This story about Peter changed my life, and could yours

I want you to remember a time you were publicly humiliated by someone.  Maybe somebody insulted you in front of others, or pointed out what you were doing wrong in a condescending manner.  Maybe they made fun of you for wearing something that didn’t match (all my fellow color-blind people, unite!), or maybe it was a teacher who embarrassed you in front of the class.

Got it?  Is your blood starting to boil as you picture that person?  Ok. Take a deep breath.  Lay that aside for a moment.  We will come back to it.

My biblical doppelganger is Peter, the perfectly flawed disciple of Jesus.   One of my favorite pastors, Mark Beebe, has been doing a teaching series on Peter during our Thursday night recovery services.  He reminds us that throughout the gospels, Peter’s shortcomings are not scrubbed out.  We see him have some great moments, such as when he answered rightly Jesus’ question, “Who do you think I am?” and we see him have some bloopers, such as 7 verses later where Jesus rebuked him, calling him Satan (Matthew 16).   We get to watch Peter full of faith walk on water and then moments later get overwhelmed and drop like a rock.  We read about him declaring he’d never leave his Master’s side only to disown Him not once, not twice, but three times that same night.

Peter is every one of us who vowed to go to Africa for the sake of the gospel during the 11am altar call only to remember an hour later how much we love Olive Garden.

I love Peter, and I suspect you do as well, because we can identify so easily with him.   But there’s a story about Peter that isn’t found in the gospels and is little known. It’s my favorite one.   I’d like to share it with you.

It begins in Galatians, a letter written by Paul, a Jewish religious leader turned Jesus freak who is credited with taking the message of Jesus to the Gentile (non-Jewish) world.   During this time period, Christians were still getting used to the radical idea that Jesus broke down all the barriers between people, setting aside the purity regulations faithful Jews had observed for centuries (like abstaining from unclean food or not eating with Gentiles).  Paul was fighting an uphill battle trying to convince Jews who had converted to Christianity that it was perfectly acceptable to eat with Gentiles.  Heck, they could even host a pork BBQ if they so desired.

Enter Peter.  In Galatians 2, Paul writes that he found Peter in Antioch.   Before Peter’s Jewish friends arrived on the scene, Peter was known to eat with Gentiles.  But when these guys from Jerusalem showed up, Peter drew back. He didn’t want to get in trouble with his Jewish friends.   Paul writes that he “opposed Peter in public because he was clearly wrong…the other Jewish believers also started acting like cowards along with Peter” (Gal. 2:11-14).

Paul publicly humiliated Peter, calling him a coward in front of all his friends.   I imagine Peter felt a lot like you and I feel when the same thing happens to us.  Galatians was written around 40 A.D., a decade after Jesus was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven.   Ten years later Peter still had moments where he wasn’t at the top of his game.   Once again, Peter is just like us.

But the story isn’t over.

Nearly 2 decades after being embarrassed in Antioch, Peter would write his own letters to churches which would be added to our New Testament.  In his second letter, the aging disciple writes one sentence that convinces me the gospel is true, that the Holy Spirit is at work, and God isn’t done with any of us yet.   He writes,

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with wisdom that God gave him (2 Peter 3:15).

Isn’t that astounding?!  Do you see how Peter writes so affectionately about a man who called him a coward in front of all his friends?   Do you catch how he publicly praises the one who publicly humiliated him?    Over the years Peter made spiritual progress, and along his journey he chose humility over bitterness, reconciliation over retaliation.   Peter continued to grow, to change, to be conformed into the image of Jesus.

This insight into Peter’s life, a man who lived 2000 years ago and whom I only know through letters, is enough to convince me that a life pursuing Jesus is worth it, if for nothing else than to achieve the sort of serene disposition the aged Peter has for Paul when none of us, who are just like Peter, would fault him if he had held a grudge to the grave.

Now, recall the image of the person who made your blood boil a moment ago.   See them?  It’s one thing for us to take comfort in knowing someone like Peter, a disciple of Jesus, is just like us when he falls on his face.  But if he’s just like us in our low moments, can we believe together that we can be just like him in his best moments?   Can we believe for a moment that the gospel is true, that the Holy Spirit is at work in you and I, and that God isn’t done with any of us?  Then can we dare to imagine that one day – maybe not today, this month or even this year – but one day our hearts might be so changed that we would write affectionately about the person we can’t stomach today?

If the words of a dead man from two millennia ago can inspire us to imagine Jesus isn’t done with any of us yet, imagine what might happen if the world saw living examples of Peter today.   After all, he’s just like us.   Or even better, maybe we are just like him.

By God’s grace, may it be so.

