A New Light on a Dark Friday Cry

Carolyn Arends : March 29, 2018 11:28 am : Writings [published articles]

Today’s Throwback Thursday is a piece I have revisited each holy week over the past few years. As we remember Jesus’ anguished cry from the cross, we are once again extended an invitation to delve a little deeper into the mystery of just what he might have meant.

CrownThornsPsalm 22, Good Friday, and The Princess Bride

My kids finally saw The Princess Bride, a movie their dad and I have loved since our college days. There is something wonderful about watching your favorite people watch one of your favorite films. In this case, the added bonus was observing the light come into their eyes as they discovered the origin of several quirky things their parents routinely say. “Hey!” they shouted with a shock of recognition when Westley first said, “As you wish”—a line they’ve heard their father utter hundreds of times. Vizzini’s “Inconceivable!” produced a similar response. By the time we got to the ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size), our kids were grinning with the particular delight of cracking a previously mystifying code. They were in on the joke, and they liked it.

PrincessBrideLanguage is much more than grammar and syntax. It is layer upon layer of collective memory and shared meaning, so that simple phrases like, “Houston, we have a problem,” “Et tu, Brute?,” “Remember the Alamo,” or even “Yada, yada, yada” can carry worlds of meaning. You can’t master a dialect without also learning the culture in which it is embedded.

In my quest to learn the “Gospel Language,” I have often been oblivious to the shared experience assumed by the biblical writers. Jesus and his earliest followers were Jews; they held in their collective memory a particular story of a particular people, loaded with mutually understood points of reference. When I’ve read the New Testament only dimly aware of the symbolic world of the Old Testament, I’ve barely skimmed the surface of an ocean of meaning.

Certainly, I’ve grasped that Jesus’ choice of 12 disciples has something to do with Yahweh’s callingBible of the 12 tribes of Israel. But until recently, I remained oblivious to the way his baptism and desert temptation evoke the foundational story of the Israelite Exodus through Red Sea waters and into the wilderness. I’ve been duly impressed with the Lord’s ability to command the stormy waters to be still (Matt. 8:26-27), but I’ve missed the Israelite shock at this man from Nazareth doing something that, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, only Yahweh can do. And although I’ve understood some of the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration right before the eyes of Peter, James, and John, I’ve forgotten that the Israelites had been waiting since the Exile for the Shekinah—the visible glory of the Lord—to return.

Maybe the most significant reference I’ve missed has to do with Jesus’ final words on the cross. That awful cry—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—has haunted my struggle to understand exactly what transpired (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Was Jesus, for a devastating moment, utterly alone and without hope? How that cry is processed has all sorts of implications for theology—not least for the way we conceive of the Atonement and of the relationality of God’s triunity. More personally, it shapes the way I perceive my own experiences of abandonment.

I’ve known, in a vague way, that with his cry Jesus was quoting the beginning of Psalm 22, a passage so familiar to his friends that to utter the first line would have been tantamount to reciting the entire thing. Psalm 22 is an anguished prayer of David, spoken as a godly sufferer awaiting deliverance. It’s the most frequently quoted Psalm in the New Testament. And its parallels to the Crucifixion are chilling:

A band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them
And cast lots for my clothing. (vv. 16b-18, NIV 1984)

The psalm is so shot through with suffering, it’s hard to imagine any more appropriate reference Jesus could have made. But it’s essential to know that the only thing in Psalm 22 that runs as deeply and vividly as the speaker’s pain is his unshakable hope:

You who fear the Lord, praise him! …
For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help. (vv. 23a, 24, NIV 1984)

Both Matthew and Mark note that some of the onlookers misunderstood Jesus’ cry, mishearing the Aramaic word for “my God”—Eloi—as Elijah. I wonder if, in including that detail, they aren’t cautioning us to pay attention to exactly what Jesus is saying.

The Cross is a mystery, and no human should expect to understand it fully. But if we want to be conversant in the language of the gospel, we need to be able to say at least this: At Calvary, Jesus felt the deepest level of anguish ever known, and yet he could still, in his Psalm 22 declaration, point to the presence, faithfulness, and anticipated deliverance of his Father—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of our salvation.

