The Elusive ‘Proverbs 31’ Ideal Today

When a friend recently asked me to share my thoughts on the “Proverbs 31” woman and man, it unexpectedly was a painful experience. As never before, I realized how cynical I had become on the subject of an ideal marriage. For far too many couples – even Christian couples – the marital ideal of “heaven on earth” has degenerated into something akin to hell on earth.

Solomon (or “King Lemuel”) asks, Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies”  (Proverbs 31:10). Right from beginning, he’s acknowledging that this kind of person is extremely rare and hard to find. And in the previous chapter, Solomon admitted that relationships between men and women were bewildering even to someone as wise as he was (Proverbs 4:18-19).

If it was hard to find a Proverbs 31 woman in Solomon’s day, isn’t the task even more daunting in today’s world? Believers are surrounded by a ME culture rather than a THEE culture. Even in the today’s church, the emphasis is typically on how YOU can have a more fulfilled life, not on how you can lay down your life to honor and serve your spouse or others.

So I ask: Is it even possible  to be a Proverbs 31 woman or man today? With very few observable precedents or role models, has that kind of marriage become something like an unattainable fairy tale?

My cynicism on the subject was compounded several months ago when Lysa TerKeurst, founder of Proverbs 31 Ministries, announced she was divorcing her husband because of his infidelity. Hey, if the head of Proverbs 31 Ministries can’t even make her marriage work, how is there any hope for the rest of us?

I have numerous Christian friends whose marriages seemingly ended through little fault of their own. But while divorce among Christians is certainly a blot on the moral standing of the church today, perhaps there’s an even bigger  scandal: Why are so few marriages happy and thriving, not just surviving?

We all know people who are enduring unhappy marriages, just because they think it’s the Christian think to do. Yet just as divorce is a scandal, so is an unloving, unhappy marriage. Although neither  is a good witness for Christ, we often applaud the martyrs who “hang in there” with unhappy or even abusive marriages.

Back to Proverbs

The Proverbs 31 woman and man are portrayed in quite idealistic, perhaps unattainable, terms:

The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
So he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life
(vs. 11-12).

Trust is such a foundational ingredient in any healthy relationship. But who among us is trustworthy all the time? Even if we try our best, we will let people down from time to time. And if our life is characterized by pursuing our own selfish interests instead of dying to ourselves daily, we’re destined to be extremely  untrustworthy as friends or spouses.

She seeks wool and flax,
And willingly works with her hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
She brings her food from afar.

 She also rises while it is yet night,
And provides food for her household,
And a portion for her maidservants
(vs. 13-15).

She is not afraid of snow for her household,
For all her household is clothed with scarlet

 She makes tapestry for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple
(vs. 21-22).

She watches over the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness
(v. 27).

What a hard worker this Proverbs 31 woman is, staying up day and night to provide food, clothing, and a beautiful home for her family. She seems like a hybrid of Betty Crocker, Paula Dean, Martha Stewart, and Wonder Woman!

While it’s commendable that this amazing woman “does not eat the bread of idleness,” this statement worries me a little. I’m hopeful she also has the wisdom to take time for rest each week, and periodically to disengage from her many activities by taking a vacation. From the beginning of God’s creation of humankind, he instructed us to both work and rest. Idleness is a good  thing if done in sync with the Lord’s plan and workflow.

Also, when I read these verses, I can’t help wondering about the husband’s role, if any, in the domestic activities of the household. Did he ever do the dishes or help with the laundry? Just wondering…

She considers a field and buys it;
From her profits she plants a vineyard
(v. 16).

She perceives that her merchandise is good,
And her lamp does not go out by night.
She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hand holds the spindle
(vs. 18-19).

She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies sashes for the merchants
(v. 24).

In addition to caring for her family, the Proverbs 31 woman is a successful real estate investor and businesswoman. Wow!

She girds herself with strength,
And strengthens her arms
(v. 17).

It even sounds like she somehow finds time to visit the gym to lift weights and keep her arms toned:

She extends her hand to the poor,
Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy
(v. 20).

On top of her incredibly busy schedule, the Proverbs 31 woman apparently takes time to volunteer for nonprofit organizations and reach out to the poor and needy:

Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come.

She opens her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness
(vs. 25-26).

This woman’s accomplishments and work ethic are fantastic, but something huge would be missing if not for these additional descriptions of her character:

  • She was clothed with honor (which the coming verses point to as an important characteristic of this entire family).
  • She kept an optimistic and hopeful outlook on her family’s future. This is shown more clearly in the NASB translation: “She smiles at the future.”  The opposite of this is to be a worrier, always expecting the worst to happen. Pessimism and worry are traits that not only undercut a person’s relationship with God, but also their marriage and family life.
  • She was kind. This is an enormous character trait for a healthy marriage and family. Many husbands and wives are tremendously successful and productive in their accomplishments, yet they’ve never learned “the law of kindness.”  In contrast, when the Proverbs 31 woman spoke, people knew her words would be filled with wisdom and kindness. Too often, we use our words to win arguments, but this woman knew how to win people’s hearts.

What About the Husband and Kids?

The friend who asked me about Proverbs 31 wanted to know about the Proverbs 31 man too, not just the woman. Hmmm…I wasn’t sure I really knew much about that. The woman is clearly the central figure in the chapter, and I’ve seldom heard anyone comment about her husband.

But we’re given a few indications of what the man was doing while his wife was completing her heroic endeavors:

Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land (v. 23).

