One of my basic assumptions is that healthy cities require healthy churches and healthy churches require healthy pastors and parishioners. Thus, on the second Tuesday of the month the pastoral staff of Christ Church, along with a few other Bay Area pastors, gathers for pastoral care and development. This year we are working through Preventing Ministry Failure, a workbook designed to help pastors develop sustainable lifestyle and ministry patterns - spiritually, relationally, emotionally, physically, and organizationally. Yesterday we talked about intimacy - What is intimacy? How do we cultivate it with God, our families, and our friends? What are the internal and external barriers to intimacy, and how might we overcome them? One of the ironies we discussed is that being a “successful” minister often results in a lack of intimacy in our most important relationships because we become overly involved in helping others cultivate intimacy in their most important relationships! Another question we discussed is, “How do we sabotage intimacy in our significant relationships?”
How might you answer that question for yourself? It seems to me an important one. Having explored together in my last blog entry what makes for a happy marriage and a happy church, let us return to The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman to see what we can learn about cultivating intimate relationships - in the home, in the church, in the city - particularly thinking through what comes from within that tends to poison and kill intimacy.
Gottman - who can predict divorce with 91% accuracy after watching and listening to a couple for just five minutes - writes, “The clues to [a couple’s] future breakup are in the way they argue... The research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note, even if there are a lot of attempts to ‘make nice’ in between... So if you begin a discussion that way, you might as well pull the plug, take a breather, and start over... Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that I call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.” (26-27)
The Four Horsemen is another way of talking about our “fight or flight” responses: criticism, contempt, and defensiveness are forms of fighting, while stonewalling is another way to describe flight. So, other than a sermon or class on the book of Revelation, how might the Four Horsemen show up at Christ Church?
“You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint only addresses a specific action at which your spouse failed. A criticism is more global - it adds on some negative words about your mate’s character or personality... To turn any complaint into a criticism, just add my favorite line: ‘What is wrong with you?’... The problem with criticism is that when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen” (27-29).
“You always _____________.” “You never _____________.” Though it is always a challenge, Catherine and I try to keep each other from lapsing into this sort of global, absolute language with one another. Things tend to go better when we say, “When you _____________ (specific failure), it made me feel _____________.” This is a hard but healthy discipline for talking to one another, whether our spouse, friend, pastor, Community Group leader, ministry team leader, or whomever. Pastors are often tempted to move from complaint to criticism at the end of the work week or as Sunday comes to a close, perhaps because specific failures can accumulate in a hurry, and it can be difficult to know what to do with them. I confess that I am often tempted to think, “What is wrong with Christ Church?” or “What is wrong with _____________?” rather than follow up with individuals in a less critical, more charitable spirit. It seems to me that parishioners face similar temptations when they are disappointed by the church in general or by a pastor, leader, or fellow churchgoer in particular. Criticism, however, is toxic to the soul of parishioner and pastor alike. If there is enough criticism in the system, relationships start to come apart. So, next time you approach your spouse, church leader, or friend to complain about a specific failure, please hear the clip-clop of Horseman #1 (Criticism) and ask yourself, “Is this failure serious enough to merit a conversation? Have I been praying for this person and this situation? Am I approaching this with a critical or charitable spirit? How might I provide enough encouragement so that at the end of the day this person walks away built up rather than torn down?”
Now for Horseman #2 (Contempt). “Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt,” says Gottman. “So are name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt - the worst of the four horsemen - is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her... Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner” (29).
Contempt. Cynicism. Are there better words to describe Bay Area culture? If these don’t work for you, how about some of their synonyms: disrespect, disdain, scorn, derision, loathing, hatred, skepticism, doubt, distrust, suspicion, pessimism? Contempt is the assumption that you are above other people, that they are beneath you. You are superior, they are inferior. You are Somebody, they are nobody. Are you ever tempted to relate to your significant other that way? How about the person who sits next to you in Sunday worship or across from you in your Community Group? Perhaps you feel that way toward one of the leaders in the church? Is not this inborn superiority complex an element that creates and sustains divisions among us - gender, ethnic, political, relational, vocational, intellectual, economic, social, and spiritual? It often shows up in my marriage when I think to myself, “How can I change Catherine so she can be perfect like me?” That sort of spirit poisons a marriage, and a church, and any relationship.
Now that we have met Horseman #1 (Criticism) and Horseman #2 (Contempt), let’s think about Horseman #3 (Defensiveness). “Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you’” (31). Defensiveness has been with us for a long time:
But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?"
He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid."
And he said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?"
The man said, "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it."
Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?"
The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."
In my attempts to “save face,” it is all-too-easy for me, like Adam and Eve, to shift the focus from my weakness to someone else, “The problem isn’t me, it’s her.” Beyond externalizing, I might also spiritualize and say to God: 1) “The woman you put here with me...” or 2) “The serpent deceived me...” In any case, I am not the problem, I am not to blame.
Sometimes we wear ourselves out from the fight - criticism, contempt, and defensiveness - such that we resort to flight, and this is Horseman #4 (Stonewalling). Gottman writes, “In marriages where discussions begin with a harsh startup, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness, eventually one partner tunes out. This heralds the arrival of the fourth horseman... During a typical conversation between two people, the listener gives all kinds of cues to the speaker that he’s paying attention. He may use eye contact, nod his head, say something like ‘Yeah’ or ‘Uh-huh.’ But a stonewaller doesn’t give you this sort of casual feedback. He tends to look away or down without uttering a sound. He sits like an impassive stone wall. The stonewaller acts as though he couldn’t care less about what you’re saying, if he even hears it" (33).
This, again, is an very old story that began with our hiding in the garden. When I am experiencing conflict with someone - Catherine, Bart, God, or whomever - this is far and away the best way to stay safe and in control. Why stay emotionally engaged in the relationship and risk getting hurt when I can emotionally disengage and protect myself? But it doesn’t take long for that approach to lead to intense loneliness and isolation.
Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling - these are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wreaking havoc and destruction on our attempts to achieve intimacy with one another. There are a lot of ways to talk about sin, but who would have thought that a psychologist from Seattle could contribute language and descriptors to the Church that help us gain a deeper understanding of our robust, biblical theology of self-centeredness as it works itself out in our relationships?
What are we to do about the Four Horsemen? Are we doomed to divorce and schism, or to dead marriages and dead churches? No. I believe there is more to our relationships and our stories than our sin. And I believe there is grace available in the One who conquered evil and death and has the power to subdue the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This is why we read the Bible and come to his Table every Sunday. This is why we meet weekly in Community Groups to pray, discuss the Scriptures, and serve together. It is through these means of grace that God is at work against our self-centeredness and self-importance. It is through these means of grace that we come to know the One who was self-emptied in order to receive all of our criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. It is through these means of grace that we gain the power to love by saying “Father, forgive” when we are on the receiving end of someone else’s criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. It is through these means of grace that we find someone stronger than the Four Horsemen in our lives:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns... The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean... On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured.