Identifying and Avoiding the Gossip

“He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, But he who is trustworthy conceals a matter.” ~Proverbs 11:13 

“He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip.” ~Proverbs 20:19 

“For lack of wood the fire goes out, And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down…The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, And they go down into the innermost parts of the body.” ~Proverbs 26:20, 22 

I was taught as a child not to associate with strangers. Later, in my budding years as a Christian, I was told not to closely associate with false teachers and unrepentant sinners. But it was only after marrying a prudent woman of God that I was warned not to associate with gossips. For her wisdom I thank the Lord everyday.
Scripture says, after all, to love all but never to associate with all. The Scripture says to do good to all, but to walk closely with a select few. But this particular dissociation with the gossiper wasn’t always mentioned or stressed in the Christian circles of which I’ve been a part. Perhaps it was because gossip is sometimes difficult to identify. But perhaps, it’s also because gossip is naturally hard to both avoid or abstain from. 

Before gossip can be avoided, it must be identified. And before it can be identified, it must be defined. Gossip is both qualitative and quantitative in nature. Gossip is more than just speaking ill of others or revealing the most private of information. Proverbs 20:19 defines a gossip as one who habitually reveals information, period. There’s a difference between testifying truthfully about a situation or person and spreading information about a person in an unsolicited or unwarranted manner. Gossipers are those who inherently have very little – if any – respect for the privacy of people and their lives. To them, information gathered is information to be dispensed. There habitually spread the details of peoples lives – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the neutral – over the community like butter over bread, using the very butter knife of their tongue. While they are not always malicious (engaging in gossip does not always necessitate evil intent), they simply like to be in the know and make known. You know a gossiper by the sheer amount of time he or she spends talking to people about people. They have a natural instinct to expose, rather than protect, the details of the lives of the people around them. 

Gossipers make an easy living in this world because people are naturally curious about people. It’s not surprising that tabloid magazines never go out of print, for the the human flesh naturally finds gossip delectable (Proverbs 18:8). You’d expect the circulation of such behavior in the world, but it’s more unfortunate when it is both present and cultivated in the church. I have personally been a part of church circles and church affinity groups in which gossip was simply the currency of the fellowship. Such behavior caused a considerable amount of pain and grief for both me and my wife, and we have since learned to be careful with the people with whom we choose to confide and spend time. 

Thus, I’ve learned to identify the gossip given the definition above. They’re actually not difficult to spot, as they are often revealed by two things: 1) what they tell you about others 2) the kind of question they ask about you. A gossip will habitually tell me things about people that I have honestly no business knowing and that I didn’t ask about. The information they share about people are neither purposeful or encouraging. Gossips, without your inquiry, will tell you what Bruce likes to eat for dinner, the marriage problems and Mike and Shelly are experiencing, the after-school activities that Katie takes her kids to, how Aaron asked Amber out but was rejected, and how Wes is not going to Cornerstone Bible Church. Conversely, gossips will also ask you questions that are “probing.” – not because they themselves are trying to get to know you or learn from you, but because they need some currency to spend. I can identify a gossip when there is a disproportion between their level of closeness to me and the things that they inquire about me, my family, and my ministry. I find it particularly sad when close friends learn about the particulars of my life from individuals with whom I rarely interact, but it happens. 

Once identified, the Scriptures are explicit: “Do not associate with a gossip” says Proverbs 20:19. Gossipers are not to be hated or mistreated or slandered. But they are not to be associated with. They are not spend considerable amount of time with. They are not to be confided in. They are not to be walked closely with. It’s not about playing favorites; it’s about playing wisely. If you desire to navigate through this side of eternity skillfully in such a way that maximizes your involvement in the furtherance of the kingdom and your influence in the disciple-making process for the glory of Christ, the relational sphere in which you integrate yourself matters dearly. That means who you walk with and who you avoid are no minor issues. So stay away from those people who make a living by telling you about others and telling others about you. You life and ministry will be richly blessed should you do so. 

Reflecting on the Gift of Family 

A brother was born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17)

On my office desk, co-existing with the stacks of books and binders that constitute my ministry toolbox, sits a picture that was taken 19 years ago. It is one of my parents, brother, two sisters, and myself. The place: Honolulu, Hawaii, in the living room of our Hawaii Kai Queen’s Gate home. The date: July 31, 1997 – the evening of my younger sister’s 12th birthday. That picture was the last complete family picture that we took.  

Less than a month after it was taken, my parents separated and divorced shortly after. We haven’t taken a picture with the six of us together since.  

