Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Guyon: A Woman Well Worth Heading

 Jeanne Guyon—who Fenelon, John Wesley, Count Zinzendorf and other historical Christian leaders readily praised for her insights and writings—was born on April 13, 1648.  Raised in the hedonistic reign of Louis XIV, Guyon’s intellect, wit, beauty, and conversational skill placed her firmly within the most popular elements of fashionable society. If there had been a “People” magazine in the 17th century, she’d have been in it.  Jeanne married a wealthy man, but in doing so also gained a tyrannical mother-in-law, and thus paid dearly for her married property.

            It all began when Guyon’s husband lost much of his wealth, which helped turned Jeanne’s bitter mother-in-law into a bitter, avaricious mother-in-law. That followed a bout of serious sickness on Jeanne’s part, followed by the death of a close, much loved relative, which hurt Jeanne deeply.

            Jeanne eventually received these calamities as God’s gift to her soul: “Thou hast ordered these things, O my God, for my salvation! In goodness Thou hast afflicted me. Enlightened by the result, I have since clearly seen, that these dealings of Thy providence were necessary, in order to make me die to my vain and haughty nature.”

            In a hagiography (a typical “saint’s” biography), Jeanne would have gone from “glory to glory.” Once she saw the error of her ways and the shallowness of her life and faith, she’d never be the same—but the truth was far more complicated. Her conversion was certainly genuine, making her initially lose her taste for the frivolous entertainments of Louis XIV’s court; but after a couple more years, Jeanne found herself gradually slipping back into her former ways and appetites.

            Haven’t we all been there? God convicts us and we earnestly turn back to him, resolving to change our ways, reform our behavior, and grow in grace. But then time passes, and our heart’s passion cools. God has a way of using severe tests, coupled with good teaching, to bring us back into focus.

            In Jeanne’s case, God helped solidify her heart and win back her allegiance with two major events: a conversation with a godly stranger on a Paris bridge; and then the onset of smallpox, which all but wiped out Jeanne’s famous beauty. In King Louis’ court, appearance mattered far more than character, at least as far as women were concerned. To be disfigured was the surest pathway to being ostracized.  Yet Jeanne received her permanent facial scarring as another divine gift: “The devastation without was counterbalanced by a peace within.”

            In a move shocking to her intimates, after Jeanne recovered from the sickness of smallpox and was well enough to speak, she ordered her servant to bring a mirror. The servant’s hesitation told Jeanne all she needed to know, but still, she persisted, and the mirror was brought.

After studying her marked face, once considered her most valuable feature, Jeanne confessed, “I was no longer what I was once. It was then I saw my heavenly Father had not been unfaithful in His work, but had ordered the sacrifice in all reality.”

            Freed from lesser concerns—vanity and the royal court’s acceptance—Jeanne’s sanctity reached inspiring, even heroic levels. There was something about dying to the vanity of the “flesh” that lifted her to unusual understanding of spiritual realities. Since that time, Jeanne could seem even cold in the face of calamity, but that was only because she realized there is sometimes no other way for us to be freed from the shackles of our superficiality.  Her own painful experience kept her from bringing false comfort to those whom God was in the process of breaking: “Oh, adorable conduct of my God!,” she wrote.  “There must be no guide, no prop for the person whom Thou art leading into the regions of darkness and death. There must be no conductor, no support to the man whom Thou art determined to destroy to the entire destruction of the natural life.”

By “destruction of the natural life,” Jeanne was referring to our vanity, selfishness, and carnal desires.

There is something simply wrong with our culture valuing and rewarding women primarily for what they look like—meaning they “peak” in their twenties—and devaluing the depth of wisdom and character that takes a woman decades to develop and nurture. Who deserves the most attention? Hollywood starlets and pop stars who live lives of devastation, or wise women in their fifties, sixties and beyond who can share a wealth of hard won wisdom and display the beauty of a godly character?

