What does it mean to truly live the abundant life that Jesus described? And why are so many Christians not experiencing it? Ken Baugh is a longtime pastor and writer who offers a roadmap for spiritual growth in this interview and in his latest book: Unhindered Abundance. The book is rooted in Scripture, but also brings in recent scientific findings about the body, the brain, and relationships.

About our Guest

Ken Baugh is the founder & CEO of IDT Ministries. He served as a local church pastor for 25 years and in 2014, after a devastating experience as a senior Pastor, started the Institute for Discipleship Training (IDT Ministries) to be a resource for Christ-formation and to gather a community of believers who desire to journey together in discipleship to Jesus.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics. Today, we're here with a guest who is very familiar with Biola from his under grad, to his graduate work, to his family. He is truly a former and present Biola and has written an excellent new book called Unhindered Abundance. Ken Baugh has been a pastor and this new book came out. You might call it just like a spiritual life 101. And especially with what our culture's going through right now with some of the issues related to COVID. It's just a refreshing read to help get us on track with spiritual ideas and our spiritual life. So if you've ever felt like you were in a rut, this is an interview and a book for you. Ken, we really appreciate you coming on.

Ken Baugh: Thanks, you guys. Really great being with you.

Sean McDowell: If you don't mind, can we start by sharing some of the personal experiences that motivated you to write this book? And I asked because you share some very personal stories here that frame it.

Ken Baugh: Yeah. Yeah. And this book is kind of a culmination of 30 years of ministry. And so there's really two things in this regard to personally, first of all, as a pastor, I'm very familiar with how stuck people can be in their spiritual life. For example, you've got a guy who loves Jesus and his wife, but is addicted to pornography. And most of the time, this addiction is identified to a lust problem. And the guy is encouraged to get into the word, find an accountability partner. And while both of those tactics are good, they usually don't address the problem. The reality is the porn addiction is not the problem. It's a problem for sure, but the problem is a deep seated issue in the heart. And as a pastor and a former prodigal myself, I'm deeply committed to helping people identify the root issues that are in their life.

So then fast forward to 2014, and I had a really difficult experience. I was a senior pastor at a church in Southern California, a large church. And after 10 and a half years, the elders decided that I didn't have the leadership skills to take the church to the next level. And we went through a, what I would consider a very quick process that ultimately ended my termination. And so that was exceedingly painful and really put me in a place where I really had to do a deeper dive in my own heart. And it just so happens that all that coincided with me being about halfway through my dissertation. So I think I got to be kind of in the incubator, if you will. You could say, I am a client also so.

Scott Rae: Ken, I've found your book to have just loads of really insightful stuff about our spiritual lives. And I so appreciate you addressing men and women who feel stuck in their spiritual life and don't really know what to do about it. And aren't getting a lot of help from their churches in that. You used the term unhindered abundance as the title of your book. Can you tell us a little bit more about what do you mean by that and what are you getting at with that?

Ken Baugh: It's really based on Jesus words in John 10:10, that he came to give life abundantly. And the word that Jesus uses here refers to a quality of life, one characterized by love and joy, peace, and hope, those types of things, rather than the stuff of life. It's a quality of life. I think it's really the picture in my mind, it's a picture of these fat contented sheep laying on a hill in the sun, having just satiated themselves on all this lush grass, not a care in the world because the good shepherd is watching over them. It's just this place of Shalom, this place of tranquility, of peace, of calm.

And my experience both in my own life to be honest, as well as just knowing lots of people over the years, is that most Christians don't experience this. I think they recognize there's an abundant life, but I think most think that it's just something that they're going to have to wait for until they get to heaven. And while I don't think we're going to experience the fullness that is available to us all, I do think there's more for us to experience in Christ in this life than maybe we ever thought before.

Sean McDowell: We're going to get into what it's like to experience some things you're discussing, but you had a line in the book that kind of gave me pause. I stopped and I really thought about it, where you described what you believe is the greatest barrier to spiritual growth of Christians living in North America. Can you describe what you think that barrier is and why?