The photo serves as a reminder of my roots, of the family soil from which I bloomed. Life has moved on for all – parents and children alike. Today, my father lives in the Philippines; my mother in Las Vegas. Both are remarried. I see my mother a number of times a year on special occasions, and my father about once every year and a half. My brother currently lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children. I see him a few times a year, and our kids are the best of buddies. Both of my sisters are married and live in the Bay Area; them, I see quite often, since we live inhabit the same part of the globe. During the first two weeks of September of last year, I had a chance to see all of them – yes, all six of them and their families. Kathy, the two kids, and I spent a week in Asia with my father, and then traveled straight to Hawaii for one week for my mother’s sixtieth birthday celebration, where all my siblings and their families were present. It was a blessedly refreshing time for us all, and it prompted me to write this entry.

There was a particularly long stretch of life when I valued friends above family. When I headed off to college, I had no real ambition to remain close to my parents and siblings. I began trekking a new trail, restructuring my sphere of close relationships that consisted entirely of Christian friends from church or fellowship. Toward family, it was less of a despising and more of simple disinterest. I saw them as infrequently as possible, and during the times that I did I was distant and aloof. Perhaps it was an outflow of a man who was seeking to find my identity in my newly forming social circles. I vividly recall a conversation with my brother the day before I was scheduled to fly to Phoenix for a family reunion, during which he asked me why it was that I had planned it such that I would fly into Phoenix and also leave the evening of that same day. He asked me why it was that, every time we had a family event scheduled (which wasn’t even that frequent), I seemed to always be interested in leaving earlier than everyone else. I was offended during that phone conversation…and it was mainly because he was right.  

In that particular season, a reality was concurrently beginning to unfold of which I became aware only near the tail end; I would go through one cycle after another of gaining and losing friends. Close confidants became people to avoid. Those who vowed loyalty one day would betray it in the next. But throughout the rising and setting of friendships, my brother and sisters remained by my side. My parents never removed their love and support. To say that “they were always there for me” sounds cliche-ish, but its truth can’t be denied.  

Admittedly, I used to think that exhibiting strong familial ties were particular to certain cultures and not to others. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that it is not fundamentally a cultural practice, but a biblical principle that stems from both biblical commandments and biblical wisdom. Cain, though he denied such a responsibility, was called to be his brother’s keeper. In the Old Testament, Hebrew slaves in the Old Testament who were too poor to redeem themselves were to be redeemed by their blood brothers – hence the term “kinsman redeemer.” A woman who was widowed by her husband’s death was called to be taken by that man’s brother as his wife. In the New Testament, believers are commanded to be devoted to one another in “brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10), carrying the implication that the relationship amongst brothers ought to both valued and be set as the model for the way the members of God’s church were meant to treat one another. So yes, I admit that in my previous failing to value family, I was biblically off the mark.  

Today, Cuevas siblings do live our separate lives, exclusive of each other in its daily workings. My older brother, the business-savvy one, currently works in Phoenix as a product manager for Annexus. My older sister, the logical genius of the bunch, works at Google as a senior software engineer and team lead manager. My younger sister, in many ways the clan’s most talented, will be starting a professorship at U.C. Davis for bioinorganic chemistry. As for me, the “different” one as my mother told me on the eve of my college graduation (it’s a euphemism for “headstrong”), am a full-time vocational minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As it is, we don’t get into each other’s business or tell each other what to do. Quarreling and arguing are as rare as a Diamond Head volcano erruptions, if not altogether non-existent. Our reunion routine: we start with loud “Hi!’s”, embrace, find a place to eat at a restaurant, and talk. There’s a lot of story-telling, laughing, and reminiscing about our childhood – both the good and the bad. Nothing can replace that. There’s something particularly special about the common grace that was extended to us through my parents and how they raised us. And as I write this, I’m humbled that the Lord didn’t repay me for my previous perspective of at times throwing them under the rug, and instead kept me integrated into their lives.  

As we continue to stay in touch as adults, I’ve reflected deeply on Proverbs 17:17: “A brother was born for adversity.” The meaning is simple. God providentially gave us parents, brothers, and sisters to be one of the greatest sources of security, safety, and support during life’s most adverse seasons. I knew this biblically; I now know it experientially.

So live we must, as Christians, for the kingdom of God and the ministry of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The ministry today to which God has commissioned me and Kathy – the pastoral ministry of the gospel and edification of the church in the Bay Area region – is an endeavor that is mutually exclusive of my familial ties. But my parents and siblings remain a most valuable and lasting set of earthly relationships apart from the ones I have with my wife and children, and ones deserving of great honor. It just took me a while to figure that out. 

Mentoring Young Men 101 (Part 3)

The main premise of this series is that biblical discipleship and mentoring of young men is primarily about training them to think. I left off saying that the hope for those who seek to engage in such a ministry is that we are products not ultimately of our natural tendencies or historical upbringing, but rather new creation continually transformed into the image of Christ both in who we are and what we do. That includes Christian discipleship and mentoring. The goal of this third leg of the series is to show how the method of mentoring young men explicated in the first two entries was the very method employed by Christ Himself. 