(Excerpted from the book THEOLOGY IN AISLE SEVEN, by Carolyn Arends)

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A Persistent Problem (New FT Column)

Carolyn Arends : December 12, 2017 4:44 am : Writings [published articles]

Happy Second Week of Advent, Dear Friends. This season of waiting seems like an appropriate time to share my new Faith Today column – which asks How should we pray when God seems silent? Here it is …

I am the mother of two very persistent children. From extended bedtimes to Xboxes, they’ve always had a particular genius for requesting what they want with such frequency and intensity that, on occasion, their father and I have acquiesced just to make them stop.

While I have a grudging respect for their tenacity, I haven’t seen their petitionary persistence as a positive. So it has struck me odd that persistence is such a key theme in Jesus’ teaching on prayer.

In Luke 11, Jesus tells the story of a man who knocks on a door in the middle of the night until his grumpy neighbour provides food. In Luke 18, Jesus describes a widow who won’t stop calling upon a capricious judge until he grants her justice.

Both stories employ a classic rabbinical argument known as “from the lesser to the greater.” If a lazy, inhospitable neighbour and a jaded, corrupt judge will eventually fulfill the requests of a persistent petitioner, Jesus suggests, how much more will your Father in heaven, who is good?

The argument is not hard to follow. But is Jesus telling us we should nag God until we get what we want, the way my eight-year-old once wore down my defenses until he was the proud owner of glow-in-the-dark wheelie sneakers?

I don’t think so. After all, elsewhere Jesus warns against “babbling” in intercession or thinking our prayers are more likely heard if we use “many words” (Matthew 6:7).

So why does Jesus emphasize persistence?

Like so many others, I find my life forces my questions about Jesus’ teaching on prayer out of the abstract and into the urgent. For months my mom has been in the hospital. An out-of-the-blue heart attack set off a domino effect of complications – heart failure, kidney failure, internal bleeding, infection.

We are grateful she is still with us. And yet we are discouraged. Every time she’s survived another complication, we’ve praised God and made plans for her release – only to be told a day later she’s been hit with another setback.

As the weeks dragged on, I found myself growing increasingly tongue-tied when I tried to pray at her bedside. Requesting healing for the thousandth time, I felt foolish in the repetition. Why raise our hopes only to have them inevitably dashed again?

Things have grown a little quiet between God and me. I haven’t wanted to badger Him any longer about my mom, but her condition is so on my mind that it’s hard to talk about much else.

My conversation with God had dwindled until, a few days ago, my mom called and regretfully filled me in on yet another setback. I hung up the phone and found myself sinking to my knees. I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually, I was struck by two important things. The first was that my sobbing – wordless and wrenching – was prayer. And the second was that there was a palpable presence in the room with me. My prayer was being heard.

God offered no clear answers. I heard no promises. But after a few minutes, I was able to stand up again, tangibly reminded my Father in heaven is still involved, and still good.

It made me wonder if maybe Jesus taught us to persist in praying out of empathy for our condition. He was utterly convinced of the goodness and the efficacy of His Father. Yet He understood how silent the heavens can seem from an earthbound perspective. So He asked us to trust God now, based on His character, for the things that will only make sense later.

In the meantime, we have two choices – express what is really in our hearts or go mute. Given that nothing kills a relationship faster than the silent treatment, maybe what Jesus is saying with His persistence parables is this: Don’t go mute.

Jesus’ own prayer book was comprised of the psalms, almost half of which are raw, sometimes petulant, cries of lament. It turns out that “How long, O Lord?” is a much better prayer than “I’ll stop bothering you now.”

So, like the psalmists, like a persistent neighbour, like a tenacious widow or maybe even like a child with a burning request, I’m back to asking.*

(*update: After a 131-day stay, my mom is finally out of the hospital and recovering beyond the doctors’ expectations at home. I am grateful.)


A Bonafide Life Hack – Join me in the Book Club

Carolyn Arends : October 26, 2017 8:03 pm : Renovare

Generally, I don’t believe in “life hacks” – I figure all the things that really matter take good-old-fashioned effort and diligence. I have, however, found one “life hack” that really works …

If you wish you could find a way to make room in your life for meaningful reading, you should totally join the Renovaré Book Club.