Ken Baugh: Well, I think, yeah, Sean, I think there's a lot of things that we could say, but really the greatest one, I think it is unresolved emotional pain. It's just not something in the evangelical church we have really a theology for. I think it's the missing ingredient in our understanding of discipleship. I mean, the reality is all of us are broken by sin, whether it's sin that we've committed, whether it's sin that's been committed against us and that creates pain and pain needs to be processed. It can't just be glossed over. And a lot of people, they'll pull Paul's words out of Philippians three and just talk about, I forget what's behind me and I just move on. I just run towards the goal. And I don't think that's what Paul's talking about there. I think this idea that the pain from the past has no bearing in the quality of life we're experiencing in the present that just doesn't bear out in science. It doesn't bear out even scripturally.

Scott Rae: So Ken, let's be a little more specific if we can. I think this is really helpful stuff. And I suspect that there are a lot of believers who are stuck, who don't recognize it and don't deal with it until it becomes just way too painful not to. I think we'd all prefer that people get to a place of dealing with that before it hits that point. But what in your own life is your unresolved emotional pain that was a barrier to your own spiritual growth?

Ken Baugh: Well, and that was a surprise to me because I thought I really had worked through a lot of that and then come to find it out in 2014, it was like a beach ball underwater. It just kind of came exploding to the surface. So my parents divorced when I was five years old and although they didn't intend me any harm, of course, just the collateral damage of all of that created all kinds of problems with struggling with abandonment, with fear, rejection, shame. It was just kind of this combination of lethal emotions that really followed me and were reinforced through peers, through relationships, through life situations over the years, that just kind of really created this very robust root structure, if you will that fed the rest of my life with real pain, anxiety, depression, fear. And I could manage it at times, but then there were other times, especially under stress or exhaustion, just from the rigors of ministry that it would get the best of me.

Sean McDowell: And I'm curious, you talk about how a lot of Americans do not experience this abundant life. What's at the heart of why so many people don't? Is it lies that we believe from Satan, which you spent some time talking to the book, is it that we distract ourselves? What's at the root of preventing more Christians and even beyond the American context of really experiencing this abundant life that you're talking about?

Ken Baugh: I really think we need to normalize this, Sean. I think we need to talk about it. We need to not just throw glim cliches and tried answers at it. I just, I really don't think we have a real understanding of the heart. I don't think we have a good theology of how we integrate how God created us as human beings and what he wants for us in this new life that we have in Christ. So some of it I think, is education. Some of it is those that are in positions of leadership and influence modeling that, being vulnerable, being real, sharing what God is doing in their lives. It's easy as a pastor to preach about things that you struggled with 20 years ago. But what about some of the things you're struggling with now? And I know it's not always the right place to do that, right? We have to be wise and discerning about that. But I think trying to prop ourselves up and put this mask on of I've got it all together is dangerous, both for ourselves, as well as the congregation.

Scott Rae: Ken, you've got some fascinating material in here about the contribution of the sciences, particularly the neurosciences to our understanding of spirituality. Tell us a little bit about how you flesh that out, the relationship between how we think and what's actually going on in our brain. You bring out the concept of the brain has a plasticity to it that can actually be reshaped and rewired by the way we think. Help spell that out for us a bit. How do the neurosciences help us understand our spiritual growth?

Ken Baugh: Well, as recent as 20 years ago, most neuroscientists believe that the brain was pretty much set after about I don't know, first couple developmental cycles. And what we've discovered, what they've discovered. I'm not a neuroscientist, but what they've discovered is that the brain continues to grow really throughout life. Now it's not as quick as we get older because it's full of a lot of other stuff, but you've got a 100 billion interconnected neurons in the human brain that has the capacity to remember everything that's ever happened to you even going back some would say, even in the womb. So we have a pretty big hard drive between our ears. And the reality is all of that stuff that's there creates a narrative that over time becomes a thought process that can really become a problem for us.

And so there's two dynamics specifically that I talk about in the book one's called Hebb's law and one's called the quantum Zeno effect. And Hebb was a Canadian psychologist. And he basically came up with the theory that the more you think about something over, and over, and over again, those neurons that are working together, that are firing together, if you will create a strong network. So that over time, that thought process becomes your default. The quantum Zeno effect is kind of like the super glue. So some refer to that as attention density, but basically the more you think about something, you're just kind of holding that thought in place. Hebb's theory kicks in and now neurons that fire together wire together. So in simple English, the more we think a thought over, and over, and over again, just like a habit, the more we do something over, and over, and over again, it becomes a default for us. It's not necessarily based on truth. It's not based on reality. It's based on the narrative that we've got planned out in our own head.

