by Sam Millen
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (also known as the Ungrateful Servant, Unmerciful Servant, or Wicked Servant) (1) recorded in Matthew 18:21–35 has puzzled me. Having his massive (king-sized!) debt cancelled by the King, how could this servant not forgive a relatively small sum owed to him by a companion? He even refused the poor fellow’s plea for a little more time to repay! For a while I thought the Unforgiving Servant must not have fully grasped what the King had done for him. It was my attempt at explaining how many professed Christians can be unkind, uncaring, and harsh. Perhaps they never fully understood the gospel – the good news of what the King has done for them! It took me a long time to realize information alone doesn’t change anyone. The gospel cannot be reduced to information. Christianity is a relationship. The gospel is a love story.
After spending almost a dozen years in pastoral ministry, I have observed that something is desperately wrong. Something is missing in the lives of many church members and all too often, in my own life. I don’t see the fruit of the spirit as often as I should – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control (see Galatians 5:22–23). Why is sanctification missing? Where is the evidence of Christian growth and spiritual maturity? Doesn’t it trouble you that individuals have spent decades sitting on the pews, fulfilling all of the expectations of a faithful church member, (2) even holding a church office, and yet remaining arrogant, vindictive, judgmental, and mean? I’m not saying being a Christian is simply the equivalent to being nice. We don’t need congregations full of people-pleasers either. We need congregations who love people, even those they disagree with.
Recently, I was introduced to a book entitled, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero (3). That’s when it clicked! Just think about the title. Is it possible to be spiritually mature while being unhealthy emotionally? You can be physically handicapped and bound to a wheelchair and still be spiritually mature. You can have a cancer diagnosis and still be spiritually mature. You can be uneducated (illiterate) and be spiritually mature. But you cannot be unhealthy emotionally and spiritually mature at the same time. Emotional health and spiritual maturity go hand-in-hand. They are inseparable. It occurred to me that the fruit of the spirit doesn’t just describe a spiritually mature person. Galatians 5:22–23 can also be a description of an emotionally healthy person. That is why secular people who are emotionally healthy are much more pleasant to be around and usually treat others better than church members. What is actually missing from our churches is emotional health – emotionally healthy spirituality. As a pastor, I have learned not to expect spiritual maturity from people who are unhealthy emotionally.
I quickly identified with Peter Scazzero’s struggles as a pastor, both in his own personal life and in his church. For a long time, he thought the answer to a lack of spiritual maturity was found in emphasizing religious practices and disciplines – more prayer, more Bible study, more service projects, more revival meetings, more spiritual retreats, more small groups, more [fill in the blank]. Although these are important (essential) practices for a Christian wanting a relationship with God, they have a limited impact on those who are unhealthy emotionally. Scazzero noticed new converts becoming religiously fervent and drastically changing their outward behaviour, and yet still missing the fruit of the spirit in their lives. More disturbingly, he realized his own life was no different, even as a long-time Christian, a pastor – with seminary training. Surface (superficial) changes do not automatically lead to spiritual maturity. We must go deeper with God.
Our emotional functioning (healthy or otherwise) is not determined by our values alone (we all want to have the fruit of the spirit), but primarily by patterns of behaviour learned from our families of origin. We have common sayings based on our collective observation of this reality – “the apple never falls far from the tree” or “he/she is a chip off the old block”. There is also plenty of scientific evidence thanks to the extensive research conducted by American psychiatrist Murray Bowen (1913–1990), who received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to hospitalize and study entire families of mental health patients. Bowen quickly learned that the functioning of patients was largely determined by their family systems and the patient could actually be viewed as the “symptom bearer” of unhealthy patterns in the family. Sure, there are other distal risk factors to consider (such as biology), but Bowen observed the functioning of mental health patients drastically improving (or deteriorating) with changes in their family systems. This is difficult for Americans to grasp because Americans see themselves as individuals (lone rangers) who determine their own destiny and functioning.
