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!

Fathers…

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but raise them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  ~Ephesians 6:4

Fathers

Yes, you, Mr. Dad, who stumbled across this entry.  Stop hiding behind your wife, and stop hiding from God.  Step forward, you father, as the Word of God summons you on behalf of your family.  When it comes to the august responsibility of parenting an eternal soul, Scripture first and foremost addresses fathers. Thus, there are few crimes more heinous and more damaging the mistreatment of children by their fathers – be it by abuse, neglect, or any kind of perversion of biblical parenting.  At the same time, there is no more dignified duty than the commission view to a man to raise his children.  Such is reflected by the example that his sons aspire to from him and the protection that his daughters find in him.  Let every father, with regards to his duty as such, recognize the unworthiness of his calling and the weightiness of his responsibility, lest he dishonor the Word of God and reap its consequences.  

do not provoke your children to anger…

Mr. Dad, I have yet to witness a pain of resentment so haunting to a man as that which was caused by the mistreatment of him by his father.  I have been approached by parents who are oh so worried about their anger that their children seem to be exhibited (i.e. “what do I do?  He’s just such an angry child!”) and yet are so oblivious to the actions of the children that based the furious passions of that child.  Let every father see to it that he examines himself so thoroughly that those actions that characterizes his parenting that stir up his children to an unnecessary anger become so clear to him, and let him repent.  Mr. Dad, if your kids are angry at you…it’s highly probably that you’re at fault.  For I have met several men who, while they may not have embraced the saving faith of their parents, were more than eager to embrace the personality of their earthly father.  And I have met several men who, while they they have indeed embraced the saving faith of their parents, were resistant to embrace the personality of their earthly father.  So with your children, beware of destructively criticizing them.  Beware of lording it over them.  Beware of embarrassing them in public.  Beware of missing their baseball games and ballet recitals because you had to work…over and over – and over – again.  Beware of lecturing the without listening to them.  Beware of being loud about what they do wrong and quiet about what they do right.  Beware of making promises to them that you can’t keep.    

but raise the up…

Mr. Dad, in your home, you are the first parent.  You are not the only parent obviously, and we fellow men may all speak heroically of our wives and their ministry as mothers, and rightly so.  But when it comes to the raising up of children to maturity, the primary responsibility falls on you.  As a father, involvement in your children’s lives is no mere option or suggestion; it is an command given by the authority of Scripture.  To leave the raising up of your children to their mother is categorically dishonoring to the very Word of God.  So fathers, be involved.  Be in their lives, every step of the way. May your children be able to testify of the presence of the hand of their father in their maturation.  May your sons and daughters be able to testify of your handprints in every major transition of life that they undergo under God’s providential care.  May they be able to testify that the primary tools that God used to move them from infancy to independence were the hand and voice of their father.  So, through the empowering influence of the Spirit of God Himself, move your children to maturity – one step at a time.    

in the discipline… 

Mr. Dad, this is the first leg of raising up your children.  Raise them up in the discipline of the Lord.  This is more than just spanking and grounding.  It is coaching – teaching your children not to live by instinct, impulse, lustful desire, peer pressure, or worldly trends, but rather by the principles and wisdom from heaven above.  It is the entrusting of skill.  Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.  In the same way that a tennis coach trains his pulpit to prepare his racquet early, keep his feet moving, bend his knees, keep his eyes on the ball, and follow through the swing.  In the same way that a physics teacher trains his pupil to show his work, construct free body diagrams when attempting to solve dynamics-related problems.  Fathers, in the same way, train up your children to navigate through this world with the godly disciplines found in the person and words of Christ Himself.  

and instruction…

Mr. Dad, this is the second leg of raising up your children.  Raise them up in the instruction of the Lord.  Oh that profound Greek word used here, which implies the instructing and affecting of the mind.  It’s more than lecturing, and it’s definitely not yelling or monologuing, but rather training your children to reason and interpret the world around them accurately, to evaluate the world around them soundly.  It involves, in beautiful tension, both leadership and dialogue, both talking to them and talking with them, both exhorting them and conversing with them.  Train your children, Mr. Dad, come to accurate conclusions about God, themselves, and the world around them.  Train them not only in their habits, but more importantly in their thinking.  Hand down to them not rules and procedures, but rather a worldview consistent with God’s revelation of truth found in Scripture.  

of the Lord

Mr. Dad, you will always be their dad.  But the day is coming when your authority over your children will be an artifact of the pass.  Yet, they will always be, just like you and me, men and women under authority.  What will matter is whose authority they are submitted to in their living and thinking.  Fathers, with authority, teach your children that you’re not the ultimate authority.  Show them that you yourself are a man under the authority of the Lordship of Christ.  Raise up your children to recognize, both by your example and instruction, the absolute supremacy of Christ.  Teach them to respond humbly and submissively to His lordship.  Show them what it looks like to respond to our Lord in repentance and faith.  Teach them, that they must “hate their father and mother” and give the whole of their lives to following Christ.

