Imagine over 2 billion people. It’s enough to make me feel dizzy, roughly a third of the world’s total population, Christians all over the globe marking a very significant event this weekend. Easter. But what does Easter mean for Christians? Why is it so important? How is it different to a colourful, pagan, fertility festival marked by chocolate, rabbits and eggs?
At the heart of the Christian Easter is a cross, a symbol used by Christians to highlight the centre-point of their faith. The cross is a reminder of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified on a cross 2,000 years ago. It’s a shocking symbol, an instrument of Roman torture and agonising death. It draws our attention to a God-man-saviour, prepared to give his life for us.
That’s where it gets hard. What if the biblical account is true? Can I dare myself to believe it? What if Jesus really was the Son of God? Could he really love someone as messed up as me? I can only draw one conclusion. If this story is true, the cross cries out in the starkest possible terms that no matter who we are or what we have done, we really matter to God.
And there is more hope. Easter Sunday marks an equally remarkable event. This Jesus who died is raised by God. Miraculously, he is brought back to life and, what is more, promises us life over death by trusting in him. He offers us light, life and hope in the midst and beyond the dark deaths and despair we may face in life, psychological, emotional and physical.
So that’s where I place my faith. Not in my weak and inconsistent efforts to be a good person, a clever person, an interesting or adventurous person. I know what I’m really like inside. Amazingly, God is never disillusioned with me because he never had any illusions in the first place. I place my faith in Jesus. If the Bible is true, he truly deserves my life.
Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
It was minus 7 so I got up early to scrape ice off the car windows. The journey to the train station that followed felt like torture. I got stuck behind a JCB for 10 miles with nowhere to pass. It reached a peak of 20mph and I kept glancing at the clock anxiously. Was I going to make it? I could feel the frustration like a tight knot in my stomach. Every passing moment felt like slow motion. I kept looking ahead, hoping for a clear stretch to overtake. It took forever. When I finally did get past, I felt like waving an angry gesture at the JCB driver. ‘How could you be such a *£%!&$* pain?!’
I left the car and jogged the final 10 minutes to the station. According to the clock, I’d missed the train but adrenaline spurred me on. On arrival, breathless, I discovered the train was running late. I caught it, stepped on board just as it pulled into the station. I sighed with great relief. Yet what a waste of nervous energy. The pressure I put myself under not to miss the train. The imagined exaggerated consequences if I were to arrive late. The risk of dangerous driving in icy conditions. My ungracious attitude towards the JBC driver. The life draining stress of an impatient journey.
How much of my life I live under self-imposed pressure. The deadlines I create for myself. The expectations I place on myself. The determination to arrive on time, never to be late. The avoidance of risks that could lead to a mistake. The drive to do everything perfectly. The unwillingness to let a ball drop. The desire always to do well, never to fail. Such pressures can drive me inwards, close me down, cause me to lose contact with God, lose contact with people. It leaves me tired, stressed, anxious, irritable, frustrated and self-centric. It’s not the kind of person I want to be.
I can almost hear God whispering to me, ‘Stop…look...listen...look up and around you…breathe…’ It’s about regaining perspective, keeping the most important things in view. Not losing sight of the people, the things, the issues, the actions that matter most. It’s about loosening my grip, learning to prioritise, learning to negotiate, increasing flexibility. I know these things in my head, I practice them in my work, but the experience this morning has flashed into consciousness with renewed energy and vision. It’s something about learning to live, to love and to know peace.
Why is it so hard to get to grips with the concept of grace, of ‘unmerited favour’? Why is it so difficult to imagine that God could love us exactly as we are? Why is it that in spite of profound biblical revelation, many Christians still try to earn their way to God by personal achievement, good deeds and hard work, fearing rejection and punishment if they fail to make the grade?
I want to offer some insights from psychological and cultural studies that may shed some light on this. I’m writing from personal experience too. I can get my head around grace at a conceptual level but sometimes feel uncertain, anxious. It’s as if the promise of the gospel feels too good to be true, as if it can’t really apply to me, as if there must be hidden strings attached.
From our earliest childhood, we meet approval or disapproval on the basis of how we behave. A baby monitors its mother’s face for her reactions and learns that smiling, giggling, looking cute and not screaming evoke positive strokes and emotional rewards. The baby develops a sense of who he or she is, of what is socially acceptable and unacceptable, through these earliest encounters.