            Guyon left behind approximately sixty volumes that have fed church leaders for centuries. Many of her writings are still read today, the most popular of which is Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, which was originally published as A Short and Easy Method of Prayer.  Experiencing the Depths explores a life of unceasing prayer, meditation, and contemplation, emphasizing abandonment and union with God. At times, I believe she veers too far into quietism, but her works are important feminine contributions to the rich treasury of Christian spirituality. Women often stress surrender in a way that ancient male writers neglected, who tended to prefer “heroic” forms of active discipline (think William Law and John Climacus, for example).

            Some choice quotes from Guyon are:

 “If you seek the Lord and yet are not willing to stop your sinning, you shall not find Him.  Why?  Because you are seeking Him in a place where He is not.”

“As you come to Him, come as a weak child, one who is all soiled and badly bruised—a child that has been hurt from falling again and again.  Come to the Lord as one who has no strength of his own; come to Him as one who has no power to cleanse himself.  Humbly lay your pitiful condition before your Father’s gaze.”

“You and I are very weak.  At our best we are very weak.”

“If you set forth for the spiritual lands…you must realize that times of dryness await you…. You will have times of spiritual dryness.  It is part of the Lord’s way.”

            I write more about Jeanne Guyon in two of my books: Thirsting for God and Holy Available.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Affair Proof and Divorce Proof Your Marriage in 2 Hours a Week

Two hours a week.

Just two hours a week.
That’s all it takes to affair proof and divorce proof your marriage.

After years of reading, writing, speaking, traveling, and pastoral counseling, I’ve identified two things that, when they are in place, can almost guarantee you that your spouse won’t have an affair and that you won’t get a divorce.  But you need to do both. I didn’t come up with these; I’m just recognizing them. You’ve heard of both of them, there’s nothing new here, but consider these two elements as the “canary in the mine.” If your marriage has both elements, the “air” in your mine is fresh and healthy and your marriage is probably fairly stable. If one or both of them die, the air is getting poisoned, and you need to take caution. Your marriage is now much more vulnerable to disintegration.
The first element is prayer.  Couples who pray together more days than not—say, 4 or 5 days out of seven—almost never get divorced. Much has been said about how Christians get divorced as often as non-Christians, but that’s not true of praying Christians. Husbands, most of us men have no idea how the rest of marriage will flow from this if we will simply take the lead and pray with and over our wives. I have not been nearly as faithful as I should have been in my marriage in this area, and am regularly convicted that this should be a non-negotiable, because I’ve seen its power in the lives of so many couples. The prayer times don’t need to be long—even five minutes at the beginning or the end of the day will suffice. It is very difficult to stay bitter and resentful or dishonest when praying together regularly. This act all but forces you to maintain a certain level of intimacy, and men, it moves most women in ways we will never understand.

Second, couples who have sexual relations two to three times a week, and who pray together regularly, almost never experience affairs. Wives, many of you have heard me talk about oxytocin and sex—Helen Fisher, the guru of neurochemical sexual research, has recently pointed out how the bonding factor of sexuality is more pronounced in men than it is in women.  That’s why you may not understand the power of regular sexual relations, just as your husband may not understand the power of prayer. You already have elevated levels of oxytocin, but your husband needs that re-bonding release of oxytocin on a regular basis. For young husbands, 2 to 3 days might seem Spartan—I’m talking about couples married five years or more here. Before you panic—“I thought you said two hours a week!”—let me assure you, it’s not like every session needs to be a long, drawn-out, mind blowing hour and a half extravaganza. Many of these encounters can be the normal twenty minute episodes, which means you can easily do all the praying and all the intimate relating in about 2 hours a week.

The reason these two areas work as “canaries in the mine” is that sustaining regular prayer and regular sexual intimacy requires taking care of the marriage in its entirety. If we’re not talking to our wives, men, they don’t find it very easy to take off their clothes.  But you know that. And it becomes increasingly difficult to pray with someone if we’re even thinking about cheating on them. There’s just something about being in God’s presence with someone that goes far beyond words—God gives you His heart for that person in a way that can’t be naturally explained.

