On a scale of one to ten, with ten being healthiest, how would you rate your relationships?  I once asked church leaders how they’d rate their church.  Most gave it a seven; I would have said four. I am sometimes humored when I ask couples how it’s going.  He says, “Fine;” she answers, “Struggling.”  She’s not smiling.  Doctors diagnose to determine physical health.  Here are clues to relational wholeness:



Dysfunctional systems major in pretense.  “Honesty is the best policy,” but insecure people don’t want it. Pretending overshadows facing hard truth. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” but fragile relationships can’t handle it. Can you?  Can others risk speaking truthfully with you? Not if you’re unhealthy.



The Bible lays out processes for peaceful resolution. Some have neither the desire nor the know-how to close books by making the columns balance.  They would rather build up a deficit in the emotional bank account. When a relationship with the boss deteriorated, Jerry viewed quitting as an easier option than confronting.


Tension doesn’t mean that something is wrong; it means that something is happening. But if we learned to treat tension as threatening, we react instead of saying, “My relationship with you is not up for grabs. How can we deal with this misunderstanding?”


When a friend in a difficult marriage went to in-law gatherings, he listened to people staying on the surface rather than dealing with painful issues. Unhealthy people avoid confrontation or do it recklessly. You need to have made investments into the relationship if you plan to make a big withdrawal, such as lovingly confronting someone. Otherwise the check bounces.



People who live by principles more than by the Spirit will tend to return evil for evil.  They want to be even-handed.  People of grace are radical. They return the opposite spirit, responding to God rather than reacting to people, one mark of maturity.  A Spirit-empowered life is required to overcome evil with good.  Our sense of justice kicks in when insulted, and we may choose to nurse the offense rather than forgiving the offender. Wounded people who hold onto injuries keep getting wounded. Like a sick person with no immune system, they catch everything that comes along. Healthy people have emotional immunity; resentment doesn’t stick to their soul.  



Healthy relationships combine grace and truth in a way that builds us up. We leave the encounter encouraged.  Unhealthy relationships are often filled with sarcasm, dumping, complaining, innuendos.  No investment is being made for the future.  If anything, money is drawn out without new deposits being made.


I once mentioned in the hearing of my daughter Karis, then six, that I was short on money.  She encouraged me to write out a check for some easy cash.  I explained that I had to put money in to draw money out.  Unhealthy people will overdraw and go from crisis to crisis.  They must learn to make good deposits in the lives of others. Love is the answer.



Really? I agree that the Christian life is more about receiving than doing. We are on the receiving end of God’s empowering grace. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” That is not much. Jesus also said, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17).


Yet the posture of those receiving is not one of sitting back in an easy chair. Paul has just said that he wants to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:9).


Then he goes on, “Not that I have already obtained all this or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (12). He doesn’t stop there. He says he is “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (13). He pictures himself like a runner: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (14). Simply put: because Christ Jesus gave His all, Paul will give his all as well, knowing it is grace from start to finish. But in order to finish well, he will keep on running, straining, reaching, setting new goals, attaining new heights, pouring out his life for others.


We owe everything to a kind and generous Father. And in view of His great love, we give it all we’ve got. Peter agrees with this synergy. He writes, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Then he goes on, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness” (5), and a lengthy list of virtues.


Pharisees would take that exhortation, exclude the grace, and strain it out with a legalistic self-will. Not even close. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” And yet that grace not only forgives and receives–it energizes and empowers.


Millennials are good at chilling. Sometimes they need to. Many seem to be waiting for good things to happen to them, when they should be taking Paul’s lead and “laying hold” of those things in cooperation with God the Holy Spirit.


In the movie “Lion King,” Simba believed a lie, ran from his destiny, and adopted a Hakuna matata (“no worries”) philosophy. Fortunately for him, Rafiki got ahold of him and literally knocked some sense into him. Destinies are for the taking, but they must be taken, not assumed.


In the story of Jesus about the talents (Matthew 25), the third investor did not fulfill his destiny–he buried it! And he changed his picture of the master in the process: “I knew that you are a hard man….” Oh, really? Doesn’t look that way. Seems like a kind boss. When you run from responsibility, you need an alibi to keep living an irresponsible life. Might as well blame your boss and ask him to overlook your lack. Jesus didn’t. Surprise: He expects us to walk into our God-appointed assignments–by grace. Go for it! You won’t regret it.