Professionalism, Progress, People, and the Pastor

“…I know that I will remain and continue wit you all for your progress and joy in the faith.”
~Philippians 1:25

Brothers, we are not professionals.

These were the words of John Piper, employed to title his classic book written to exhort pastors and ministers to exhibit a biblical philosophy of their vocation. Honestly, I wasn’t impressed with the work when I first read it during my early years in seminary. It wasn’t that I disagreed with Piper’s premise; it was that the premise seemed too obvious. That pastors ought to view their vocation before the Lord with a perspective free of the “professionalism” as understood in the secular sense of the word was, to me, equivalent to a cross-country coach telling his athletes to run their meets free of jeans and hoodies.  

My sentiment at the time I read the book resulted from, I believe, my internal thought process that drove me to pastoral ministry in the first place. Previous to my conversion, I was obsessed with professional success. It wasn’t money or popularity that I idolized, but rather to be an accomplished and distinguished figure in my field. I went to college intending to pursue a triple major in Physiology, Biophysics, and Environmental Science with sights set on getting a doctorate and doing ground-breaking research in a field of biology that was only sparsely researched up to that point (whether or not I would’ve been able to accomplish it – that’s another story!). And so when the Lord first ignited the desire in my hear to switch routes and travel the road of vocational pastoral ministry, I struggled mightily with the prospect of relinquishing my professional ambitions. Perhaps it was because the pastorate as an occupation wasn’t highly esteemed amongst my non-Christian extended family and the high school culture from which I was educated, but I understood even before I went to seminary that being a pastoral minister and building a professional resume were mutually exclusive. Thus, the internal wrestling match of my soul resulted because I was so holy, but precisely the opposite. The chance to boast of myself in a professional sense would have to go should I remain on this route.  

It’s why I’m still perplexed as to why people love asking me the questions, “So what are your personal pastoral or ministry goals? What position do you ultimately see yourself having? Do you see yourself as a senior pastor or an associate?” I honestly don’t really care; I stopped thinking about career ambitions (in the secular sense) the minute I left the prospect of doing biological research. To be professionally credentialed was something of the past. Thus, I was surprised to see it present in the western pastoral community to the level that it is.

After being in pastoral ministry for a decade now, I’ve realized the profoundness of Piper’s book. His exhortation strikes at the growing trend of professionalism amongst the western pastoral community. The more I interact with pastors in the west, where meritocracy drives our occupational philosophy, the more I hear the words “I” and “me” in their descriptions of their ministry aspirations. An increasing number of men are going into seminary for the sake of becoming distinguished scholars and professionals in the realm of theological professions. Attaining degrees, authoring books, and ascending up the “ministry ladder” are aspirations in and of themselves. More and more young men are choosing to serve in churches where they believe there will be the “most room for growth” – and not necessarily in the Christ-likeness. Pastors and seminarians are sounding more and more like Google employees than disciple-makers.  

For the record, professional growth and development in pastoral ministry is not sinful in and of itself. In fact, the Scriptures do speak of ministerial progress for the man of God (cf 1 Timothy 4:15). But confuse not the means with the end. Ministry practices must be distinguished from ministry ambitions. If a pastor’s ultimate ambition is to become an accomplished pastor, in the same way that Pete Sampras’ goal was to become an accomplished tennis player, then he has fallen into making a priority of the peripheral.  

To put it bluntly, the Bible is silent when it comes to earning accredited master’s and doctoral degrees in theology. It’s also silent about publishing Christian literature. More importantly, it’s silent with regards to the plethora of titles extensively used for church ministers to distinguish their functions (show me, for instance, the verse where the title for “executive pastor” or “associate pastor” or “professor” appear, and I’ll recant my ). Descriptive ministry titles are not sinful; they’re just not the priority. The only vocational titles I see in the Bible are “man of God,” “minister,” and “bondservant.” The only functional titles are “preacher” and “teacher.” For a man to go into ministry and be ambitious for anything beyond these things is an indication that he has professionalized the pastorate.

