Best-selling author Donald Miller candidly describes how he learned to break his past cycle of destructive relationships by identifying and dealing with shame and becoming genuine and vulnerable with others. (Part 2 of 2)
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Don Miller: And when you pretend to be perfect, you are surrounded by judges waiting for you to mess up. And I think that’s one of the warnings by God to say, hey be yourself, be, be open, if you’re broken, be broken; let people know who you really are. And the judge[ment], it’s amazing how much the judgment actually decreases when we’re in environments where nobody’s pretending to be anything that they’re not.
John Fuller: Well at some level we all pretend to be perfect. We all exude something that we’re not in order to win the approval of others and to feel better about ourselves and that’s Don Miller. He’s with us again on today's “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.
Jim: Don, welcome back to the program.
Don: Yeah, good to be back!
Jim: I’m really intrigued. Last time we talked about, kind of the masks that we wear and what we learn and how we bring so many things from our childhood into adulthood and we don’t take time to really learn who we are, and we, you talked about concentric circles last time.
Jim: One of them you talked about was shame. I could relate to that; things you do as a child and either a parent, you said, or someone close to you, someone you value, as a child, will sting you in some way. They’ll shame you. You talk very openly in your book about some childhood experiences that shamed you. What was it and what was that scar like for you?
Don: Yeah. Well for me, you know, this Christian counselor, named Bill, kind of encouraged me to go back if I could in my early-on memories and try to remember sometime where I experienced some degree of shame, because he’s convinced that once we experience shame we cover that with a personality and no one really gets to know us and then we’re exhausted because we’re doing this act.
But, for me it was, you know, I couldn’t think of it at first, ‘cause I really had a fun childhood. I mean we grew up really poor, but yeah, in a single family home and there was a lot of pain there, but it was a, you know, mom did great. I mean ,she brought us to this local church and we had a great community, but I couldn’t remember at first, but then I remembered, and it was amazing, Jim, because it’s such a huge thing to have forgotten.
But, I had, you know, a small bladder when I was in elementary school and about probably once a week, I would wet my pants at school. And you can imagine, this is right about the time you’re trying to figure out where you measure up to the people around you and, and here I am I’ve got this, you know, this (Chuckles) this, looking back kind of a humorous disability, but it wasn’t humorous at the time and I remember going out in the hallway. The whole class lined up in the hallway to walk out to the music classroom and I knew I had wet my pants.
And we go into the music classroom. Thankfully it was kind of a cool day so I had my coat on so I could cover kind of myself, so it wasn’t obvious to the other students, but once we got into the class, the heat was on so high that everybody started taking off their coats and I kept mine on and you know, two kids were sitting very close next to me as music class started and I was sweating and so the teacher said, “Why don’t you take off your coat.” And then I was the center of attention and now, and finally I had to take off my coat and the whole class saw that I had wet my pants and everybody started laughing and I literally ran out of the classroom—
Don: --and into a neighboring field and the, the very kind music teacher kind of came after me and knelt down and was comforting. But, you know, by that time, I was 7-years-old, my life is over, right? There’s no recovery from this.
Jim: Right, it’s the end of your life.
Don: Yeah and for me, you know, that was a deep, core feeling of you’re different,; you don’t measure up, you’re not like or as good as these other kids. And one of the things that Bill helped me and the other participants in this little counseling class I was in to understand is this is a universal experience. Almost all of us have had something and it may not be that dramatic—
Don: --it may be much more dramatic, but we’ve all experienced that sort of tinge of shame and we carry it with us and a lot of people still experience well into their adulthood. And the only reason that, that matters, well first of all it’s such a painful thing, I think we should have a lot more compassion for each other.
Don: But that matters because if I’m ashamed of myself, I cover myself, I make up for what I think are my, you know, problems or faults with this sort of charismatic personality or whatever I use. And that keeps me from intimacy. It keeps me from being close to somebody, when really the healing thing would be to show somebody that fault and have them look at you and go, “What? That’s not a big deal at all.”