For the record, Jesus did a lot of explicit commanding. He gave a lot of direct prescriptions. As the Lord of the universe, He did indeed tell people what to do, sometimes with a pointedness and bluntness that would cause a collective squirming in our uber-politically correct society. But when browse through the interactions with His twelve disciples and the manner, and observe how He trained them by pressing upon them a mindset. 

The following examples are mere snapshots of His discipleship method:

When the disciples initially didn’t permit the children to approach Jesus, He rebuked them, told them otherwise, and said, “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He trained them to think differently about children than the rest of the world did (Luke 18:16)

When the disciples began to argue with one another as to whom was the greatest, Christ explained, “the one who is greatest among you must become like he youngest, and the leader like the servant.” He trained them to think differently about greatness than the Gentile world did. (Luke 22:25-26)

When the disciples panicked when trapped in the middle of the storm in the Sea of Galilee, Christ asked them after calming the winds and the waves, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” He was training them to think differently about Him in light of jeopardizing life circumstances. (Mark 4:40)

When the disciples urged Him to eat after a long journey and a conversation with the Samaritan woman, Christ replied, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” He was training them to think differently about true nourishment and priorities in life. (John 4:31-34)

When one of the disciples cut off the ear of the slave who tried to arrest Him, He replied, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take up the sword by perish to the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” He was training them to think differently about meekness, suffering, and submission. (Matthew 26:51-53)

When the disciples questioned Him with regards to His exhortation to the rich young ruler regarding how one can be saved, He responded, “With people, it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” He was training them to think differently about the way to salvation and the nature of discipleship. (Mark 10:23-27)

When the disciples asked him about the way to the Father, He responded: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” He was training them to think accurately about who His identity. (John 14:1-6)

Christ did more than prescribe His disciples the right actions. He first helped them arrive at the right conclusions. 

For three years, the twelve walked with Christ, during which He passed down a lens through which they would interpret life, and it was when they learned to think differently that they were ready to minister mightily. He didn’t just tell them what to do; He trained them how to think. Is it not for this reason that our Lord Himself said, 

“The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22)

The world and the church alike are thirsting for godly young men. The world, to delay its inevitable decay; the church, to catalyze its promised edification. These godly young men are here, and thirsting for mentoring. Let the church then do its duty and mentor these men by training them up to think as Christ did. 

Mentoring Young Men 101 (Part 2)

As mentioned in the previous entry, the discipleship of men is about training men how to think, rather than telling them what to do. Over the last decade or so, I’ve communicated this very thesis to men who have a heart to disciple others in both private meetings and corporate leadership training sessions. And, for the most part, the message was received well. I’ve rarely had a well-meaning Christian genuinely seeking to grow in the effectiveness of his ministry fight me on this issue.
Yet for so many of these men, when the rubber meets the road, they still don’t biblically disciple. So what causes so many well-meaning men to short-circuit in the discipleship process? (I’m assuming that the subjects addressed are indeed well-meaning; Ill-motivated men who seek to disciple others are an entirely different story). I believe that the answer has to do with our history as well as our anthropological tendencies as X-Y chromosomal creatures. When we’re not empowered by the Spirit to engage skillfully and deftly in the Christian ministry of life-on-life discipleship, historical bad habits and tendencies of the flesh take over.      

The following is not a comprehensive list, but rather simply four observations I’ve gleaned over the years. Four (of several) common causes that effect men tend to struggle with the implementing the biblically intended design of discipleship in their mentoring of other men are:

1)The lack of training or marred training regarding discipleship
2)The impatience that so often characterizes men 

3)The ego-oriented nature that so often characterizes men

4)The tendency of men to immediately trouble-shoot 

Cause #1: The lack of or marred training regarding discipleship 

I’m aware of the plethora of printed material that is circulated amongst various Christian circles regarding formal methods of mentoring and discipleship – church and para-alike. Para-church campus fellowships such as InterVarsity, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Navigators all circulate their own have their formal systems of discipleship amongst their affiliates. Several local churches that I’m aware of have their unique systems to which their leadership and members subscribe and teach. I’ve seen and read the materials used, and much of the content is good. The problem is when the men who are produced from these discipleship systems try to implement the exact same system when discipling others. Soon, discipleship in the church becomes a cookie-cutter ministry. It’s a problem, because a cookie-cutter ministry is meant for cookies, not people. Not every Christian man should be required to keep Scripture memory flashcards or weekly journals. Not every Christian man will benefit equally from the same set of Christian literature. While formalized discipleship materials can be helpful as compasses, discipleship in the church was never intended by Christ to be standardized to a man-made curriculum. The only authoritative book on Christian discipleship is – you guessed it! – the Bible. And when it comes to one-on-one mentoring, biblical truth was meant to be transported through the vehicle of your own life (1 Thessalonians 2:6, 2 Timothy 3:13ff), not through a written curriculum.  