Learn the fundamentals of basketball before you practice passing behind your back or slam dunking. Same for prayer:


  1. Choose a time. What we schedule is important to us. What could beat an appointment with God?!  Sadly, it gets overlooked by scheduled meetings. Picking a time doubles the chance of success. And while you are at it, pick a spot. Peter and John went to the temple (place) at the hour of prayer (the time), and God showed up. Daniel prayed three times a day in the same place–and position.


  1. Make up a prayer agenda. I struggled as a young man with prayer, wondering if I had covered the essentials. So I developed an agenda. I started with worship, because the psalmist invites us to “enter his courts with praise(P).  I thought of who God is and what He does. Then I follow with repentance (R). When we have seen God for who He is, we more clearly see ourselves for who we are. Confessing sin on a regular basis helps walk with a greater consciousness of our need for change and our confidence in the cross. Claiming God’s forgiveness, I turn to asking (A). I start with me, then family, relatives, friends, pastors, etc. I finish my prayer time by yielding (Y) my day, my time, my body, my meetings, my problems, my dreams to the Lord. For years this simple acronym (P-R-A-Y) has helped me grow in prayer.


Why a prayer list? We write up an agenda for important meetings; we want to keep the commitments we make; we want to stay on track; and we want to persist in prayer. The Lord’s Prayer also gives us a wonderful agenda for prayer, phrase by phrase.


  1. Pray out loud. God told disobedient Israel, needing to return to God, “Take words with you” (Hosea 14:2). Speaking out words allows us to express our heart, and it reinforces its content.


  1. Practice silence. God can talk. One way to learn to listen is to quit talking. After I have spoken, I give God a chance. Again, a quiet place helps. Come with paper, ready to write anything you think God is saying.


  1. Don’t be afraid of repetition. Sometimes gratitude is repetitive. People in love could say so ten times and mean it stronger every time.

6. Pray with others. We can learn much by hearing how others express their love for God or how they confess their sins. A friend joins me once a week. I borrowed his list of the attributes of God and it helped me to expand my time of praise.  Praying together always upgrades my prayer time.



Not a big deal because of the cross, right? Wrong! Big deal because of the cross. Sin put Him there. Jesus “ever lives to intercede for us.” How does He pray? That we will be like Him, loving righteousness and hating iniquity. Bottom line of the intricate Old Testament sacrificial system: sin is serious and the Lamb will deal with it.


Many are casual, thinking sin’s not serious, not that serious. For instance, too many think that sleeping together before marriage is not that bad because Jesus is forgiving. The blood of Jesus covers sin that we uncover. It does not cover the sin of the proud, the self-centered, the willful. They are on their own.


Christians casual about sin…

will not walk into their God-appointed destiny;

will not impact the kingdom of God;

will not please Jesus;

will choose happiness over holiness, and

will potentially crash, bringing shame to Christ.


Sin is never dealt with lightly in the Bible. If you agree, do two things:





Ask God to help you to see them as He does, something that could separate you from Him, for time and for eternity. You may hear some preachers say that sin does not separate us from God because He is gracious. When young people have asked me if I think they have committed the unforgivable sin, I answer no, because they are concerned about it. One who isn’t would likely have a hardened heart. A Christian that sins willfully and without confessing is in danger of hardening his heart.


But didn’t Paul say that NOTHING would separate us from the love of God? Yes, but look at the context. He wrote that Christ died “in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh…To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Romans 8:4-6). “The wages of sin is death”–always. Every sin has the seed of death in it. If Bill Graham decides to test the law of gravity in a plane five miles up, he will find out by falling. If he decided to live in the flesh, he would fall.


Paul goes on to say, talking to believers, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh–for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (12,13). It is those people who will discover the holding power of God’s love.



We don’t deal with sin by focusing on it. Tried that as a teen–didn’t work. We focus on Jesus and the cross, where sin was dealt with. We are changed by what we believe and behold. So as we behold Jesus and believe that He crushed sin at the cross, we live victorious over sin. We confess it in order to leave it and not think about it. Great idea!