Now, in my case, it helps that I’m the coordinator of the Book Club. But even if I wasn’t, I would join, because the weekly reading reminders, bonus resources (from the authors and facilitators), and community connections help me move the reading I want to do from “aspirational” to “scheduled.” It’s like magic!

(OK, sure, it still takes old-fashioned effort and diligence, but it helps me make that happen.)

The Club runs this year from the end of October until mid-June. Here are the books:

Book One: God-Soaked Life: Discovering a Kingdom Spirituality, written by Benedictine Anglican Priest Chris Webb. Chris himself will be facilitating.

Book Two: The Hiding Place, the contemporary classic by Corrie Ten Boom. The facilitator will be Marti Ensign, a long-time missionary to Africa who enjoyed a close friendship with Corrie.

Book Three: The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Inklings scholar Dr. Robert Moore-Jumonville will be leading us through this lively classic.

Book Four: Living Wisely with the Church Fathers written by Renovaré president and Early Church scholar Chris Hall. Chris will facilitate this one for us.

And here’s a new twist for the Club this year – in addition to our online community, we’ve got 83 (and counting) volunteers coordinating in-person groups that will meet once a month for some caffeine and conversation. When you join the Club, you can check our map to see if there is someone heading up a group in your area. If there’s not, you can stick with the online community – or you can actually volunteer to head a group in your area yourself!

So … consider yourself invited. We begin on Monday (don’t worry, we can send you some PDFs of the opening chapters of the first book to tide you over until you have a copy.)

Hope to see you in the Club! (Learn more HERE.)

Pax Christi,


PS – If you happen to live in the lower mainland of British Columbia – come to my group! Beginning in November, we’ll be meeting the 2nd or 3rd Tuesday of the month at a coffee shop in Cloverdale. Simply join the Club and then look me up on the map and send me an email.


When dear old friends do cool new things

Carolyn Arends : September 16, 2017 12:05 pm : Uncategorized

A quick post to share a couple of very cool news items with you.

First, a chance to back Rose Capanna’s book. 

My dear friend Rose has been my webmaster since I knew what the “web” was. In fact, those of you who have known me for a long time will remember getting regular email updates about my goings on from Rose (or “Rowzee” as she is sometimes known).

But my history with Rose is not why you should back her book project. You should back her book project because she’s a great writer with a really fascinating true story to tell, and backing her book is a chance to help usher something interesting, valuable, and beautiful into the world. Check it out!

PS – Just in case knowing that you are a literary patron is not enough motivation, Rose’s Kickstarter backer rewards are really cool!

Second, a new book about Rich Mullins.

September 19, 2017 will mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Rich Mullins, a man whose music (and life) meant so very much to many of us. Andrew Greer and Randy Cox have gathered up a series of short essays, conversations, and memories that give a uniquely delightful glimpse into Rich and the dent he made for the Kingdom.

Contributors include: Amy Grant, Cindy Morgan, Brennan Manning, David McCracken, Jason Gray, Andrew Peterson, Dan Haseltine, Sara Groves, Mitch McVicker, Ashely Cleveland, Shane Claiborne, Third Day, Jimmy Abegg, Jonathan Martin, and many more – including yours truly.

You can order the book from all the usual retailers, and find out lots more at this pretty nifty website.

Ok, that’s all the news for this post. I don’t stand to gain anything personally from these offerings – other than knowing I helped spread a little good in the world!





The Music – raw video of a new tune

Carolyn Arends : August 4, 2017 9:30 am : blogging, music

I shared this “footage from the wild” of the debut of a new tune over on Facebook, and realized it would only right to share here on carolynarends.com. This moment was captured Thursday, July 27, 2017, during a concert at the end of our week teaching and singing at Camp Barnabas on Keats Island, BC, Canada. Not a bad view out the window, eh?

It was a blessed week, but also a tough week (part of a tough month) as we were boating back and forth to visit my mom in the hospital (she is battling hard as she endures complications from a serious heart attack.) So what you see here is not only the debut of a new song, but some ongoing soul work on the part of the singer.

I hope the song speaks peace to you in some way.


