When I pastored a small church in north-central Iowa, I regularly did a children’s sermon. I used an object to provide a visual reference that I tied into the main topic of that day’s sermon. I found it interesting—and over time instructive—that after the services, the comments I received usually related to the children’s sermon. Even in a very literate and well-educated nation, we are still visual and oral learners at heart.
As I shift from the first to the second parable in Matthew 25, let me simply remind you how important stories and illustrations are to effective communication. There is an Aesop Fable by the title The Miser that has been passed down from generation to generation. It goes like this:
A miser sold all that he had and bought a lump of gold, which he buried in a hole in the ground by the side of an old wall. He went to look at it daily. One of his workmen observed his frequent visits to the spot and decided to watch his movements. He soon discovered the secret of the hidden treasure, and digging down, came to the lump of gold, and stole it. The miser, on his next visit, found the hole empty and began to tear his hair and to cry loudly with deep lamentations. A neighbor, seeing him overcome with grief and learning the cause, said to him, “Pray do not grieve so, but go and take a stone, and place it in the hole, and pretend that the gold is still lying there. It will do you as much good as the gold did. For when the gold was there, you owned it, but it did not benefit you, as you did not make the slightest use of it.”
Aesop was a gifted storyteller who knew that simple stories could be understood and remembered by people who were living simple lives. Another masterful storyteller was Jesus of Nazareth. We call His stories parables—a Greek word we have brought into the English language that simply means, “to cast alongside.” A parable is a story that lays two things side-by-side for the purpose of comparing, contrasting, or explaining.
We are currently focusing on three inter-related parables from Matthew 25—they speak to key principles of a Biblical Worldview. The first story talked about one of the most festive and important events in family life—a wedding. He used it to provide a picture of personal responsibility. The second story describes a business world event where an owner gives three employees a significant opportunity to improve and prove their work experience. He used it to describe effective stewardship. The story goes like this:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
Both Matthew and Mark point out how often and why Jesus used parables:
All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:33-34).
And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples (Mark 4:33-34).
Mark also points out that even though Jesus used real-life stories to speak of eternal spiritual truths, some people are still not willing to open their hearts and minds to God. After Jesus told the crowd the Parable of the Sower in which seed is sown on four different kinds of soil with four different responses, He then said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Mark goes on to record Jesus’ explanation for the three soils that did not produce grain, and then tells His disciples:
To you it has been given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that “Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them” (Mark 4:9-12).
Let me suggest that although we cannot control what people do after we share with them the good news, we do have control over how we communicate that good news.
May God fill your mouth with effective communications that He can then use to produce fruit.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
In the last two weeks, I have provided a description, given a Biblical example, and shared general examples of learned helplessness. Last Wednesday Phyllis and I had dinner with a couple that a few years earlier was facing one of the most difficult circumstances a pastor and wife could face. In our two-hour dinner conversation, we heard multiple stories of God’s redeeming and transforming power at work. As we listened, our thoughts went back to the many previous conversations that took place. Then I began to think about the process that God used and the time, effort, and energy that this couple along with four other couples had invested. The end result has been a transformed marriage, an intact family, and an exciting new ministry opportunity. The process we used mirrors the one Henry Cloud suggests someone desiring to overcome learned helplessness should use.
In chapter seven of Cloud’s book Boundaries for Leaders, he describes the following five-part process for overcoming learned helplessness.
1. Create Connections—Don’t think you can do it on your own and skip this step. In fact, it is so significant that Cloud actually wrote a separate book on this topic: The Power of the Other. He suggests that you set up a small group of six to ten people who are experiencing the same challenges. As you form the group, establish the needed structure, time, and place where you can go through the process together. Group members need to come with a positive tone, create a safe environment, and develop transparency so that everyone is honest and willing to share their victories and their difficulties. Let me add a hearty AMEN to this step from my own personal experience. The value and impact of such a group is immeasurable.
I would also point out that Satan is well aware of the importance of creating connections. We would call one of Satan’s groups a gang. Think about how many gangs you will find in communities where learned helplessness has become the norm.
2. Regain Control—I have lost count of the number of times I have taken a napkin or scrap of paper and described this step. Cloud calls it the “Control Divide.” Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle creating two columns. In column one, write down things that are making your ministry difficult and are things that you cannot control. Next, take time to REALLY focus on and reflect on the impact of the items on the list—they are real and you don’t want to deny they exist. Next, draw a stop sign at the bottom of the column and stop thinking about the items in column one. Next, and most importantly, in the second column write down everything you can do and that you can control—things that can create positive results. I suggest that you keep the paper with your daily devotional materials and pray through the list daily. When you get to the bottom of the first column, stop, reflect on the list, and then place the items at the foot of the cross. Then prayerfully work through the second column picking at least one of the items that you can do that day. As God prompts you, add items to both lists. Doing this daily will help you to slowly shift the spotlight away from the items in column one and provide a better focus on the items in column two.
