Bringing Hope to the Land of Nod

by Andy Wood on February 5, 2009

in Enlarging Your Capacity, Esteem, Leadership, Life Currency, Love, LV Cycle

communityJan is a mother of four, two each from two failed marriages.  This morning, her 19-year-old lost his temper and verbally crushed his mother with a flurry of profanity and rage.  Jan wanted to die, literally. I got the call.

Last year, at the tender age of 44, Bruce became a husband for the first time.  Less than a month later, his bride, this time blushing with anger, ordered Bruce out of the house.  Their divorce was final last week.

Larry introduced himself to me by telling me how he was betrayed and fired by his corporate board.  Then he faced the most insidious wound of all – the church wound.  After months of being ostracized, the victim of church politics, Larry finally realized the need for a change. “When your wife has to take a tranquilizer on Sunday mornings just to go to church,” he said, “it’s time to do something different.”

All these people share two things in common.  First, they’re living in the Land of Nod (see the previous post).  The age that’s given us instant gratification, disposable everything, and technology-on-demand has elevated revolving door relationships to an art form.  The people I just introduced you to are Exhibit A.

Second, on Sundays they’re in our church.  Change the names, or maybe some of the details, and you’d probably recognize them, too.  They’re hurting.  They’re angry – often at themselves.  And they’ve come to us for answers, or at least for support.

So how well has the church responded?  Unfortunately, our track record ranges somewhere between “checkered” and “dismal failure.”  But regardless of past failures or disappointments, pastors and churches have an unprecedented opportunity to be an instrument of God’s healing.  I’d like to share what our church is learning in the process (and it is a process).

1. Reconnect the Spiritual with the Interpersonal

Western Christianity has a false dichotomy between our “vertical” relationship with God and our “horizontal” relationships with people.  The Bible’s emphasis on relationships is clear: how we relate to God directly correlates with how we relate to people.  It cuts both ways.

The minute Cain offered to God less than his best, his relationship with Abel began to die.  On the other hand, John makes it clear that loving other people is a direct reflection of our love for God.  Bottom line: you can’t separate your vertical relationship from your horizontal relationships.  But for 2000 years, we’ve tried to prove that our circumstances make us the exception to the rule.

The best way to help troubled marriages is still to point both partners to God first.  The best way to restore lost trust, heal from rejection, or regain the capacity to forgive is to “reach up” before we “reach out.”  The church’s job is to help make that happen.

So how are we bridging the gap between the vertical and the horizontal?

1.  Honesty.  We’ve tried to create an environment in which people can be brutally honest with God, and lovingly honest with each other.  This means we have to stay on the alert for any religious trappings that facilitate pretense.

2.    Passion.  We are pursuing an atmosphere of emotional warmth and freedom, where both laughter and tears are understood and welcome.  In the words of our Recovery friends, we’re learning to “feel our feelings.”  That includes modeling for people what passionate love for God looks like.  In doing so, we can help unlock hearts that have become frozen over the years.

3.    Excellence.  We are pursuing excellence and supernatural power in our work and worship.  We face human limitations and cultural issues all the time.  But we never allow ourselves to surrender to them.  A beautifully excellent God is worthy of our excellence and faith.  We want to be a demonstration God still specializes in our impossible situations.  We unapologetically challenge ourselves and each other toward “first love.”

2.  Expose Anger for What It Is and Provide a Model for Forgiveness.

We live in an angry world.  We may try to dress it up or civilize it, but anger is still anger.  And it still shows up on Sunday.

Paul understood the destructive power of unresolved anger when he warned, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31).

Every week we connect with people whose lives are marked with anger stains.  Sometimes we see it in the lines on their faces.  Sometimes we see it in their dysfunctional family lives.  At other times the stain shows up in the fact that these people come and go completely alone.  Without fail, when we see the most dramatic evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in people’s lives, the most common element is the release of feelings of anger.

In working with people, we share two convictions about anger.  First, like every emotion, anger is God-given, but sin-defiled.  In its purest form, the purpose of anger is to stimulate us to action in order to correct a wrong or an injustice.

But what do you do when the anger is just an expression of selfishness or pride?

What do you do when outrage may be justified, but you are powerless to do anything to correct the problem?

Unless we find a way to release the feelings of anger, we will ultimately start attacking problems that don’t exist or people who have never hurt us. The result?  In Nod, the hits just keep on coming.

The second conviction:  anger is a second-hand emotion.  Anger is a choice that usually follows some other feeling, such as rejection, fear, grief, or shock. In helping people find their way toward forgiveness, it helps to guide them toward the original feelings that led to the anger in the first place.

Norman Cousins once said, “Life is an adventure in forgiving.”  No one has been a greater example to me of that than my wife.  In addition to the years of pain that I put her through myself, I have watched her respond again and again to the hurts that were dished out by other people, especially me.  She has taught me some important lessons about forgiveness.  By her example, I have learned that the people who wound me aren’t my real enemies.  In Paul’s words, our struggle is not against flesh and blood. She also taught me that praying for those who hurt me releases God’s power to forgive through me.

Forgiveness is better caught than taught.  When people hear me preach and teach on forgiveness, they take notes, smile, and uh, Nod.  But when a lady humbly and publicly shares how God gave her the grace to forgive the teenaged neighbor who sexually abused her when she was a child, those same people are stirred to actually do something.

I’ll share two more things we’re learning in the next post.  But for now, may I be so bold as to ask, what are you doing to connect “first love” with family love, friend love, or fellowship love?  Do you see God in your marriage or your friendships as an opportunity to grow closer to the Lord?

And who do you know who needs an example of forgiveness?  How can you be the solution to somebody else’s anger stains?  How are you an example that anger doesn’t have to hold us hostage?

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