The city gates were the place of commerce and government back then, and we see this man sitting “among the elders.”  So, while the Proverbs 31 woman was diligently caring for the household, her husband was out being a leader in the community.

A couple of observations:

  • The husband wouldn’t have had the freedom to hang out with community leaders unless his wife was able to run an orderly household. Once again, we see the importance of the wife’s trustworthiness. The man knew he could safely delegate to her many responsibilities for the family.
  • If the family situation wasn’t reasonably in order, the husband wouldn’t have been able to gain the respect of the community leaders or be recognized as an “elder” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4-5).
  • A man who isn’t honored and respected by his wife seldom has the self-confidence to successfully lead in the community or the church. As a former pastor, I counseled many men who had been emasculated by the disrespect of their wives. Solomon describes this in several of his previous proverbs, saying it’s better to live on the corner of a roof or in a desert land, than to deal with a contentious woman (Proverbs 21:9, 21:19). The Proverbs 31 man thankfully didn’t have to face that problem.

Although the woman is the hero of this story, the man certainly should be given some credit for helping to create a culture of honor and respect in the family:

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
Her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many daughters have done well,
But you excel them all”
(vs. 28-29).

Many children today have never learned how to honor and respect other people – not even their mother and father. The fact that the woman’s children in Proverbs 31 can bless her so wholeheartedly is an indication that they first observed their father doing the same.

You’ve probably heard that one of the five love languages is “Words of Affirmation.” While that’s no doubt true, let’s get real: We ALL desire words of affirmation, don’t we? The Proverbs 31 man beautifully modeled this heart of love and encouragement as he openly and enthusiastically praised the virtues of his wife.

Notice that the husband didn’t just tell his wife she’d done a pretty good job. He said, “You excel them ALL.”  In other words, this wise man never fell into the trap of unfavorably comparing his wife to other women. In his eyes, no other woman could ever compare with her.

This story ends with a fitting tribute, summarizing the lasting legacy of the Proverbs 31 woman:

Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
And let her own works praise her in the gates
(vs. 30-31).

This points to an important reason many marriages fail: Often the couple’s romance and marriage began with intense physical attraction, but the rest of the foundation was weak. Although this phenomenon has been true to some degree in every generation, it’s even more blatant and pervasive in today’s world of online dating, social media, and airbrushed magazine ads.

In stark contrast, this passage acknowledges that a person’s outward charm and beauty will ultimately pass away. A strong marriage must have a stronger foundation than that, based on the character  of the partners, not just their appearance or charm. Once again, as he has urged throughout the book of Proverbs, Solomon says our reverential fear of the Lord should be the basis for our character.

What About the Song of Solomon?

If you’ve really been paying attention to the story in Proverbs 31, you may have wondered about another aspect of a happy and thriving marriage: What about SEX – the physical part of a healthy marital relationship? Yes, it’s great to lay a strong foundation of spirituality, character, friendship, and service, but what about ROMANCE – isn’t that important too?

Absolutely, it’s vitally important to nurture the flame of romantic love. Yet, for a number of reasons, this isn’t always easy. Many marriages begin with passion but then fizzle into apathy. Commitment and intentionality are required to keep the romantic fires burning. Physical attraction may have been easy during courtship, but now we must overcome such things as busyness, fatigue, offenses, and simply the deteriorating capacity of our bodies.

Of course, there are lots of excuses and explanations for why a marriage is no longer fun or passionate. Some Christians imply that we just live in a sex-crazed culture, and we should be so spiritual that we don’t need to worry about ongoing romance. As long as they go to church together with their spouse, why should it matter whether they also sleep together?

Well, I believe it does matter. If you’re in your 70s, your physical relationship with your spouse probably will be different  than it was in your 20s, but hopefully it’ll never become nonexistent. Even if intercourse is no longer possible or no longer pleasurable, can’t there at least be hugs, kisses, cuddles, and other physical displays of affection?

That’s why Proverbs 31 shouldn’t be studied without at least some mention of the romantic side of the equation, described in the Song of Solomon. A healthy marriage is not just about food, clothing, finances, and house décor. Right from the beginning, a strong marriage must include a oneness of spirit, soul, and body – and each of these three elements must be cultivated along the way.

Conclusions

It’s not easy. If it was, there would be a lot more marriages that are happy, fulfilling, and lasting.

Marriage must have been easier before sin and selfishness entered the world in Genesis 3. Yet perhaps, even before that, God designed marriage as something meant to be difficult – only possible with His wisdom and help.

No wonder Solomon wrote that a threefold cord is not quickly broken”  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). Without trusting the Lord as the third strand of our marriage, our relationship is vulnerable indeed.

Let’s not forget that in order for a marriage to model heaven on earth, each of the partners must maintain their own heavenly relationship with Christ. Overlooking this key ingredient is why many books and sermons on marriage fall short of their intended outcome.

In order to reflect the atmosphere of heaven, today’s Christian families need a spiritual revolution. And that’s the kind of transformation that would occur if every couple started the day with this simple, heartfelt prayer: Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”  (Matthew 6:10).

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Pencils, Pens & the Mishaps of My Friend Ron

All the way through elementary school, I did my writing with pencils. Each year, “#2 Pencils” were on the top of the school supply list.

But when I arrived in middle school, we were expected to use ink pens instead. The writing experience was certainly better with the pens, but there was one major problem: Ink is difficult to erase.

Eventually, some clever marketers came up with “erasable” pens. But that was false advertising, because they were still  hard to erase. More than once, I ripped a hole in the paper while trying to erase the ink from my pens.

