Emotionally Healthy Discipleship

Last week, I indicated that I was going to take a break from the posts I have been doing on Christianity and Public Life to share reflections on a book by Peter Scazzero called, “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.” [1] One of our children was in a small group that studied the book. When we were visiting, she saw me looking at the book and allowed me to read it. Then, she allowed me to take it home and really study the book. I have to say that the book made a big impression.

Like everyone, I did not come from a perfect family. My parents, like all parents, had their brokenness. One of my parents grew up with a parent that can only be described as “dysfunctional.” As a spouse, parent, and pastor, I have had to deal with some of the brokenness of my family of origin. As a pastor, over and over again I have seen that the major point of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is absolutely true: People cannot be the disciples that they want and desire to be, that God wants them to be, if they are emotionally immature, broken and trapped in dysfunctional behavior patterns as the result of experiences of childhood and youth. Worse, we all pass on to our own children, who are also wounded, some part of the baggage from our past that we have not taken the time to identify, study, lift up to God, and find healing for in this world. This should give all of us an incentive to read and study Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.

Peter Sazzero is the pastor of a larger congregation in New York City. He grew up in an Italian family with a lot of the unwritten rules and less than optimal behavior patterns present. You will have to read the book to discover the story. Both his parents had their brokenness. Early on in his ministry, at a time when he was the pastor of a multi-site campus, there was a split that, among other matters, exposed to some of his brokenness. His leadership style, impacted by his past, was hard on his family and others. In the end, it took a marital crisis to bring him to a point where he acted for positive change. Fortunately for his marriage, family, church, and us, he not only took it seriously, he wrote Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.

The action he took, and the advice he gives us, falls into two basic parts: first of all, he studied and analyzed his family history and the family system in which he grew up. Second, he began to study the resources of Christian history about the nature of Christian maturity, and especially about what we sometimes call, “Dark Nights of the Soul” and the great heritage of the Church in spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation.

As part of coming to terms with his family background, Scazzero created a “genogram” of his family’s past, going back three generations. (A “genogram” is a graphic representation of a family tree that displays information concerning relationships among family members. It goes beyond a traditional family tree, allowing the user to analyze hereditary patterns and psychological factors that impact family relationships.) [2] The author suggests that we go back about three generations, which generations seem to have the most impact on the people we become.

The biblical basis for this is the famous quote, “I the Lord will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5; cf. Numbers 14:18). [3] For most people, three generations is enough to get an idea of family dynamics. Practically speaking, most of us will have difficulty going  further unless someone wrote down a lot of information that most people never write down.

In my own case, the impact of a family tragedy and the consequences of a dysfunctional grandparent had a significant impact upon my character, life, marriage, children, and churches. This historical fact does not eliminate my own personal responsibility, nor does it indicate that my parents or grandparents were particularly terrible people. They were just human beings, like all human beings. In fact, as I’ve grown older, I have seen that my parents and grandparents did a pretty good job—but they were not perfect by any means.

Armed with some self-understanding and understanding of the family system from which we came, we Christians are in a position to make positive change, not just for ourselves but for those closest to us. Sometimes, this change may involve counseling. It did with the author. Sometimes it may involve spiritual direction. It did with me. Sometimes, it may involve getting together with a group of other Christians and talking out where we are in life and in our walk with Christ.

Christian response doesn’t stop with therapy, spiritual direction, groups or self-awareness. It also involves spiritual growth as a follower of Christ. Scazzero recommends that all Christians study and adopt historic spiritual disciplines of the Church, particularly the ideas of having a Rule of Life by which we live and the regular practice of the Sabbath to prevent that most Americans of all sins, “careeristus” and overwork. (It will not surprise any of my former congregants that overwork and excessive dedication to career are issues with me.) By reading the Church Fathers and Mothers, engaging in regular spiritual practices, observing the Sabbath, and facing ourselves, we can become the disciples that Christ wants us to be.

From the perspective of growing as a disciple, times when we feel far from God are signs that we have work to do. When God brings a “Dark Night of the Soul” upon us, in greater or less or degree, it is an act of love. God knows that we won’t change until we are motivated—and times of suffering and sensing we are far from God are times when most serious Christians are willing to change. God also knows, as Jesus knew, sometimes he needs to recede from our consciousness for a time so that we can grow in significant ways. [4]

I read Emotionally Healthy Spirituality the first time before this COVID-19 seclusion began. One of the blessings of this time of seclusion is that it enabled me to re-read the book and work through it in a dedicated way. I think it’s been profitable. I recommend a book to all my friends, and perhaps even more importantly, I want to suggest that you get together as a group and do it as a study. Not only will you be better off, but your family and church will be as well.

God bless!

Copyright 2020, G> Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It impossible to be Spiritually Mature While Remaining Emotionally Immature Updated Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).

[2]See,www.google.com/search?q=genogram&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS769US770&oq=Genogram&aqs=chrome.0.0l8.6623j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 (Downloaded April 14, 2020). There’s an abundant amount of information about genograms on the Internet and several fine books one can get. As will be mentioned below, Scazzero has created a course that churches an individuals can purchase for small groups. It also includes information about genograms.

[3] Neither Scazzero nor I would want this to be taken in a fundamentalist or overly literalist way. God is also a God of love who rescues, saves, forgives, and undoes the sins of the past, ours and our parents. However, the fact is our parents and other forbearers and their character impact our character. If our parents and grandparents have done things that are immoral, illogical, or foolish, the impact doesn’t stop with them; we are impacted as well. If one reads the book, one will see Scazzero’s delicate handling of this matter.

[4] The great spiritual giants who have used the term “Dark Night of the Soul” are aware that God is never absent and has in fact promised to be with us (Matthew 28:16-20). They also perceived that sometimes God is present in his absence for our own good and growth. This is a great mystery, but true. God loves us enough not to let our spiritual maturity depend upon our feelings our knowledge of his presence, so that our faith might be deepened and grow, and so that our faith will not depend upon  our feelings but upon God.

One thought on “Emotionally Healthy Discipleship”

  1. Chris,
    Thank you so much for this recommendation! I would love to work through this book with Bob and/or my reunion group. I have been led by God through a couple of “Desert times” and I am so grateful you were there to help me understand what was happening to me the first time. It helped me embrace the opportunity to grow and it also helped me identify the second Desert when it came. Thank you so very much for your continued dedication to guiding us to be more like Jesus in our daily Faith walk!

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