adam-eve-serpent

The Anatomy of Temptation

Genesis 3 contains everything we need to know about what goes wrong in all of us.  It contains the anatomy – the inner workings – of temptation, from the beginning seed planted by the enemy to the tragic fall which follows. It’s a fall that need not happen to us because we know how the enemy attacks.  And yet, we fall for it time and time again.

Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthian church that we should not allow Satan to get an advantage over us, for we are not ignorant of his designs (2 Cor. 2:11).   That we are not ignorant of how Satan works may have been true in the first century, but is it today?   Do you know how the enemy sets out to destroy you?   Do you even know that you have an enemy?   Peter, another one of Jesus’ first followers, warns that the devil “prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).   If you don’t know this, nor understand how he works, you are easy pickings.

So, looking closely at Genesis 3, learn this “anatomy of temptation” well so that you can be better prepared to defeat the lion, and even see him coming a mile away.

The Enemy Subverts

  1. Bring into question whether God really said something or not.
    • “Did God really say…?” (3.1)
  2. Twist the command into something absurd.
    • “You must not eat from any tree?” (3:1)
    • Notice how he twisted God’s original command, that they may eat of every tree but one (2:16-17), into one that seems absurdly restrictive.
  3. Implants doubt in the mind that God has my best interests at heart.
    • God must be holding out on me.  He is not a good Father.

The Unprepared Response

  1. A misquote of the original command, even adding something (we may not touch it) that is not there (3:3).
    • Because we are ignorant of what the bible actually does say, the lies the enemy tells us ring true.
    • How easily we fall into the trap of adding more rules to the perfectly good ones God has already given, thus adding to our delusion that God is not a good Father and is holding out on us.
  2. Water down the punishment.
    • This is more evident in the original Hebrew, but God’s initial command came with the warning that if they disobey, they will surely die.   Eve misquotes the command itself and then diminishes the punishment, essentially saying, “If we do this, God said we might die.”

The Enemy Pounces

  1. Seeing an opening, Satan presses in on the angle of non-punishment.  “You will not surely die!” (3:4).  You will be fine!
  2. He then appeals to our sense of entitlement, desire and independence.
    • You deserve to be happy. Everyone else has it.  You have the right to be your own boss. 
  3. Satan convinces us this will make us like God.  It will give us life.  It’s what we have been missing all this time.

The Fall

  1. After seeing that the thing wanted is appetizing (isn’t all sin?) Eve reaches outside of God’s design and grabs something she shouldn’t.
  2. Result is estrangement from God rather than unity.
  3. Result is shame and guilt rather than a deeper intimacy with God and with each other.
  4. Result is blaming everyone else, never taking responsibility for the choices made.
  5. Result is a sure death, both physical (one day) and spiritual (immediate).

Consider how this plays out in your life.   If you are addicted to something – sex, porn, food, fame, career, money, whatever – then every point above has been compromised as your reaching for something outside of God’s parameters has become habitual.   We addicts have, over time, whittled away at what God has really said about how we should live our lives (if we ever knew it to begin with), convincing ourselves that God is holding out on us and that we must seek happiness on our terms.  Even more, we have watered down the punishment God promised would come to us if we do this.   The enemy has pounced on this and each time we do it without getting caught we think ourselves more and more invincible.

And yet, if we are honest, in the cool breeze of the evening (3:8) when God comes looking for us, we are found hiding.  The intimacy and connection we crave is broken, not only with God but with all our relationships.   Our reaching for life on our terms has not delivered anything the enemy promised.   We are dying, both physically and spiritually, with each successive bite.

Want to be free of this insane cycle of destruction wrought through this anatomy of temptation?   Go and read Matthew 4:1-11 and see how Jesus handles the same cycle.  Jesus knows and respects the words of God and their authority.  Jesus knows where the true source of Life is found and never questions the goodness of his Father (even while he is going to a cross!).   Jesus knows the designs of his enemy well, and comes through temptation victorious.

You and I can do the same.  The enemy is prowling.  Are you prepared to face him?

avalanche

Who Gets the Glory?