Recently I’ve found myself lamenting the demise of pencils. The pens are now better than ever – and I absolutely love  writing with the new gel pens. But the pens still can’t be erased very well. And White Out usually isn’t a good option either for covering mistakes.

Here’s what I’m going through on this: I miss the days when every mistake seemed easily erasable. Oh for the carefree days of elementary school…

Of course, most people now use emails and social media to do their writing, not pens. But that has made the problem even worse! Have you ever tried to retract  an inappropriate email you sent (such as sending a “Reply All” when you didn’t mean to)? Or perhaps you’ve posted something stupid on social media and then tried to cover your tracks. Good luck on that.

It turns out that once things are in cyberspace, they are even more  difficult to erase than ink pens.

Let me share story about this from my good friend Ron…

A few months ago, Ron met a nice Christian woman on an online dating site. They seemed to really hit things off when they chatted on the phone one night. He could tell they both loved the Lord and had much in common.

Ready to take the next step, a few days later Ron asked her out for dinner that weekend. To his surprise, she sent a text message declining the invitation. The reason? She said he was too old for her!   

Ouch. Yes, Ron is in his 60s and this nice Christian woman was in her 50s. But should that age gap really matter?

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with pencils and pens…

Once again, Ron was greatly surprised when this same woman contacted him a few weeks later, asking if they could keep in touch as “friends.” Although he was open to the idea, there was a problem: Ron couldn’t ERASE the memory of her previous comment that he was too old. Like permanent ink, her evaluation seemed to be forever etched onto his brain.

What a reminder that words are powerful things, capable of imparting “death and life” (Proverbs 18:21). No matter how they are communicated, our words don’t erase easily. And sometimes negative words cause lifelong scarring of the psyche.

However, God can help us heal from people’s words – especially when we spend time listening to HIS words to us instead.

Nevertheless, painful words from people are likely to keep coming from time to time. Right when Ron was beginning to heal from the “You’re too old!” feedback, he met a woman who said he was too fat for her…

Fortunately, your Heavenly Father has a very BIG eraser, capable of removing countless mistakes, flaws, and emotional wounds. As the apostle Paul described, “He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14 CSB). Isn’t it good to know that your debts, liabilities, and blemishes have been erased by the amazing grace of God?

So I encourage you to take time to look into the mirror of His Word today. You’ll discover that you look a lot better than what people have said about you.

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My Boundless Gratitude — in Retrospect

This Thanksgiving was a chance to reflect once again on my “Gratitude Quotient.” I concluded that I’m happier and more grateful than I’ve been in many years.

However, I uncovered a blog I wrote several years ago admitting two disturbing things: (1) I’m still not nearly as grateful as I should be for how God has blessed me; and (2) Many of the things I’m now MOST grateful for are past events I wasn’t grateful for at all  when they were taking place.

I call this second point “gratitude in retrospect,” the phenomenon of being grateful today for situations I once grumbled about.

Perhaps you can relate. Have you gone through difficult times when it was extremely difficult to give thanks? But now, as you look back, you see that God was at work through it all. Gratitude (finally!) rises in your heart as you see how the painful events have been beautifully woven into the fabric of your life.

  • Maybe you had a relationship breakup that tore your very heart…but it paved the way for the Lord to provide someone much better in your life.
  • Maybe you faced a severe trial in your health…but it caused you to make lifestyle changes in your diet and exercise – and now you’re feeling better than ever.
  • Maybe you lost a job you thought you’d have until retirement…but God opened (or will open) a new door that’s a much better fit for your gifts and passions.
  • Maybe you’ve experienced a financial meltdown, such as foreclosure or bankruptcy…but you learned vital lessons that eventually put you on the path to prosperity.
  • Maybe you went through some other difficult experience that has now given you a platform to help others.

These are just a few examples of how “gratitude in retrospect” can occur. I first noticed this in my life a few years ago, when a friend suggested that I write a book about church splits. “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” was my initial thought. “Even though I’m an expert on church splits, who would ever be interested in a book about that?”

But my tech-savvy friend pointed out that 8,000 people every month do a Google search on the subject of church splits. “Wow. There must be a lot of people dealing with this,” I concluded.

As a result of that conversation, I wrote The Complete Guide to Church Splits: Prevention, Survival, and Recovery (which I can send you upon request). This event was a great example to me of Paul’s statement that we can comfort others with the same comfort we received from God during our own times of affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

Working on my book about church splits sparked something much bigger in my heart than just a new book project: I discovered that God had been a lot more faithful than I had given Him credit for. And I became much more grateful for the difficult things I’ve experienced in life – even though my gratitude was too often in retrospect.

I’m still troubled by my struggle to be grateful at the same time as my trials are occurring. The Bible instructs us to give thanks “IN everything,” not just AFTER everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

I’m also sad that although I’ve given lip service to Romans 8:28 for decades, God’s amazing promise there is still not rooted as deeply in my life as it should be. Paul had gone through incredible trials (2 Corinthians 11:22-28), yet he said, “We KNOW that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

As the truth of Romans 8:28 becomes more a part of my life, I hope to become more grateful all the time – not just in retrospect. I want to become increasingly aware that God is always working to “connect the dots” in my life, creating a masterpiece I could never have imagined during my times of adversity.

So I pray you will join me in being grateful TODAY – no matter what the day brings…no matter what you may be going through. You may not understand it all today, but you can be confident the Lord is working out His wonderful plan nevertheless.