Happy Birthday, Dear Church! (new CTW article about Pentecost Sunday)

Carolyn Arends : May 31, 2017 7:57 am : Writings [published articles]

Here’s the introduction from a new piece that just went up at CTW, in which I reveal the secrets of my family’s Trinity Handshakeand (more importantly) share what I’ve been learning about some of the hows and whys of observing Pentecost Sunday …

Why Pentecost Sunday is worth celebrating.

When my nephew Walker was little, I passed on to him a sacred ritual we call “The Trinity Handshake.” It involves greeting one another in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, while clasping hands in a manner corresponding to each member of the Godhead. For the Father, we employ a straightforward handshake. For the Son, we merge into an informal “hand hug.” And for the Spirit, we keep our thumbs interlocked while fluttering our fingers to the side like wings, raising our arms to launch our “dove.” Trust me, it’s cool.

For months, we faithfully observed our handshake every time we met. Then, one sleepy Saturday, I forgot to extend my hand. “Do the spooky thing!” he said.

“The spooky thing?” I asked, confused. “You know,” he glared, exasperated. “We need to do the ghost!”

Apparently, my attempts to catechize Walker had him picturing the third member of the Trinity more like Casper than the Spirit of the Living Christ. We needed help.

A Holy Ghost day

If you attend a church that observes the liturgical calendar, you know that there’s a day—Pentecost Sunday—set aside to remember a moment in history when it became clear that the Holy Ghost isn’t so much spooky as wildly powerful, creative, and unpredictable. However, if you attend a non-liturgical church, you may have no idea when Pentecost Sunday occurs. (Spoiler alert: This year, Pentecost Sunday falls on June 4.)

I’ve been attending non-liturgical churches my entire life. Even though many of these churches have begun to embrace many of the gifts of the liturgical calendar (Advent, Ash Wednesday, and Lent come to mind), I don’t recall observing Pentecost Sunday even once. So, I decided to do some digging.

The first thing I’ve discovered in my research is that …


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An Earthy God (New FT column)

Carolyn Arends : March 13, 2017 8:48 am : Writings [published articles]




Long ago, when I was a senior in the psychology program at Trinity Western University, I took a course called “Physiology of Religion.” I remember how troubled my fellow students and I (most of us Christians) became when we saw the link between an individual’s reported religious experiences and his physical state. Was a sense of Divine Presence really just the consequence of an elevated heartrate and a flood of stress hormones? Could the hearing of a “still small voice” be explained away as the firing of overactive neurons?

I remember lying in my campus apartment with my psychology textbook on my chest, my heart, ironically, racing as I thrust treasured spiritual experience into a harsh, clinical light. And then, I heard a voice. And, though it was exactly the sort of voice that could be easily dismissed on physiological and psychological grounds, I listened.

I wired you. I made your heart, your brain, your nervous system, and your hormones. Why wouldn’t I involve all of those things in my relationship with you?

In that moment, God was asking me to be as earthy as he is—to reject a gnostic distrust of the material and see that of course his interactions with me would have physical implications. Certainly, tragically, mental illness could produce delusions of a seemingly religious nature. But it did not follow that genuine, healthy religious experience would not be embodied. In fact, if I was serious about following an incarnated Saviour, I did not have the option of leaving my body out of it.

A couple of Sundays ago, sitting in church preparing to take communion, I found myself thinking about God’s earthiness once again.

Over the past few months, my husband and I have begun attending a new-to-us evangelical church. It’s similar to many other churches we’ve experienced in the past, but with one key difference.

At this church, we take communion every Sunday.

We’ve never been dissatisfied with the monthly communion rhythm of our previous congregations. So it has surprised us how much we look forward to the Lord’s Supper at every service. We have, in fact, come to feel like seven days is about as long as we want to go without it.

This new, more frequent Eucharistic pattern has made me increasingly grateful for the tangibility of the communion elements. Of all the things Jesus could have asked us to do to help us remember him, eating and drinking are perhaps the most concrete, ordinary, embodied, and, well, elemental. The Lord’s Table has always been the place I most profoundly celebrate Jesus’ sacrifice. But these days, I also approach it in increasing awe of his creativity, his empathy, and his accessibility.

I am slowly coming to see that, in eating the bread and drinking the wine (or juice), I’m not only doing something in remembrance of Jesus, but he’s doing something active and essential inside of me—heart, mind, soul and digestive tract! The bread is nourishing every part of me, and the communion cup is offering a blood transfusion—a weekly dose of vital, essential life. I have no idea how this works. I only know I need it.

