The ‘Norman’s Among Us

Recently I heard a replay of the wonderful story from Mike Adkins on Focus on the Family radio: A Man Called Norman Part I and A Man Called Norman Part II. It’s wonderful to hear how Mike was obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit to reach this man who had been downtrodden both by his life circumstances and by other people over the years.

Two thoughts came to me while I listened to this broadcast for the first time since the late 1980’s. First, I think that there are other ‘Normans’ around us that God wants to reach. It’s evident that God had the ear of Mike Adkins enough to draw his attention to this man to love him into the kingdom of God. God also broke down much of the pride of Mike during this time to get him to do some very humble tasks in the path of Christlike servanthood. Perhaps many of us who have heard this broadcast and find the tears in our own eyes need to pray for God rather to open our own eyes to those who are like Norman around us. It’s also evident from the broadcast that God also used this path of servanthood to prepare Mike for many other opportunities for ministry ahead of him as well. It may be that those among us who are wondering why God does not use us more need to have a Norman among us to show the love of Christ first, without regard to our pride or reputation.

The second thought that came to me was how extremely patient and compassionate Mike was with Norman. It doesn’t seem that he ever treated him with one ounce of superiority, criticism, disdain or contempt. As I listened, I wondered how many of the Christian men that I’ve known over my life would have treated him with that kind of compassion and patience. While over the course of time it became apparent how Norman came to be the man he was when Mike met him, it does not look like Mike treated his past problems as a matter for gossip, mockery or ridicule before others, such as, “ <snicker> <snicker> You know what Norman did? You’ll never guess what I found out about Norman.” I honestly wonder how many Christian men that I’ve known would ever have humbled themselves to clean Norman’s bathroom and his toilet in the way that Mike did. Yet I think that if Jesus had been here physically, he would have done exactly what Mike did. But I can imagine many of the Christian men that I’ve known over the years avoiding Norman, mocking him when with their buddies, or finding something else to do if someone had asked them to help with work on Norman’s bathroom.

It is also true that all of us are like Norman – broken people with hurts, pain, disappointments, betrayals, and blind spots. All of us who are believers in Christ are likewise called to be more like Mike with each other when we see others around us who may be like a Norman in one way or another. There is no one among us who has not come from the ultimate dysfunctional family – that of Adam and Eve. But if it’s true that we’ve been received into the new family of those who are in Christ, we’re called to treat the Normans among us – which is each one of us at one time or another – with compassion and patience in the path of Christlike servanthood.

“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else” (I Thessalonians 5:14-15),

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Gilbert Tennent on ‘The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry’

One of the greatest sermons in American history is Gilbert Tennent’s The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry. It bears re-reading consideration by seminary professors, denominational officials, pastoral leaders and church elders today, as well as congregations at large. I think that it would be a good suggestion for many denominations, seminaries and pastors to make for anyone considering pastoral ministry to read this sermon first.

There is much in the sermon also for anyone who is sure of his or her saving faith and salvation before God according to the scriptures (I John 5:11-13). The first point, on the conduct of the Pharisees toward Christ, would also be well worth consideration for anyone who takes lightly the reprehensible, unscriptural and sinful conduct that takes place under the name of ‘church politics’: “First, I am to inquire into the characters of the old Pharisee-teachers. No, I think the most notorious branches of their character were these: pride, policy, malice, ignorance, covetousness, and bigotry to human inventions in religious matters.” Even more, such passages as the following warn even a pastor who has been converted against seeing pastoral ministry as simply a job: “The old Pharisees, for all their long prayers and other pious pretenses, had their eyes, with Judas, fixed upon the bag. Why, they came into the priest’s office for a piece of bread. They took it up as a trade and, therefore, endeavored to make the best market of it they could. O shame!”