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Ron’s New Appreciation for the Holidays

Ever since his divorce several years back, my friend Ron has complained to me this time of year about the upcoming holidays. He has his reasons, to be sure, but he’s begun to sound like a broken record.

“It’s just not the same,” he moans. “With my wife gone and my kids living far away, it’s always an agonizing time for me.”

Then he typically cites the gluttony, commercialization, overspending, and other holiday sins as justification for his negative attitudes. You’ve probably met people who think like that.

“Let’s face it, Ron,” I sometimes tease him. “With your ‘humbug’ attitude, your parents should have named you Ebenezer!”

A few weeks ago, he threw in a new line that really got me thinking. “I wish I could just press the fast forward button and wake up on January 2,” he told me. Although part of me sympathized with Ron on this, I spent some time praying we would gain a new perspective.

Then suddenly it hit me: Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t just ordinary holidays. They represent two of the most important attributes of a happy, successful, and impactful life.

Let me explain…

If you asked me the most important attitudes a person could ever cultivate, my answer would clearly be GRATITUDE and GENEROSITY. Yet although I’ve lived more than six decades now, somehow I overlooked the fact that these are exactly the core principles behind Thanksgiving (gratitude) and Christmas (generosity).

Notice that gratitude and generosity are both “magnetic” traits. People in the secular world or New Age Movement call this “The Law of Attraction,” but it’s a Biblical principle too. Gratitude and generosity attract blessings and favor to our lives, both from God and from people.

In contrast, blessings and favor are repulsed  by INGRATITUDE and STINGINESS. No wonder Scrooge didn’t have many friends until his epiphany came.

Through gratitude (a heart of thankfulness) we enter into the gates of the Lord’s presence (Psalm 100:4). And have you noticed how people love to give things to a person who’s truly grateful?

Likewise, generosity is one of the primary keys to a life of blessing and impact. Proverbs 11:24-25 (NLT) beautifully points this out:

Give freely and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything. The generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.

Do you want to prosper? Then set your heart on becoming more generous.

Do you want to enter into a time of refreshing in your life? Then make it your aim to refresh others.

More importantly, do you want to become more like your Heavenly Father? Then one of the very best ways is to become more generous. You see, a central character trait of your Father in Heaven is that He’s a GIVER. “God so loved the world” that He didn’t just think more positive thoughts toward us – He GAVE His Son! (John 3:16).

If you truly see how loving and generous your Father is, you’ll be that way too. But if you view Him as stingy and miserly, you’ll end up behaving like Scrooge and having a miserable life to show for it.

So, what about Ron?

Armed with this new understanding of how Thanksgiving and Christmas mirror God’s two major character traits for a happy and holy life, I’ve been endeavoring to help Ron gain a new perspective too.

“Ron, you may not like every aspect of the holidays,” I’ve told him. “But what if you used Thanksgiving as a monumental opportunity to work on your GRATITUDE? And what if Christmas became your yearly reminder to live a life of GENEROSITY?”

In all likelihood, next year at this time I’ll have to remind Ron again. But who knows? If he truly begins to practice a life of gratitude and generosity, he may even attract a new wife by then. That would be amazing, but miracles really do happen…especially when we’re consistently grateful and generous.

#PrayForRon

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A Lesson from Jesus in Handling Grief

I’m not an expert on the subject of grief by any means – far from it. Yet recently several friends have had loved ones die suddenly and unexpectedly. I’ve found myself wondering, how are they supposed to handle that?

Then today I noticed a woman at the grocery store who had some sort of Christian bracelet. When I asked about the bracelet, she told me the heart-wrenching story of how her sister had died just two weeks ago of a rare form of cancer.

Wow. How is she supposed to handle that?

As I pondered these situations, a story in the life of Jesus came to mind. John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin and the preacher who had inaugurated His ministry – was beheaded by King Herod. It was a gruesome event, with the severed head of Jesus’ forerunner put on a tray and given to his persecutors before his friends buried his body.

Knowing that He cared deeply about John, we’re told that John’s disciples “went and told Jesus what had happened” (Matthew 14:10-12 NLT).

So, how did Jesus respond to the news? He apparently didn’t spout a bunch of spiritual platitudes as we might have done. I probably would have offered some lame and inappropriate words of comfort, like “God will work it for good,” or perhaps the old standby, “He’s in a better place now.”

Jesus didn’t do that. In fact, we’re not even told what  He said. However, we can see three significant things He DID in the wake of His grief over John’s death:

  1. He withdrew and spent time by Himself  (vs. 12-13). Often after a loved one dies, we’re surrounded by well-wishing friends and family. That’s fine – up to a point. But Jesus went “to a remote area to be alone,” and usually we need to follow this example. Withdrawing shouldn’t make us feel guilty! It’s part of the grieving process, a necessary step in getting our bearings again.

How long should this “withdrawal” step last? A day? A week? A month? Longer? There’s no way to set a firm time limit, because everyone is different. In verse 23 Jesus again went to be alone, which shows that this step may need to be repeated from time to time. Yet it’s big mistake to get stuck in this phase forever, because we will eventually need to move on to step 2. 

  1. He found people needier than He was  (vs. 14-21). I’ll never forget my first Christmas after experiencing a significant loss in my life. It was going to be an incredibly lonely time for me, but God gave me a helpful strategy: I took my guitar and went to sing for people in a nearby nursing home! Although I’m not sure they particularly liked my singing, they seemed glad I was there. And my gloomy disposition certainly improved as I set out to bless people who were even lonelier than I was.