You sure about that one?  Not what is needed now. You are not trying to represent God at this point, just allowing your friend to share. She needs to talk.



You do not understand. Just hear the full story. Try nodding and listening as best you can.



Don’t try to reason with someone going through incredible grief, who has been made to feel like a murderer, who feels like she can’t go on. This is NOT time to present reasonable answers or solutions. Do not see yourself as the advice-giver or the answer-person.




Don’t even ask questions, unless it is to keep her talking. Let her share anything she wants about her situation and sorrow. Don’t even think about critiquing her story or correcting any words, such as “fetus,” or “termination.”  She has probably had that from others, who offered advice or gave counsel for free, even when it was not requested.



Way to go. You understand that you can’t really grasp it.


GOD IS NEAR TO THE BROKEN-HEARTED. HE’S NEAR EVEN IF IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE IT.  Okay, if she has poured out her whole story and there’s no more coming, maybe it can be a time for hugs and words of comfort. Maybe! You could ask is she wants prayer. If she is open to touch, you could put your hand on her shoulder, or if you know her well and are a woman, on her heart. You might want to pray for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, Who alone truly knows, understands, and deeply loves.



She needs hope. It may not be you, but it may come from you. Is there a ministry you know about that works with people who have gone through abortions and can walk through the healing process with them? If not, could you find one?



When you don’t know what to say or what to do, love will tell you. “Love never fails.” That is good to know. Sometimes we can find ourselves over our head, in territory we’ve not been in before, wondering if we should agree or disagree, speak or listen, wait or walk. At that point, try love. It will likely give you the best response–or no response. And at some point, maybe the second time around, we might want to speak about a God who forgives if she asks about forgiveness.




“Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved” (Psalm 89:3,7,19). Notice it is repeated three times.

“Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6).

“Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2)



Peggy and Christine, age 84 and 82, were so convinced by God that He was sending revival to the Hebrides Island, that they prayed day and night. They finally asked their pastor to give an invitation to Duncan Campbell. He came for two weeks–and stayed for two years, leading a powerful move of the Spirit of God from 1949 on. Credit two invalids for praying faithfully and in faith.


Seventeen students at Asbury College were praying at 2 AM on February 2, 1970 when one of the student leaders said, “We can quit praying. He’s coming tomorrow.” He came for chapel–and stayed. Classes were shut down for three weeks because of the convicting and convincing work of the Holy Spirit, bring confession of sins and a fresh love for God throughout the campus.


They began sending out students in small teams all around the country. Wherever they went, revival broke out. The students had been praying together for many months and believing God to send revival. Instead of simply saying “Cool, bring it on,” they followed the Scriptures and prayed. Revival gives us two main assignments–prayer and proclamation. We talk to God about people, and we talk to people about God. We can’t bring revival apart from God, and He won’t bring revival apart from us. He looks for praying people through whom He can work. Maybe He’ll find you.



The conditions in America at the turn of the eighteenth century were anything but positive. Most even in the church had lost hope, while some prayed and believed. God moved powerfully on campuses, in churches, and in the workplace. He did it again halfway into the nineteenth century, and again in the beginning of the twentieth century, this time at a small church on Azusa Street. The impact of that revival is still felt more than a century later. We say with Habakkuk about the mighty works of God, “O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known.”



The Old Testament ends with a promise and a curse. I’ll take the promise. God says, “Behold! I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5,6). Join multiplied thousands believing for the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5, a revival of relationships, a revival in the home that powerfully impacts society–in every country of the world. We can pray in faith, knowing our prayer is going to be answered–soon and very soon!


We will not shame people.

Shame is a weapon of choice for abusers. I won’t preach on treating the body as holy, then freak out when someone has a coke. Using guilt, fear, the law, or position are illegitimate ways to motivate. Legalism gets quick results, just not lasting ones. The law brings external compliance, a poor excuse for the motivation of love through the work of the Spirit.

We will not have hidden rules.

