By Katie Skurja
“But the Bible clearly says…”
The shift in the barometric pressure is palpable. There is a storm brewing and it threatens to bring high winds, lightning bolts, and golf ball-sized hail. In many instances, those words are a temptation to step into the ring for a fight, not a segue into an honest spiritual or theological conversation.
Presented with such a storm brewing, you might think quickly: Oh crap! What are my options? Do I run for cover? Do I stand still, hoping I don’t become a lightening rod for my interlocutor-turned-interrogator? Do I open my Bible to find my best lightening bolt verses to prove it clearly says something else?
In such situations, even if I can win the argument, I still lose. One or both of us is going to come away bruised, battered, and bearing the telltale burns of weaponized Bible verses. If the words were uttered by a family member, there is the added risk of a long-lasting rift.
Reflect on a time when you were caught up in an actual storm of some magnitude. Put yourself back in that situation for a moment. What do you notice about your physical reactions in such situations? If you are like most people, you might notice some of the following: chest tightening, heart pounding, shallow breathing, thoughts racing. When caught in the middle a storm, whether literally or metaphorically, it is very difficult to be at peace because the limbic brain is activated.
The limbic response kicks us into survival mode: how do I keep from dying here? At first blush, it may seem overly dramatic to think a disagreement about a Bible verse or spiritual precept could trigger a person into a life and death struggle. However, when you consider the fact that many people believe wrong theology buys them an expedited ticket to hell, it is understandable why it would evoke such a fear reaction.
All of us are capable and guilty of stirring up a limbic storm as well as getting caught up in the storms of others. Each of us has a story and our reasons for doing so. Our reasons make sense to us – others, not so much.
Though a considerably smaller part of the brain, the emotionally charged limbic brain can rise up and overwhelm the much larger frontal cortex, the seat of rational thought. To engage with someone in the midst of a limbic storm is to risk evoking a powerful backlash known as the Backfire Effect: trying to talk someone out of an emotionally-held belief will likely cause the person to double down and hold on more tightly.
What is the loving, compassionate, and faithful response in such a situation?
As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything under heaven. Within the same chapter of Luke, we see two very different responses to someone who is wayward. There is a time to leave the ninety-nine and go out into the dark in search of the lost sheep. And… if the sheep is determined to go its own way, there is a time to let the sheep weather the storms of life until he decides to come to his senses and head for the shelter of his father’s house. Both are true and loving. It takes discernment to figure out which response is called for at any given time.
In Ignatian spirituality, one of the ground rules for the process of discernment is acknowledging there is a God and it is not me. It requires the humility to let go of judgments, acknowledge we only see in part, and admit we could be wrong. Another key to discernment is the willingness to bring all things into the Light. Good discernment does not happen in a place of desolation.
Using these two guidelines, the first thing that needs to happen is to get out of the storm and into a place of "refuge and protection from the storm and the rain." Each one of us needs to grow in our awareness of when we are the one who is lost or wayward, stuck in our own limbic storm. Nothing good will happen if we proceed from this frame of reference. In order to follow the Hippocratic Oath of First, do no harm, we need to get ourselves into a place of refuge before we can do some good.
When we see someone drowning in the sea of an emotional storm, we may be inclined to jump in and help draw the lost sheep into a place of safety. At times, it is the faithful response. When doing so, it is vitally important to practice the first rule of life-saving: keep your distance from the one drowning, using a buoy between you and the drowning person. Never let a thrashing person grab a hold of you because they will take you down with them. Two dead people honors no one.
The use of open and honest questions  can be a buoy of sorts, helping move a person from their limbic brain into their frontal cortex. If successful in getting out of the churning waters, both parties can rest in the shelter of the Light, make a cup of hot tea, and attempt a win-win conversation. In order to have an honest conversation that leaves neither bruised and battered, both parties need to be willing to see from the other person’s perspective. Being willing to be convinced of the opposite is a third ground rule to discernment.
Then there is the scenario where the other person is unwilling or unable to coming in from the storm just yet. One of my dictums about the Oregon coast is: There is never a bad day at the beach… as long as you have shelter. Though it is not fun to watch someone stuck in an emotional shit storm, it is much better to do so from a place of safety. You can always keep the front porch light on and the kettle hot should they decide to turn toward the Light. Only when we are both in a place of openness in the Light can we humbly discern the heart of God.
1 Luke 15:3-7 and Luke 15:11-32
2 Isaiah 4:6
3 See Come Let Us Reason Together handout at https://www.idmin.org/essays
Catherine “Katie” Skurja is the founder and director of Imago Dei Ministries. Deeply rooted in and dedicated to Trinitarian principles, the ministry’s purpose is to help people everywhere engage in a Christ-centered healing process that transforms relationships with God, self, and others. Her greatest passion is to accompany people in the journey of discovering who they are in their Imago Dei (image of God). With training as a counselor, spiritual director, and in the work of inner healing prayer, Katie combines the three disciplines to help guide people through the layers of false self and shame in order to bring about the integration of the whole person. Katie and Jim have been married for 33 years and have two grown sons as well as a few “adopted” daughters with whom they share life. She loves to garden, hike, walk on the beach, cook, and read. For more information on her work, check out https://www.idmin.org/