Three Years Ago Today…

My son’s 5th birthday, three years ago today, was one of the darkest, loneliest days of our lives.  Brody woke up to what should have been a celebration only to see his dad’s bags packed as I waited to be picked up by a friend and taken to another state for at least 7 months.   He, and our one year old daughter (the rest of our kids had already left for school) clung to their mother’s leg as I waved goodbye to them all, not knowing if I would ever see them again.

I left town that day leaving a wake of destruction.  Nearly 2 decades of sexual addiction had gutted me of any real desire to change or hope that I could while systematically destroying my wife’s faith and trust in both God and myself.  I wish I could tell you what state of mind my kids were in but the truth is I was too involved in my own junk to really notice or truly care.  I could tell they were sad and scared and confused but I was not in any condition to address their needs when I was powerless to address my own.

This trip to a place called Pure Life Ministries was a last ditch effort to save my life, or what was left of it, and to hopefully turn me into a productive member of society, if not for anyone else then at least for the benefit of my five kids.  They deserved a dad who could stop looking at pornography long enough to hold a job so that they could have food to eat.  Amy had already filed for divorce, so this trip was not meant to salvage a shipwrecked marriage.  It was to save my life.

That was three years ago today.   Three years ago today I living in an economy hotel, taking a taxi to Little Caesars to work flipping pizzas while contemplating ending my life.   Three years ago today I witnessed my kids cry because their daddy was going away and I didn’t have it within my heart to really care.  Three years ago today my youngest son celebrated his 5th birthday and I was numb to the fact that I would miss his party, just like I had missed most of his life because I was so consumed in my addiction.  Three years ago today I was waiting for my divorce to be finalized and trying to figure out how I would pay child support.  Three years ago today was the darkest time of our lives.

It was also the beginning of a miracle. 

I would have laughed in your face three years ago today had you told me that.  I would have told you that you are out of your mind.   There was no way on earth I could have believed that three years ago today would be the beginning of my sobriety.   No way would I have believed that three years ago today, while experiencing unbearable darkness and despair, would be the genesis of a new life rising up out of ashes.   No way would I have been able to believe that three years ago today God was already at work, long before Brody’s birthday, and that He was not finished with any of us yet.

But that is exactly what happened.

Today I am 3 years sober!   Today I am celebrating all that God has redeemed, restored, and renewed.   Today I am rejoicing over the change God has brought to bear in my life, my heart, my mind.  Today I am celebrating what God has done and continues to do in my marriage, my family and in our home.  Today I am in awe of a God who has mercifully restored me to the work of ministry and called me to pastor a church that I love and they love me and where I get the privilege of now witnessing God changing lives, restoring marriages, setting captives free and faith taking root.

And today I am remembering that there is no darkness so dark that the Light of the World cannot overcome.  Today I am remembering that while there will be troubles and trials and sorrows in this world, there is One who has overcome the world (John 16:33).  Today I am reminding myself that God leads the blind in a way they do not know, turning darkness into light, and makes rough places smooth (Isa. 42:16).  Today I am rejoicing that God truly does work all things into good for those who love him and pursue him (Rom. 8:28).   Today I am thankful that the good work God has started in me, and in you, will be seen to completion (Phil. 1:6).  

God’s not done with any of us yet!  If you are in a dark spot I want to encourage you today.   God isn’t done.   If you are in a place of despair and feel that all is lost, take heart.  God isn’t done.   God is willing and able to resurrect new life where there isn’t any.  He longs to make you new, not just better (2 Cor. 5:17), and the best way and only way that happens is when we are brought to the very end of ourselves.   So if you feel like you are in a tomb today, prepare yourself!  The voice of the one who weeps for you is making it’s way to your ears even now:  Come out!  Come out!  Come out!  Unbind him or her and be set free! (John 11).  

What looks impossible to us is totally possible for God.   What will your 3 years from today look like?   God knows.  And with him by your side, the sky is the limit.  I, and the world,  can’t wait to hear your testimony!

Happy birthday, Brody!

Bookending

This morning a member of an online support group I lead for men seeking sexual integrity reached out to the group for prayer as he was about to be alone for several hours at home.   I commended him for reaching out in such a way (it’s a real sign of a desire to change) and suggested that he call back when he was no longer alone and let us know how he did – whether he remained sober or not.