The message this past Thursday at Recovery at Dayton dealt with the avalanches in our life and what we do when things start to cave in all around us.  It’s a powerful message by Mark Beebe and you can watch the whole thing HERE.

One of the main questions each one of us has to wrestle with – and this is true of everyone of us, addict or not – when life throws us a curve is this:

Who gets the glory?

Who gets the glory when an avalanche happens all around you?  Check out this story from Acts where two followers of Jesus get into a pretty big avalanche.  Look and see how they answer the question, “Who gets the glory?”

22 A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. 23 They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. 24 So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.

25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. 26 Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off!

Can you believe that?  After being beaten and thrown into a dungeon, Paul and Silas gave glory to God.  Their avalanche didn’t steal God’s glory.

This has been one of the hardest things for me to learn and even harder to practice.  It’s so difficult in the midst of a storm to praise God.  I’m reminded of Job’s words after he lost everything – his family, his land, his home, his livestock – Job declared, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15).   That is to say, even if this event and calamity is caused by God Himself, I trust that He is good and I will put my hope in Him and give Him glory alone.  That’s faith!  God, give me faith like this!

Because here’s the deal.  Someone or something is always going to get the glory.   In the midst of an avalanche, either:

  • you are going to get the glory because you will yourself to grit your teeth and get yourself through the mess,
  • your circumstances will get the glory because they will be all you or anyone else ever gets to hear about,
  • your addiction will get the glory because you’ll run to whatever compulsion it is that you think makes you feel safe,
  • or God will get the glory, and you’ll be like Paul and Silas singing praises to Him, trusting that God will bring you through this mess and certainly will not forsake you in the midst of it.

This is a hard lesson to learn and harder to practice.   It’s much easier, and far more recognizable, to give myself, my circumstances or my addiction the glory.  It’s so much easier to blame everyone and everything and to retreat into isolation and indulge in my drug of choice, whether that be porn, a pill, a drink, food or another person or whatever.  It’s downright unnatural and weird to sing praises to God while life is crashing around me.   But that, and perhaps that alone, is the difference between a defeated life and a victorious one.  The difference between an addicted life or a sober one.   The difference between a broken life or a holy one.

I’ve discovered, and Mark shares this in his video message linked above, that the following wisdom found in A.A (Alcoholics Anonymous) helps me tremendously:

One day at a time.

When a disaster happens with my kids or a meltdown occurs between my wife and I or something at work just doesn’t go like I expected or I get that phone call from a family member that someone is sick, or I wake up to find I’ve been hacked and my bank account is empty, I can handle giving God glory for the next 30 minutes.  I can do one day at a time.

It’s when I begin thinking I’ll have to do this all week, or all month, or for the rest of my life that I get paralyzed and feel this is impossible.   But I can do one day at a time. I can focus today on giving God glory no matter what happens today.  I can trust that He will be with me today.  All day.  And tomorrow, by God’s grace, I can wake up and do it again.

When Paul, the same guy who gave glory to God from a prison, had a “thorn in his flesh,” a constant avalanche about him, he prayed that it be removed but heard these words from Jesus:  “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8-10).   One day at a time.  

Who gets the glory in your life?  I pray that when the avalanche comes (and it will come!) you would run to the strong, loving arms of Jesus who has everything you need for today.  His power works best when you come to him in need.  One day at a time.

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So you went to the altar and your life didn’t change? Welcome to the club

I have heard it from others nearly as many times as I have lived it myself:

I went to the altar and asked God to take away my addiction to pornography (or insert any other compulsive behavior) but when I woke up Monday nothing changed.  Why won’t God heal me?

For many, many years I walked that dusty road between the pews and knelt at the altar, confessing my sins from the past week and pleading with God to take my affliction away.   And for many, many years I woke up Monday wondering why God hadn’t answered my prayer.