Don: “You were great!” That’s where the healing takes place, but that’s a really terrifying place to be, because we’ve learned not to show those parts of ourselves and for me, that was a big part of my healing journey. In order to experience intimacy, I had to go there.
Jim: Well, and I’m thinking, you know, I’m trying to interpret that for myself and I hope everyone listening is thinking, “What is that circumstance or circumstances that caused me to feel shame or caused me to cover up and how does that affect me today?”
I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but you know, my dad and my relationship wasn’t too good. He was an alcoholic and he and my mom divorced when I was 5, but I remember him coming to a Little League game. I lived with him for one year before he passed away when I was 11 and I can remember he came to the Little League game drunk and you know, he was slurring his words and I was up to bat and you know, the umpire would call a strike and he’d blurt out, “There’s no strike,” you know, in that drunken slur. And I was so embarrassed and I think I’d never thought about it in that way of that embarrassment being shame. I was thinking it’s his problem, not my problem, but in many ways it was my problem because he was my dad.
Don: Yeah and our counselor, Jim, did this beautiful thing and just said, “Okay, Don, there you are; you’re in the field and you’re hiding and the music teacher comes out. Now I want you to invite somebody else into that scene. That didn’t actually happen, but Jesus walks up; what does He say to you?” And I just, you know, I lost it at that point, because He’s, you know, so compassionate. And so, finds the situation to be so absurd that you would be ashamed of this. And that was such a healing moment for me. It was like going back and sort of rewriting the narrative that was, you know, far back in my subconscious that –
Don: -- all this was coming from. It was just an incredibly healing experience to go back and say, “Okay, well let me invite Jesus into this memory.” And you know, we can all do that.
Don: It’s such a wonderful thing.
Jim: Don, paint the picture because you’ve done it and so you’re speaking experientially, but give us some of those signals that we could identify in our life that you similarly have identified--those things we hide from, the things we don’t share and then, the result of opening up, what God can do with those dark places. You talked about it last time; there’s more lifeguards than sharks in the deep end of the pool. I like that; assure us that if we were to take that step, we’re gonna find that to be true.
Don: Well, you know, I can’t go that far, Jim, because if we’re not a relationship with somebody who’s gracious, there are people, the reality is there are people that if you’re vulnerable and open with them, they will take advantage of you. Those people are rare. In my experience they are very rare. I think most people are much more gracious and thoughtful than we can imagine. Especially kind of in our church communities, where, as much as, hang-ups as we have in our church community, we’re doin’ pretty well. We’re a much more probably gracious community than the, you know, the local bowling league or whatever.
Don: But that would be the first caveat, is we really only want to be vulnerable and open with people who are safe. And the second part is, and I think it’s just baby steps. I think we start by saying, “What is the thing that, if people knew about me, I would be embarrassed?” And then, who do I know who I can trust with that information and then pull them aside and maybe, you know, go out to the campfire in your backyard and say, “Hey, can I tell you something about myself?” That’s gonna be terrifying to you, but if that person is safe, and they probably are if you chose them, you’re gonna be amazed at how free you feel the next day and how much less you have to act.
And then you’ll be amazed, also what was amazing to me is, as I began to let Betsy know who I was, what I was sharing with her were things that I was embarrassed about that were weakness and so I thought she would naturally think I was a more weak person, but what she actually saw was somebody who was strong enough to share something embarrassing and so she actually became more attracted and she respected me more because I thought I was displaying weakness and she saw it as displaying strength.
Jim: How does Betsy continue to provide that for you today? I mean, you’ve been married over a year now, is it still a safe place?
Don: Oh, yeah, she’s, I mean, she is wired to be an unbelievably safe person. I can’t, I can’t believe the difference before marriage and after marriage. And I think a lot of guys can say this where their wives, you know, we think of the guy as rescuing the woman and these sort of roles that are popular in literature and stories, yeah, I don’t know a single guy whose wife didn’t rescue them from a life of lonely bachelorhood, right?