This technique is called “bookending.”  It’s when you alert an accountability partner that you are entering into a potential situation where you could be tempted and “bookend” your time by promising to call back when the situation resolves to check-in.   Examples might be when your spouse leaving town for a day, so you bookend from the time he or she leaves to the time he or she returns.  Or when you know you will  be driving through a part of town that used to trigger you, you bookend the start and end of the trip with someone.  Or it could be that you are just having a bad day and you know that under stressful situations you are more liable to act out in your addiction, so you bookend the day with a friend.

A simple phone call or text or message to an online group can make the difference between a day that gets the best of you or a day where you go to bed victorious.  I know that for me, when I was desperately trying to get sober, knowing I promised my mentor that I would call once my wife got home and let him know how I did provided just enough added motivation to fight the good fight.

Of course, bookending can work to help control any compulsion or instill any good habit.  Imagine how different your life might be if you had someone to call and bookend those days where you might be alone with donuts, or that you might be traveling to Vegas, or you are trying to get into the habit of working out, or you are trying to develop the discipline of bible study and prayer?  Having a person to call and check in with will pay huge dividends for you as you are trying to develop new, healthy, sober patters of living.

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed (Ecc. 4:9). 

Feeling Tempted? Rejoice! It means you’re alive.

A common theme I hear when counseling men struggling with pornography addiction is that they feel ashamed over being tempted.   The shame sounds something like this,

Yeah, I thought I was doing pretty good, but, yesterday I woke up and I was just plagued with thoughts and couldn’t seem to get away from it.  I thought by now I would be past that…

temptation

But this is nothing of which to be ashamed.   Being tempted does not mean you have failed.  Being tempted does not mean that you are not making strides in your sobriety or towards holiness.   Being tempted does not mean you are far from God.

Rather, being tempted means you are alive.

How do I know this?  Because Jesus, God in flesh, was tempted.  At the beginning of his ministry, just after his mountain top experience of baptism, he was tempted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness.   And at the end of his ministry, just prior to his crucifixion, he was tempted to let the cup of God’s wrath pass from him.  In both cases he chose the will of God over what his flesh wanted.   In both cases he chose to obey God rather than his emotions.

Because Jesus experienced temptation I know that I will, and you will, too.   In fact, the bible tells us to expect it.  Paul writes to Christians in Corinth,

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).

From this we can learn a couple of things.   First, my temptations and your temptations are not unique.  You aren’t the only one going through what you are going through.  You may feel like you are, but countless others have battled the same thing…and won.   Nothing has overtaken you which isn’t common to all mankind.  Second, you can overcome it.  Not on your own, of course, and not by your own power, but you can resist whatever is raging a war within you.   Yes, it will feel like hell.  Yes, it will be the fight of your life.  Yes, it will feel like you are going against every impulse and desire you have.   But you will endure.  God will make sure of it.

When you are tempted, you are being given an opportunity to obey God rather than the enemy who is pursuing your soul so long as you are breathing this side of heaven (1 Peter 5:8).   Your success of failure is not to be found in the temptation itself – we are all tempted – but in your response to it.   And the longer you walk in obedience to God the stronger you will become at warding off not only this present temptation nipping at your heels, but future ones as well.

Some practical helps with tempted:

  • Keep focused on good thoughts.  It’s imperative that you be rooted in God’s word and preach the gospel to yourself at all times.   You must be renewed- and continue being renewed- in your mind (Rom. 12:1-2) or you won’t make it out the gate.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

  • Get a spiritual partner.   Find someone you can confide in and who will hold you accountable.   Rigorous honest with another human being (and with God) is a must.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.(Eccl. 4:9-10)

  • Pray the Mercy Prayer.  When I was tempted and battling a war in my head I prayed this prayer sometimes a thousand times a day.  I went to bed exhausted from the battle, but victorious.  This prayer will change your heart if you take it seriously.   Learn more about it HERE.

God wants us to become like His Son, Jesus Christ.   That means you and I will experience all that Jesus experienced, which includes temptation.   But you need not be a victim. With Christ, you can be more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37).

Denial – That a power greater than myself can love me.

Recovery at Cokesbury is the parent site of the recovery ministry we are launching here in Dayton, TN.   They do an awesome job of introducing people to the transformative power of the gospel.   Last night I got to do the weekly teaching as part of a series called “Molehills.”  This one is about DENIAL and the power of Jesus Christ to make us new, not just better.   I pray this blesses you and gives you hope for a new future.  The music at the beginning and throughout rocks, but if you just want the message it begins at 32:30.