This cycle went on for nearly 2 decades until another godly man who had been down the same road I was on and was now living a victorious Christian life told me the hard truth I needed to hear.  I’m not sure if I had heard this prior to his entrance into my life or not.  Perhaps I had but simply was not ready to receive it.  Sometimes truth falls like seeds onto rocky ground and just lays there.  Sometimes it takes a great upheaval – like the loss of everything in my life – for that rocky, fallow ground to be broken up just enough for that seed to take root.   In any event, I was finally ready to hear from this man what I’m about to share with you now. He said,

Your kneeling at the altar is not the end of the fight but the beginning.  It is to say I am powerless to do this on my own but I am choosing to trust that Jesus will be fighting alongside me as I pass from death into life.   And anytime you are being reborn it’s going to be painful.  It’s going to be a fight.  Welcome to the club.

The “club” is real, vital Christianity as opposed to the passive, vapid religion I had long been living.   For far too long I had been under the delusion that if God really wanted me to be free from sexual sin He would set me free.   It was as though I expected some magic wand to tap me on the heart and take away all the compulsive tendencies.  That I would wake up Monday free from lustful thoughts and impulses.

But that never happened.  At least not for me.   I rejoice with those who experience such radical transformation overnight but my experience, and the experience of most people I meet, is that it’s not so instantaneous.

But it’s every bit as radical.

It’s radical if you understand the truth I shared above.  It’s radical if you change from seeing yourself at the altar as some passive consumer coming to be magically delivered and see yourself instead as a broken man or woman kneeling before your king to be knighted, and rising thereafter to enter the war from which you have long been absent or oblivious to.  

Monday is not the day to wake up expecting to be free from impure thoughts but the day to rise up and don your helmet and go to war, fighting for the first time on the right side of the battle, knowing you have beside you the one who already conquered sin and death.

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Turning your life over to God doesn’t mean you wake up the next day and your addiction is gone. It just means you pass from being dead to waking up in a UFC cage match. It means you finally enter the fight. It’s going to be a battle but one you don’t fight alone.

One of the first and greatest Christian thinkers in history, Augustine, is also known as the patron saint of sex addicts.  He struggled mightily with lust as he was coming to know Jesus.   In his book, Confessions, he describes well this battle to which our trip to the alter enlists us:

The enemy held fast my will, making it a chain with which he bound me tight.  Out of my perverse will came lust, and the service of lust ended in habit, and habit, not resisted, became necessity.  By these links, which is why I called it “a chain,” hard bondage held me in slavery.  My new will, which had begun to spring up in me freely to worship You and to enjoy You, O my God, the only certain Joy, was not yet able to overcome my former willfulness, made strong by long indulgence.  Therefore, my two wills – the old and the new, the carnal and the spiritual – raged in conflict within me.  They tore my soul apart by their dispute.  (Confessions, Book 8).

In a few deft lines, Augustine brilliantly captures the hell of addiction.   What we have for so long been indulging becomes our master, and when we kneel before a new Master, Jesus, our freedom from the former life will not come without great struggle and sacrifice.   Being reborn is painful, and cannot be done alone.

So, when you went to the altar your life didn’t immediately change.  I am by no means saying you should not continue to make that trek to kneel before your king.  Do it daily, in fact.  Do it until – and even beyond – the truth of what you’ve read here, and the grace of Almighty God, explodes the rocky ground of your heart and you rise up finally willing to enter the fight that many of us, and all of heaven, have been waiting for you to fight.   Remember, you don’t fight alone.

Welcome to the club.

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Win the battle in your mind

In the course of my own recovery and through counseling many others I’ve concluded this one simple truth:

our mind is a battlefield.

Every compulsion, every relapse, every giving over to whatever is our “thing” begins in the mind.   If I had a penny for every time I heard, or said myself, “I was having a really good day, and then this image/thought entered my mind and I….”  I’d have a lot of pennies.

I wasted many years of my life and did a lot of damage to myself and others because I never learned (and nobody taught me) how to win the battle in my mind.   In fact, I never really understood that I was at war!   While I often would say I was “struggling” with pornography what I really meant was this:  A lustful thought keeps entering my mind and 99% of the time I cave in to it.  That is not the picture of a person struggling but of being a doormat (For more on that topic read “Are you REALLY Struggling against habitual sin?”) 

If you are serious about kicking your habit of looking at porn (or whatever else you have a compulsion towards) you will need to get serious about a few things.  Here’s a short list…

1. Get serious about this warfare thing.   Really.  Some segments of Christianity will play down the warfare imagery in scripture, others glorify it.  You need to get away from both and simply, yet hugely, take it seriously.   A cursory read of Scripture makes it abundantly clear that there is a battle for your soul and there will be winners and there will be losers.  The enemy is always prowling like a roaring lion seeking one to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  It’s no surprise that included in this admonition by Peter is to “be alert and of sober mind.”   You need to know that when you determine to pursue holiness in body, mind, and soul, you will be entering a battle with the enemy who has studied you.  He knows where to trip you up, he knows what thoughts will seduce you, he knows how to cause you to stumble.   So be alert!   Take this warfare motif found throughout all of scripture seriously, and view it as God’s textbook written solely for your benefit to know how to win not just the battle but the war.

2. Get serious about your thoughts.  The bible teaches that we ought to take every thought captive to be obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).   Surely this is to include suspending those lustful thoughts (or other compulsions) and surrendering them over to the blood of Jesus.  Any thought contrary to the revealed will of God ought to be – and can be! – brought into obedience with Christ.  Do not fall for the enemies lie which says your thoughts do not really matter.   Jesus said that if you have even the intent of lust in your heart it is as good as committing adultery and that if you harbor anger you have committed murder (Matt. 5:27ff).  He also taught that it’s what is inside us that defiles us.  Clean the inside of the cup (which will include your mind!) and all will be clean (Matt. 23:26)!   Your thoughts matter to God.   And they will either lead you to life or shipwreck you again and again.

Know this:  Just because a thought enters your mind does not mean you have sinned.   As I said above, the enemy will bombard you with all sorts of schemes and make you believe you are justified to dwell upon them.  You have a choice when a sinful thought crosses your radar:  Chew on it or spit it out.    Keep reading to learn how to do the latter.

3. Get serious about fighting.   Your most valuable weapon in the fight against your thoughts is prayer.   I teach my guys in recovery and my church in recovery (because we are all in recovery) to pray instead of think.  When I would struggle with impure thoughts and had determined I would not be a slave to them any longer I began praying the mercy prayer almost with every breath I breathed.   It would be on my lips when I rose and when I laid down at night.  I would recite it hundreds of times throughout the day and even more when I was bombarded with temptation.  I would go to bed exhausted from praying but victorious.   And guess what?  Over time the battle got less and less intense.  Over time I realized that I was “being transformed by the renewing of my mind” (Rom. 12:1-2).  My mind was actually learning to think -and pray – in new ways.  I was taking every thought captive to obey Christ.

The first wave of attack against any enemy force is going to be the hardest.   And the bloodiest.   If you are new to this sort of warfare you can expect some casualties.  But don’t give up!   Surround yourself with like-minded soldiers who are fighting the good fight as well.  Call them consistently and constantly, particularly in the early stages until you get some traction (60-90 days minimum).   It won’t be long before you are the one others are calling, and you’ll be sharing your experience, strength and hope with them.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (Phil. 4:8)

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Your deadliest enemy causing relapse (it’s not what you think)

In the bible there is this fascinating series of events in the book of Exodus where the ruler of Egypt refuses to let the people of God, whom he is holding as slaves, free.  Moses has been sent to lead them out to the Promised Land but Pharaoh will have none of it.  What follows is a series of 10 plagues upon Egypt, displaying both the power of God and the hardness of the human heart.

I don’t know about you, but after the first plague of all the water in my country turning to blood, I think I’d give in.  I think I’d say, “Okay, Moses, you win, I’m thirsty. Take your people and go.”    Or at least I like to think I would.   But then I look back over the decades I spent in active porn addiction and remember the first wave of plagues it caused. I remember the way my wife first reacted when she found out and the fear I felt that she would leave me.   I remember promising to never do it again.  I remember how after a few really bad weeks, things got a little bit better.   A sense of calm was restored.  The water was again drinkable.