Cause #2: The impatience that often characterizes men

I remember speaking to a godly man in our church once who told me that when his wife found out that he was scheduled to teach a Sunday school class on the topic of patience, she laughed at him. Upon hearing this, I thought to myself, “Wow, I guess all men really are the same!” Men are, by nature, impatient. We’re interested in final products more than growth processes. When I was a school-teacher, I realized that boys generally are lazier about “showing work” than girls because it “took up time.” I’ve found that men generally have more difficulty than women when it comes to the virtue of waiting. Thus, when it comes to mentoring younger bucks, it’s easier for us to say rather than to shape. And the fact of the matter is that it takes a whole lot less hours to tell a guy what to do than to train him how to think. To be a trainer of men, rather than duplicator of self means that a man must refrain from attempting to trouble-shoot every wrong conclusion at once. For a creature given to impatience, this is no easy task.  

Cause #3: The ego-oriented nature that so often characterizes men

Women complain that men have big egos. I can’t disagree. Men are indeed ego-oriented. Better yet, we’re imprint-oriented. We like to duplicate ourselves, generally much more strongly than women do. A lot of mothers wanted children because they want to nurture children; a lot of fathers want children because they themselves want to be imprinted after, for their genes to be passed down. Back in the day, it was expected for sons to take up their father’s trade. Fathers thus trained their sons to – you guessed it – become like them. And while it may have been a cultural or historical-sociological construct (most men today in the Western world don’t go into their profession of choice that their dads did), there’s an underlying anthropological reality. Generally speaking, men care much more about being imprinted after than do women. The negative aspects of such sometimes carry over to discipleship relationships.
Cause #4: The tendency of men to immediately trouble-shoot

Men are, by nature, wired to problem-solve. We would rather problem-solve than data-gather. We’d rather solve problems than discern profiles. We’d rather fix what’s on the outside rather than understand what’s on the inside. Men are wired to modify behavior in a formulaic manner. While there are strengths to this, it can also add viscosity to the discipleship process. Desiring to always solve problems can leave a man stranded when mentoring another man because of the sheer fact that people are not problems to be solved by other people. We’re human beings made in the image of God with our own volition and set of emotions, and not robots under the control of human engineers. When discipling a younger man by training him to think, a man must restrain himself from trying to trouble-shoot everything, and embrace the reality that he isn’t going to have all problems solved by the end of the hour. It is God who brings change upon a person’s life, and He does so at His own timing. A man learn that those under his care are under his shepherding care, not his engineering care.  

Thankfully, we as ministers are ultimately not products of our own history or natural tendencies, but rather new creation continually transformed into the image of Christ by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Godly mentoring was a ministry of Christ Himself. And that’s Part 3 of this series…

Mentoring Young Men 101 (Part 1)

“Likewise, urge the young men to be sensible”

~Titus 2:6

Men must mentor men. The Master mandates it.

Before the church is called to prop up pretty programs, it must prioritize the training and building up of its men – particularly the younger men. Alongside the preaching of the Word, it is the church’s primary duty. Christ Himself was a preacher and a mentor (hence, He had disciples). Thankfully, just about every church I’ve attended or been a part of has – or is in the process of developing – some kind of a men’s discipleship ministry. Rightly so.  

Yet, to say that the majority of America’s churches engage in the endeavor of discipling its men doesn’t equate to saying that men are being discipled biblically in America’s churches. The current state of Christianity in our country isn’t exactly one to rejoice over. Weak Christianity results from weak local churches. And weak local churches result from weak preaching and weak mentoring of men. I’ll discuss the current state of preaching in another entry; in this one, I’m intent on addressing where we’ve gone wayward ministry of discipling men.

So what exactly is wrong with the way men are spiritually mentored today? Over the years, I’ve gained insight from the honest feedback of friends and colleagues – God-loving, scripturally-committed, and ministry-minded men who have expressed their frustrations with regards to discipleship relationships in which they were involved. Sparing the ipsissima verba, several of them have shared the following:

“I would get paired up with a discipler or spiritual mentor from our church. Then, during our meetings, he would ask me about my week and my current struggles. Upon my sharing, he would immediately say, ‘Oh, you need to do this,’ or ‘Oh, you need to do that.’ But he wouldn’t actually help me think through the struggle or even really show me what the Bible had to say about it.”

Think and Bible. Two words mentioned worth munching. So why are mentoring relationships and the overall discipleship of men of America’s churches ineffective? Each generation has its quirks, but my most recent observations with regards to the generation in which I live is that the problem lies in those two words stated above: younger men are simply being told what to do pragmatically more than they are being trained how to think biblically.