What then should comprise the minister’s aspirations? Philippians 1:23-25 delineates the answer:

But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better, yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue wit you all for your progress and joy in the faith.” 

Simply put, the aspiration modeled by Scripture is one that aims for the progress and joy of God’s people. The minister of God was commissioned to labor not for his own personal career development, but rather for the growth of the people of God toward Christ-likeness. He is to agonize not for personal self-esteem or self-fulfillment, but rather so that God’s people may attain the true spiritual joy that Christ desires to dwell in all who have placed their faith in Him. Godly pastors, then, aren’t consumed with professional growth and career development; they’re consumed the exaltation of Christ and the growth of the people, driven by the ambition to see the saints attain the holiness apart from which they cannot see God. The godly pastor is the man who lives his life as a sacrificial offering for the faith of others – not attempting to gather the world’s goods, but seeking to give himself up that God’s people may experience the spiritual and heavenly blessings from their heavenly father. He is a man consumed with a desire to see the gospel of Christ – revealed by the word of Christ – transform the people of Christ who were justified by the work of Christ to be transformed into the image of Christ for the glory of Christ.  

The globe needs such kind of men, who can say with the apostle Paul, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself.” Let the professionalism that has seeped into the western pastoral community be totally done away with!

Goodbye, Mama Geny

During the 1940s, a little peasant girl in the Philippines begged a Japanese soldier to spare her life. She and her family had been hiding underground in dugout trenches during the Japanese invasion of the country during World War II, but they were found out. But with all hope seemingly fleeting, the little girl begged – reminding the soldier of his own daughter, and thus drawing out his compassion. She was void of impressive stature, guns and weaponry, and formal education. But that little girl fought for her life, and for the lives of the next generations to come from her lineage. She would survive the war, get married, become the mother of five children, the grandmother of fifteen grand-children – yours truly being one of them – and nine great grandchildren. On December 31 of 2016, at the ripe old age of eighty-two, she passed away peacefully in her sleep. Her name: Genoveva Palacio Tan.  
She went by “Geny” (pronounced “Hen-nie”). Her kids called her “Muh-Mah”, and her grandchildren knew her as “Mama Geny.” My kids, and her great grandchildren, referred to her as “Granny.” With regards to her legacy, a book can be written about her…and I’m not going to attempt to author it in this blog entry. Thus, the tribute that I’m paying to the life of Mama Geny is unique not in plethora but in perspective. I write as the one member of the family with whom she had the most strained relationship.  

I state this with a deep sense of grief. Sparing details, there were obstacles that prevented my relationship with Mama Geny from being that picturesque grandmother-grandson relationship. Some of those obstacles were circumstantial; others were personal. I admit now, and painfully so, that I allowed past pains to blur my perspective. But the truth is, for the better part of the last two decades, I convinced myself that she didn’t love me. Perhaps, because by doing so it was easier for me to make sense of all the bitterness and hurt – one that, I realize, isn’t actually all that uncommon between family members. Some choose to handle it with grace. Others, like me, resorted to stubbornness. Mama Geny was strong-willed, but I was moreso. What resulted was a uniquely dysfunctional relationship between her and me that lasted for nearly twenty years. And while I was deeply resentful, she was deeply grieved by the grandson who attempted to categorically shove her out of his life.  

Yet, year after year, she would call my phone on my birthday to greet me and tell me she loved me, even when I would forget hers. Year after year, during family get-togethers, she would broil prawns and bake salmon because they were “JR’s favorite,” even though I would never say thank you. When I got married and had kids, she called them year after year on their birthdays, too. Year after year, she would go to the market to shop for clothes and toys for my family to give them during Christmas. In her last years, she would continually comment on how well she thought Kathy and I were raising our children.

Out of pride and blindness, I grew wary that perhaps she was trying to buy my love. And, for a long time, I thought I was right – even when my wife (and everyone else in the family) would tell me otherwise. But during the last full day that I spent with her earlier this month, I learned my lesson. She was bed-ridden in the hospital with oxygen tubes inserted through her airways; I was seated on the other side of the hospital room. She then motioned for my mom and, in her native language, whispered something to her. I stopped what I was doing and eavesdropped. With her life fleeting before her, she was reminding my mom to deposit money into my bank account.  Money that she had saved up for my kids’ – her great grandchildren’s – future education.  