And I, like Pharaoh, went back to my old ways.   This cycle continued for 7 long years.

In Exodus 7-12 we are privy to not just an awesome story of God’s power over creation and desire to free his people, but to the universal condition of every human heart.  Faced with consequence after consequence, some incredibly serious (imagine waking up to a huge bullfrog on your face, or breaking out in boils all over your body!), Pharaoh would play the game I’ve played countless times in the past:

God forgive me! Amy I’m sorry!  I won’t do it again!

And then, once the pain went away, I would harden my heart and go back to what I wanted to do.  Until the next time I got caught.

For Pharaoh, it took the death of his first born son before he finally hit bottom and gave up.   I hope that isn’t what it takes for you.  It doesn’t have to be.

Pharaoh, and many of us, understand the difference between godly sorrow over our sin and worldly sorrow.   Worldly sorrow is being sorry that I’ve been caught, that my choices have caused so much pain in my life and in the lives of others, and that this situation is extremely inconvenient for all involved.  Godly sorrow, on the other hand, includes all of that but has an additional, essential element.  It’s sorrow that my actions have grieved God’s heart and have put separation between Him and I.  It’s to realize that my sin has offended a holy God and, worse of all, I am making a mockery of the great sacrifice made on my behalf when Jesus shed his blood for me.

This distinction is critical because Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said that godly sorrow will lead to salvation – freedom! – and leave no regret, whereas worldly sorrow will only lead to death (2 Cor. 7:10).

That is what Pharaoh experienced.  Death.   He had lots and lots of worldly sorrow with each passing plague, but never godly sorrow.   And because of this, with each passing plague, after the storm subsided and things went back to normal, he went right back to being his old self. He relapsed.

I get to talk with many people fighting addiction to all sorts of things and we all have this in common:  When things get really bad we want help.  We show up to a meeting. We call a friend.  We check into rehab.  We do all the right things – necessary things- because the pain is great and we need to act.   Thank God for this.  But we have another thing in common, too.  It’s that when the pain goes away and it looks like life is going to continue, we grow complacent and we think we can return to the things we did and just be smarter about it.  Maybe hide it a bit better.  Maybe we believe the lie and say we won’t go as far this time.   But like Pharaoh, that never ends well.  It always leads to death.

If this is a cycle you are on it may be because you haven’t yet come to real godly sorrow over your sin.  You don’t have to be like Pharaoh (and me) and lose everything before you come to your senses.   Ask God today to break your heart over your sin and help you to see it the way God sees it.  Pray that God would give you a heart that breaks over sin and a desire to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16).   Ask God to help you see the cross of Jesus as though for the very first time, and that you would desire to know nothing apart from Jesus Christ crucified for your sins.

God knows you intimately and loves you dearly.  He knows what the greatest enemy is to your soul, and what hinders you from having the abundant life for which he died so that you might taste. It’s the difference between worldly and godly sorrow.  May you experience today a refreshing drink from the living waters of Jesus and never again return to the bloody waters of your old self.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

furious

HALT and ABBA: Surviving the Holidays without relapsing

The holidays are upon us and with them a myriad of feelings, both high and low, along with people places and things not living up to our expectations, missing family and friends, having to be with certain family and friends, cold days, dark days, and debt days, all of which provide a perfect storm to relapse back into our drug of choice, which may be nothing more or less than just being a scrooge this Christmas.

But you don’t have to relapse and you don’t have to be a jerk this holiday season!   You can be free from all of that.   In fact, Jesus guarantees that anyone who will abide in him can be and will be free.

I want to offer 2 tips for getting through the emotions and roller coaster of the holidays.  The first one is an acrostic, which reads HALT.     Today and everyday, whenever you notice yourself feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (HALT), stop and check yourself before you wreck yourself.   When you feel either of those things it’s wise to stop and consider your motives and understand that you are not in the best place to make sound decisions.   So call someone.  Get around people.  Talk to a sponsor.  But most importantly, recognize this is going on inside of you and take action.   An added bonus: A friend of mine told me we should add a “B” to this for “Bored.”   I agree.    Be aware of your feelings and understand that they will lie to you.  You don’t have to be enslaved by them.