Cloud opened the chapter with a great illustration of this process. When Tony Dungy accepted the head coaching job of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he faced a “hopeless” task. He faced significant headwinds. But instead of focusing on all the negatives, none of which he could control, Dungy identified three critical areas that he knew from experience differentiated good football teams from bad ones: turnovers, penalties, and special team play. He began to focus on these three areas because they were factors he could control, and if the team did better in these areas they would contribute to success. The Bucs saw a huge turnaround under Coach Dungy.
Cloud states two powerful things happen when we focus on what we can control. First, we get results. But maybe more importantly, a change takes place in our brains so we can function better. Is this what Paul is describing in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God?”
3. Take Note of the Three P’s—I talked about the Three P’s in a previous article: Personal, Pervasive, and Permanent. He suggests we journal or log the negative thoughts that are impacting us. Then, review each of the thoughts and write specific facts to refute them. Our natural tendency is to focus on the one negative and ignore the dozens of positive things that God does daily in our lives. Over time, we become willing to accept reality and begin to take positive action. The positive impact of this step is multiplied when you begin to share your positive experiences and hear the positive experiences of others in your small group.
4. Add Structure and Accountability—Social psychology research has shown that when people assign a specific time and place for completion of specific tasks and goals, their chances of success increase by up to 300 percent. Structure, stability, security, routine, and predictability—all are necessary for our brains to function at their highest levels. Reread the last sentence as you think about what has been happening the last two years. What’s the probability that we are not currently functioning at our highest level?
Henry states, “I’ve encouraged individuals, including some very high-performers, to break their daily activities down to very small increments, sometimes as small as thirty-minute segments, and specifically plan what they would do in that time. It sounds pedantic, but it absolutely works. Having them write down their objectives for every thirty minutes of the day helps identify and isolate activities that are particularly endangered due to inaction and three P’s thinking.” How would the discipline of doing something like this help you deal with the fluid world we are living in today?
5. Take the Right Kind of Action with the Right Kind of Accountability—Henry writes, “By right kind of action I do not mean mere activity. Busyness is not action that builds momentum or results. The action you want is action that specifically drives results. And the accountability you want is the kind that drives success, not the kind that only measures results and keeps score. What I’m talking about is accountability that creates high performance and results. Figure out what that is, and you will undoubtedly see winning results as well. Said another way, don’t count the score. Count the behaviors that run up the score.”
I can say from firsthand experience that God can use this five-part process. My question is, “If you are experiencing learned helplessness, are you willing to step out in faith, ask others to help, and put in the work that it will take to see the real-life transformation?”
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I used Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries for Leaders to describe Learned Helplessness. Let me begin this week by giving an example of how Jesus confronted it. John alone records for us the encounter Jesus had with a paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda.
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.
I began to look at this passage very differently several years ago when I heard a pastor who was serving in a deeply impoverished inner-city area. He had grown up in a stable blue-collar family but now encountered learned helplessness on a daily basis. From his experience, he pointed out that Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made well?” I had previously missed that “little detail.” The man had been in his condition for thirty-eight years. Depending on the age when his injury/illness began, it is possible that he had outlived many of his contemporaries—that might have been the reason he caught Jesus’ eye. Jesus saw what the man had been blinded to by learned helplessness—the possibility of getting better.
From this very short description of the encounter, we can glean a lot about what learned helplessness does to one’s perspective. We become…
As I indicated last week, there are seasons in the life of every human being where we can slide into learned helplessness. We can find ourselves in a very difficult place emotionally, physically, or spiritually where everything seems to be beyond our control, and we don’t see an end to it. We begin to think and act like the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. Fortunately, for many of us, these seasons turn out to be “relatively short” walks through the valley of the shadow of death. We begin to lean into the skills and experiences we have used in the past; we leave the things we can’t control to God; we walk in simple child-like obedience doing the next right thing. We are fortunate to be one who has been blessed by God’s mercy as He extends it to thousands of generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments (Genesis 20:5b).
However, an increasing number of people in our nation are born into generational learned helplessness. They have no positive experiences upon which to lean; they don’t have healthy role models upon which to build their life; they are living with the consequences of their parent’s and sometimes grandparent’s decisions. Unfortunately, the iniquities of previous generations are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations (Exodus 20:6). I have observed the slow and often regressive work of God in the life of those who have experienced the impact of generational sins and are seeking to find a better way through Jesus Christ. Patient, persistent love is required, and that isn’t easy in our instant gratification culture.
Before I describe the five-step process Cloud suggests for overcoming learned helplessness, let me challenge you at a few points:
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.
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