Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Recently, I was attending a meeting of a denominational leadership group held at the Boston University School of Theology. One of their faculty members, Dr. Steve Sandage, talked with us about some of the issues he sees that keep us from engaging in meaningful and transformational relationships with each other, especially in a body like the church, which is certainly meant to be a meaningful and transformational organization. Dr. Sandage stated that so many persons have not learned to self-differentiate, or understand and be comfortable with who they are--in short, be "comfortable in their own skin." Self-differentiated persons have a sober view of their gifts and abilities, know their overall strengths and weaknesses, and are comfortable with their current role and station in life. As a spiritual person, he or she may also be very at peace with God and/or general existential issues. These are persons who, because they are "at peace" with themselves, are able to engage others with honesty, integrity, and without feeling threatened by "the other" in the relationship.

The undifferentiated self seeks to gain acceptance in relationships by pleasing others, acquiescing, and otherwise cowering to the "will of the group" to feel included or receive affirmation. The undifferentiated self is often a happy person, and can tend to feel the world is against them, on one hand, or by subverting their own desires, interests, or needs to gain strokes, may feel totally powerless. Dr. Sandage did say that another behavior an undifferentiated person may manifest is to totally rebel against all of the "conventions" of society, or against shared family or community values. Again, the rebellion gains attention, but not because of any action of the individual's "true self," which is subverted by the lashing out.

In the church, the undifferentiated self can require so much attention of clergy or other leadership that they quickly wear others out. They can use a narrow interpretation of Scripture to draw artificial boundaries or to exclude others (such as LGBTQ persons) that tend to threaten their fragile (and most often disingenuous) view of themselves. Or they may just "rebel" by making so much noise and launching protests against views that disagree with theirs that they just alienate themselves from the wider community of faith.

When Jesus said, "blessed are the meek," it's possible he was talking about self-differentiated persons. I was always taught that "meek" individuals were comfortable "within their own skin." Meek persons know who they are, whose they are, from a spiritual standpoint, and what they are about. From this position of confidence and integrity, they are more able to relate to others in a caring and compassionate way. With no prevailing need to "be accepted" by the other, they can be very honest in relating. And they can feel very "at home" in their relationship with God, because again, they don't have to "receive strokes" from the divine in order to believe, pray, love and serve. Meek persons can receive a compliment without either becoming "puffed up" or disregarding it as manipulative.

Is there help for the undifferentiated souls in our midst? Absolutely. It's called salvation! We believe in transformation, and it can come through spiritual enlightenment, honest confession, psychological counseling, and personal discoveries "on the journey." When Jesus invited those first disciples to "follow me," he was saying, "Leave behind your outdated, dysfunctional view of life and self." Jesus has been such a transformational person for many of us. However, when it comes to some of the other "treatments" listed above for becoming a self-differentiated individual, "all of the above" may apply!

Oh, and the truth is that all of us are somewhere on the "differentiated" continuum. If there ever was a fully differentiated person, it was probably Jesus. For most of us, our life journey is about becoming more self-differentiated, bit-by-bit, and leaving behind our aberrations, pathologies, and dysfunctions, however minor or major. You know--becoming more meek.

I would not be honest if I closed this post out without acknowledging that some persons are so undifferentiated that they may need professional therapy to help sort this out. "Coming to Jesus" may just be a step. Sometimes we need to see a psychologist, too! Or maybe we start with the psychologist before we try being "born again."

I am convinced, however, that if the church and the Christian Gospel can help persons become "real" in this context, and find the foundational joy of life, existence, and genuine relationships, all of the missional stuff with take care of itself. More self-differentiated persons become great witnesses, generous givers of time, talents, and treasures, and the kind of people you want to hang out with.

Shalom, Friends!

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