Sean McDowell: Though Ken is a part of the solution to this what we see Romans 12, where Paul says, don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind. It sounds like this problem you've identified with the way the brain works, the solution would be to replace these bad ideas with biblical ideas. How does that process actually work in practice?

Ken Baugh: Well, there's a lot of ways we can work that out, but yeah, you're spot on in regard to the renewing transforming process that takes place, is that we're essentially taking those destructive narratives, distortions, if you will captive comparing those to the truth of God's word, and then we have a choice. Are we going to believe the lies, or are we going to believe the truth? One of the ways that I've practically worked on this in my own life is through scripture memorization, meditating on scripture, getting time alone with God. Those are three very specific exercises, if you will, practices that really give the holy spirit the room to do that transforming work.

We can't grow ourselves, but we can create an environment where that growth will take place. I liken it to the illustration of a farmer. A farmer can't grow a crop, but he can till the soil, plant the seed, water the seed, fertilize the seed. Right. He can create the environment. And then in that environment, the seed grows. So the holy spirit is the primary agent of change. He is the one that does the heavy lifting in regard to our transformation, but we have a part to play in that. And I think one of the practical ways we do play a part in that is through spiritual disciplines, specifically memorization, meditation, those kind of things.

Scott Rae: So, Ken, let me take you back to your statement that unresolved emotional pain is the greatest barrier to spiritual growth. I think there's a lot to that. And some of the things, some of the spiritual disciplines you've described help us change our way of thinking and can actually rewire our brain in some ways. But I can see the person who has really deep hurt. Say a person who was sexually assaulted or somebody with very, very deep emotional pain, maybe a child who was abandoned at a very young age. Where does the need for sort of really people who deal with these kinds of things professionally, therapists and folks like that fit into your concept of spiritual growth here?

Ken Baugh: I think they really, Scott provide a safe place to be loved and experience love. The context of growth and healing is relationship. It's relationship with God through Christ, it's relationship with each other, especially other believers that can provide us with what I refer to in the book as safe feedback, which is empathy, compassion, love, grace, mercy, kindness. And as we are in that kind of environment, and we are sharing our pain, that other person is bearing that burden with us, right? Paul talks about, weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, bear one another's burdens. And so I think there is a way that we help each other in carrying these burdens and sharing these burdens because that's where we're vulnerable to the enemy. We are vulnerable to spiritual attack when we're alone or when we feel alone.

And that's where we are the most vulnerable I think, and susceptible to his lies and his distortions. And shame itself may be the most robust weapon in Satan's arsenal, but shame is cultivated and grows in secrecy. And so all of that aloneness that we tend to find ourselves in either because we're embarrassed to share with others, what's happened to us, because we don't have a safe place to go, because of pride or whatever. All of those things hinder that process. But I really think a lot of the healing comes from being with other people who A, want to be with us, because there's a right brain dynamic that takes place when we're with others who are glad to be with us, but it's also a way of helping to carry our pain that we can't carry alone. Whenever we feel alone and overwhelmed, it creates trauma. And so we really need each other.

Sean McDowell: This truth seemed to come out really clearly during the COVID pandemic, being alone, we're seeing loneliness, and anxiety, and depression increase, especially with students at Biola and high school students I work with, there's this recognition of like, we just need to be with each other face to face. And that you say that science actually reveals this need for love and relationship. Could you talk a little bit about that and how that would apply to living out the Christian faith?

Ken Baugh: Yeah. Sean, there's two things. One, is that everything that gets processed in our brain gets processed first in the right hemisphere, which is where relationship, bonding, attachment, all of those things largely reside. And then moves over to the left hemisphere, which is all the data words, information, that type of thing. So it's really the joy center in the brain. The brain is created by God to look for joy. Joy, relational joy is when we are with people who are delighted to be with us. And that turns these circuits on, if you will, in our brains that then give us a increased joy capacity that makes us resilient to life's pain, suffering, and hardships. So it's really that relational connection that is part of the process.

