Playgrounds for Avatars: “Talking it Through to Find Peace”

By Jim Wilder and Ed Khouri

(Part 1 of 10 from the article, “Through the Eyes of Heaven: Does ‘Talking It Through to Find Peace’ bring Shalom?”)

For your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure. Matthew 6:21, The Passion Translation

Life experiences and relationships shape us. For those who follow Jesus, it matters how we look at both — with earth’s eyes (a flesh perspective) or heaven’s (God’s perspective). If you and I don’t know how to shepherd our thoughts about our circumstances and interactions with others, the sense of who we are and what we need easily becomes distorted. Those who care about spiritual transformation have three big questions to answer:

  1. Do we believe in talking through problems and pain to find peace?
  2. Would we rather live with earth’s eyes or heaven’s eyes?
  3. Are we part of a small group community that can help guide us away from our distorted views and toward God’s heavenly perspective when things are difficult?

Talking our way to transformation and identity?

Unfortunately, many who design, lead, and participate in small groups have learned to live within their own distortions. We spend a lot of our time in small groups connecting with the inaccurate images of others, trying to talk things through to find “peace.” When groups are designed around such conversations, we see ourselves and other group members inaccurately through earth’s eyes. Beyond our small groups, these distortions also govern how we see and interact with others, reflecting a false impression of what we need. Trying to encourage and counsel one another toward “peace,” we relate as if our false images and ideas are genuine.

The truth is, interactions like these magnify that we have lost — or perhaps never found — an honest understanding of our true identity and needs, not to mention the identity and needs of others. Only when we understand God’s design for our lives, attachments, and identity will we perceive the great opportunity small groups afford us to join God in His transformational work. His goal? To grow us into the new identity we’ve received in Christ until we fully reflect Him face-to-face.

Small group dynamics reflect the things we value most

Christ-centered gatherings and interactions expose how we see ourselves and others in our relationship with God. Our conversations and actions reveal our hearts, foundations, and what we treasure. Is our perspective based on earthly or heavenly insight — fear or grace? Scripture tells us, “For the overflow of what has been stored in your heart will be seen by your fruit and will be heard in your words” (Lk 6:45 TPT). The conversations we have, as well as our actions, reveal our hearts and what we value most. Either way, our foundation is exposed.

  • Are we driven by the absence of grace, peace, and God’s presence? …or…
  • Are we consumed by the abundance of God’s grace, peace, and the pursuit of Him?

The Foundation of Fear

God designed our Spirit and brain to respond to grace. He created us with the need to see ourselves through those eyes! From the moment we’re born, we’re looking for someone to reflect our value and worth as “special and favorite” back to us. The question is: will we find it?

Sadly, many of us grow up in homes where grace is absent or weak. We don’t see anyone that way — especially not ourselves. Because we’ve never experienced the kind of grace that transforms how we see ourselves and others, it is a mystery to us. Our need to see ourselves and others through God’s eyes remains unmet. This lack of grace has two tragic consequences.

First, in the absence of grace, fear remains our spiritual and neurological default system. Spiritually, we learn from Hebrews 2:15 that “bondage to fear” is the natural state of all humans apart from God. We are born with it, which drives our behaviors until it is removed in Christ. John tells us that “God is love” and that “perfect (mature) love drives out fear” (I Jn 4:14-18). Only when we connect with God and experience His love interactively can our in-born foundation of fear be displaced. In the same way, repeated, grace-filled interactions with God’s loving, mature people replace fear as our dominant motivation.

Second, the absence of genuine grace drives us to find alternatives. If we’re not special and favorite simply because we exist, what will make us feel as if we are? What can we do? To whom can we connect for a sense of worth? How do we get others to treat us as special and favorite?

In the hot pursuit of grace substitutes, we may pursue four primary sources of artificial grace. The sense of special and favorite they leave us with is temporary, at best. We call these the 4 Deadly P’s, and they include:

  • Pleasing Others
  • Performing for Others
  • Pain (avoiding things that hurt)
  • Pleasure (pursuing things that feel good)

Without grace, a fear-driven pursuit of the 4 Ps motivates our human interactions and behaviors. These motivations impact the ways we connect — or don’t connect — with God. They also strongly influence how we see and interact with others. These lurk in the background, often deep below our level of consciousness, but tend to govern life stealthfully.

Lacking grace, we cannot see people through God’s heart. We only see them as people who can either help meet my 4 P needs — or not. For instance, we may ask questions like,

  • Will this person’s approval matter enough to me, and is performing for them worth it?
  • How hard should I try? What will they think of me?
  • Are they a person who will induce pain in me – or help alleviate it?
  • What kinds of things should I do and say? How do I behave when I’m with them?
  • What happens if I disappoint this person – and what will I feel?

To meet our 4 P need, we create an “avatar” to represent us. My avatar is a picture of how I want others to see me. It isn’t real — it is a false identity. This image I project is often built around my strengths to hide weaknesses and the parts of me that others might find less acceptable. My avatar is produced in response to fear — seeking to maximize the possibility of meeting my needs for the 4 Ps. My heart — the one Jesus wants to know — is buried deep inside.

Therapy-based flaws of talking our way to “peace”

The way we design small groups must consider our struggles with fear, the 4 Ps, and avatars. We must guard against tendencies to settle for false, fear-based motivations and behaviors. This tendency multiplies when we borrow concepts from secular group therapy.

Talking it through” is an almost universally accepted solution (in Western culture) for the things that upset us about others. Typically, there are a couple of objectives behind the practice:

  1. to help participants express intense emotions for which they are affirmed or rewarded by the therapist and group members
  2. to “get honest” about deep levels of pain and shame

To get the big picture, let’s explore the causes and shortcomings of some specific approaches and whether they are effective for finding peace and building a spiritual small group community.

Fear-based Gatherings

In the world of avatars, we tend to judge others by appearances. We are not used to seeing others through the eyes of grace as God does. The obvious externals make it easy for us to judge each other. Characterizing one another according to problems, pain, malfunctions, and things that annoy us the most, we become blind to grace and guided by a fear-based identity. When we look in the mirror or at others’ reflections therein, you and I miss God’s heart.

What lies behind the fears and avatars driving our behavior? Approval, performance, minimizing pain, or maximizing pleasure. Others who function primarily in fear will pursue the same false prize. We may even have responded to an altar call and have a “salvation experience.” But our pursuit of what is fake continues until God displaces the fear in our lives through shared, grace-filled experiences with Him and others.

Christian small groups that insist upon talking through pain, problems, distress, and upsetting moments to find “peace” create playgrounds for avatars and fear-based individuals to seek their fortune together. The common pursuit of the 4 P’s drive conversation, interactions, and behaviors. Instead of sharing grace and growing into His image, we create the conditions to perfect and reinforce our avatars. It does not reflect well on anyone.

Likely, this reflects the subtle influence secular group therapy has had on Western Culture — including the Church. Unfortunately, in heaven’s eyes, this is flawed.


Next time, read “Why we Lack Peace When we are Hurt or Upset” — the second of our series of excerpt from the article, “Through the Eyes of Heaven: Does ‘Talking It Through to Find Peace’ bring Shalom?”By Jim Wilder and Ed Khouri.

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