Recovery @ Cokesbury 9-25-14 from Cokesbury UMC on Vimeo.

My wife shared a testimony today that never should have been

This morning my wife shared her testimony to a group of 60 or so women.   It’s not the first time she has been invited to do something like this but it never ceases to amaze me that she is doing this.  I’m blown away once more by the amazing ability of God to do miracles in people’s lives.

You see, what happened today shouldn’t be happening.   At this time 3 years ago I was a bum living in an economy hotel taking a taxi to work at Little Caesars while Amy was high on anti-depressant/anxiety drugs and knocked out on sleeping pills.  I was eating cold pizza every night for dinner, alone and glued to my laptop in my “Free Wi-Fi” hotel room while Amy was contemplating suicide and struggling to stay awake long enough to drive our 5 kids to school each morning.   The divorce was to be finalized in 3 months and I was wondering how I was going to come up with $2000 a month to pay in child support and alimony.   Nothing was good. All was hopeless.   We were both dead inside – towards God, each other, and a future with any significance.

Guys and gals, if you think porn is a harmless habit, something private which won’t hurt anyone, you are a fool.  Like I was.   Stop being a fool.  Please.

So as you can see, it’s an absolute miracle that today, 3 years later, my wife would be able to stand before a group of women and proclaim the power of Jesus Christ to break through even the hardest and miserable of hearts and resurrect not just a marriage but the faith of two very lost souls.

I wanted to write this today because I wanted to give praise to God for what He has done in my life, my wife’s life, my kids’ life, our ministry, and more.  I am so proud of her and the woman she is, and the woman she is becoming by God’s grace.

I also wanted to write this to encourage anyone reading who is in the pit today.   Whether you are the addict or the one living with one, we know the hell you experience every waking moment.    I know what it’s like to think there is no possible way life could exist apart from lustful thoughts and compulsions, and Amy knows what it’s like to feel utterly alone and abandoned by God and to fight constantly the battle of wanting to leave but not knowing how or to where.

So how can I encourage you?   By shouting this one simple, yet world-altering truth as loud as I can and for as long as I can:

GOD HAS THE POWER TO MAKE YOU NEW!!

It’s true!  God doesn’t want to “fix” you, He wants to do a complete overhaul on your life!   Yes, the foolish you, the deluded you, the drunk-on-porn you, the high-on-drugs you, the suicidal-thinking you, the depressed you, the cheating you, the lying you, the struggling-just-to-stay-alive-one-more-hour you, cannot imagine any other life because the life God can and will impart to you will require the current you to DIE!    The moment you realize and believe that God doesn’t desire to make the you you currently are better but to make a brand new creation out of chaos and brokenness is the moment you are on your way towards sanity.  Towards a new life. Towards a testimony which God is going to design in ways you can’t imagine right now but will one day bring Him glory and honor and praise.   Why?  Because this is what God does.   The same God who spoke a universe into existence is the same God ready to create a new you.

So cry out.  Cry out to a Father who loves and cares for you so much that He died for you while you were still in this mess, snubbing Him at every turn.  He loves you that much!    He didn’t bleed for you so that you can live in bondage to sin and shame.   Cry out.  Be willing to die.  Be willing to allow God to create you all over again.

God is looking for people to showcase His amazing ability to do the impossible.   Like my wife, who shared a testimony today which goes against all the odds.    Thanks be to God that our Father in Heaven is a odd-beating God.

And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know,
in paths that they have not known I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them (Isaiah 42:16).

testify

So you’ve decided to get clean…here’s what you should expect

The last few days I have gotten to be with some men who are at the beginning of their journey out of the insanity that is pornography addiction.  Each of them wanted to know what to expect once they make this decision to leave it all behind, and after telling them, they each expressed both surprise and gratitude.   Surprise because they never heard this before and gratitude because they felt better prepared for the journey.   So here I want to share what I shared with them.  Take what helps, and leave the rest.  