A few weeks ago, a guest speaker came to our new church. His name was Daniel Whitehead, and he’s the executive director of Sanctuary Ministries—an organization that helps churches support mental health recovery in their communities. Working through Psalm 130, Daniel explored some ways congregations can care for members contending with depression who find themselves in “the depths.” His prescription was subversively simple: We can respect a cry from the depths, we can wait with those who suffer, and we can listen.

We don’t rush another’s healing, Daniel cautioned us, but we can watch for the morning together. We can collectively offer signs of hope. And, importantly, we can do tangible, visible things—like taking communion together. “If a person can’t feel God’s grace right now,” Daniel said, “let them take it, and hold it and taste it.”

When Daniel was done, we went, nearly all of us, to the front, stretching out our hands to the folks holding the bread and the juice.

“Eat and drink ye all of it,” they said.

So we did.

And next week, we’ll do it again.


I Was an Ash Wednesday Rookie (new CTW article)

Carolyn Arends : March 1, 2017 9:31 am : Writings [published articles]

Here’s an excerpt from a new piece that just went up at CTW, in which I document my first Ash Wednesday service (observed last year) and it’s connection to The Hunger Games 

My First Ash Wednesday

We’ve observed the 40-day (plus Sundays) season of Lent for a few years now, embracing various mild-yet-disruptive restrictions (giving up coffee or soda or sweets) in order to destabilize ourselves and expose the toxic little ways we rely on creature comforts instead of the Creator. Our sacrifices in this season are so miniscule as to be laughable, except that our Father seems only too willing to use our tiny offerings as portals for his grace. Every hunger pang or caffeine craving becomes a holy prompt—pray, trust, surrender. The whole season becomes a bit delicious with anticipation: Easter is coming!

Still, for all our blossoming enthusiasm for the gifts of the Lenten season, Mark and I haven’t known much about the observance of Ash Wednesday. If we had once distrusted Lent as a little macabre, Ash Wednesday—the first day of Lent, which some churches observe with a liturgy of penitence and a ritual of ashen crosses—seemed to be the darkest of all possible holidays. And yet, last year, we found ourselves searching web listings for a church in our area with an Ash Wednesday service. I guess we figured that if we were going to do Lent, we might as well show up for the opening ceremonies.

We read about a church offering an evening service in a neighboring town and set about trying to find it on a night both dark and rainy. We got lost, we argued, we considered just heading home and watching the hockey game instead. But, somehow, we managed to persevere, and, wet and grumpy, we snuck into the service 20 minutes late …


Blessings on your Lenten season, friends – and find an Ash Wednesday service if you can!


Rudolph Live – A Yuletide Throwback Thursday

Carolyn Arends : December 8, 2016 9:29 am : blogging, music

panel-907377_1920Most folks who know my music also know Spencer Capier–his contributions on violin, mandolin, mandola, bouzouki and vocals have helped define my work for pretty much my whole career. But some folks know I used to tour with not one but two “Spencers” (often referred to as “The Spenci,” or “Two Spence Much the Richer.”) In the early days, pianist and vocalist Spencer Welch often joined Spencer Capier and I in our musical adventures.

Many years ago*, at a Christmas concert in Victoria, the Spenci and I decided to try our own version of Jack Johnson’s quirky take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Spencer Welch contributed some tasty blues piano, but Spencer Capier surprised us with a different contribution all together. Who knew he could play the reindeer?

The result, as captured through the church’s sound system, was recorded on cassette, and here it is in all it’s glory.

(*By the way, I was trying to figure out what year this was, and I’ve come to the fairly certain conclusion it was 2002. I have extrapolated that date based on the fact that, in the hotel room after this concert, I got as sick as I’ve been in my life–and 2002 was the year of the Revenge of the Norwalk Virus. Happily, I lived to tell the tale, and I can listen to this recording and remember the pre-virus fun.)

Happy Yuletide!

PS – In the mood for more music? Launch the free Christmas Jukebox here.