Of course, Jesus didn’t visit a nursing home after hearing of John’s death. But He reached out to heal a bunch of sick people and then took five loaves of bread and two fish to feed thousands of hungry people.

If you’re facing some kind of grief today, perhaps it’s time to reach out with the love of Jesus to someone who’s needier than you. Taking that step won’t immediately relieve the pain, but you’ll find it beneficial to put your grief in the rearview mirror instead of making it your constant focus.

  1. He (and Peter) walked on water  (vs. 22-32). I’ve probably lost you at this point. First of all, you assume it’s impossible  for you to walk on water. And even if you somehow could pull it off, how could that accomplishment have any bearing on your grief?

But you see, walking on water is a beautiful picture of going beyond yourself and doing something that once seemed impossible. In order to truly overcome grief, something supernatural must take place. Put simply: You need God’s help!

Not only did Jesus walk on water, but Peter did too. Peter did something he never could have done in his own strength – and so can you. Despite the initial devastation brought by your loss, you can make it. You really can be OK again. His grace is always sufficient if you take time to draw upon it (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This story also reminds us to keep our eyes on Jesus amid the wind and waves around us. Grief and fear are frequent allies, and our fears become overwhelming if we focus on the stormy conditions swirling in our path. Miraculously, the Bible says “perfect peace” is available when our eyes are fixed on the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 26:3, Hebrews 12:2, Philippians 4:4-9).

Perhaps, like Peter, your grief and fear have conspired to give you a “sinking feeling” down deep in your soul. But remember: Even when you feel like you’re about to drown in your sorrows, Jesus will be there to grab your hand when you call out to Him.

If you’ve suffered a major loss in your life, there’s a good chance you know a lot more about grief than I do. If so, I encourage you to take time to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). As you stretch out your hand to others, your own healing process will be accelerated (Mark 3:1-5).

Even though you may feel bewildered by the loss you’ve experienced, never forget that the Lord is WITH you through it all: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:18). When grief comes sweeping in like a flood, let it lift you higher and draw you closer to Him than ever before.

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The #1 Reason Counseling Often Fails

A firestorm erupted recently when I wrote a blog that was deemed critical of the counseling profession. I have lots of friends who are counselors—excellent counselors—and several seemed to think I was including them in my critique of incompetent counseling. Meanwhile, I also have countless friends who’ve been helped by skilled counselors, and they rose up to defend the counseling profession and share their gratitude for a job well done.

My blog’s main point was simply that effective counseling must endeavor to get to the heart of the matter, not just address the symptoms. Admittedly, this is no easy task, but Solomon said it’s a worthy objective: “Counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out” (Proverbs 20:5 CSB). A good counselor must be “a person of understanding,” able to probe the “deep water” of a person’s heart. Definitely not an easy job.

The prophet Jeremiah had a similar message: “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14 NASB). Indeed, there is no genuine and lasting peace in a person’s heart unless God’s Spirit is allowed to penetrate deeply and touch the broken places—strongholds usually well-protected by our defense mechanisms.

Let’s be honest: We all need more than superficial healing, don’t we? At one time or another, we need the kind of transformation and restoration King David so desperately sought:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit (Psalm 51:10-12 ESV).

David’s cry for inner transformation brings up the number one reason why counseling so often fails. Yes, there are incompetent counselors out there, but there’s a problem much bigger than that:

Counseling most commonly fails because the counselee either doesn’t really want to change, or doesn’t want it badly enough to take the necessary steps!

This principle is illustrated in a seemingly crazy question Jesus asked a disabled man at the Pool of Bethesda one day (John 5:2-9). The man was with a crowd of people who were waiting for an angel to stir the waters so they could be healed. The scene was similar to a doctor’s crowded waiting room during flu season, except that these people had much more severe ailments: They were blind, lame, or paralyzed, often suffering conditions that had already lasted many years.

Amid this crowd hoping for healing, Jesus had the nerve to walk up to this one disabled man and ask, “Do you want to get well?”  (v. 6 NIV).

Think about it. Wouldn’t EVERY sick person want to be healed? The answer is clearly no, sometimes we really don’t.

You see, if we’re healed, we won’t have as much to complain about. Nor can we play upon people’s sympathy or get handouts. We’ll be forced to quit making excuses for why we can’t support ourselves or make the world a better place.

Jesus’ question was particularly audacious because of where it occurred. This man was in line for healing, or so it seemed. Wasn’t it obvious that he sincerely sought to be healed? No, people go to doctors and counselors every day without any intention of following through on the advice they receive.

Another intriguing part of the story is that Jesus didn’t allow the man to be a passive bystander during his healing. The Lord gave him an assignment, something to DO: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk”  (v. 8 NIV). Basically, Jesus was telling him to do the impossible—something he had been unable to do for 38 years!

This is important: Many people claim they want to be healed…or lose weight…or cast off depression…or find better relationships. But when a counselor tells them such things may require some CHANGES or even some WORK on their part, often the counselee is unwilling.

Typically, people’s unwillingness is masked by excuses, just like this man tried to offer Jesus:

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me” (v. 7 NIV).

If we want to get better—no matter what the issue may be—we must be willing to confront and discard our excuses. In this story, Jesus the Wonderful Counselor was able to break through an excuse this man had been using for years. Only then could the disabled man receive his miracle of healing.

We all have our excuses, don’t we? I guess that’s why we need good counselors.

