 

Sameness is to be found most among the most 'natural' men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerers have been; how gloriously different are the saints. 

But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away 'blindly' so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality; but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ's and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. [This is the Jesus-paradox; viz., that to live the truly good life one must not focus on living the good life. Or, as Lewis wrote elsewhere, if one goes into a beautiful garden expecting to be blown away by its beauty, this will not often happen. But go into the same garden to say your prayers, and nine times out of ten the result will be to be stunned by the beauty. Call this the way of indirection.] 

It will come when you are looking for Him... Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in." [We find ourselves in losing ourselves; we find our true selves by losing ourselves in God.]