Bowen developed his Family Systems Theory based on this research. Obviously, most of us are not mental health patients (this is all on a continuum), but we are in some way, to a greater or lesser degree, the “symptom bearers” of unhealthy patterns in our families of origin. For many, until this “emotional baggage” (as it is commonly described) is identified and addressed, emotional health – and thus spiritual maturity will prove elusive. Thankfully, Bowen identified a way to break free from this generational cycle through a step he called “self-differentiation.” In order for our emotional functioning to be determined by our values (the fruit of the spirit) rather than patterns of relating ingrained in us by our families of origin, we must become self-differentiated.
For Christians, self-differentiation means allowing the Holy Spirit to direct our behaviour (for secular people it’s their values) rather than going into “default mode”. Just like Bowen’s self-differentiation can never be fully attained, emotionally healthy spirituality is a continual process. The question is not, “Have I arrived?” but rather, “Am I still growing?” Faith is a journey through many stages. Scazzero writes, “In 1976 I became a Christian at the age of nineteen. God then transferred me into his family – the body of Christ. While I now was a new member of Christ’s family, almost everything I had learned about life had come from my original family. The issue of discipleship now was how to do life Christ’s way. Learning how to pray, read Scripture, participate in small groups, worship, and use my spiritual gifts were the easy part. Rooting out deeply ingrained messages, habits, and ways of behaving, especially under stress, would prove far more complex and difficult.” (4)
Bowen’s theory is demonstrated in the Bible. Just look at the first three generations of Abraham’s family – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There are clear patterns of lying, favouritism by at least one parent, brothers experiencing cut-off from one another, and poor intimacy in the marriages of each generation. (5) It’s almost like each generation is following a script, until we finally reach Joseph (fourth generation) who practices appropriate self-differentiation. Despite all the odds, on his journey to Egypt, sold by his brothers as a slave, Joseph chooses self-differentiation. His functioning skyrocketed! Joseph had every reason to be bitter, but instead he fulfilled his role as the best slave, then prisoner, then ruler, then brother he could be – saving the nation and his family in the process. “One day’s experience had been the turning point in Joseph’s life. Its terrible calamity had transformed him from a petted child to a man, thoughtful, courageous, and self-possessed.” (6)
Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, as recorded in John 13:34–35. After washing their feet and just prior to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion – Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (ESV) The disciples had just witnessed how much Jesus loved them when he served them in washing their feet, and they were about to witness the greatest display of God’s love the universe has ever seen – on the cross. “As I have loved you” – loving the way Jesus loved and forgiving the way the King forgave is very costly. The incredible revelation of God’s love in the upper room leading to the cross is what makes this commandment new.
Jesus wants us to love “as I have loved you.” He never sought approval by simply being nice. In fact Jesus angered many people – his family’s expectations went unmet, the religious leaders hated him, the crowds he fed couldn’t force him to become their king, and the disciples (his closest friends) abandoned him, deeply disappointed in his actions. Jesus was able to fulfil his role regardless of what others thought, or even how he felt, by practicing appropriate “self-differentiation.”(7) Jesus is the ultimate example of self-differentiation. I believe this is the key to loving others the way Jesus loves us. Focus on emotional health through self-differentiation, and spiritual maturity (the fruit of the spirit) will follow.
2 This is not an exhaustive list and it will vary by location, but I am thinking of expectations such as: a) regular church attendance, including at prayer meetings; b) faithful contribution of tithes and offerings; c) daily studying the Sabbath School lesson; d) proper Sabbath observance; and e) a moral lifestyle: no alcohol, smoking, drugs, illicit sex, dancing, gambling, etc. – for extra credit, no caffeine or eating meat.
3 Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
4 Ibid., 100–101
5 Ibid., 98
6 Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 214, https://www.whiteestate.org/books/pp/pp20.html
7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murray_Bowen “Those with ‘low differentiation’ depend on others’ approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to themselves.”
Sam Millen is an Australian pastor in Virginia. His self-imposed North American exile has now reached its 19th year.