P.S. If my last blog was too hard on counselors, perhaps this one is too hard on those who need physical or emotional healing. It’s certainly no fun to be emotionally paralyzed or in pain, especially if the condition has gone on for a long time. But the good news is that Jesus can pick you out of the crowd and give you a new beginning, if you let Him. Do you want to get well?

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Ron Goes for Counseling

After dating several women who told him he had “issues,” my friend Ron finally decided to look for a good counselor.

“That’s a great move,” I encouraged him. It was all I could do to stop short of adding, “And it’s about time, Ron!”

Yet the conversation grew darker when he asked my advice on how to go about finding a counselor who could actually do him some good.

“That’s a tough one, Ron. You’re a pretty hard case,” I chuckled. “And 95% of the counselors out there are either well-meaning but incompetent, or else they’re total frauds, just out to make money.”

I later had to admit that I had no scientific basis for my “95%” statistic. Perhaps the situation in the counseling community is even worse than that!

When Ron asked why I was so down on the counseling profession, I told him my Parable of the Dandelions.

“There are four kinds of counselors, Ron,” I explained. “Picture someone approaching four different advisers for input on controlling the dandelions in his yard.”

Counselor #1: This kind of counselor looks at the yard and says, “I don’t see any dandelions. I think you’re doing great!” This is the counselor of choice for those in denial. The person going for counseling denies he has any addictions or psychiatric conditions, and the counselor comforts him by agreeing!  A variation of this is the kind of counselor who provides reassuring comparisons: “Well, sure, you have dandelions. But there’s no need to worry about it, because all your neighbors have dandelions too!”

Counselor #2: This kind of counselor specializes in validation. After spending an hour with the patient and charging $160 or more, the counselor says, “Yes, you surely are depressed” or “Yes, you really do have a lot of anxiety.” Of course, the counselee already knew  that before spending his $160, but it feels good to have someone validate and confirm all the things he’s been feeling. The problem with this, quite obviously, is that nothing has really been solved  by the counselor. In essence, he’s just saying, “I see the dandelions you’re talking about!” Frequently, this kind of counselor also tries to validate your perspective on the cause  of your problems. By the end of the counseling session, you’ve found other people to blame for your troubles, leaving you guilt-free. “I agree with your assessment that your spouse is a jerk,” the counselor assures you. “So it’s no wonder you have anger issues.” Or you’re told, “Your self-esteem problems are all the fault of your parents.” You feel a remarkable sense of relief in knowing you’re not to blame for your current condition—but your condition never changes when you insist on shifting all the blame to others.

Counselor #3: This kind of counselor goes a little further than Counselor #2. “Yes, you definitely have dandelions, and we’re going to do something to fix that!” However, Counselor #3 opts for the same approach I once took when my dad told me to get rid of the dandelions in our yard: I simply pulled off the dandelion heads, and soon the yard looked dandelion-free. Counselor #3 typically accomplishes this by providing medication to mask a person’s pain, anxiety, depression, or other unpleasant symptoms. The greater the emotional pain, the higher the dosage that is prescribed. I’m sincerely thankful that medication can relieve some of these troublesome symptoms, and some people need that approach, at least in the short run. However, I can’t help but remember what happened when I pulled off the dandelion heads in our lawn. For a few days, it seemed like I was a genius, eradicating all signs of dandelions. But soon the dandelions were back, even more prevalent than before. And that’s why we need counselors like #4…

Counselor #4: I’m convinced that most counselors fall into the categories of #1, #2, or #3. You might wonder how they stay in business when they’re so ineffective. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find: Instead of truly being healed and delivered from their sins and dysfunctions, many people would prefer to live in denial, find affirmation that their problems really aren’t so bad, or find medication that will cover up the symptoms. In contrast, Counselor #4 understands that our emotional “dandelions” must be honestly acknowledged and then pulled out by the roots.

My friend Ron, like so many other people, stands at a crossroads. It’s tempting to pay a counselor to tell him he’s not nearly as messed up as those women say on his dates. And if he had some good medication, he probably wouldn’t worry about their opinions anyway.

The search for competent help won’t be easy, but I’m praying for Ron to find Counselor #4—someone with the spiritual discernment and patience to unearth and remove the roots of his emotional pain.

Tell me what you think. Am I being too hard on the counseling community? What kinds of remedies have helped you  find help and healing for your emotional wounds? Ron could use your advice.

#PrayForRon

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Living in the ‘Cone of Uncertainty’

As Hurricane Irma prepares to bash the United States, here in Charlotte we’re wondering if it will be coming our way. As we wait for the answer, I’ve been intrigued by weather reports saying our region lies in the “Cone of Uncertainty.”

While modern meteorologists probably feel clever in using this term, it’s really no different than King Solomon wrote about over 2,000 years ago:

Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things (Ecclesiastes 11:5 NLT).

Then and now, the path of the wind is highly unpredictable. Even Jesus found it important to weigh in on this great mystery:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes (John 3:8).

As meteorologists apply the Cone of Uncertainty idea to the difficulty of projecting Irma’s destructive route, I feel prompted to write about another  kind of Cone of Uncertainty. While the uncertainty about Irma’s path will be resolved within days, I’ve observed a bigger and more long-term issue that seems quite common today…

Some people seem to live their entire lives  in a Cone of Uncertainty!

I’m not trying to be harsh, but you’ve probably met people like this. They’re continually uncertain about their standing with God, their career, their relationships, or what their priorities should be. And if they’re anything like my good friend Ron, they’re stuck in a Cone of Uncertainty in their dating life too.