Don: I mean I’m just such a better person because of this gift that God has given me.
Don: And she is unbelievably safe. She’s not manipulative; she’s not deceptive; she’s not dramatic. I can’t believe the, I’ve been given this.
Jim: Don, let me touch on something is a bit tender. Awhile back we did a show on Fifty Shades of Grey. We have a pastoral, an anonymous pastoral call line. We still have it where pastors can call in and talk about areas of weakness, those kinds of things. About a third of those calls, 30 to 40 percent, will be, that they’re in an inappropriate relationship with someone in the church. And again, it’s anonymous so they can just say what is happening. When you look at that, the power of sexuality in relationship, that sin if we want to zero in on that a bit, why is it so broken? Why is our sexuality a gift from God, which was meant for such beauty, in a monogamous marriage relationship; why is it so broken in our culture? Why is it crippling us?
Don: My own theory is I think it’s just a desire to connect and be known and it’s a false way of doing that in many ways and I think when, you know, in my past as I’ve looked over a woman’s shoulder that I’m dating and thought, boy it’d be nice to date that one, right? And that happens in marriages, too. That’s a normal thing, but I think what it is, is it’s an invitation to be more intimate with the one that we’ve been given; this gift that, the relationship that we’ve been given.
So I think when we hide from our spouses and aren’t known, we desire that connection maybe with somebody else. I think that’s part of it and so, I think part of it is an invitation to go back to our spouse and say, “You know, I think we need to go on the next level deeper in this intimacy thing. I think I need to be known by you even more.”
The second part is more theological, Jim, and I think it’s this; I think there’s a desire to connect and be complete that can only be fulfilled by God. And I think we’ve misunderstood a lot of the Scriptures and we think that because we have a relationship with Jesus, we have that fulfillment now. When Paul, almost exclusively, points that to the reconciliation that we have with Him at the wedding feast of the Lamb, that what we, and so what we have in life is a lack of fulfillment and we need to understand that--
Don: --and expect it and don’t expect anything more than that. And in that longing that we have for God we’re given this companion who, I think a lot of people mistake that the companion is supposed to give me this thing that God is supposed to. So, I use the phrase in the book, “We’re trying to squeeze the Jesus out of each other.” (Laughter) And it’s just not going to happen.
Jim: That’s a great line.
Don: And so, what Betsy and I decided before we got married, and there’s an embarrassing scene in the book where I tried to make this my rehearsal dinner toast and it just went really south.
Jim: What happened, I got to hear it.
Don: I just said, “I don’t think Betsy and I are going to fulfill each other.” And I mean, every woman in the room thought, “You’re and idiot. Why is she marrying him?” Right?
Don: And I said, “I think we get fulfilled by God.” But what Betsy and I get to do in our marriage is kind of hold each other and comfort each other and experiencing that longing together, but not mistake that longing for something that she can give to me and then, even more importantly, not mistake that longing for something that, “Well Betsy can’t give it to me so maybe this other woman can give it to me.” And that’s not true either; neither Betsy, or this other woman, can give it to you. It’s going to be given to you by God when you’re reconciled to Him in the future at the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Until then, we get to enjoy the sort of suffering. We get to enjoy the long act two in the story where the hero struggles until the end. That’s where we’re at and that’s a noble role to play and a beautiful role to play. So Betsy and I aren’t fooled by this idea that we’re gonna fulfill each and hopefully we’ll never be fooled by this idea that some other woman is going to fulfill me or some other man is going to fulfill her.
Jim: Well, and I think that realization also takes some of the pressure for perfection off, that you’re not going to complete perfection in this life; you’re always going to have a limp.