People often don’t know until they break them. If they go out to dinner instead of showing up for the Wednesday night prayer meeting, they are held in suspect. They decide under pressure not to miss again. But when company comes in from the west coast, they don’t go to the Friday night outreach. They won’t do that again. The pastor made a subtle reference to it in his sermon two days later. Ouch.

We will view members positively,

not as lazy or stupid, like the Pharisees viewed them. And we will see ourselves as no different from the people we serve. If anything, we are lower. We won’t think that we own people. If they want out, we will make it easy. People find out how close it is to a cult when they talk about leaving.

We will not turn Christianity into keys,

three steps. Christianity by formula is not what the apostles passed on. Abusers have code words and phrases: Loyalty, submission, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed,” “he’s in rebellion,” “she has a Jezebel spirit.” They take the mystery out of the Christian life with easy answers: “You’re sick because you are not disciplining your children right.”  

We won’t create uniformity.

In abusive systems individuality and creativity are frowned upon. New ideas and originality threaten the program. Better to dress alike, talk alike, even fix your hair alike. In unhealthy systems, good ideas don’t fit. Uniformity outscores unity.

We will reward grace-givers, not legalists.

I believe in fasting, but so did the Pharisees, and they thought they earned extra credit for it. Fasting is normal Christianity, not a sign of super-spirituality.

We will avoid spiritual abuse by walking in humility.

Humility means that anyone can speak into my life, especially people that disagree with me. I don’t have all the answers, and no one else does either. The best defense is to live by grace rather than by the law or by formula.

God-ordained leaders must walk with meekness and at the same time exercise God-given authority in a way that builds trust. How sad that some use God to serve themselves, all the while wearing a mask of holiness.

My counsel:  Never violate your conscience under the constraint of a false loyalty, like a Scripture that urges you to obey your leaders. One caution:  don’t overreact. Not everyone who talks about submission or obeying elders is an abuser. They are Biblical words.

Jesus was full of grace and truth, but what rubbed off on people was grace: “Of his fullness we have all received—grace upon grace” (John 1:16). He didn’t load people down with burdens as the Pharisees did—He took them off. He said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). That’s the kind of leader we want to follow–and be.



I am a recovering Pharisee. I did some of what Jesus rebuked the religious leaders for. Pastors are given a place of influence, which they can use appropriately or illegitimately. The Pharisees, then and now, often violate their position in these ways:



They place heavy expectations upon people that they themselves do not carry out. In their excellent book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen say (my summary) that when abuse is present, good news becomes bad news, the gospel becomes a curse, what is supposed to make you happy makes you sad, and what is supposed to bring rest brings work, ceaseless work to get better.



They value looking good more than being good, a preoccupation with performance. One’s identity can be wrapped up in the nervous pursuit of holiness, which means putting forth effort to keep the law. Abuse often boils down to transferring the focus from grace to law.



which also means minoring in majors. The Pharisees made gray areas into black and white issues. When the doubtful things like drinking or entertainment or clothes take center stage instead of core doctrines, what you do supersedes who you are. In religious abuse, questionable things are no longer questions.



Abusers don’t mind telling men and women what they can and cannot do, wear or not wear, say or not say. But they like to keep people in the dark. They are secretive and seclusive. People who disagree with them are cut off from fellowship and often shamed in public. Abusers adopt a bunker mentality: “They are out to get us,” which typically makes them defensive, argumentative, and feisty.



Compliant people enter into a co-dependent relationship with the abusers by walking in submission, defined in the way the leaders mandate. Followers pick up as best they can on the silent codes and the unwritten rules. The God of the spiritually abused is a judge rather than a father. He is tricky, changing, always wanting more, and disappointed with a faulty performance. Abusers are like an insecure dad who cannot get what he wants so reverts to emotional force to get it.


As a young pastor, I identified with the elder brother more than with the prodigal, which made me a little nervous, because he is the brunt of the story. He postured himself as the responsible one. He is blind to his selfish accusations, critical spirit, and irresponsibility.  I never left home like the prodigal did, but look at the story; each brother had his own field that he was trapped in. Simply put, the elder son was an abuser.


To keep us recovering Pharisees on our toes, let us agree that by God’s grace…

  1. We will not shame people. (Part 2 will explain Seven Things We Will Not Do!)