All Hell Breaks Loose: The Prodigal’s Brother

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Guest post by Dave McClow, M.Div, LMFT.  Clinical Pastoral Counseling Assoc. of the Pastoral Solutions Institute

The immensity and beauty of the Grand Canyon are an inexhaustible mystery for me.  This natural wonder must be experienced from different vantage points to be fully appreciated.  I have hiked along the rim and taken different trails into the canyon; I have flown over it in a plane!  Each perspective reveals something different, but all inspire awe!

Journeying through this Year of Mercy, focusing on the motto, “Merciful like the Father,” I think the Prodigal Son story is a “Grand Canyon” to be experienced from several vantage points!  The Catechism encapsulates it this way, “Only the heart of Christ who knows the depths of his Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way” (1439).  I want to focus on the prodigal’s brother.

The Prodigal Son story asks and answers an essential question for men: “How do you approach God?”  The Psalmist answers, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10).  According to St. John Paul II, we can “fear the Lord” in two contrasting ways.  One is as a slave, seeing God as a master to obey, fearing punishment—servile fear.  The other is as a son, seeing God as our Abba, our Papa, who makes a covenant relationship with us—filial fear, understanding that nothing, not even sin, can stop God from loving us.  The Prodigal Son story illustrates these two approaches.

We all know this story, but go and read it again (see Luke15:11-32).  The short version: a father has two sons, and “all hell breaks loose” when the younger one insults the father by wishing him dead, collecting his part of the inheritance and squandering it on sin.  Finding himself broke and competing with pigs for food, he “comes to his senses” and decides to return home as a hired hand. Then “all heaven breaks loose.” The father violates the social norms of his day by running out to meet his sinful son.  Unexpectedly, the father fully restores his son’s status, and the celebration begins.  The father rejoices that his “dead” son is alive and home. This son enters into his father mercy with filial trust.

This part of the story receives a lot of press and is exactly why the older brother grinds his teeth—he did all the right things, staying home and obeying his father.  But “all hell breaks loose” again when he, too, refuses to come “home” to rejoice as his degenerate brother is treated like royalty!  His father extends the same mercy to the older son by coming out to him.  But the older son angrily whines, “You never gave me a party.  It’s not fair!”

The father, unfazed, continues his mission of mercy.  He answers with some of the most astonishing words of Scripture: “Son, everything I have is yours!”  Bishop Barron says, “I don’t know apithier description of how God relates to us anywhere in the spiritual literature of the world.”

We have a battle of fathers here!  St. John Paul II says, “original sin…attempts to abolish fatherhood.”  Satan lies, convincing Adam and Eve that the Father was withholding something from them—“to be like him.”  But now Abba proclaims the truth: “Everything I have is yours.” He gives us the depths of his heart, his mercy, his love—his Son.  Let that sink in!

While the two sons distort their relationship with their father differently, they both share the servile approach, acting as slaves, demanding much less than the father offers. The father only acts out of filial love, dispensing mercy based on their sonship, not their behavior!

This is the problem for many men: their image of the Father is distorted, and they act out of servile fear of the Lord, waiting for punishment.  They see God as critical of their imperfections, believing their worth is based on their behavior. The Catechism (2779) points out that our parental experiences are obstacles to knowing the Father. It encourages us to purify our hearts of our parental images, even to pull down these “idols” to experience our Abba as his Son has revealed him: an Abba offering an abyss of mercy.  We must approach God as divinized sons with filial fear.

What does the older son teach us?  First, as Pope Francis has recently said, “no one is excluded from the feast of mercy,” not even the religious elite!  Second, as Bishop Barron suggests, this is an unfinished story—it is never revealed whether the older sons enters the party.  It is our invitation to enter the celebration.

Will we experience his “Grand Canyon of mercy”?  Will we let “all heaven break loose” in our lives, coming home to the Father’s house with open hearts?  Sometimes confession is needed, but we are always his beloved sons!  Barron continues, “When…we enter with abandon into the loop of grace—giving away in love what was given to us through love—then the celebration begins.”  Are you holding up the celebration?  Come home—Abba is always looking for you!