It gets complicated psychologically and relationally, however, because the baby draws subconscious conclusions from how he or she feels. The parent may indeed feel unconditional love for the child but without language to convey it in a way the child can grasp, the child can only infer from what he or she experiences and, critically, how he or she interprets that experience.
Object relations theory proposes that if a baby feels secure in its relationship to its primary caregiver, if its needs are met in a satisfying and consistent way, the baby is likely to grow up feeling secure in future relationships too. Conversely, if the baby feels insecure, he or she may struggle in future relationships, acting codependent, ambivalent or independent as a form of self protection.
A baby is of course unable to meet many of its own physical and psychological needs. The baby needs the carer for food, for cleaning and nappy changes, for burping when he or she gets trapped air, for wrapping to keep warm, for hugging to feel secure. Approval and attention from the carer feels critical to the baby for physical and psychological survival, safety and comfort.
The same child enters school and finds similarly that certain types of behaviour, paying attention, working hard, pleasing the teacher, producing good results, meet with approval. Other behaviours result in disapproval or discipline. This pattern continues into working life. Performance is monitored and good performance can result in promotion, bad performance in dismissal.
In so many aspects of our lives, therefore, we learn that love, attention and reward are based on behaving well or achieving results in the eyes of a significant other, whether that other be a person, group, community or organisation. We also learn that the converse is true. Get it wrong and you could suffer the negative and painful consequences of rejection or punishment.
We learn to put on a confident face in the office, hoping to convince significant others of our ability and therefore worth to the organisation. We put on a good show in front of other people to demonstrate we are great parents with a model family. We put on a ‘holy’ face at church, hoping to convince others of our spiritual credentials and, thereby, worthiness to belong.
By transference, we project the same expectations onto God. Surely this principle we have learned from birth must apply to him too? Surely the law in the Bible, all those rules and regulations, is the yardstick that God uses to measure our spiritual performance and, thereby, whether we are worthy of his love, whether we are good enough, whether we deserve reward or rejection?
And so we face an existential crisis, self-righteousness if we think we’re good enough and a crushing anxiety if we feel we’re not. I believe this dilemma lies at the heart of why so many Christians struggle with the notion of grace, struggle to experience the freedom the Bible promises to those who believe. It's not so much a rational conceptual issue as an anxiety driven by human experience.
A crisis has a way of bringing things into sharp focus, into fresh perspective. This has been a hard week for my family and me, especially for my Dad who had a stroke. He’s in hospital, struggling to recover speech and the use of his arm.
It has been an emotionally disorientating experience. The shock, the concern, the moments of anguish mixed with glimpses of hope. It reminds me of an old Chinese Taoist story cited by Alison Hardingham in Psychology for Trainers.
The story describes a farmer in a poor country village. He was considered very well-to-do because he owned a horse that he used for ploughing, for riding around and for carrying things. One day, his horse ran away.
All his neighbours exclaimed how terrible this was, but the farmer simply said, ‘maybe’. A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbours all rejoiced at his good fortune but the farmer said, ‘maybe’.
The next day the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse threw him and broke the boy’s leg. The neighbours all offered their sympathy for this misfortune, but the farmer again said, ‘maybe’.
The next week conscription officers came to the village to take young men for the army. They rejected the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the neighbours told him how lucky he was. The farmer simply replied,‘maybe’.
The book goes on to explain, using this story as an example of reframing. The meaning that any event has depends upon the frame in which we perceive it. When we change the frame, we change the meaning.
Having two wild horses is a good thing until it is seen in the context of the son’s broken leg. The broken leg seems to be bad in the context of peaceful village life; but in the context of conscription and war it becomes good.
Changing the frame in which a person perceives events changes the meaning. When the meaning changes, the person’s responses and behaviours also change. The more reframing you can do, the more choices you have.
So I don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s an uncertain time but I have seen glimpses of God’s frame. Dad’s courage and optimism in the midst of such a traumatic personal ordeal, Mum’s acting to get him to hospital so fast.
The ambulance crew that arrived so quickly, racing through traffic lights to the hospital team that was waiting. Professional staff with care, resources and expertise. A single room where Dad can relax and sleep.
