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Trying to Leave a Cult, by Michael Bischoff


I am an earnest man. Sometimes it is embarrassing.

A year ago I called all my friends together and gave a formal presentation to confess that I was in a cult, and to ask for my friends help in getting out of the cult. I told them that I had been in the cult of self-development.

I had been talking with my kids recently about what is unique about each of us. My 8-year-old daughter said, “one thing that is unique about you, Daddy, is that you like to try to improve people’s personalities.” It was ouchy when my daughter pointed this out, but she was right.

I love self-development. I’m a part of men’s group, and we do long personal check-ins and provide support and challenge to keep growing. I love talking about personality types, like the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs. I especially like to try to guess and analyze someone else’s personality type, which I know you aren’t supposed to do. I like to list my shadows and talk about them. I’m a part of many groups that really value talking about how we’re feeling and the dynamics between us. Even though I love it, sometimes seems to me that I’m in a cult of self-development that is hard to get out of. I think that I, and sometimes we, prioritize personal growth and development above everything else, make it an idol. Like a religion, focused on things that make us better, happier, and kinder people. We can use many things for this goal–emotional intelligence, therapy, small groups, personal boundaries, spiritual practices, journaling, mindfulness, yoga, etc.

In my presentation a year ago, I asked for help from my friends and from God in moving beyond this cult in three ways, by surrendering to the source of life, surrendering to community, and surrendering to being used in social transformation.


Now, a year after my public confession, I haven’t fully left the cult. I’m more aware of my temptations in that direction and I feel more moments of freedom and grace, but I still take many compulsive drinks at the bar of self-development. But in the past few months, I’ve found unexpected help in my long-term exit from the cult—Lutherans. I’m a Quaker who has developed a sudden infatuation with 60,000 Lutherans. It is a little unsettling.

Janet, your regular author and host here at this blog, is a dear friend and inspiration for me. She’s invited me to submit a blog post here once a month for the next six months. Next month, I’ll tell you some of the story about my romance with the Lutherans and update you on my journey out of the cult.


What role does self-development have in your spiritual path?

What is more important than that to you?



I’m a 40-something man who is ga-ga about his 2 kids and wife. I also feel warmly about bikes, mountains, and Jesus. I do consulting work with religious and secular organizations, walking with them as they look for where there is the most life and vitality in their work. My occasional blog posts are at:







Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5: 3-11


I share four versions of each beatitude: New Revised Standard Version, The Message, one of several choices from an Aramaic translation, and Christine Paintner’s reflection from her book, The Artist’s Rule. The reason for this is that the Beatitudes are frequently hard to understand or to translate to our own lives. I hope that this opportunity to experience them from different viewpoints will open them for you and take you to a new place within yourself. I hope this inspires you to write your own beatitude or to sing it or to pray it. Blessed are you who receive this love.


 Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Verse 3:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (NRSV)


You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is the more of God and his rule. (The Message)


Tuned into the Source are those who live by breathing Unity; their ”I can!” is included in God’s. (Aramaic)


Paintner’s reflection: She says the Beatitudes are not about our big radiant self, but about the tender, quiet self, or the self who has been shut out for some reason. Now we can invite the wisdom of the quiet self.

“To be poor in spirit is to surrender yourself to something much bigger and vaster than you own ego. This poverty allows you to recognize your experience of exile in the world. God is present as the one who stirs in the depths of our hearts, not in the dominant ways we usually think out in the world. The experience of poverty and brokenness often acquaints us more deeply with the gift of simplicity as we discover what is most important. Where in your heart do you experience this call to simplicity, to finding that place where you and God meet? Notice what stirs in response, and be present to this experience. “


Reflections on this post.

Where does this beatitude resonate in you?

Which version speaks to you and why?

Where are you poor in spirit right now?

Where in your heart do you experience the call to simplicity that Paintner describes?

Many of us wonder how and why God does what God does! And we question God’s role in our lives. Here is a short video that Tamie Koehler and I did showing how we experience God working in our lives, calling us ever closer and sometimes with humor.


Reflections on this video

How do you experience God in your life?
What is your image of God?

How does God meddle in kind ways in your life?

What would you like from God now?