For the record, pragmatic counsel is not sinful. There’s a place and time for it, and it can do much good when given appropriately. It just isn’t the priority of the biblical paradigm of discipling young men. Before the scowl gets scowlier, listen to exhortation given by the apostle Paul himself to Titus with regards to his dealings with the younger XY’s of the Cretian church:

“Likewise, urge the young men to be sensible.” (NASB, emphasis added)

Urge, Paul commands. Titus, parakalei! Come alongside them. Encourage them. Exhort them. Disciple them. Train them. Your duty, Titus, is not only to preach the Word, but to disciple the saints.

Urge the young men, Paul specifies. The neoterous – the youthful men, the younger sector, the men in the church full of strength and vigor but perhaps in need of wisdom and guidance. Address all of the affinity groups, Titus, but you are particularly called to disciple the young men.

Urge the young men to be sensible, Paul instructs. Sophronein – to think soundly, soberly, seriously, scriptural.

Titus, disciple the young men of the church by training them how to think!

In discipleship, training trumps telling. Hence, it’s called discipleship, and not dictatorship. Mentoring a young man is primarily the endeavor of training him how to think soundly according to the principles of Scripture. Sound living stems from sound thinking, does it not? According to Hebrews 5:14, the mature are distinguished from the babes in that they have their “senses trained to discern good and evil.” Young men need for their spiritual senses to be trained to discern what is good from evil – or what is fitting from what is not fitting – when it comes to circumstances and life decisions. For the mentors, the ministry is less about passing down a series of pragmatic practices and more about equipping a younger man interpret himself, his life, and everything around him through the lens of Scripture and in light of the glory of Christ and His gospel, then to respond accordingly.

The application flows from the obvious – but often overlooked – principle of individual distinctiveness. God has woven together each individual with his distinct personality (Psalm 139:14), a distinct set of personal convictions (Romans 14:5) and distinct spiritual giftedness (1 Corinthians 12:4). On top of this, individual young men will struggle with a unique set of temptations, setbacks, and sins (Matthew 5:29-30). Thus, the same principal truths to which all God-fearing men will submit will result in a variety of particular courses of action depending on an man’s unique makeup. Mentoring young men involves focusing not primarily on the particular courses of action (though this is important), but first on the principal perspective in which a man learns to encase his modus operandi.

So to get a bit more practical…

  • It’s less about telling a student on the brink of graduation, “You need to get a job” and more about showing him Scripture’s perspective on the dignity, purpose, mandate, and design of work – teaching him how to see all of life’s labors in relation to glory of God.
  • It’s less about telling a young husband, “You and your wife need to go on a date night once a week,” and more about showing him the necessary consistency between how he nourishes and cherishes his wife and Christ’s love and care for His church, helping him see his marriage in light of the glory of Christ’s sacrificial and sanctifying love for His church.
  • It’s less about telling a man, “You need to join the morning set-up team on Sundays” and more about helping him learn the importance of prioritizing the needs of others before one’s personal ambitions as Christ demonstrated, helping him see his ministry and service in light of the humble servanthood of Christ.
  • It’s less about telling a man that he should or shouldn’t go to graduate school, and more about training him to think proverbially about acquiring knowledge and sharpening his skills while at the same time refraining from loving the boastful pride of life, thus helping him see his choice in light of the wisdom of God.

It’s less about giving a man a fish so as to feed him for a day, and more about feeing a man to fish so as to feed him for a lifetime!

Discerning the Snake in the Back Yard


Identifying manipulative individuals in your life.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made…

~Genesis 3:1

I have learned never to associate with a manipulative person.

For the record, you cannot expect anyone – including yourself – to be perfect on this side of eternity.  I’ve learned that I can bear with people who struggle with impatience, anxiety, depression, narrow-mindedness, foul-language, over-sensitivity, and just plain immaturity.  But the characteristically manipulative person, I have learned to avoid like the plague. 

The reason is simple: manipulation is the primary tactic from the playbook of Satan.

It is in Genesis 3:1 where the Bible first unveils the reality of Satan and his existence.  And the choice word used to describe this most evil of God’s enemies is “crafty.”  Dangerous?  Powerful?  Ferocious?  All of the above are true about the devil, but crafty before anything else.  Craft, at least in this connotative sense, refers to the ability to somehow subdue a more powerful and capable adversary using cunning and tactful strategy.  It involves being able to steer others into volitionally doing things that they would otherwise not want to do.  To be a devilish person is to be a crafty person.  And to be a crafty person is to be a manipulative character.