Do some come to seminary, even an evangelical seminary, to take up pastoral ministry who are not converted? Definitely! I know firsthand of some. It’s hard to say how they managed to get in when the application process generally asks for an account of personal conversion and experience in following Christ. It may be that they are admitted more because they have shown themselves capable of the academic work and of paying the tuition. Perhaps they plagiarized someone else’s experience for this part of the application. Certainly I would say that seminary and denominational officials do have a responsibility to have a serious conversation with prospective students who do not have a credible account of having come to Christ and walking with Christ afterwards. Just as well, there would also be a definite responsibility to have some conversations about walking with Christ with those who show deep problems with that during their time in seminary. Just as much, I think that the sermon speaks to those who who might be seeking pastoral ministry as a steady income and a prestigious job, and the effects of pastoral ministry where someone is ministering as a ‘natural man,’ in his own strength, and not in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We’re Not Your Parents!

Years ago I heard the singer Grace Slick, from the group Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship, refer to her well known statement from the 1960s: ‘We’re your parents’ worst nightmare!’ In the late 1980s, when the interview took place, she said that it was now, ‘We’re your parents!’

I had a good laugh at that, and she was mentioning it in the context of herself having children. There is a problem which I’ve encountered in a number of churches over a number of years that surfaces a number of times, though: sometimes adults within churches try to act in a parental fashion towards other adults, who are not their children.

This parental attitude is in direct contradiction to Christ’s statement in Matthew 23:9: “And do not call anyone on earth, ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” What these people are seeking would put the objects of this obsession, to try to parent other adults, in the path of disobedience to this scripture. It would also definitely imply that this is not something that someone should ever seek, to be in the place of the Father in heaven, or anyone else’s self appointed parent as well, in anyone else’s life.

I’ve noticed that this kind of attempted surrogate parenting is characteristic of empty nesters – of parents whose children have moved away from home into their own adult lives. It seems as if they are having problems dealing with the loss of their children, and that it is not a loss of their company but of the loss of someone over whom to exert power and control and have a sense of superiority.  It is also characteristic of those who love and seek power and control over other people, and they often seem to seek out others whom they suppose may be vulnerable to this kind of hijacking of the place of a parent in someone else’s life. But I’ve also been approached with this kind of dysfunctional schtick from others who only about one to ten years older.

My personal reaction to this kind of pretext for exercising an unscriptural authority and attempt to control has been to avoid them as much as possible. I’ve noticed that adults who are accustomed to or seeking to live their lives in personal responsibility run from these types as well. I’ve often felt that this kind of deceptive scam is part of many broken relationships within churches, especially when these occur between believers of different generations.

How unreasonable this is can simply be seen by looking at the scriptural pattern and God’s design for the world in his creation and providence: God only gives parental authority and position to those who have children by birth or adoption, and parental authority is only given to them over their own children and ceases when their children become adults. We need to recognize anything else as a self serving deception.

Jesus calls us away from all that attitude of self exaltation over another two sentences later: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). His call is away from any path to or self justification of power over others for the sake of my own pride and self satisfaction to the way of Christlike servanthood and humility. In this age of self serving pride, this is the way to show the reality of our salvation and our ongoing relationship to the Son of God who took on the form of a servant and humbled himself even to the death on the cross (Philippians 2:1-11).

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

False Righteousness and Reaction Formations

The Wikipedia entry on reaction formation describes something that is of great significance for preaching, teaching, personal ministry and counseling:

" . . . reaction formation is a defensive process (defense mechanism) in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions and impulses are mastered by exaggeration (hypertrophy) of the directly opposing tendency . . . Where reaction-formation takes place, it is usually assumed that the original, rejected impulse does not vanish, but persists, unconscious, in its original infantile form.Thus, where love is experienced as a reaction formation against hate, we cannot say that love is substituted for hate, because the original aggressive feelings still exist underneath the affectionate exterior that merely masks the hate to hide it from awareness. . . . In a diagnostic setting, the existence of a reaction-formation rather than a ‘simple’ emotion would be suspected where exaggeration, compulsiveness and inflexibility were observed."

I can’t remember which Christian psychiatrist I read many years ago who first brought this term to my attention, but I think that he wrote, and I would agree, that this is a very good explanation of what is happening in the lives of believers who are trying to deal with their problems in an unscriptural manner. Their reaction to a display of or even a series of incidents which displayed their character flaws is to try to be the opposite, in a highly exaggerated fashion.