Don: Yeah, yeah! And, also, you’re not supposed to. Can you imagine me putting the pressure on Betsy to be Jesus? I mean, that would a be a burden that she couldn’t bear and it would name her and scar her as somebody who just can’t measure up and she would feel like a horrible wife. But when I take that off of her and I go, “No, Betsy’s role in my life is to be my wife, to be fun, to hang out with, to enjoy, to partner with in the family; she kills at that role! Right? She loves it! So now she feels great ‘cause she’s doing great; she looks at me; I’m doing great, but we’re not expecting too much from each other. That’s just not fair.
John: Well, Don Miller is our guest on “Focus on the Family” today and we’re talking about content as captured in his book, Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy. It’s a challenge and I hope that you’re encouraged by what Donald has been sharing. You can find out more about the book and get a CD and download here, at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call us and we can tell you more; it’s 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Don, there’s so much here and I so appreciate your transparency in the sense of biblical perspective that you bring to relationships. Some of us, and I would put myself in this category, I’m a first born so I’m a little risk averse, I don’t like being exposed, so it’s a little bit scary, but that’s really not a healthy way to approach life. Speak to me; I mean, how do I step out of the box with my wife and with others?
Don: Well, we’re all different. My wife is a firstborn and she’s risk averse, too. She thinks I’m crazy. (Laughter) And I like her very much.
Jim: So you’re made for each other, it’s perfect.
Don: I always say I married a filter.
Jim: There you go.
Don: She’ll poke me and say, “Don’t say that.” (Laughter) It’s weird, but she also, you know, she loved the book and the story. I couldn’t believe she let me get away with some of the stories I told, but she just kind of said, “Well, they’re your stories.” You know, “You’ll have to live with them.”
But I don’t think that’s a negative thing, I really don’t. I learned a lot. When I was writing one of my first books I kind of put this paragraph in the beginning of the book that was really vulnerable and I wrote it and I just felt exposed, so I deleted it and I wrote it and I deleted and I wrote it, deleted it. And I heard this interview on National Public Radio, I think, with a folk singer named David Wilcox and the interviewer asked this folk singer, you know, “How are you so vulnerable in your music?” and he said something that I found really fascinating.
He said, you know, “I like to tell people, I like to go to the edge of what I want people to know and then just take them two more steps and to this place where I feel really exposed.” And he said, “What happens then is I’m giving the listener something they can use against me, something they could use to make fun of me, that I would be embarrassed.” And he said, “The reason I do that is actually quite strategic, I do that to earn the listener’s trust. They now have something they can use against me so we’re equal. They feel safe.” And he said, 98 percent of the time they never use it against you and you have this special bond. So I tried that in this first book that I wrote and I went, you know what? I’m writing this paragraph and kind of wrote it with that tone, scared to death to release it, but it went out and I had this incredible relationship with readers that I wouldn’t have had if I would have tried to impress them a little bit.
Don: Now that’s in a book, but I think in real life it’s kind of the same way. I mean, I tend to find people who, you know, nobody wants to go to a party and have somebody air their dirty laundry, right? I mean, that’s not what I’m talking about, being a shock jock or something, but telling people a little something that they can use against you is a way to earn trust if you will. It’s a way to create a bond. It’s a way, and it’s also so comforting when somebody tells me something that is a little disarming. I trust them more.
John: It’s comforting.
Don: I think it’s comforting. You know, nobody likes somebody who’s putting on airs.
Don: And I think we all love it when we meet somebody and we’re intimidated by them and they tell us a little something about their day that makes them human and we just go, “Oh, I like this guy now,” right? So I think it’s counter-intuitive, but at the same time it’s what we’re talking about. It’s the whole theme of what we’ve been talking about the last couple of days is this idea of, it’s okay to let somebody really get to know you. It really it.
The other thing I take comfort in is that, I didn’t make myself. Yeah, I didn’t make myself, God made me, so if I’m ashamed of some part of myself, you know, unless it’s some sin or something, I’m really ashamed of the person God made. You know, I didn’t give myself male pattern baldness—
Don: --I didn’t do that, so God did that. So, am I ashamed of something God made? And I think of … there’s something to be said for healthy self-esteem. Now it can go to arrogance and that’s not what I’m talking about, but there’s something to be said for, I enjoy living in my own skin and I’m good for people. I’m good for my wife. That was a major paradigm shift for me when I woke up one day and realized, “Wait, I’m making Betsy’s life better!” I’m actually good for people. And that made me a much more loving person; not an arrogant person, made me a much more loving and kind person.