Second is pray.  I want to teach you a simple prayer Brennan Manning taught me in his book The Furious Longing of God (a book you should read if you haven’t already, or read again, and again).   In previous posts I’ve taught the Mercy Prayer, which is invaluable to a recovery life, I believe, but this one is just as important and very simple to pray while you are HALTing.    It goes like this:

Abba, I belong to you.

Abba is the word Jesus used for God, which means, “Daddy.”   Brennan, a recovering alcoholic, found profound healing when he realized he was “Daddy’s little boy” and that his Father in heaven has a furious longing for him, as he does for you, too.   This short, 7 syllable prayer is the perfect prayer to correspond with your breathing.  As you inhale – Abba.   And as you exhale – I belong to you.

Brennan suggests taking a few moments every day for the next month to close your eyes, upturning your palms, and praying, “Abba, I belong to you.”  Don’t try to make it anything more than that, as this is enough.

As you begin your day, or as you HALT(B), may this short prayer remind you that you are loved furiously by your Daddy in heaven and that this is more than enough for today.

Praying with and for you.

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What I hope my white children learn from #Ferguson

In my last blog,“What I hope my black children learn from #Ferguson,”  I shared seven things I want my black children, adopted from Ethiopia, to learn from the recent events in Ferguson, MO.   The last few days as I’ve been reading blogs and comments from others I realized that it’s not just my black children whom I hope learn some valuable lessons from all of this but my white children, too.   A lot of what I have been reading on the internet seems to suggest that if you are white your opinion shouldn’t count, or you should be ashamed to share it (this view is most often, in my experience perpetuated by other white people who think it more righteous to carry “white guilt” on themselves while heaping it upon others – more on that below).    I believe this is a false-humility which only serves to exacerbate race problems.  It sends the message that your race is a problem, and you should be embarrassed of it rather than liberated from it.   Yes, liberated from it.   I don’t want my kids – black or white – growing up to believe they are slaves of the color or culture or context they inhabit but instead celebrate all that they are in Christ and the freedom they have knowing that it is in Christ (and not their race) that they live and more and have their being (Acts 17:28).   So with that said, here are 7 truths I want my white children to know.

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You are beautiful.  You are beautiful because you are a child of God, created to be the object of God’s eternal joy and affection.   Your beauty has nothing to do with the amount of or lack of melanin in your skin.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together by God in your mother’s womb.  God doesn’t make junk, and you are one of the treasures for which he died to save.

Family. Your true brothers and sisters are your spiritual ones of all colors, stripes and histories.  The moment you place your faith in Jesus you were adopted into a family far bigger than the one mom and dad provide, or even our color or nation.    Your brothers and sisters are Arab, Jewish, Chinese, German, Cuban, Hispanic, even Southern and Yankee and everything in between so long as they have faith in Christ.  And those who don’t?  They are your neighbor, potential brothers and sisters whom you are called to love and pray for and bless as often as you have the means to do so.

White Guilt.  You don’t have to be embarrassed that you are white.   There are plenty of well-intentioned albeit misguided Christians who will try to tell you that because you are white you should forever carry with you a sense of guilt and shame over what our ancestors have done to blacks.   But you are no more responsible for the sins of your ancestors as Michael Brown is responsible for the sins of his.  The beauty of the gospel message is this: There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ!   This is true of every one who places their faith in Christ and it’s a glorious truth!  Do not allow white guilt to silence you which thereby sends the message that there is no real freedom to be found from our past sin and that personal responsibility for our thoughts and actions mean less than the color of your skin.

Privilege.  Your greatest privilege is that you are an heir of our Lord Jesus Christ.  You have been bought with a price, therefore, bring glory to God in your body (1 Cor. 6:20).  Any privilege that others lavish upon you is because we live in a fallen world that loves to make idols out of many things, including race.   Instead, have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was God did not count equality with God as something to cling to, but instead humbled himself, choosing to be born a slave, a servant of all, even to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:1-11).