Learn more about Dave McClow and the Pastoral Solutions Institute by visiting us at

Releasing Resentment: 5 Steps to Overcoming Bitterness and Increasing your Peace

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

No one wants to be bitter.  It sneaks up on us.  Bitterness is unforgiveness fermented.    The more we hold onto past hurts the more we become drunk on our pain and the experience can rob us of the joy we can find in anything.


Bitterness occurs when we feel someone has taken something from us that we are powerless to get back.  We hold on to the hurt in an attempt to remind ourselves and others of the injustice we’ve experienced in the hopes that someone will save us and restore what we’ve lost.  Unfortunately, bitterness only makes our sense of the injustice grow.  It does nothing to heal the wound caused by the injustice.  In fact, it causes the wound to become infected with anger.


Bitterness:  Wrath’s Little Sister

Bitterness is wrath’s little sister.  Where anger can be just and moral if it propels us to seek solutions for the wrongs we have experienced or witness, wrath is a deadly sin because it becomes anger that feeds on itself and adds to wreckage caused by the original wound.  Bitterness does this too, but instead of burning down the house with everything we value still inside, bitterness is quieter, slowly poisoning our life until we lose it one joy at a time.


Here are some things you can do to begin to overcome bitterness.


1.  Forgive

Forgiveness does not mean pretending everything is “OK.”  It doesn’t mean forgetting the hurt either.  According to St. Augustine, forgiveness is simply the act of surrendering our desire for revenge; that is, our desire to hurt someone for having hurt us.   Forgiveness is the gift we give ourselves that enables us to stop picking at the scab and start making a plan for healing.  My book,  Broken Gods: Hope Healing and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart can help you identify the steps you need to heal the hurt, and find authentic peace.


2. Make a plan

Forgiveness allows you to free up the energy you need to begin healing the wound. If the person who hurt you is willing to work with you, begin mapping out exactly what changes or effort you would need to see from that person to let you know that it is safe to reconcile.  If you are on your own, focus your energy on making a plan for how will you strive to regain as much of what was lost/taken from you as possible.  The more you strive to find alternative ways to recoup your losses, the less bitter you will feel even if the hurt persists.   It can be tempting to give into feelings that “there’s nothing I can do”   but resist the temptation.  In fact, if you feel this way and can’t think of solutions, talk to a professional to check your math before deciding that you just need to grieve your loss.  If, after consultation, you find that there really is nothing you can do to reclaim what was lost or taken from you, focus your energy on developing new goals that will help you reconstruct a compelling future.  The book, The Life God Wants You to Have:  Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail can be a tremendous help for figuring out what God is calling you to work toward in the next chapter of your life.


3.  Stop Dwelling and Retelling

When we are hurt, we have a tendency to turn the painful events over and over in our head or tell anyone who will listen about our pain–even over and over again.  It is fine to talk to people we think can help us heal the hurt, facilitate reconciliation or help us rebuild our lives, but other than that, we should do what we can to stop dwelling on the story of our injury ourselves and stop speaking of it so freely to others.  When we are tempted to “dwell or retell” the best course of action is to refocus on what we can do–TODAY–to take at least some small step toward refining or actualizing the plan we’ve developed in Step 2.  The more you are focused on solutions, the less you will experience the sense of powerlessness that comes from ruminating on the hurt.


4.  Seek Grace

It can be next to impossible to heal some wounds without God’s grace.  Bitterness causes us to shun God’s grace in favor of obsessing over the wound.  If you are holding on to bitterness I encourage you to take it to confession.  Please don’t be insulted by the suggestion.  I know that you are the victim and you have a right to your pain.  Still, holding on to anything except God’s love, mercy and healing grace separates from God and the life he wants us to have. Confession can open your heart to receive the healing that God wants to give you.   It can help you surrender the pain and powerlessness and begin to discover new options.  Stop hoarding your hurt.  Make your desire for healing official by taking your tendency to dwell in the powerlessness to the confessional and seek the grace to leave it there.