Jim: Right, a confident person in your task.
Don: To some degree, yeah! Confident—
Jim: Yeah, but it’s a good thing.
Don: --yeah, that Betsy’s life is better because of me. And there are a lot of women who I dated, you could interview them, and they’d say my life was worse because (Laughter) and so, that only came at the hands of Christian counselor--
John: We won’t ask them to contact us.
Don: --who sat me down.
Jim: You weren’t mature yet.
Don: You should start a counseling line for those people.
Jim: We could put it that way. Hey, Don, I want to ask you about criticism, because I think when you become more vulnerable you’re more prone to people being critical. You certainly have had your share of that in the Christian community, whether that was Blue Like Jazz, or you know, some of your other expressions, your other books, what was happening in your life at that moment. How do you manage that criticism and what advice do you have to the person who is trying to live more vulnerably, who others carve up? I like to call them the cousins of Caiaphas--
Jim: --because they really do; they act like the cousins of Caiaphas--of course the Pharisee that was after Jesus.
Jim: They just have an attitude that I’m better than you--
Jim: --and they don’t ever let you forget it.
Jim: Talk about how you manage that and how you process that kind of criticism.
Don: Yeah, that was shocking to me, when I released my first book and people were critical. Now, 98 percent of people are nice, I’m just convinced of that, but, we only hear the 2 percent, right? And it was very painful and I just thought this is incredible unfair. And, a couple of things changed my perspective and I think, you know, God helped me with this. You know, one was the perfect way to deal with it is to turn the other cheek, but none of us are perfect. We get mad; we get upset and I love that we can block people on Twitter. It’s the greatest too ever, right? (Laughter)
I don’t have to hear those things, right. If I’m annoying you, I don’t ever want you to have to hear from me again. But the other thing that I really looked at was, you know, I was reading some of the essays from Dr. Martin Luther King and I was kind of looking at these leaders and I realized the leaders that I respect the most, the leaders who really changed the world have learned to turn the other cheek and the emphasis there is on the word “learned.”
They did not come out of the womb thick skinned and able to turn the other cheek and able to love their enemy. They had to learn that and so, I think when we’re vulnerable with people and your listeners as they get vulnerable with people, there will be people who occasionally attack you or find out something about you that they can use to wound you and in my opinion what that is, is it’s God giving you a practice session on becoming a great leader. And it’s going to take that 50, a 100, a thousand times before you are really an awesome leader who is able to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.
So I would consider it just batting practice, you know, see if you can hit that pitch and you’re going to hit about 10 percent and you’re going to get mad at 90 percent, but hopefully your batting average goes up and God can employ you more and more in His work; because He needs the people who can turn the other cheek. I mean, look at how He turned the other cheek. It cost Him His life. That’s nothing compared to somebody saying, “Don’s a dope” on Twitter. If I can’t turn the other cheek at that, I don’t have much of a future leading in the kingdom of God; so, for me, it was just practice, practice, practice.
Jim: You know, I’m thinking [of] that interaction between Jesus and Peter.
Jim: I just, it’s interesting to me to think how, because I think sometimes when you read that interaction, this is where “You’re going to deny me three times, Peter, before the sun comes up.” I’m always trying to think how did He say it to him? Was it, you know, harsh?
Don: Or how did Jesus it? (Chuckles)
Jim: How did Jesus say it? Was it just matter of fact, which I think is probably it.
Don: Well He probably –
Jim: And, and then –
Don: --said it very kindly. He probably said it very graciously,--
Jim: Well and then—
Don: --but boldly, right?