Confronting Our *Holy* Sins

Carolyn Arends : August 8, 2016 7:17 am : Writings [published articles]

I sadly was not able to attend the 28th Annual Word Guild Awards in Mississauga, but was so WordAwards16pleased and grateful to learn I had received two trophies.  The first was for “Best Lyrics” for the song “Just Getting Started” (part of my 20th Anniversary digital release, available for free download HERE.) The second was for “Best Inspirational/Devotional” article, for a piece I wrote for Today’s Christian Woman entitled “Our ‘Holy’ Sins.” It’s all about the subtle temptations that tend to crop up in “pews and prayer meetings.” I’m wondering if you can relate?


Our Holy Sins: Daring to Face What We Tend to Ignore

06.30-Holy-SinsIt was a sun-dappled afternoon at the ballpark, and I was strolling hand-in-hand with my then-three-year-old daughter. Adorably, she began singing “Jesus Loves Me,” melting my heart. But when I joined her on the chorus, the mood changed.

“I sing it myself!” she stormed, batting away my hand. And then she resumed the song, shouting it in defiance. “YES, JESUS LOVES ME. THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO!”

From defiance to deception, varieties of sin abound. If we took the number of living humans and multiplied it by the number of minutes there are in a day, we might have a rough estimate of the number of different ways there are to sin. Some sins come with neon signs—adultery, theft, murder—and are easy to spot, if not always easy to resist. But there are also more subtle temptations. Jerry Bridges writes about the “respectable sins” we tolerate and sometimes even encourage: heart conditions like ingratitude, frustration, selfishness, impatience, and discontentment. The symptoms usually slip under the radar—gossip, irritability, dodgy tax returns, chronic overeating or overspending, private thought lives of lust, distrust, envy, or contempt.

Respectable Sins

In compiling a list of “respectable sins,” we might include a subset of temptations specific to life as a Christian. Eugene Peterson, in his book Tell It Slant, calls these sins “eusebeigenic,” a phrase he coined after picking up a staphylococcus infection in the hospital while recovering from knee surgery. The doctor told him he had an “iatrogenic illness”—a disease contracted in the course of being healed of something else. Peterson’s pastoral mind linked that concept to spiritual health, and he suggested that “eusebeigenic sins” (from eusebeia—the Greek word for “godly reverence”) are those sins that only beset people who have decided to follow Jesus.

Where other sins might rear their ugly heads in barrooms or brothels, eusebeigenic sins crop up in pews and prayer meetings. Often, they are rooted in self-righteousness, a stubborn weed that will plant itself in the soil of our desire for holiness any time we aren’t looking. For example:

  • A concern over a fellow believer’s poor choices morphs into impatience and judgment, eventually flowering in gossip or contempt.
  • A longing for meaningful worship shifts into frustration with the music team, until bitterness and cynicism make the heart resistant to any worship at all.
  • A motivation to live as a witness for the gospel distorts into an obsession with image management, plunging the heart into hypocrisy and self-deception.
  • A desire to reach out through a well-executed evangelism event subtly overtakes the planners until they begin to treat the people serving behind the scenes as nothing more than tools in their project.

It’s very possible, and very tragic, to be doing “Jesus things,” but not in the “Jesus way.” Much like my daughter as a toddler, we march forward on our fiercely independent missions. YES, JESUS LOVES ME … SO THERE!

Jesus really does love us, and he’s truly paid the price for our sins—be they glaring, respectable, or eusebeigenic. There’s nothing we can do to make him love us more, and there’s nothing we can do to make him love us less. But that doesn’t mean that the way we live is of no consequence. God’s love is unconditional and transforming, and it calls you and me to “throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:22–24).

When we say yes to Jesus, we accept his invitation not only to eternal life after death but also to abundant life now (John 10:10). We should expect progressive emancipation from distortions, appetites, and egos so that we become increasingly free to love and to live well.

So why, then, is there even such a thing as “eusebeigenic sin”? Why does the “putting on” of our new selves so often feel like a journey of two steps forward, three steps back?

The Next Opportune Time

We must remember, first, that walking in the Jesus way doesn’t mean the absence of temptation. Even after Jesus rebuffed temptation in the wilderness, Satan left him only until the next “opportune time” (Luke 4:13). If Jesus experienced temptation throughout his years on earth (culminating the night before his death), we should expect—and plan for—temptation in our own lives as well. This is important because we are most vulnerable to temptation when we think we are impervious to it.