The Richness of Not Wanting

“Oh, there’s that dreadful word again,” I said to myself. My spiritual director had just suggested to me that I might not be capable of getting myself up at 5:00 for an hour of prayer before getting ready for my usual 7:30 breakfast meeting for my business. She said that God would have to do that for me and that this was part of the process of surrendering to God. There was that word—surrender. I dreaded it. It felt like relinquishing my rights, my will, my choices. That conversation was quite awhile ago and, as result of those morning prayers, my spiritual journey has been one of steady descent ever since!

I’ve had to move steadily downhill from control, self-centeredness, ego, self-deception, success, security, busyness and fear. All because of that central compelling call from God to surrender. It is hard work and very counter to our culture, even much of our religious culture. And it’s easy to think that the downhill journey is all downhill, with little to be joyful about. I used to believe that.

I knew little of the other side of surrender, which is freedom, inner freedom. Freedom opens doors to the eternal. Surrender transforms us, it opens us, it heals us, it relieves us of our self-imposed burdens so we are cleaned out and free to be filled with God, in order to be our best selves. I doubt if surrender will become a subject of popular workshops or book titles though, because if most people are like me, they are afraid of what it will cost, how hard it will be and what they will be asked to give up.

There is a simple poem, written by a 15th Century Indian mystic named Kabir, that captures the essence of surrender in a compelling way for me.

Where the Shopkeeper Would Say

I was

Looking for that shop

Where the shopkeeper would say,

“There is nothing of value in here.”

I found it and did

Not leave

The richness of not wanting

Wrote these


The phrase that is most compelling for me is “the richness of not wanting.” Other ways to say this might be: let go and let God, not clinging, releasing, letting go. The word in that phrase that embraces me is the word, richness. How can there be richness in not wanting?

Freedom again. When I have to have…a house, a mate, cars, a certain job, health, money, fame, status, success, travel, clothes, attention from children, recognition, approval, the need to be needed, addictions, control, beauty, a body type etc, I am controlled by these desires, these longings. And I am not free to receive what I truly need instead.

Our culture pushes me to take the road to more—abundance, wider territory, more money, bigger job, multiple toys, having what I want right now. There are books that train our minds to deliver us whatever we dream of. I know best. I get what I want. The guarantee is that I will then be happy. Usually this regimen leaves me blind to what I actually need.

Moving into the richness of not wanting is a long, slow and incredibly satisfying experience. But it involves loss and letting go, releasing our wants in favor or our needs. It probably should not be done without guidance lest we lose track of the meaning in the process. But one thing I know; the journey is worth it and God is in the middle of it.

I would describe my spiritual journey as a slow downward spiral to the heart of God. This journey has brought me through several painful leadership experiences in which I learned to lead from behind rather than from the front. This journey brought me to the cusp of despair as a result of severely impaired relationships. It has transformed my work from traveling and key-note speaking to simpler yet deeper interactions with people. It has allowed me to downsize my living space and release many of my possessions. It has increased the richness and diversity of my friendships. It has deepened my spiritual life and increased my intimacy with God significantly.

So now whenever I crave something I do not need, I ask the simple question “why do I want this?” Usually if I go deeply enough and see what is beneath that desire, it is about security or filling an empty space within. When I can release these cravings I am free. I laugh more. I cry more too. I feel a deeper connection with the beauty around me. And I know joy.

Is this journey for everyone? No. One good church leader said to me, when I was describing the sacrificial life, “Why would anyone want this life?” I agreed. Why would anyone want this life, the richness of not wanting.

Good question. Ask God about it.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved

Reflections on this essay

What does surrender mean to you spiritually?

What have you surrendered that has felt life-giving for you?

When have you gotten something you wanted and found out it didn’t satisfy you?

How do you experience the richness of not wanting?

How do you experience the freedom of less…?

Surrendering to God

I feel God calling me to a deeper fuller kind of love—like an intimacy of the soul. Yet when I came upon Psalm seventy seven in a much beloved version of the Psalms, my old fears were triggered. Here are the closing sentences of that Psalm.

“When our fears sense you, O Beloved,

when our doubts encounter your love,

they are afraid and tremble.

Our eyes pour forth oceans of tears;

our countenance grows cloudy;

we hide behind walls of resistance.

The power of your love seems too much for us;

your light unveils the secrets hidden in our hearts;

can you wonder that we tremble?

Yet, you stand beside us as we walk through our fears,

the path to wholeness and love, though our footsteps are unsure.

You send a Counselor as a guide to lead us on the paths of peace, truth, and love.”

Then I wrote the following in my journal in response to this Psalm. It reads like a lament Psalm, a Psalm that pours out my heart before God.