So what does the Bible say about this? Lots.

Here are just a few random principles for your consideration:

  1. God wants us to live lives of peace rather than confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). His peace is supposed to transcend our circumstances and guide our decisions, even amid the storms of life (Philippians 4:6-7, Colossians 3:15).
  2. We must be careful not to claim certainty on subjects God hasn’t truly revealed yet. For example, Jesus made it clear that no one would be able to accurately forecast the day of His return—even though people continue to try. On one hand, He said we could observe the signs and know His return is near (Matthew 24:33). But on the other hand, He said we wouldn’t be able to know “the day and hour” (Matthew 24:36, 24:42). On this and many other issues, “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9).
  3. When God allows us to experience a Cone of Uncertainty for a season, it provides an opportunity for us to trust Him. I love the statement Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego made to the king as they were being thrown into the fiery furnace. Although they were uncertain about the outcome of the trial they faced, they were absolutely certain of God’s love and faithfulness:

Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up (Daniel 3:16-18).

These three men were determined to trust the Lord, regardless of whether He delivered them and changed their difficult circumstances.

  1. There are some things we should be certain  about. In today’s postmodern world, it’s fashionable to say there are no absolutes. People seem suspicious if you say you know anything for sure. The book of First John was written toward the end of the first century, amid some similar trends of uncertainty affecting the church. A new generation was arising that wasn’t as certain or dogmatic about things as the early apostles had been. No wonder John uses the word “know” 32 times in this book! In fact, he says he wrote the book “that you may KNOW that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

So there’s no need to live in a Cone of Uncertainty about whether you’ve been born again and given eternal life. Nor do you ever need to doubt God’s love or His desire to bless you and meet your needs.

This issue came up recently when I was trying to encourage a friend who was going through a hard time. “Brother, the Bible says in Romans 8:31 that if God is for us, it doesn’t matter who is against us,” I reminded him.

I thought that would settle the matter, but it didn’t.

“How do I really know that God is for me, though?” he replied.

Yikes. I could tell this was going to be a much deeper conversation than I had expected. My friend was living in a Cone of Uncertainty on an issue of supreme importance.

But take a moment to apply this to your own life and ponder my friend’s question. How can we know for sure that God is FOR us?

I suppose I could write an entire book in response to this vital query, but for now this basic explanation will have to suffice:

YOU CAN KNOW FOR SURE THAT GOD IS FOR YOU,

BECAUSE HE SENT HIS SON TO DIE FOR YOU!

Shouldn’t that be enough of an answer?

But what if you’ve been living in sin, knowingly disobedient to the precepts in God’s Word? Is He STILL for you?

Once again, the answer is actually quite simple: Even if you’re living in the deepest sin imaginable, God is still for you—He’s for you to repent so He can release the fullness of His blessings in your life once again!

You see, no matter what your situation may be, your Heavenly Father is FOR you, not against you. If you are living in a pigpen, He’s FOR you to come home so He can throw you a party (Luke 15:11-32). If you’re a stuck-up religious person like the older brother in that story, He’s FOR you to humble yourself and enter into the joyous festivities He’s prepared.

What an incredible revelation! Either way, no matter what, God is FOR you. So why not leave the Cone of Uncertainty and join the party, already in progress?

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Unpacking Ron’s Baggage

Recently an unexpected firestorm ensued when I wrote about my friend Ron’s woeful dating life. Some people said Ron was clearly shallow and judgmental. Others blamed him for pointing out the baggage of the women he’s dated, while seeming oblivious to his own issues. One woman even prophesied that Ron was too picky to ever  find a new wife.

Ouch!

Ron has been surprised by the negative reactions. He’s really a nice guy, after all, and not used to all this criticism.

As you might imagine, Ron has been rather irritated at me as well. His only explanation for people’s criticism is that I must have portrayed him in an unfair and unflattering light.

“The truth will set you free, brother!” I told him jokingly, paraphrasing the words of Jesus in John 8:32.

But time will tell whether Ron can truly handle  the truth.

Fortunately, my blog has also resulted in some helpful suggestions. Someone offered to launch a #PrayForRon campaign on social media. Another idea was to start a GoFundMe initiative to reimburse Ron for all the money he’s wasted on bad dates. And several people requested that I keep everyone posted on Ron’s ongoing dating saga.

With predictions from some of his critics that there’s no hope for him, Ron gets discouraged at times. Often I try to lift his spirits by pointing him to the promises of Scripture. “Even deplorable people like you found hope in the Lord!” I tease.

One of the Bible passages I’ve shown Ron is Lamentations 3:18, where the prophet Jeremiah said despondently one day, “My strength and my hope have perished from the Lord.”  For any of us, some days are like that!

But everything changed for Jeremiah a few verses later when he remembered God’s faithfulness:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I hope in Him!” (vs. 21-34).

So there’s hope for Ron. And if there’s hope for someone as shallow and picky as him, there’s certainly hope for YOU as well! No matter what you may be going through today, God’s power and goodness are bigger than your pickiness and your problems.

Isn’t that good news?

P.S. Ron says he’s open to additional suggestions on how to solve his dating impasse. Please feel free to send them my way. #PrayForRon

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8 Myths That Eclipse God’s Love & Purpose

While studying the origins of the church at Philippi, I was startled to discover how the story contradicts many of our common misconceptions about the nature of the Christian life. The narrative in Acts 16 debunks at least 8 myths—and I bet you’ve believed some of these misconceptions yourself.