5.  Seek Professional Help

If the bitterness won’t let go even after you’ve tried all of the above, it’s time to seek professional help.  Working with a professional can help you see possibilities that your pain has blinded you to and give you new tools to heal the wounds that are holding you back.   If you have a faithful professional in your area that you have worked with before, it may be time to reconnect.  If not, I would invite you to contact us through the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about our telephone counseling practice.  Healing is possible with the right resources.


Hebrews 12:5 says, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”  You don’t have to be bitter or consumed by feelings of powerlessness and sadness.  Take action today to cooperate with the grace God is giving you to break free of the bonds of bitterness.  You can discover that with God’s help, there is so much more to life than pain.

4 Steps to Changing Your Life

image via shutterstock

image via shutterstock

My latest for OSV’s Daily Take

Whether or not you’ve made any New Year’s resolutions, this is a natural time to reflect on the changes we might like to make in our lives.

Unfortunately, a lot of efforts to change are driven by self-recrimination. We try to shame ourselves into the changes we’d like to make. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just do this already?”

The Role of Guilt in Change

Guilt can play a part in the change process, but there is a difference between guilt as a loving correction of the Holy Spirit and guilt that’s a temptation from Satan to remain stuck. Healthy guilt allows us to remain hopeful in the face of our struggles. It challenges us to change while simultaneously allowing us to feel hopeful about the possibilities for healing and transformation. Neurotic guilt simply causes us to ruminate about our mistakes and the hopelessness of it all.

COAL: Fuel for change 

Neuroscientists tell us that neurotic guilt makes change more difficult. The more we beat up on ourselves, the more brain chemicals that accompany self-hatred inhibit brain cells from growing and making new connections — both of which are necessary for new behaviors to develop and new lessons to stick.

The spiritual life is all about growth and change. In “Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart”(Image, $21), I present a brain-wise approach for creating graceful change. The four-step process employs the acronym COAL, which stands for Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love. Whether you are trying to be more consistent about your prayer time, get control of your temper, lose weight or any other concern, research shows that approaching change with these qualities in mind facilitates the brain processes that allow our efforts to take root.  CONTINUE READING

HOW CAN I GET THEM TO LISTEN?!? The Secret of Cultivating Discipleship Hearts In Your Children

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Every parent wants their children to listen to them, not just about the requests and directives they make, but about the faith and moral lessons they want to pass on.  But how can you get them to listen? Even more importantly, what does it take to get kids to OWN the lessons you teach them and willingly live them out in their own lives?  The key, as we reveal in Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids, is fostering a discipleship heart in your child.

Forming Discipleship Hearts

Cultivating a discipleship heart is separate from teaching faith and moral lessons.  It refers to how successful a parent is in helping their child be receptive to these lessons and, moreover, actively seek out the parent’s advice on these issues (and follows that advice willingly).  A child has a discipleship heart if they consistently turn to you for help and guidance in meeting their spiritual, emotional, and relational needs and finding answers to their questions about living an abundant life.  They do this not only because they have to (because you make them or because they have no other options) but because they want to.

Discipleship & Attachment

A “discipleship heart” is the fruit of the strength of your attachment with a child.   Did you catch that important distinction?  Attachment isn’t about how close the parent feels to the child (that’s called “bonding”).  Rather, the word “attachment” refers to how strong the CHILD feels his relationship is with the parent.  When parents respond promptly, generously, and consistently to the child’s practical, emotional and spiritual needs and requests for guidance the child develops a strong, gut-level sense that his parents are THE source for learning how to live life to the fullest. This is what attachment is; the degree a child feels compelled to turn to the parents–as opposed to anyone else–to meet his needs and answer his important questions about how life works.  Because discipleship is all about forming a child in what it means to live life in a faithful ways, discipleship is the fruit of attachment.