For the record, Christians will struggle with just about every type of sin.  But I’ve been hard-pressed to find a genuine follower of Jesus Christ who, had you asked his closest friends to describe him in one word, would be labeled as manipulative.  For how can one who is born of the Spirit of God be of a nature that is consistent with the very nature of Satan himself? 

For a while, the picture I had of such people was nebulous at best.  It was only after this past Sunday, after teaching a Sunday School lesson on Genesis 3:1-12 on the Fall of Man, that the picture took a concrete form. 

The following are signs of a manipulative person based off of the profile of Satan himself as revealed in Genesis 3.  Granted, each of us may struggle with a few of these at any given situation.  But it is the presence person who displays the majority of or all of these signs who calls for the red flag to be raised. 

Sign #1: The manipulative person goes out of his way to look harmless

Remember that 1 Peter 5:8 describes Satan as a roaring lion.  Revelation 12 describes him as a dragon.  Satan is a powerful, though fallen, angelic being who leads a legion of other demons against God’s people.  Yet, to the woman in the garden, he appeared as a serpent.  Pre-fall serpents weren’t poisonous fork-tongued slitherers that spook the daylight out of women and children.  They were harmless crawling critters living under man’s dominion.  And it was in the form of this creature that Satan, the prince of the demonic armies, took when he approached Eve to tempt her. 

Manipulative people will go out of their way, both in dressage and in demeanor, to appear harmless.  In my personal experience, the most manipulative people I knew not only worked to look harmless, but also worked to look helpless – often adopting the appearance of being physically sick or ailed – particularly during those times when they’re requests or demands have been met with resistance or when they’re anticipating a confrontation from someone they have wronged.

Sign #2: The manipulative person tends to approach the people closest to the individual he is attempting to control

This deserves all eyes and ears: In the garden, Satan was after Adam.  He knew that it was Adam who had been given the commandment from God not to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  He knew that it was Adam who represented the human race.  He knew that it was Adam who needed to transgress in order for sin to make its way into humanity and for the curse to enter the world.  And yet, not once in this passage does Satan speak to Adam.  In fact, Adam himself never recounts Satan’s speaking to him when confronted by God later.  Satan, in his craftiness, spoke to Eve and her only.  In doing so, he got to Adam, albeit indirectly.

One of the marks of a manipulative person is the refusal to directly approach or confront the person with whom they desire to deal or address.  There have been several instances in my life where a particular individual wanted to get me to do (or not do) something concerning a particular issue, but I would never be directly approached or confronted.  Instead, I would later find out that the particular individual had approached my wife, my close friends, my pastor, my boss, my siblings, or others who were close to me with regards to the issue.  Manipulative individuals seek to control individuals by influencing the relational network around those individuals, often before dealing with the individuals themselves. 

Sign #3: The manipulative person indirectly questions the credibility of the individual they are attempting to sabotage

Not only was Satan indirect in approaching Eve rather than Adam, but he was indirect in the way he initially attacked the credibility of God before her.  Rather than forthrightly refuting what God said (which for the record, would have been equally wicked), Satan lured Eve with a question: “Indeed, did God say…?”  Satan not only interrogated Eve regarding what God said, but inserted some purposeful exaggeration: “Did God really say that you cannot eat from the fruit of any tree?”  Reality: God commanded Adam to refrain from the fruit of one tree.

Manipulative individuals will often attack people by questioning their credibility to those around them by some well-placed swipes of exaggeration.  A parent trying to manipulate her child’s teacher might approach the school principal and say,

“Is it true that Ms. Smith gave all of the 6th grade students a 60-page reading assignment to be completed the next day??  Isn’t that a little much?” (Asks the parent of a child…to the school principal)

“Is it true that Pastor Brian doesn’t want any children in our Sunday Service?  Isn’t that a bit unfair to young families?”  (Asks a disgruntled church member…to Pastor Dougie)

The answers are “no,”…but the foot is in the door.

Sign #4: The manipulative person makes false threats, consequences, or promises rather than making their desires or requests known

Satan was the originator of the false-promise play.  “You certainly will not die!” he claimed, should she partake of the fruit – a direct contradiction to what God Himself had promised.  What had kept Adam and Eve from eating the fruit was the very real promise that death would result from doing so; and it was the consequence, rather than the command, that Satan directly attacked.

Over the years, I’ve learned to discern the brand of counsel forked from snakes:

“You’re free to become a Christian or whatever religion you want; just know that your mother will be extremely hurt,”

“You’re free to leave this ministry, but if you do so the entire young adults group may die.”

“You don’t have to put your kids into our program; just know that the program will die if you don’t.” 

“You’re free to go to whatever church you want; just know that if you go down that route, I’m afraid that you won’t be able to pursue the ministry position that you’re really built for.” 

“You don’t have to visit us for Christmas if you don’t want to.  Just be prepared for your father to not to take it well, especially because of how sick he is.”