It was then that I realized just how stupid I had been. For year after year, even though I foolishly tried to convince myself of otherwise, she loved me unconditionally as a grandmother to her grandson. That little ten-year old girl who fought for her life before the Japanese soldier would, in the last ten years of her life, continue to fight for mine.

I spent that last day with her trying to make her laugh, and laugh she did. She watched me eat prawns that evening.  She even listened to me debate with my cousin about the topic of political correctness, and said she “learned a lot.” The very next morning, my mom and I stopped by the hospital to see Mama Geny before I would have to fly back to California only a few hours later. Shortly after we arrived, Mama Geny was transferred onto a stretcher, as she was due for a chest x-ray. As they prepared to haul her away, I did what I had never done before: I gently stroked her face, told her I loved her, and told her to get stronger. She looked at me, clutched my hand, and said, “I will always love you.” Those were the last words I ever heard from her in person.  

And that time, I finally believed it. As I write, I still do.  

As 2016 comes to a close, the Tan Clan says goodbye to our beloved Mama Geny. Everyone will remember her for how much she loved her family, and that she did. But her purest, most unconditional form of love was given to a young man who, for the greater part of the last twenty years, failed to see it and failed to return it, but today can finally testify of it and for the rest of his life will choose to commemorate it. 

 

Discerning the Snake in the Back Yard

snake

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.

Fellowship in a Diverse Body of Believers

A biblical insight on diversity in the fellowship of the Local church – its call and benefits

Before getting into the meat of this article, I want to make a for-the-record statement that I personally have nothing against single affinity-group fellowships, be them para-church organizations or sub-ministries of the local church. I’ve preached, taught, and spoken at a number of them – high school and college campus Bible studies, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Pastors Conferences, young professionals organizations, young adults retreats, and Christian educators devotional meetings to name a few. Thus, this article is not about the whether or not particular homogeneous fellowships should exist. What I do intend to address is the current growing desire in our regional culture for demographic homogeneity in the fellowship of the local church itself.  

It’s an unfortunate reality in many American churches – particularly those in California – that people don’t value diversity in the fellowship of the local church as they should. As of recent, there has been a massive explosion in the growth of ethnic-specific churches, college campus fellowships, and single-affinity group specific fellowships even within the church. And while the existence of such groups are perhaps good in and of themselves, many American Christians have fallen into the unhelpful habit of church-hopping with the goal of seeking uniform and homogeneous fellowships – landing on the churches where they can find it, and departing from the ones where they can’t. More and more, I’m listening to people tell me that they don’t feel comfortable committing to what is an other-wise biblically solid church because there aren’t enough people of their ethnic cultural background or life stage. Consequently, local church bodies that are homogenous in race, socio-economic status, and age range are becoming more and more popular choices for Christians of my generation. Even those churches that say they welcome all believers of all walks of life – when you study the nature of the life of their local body – operate more like a collection of exclusive cliques than an integrated organism. I’ve labeled such as unfortunate, reflects our culture’s frail understanding of biblical ecclesiology. For sound biblical ecclesiology practically calls for diversity in the fellowship local church body. Anything short of diversity, then, is biblically insufficient.  

Diverse as the Household of God and Body of Christ

While I’m not pushing for the political agenda of racial reconciliation like some Christians organizations and theological systems currently are doing – it is not in GBF’s vision statement to have a multi-ethnic congregation – to say that God designed for His church to be diverse in a multitude of dimensions is nothing short of biblical truth. The church, unlike the nation of Israel, is referred to in the New Testament as the household of God and as the body of Christ. A household, in both its nature and economy, exists with a diversity of members. It consists of a man, his wife, his sons and daughters, sometimes aged parents, and (in certain cultures) male and female domestic servants. A household’s unity results from – not in spite of – the diversity of its members; they differ from multi-member bachelor pads and hostels for that very reason. Similarly, the church is identified as the body of Christ. A body, by definition, is a system made up of many parts. The diversity and specialization of structure and function of members is precisely why taking a human anatomy and physiology class can be extremely difficult even at its most elementary level. Higher-functioning organisms, by necessity, cannot be uniform in their members.  

