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Trust the Process Part 3: Removing Obstacles to Union


[Rev. Dr. Chuck DeGroat is our blogger for the month of April. Chuck is Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Western Theological Seminary (Holland MI) and a Senior Fellow at Newbigin House of Studies (San Francisco). He is the author of Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places (Square Inch), Toughest People to Love (Eerdmans) and the upcoming Wholeheartedness (Eerdmans).]

In the previous blogs, I’ve offered some perspective into the process of growth and change we encounter, oftentimes in therapy or pastoral counseling or spiritual direction. I’ve said that the journey is, indeed, a process, encountered in fits and starts, where our fumbling and bumblings actually become a means to discover the depth of our need for God. I’ve shared some of the relational “security strategies” we employ in order to gain more control over this messy and mysterious process, as well. Today, I’ll expand on this.

More often than not, we focus on “sin” as pastors and counselors attempting to provide care in the name of Christ. The struggling congregant knocks on our door, only to confess over the next hour a battle with pornography or a season of vocational discontent or an issue with their spouse. We focus on what they’ve done or are doing to get into this predicament. We might focus on how they can avoid their temptation. We might tackle a problematic way of communicating with a spouse. Either way, we engage people on the level of what they’re doing or not doing. And this is our first problem.

As some have said, we’re not a human doing but a human being. By focusing on what we’re doing, we fall into the pattern of sin management. We become helpers who re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic as the boat is sinking. Or, for those of us in the process, we engage a futile pattern of trying and failing which only reinforces our guilt and shame. Sin management is a way of avoiding the necessary process of sanctification I mused on in my first blog, because it is an attempt to control and manage our frantic inner world.

By focusing on what we do, we miss the significant relational strategies which undergird all our ‘doings’. I mused on a number of relational strategies in last week’s blog. When we begin to see the depth of our relational strategies, we see what actually keeps us from living full, flourishing, ‘alive’ lives. We see what fuels the many smaller ‘sins’ we struggle with. And we make the choice to attend to the deeper patterns.

Theologian Wendy Farley describes these deeper patterns through the early church’s tradition of naming deadly “passions” in our lives. The descriptions help me to see the complicated and ingrained patterns which undergird our behaviors and quench life and hope in our lives:

The “passions” is an ancient name for some of the ways in which our own psyche helps to trap us in patterns of living that block us from our deepest joy. Passions have the connotation of bondage and uneasiness. They exemplify the way the soul can become twisted and turned in on itself (homo incurvatus en se) and alienated from the world around it. Anger and so on are passions when they move beyond passing emotions and take deep root in the soul, distorting mind, spirit, freedom, embodiment, agency, and, most of all, love. The passions muffle and distort holy desire. 

As she notes, the passions are a way of describing what twists our good desires, enslaving us in a way that has a significant impact on how we relate to God and others. Rather than relating from a place of wholehearted love and desire for God, we might look for our “intimacy fix” in a night of porn, a dependent relationship with an abusive man, an addictive spiritual behavior program, or connection via social media. But we may not know this. While we identify our sinful behaviors quite easily, it’s tougher to see the pattern underneath. Farley continues:

On the one

At another level, passions become second nature and seem to he an essential part of our identity. The more they have entwined themselves with one’s self-identity, the more difficult they will be to dethrone. Passions blend with self-identity, though not in the sense that we conceive ourselves as terrified or enraged. These may be the last things we associate with ourselves. But we do incorporate the effects of these passions into our self-understanding.

What Farley says is that we may even ennoble our relational strategies as something good. We might view ourselves as self-giving helpers or hard-charging achievers or peace-seeking compromisers or reform-loving idealists, but these very patterns might, in fact, be sinful relational strategies which cloud our self-understanding. The key is to begin to see our relational strategies.

These strategies might be called our “false self.” And we may be tempted to see our entire personality through this false self. The hard work of therapy or pastoral counseling or spiritual direction, depending on the agreed upon aims of each, might be to uproot the false self system in order to live into the deeper life in God we’re made for. I call this work “removing obstacles to union with God.” This is the process we engage in our work with people. It’s not enough simply to stop looking at porn or to stop cutting or to stop blowing your top at your spouse. The bigger question is: what motivates this? What keeps us from union?

In doing this, we discover what actually keeps us from “being,” from our deepest joy in Christ, from the aliveness for which we’ve been made. God doesn’t want sin-managers. God wants fully alive women and men whose life is animated by God-life.

A disciple of St. Augustine, Catherine of Genoa once wrote, “My deepest me is God.” As we engage the long and winding road of sanctification with God, we become who we really are. This is a process worth engaging and a God worth trusting.



  1. Scott Courey says:

    Thank you for uncovering this Chuck. I wonder what we have really done to the greatest commandment. We know it, we believe it, but where does it go in real life? When it goes south my own agenda goes north and my deepest sin is neither action nor attitude but ascendency. “My will not thine be done”. Though I may hide my lust and rationalize a bitter glare at my wife, I know down deep that it’s sin. But my drive to serve my own needs looks far more noble in my own eyes. I volunteer at work to pull for a compliment or let a session sith a client go too long because I need to feel helpful.
    At one level, I’d rather admit to a buddy my struggles with lust than confess to him my jealously over how much money he makes and then ask him if he ever feels it.
    Gross sinful behaviors are mere manifestations of our deep determination to live for our own purposes. Idolatry always lurks beneath immorality, tempting us to believe that repentance means being nice. But honestly, in some ways, my deepest shame is experienced in those rare and lucid moments in which I knowingly say something funny in small group, making everybody laugh because I feel so desperately alone and am too terrified to admit it.
    I long to know more of what my life would be like if I loved the Lord my God with all of my mind heart soul and strength. And yet He loves me still. How good is that?

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