In scriptural language, the behaviors described as ‘reaction formation’ would be a way in which believers can try to ‘cover their sins’ (Proverbs 28:13) rather than do the work in the heart necessary to purify both the heart and the outward behavior. They try to become something that they are not rather than to deal with the sinful thoughts, desires, attitudes, words and deeds at their roots inside their hearts. They are trying to show others that they are not what they have demonstrated themselves to be, often in order to preserve and perhaps even try to enhance their reputations. Usually this becomes a case of trying to display opposite behaviors to what was previously displayed.

In many cases it’s easy to see how a repetition of second hand formulas and catchphrases – what has been called formula driven Christianity – can be in fact ‘reaction formations’. I think that this often explains why someone in church drops a catchphrase or formula to someone going through a difficult time and then runs away – not only is that person saying something that seems spiritual, but the formula is part of the behavior that that person has taken on to avoid having to face his or her own pain and deal with his or her own heart and unresolved sins, disappointments and difficulties. Even more, I think that this kind of behavior would also be characteristic of the proud heart – the person who has a higher estimate of himself or herself than his or her behavior would warrant, and that person would again put on an exaggerated effort to try to present himself or herself as different than the person that he or she has displayed before others.

I venture that this is the kind of thing that Isaiah wrote about: “ . . . all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags . . . “ (Isaiah 64:6). This also looks a lot like what Jesus, the infallible diagnostician of human nature, saw in the lives of the religious leaders of his day: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside” (Matthew 23:25-26; the whole chapter is worth pondering in the light of what Jesus said).

Charles Finney did call this ‘the religion of the legalist’ and wrote about this tendency like so: “The religion of the legalist is one of resolutions. He resolves to serve the Lord. He makes up his mind, as he says. He gets the idea that to serve the Lord is to go to work–to pray in his family–to attend meetings–to visit, and talk, and bustle about, and do the work of the Lord, as he calls it–and this with a perfectly legal spirit, with none of that love, gentleness, meekness, long-suffering, and those fruits of the Spirit which characterize true Christianity.”

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Our Responsibility Before God to Listen


It seems lately that there’s a rather disagreeable tendency that’s been surfacing in some of the political talk shows lately. When there is someone discussing a matter with someone with whom that person is in disagreement, he or she is often trying to talk over the other person to express his or her views – sometimes throwing out factoids in a rapid fire fashion without having to substantiate any one of them. It looks like the impression is that a person wins an argument by silencing the other person. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case – usually this does not persuade the other person but frustrate and humiliate that person. And this kind of motor mouth style of dealing with other people seems to be catching on with some people – it seems to be infiltrating workplaces and other areas of life.

What this style of talking to another person by talking over that person demonstrates is:

  • I am the one who matters most in this conversation. You are the one who matters least, if at all.
  • My opinions and views are absolute and need no foundation in reasoning and ethical persuasion. Your opinions and views are not worth a fair hearing.
  • I have the right to be impolite and put you down in conversation to gain my ends whenever I want. You do not have the right even to a polite discussion or to question what I am saying to you even to gain a clarification.
  • What I want you to do is more important than anything else in your life; I have the right to make any demand upon you that I see fit. Your own sense of the leading of God and the commands of scripture do not matter.

In the past, I found this style of conversation to be pretty characteristic of an egomaniac or narcissist. Solomon described it as the nature of a fool, among other things. Here are a few verses, among the many which Solomon gave in Proverbs to describe the relation of a person’s character and how a person talks with others:

“A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2).

“A gossip betrays a confidence, so avoid a man who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19).

“ . . . the mouth of the fool gushes out folly” (Proverbs 15:2).

“ . . . the heart of fools blurts out folly” (Proverbs 12:23).

“ . . . a false witness pours out lies” (Proverbs 12:17, 14:5).

“Where words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

I think that these verses not only warn against the motor mouth but also against the glib; this would be the person who talks a lot, seems to have a lot of information, but on further consideration is simply repeating a lot of hearsay and bits of secondhand information with little foundation in thought, reasoning or personal application. The torrent of words seems to be to exercise unilateral control of as much personal interaction as possible and to give the appearance of being informed without actually having learned anything for oneself. And, as Solomon said, the torrent of words will often include a number of falsifications, backstabbing, and betrayals of confidences. I’ve also noticed that those who deal with others with this motor mouth tactic seem to be extraordinarily fearful of the mildest correction, contradiction or disagreement as well.