Attachment vs. Spoiling

One point of clarification.  Although forming healthy attachment/discipleship hearts does require meeting children’s needs promptly generously and consistently, meeting children’s needs doesn’t mean spoiling them.  Spoiling comes from either neglecting a child and pacifying them with stuff or from giving them whatever they ask for without any thought.  Building secure attachment/strong discipleship heart with a child requires an active effort to understand the positive intention or need that motivates a child’s behavior–even when that intention or need isn’t immediately obvious–and then working with the child to find healthy, godly ways to meeting that need or intention.

The Payoff

Creating strong attachment/discipleship hearts requires hard work, openness, patience, and generosity on the part of the parent. BUT the reward is two-fold.   First, the process of building attachment is what makes child-rearing a source of sanctification for the parents.  It challenges us to grow in virtues like patience, compassion, understanding, generosity, and love; all qualities that will help us become the saints we are called to be.  Plus, it connects us with the way God our Heavenly Father   Second, it fosters the child’s absolute confidence in your credibility to be THE source of information and guidance on how to live an abundant life.

In general, there are four signs that a parent is succeeding at fostering healthy attachment/discipleship hearts in his or her children.  The child who has a discipleship heart/secure attachment…

-offers cheerful obedience. (They aren’t automatons, but they willingly and faithfully respond to requests/directions and will often offer to help without being asked.)
-willingly initiates and accepts generous affection with the parent. (as opposed to being awkward or uncomfortable around parental displays of affection)
-openly seeks and regularly accepts advice and counsel from the parent.  (as opposed to being resistant to/rejecting of advice).
-regularly initiates and eagerly accepts offers to spend time with the parent. (as opposed to strongly preferring to spend time with friends and seeing family time as mostly an obligation)

Is Your Child A Disciple?

How effective are you at cultivating discipleship hearts in your children?  Ask yourself, “How would my child answer the question, “Do your parents respond promptly, generously, and consistently to your needs, questions, or requests?”  Any doubt/hesitation on your part means that you might have some work to do.   The more a parent may put a child off, frustrate their needs, shame them for their requests, or present obstacles to getting what they want out of life (instead of helping them seek healthy alternative means of getting those things–think “qualifies yes technique) the more that parent is increasing the likelihood that their children will turn to people other than the parent–including peers–for guidance and formation.

By contrast,  parents who are able to respond to their children’s needs and requests promptly, generously, and consistently teach the child that they are the best and easiest source to turn to for help and guidance.  This cultivates a sense of openness and gratitude that makes the child receptive to input from mom and dad even when the child hasn’t asked for it.  To learn more about cultivating a discipleship heart in YOUR child, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids and Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Speaking Ill of the Dead: Why is the Media Silent on David Bowie’s Sexual Abuse of Minors?

360b /

360b /


The movie Spotlight highlights the media’s rightful role in holding the Catholic Church accountable for the abuse scandals.  It does seem, however, that the media can be selective in choosing whom it holds accountable.  David Bowie was a brilliant artist, a vaunted sexual icon and, according to several accounts, a serial child rapist (or, to use a word that became popular during the priest scandals, an ephebophile; that is, one who engages in sexual acts with young adolescents). In fact, Bowie referred to his underage sexual conquests as his “baby groupies.”

Catholic Patheosi, Artur Rosman offers what I think is a must-read piece on the subject.  One of the links he provides is from Music.Mic which features a video of an interview with Lori Mattix who claims that Bowie took her virginity when she was 15. In the interview, Mattix states that she had several such encounters with Bowie, including group sex with the singer and at least one other “f—– up” (Mattix’s words) 15 year old girl named Sable Starr.   The following is from the Music.Mic piece Rosman links

In the early ’70s, Bowie allegedly had a sexual relationship with Lori Mattix, who was around 15 years old at the time. Mattix was one of many so-called “baby groupies,” girls between the ages of 12 and 16 who frequently patrolled Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, a haven for musicians and entertainers in the ’70s. The age of consent in California was (and still is) 18 years of age.  Mattix, in an in-depth interview published in November, talked with Thrillist about her years as a “baby groupie,” and the time she lost her virginity to the famed artist. “He focused his famously two-colored eyes on me and said, ‘Lori, darling, can you come with me?'” Mattix told Thrillist. “He walked me through his bedroom and into the bathroom, where he dropped his kimono. He got into the tub, already filled with water, and asked me to wash him. Of course I did.”