We must recognize, second, that while we can only be renewed through God’s sheer gift of grace, we are invited to actively participate in receiving that gift. Early Christian writers ask us to picture ourselves as the rods of iron that blacksmiths hold in a furnace until they begin to glow—cold metal taking on the properties of fire. The staggering idea is that, if we dwell in the fire of God’s love, it’s actually possible for our character to increasingly “become by grace what he is by nature” as Athanasius of Alexandria explained. It is the fire alone that changes us. But there are some practical things we can do to place ourselves within that fire long enough for transformation to take place.

Get Examen-ed

One of these spiritual disciplines available to us is the Daily Examen, a regular time of prayer in which we ask God to help us review both the events of our day and the attitudes of our hearts. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts,” we pray with the psalmist. “Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalms 139:23–24).

The Examen
The initial part of this practice is the “Examen of Consciousness,” wherein we go over the day’s happenings to detect God’s active presence within them. The second movement is the “Examen of Conscience,” during which we go deep within ourselves and ask God to show us clearly what is there.

A regular practice of Examen helps us detect encouraging growth, and it also roots out the sin we might otherwise overlook. Even better, it helps us catch problematic tendencies before they become fully ingrained habits. Many fitness apps ask us to log our daily food and exercise, and then calculate what we’d weigh in a month if we lived the same way every day. In a similar manner, Examen shows us the trajectory of our hearts—who we might become (good or bad) if we continue to think and act as we have in the last 24 hours.

It’s important to remember that a thought is not a temptation, and a temptation is not a sin—but unchecked each one can lead to the next. Martin Luther was attributed with observing, “You cannot prevent a bird from flying over your head, but you can prevent it from building a nest in your hair.” The Prayer of Examen gives us an opportunity to detect and disrupt potentially destructive thought patterns early.

Get Indirect

But what do we do if Examen reveals that a sin pattern has already become entrenched? Many Christians throughout history recommend the Principle of Indirection: Rather than trying to attack a vice directly, we can focus on a virtue that might replace it.

In his introduction to The Life with God Bible, Richard Foster offers the example of a struggle with pride as an opportunity for indirection. If we try to work directly on humility, he says, we’ll just become proud of our efforts to be humble. But what we can do is focus on the discipline of service by looking for opportunities to serve other people.

“This indirect action places us … before God as a living sacrifice,” writes Foster. “God then takes this little offering of ourselves and in his time and in his way produces in us things far greater than we could ever ask for or think of—in this case a life growing in and overflowing with the grace of humility.”

Help From the Desert
The Desert Fathers and Mothers (fourth-to-sixth-century Christians who pursued holiness in small desert communities) made their own extreme experiences a laboratory for understanding both temptation and transformation. Thoughts, they believed, come unbidden, but each of us has a choice whether to dwell on them. It’s when we wallow in a destructive thought that it develops into what the Desert Fathers call a “passion”: an emotional state, attitude, orientation, or habit of being that pulls the heart away from love.

Abba Poemen, for example, believed that a passion develops in four stages, from our hearts, to our facial expressions, to our speech, and then to our deeds. “If you can purify your heart, passion will not come into your expression; but if it comes into your face, take care not to speak; but if you do speak, cut the conversation short in case you render evil for evil” (quoted in Roberta Bondi’s To Love as God Loves).

Get Lost

The Prayer of Examen and the Principle of Indirection are wonderful means of grace. But we might easily distort them into our own independent program for improvement (and another cycle of self-righteous eusebeigenic sin) if we do not practice what Peterson calls the “Spirituality of Lostness.” We must, Peterson urges, cultivate “an acute awareness of our lost condition in which we so desperately and at all times need a Savior.”

Our transformation and renewal will always be utterly dependent on the Holy Spirit. As we mature in life with God, our great need for Jesus is something we never outgrow. In fact, our awareness of that need should only deepen so that with ever-increasing clarity we see ourselves for who we are: lost sheep who have been found, lumps of iron who now glow in a holy fire, and, yes, children whom Jesus loves.

Published in Today’s Christian Woman (November, 2015)

*Winner, The Word Guild 2016 Word Award, for Article—Inspirational/Devotional

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