Myth #1: As long as you’re well-intentioned in pursuing spiritual activities, any direction is okay.

The apostle Paul never intended to plant a church in Philippi. In fact, he had other plans. Plan A was to minister in Asia, but he was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia” (v. 6). Plan B was to preach in Bithynia, but God closed that door too. Finally, the Lord spoke to Paul through a dream that he should go to Macedonia, where Philippi is located.

This story shows that God has a specific plan for our lives, even when it comes to “good” activities like evangelizing and planting churches. Yet it’s bewildering in Acts 16 to see God actually forbidding Paul to preach the gospel if that means going in the wrong direction. While the Great Commission tells us to go into “ALL the world” and “to the ends of the earth” (Mark 16:15, Acts 1:8), God wants to direct us on how to proceed.

Myth #2: If you’re a very spiritual person, you’ll always get it right the first time.   

It would be hard to be any more spiritual than Paul, yet it wasn’t until the third try that he found God’s optimal direction for his life (vs. 6-8). That’s good news for you and me! We shouldn’t despair if we don’t hit the bulls-eye at our first attempt to find the Lord’s perfect will.

Myth #3: The most important ingredient in church planting is good preaching.

Hey, I’m a preacher, and I certainly put a high value on good preaching. But if you read Acts 16, you’ll see that the secret to Paul’s success clearly was PRAYER, not preaching. He met Lydia (his first convert) at a place of prayer  (vs. 13-15), and he was on his way to pray  when he cast a demon out of the fortune-telling slave girl (his second convert, vs. 16-18). Then the Philippian jailer (his third convert) was saved after Paul and Silas caused an earthquake through their prayers and worship (vs. 25-34).

I surely hope your church or evangelistic ministry has great preaching, but these illustrations demonstrate that prayer must be the foundation of everything else we do in God’s kingdom. Without that, our impact on people will be superficial at best.

Myth #4: If people are saying the right things, that automatically means they have the right spirit.

Oh, how I wish I would have understood this misconception earlier in my ministry! Many preachers, politicians, or church members say all the right things, but they are being motivated by something other than the Holy Spirit.

Look at what this demon-possessed girl was saying while following Paul and Silas day after day: “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation”  (v. 17). What’s wrong with that? Most pastors would have put her on the front row so everyone could hear her words of affirmation! But Paul discerned that her right-sounding message had originated with the devil rather than the Holy Spirit. Can you tell the difference?

Myth #5: If you’re in God’s perfect will, everything will always go great for you.

Believing this myth will bring tragic consequences, because it means you’ll also believe the corollary: If things AREN’T going well for you, you must not be in God’s will.  What a horrible, yet incredibly common, misconception. Even though Paul and Silas were following the direct leading of the Holy Spirit to minister in Philippi, the result seemed catastrophic. Their clothes were torn off, they were brutally beaten with rods, and they were thrown into prison, with their feet in shackles (vs. 22-24). All this happened because they were following God’s will!

Myth #6: Nothing good ever happens after dark.

Verse 25 says Paul and Silas received their breakthrough “at midnight.”  I love that. Some of God’s greatest miracles seem to happen at our midnight hour—when things look the bleakest and all hope is gone. We may not be shackled in a jail cell, but perhaps we’re imprisoned to an addiction, a health problem, a mound of debt, or a toxic relationship. No matter what the situation may be, the Lord can break off our chains “suddenly”  (v. 26).

Myth #7: God’s salvation is a fragile thing, easily lost.   

Paul later described his complete confidence that the One who had BEGUN a good work in the Philippians would also COMPLETE it (Philippians 1:6). Exactly how confident was Paul in God’s ability to care for these new converts in Philippi? In one of the most stunning plot twists in all of Scripture, verse 40 says that after meeting with “the brethren”  gathered in Lydia’s house, Paul “encouraged them and departed.”

The “brethren”  numbered just a handful of folks at this point, all of them new converts. But instead of staying to care for these baby Christians, Paul and Silas left town!  He entrusted them to their Heavenly Father’s care, believing that nothing would be able to separated them from His love (Romans 8:31-39).

Myth #8: Everything in God’s kingdom rises and falls on leadership.

I’ll admit, there’s a lot of truth contained in this statement, and I’m sure I’ve quoted it myself at times. However, there’s also a misconception here, because we’re often wrong about who is supposed to provide that leadership.

For example…

  • The Israelites could have panicked after Moses died and his unproven understudy Joshua was suddenly in charge (Joshua 1).
  • David’s family never considered him a worthy candidate to be the next king (1 Samuel 16).
  • All of Jesus’ disciples except John denied and deserted Him, and they certainly seemed to be a bad bet to lead the church and reach the world.

But the church in Philippi is one of the most remarkable examples of God raising up unlikely leaders. In Paul’s opening greeting to the Philippians (1:1), he refers to the “overseers and deacons.”  Isn’t that amazing? When Paul left Philippi, the church consisted of Lydia’s household, the slave girl, and the jailer’s family.

So where did the overseers and deacons come from? Did they get imported from some Bible college or seminary? Were they transplanted from the thriving churches in Jerusalem or Antioch? Certainly not. These were homegrown leaders.

My friend, what are you trusting in for your personal fruitfulness or the success of your church? Are you relying on the grace and power of God, or in your own spirituality and the charisma of the human leaders around you?

Thankfully, Jesus is both the Author and the Finisher of every success story in His kingdom (Hebrews 12:2). Let’s fix our eyes on Him, allowing nothing to eclipse His love and purpose for our lives.

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