The Call for Diversity in the Local Church

If the church of Christ is pictured as both a household and a body, then it necessarily follows that diversity was designed to exist amongst the membership of any local church.  

First, the church was designed to have a diversity of spiritual gifts. Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, and 1 Peter 4:10 all affirm that God has bestowed upon His church a variety of gifts that represent His manifold grace. While all members of the church are called to be united in spirit, affection, and purpose (Philippians 2:2), the ministry of the church was meant to be carried out through the employment of a multitude of gifts and ministries.  

Second, the church was designed have a diversity of age and affinity groups. Do your algebraic permutations correctly from the different affinity groups delineated in Titus 2:2-6 and 1 Corinthians 7:7-9, and realize that the biblical picture of the church body is one that consists of the following: older married men, younger married men, older single men, younger single men, older married women, younger married women, older single women, younger single women.  

Third, the church was designed to exist in a diversity in ethnicity and racial makeup when possible. A local church in Tokyo, for instance, will be almost entirely Japanese in racial makeup for obvious reasons. But a racially diverse geographical region such as most of the major cities in California ought to have churches reflective of such. God’s universal church is, by definition, the reconciliation of both Jew and Gentile, and therefore welcomes believers from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation into a united body (Ephesians 4:12-16, Galatians 3:28). As seen in Galatians 2:12-15 in Paul’s rebuke to Peter, for a Christian to insist that his deepest level of fellowship be reserved for people of his own race is sinful and incongruous with the theology of the true gospel message. It is for that very reason that, when I was invited to attend a number of different “Filipino Bible Studies” during my years in seminary, I refused to participate.  

Fourth, the church was designed to exist in diversity with regards to the level of spiritual maturity of its members. Romans 15:1 states that those who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those who are weak – implying that both stronger, mature believers and weaker, less mature believers ought to be members of one another in the local church. A church that produces an unwritten expectation of spiritual eliteness from its members – honoring the mature while neglecting the weak – is not functioning according to God’s design. Contrary to what some may think, a church would not be better if all of its members were seminary students, pastors, and missionaries!

Fifth, the church was designed to exist in diversity with regards to the socio-economic and educational backgrounds of its members. Both the rich and the poor ought to be honored equally, and be welcomed equally into the life of the body (James 2:2-6). Both those with post-graduate degrees and those who never had a formal education should be equally embraced (such as the fellowship between Paul and Peter), and member care ought to blow interchangeably between all such groups.

The Benefits of Diversity in the Local Church

Such a call for diversity in the fellowship in the local church comes with several noted benefits. First, discipleship is effectively fostered and flourished. Titus 2, for instance, calls for the older women to be an example to the younger women with regards to sensible Christian living appropriate to their gender. And while there is no direct prescription for older men to disciple younger men in Titus, it holds true that wisdom does belong to the aged (Job 12:12). Formal discipleship and mentoring is most effective when the veterans are mentoring the rookies. The relationship between Paul and Timothy is a prime example of this.

Second, diversity enables the ministry of the church is both deepened and broadened. When every saint equipped for ministry and serving, the result is growth in the body. A church that lacks diversity will result in a stunted church with regards to spiritual maturity. But when there exists a diversity of gifts and all are employed by their stewards through the strength that God provides, the result is the growth and unity of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-16).

Third, diversity enables legalism to become more easily detected. The account of the Jerusalem in Acts 15:1-29 is an example of such when the ushering of the first Gentile race – the Samaritans – into the church exposed the legalistic requirement of circumcision of believers prescribed by Judaizers. It is unlikely that this would have been detected had the church remained entirely Jewish in its ethnic makeup. It is much easier to mistake cultural practices for biblical prescriptions in an ethnically homogeneous church. Churches that consist of a diversity of ethnicities and cultures, on the other hand, are often forced to vet and question all of the practices that may have previously deemed biblically mandated – resulting in more direct fidelity to biblical teaching.  

One of the characteristics that I truly appreciate about Grace Bible Fellowship is that our church body is not only marked by sound doctrine and a biblical philosophy of ministry, but that it also exhibits the diversity described above. Our church body of 170 members and 260 regular attenders is so diverse that when my brother once asked me what the culture was like at our church, my response was:

“Well, there kind of isn’t any. And that’s what I love about it.”  

I hope and pray that it remains this way.