My whole family alongside Dad, supporting him and each other, even from a distance. My brother bringing Dad’s whole motorcycle club to the hospital, dressed in Santa costumes. The excited look on Dad’s face when they arrived!
The colleagues who released me to travel home early from work, the friends who looked after the girls while I was away, the clear roads all the way on route, the friend who offered me a bed for the night to break up the journey.
The technology that allows us all to stay in touch. The kind people on every continent who offered to pray for Dad when they saw my post on Facebook. Is God doing things hidden yet amazing through all of this? ‘Maybe’.
The hand gripped my shoulder and I felt my blood freeze. I had been caught red handed, stealing from a supermarket with two friends. Even though this incident was nearly 40 years ago, it still makes me shudder to recall it. The police were called and so were my parents. It was a frightening, humiliating, embarrassing experience. How could we have been so stupid? How would my family and other friends react? What would happen now?
The police released me and we drove home in painful, stony silence. I didn’t feel guilty, I just felt trapped, helpless to escape. I had made a big mistake and felt utterly powerless to change it, or to influence the consequences. The weeks passed and eventually I received a letter to appear before the local police superintendent. By now I did feel worried. Would I be sent down, sent to a youth detention centre? The thought filled me with horror.
The police chief sat behind his desk and looked at me thoughtfully, kindly. He explained in a calm, compassionate and warm voice that although I had done wrong, to take strong action would destroy my life and future. In light of this, he explained, no further action would be taken. I was being given a second chance. I couldn’t believe it. I felt surprised, confused, grateful, immensely relieved. A huge and terrifying weight had been lifted.
As we drove home, I began to feel remorse. A total stranger, the wronged party, had chosen to let me off the hook, to set me free. I deserved blame, punishment, and yet they had chosen to forgive me. I couldn’t understand it. They didn’t forgive me because I was good, but because they were good. They saw the potential in my life, the offender, and chose to release it. They gave me a new life. It was undeserved grace, an incredible gift.
This experience impacted me deeply. Years later, I encountered that same attitude in God when I was introduced to Jesus Christ. I had believed in God, at least at some level, all of my life but this was something completely different. It was a profound existential experience, a explosive encounter that changed the focus and course of the rest of my life. God had used that police encounter, the power of forgiveness, to reach into my psyche and touch me.
And so I pray that God will make me more like that. How easily I can get annoyed by the little things. A person cuts me up in traffic, drives using a mobile phone, stays in the middle lane of a motorway. A neighbour leaves a dog out barking at night or plays their TV too loud. A colleague does something that frustrates my plans or fails to meet my standards. How easy it is to get critical and judgemental. ‘Forgive us, Lord, as we forgive others too.’
Serbia, sabre, cold steel. The word still strikes a cold chill. It’s not the country, the people. It’s the symbolic idea, the ultranationalist vision, the das Reich of the Balkans. It’s the pernicious ideology that drove a nation to commit unspeakable crimes.
It’s the Bosnian girl I spoke with, cried with, whose father was murdered by a vicious Serbian militia, whose best friend was shot dead by a Serbian sniper in front of her eyes, a young girl, shot in the leg and had to crawl away to save her own life.
It’s the refugees I saw in Albania, pouring over the border from Kosova, filled with terror as the Serbian troops advanced. It’s the smirking Serbian soldiers on the TV screen, arrogant, powerful and heartless in their pursuit of a ‘greater Serbia’, an ‘ethnically cleansed’ land.
Mladic. I was delighted to hear of his arrest this week. It was the same delight when I heard of Karadzic’s arrest. The same delight when I saw NATO aircraft pounding Serbian military positions – too late, but at last. It was an intense feeling of relief, payback, hope.
Mladic. I know the face but I don’t know the man. Mladic the icon, the human face of heartless murder. The leader, the decision-maker, the perpetrator, the personification of evil. I feel anger, despising, an urgent desire that he should suffer and face justice.
Then God turned the spotlight to own spirit, my hard-heartedness towards a fellow human being, my self-righteousness in the face of another’s deep failings, the unforgiving projection of my own sin, my joy in the face of another’s anguish, this baying desire for revenge.
And I’m reminded of the call to forgive, to remember forgiveness, to plead for God’s help to forgive, to see the person beyond the projection, to show mercy where he has shown none, hard as it is - to trust in God’s redeeming justice and grace. I’m reminded to learn to love.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.