If either element is lacking (I’m not talking about marriages where a physical ailment makes sexual intimacy impossible), the marriage is taking a regular hit and you’re far more vulnerable to an affair or a divorce. Too many couples over-estimate their willingness to put up with sub-par marriages. They “get by,” slowly becoming spiritually or sexually isolated from each other, not realizing that temptation is patient. It will wait until we’ve reached our breaking point and present itself with a spectacularly captivating enticement just when we feel weakest. Spiritual intimacy and sexual intimacy, enjoyed on a regular basis, makes both parties much less susceptible to an overwhelming temptation.

I have yet to meet or talk with a couple, where both elements are present, that are in serious trouble. If one area is lacking the mere act of making it right—having to talk things out, listen, repent, change—repairs other areas of the marriage is well. Why can’t you pray together? Why don’t you want to enjoy each other? Those very questions lead to so many other issues. In the same way, however, neglecting either area is tantamount to ignoring other relational cancers that are slowly attacking the relationship.

For various reasons, you may not like either medicine, but when you know a medicine is so effective that its cure rate is virtually 100%, who are we to argue? Maybe, just maybe, God designed married couples to regularly pray and regularly have sex. As the creator of our souls and our bodies, He just might know what he’s talking about.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Forging a New Relationship with Hunger

I live in a different body now than the one I lived in when I was twenty and could eat ice cream every night. My body isn’t the same now as it was when I was thirty and could drop a few pounds by going for a run and skipping a meal. In fact, it’s even much different from the body I had at forty, as my legs just don’t recover as quickly from a long run as they used to.  As I keep getting older, my relationship with food and my practice of eating has to get older too. And that has meant forging a new relationship with hunger.

The key for me came when I discovered that hunger is just a sensation—nothing more. It needn’t be a tyrant. It’s like lust or anger. Just because I feel lust doesn’t mean I need to act on it. Just because I’m angry doesn’t mean I need to raise my voice or clench my fists. And just because I’m hungry doesn’t mean I need to eat.

There is a subtle and dangerous spiritual mechanism that arises when we always obey our hunger. It becomes a veritable steering wheel in Satan’s hand. He can turn us in any direction he wants, and we become accustomed to letting this one sensation rule us. It affects what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat. It may take precedence over other things in our lives.

You see, if I’ve been irresponsible in my eating habits, I’m going to feel hungry even when my body doesn’t really need food. It’s just “used” to food, or a certain amount of food, and will let me know if something is different. That means if I’m going to lose weight, or even maintain weight, I need to “reset” my body’s signals from time to time. And that means wrestling with hunger.

I was once (and still often am) a slave to my hunger. I obeyed it every time, because I didn’t want to feel hunger. Sometimes I even anticipated it. I ate a lot in advance, because I knew I “might” become hungry if I didn’t. This fear caused tension, anxiety, impatience (if someone threatened my schedule in such a way that I might not have time to eat), and the death of peace, all because I might become hungry.

I had to learn that hunger has a place in helping me understand my body, but I must not allow it to become an unbridled tyrant. It needs to be listened to but not always obeyed. I can use reason to determine if I really need food or if I need to recalibrate my body for its new relationship with food. Hunger is a sensation, nothing more. It should never become my Lord and Master.

It comes down to this: Food is fuel. It is not Prozac on a plate or Valium in a venti Starbucks cup. Nor is it where we should turn when assaulted by stress, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, or uncertainty. It’s important to know the difference between physical hunger, emotional hunger, intimacy hunger, relational hunger, and any other kind of hunger. Many, many calories are consumed in response to needs and appetites that have little or nothing to do with physical hunger but rather are consumed in response to appetites that these calories will never touch.

I aspire to live at a place where being fit matters more to me than not being hungry. When I allow myself to become hungry, over time (definitely not immediately), I usually find that I actually become hungry less often, and in a different way. I no longer feel like its captive.

So now, I try to view hunger pangs in this light—as simply a sensation that takes me where I want to go (better health). These pangs are like riding a bike up a hill—unpleasant, but playing a positive role in my life. I have to walk through hunger pangs on occasion to get to where I want to go.

This has led to a new realm of spiritual freedom. I don’t fear affluent hunger; it might not be pleasant, but it’s something I can live with, and occasionally need to live with, for spiritual reasons as much as physical.

If you're interested in reading more about this, I invite you to check out my book Every Body Matters.