The other thing, and I think COVID has really exposed what's already there is we do Scott, I think you mentioned a few minutes ago, it's really easy for us to stay distracted. We can stay distracted through work. We can try to numb the pain through addictions, drugs, alcohol pornography, shopping, what have you. And COVID has to a large extent, put us in isolation. And then all of the things that we kind of had a handle on, if you will, from at least a coping strategy has kind of been stripped away. And so now we're having to face what's actually really there without all the distractions.

Sean McDowell: That's really helpful. And that's a natural way to look at this. That makes sense. I've got one more question for you. One of my favorite parts of your book was the story that you shared reconciliation with the board and just humbling yourself and restoring that. I think it's a powerful way of how all these principles we're talking about can really play out. So would you mind just kind of sharing that story a little bit with us and what you learned from it?

Ken Baugh: Yeah. That was one of the great experiences of my life, honestly, because I think it was an opportunity for us as spiritual leaders to together get something right. Meaning that we publicly apologized, we owned our stuff. We took communion together. We cried together. We loved on each other. It was a beautiful moment. And the people that were there, I would say it was very moving for all of us. I just, I went into, well after I was terminated, I just felt betrayed. I was angry. I felt like I had been victimized really, that I had just kind of been the victim of the worst of the worst in regard to behind the scenes dynamics of a church. And the first few months afterward, I was a wreck. I couldn't sleep. I was really struggling with anxiety.

I was catastrophizing everything. You talk about having a negative narrative going on in my head. It was just this picture of being homeless and unemployed. Being terminated as a senior pastor does not look good on a resume. And so I just, really was struggling with what I thought was the reality of a very bleak future. And one morning I was on the beach. It was early in the morning. It was still dark out. And I'm sitting there crying out to God, trying to get a bearing on what is going on. And I felt the Lord strongly impress upon my heart. Ken, I want you to begin a reconciliation process with the elders. And I got to tell you guys, I was ticked. I'm like, what? It's like, God, have you not been paying attention here? I'm the one that should be apologized to. Somebody else should be initiating this.

This is not my gig here. And the longer I sat there fuming, the more I realized, oh man, he's right. So that took about a half an hour, where I was wrestling with God over that. And I was afraid to actually leave my place there and go home to write the emails. So, because I was afraid that if I did that, I might not do it. And this was one of those times where I'm sure you guys have had a few of these in your life. It's like, I've clearly heard from God to not act on this is going to be a, not a good thing. And so I sat there and I texted each of the elders, they're seven elders. I tell texted each of them, a very simple text. And I said something like, I'd like to ask you if you'd meet with me for coffee so that I can own my stuff, my part of this process. I said, that's my only agenda.

I'm not looking to blame anybody. I'm not looking to attack you. I'm not looking to defend my position. I just want to own my stuff. And I really felt guys, I have preached for years about forgiveness, about God's desire for unity in the body of Christ. For us to truly be brothers and sisters as the family of God and work hard stuff out. And it really gave me the opportunity to kind of say, look, Ken are you going to put your money where your mouth is here? All these years of preaching, are you really going to step up and put into practice those things that you have encouraged so many people to do over the years?

So it was kind of a come to Jesus time for me in a lot of ways. And then God, just... So I ended up meeting with each of those elders. Every one of those conversations went better than I expected. They then invited me into a couple meetings with all of them together, which I had some representation with me because I was still a little nervous about getting into a group with these guys. And we really came to a place where they invited me to come back on a Sunday morning and we had a reconciliation service. It was probably one of the sweetest two hours I've ever experienced in the local church.

Sean McDowell: That is beautiful. I loved hearing that. When you read that story, I just paused and I was like, oh my goodness. It just, I want our audience to know that this honesty that you're bringing to this. And I think really just this humility is reflected in the book. So for anybody listening this, if you felt like you've just been spiritually in a rut, you want to grow or you're not in a rut and you say, you know what? I just want to understand what scripture says, understand the science a little bit more deeply and see how to start practicing out the things that we preach and believe in scripture, then Unhindered Abundance is an excellent resource. We want to commend it to you. Ken Baugh, thanks so much for coming on the show and for joining us.

Ken Baugh: Great. Thanks guys. Really great being with you. I appreciate it.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online master of divinity visit Biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, Think Biblically about everything.