The command and direction of scripture is rather that godliness is more demonstrated in being ready to listen, restrained in speech, and patient even with people who are frustrating, irritating and insulting:  “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

In this quotation I’ve combined the New International Version with the King James Version, since the NIV doesn’t capture the full scriptural implications of what is meant by the righteousness of God: the anger of man does not accomplish the justice and vindication in any situation which has its foundation and justification in God and for which God alone is responsible. So, James is actually saying that an angry, overbearing manner, intended to overwhelm another with words and crowd out anything that the other person says will never accomplish what God wants in that situation. About all that it will accomplish will be a temporary sensation of power – the preferred drug of the egomaniac. And it will most often leave the other person frustrated, humiliated and even more entrenched in his ideas, opinions, attitudes and actions, whether those ideas, opinions, attitudes and actions are for right or wrong according to scripture and reason. Sadly, though, I’ve actually heard a Christian leader advise other pastors to deal with people like this, to give them a hard time, to refuse to listen to them, to treat anything that is said as a groundless excuse and to demand instant obedience to get them to accomplish some small assignment in church. This was probably one of the most ungodly and unscriptural pieces of advice that I had ever heard one pastor give to other pastors.

So then, a believer is advising disobedience to scripture if he or she advises someone to try to overwhelm another person with words, to talk over another person, or not to give fair hearing to another person. I’ve noticed that this is also the practice of some abusive people, who may also say or imply things about their targets to discourage others from listening to what their targets have to say, so this ungodly advice may be a camouflage for a wicked, abusive scheme. The abuser also wants his or her version of a situation to be the only one that ever gets to be heard. So a believer who hears such advice should be alert that there may be a wicked scheme or a story of abuse that someone wants to remain hidden.

The need here is to follow what Solomon, a king known for his godly wisdom and justice, had to say about that: “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him” (Proverbs 18:17). The right of cross examination and to face one’s accusers has been built into systems of civil justice to get the truth but in personal relationships it applies as well. This is well illustrated in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird: when a cousin strikes Scout, the narrator of the novel, and runs away and claims that Scout had struck her, her uncle believes the cousin without having given Scout a fair hearing. Later Scout is able to tell him that that isn’t the way that her father Atticus treats her, that he would give both her and her brother a chance to let their sides be known – and that is part of the wisdom of Atticus Finch, one of the wisest fathers who never lived.

There is a limit on the other side, though, on when a believer may legitimately and scripturally refuse to listen. Certainly the believer is under no obligation to give a hearing to slander, once it is known to be slander:   “Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence . . .  no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence” (Psalm 101:5, 7). Even more, the believer is under no obligation to listen to false teaching which denies core doctrines of Christianity, which gives advice contrary to scripture or which gives aid and comfort to the enemies of Christ and the gospel. A firm but respectful refusal and departure is warranted here. Likewise upon the command of scripture a believer is to refuse to get involved in foolish arguments: “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels” (II Timothy 2:23). Over the years I’ve had fellow believers attempt to get me involved in situations which involved disputes about such things as spiritual gifts, versions of English translations of the Bible, and events of Biblical end times prophecy. My explanation has been that I have my own convictions upon such matters based upon the scriptures, but I refuse to get involved in these kinds of discussions, since my first concern is to live out scripture, and not to prove any opinion of mine is right according to scripture, nor to get involved in someone else’s quarrels and disputes with fellow believers.

Still one last qualification needs to be added: giving a person a fair hearing does not mean listening without evaluating what is said according to scripture and reason, in that order. While Solomon said, “ . . . a wise man listens to advice . . .  ” (Proverbs 12:15), he also said, “A simple man believes anything” (Proverbs 14:15). Too many Christians over the years have allowed themselves to be gullible, and persuaded by factors contrary to scripture and reason – charm, glibness and popularity among them — and most certainly they and others have suffered for it.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.