  • Get ready for war.   The first 30 days in particular, but most likely the next 90, are going to be the hardest of your life.  You should expect this.   The severity and the length of time where it is really hard depends a lot on the depths of your entrenchment.   There will be days where you will feel like you are going to explode, where your flesh is just going absolutely crazy and if you don’t scratch this itch you will die.   This is the point.  You need to die.   Death is painful.   Expect it, and embrace it.   
  • When you feel the above you are now in the fight. There will be nights where you go to bed exhausted because you’ve fought the entire day, praying like you’ve never prayed before.   You’ll go to bed exhausted from the battle, but victorious.   Just like when you go to the gym for the first time and walk away sore all over, you will feel the same as you enter the spiritual battle of your life.   You are learning to use spiritual muscles which have long been atrophied.   Let’s face it, you haven’t really been fighting this sin in the past.   You’ve been giving over for far too long and your faith-muscles are like limp rags.   This is your Rocky moment.   Put your big boy pants on, get up and go to the gym, even when it hurts.  

Rocky-Balboa All Bruised

  • If you fall, you are not starting over.   So you experienced a few weeks or months of victory and slip up?   It’s not the end of the world, and you are not starting over from scratch.   You’ve been given a great gift in having tasted some freedom, something you may have never known before.  You began to see some glimmer of hope, and the cobwebs which have long been deluding your thinking and hindering intimacy in your relationships began to dissipate.  Give thanks to God!  Get back on the saddle and learn from your victories and your mistakes.   You are not starting over because you now know more about yourself and what to do in those moments when you feel triggered so that next time you are better prepared to fight.   God isn’t through with you, and even in our weakness He is teaching us something we have yet to learn so that we can be made ready to walk in the Promised Land of purity He has prepared for us.  You are only starting over if you don’t learn from this!  
  • Hang in there because it gets better!   The intensity of the battle you feel in those first 30-90 days will begin to subside the longer you walk in the light.   Your spiritual muscles will get stronger and you will find yourself winning more than losing.   Your mind will be transformed as God promised (Rom. 12:1-2) and you will find yourself experiencing a new joy and freedom you never thought possible.   A day will come where you’ll remember with a jolt that it’s been days, even weeks or months, since you’ve thought of indulging in something so pointless and reckless as pornography.  You will be overflowing with thanksgiving, and far too busy working on other things in your life – fruitful things – to give much thought to whether or not this is the day it all blows up on you.   Why?  Because you are a new creation! (2 Cor. 5:17).

You are in a fight. Expect to get beat up.  But you are a warrior, and more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37).   And trust me, it’s worth every bruise your flesh is about to take.  Freedom is sweet, and worth dying for!  

For more on this, read:  Are you REALLY “Struggling” against Habitual Sin? 

 

I’ll do anything…but that

It’s possible to tell if someone is truly serious about kicking their sexual sin habit (or any habit) within the first few minutes of conversation.   You can tell by what they are willing to give up.   If they are willing to give up anything and everything, then you have an ideal candidate for real change.   But if they give the Meatloaf answer-

i-would-do-anything-for-love-but-i-won-t-do-that

then chances are not so good, at least not yet.  

The difference between the person walking in the light and the person still ducking in and out of shadows is all too often their degree of willingness to do whatever it takes to be transformed.   

Jesus said that if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  For it’s better to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Matt. 5:29).    To put it another way, if you want to be free of the sin that weighs you down (Hebrews 12:1-2), you will need to radically reorient your life.   It may mean a new job. It might mean a moving to a new town.  It might mean cutting out TV. It might mean unplugging from the internet – forever.   It might mean dropping your friends.  It might mean burning your CD collection.  It might mean any number of things, all of which will be absolutely necessary for you to be set free.   That thing you are thinking about right now that you can’t imagine going without or can’t imagine doing is probably the very thing God will require of you.    

For the rich young ruler it was his wealth that he needed to cut out.   Jesus, looking at him and loving him, told him exactly what he needed to drop if he wanted to inherit the life of the ages.   Tragically, he walked away sad, for he was unwilling to part from the thing Jesus demanded of him (Mark 10:17-27).    Don’t be like that guy.   Don’t be a meatloaf, willing to do anything….but that.  Be willing and ready to do whatever it takes, no matter what the cost, in order to be rid of the sin that binds you.    New life is possible, but it doesn’t come without dying first. 

Pray with me:  Jesus, I’m scared.   I want to trust you with everything – my future, my family, my friends, my stuff – but I don’t know how.   Teach me.   Open my heart to you.   Help me to open my hands to you as well.  All that I have is yours.   Make me willing and able to give you everything, even my very life.   Amen.