“Then he escorted me into the bedroom, gently took off my clothes, and de-virginized me,” Mattix said. 

Mattix told Thrillist the night continued with a threesome involving Mattix and another 15-year-old “baby groupie” Sable Starr.

“Two hours later, I went to check on Sable. She was all fucked up in the living room, walking around, fogging up windows and writing, ‘I want to fuck David,'” Mattix said. “I told him what she was doing and that I felt so bad. Bowie said, ‘Well, darling, bring her in.’ That night I lost my virginity and had my first threesome.”

With all the media hype about Bowie’s passing, why is no one discussing this?  Perhaps it is because the media doesn’t mind being acolytes to the high priests of pop culture even when they are sacrificing children on the altar of art. Again, I strongly encourage you to read Rosman’s thought-provoking and informative piece.

As we reflect on Bowie’s passing, we should by all means acknowledge his musical genius and pray that God would have mercy on him.  But while you do so, don’t forget to offer up a prayer or two for the underage youths he took advantage of over all the years he spent cultivating his image as a sexual icon.   Victims the besotted media has conveniently chosen to forget.


Filters Don’t Keep Kids Safe Online–New Study Finds.


Michigan State criminal justice professor Thomas J. Holt, found that about one in four children said they were pressured by their friends online to talk about sex when they didn’t want to. The study included 439 middle- and high-school students aged 12 to 16.

“This is not to downplay the danger of pedophiles acting online, but it does draw attention to the potential threat of child sexual victimization by the people our kids are closest to, the people they spend the greatest amount of time with online,” explains Holt.

The study is important as it is one of the first to examine the factors of online child sexual victimization. The review appears online in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice.

Researchers found that girls and kids with low self-control, were more likely to be sexually harassed online. But the biggest surprise was the finding that 24 percent of study participants were sexually harassed over the Internet.

Parental-filtering software or keeping the computer in an open space such as the family living room did not seem to reduce the problem

We address this issue in Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Whole and Holy Kids.  Parents who use internet filters tend to be overconfident in what they can do.  The only antidote is fostering a discipleship relationship with your children that enables you to provide the ongoing guidance and character formation that helps them stay strong even when mom and dad aren’t standing over them.  It’s a tough job, but YOU CAN DO IT!  For step-by-step guidance on how you can raise moral kids in an immoral world, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees.

Challenging the Atheist Narrative: Study Says Religious Faith Prevents Violence


For the study, 555 Palestinian adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 were presented with a classic “trolley dilemma” that involved a Palestinian man being killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish-Israeli or Muslim-Palestinian. The participants responded from their own perspective and then again from Allah’s perspective. 

The results showed that although Muslim-Palestinian participants valued their own group’s lives over Jewish-Israeli lives, they believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of members of both groups more equally. In fact, thinking from Allah’s perspective decreased the bias toward their own group by almost 30 percent.

“Our findings are important because one precursor to violence is when people believe that the lives of members of their group are more important than the lives of members of another group,” said Dr. Jeremy Ginges, associate professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

“Here, we show that religious belief — even amidst a conflict centered on religious differences — can lead people to apply universal moral principles similarly to believers and non-believers alike.”