Manipulative characters often dress in the halloween costume of open-mindedness, but carefully present false consequences that sound oh so veritable, so as to bend a person to believe that there only one viable option.  It’s craft at its best, and it’s straight from the serpent.

Sign #5: A manipulative person uses your identity to make false connections and implications

“You will be like God,” Satan promised the woman.  It was more than tempting her with an ego-booster, but rather purposefully linking his course of action to her identity and design.  It was the perfect launching pad to disobedience.  Man was, indeed, made according to God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27).  When Eve heard Satan’s false promise, she was reminded of something that was inherently true about her identity as a human being.  The paraphrased translation: “Because you were made to be like God, you need to eat this fruit- it’s part of you who are!”

Manipulative individuals often pitch their tents on the soil of your identity – or at least something that’s very important to it.  Salesmen do it to me all the time, although I give them grace as they’re often forced to by their training and their bosses. But I’ve known individuals who would often employ the “If you want to succeed in pastoral ministry, you have to do such and such” liners – only for me to realize later that what it is that I was being asked to do was not only unnecessary, but categorically inconsistent with faithful pastoral ministry and Christian living!  I’ve had others who used more pathos than ethos: “if you really loved your mother, you wouldn’t be in communication with your father or his side of the family” (my parents are divorced). 

Sign #6: The manipulative person will claim to know a hidden truth about a person they are trying to undermine.

The serpent was audacious as well as crafty: “God knows that…”. He deceived Eve into believing that God withheld a crucial truth from her that would have been otherwise good for her to know.  And what he claimed God knew was contrary to what God said.  Eve was duped into believing that the crawling serpent knew something about God that was purposefully but unfairly withheld from her and her husband.  No wonder the fruit looked so delectable afterwards.   

Manipulative characters carry around crystal balls and get you believe that they work:

“I know a lot of people say positive things about you about you, but really this is what they’re thinking.  I’m trying to help you because this is what I know people are thinking about you.” 

I once heard a preaching professor tell one of his students, “This is what I know the people in your congregation are really thinking about you, even though they might say that they are encouraged by you.” 

Manipulative characters claim to be mind-readers.  Nothing makes me want to tune someone out than the words, “A lot of people are saying…” or “I think this is what they’re thinking…”

Our Lord calls us to be shrewd as serpents while being innocent as doves.  As Christians, we are not called to show partiality or discrimination in terms of whom we love, but we are called to exhibit discernment regarding those with whom we choose associate.  That includes knowing when the snake is in your backyard.

A Letter to Recent High School Graduates

To each and every student I had the privilege of serving as a youth pastor, high school teacher, tutor, or physical trainer

I remember the evening of my high school graduation with photographic clarity. From the blue button-down dress shirt I wore to the ceremony to the blue skater shoes I wore to the grad party; from singing that duet with my sister (cheesy, I know, but we made several moms cry) to receiving my diploma while my SAT scores were announced to the audience (I know, seriously!); from the picture I took with my 6’7-tall friend before the ceremony to the flurry of ones I took with family, friends, and teachers afterwards; from the book I received from my uncle to our family’s celebratory dinner at Asia Buffett…I remember almost all of it. Even the congratulatory phone call I received from my younger cousin who couldn’t be there is etched in my memory (mainly because I remember thinking, “Whoa, his voice finally cracked!”).

I remember exhibiting a dual sentiment of relief and excitement. Relief, that high school was over. Excitement, that college was ahead. I was forward-thinking, rather idealistically focused on the horizon: I would go to college, work hard, get good grades, earn a biology degree, and jump right into my career field of choice – research zoology – with no close-t0-no viscosity. While doing so, I would engage in sports (possibly join the tennis team), become part of a life-long social circle, go to parties, learn to surf and play the guitar, have beach days and bonfires, and find a cute girlfriend. Living for the glory of God wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. To be honest, it wasn’t in the attic of my mind, either. I was consumed with my ambitions and dreams, and no one would get in my way. At least, that’s what I thought.  

I was 19 then. I’m 32 now. As a type, my two kids are watching “Sprout” on the other end of the living room, while my wonderful wife of almost seven years is fixing up a spaghetti dinner in the kitchen adjacent. We’re currently on a one-week vacation about two hours away from Silicon Valley, where we currently reside. My high school diploma sits on display in my mom’s home office…right next to my college diploma. For the record, not everything has changed since my high school graduation. I somehow maintained the same basic physique, and still sport the classic sunglasses/flip-flops combo (though I did get rid of the earring and backwards baseball cap). I still own the cross-court forehand that I did back when I played on my high school tennis team. If anything, I’m a better athlete now than I was then, especially after picking up distance running during my last year of college. So no, the stage of the being a gray-haired sage hasn’t arrived just yet.  