Jim: --well then Peter, I mean, I think the power of it, the weight of it was He knows me better than I know myself.
Don: That’s right.
Jim: He knew that I was going to fail.
Don: And also, Peter’s presenting himself as a false hero.
Don: “I would never do that.” And He says, “No, you would do that in a heartbeat.” (Chuckles)
Jim: Yeah! I mean (Chuckles) that’s a crusher.
John and Don: Yeah.
Jim: And then when it happens, you have to go, “Okay, Lord, You were right.” What do you think that’s interaction’s about. What is God saying to us in His kindness to say, “You know what, you’re gonna deny me.”
Don: Well I think there’s two things. One, I think God is always saying, “This is who you really are.” And that is very hard for us to hear.
Jim: And how do we catch that and not miss it?
Don: Well, I think it’s self-awareness. When you really want to talk about the difference between a healthy person and an unhealthy person, I think a big part of the difference is just self-awareness. Can you really admit to yourself, these are my flaws? These are the flaws I bring into relationships; these are the flaws I bring into leadership; these are the flaws I bring into parenting. You know, it’s amazing, I noticed that as Betsy and I got married and I knew that we were going to become parents, I looked around at some of the healthier families that I saw and the common characteristic that I saw amongst the most healthy families, that is parents who’ve raised kids, they’re in their teens and 20s now, who just seem emotionally stable. They’re not perfect, right--
Don: --but they’re emotionally stable. The common characteristic that I saw, especially amongst the dads, because those were my friends, were that they were willing to admit their own faults to their kids.
Don: In other words, they were willing to have conversations like this. They would say to their son, “Hey, you know, I noticed that you’ve got this temper problem. You kind of rage sometimes. I don’t know how to tell you this; I think you got that from me.” (Laughter)
Jim: I’ve done that. I have done that.
Don: “I think you got it from me. Here’s what it’s cost me in my life. I’m afraid it’s gonna cost you this.” Well, first of all, will you accept my apology for handing you that?”
Don: Then also, “Can we have an honest conversation about how maybe we’re gonna deal with that together? And kind of help you mitigate so that you don’t experience some of the losses that I’ve experienced.” Those kinds of honest conversations created healthy families. And if you think about it these are environments where kids are free to be human.
Don: And I also noticed really unhealthy families, I mean unhealthy kids and there’s all sorts of reasons kids are unhealthy. It’s not always parenting or any of that, but almost, to a person where there was a dad who couldn’t admit their faults, they needed to be perfect, especially in a religious community, in order to yield control over everybody, because as soon as they show their faults they can’t lord this self-righteousness over people, I never saw a healthy kid come out of that environment.
And if you think about it, those kids grow up in a family where it’s not okay to be human. You have to hide who you really are, especially from your parents, who are supposed to be your guides; you have to hide yourself from them, ‘cause if you show yourself to them, they’re gonna immediately put a leash on you and a collar and they’re gonna have control over you. And I just never saw a kid come out of that without a lot of struggle.
Don: And to me, there’s just, you know, it goes back, Jim, to that, the power of truth that God honors truth and when we tell the truth to each other about who we really are, to our spouses and to our kids, it’s so counterintuitive, but that creates a fertile soil where good things grow.
Jim: Ah, man, Don, that is a perfect place to end the program. I could just keep talking with you. It’s so enlightening; it’s so much fun, your book, Scary Close, I would say it’s just a great read to better understand yourself, to better understand what motivates you and I would encourage everyone to pick it up. Jean and I, we’re gonna read it and I know it’ll even improve our relationship and our intimacy. Thank you for being with us.
Don: Thank you guys for having me.
John: Well, Donald Miller has been our guest for the past couple of days here on "Focus on the Family" and what reminders he's brought to us about truth and honesty in our relationships. I love what he said at the end there. That creates a fertile soil where good things grow.
And if you'd like to learn more then again, his book is called Scary Close. It's very raw and honest and transformative even and you can find out more and get a CD or a download of this program at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .
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