“Beliefs about God seem to encourage an application of universal moral rules to believers and non-believers alike, even in a conflict zone,” added Nichole Argo, a research scientist in engineering and public policy and social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. “Thus, it does not seem to be beliefs about God that lead to outgroup aggression.”  READ MORE

The Contraceptive Sanctuary–Redux

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

Why children MUST be welcome at church

HuffPo has an article praising parents who bring their little ones to church.  It is generating a lot of heat so I thought I’d revisit a post I did on this topic back when a very passionate debate erupted at Patheos about this very issue. For those who are interested, Lisa and I offer a TON of practical help for families who wish to worship together in our books, Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful KidsThen Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood, and  Parenting with Grace.  Here are a few tips from those books to keep in mind as you think about the best ways for your family to approach the idea of worshiping together.

1.  As far as Catholics are concerned, babies are not merely tolerated.  They have aright to be in Church.  IF YOU ARE BAPTIZED, YOU BELONG.  PERIOD.  END OF STORY.

2.  As a matter of Catholic social teaching, it is the duty of every Catholic to support the mission of the family to raise godly children.  Failure to do so is a serious offense against both charity and the dignity of the family.  If you have ever scowled at a parent of a crying baby at Church. I recommend you confess your hardened heart.  “Whatever you do to the least…” (Mt 25:40).

3.  While I respect the intention behind it, a parent who leaves a child at home “until they are old enough” is being unjust regarding the child’s religious education.  Education begins unconsciously before it begins consciously.  Your baby or toddler needs to be given the opportunity to learn the rhythm, sights, sounds, and smells of the Mass before he is conscious enough to understand the Mass.  Robbing a child of the sensory education makes catechesis that much harder later on.  Spirituality is primarily a sensory call (from God) that leads to a transformative response.  Robbing a child of that early sensual experience of God and His Church is a very serious impediment to future catechesis and spiritual development.

4.  As Calah Alexander rightly points out at her blog, there is a difference between a fussing baby and a screaming baby.  As a matter of courtesy to the other worshippers, parents should always remove a child who is being loud and cannot be consoled after about a minute or so.  That noted, everyone else around the family with a fussy child has an obligation to either put on an understanding, sympathetic smile or pretend you don’t notice and trust the parent will handle it.  As Jesus said, to the apostles who were pushing the kids away, “get over your bad selves.”    As a Church, we do not believe in contraception and we certainly should not be promoting contraceptive sanctuaries.

5.  Some tips for moms and dads.

-This is counterintuitive, but sit in the front.  Kids behave better when they can look at what’s going on instead of some other parishioner’s butt (which is, afterall what’s on their eye-level).

-Don’t ever just sit in the cry-room from the start.  Although I understand, and support, their intended use, in practice, most cry rooms are from the devil.  It’s like Lord of the Flies Sunday School in there.  Go in only for as long as you need to, if you need, then go back to your pew.  You and your child will get more out of the experience

-If you have to remove your child from the sanctuary, hold him the entire time you are in the cry room or the back of the church.  DO NOT under any circumstances let him down.  If you take the child out and put him down and play with him (or, God forbid, let him run around) you will teach him–through simple Pavlovian conditioning–that he NEEDS to cry to get the fun times that happen when he forces you to leave the sanctuary.   Let your child have a minimal amount of freedom of movement if he allows you to stay the pew, but none if he makes you leave the sanctuary.  If a little one is really that out of control, he isn’t able to get himself back online anyway (remember our discussion about the myth of self-soothing).  If he makes you leave, by all means be loving, sympathetic, compassionate, and affectionat, but DO NOT PUT THE KID DOWN.  When he’s quiet, return to the pew.

-By all means, for children under, say, 4-ish, bring some quiet, soft, preferably religiously-themed toy-like things.  Keep them in a special “going to Mass bag”  that the child doesn’t get to see unless you are in church.  That will keep these activities special.  Regarldess, try to put these things away before the consecration.  At the elevation, point to the host and whisper something like, “look at the miracle!  Look at Jesus. Say, “I love you Jesus!”

-Don’t do mass in shifts.  The Mass is for families.  When parents say they aren’t “getting anything out of Mass” when they bring small children they are missing the point.  What you get out of Mass when you have small children is the joy of passing your faith on to them.   That’s what you signed up for when you became a Catholic parent.  Yes, it can be tough, and yes, you may certainly do other things to get your spiritual needs met, but Sunday mass is for your family.  Go as a family.