“You’ve given me so much love and light, yet I still have so much fear and doubt. Always more fear and doubt. Your glory, your love, frighten me. I am not worthy of so much grace, so much care, so much compassion. My fears rule me day and night. I beg for your mercy. I feel you longing for me, and it scares me. I feel you waiting for me to surrender and it paralyzes me. I beg you to send the Counselor, your Spirit, to walk with me, to calm me, to deepen me, to take my hand and then lift me, and carry me over this threshold of fear. I am willing, as I was a decade ago, to take a new path, if you but tell me which one or take me on it. My whole being longs for you, like a deer longs for flowing streams, yet my fear engulfs me. Take me to a new place of love.”

A spiritual coincidence happened during this process. At a Eucharist service I received an amazing blessing: a personal prayer from the leader that God would grant me love greater than I can imagine. So I am asking God to show me that love, to let me melt and rest in that love. I beg, “Take me into your soul, my final and forever place of rest, restoration and reconciliation…take me to the next place of love, and grant me your radical calm. Grant me a whole life of love arising from a deep place of surrender to you. Take me anywhere your heart desires and carry me so I don’t offer so much resistance.”

And God’s response to me…”Janet, you are mine now. The healing of your wounds is complete. A decade of growth and deepening, preparing you to be exactly who I’ve called you to be. The Counselor is here with you. I am carrying you. You need do nothing. You need not work on this. All is prepared. All is well. I am enough. It is well with your soul. I am bigger than your fear. I am wiser than your experience. And I want to live through you, to bring my love to the world. I adore you. I grant you radical calm. Trust me and let me grant you the fullness of my love. Be still. Be still.”

After that reassuring response I opened Thomas Merton’s book to a passage about his own fear of growing close to God. He has the same issue I do.

“Lord, I have not lived like a contemplative. The first essential is missing. I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself–and that I am still afraid of You. Take my life into Your hands, at last and do whatever You want with it. I give myself to Your love and mean to keep on giving myself to Your love–rejecting neither the hard things nor the pleasant things You have arranged for me. It is enough for me that You have glory. Everything You have planned is good. It is all love.”

Surrender is incredibly hard. It means that we are not in control any more. We do not get what we want; we are drenched in that which we need. God’s love is fuller when we surrender because we are more dependent on it. God is faithful and supplies miracles of healing and deep calm, but rarely in ways we imagined or can speak of or write about. So we get no cultural or religious gain from surrender. What we get is a solitary journey, even when accompanied by others.

So why would anyone want to surrender to God and live sacrificially, longing only for more of God? I think one answer is that when we learn to live in love and to ask only for what we need, we have found the path to God’s soul. Ironically what we most need represents our deepest heart’s desire. We find ourselves trusting God as we relinquish our own wants and wills. We have to trust that what we need will heal our hearts and cleanse our souls and free us for God’s work in the world.

For instance, what I want is external security, being taken care of, when what I need is inner security and trust in God’s provision. What I want is total health when what I need is a chronic condition that keeps me from getting busy in order to avoid being alone. What I want is for others to apologize to me when what I need is to forgive myself. The things I need bring me more intimacy with God and greater interior freedom. Yet what I need is so counter to the culture, my will and my ego that I would rarely choose it for myself.

The reward for a surrendered life is a life lived in God’s radical grace and love, without having to find outward security, without having to blame others for my experiences or having to be healthy in order to be happy. In this surrendered place I can feel the fullness of God’s love and have more time to immerse myself in it. This love stretches me far beyond what I could ever imagine, and expands my capacity for joy.

One of the most beloved saints and mystics, Ignatius of Loyola, speaks eloquently of this surrender: “Take Lord, and receive my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will, everything I have and call my own. You gave me all these gifts, and to you I return them. Dispose of them entirely according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is all I ask.”

This is not a prayer to be taken lightly. God may answer it in ways you did not expect. Pray it anyway.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
The version of the Psalms I quoted is Nan Merrill’s Psalms for Praying. Mertons’ quote is from A Book of Hours. The Ignatian quote is available on line in a search engine.

Reflections on this essay
When God comes close to you, how to you respond?

When are you most afraid of God’s love?

What part of your life are you most afraid of surrendering to God? Why?

What have you experienced when you do surrender?

What do you need verses want?

How does it feel to pray the Ignatian prayer of surrender?

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