Speak up and out.  It’s your duty as a Christian to speak up and out against injustice wherever it is found, whether among those who cannot speak for themselves or among those who can.  Seek the truth in all things and do not be persuaded by the talking heads in the media or the opinions of every human with internet access.   Remember the Apostle Paul, who though in chains asked for prayer not that he would be set free but that he would speak boldly the Good News which is available to every person alive irrespective of race or parentage (Eph. 6).   Point people everywhere and in all seasons to the sinfulness within each of our own hearts and our great need for a Savior.   Do not be sidetracked by agendas and issues which seek to make this world the utopia for which only Christ’s return can and will establish.   Be the voice calling out in the wilderness, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Love without agenda.  Outdo others in showing them honor (Rom. 12:10) not because they are black or white or any other color but for this simple and profound truth:  God commands you to do so to everyone.  So love the person in front of you today.  Love the neighbor whom you meet today.  Consider the needs of others before your own and in this way you will be like Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve.   When you seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness first, all other things will be added to you.

It’s all about Jesus.  When we first adopted your brother and sister from Ethiopia we thought it was our duty to make everyone else look like us – integrated.   The problem with this is not so much the goal (integration is a good thing) but the motive behind it.   We were more concerned with the church and society looking like our family than we were with ourselves and our neighbors looking more like Jesus.    The truth is, you can surround yourself with all sorts of different people and get absorbed in any number of good causes while your heart is still far from God.   If you will focus all your energy on becoming more and more like Jesus, and encouraging others to do the same, you will discover that the agendas and issues and causes which are important to God will become natural by-products of the life you are living. In this you will find great joy and peace, and the hurting world that doesn’t know Jesus will be attracted to you because you look like Jesus, not because of the color of your skin.

It would be a mistake to think that I teach this well, or even model it well, all the time.  But I pray that by God’s grace I will grow in each of these truths myself, and my kids would follow suit.   As a Christian, I am convinced that given the option between feeling sorry for my kids (and thereby allowing them to feel sorry for themselves) or pointing them towards the Gospel (even with crooked fingers), the latter is far better, and far more hopeful and empowering.   Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

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What I hope my black children learn from #Ferguson

Your newsfeed probably looks a lot like mine today, with everyone talking about Ferguson.   One post that caught my attention was from a friend sharing a snippet from an email written by an 18 year old student.  It read,

I can’t even describe to you how much it makes me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I feel hopeless. And powerless…. Because I’m black….I didn’t ask to be black…. I don’t even want to be black anymore.

I’m the proud father of five children, two of which are black.  They weren’t born here but in Ethiopia, and they became part of our family 6 years ago while they were 4 and 5 years old.  They were born into a family and a life that isn’t fair, one that no one would wish upon any child, and they have been brought into a family that I can only hope provides them with love and hope, but as is all things, is far from perfect.   My adopted children can, I think, identify with the sentiment of the girl’s comment above.  Somewhere, somehow, they picked up along the way that their skin color seems to matter to some, if not many, people.   Eli, who is now 11, said to me and my wife not too long ago that he wished he wasn’t “brown.”   In his mind he perceives his skin color to put him at a disadvantage.   Conversely, my three white kids have never wished they were something else.

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All of this got me thinking about what I hope for my kids to learn from all of the recent events in Ferguson.   I know I don’t want them turning 18 feeling hopeless like the girl who caught my attention on Facebook this morning.   Here are seven truths I hope to instill in all my kids – both black and white – in hopes that they will be better prepared to face the harsh realities of life.  This list is far from exhaustive, and by sharing it here I hope I can learn from you how to make what is here better or add something I’m not seeing.

You are beautiful.  You are beautiful because you are a child of God, created to be the object of God’s eternal joy and affection.   Your beauty has nothing to do with the amount of or lack of melanin in your skin.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together by God in your mother’s womb.  God doesn’t make junk, and you are one of the treasure for which he died to save.