But I’m no longer in my youth. Those crucial, formative years have passed. My time as a UC San Diego college student was over in a mere three years. The freshman year roommate I was paired with by the Revelle dorm administration – he’s got a wife and two kids of his own, and he and I are still good friends. In fact, there are a handful of folks who I met during my first two years of college with whom I remain in touch. But as for my main social circles during those years – frankly, I’m not a part of anymore. In fact, I haven’t had any contact with ninety-five percent of those old friends in years, aside from the occasional birthday greeting (thank you, Facebook!). I’m presently integrated into new relational network, which is how life works sometimes. As for my career? I do indeed work in Silicon Valley, but not at a university or research institute like many of my old friends and teachers expected. I work at a local church – Grace Bible Fellowship, to be exact. Yes, I’m in pastoral ministry, and have been so for the last decade. It’s as satisfying as it is strenuous; I’m currently pursuing a doctorate for further training. A bit of a far cry from research zoology, I’d say.

What I’m saying is: you don’t know what the days of your youth will be like. And they’ll be over before you know it.  

Those eleven years between the year of my high school graduation and my 30th birthday were as fleeting as they were formative. And I say this with no regrets, for life as I know it is good – better than I ever thought it would be. Without question, I’ve made my share of mistakes. I could talk for hours and hours about all of the stupid things that I did, all of the unwise decisions I made, and all of the character flaws characteristic of me during those years. But regrets? None. I’d be full of them, had God Himself not intervened. But He took a hold of my heart before that first day of college and never let go – He saved me, I repented of my sinful walk, and devoted my life to my Savior, including all the days of my young manhood. I can with integrity that I gave the years of my youth to Him and to Him alone. Thus, the present life to which my youth catapulted me – and all that it consists of – is the life that the Creator Himself constructed. I thank Him everyday for it.

I hope the same for will be true for you. I’ve had the unique and undeserved privilege of investing my labor in many of your lives – as a youth pastor, high school teacher, tutor, physical trainer, or all of the above. I’ve watched some of you become the sharpest of scholars – scoring 5’s on your AP’s and rightly receiving scholarships from big-name universities. I’ve watched others of you become exceptional athletes – now recruited by colleges because of how fast you run, how well you tackle, and how squarely you hit a baseball. I’ve watched yet others of you become exemplary individuals – mature beyond your years and true servants to those around you. I’m proud of what you’ve all accomplished, and excited about where you seem to be headed. At the same time, there’s a sense of sobriety that I have, knowing that where you’ll be ten years from now has already been appointed, and you aren’t in control of how it will all turn out (though you are responsible for your own choices). So it’s my desire to entrust you with a charge from the wisdom of the Bible – an two-fold exhortation from Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:8, preached from a sage to the youth of his day.  

First, rejoice in the days of your youth (Ecclesiastes 11:9). Believe it or not, your enjoyment of life is up to you. Whether you smile or stomp over your college major, your future job (or jobs), the food you’ll eat, the car you’ll drive, the clothes you’ll wear, the roommates you’ll live with, and the social circle you’ll be a part of, is a choice that God has given you. Work with all your might, but don’t give into the pressure of achievement. Aim high, but don’t give into the philosophy of entitlement. Most of all, remember that complaining life is wholly unproductive. The truth is, the Creator didn’t make a mistake with you, your existence, or your circumstances. So laugh a lot, smile a lot, stretch out your arms when you wake up in the morning. There’s no better time to do so. Rejoice, young man, in the days of your youth.  

Second, remember your Creator in your youth (Ecclesiastes 12:1). Life life to the fullest, but do so in full acknowledgement and respect of the One who gave it to you and can also take it away from you. As much as you may have achieved, forget not that you’re still creation. What becomes of you is, well, not ultimately up to you. There is indeed a sovereign one above the sun who orchestrates everything that happens under the sun. The lie of the world is that dedicating your youth to the Lord will come at the price of true enjoyment of it. Remember that there’s going to come a time when your body won’t be as strong, your mind won’t be as sharp or as flexible. Living vigorously for the Lord won’t be as easy as it used to be. So while you’re strong, sharp, and flexible, live entirely for the Creator – the God to whom you will answer for all that you’ve done, and who will bring every act of yours into judgment. Practical atheism is utter foolishness, for it seeks to ignore a truth embedded into every human soul. God is there – watching you, guiding you, evaluating you wherever you go and whatever you do. And He calls you into a true, genuine, living relationship with Him through Jesus Christ – who lived the perfect life that you couldn’t live, died the horrific death that you should have died, and offers eternal life that you don’t deserve to everyone who believes in Him. Give your life not to the indulgence of creation, but to an intimate relationship with the Creator. Only then will you truly live your life without regrets.

Congratulations to you all on your graduation!