For more ideas about helping you and your children get more out of going to mass as a family, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids, Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood, and  Parenting with Grace.

A New Year Resolution: Stop Shaming Yourself


Four steps to graceful change in the new year.


Whether or not you’ve made any New Year’s Resolutions, this is a natural time to reflect on the changes we might like to make in our lives.

Unfortunately, a lot of efforts to change are driven by self-recrimination.  We try to shame ourselves into the changes we’d like to make.  “What’s wrong with me?”   “What can’t I just do this already?”

The Role of Guilt

Guilt can play a part in the change process but there is a difference between guilt as a loving correction of the Holy Spirit and guilt that’s a temptation from Satan to remain stuck.  Healthy guilt allows us to remain hopeful in the face of our struggles.  It challenges us to change while simultaneously allowing us to feel hopeful about the possibilities for healing and transformation.  Neurotic guilt simply causes us to ruminate about our mistakes and the hopelessness of it all.

Guilt on the Brain

Neuroscientists tell us that neurotic guilt make change more difficult. The more we beat up on ourselves, the more brain chemicals that accompany self-hatred inhibit brain cells from growing and making new connections–both of which are necessary for new behaviors to develop and new lessons to stick.

COAL: Fuel for Change.

The spiritual life is all about growth and change. In Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart (Image, 2015), I present a brain-wise approach for creating graceful change.  The four-step process employs the acronym COAL which stands for Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love. Whether you are trying to be more consistent about your prayer time, get control of your temper, lose weight, or any other concern, research shows that approaching change with these qualities in mind facilitates the brain processes that allows our efforts to take root.


Curiosity refers to a genuine desire to understand ourselves.   Curiosity allows us to ask important questions like, “What hurt am I trying to address with this behavior?”   “What is the godly motivation behind my fallen choices?”    The truth is, most of our unhealthy and even destructive behaviors represent a distorted effort to meet a legitimate need.  As GK Chesterton put it, “Every man who knocks on the door of the brothel is looking for God.”

Curiosity allows to overcome the judgmentalism that shuts down healthy self-examination. It assumes that in the face of our brokenness we have something to learn and God has something to teach us.


While curiosity allows us to ask questions about our motivations in the first place, openness allows us to receive, with an open heart, the answers that come to us.    Without openness, we may end up dismissing  or negating the insights that come forward as the result of our attempts to understand our deeper motivations.  Openness allows us to consider our insights in a spirit of prayer.  Openness does not require us to accept, as gospel,  every silly thought or excuse that pops into our head, but it requires us to admit that there might be more to our initial thoughts than meets the eye.  Our prayerful openness gives God the chance to develop the pictures that begin to emerge under the light of his grace.



            Acceptance does not mean that we rejoice in our brokenness. It simply means that we are willing to face the changes that need to occur and be patient with the process of change–even if that takes time.  Acceptance stops us from giving up in frustration just because we’ve had a bad day and fallen off the wagon–so to speak.  True acceptance facilitates the diligence and fortitude that graceful change requires. We address what we can, as conscientiously as we can, and trust God’s infinite mercy to make up the difference.



            To love is someone is to be committed to working for their good.  The same applies to loving ourselves.  Committing to loving ourselves through change means finding healthy ways to meet the positive intentions or needs that underlie our destructive or undesirable behaviors. It means refusing to give up on ourselves when we become frustrated.  It means clinging to the fact that God believes in our capacity for change even when we can’t believe in ourselves.  Finally, it means being gentle with ourselves while we continue to steadfastly pursue our goals.


Cooperating with Grace       

            The Christian life is all about transformation, conversion and healing.  By using COAL as our fuel for change, we can cooperate with God’s design of our brain to bring about greater peace in our hearts.  To learn more about how you can fulfill God’s desire to make graceful change in your life, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.