Be known by your fruit.  Be known for who you are, not what you are.  Don’t waste your life by reducing yourself and everyone else to the color of skin.  Allow, instead, the light that is in you to shine brighter than any color the world can see.   Jesus said that the world would know who belongs to him by their fruit – not what we look like on the outside but by how our hearts respond on the inside.  Choose to be known for the greatness of your character, which is Christ in you.

The world is unsafe and unfair.   We live in a fallen world where not everyone will see your beauty and not everyone will look for, or care about, your fruit.  This same tendency is in you, and me, too.   Sin infects all of our hearts and we should not be surprised when we see it manifest itself in any manner of ways, including racism.   The battle we are waging is not against flesh and blood – or between whites and blacks – but against spiritual realities which are at work in every one of us, regardless of race.   Your battle is with sin, with the spiritual forces at work in this world, and no matter what your skin color, there will always be people who will hurt you, treat you unfairly, not live up to your expectations, even treat you cruelly.   Don’t be surprised when this happens and don’t play the victim when it does.   Jesus, when he was brutally tortured and hung on a cross, prayed for those who sinned against him.   We can and should strive to do the same when people sin against us.   Pray for your enemies, and bless those who persecute you.

Justice.  Love mercy and work for justice.  But do so humbly, walking with God (Micah 6:8).  Pray for peace and stand alongside the oppressed.  But do this not because you dream of a utopian society here on earth but out of obedience to God.  In this way you will not grow discouraged when things do not go as you think they ought.  It may look like your hopes and dreams are being nailed to a cross but you have no idea how God might use your faithfulness.  Remember, the reason Jesus did signs and wonders was not to bring justice to the world but to make the One who is Just known to the world (John 20:31).  Your acts of random kindness and works of justice may never bring about radical social change to our fallen world but it may topple someone’s misunderstandings about God brining about a radical change of heart.

We all need Jesus.  Racism is just one of the many sins you will experience in this life.  Whenever you encounter it, or any other sin, learn to pray.  Pray for the ones committing the sin as well as for yourself, that you would be able to extend the same mercy to them as Christ has to you, even while we were his enemies.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful or set boundaries or even that you must trust everyone.  God never commanded us to trust fallen people or systems.  He commanded us to trust him and him alone and to love people.  It’s OK to feel powerless in the midst of life’s storms.  It is in our weakness that God’s strength can be made known to you in ways you would be unable to see through the delusion of self-sufficiency.  Remember that we are all a mess without Jesus.   Apart from him, we can do nothing.

Live by faith, not feelings.  Feed yourself on the promises of God and in so doing you will live by faith, not feelings.  The enemy of your soul will tell you that you don’t matter, that your life is pointless, that the grass is greener on the other side, that the world owes you, and anything else it might use to cause you to feel justified in grasping upon anything or anyone in order to meet your needs.   On this side of heaven and hell you will everyday be presented opportunities to move towards one or the other, and if your feelings are your only or must trusted guide, hell will be more and more your reality, in this life and the next.

Holiness, not happiness, is our aim.  God’s desire for you and for me is that we become like Jesus.   Jesus, God’s own son, learned obedience through the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8).   If you are to become like Christ, you can and should expect to go through the same things Christ went through.  Jesus promised that in this world we will know trouble.  We can take heart, however, because we know that he overcame the world.  How?  Through humble obedience to the will of his Father.   God wishes to make you holy, and every time you come face to face with rampant sin in this world, as Jesus did, know you do not face it alone, and that in all things, even this, God will work out for the good for those who love him.  What good might that be?  Your holiness.

It would be a mistake to think that I teach this well, or even model it well, all the time.  But I pray that by God’s grace I will grow in each of these truths myself, and my kids would follow suit.   As a Christian, I am convinced that given the option between feeling sorry for my kids (and thereby allowing them to feel sorry for themselves) or pointing them towards the Gospel (even with crooked fingers), the latter is far better, and far more hopeful and empowering.   Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

Follow up blog:  What I hope my white kids learn from #Ferguson

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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!

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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).