 

 

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One Whom Jesus Loved

This excerpt from Brennan Manning’s Abba’s Child is worth reading over and over and over until it gets inside us.  The context of this piece is Manning describing a retreat where he spent 5 days in John’s gospel and was struck by how the disciple came to know himself as the one whom Jesus loved.   Manning wonders what would happen if we became absorbed by that fact and allowed it to be our identity – one whom Jesus loved.   How would that change the way we approach Him, particularly when we fail?

Peter, the denier of Jesus, a failure as a friend in the hour of crisis, a coward in his soul before the servant-girl in the courtyard, jumped into the water almost naked once John told him Jesus was on shore.  “At these words ‘It is the Lord,’ Simon Peter, who had practically nothing on, wrapped his cloak round him and jumped into the water” (John 21:7).  John notes that the boat was about a hundred yards offshore.

These biblical characters, however clean or tawdry their personal histories may have been, are not paralyzed by the past in their present response to Jesus.  Tossing aside self-consciousness they ran, clung, jumped, and raced to Him.  Peter denied Him and deserted Him, but he was not afraid of Him.

Suppose for a moment that in a flash of insight you discovered that all your motives for ministry were essentially egocentric, or suppose that last night you got drunk and committed adultery, or suppose that you failed to respond to a cry for help and the person committed suicide.  What would you do?

Would guilt, self-condemnation, and self-hatred consume you, or would you jump into the water and swim a hundred yards at breakneck speed toward Jesus?  Haunted by feelings of unworthiness, would you allow the darkness to overcome you or would you let Jesus be who He is – a Savior of boundless compassion and infinite patience, a Lover who keeps no score of our wrongs?

 

Why God’s promise to give you a way out of temptation isn’t working

There are some promises in the Bible which under certain conditions do not work.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church he shares how Israel’s past mistakes have been written down as a warning to us, so that we “might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6).   He goes on to pen one of the most frequently quoted promises in all of scripture:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it (10:13).

I have often hated that verse.

I hated it because as an addict it never worked.   He won’t let me tempted beyond my strength?  I proved time and time again that I had no strength.  I was powerless over my addiction.  When it called, I answered.

I prayed time and time again that God show me a way out next time.  I prayed time and time again that God give me strength to withstand the temptation to use the next time around.  Each and every time I got the same result.

I began to think that this verse, so often quoted and fitting so nicely on refrigerator magnets was a cruel joke.

But Paul writes something immediately after this famous verse which was a game changer for me.  Like the decoder ring I used to find in Cracker Jack boxes, this is the key that unlocks everything else.  He writes,

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols (10:14).

The idea that we can resist temptation is sandwiched between these two ideas, that we might not desire evil and that we would not worship other gods. But when we worship something else, or when our heart’s desire is something apart from God, we aren’t in a good place to activate the promise of 1 Cor 10:13.

When Paul says that when we are tempted a way out will be provided, he is assuming that the main desire of our heart is God.  Temptation is the process of being enticed by something less than that main desire of our heart.   When Adam and Eve were tempted in the garden they were being enticed by something other than God, who was their all in all.  Being tempted is about being lured off a path I am committed to be on, whether that path is life, or in the case of addiction, death.

So, when I’m acting out in my addiction the main desire of my heart is not God.  Rather, my compulsion is my god, and when in that state, anything trying to draw me away from acting out in my addiction could be called a temptation.  When I am active in my addiction I am not being tempted to use my drug of choice, I’m being called to worship my god. 

When I am active in my addiction, sometimes I am tempted to go to church.

When I am active in my addiction, sometimes I am tempted to pray.

When I am active in my addiction, sometimes I am tempted to surrender.

Thank God he never answered my prayer to provide a way out of my temptations!   Those temptations were actually wooings of the Spirit, seeking to tempt me away from the god I worshiped  – my compulsion.

If you have been praying 1 Cor. 10:13 till you are blue in the face and frustrated that you keep falling short, perhaps it’s time to be brutally honest with yourself and admit that temptation isn’t your issue,  worshiping an idol is.

It’s not until we admit that we have an idol in our heart that we love more than God that that idol begins to lose it’s power over us.  Naming the gods we love to worship, admitting that we are powerless over them, is the first step towards the sort of worship for which we were created.

And then, when we are absorbed by the one true God, with our hearts delighting in him, having turned our life and our will over to his care, then and only then will we find the power and truth in a promise like 1 Cor. 10:13.  We will find that there always is a way provided for us to walk in the Spirit rather than our flesh.  We will find that God is doing for us what we previously could not do for ourselves.   We will be making the connection.  We will be home.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.   What if we put that on our refrigerator magnets for a season?

Learning to experience a risen Christ in recovery

Standing on a London street corner, G.K. Chesterton was approached by a newspaper reporter. “Sir, I understand that you recently became a Christian. May I ask you one question?”

“Certainly,” replied Chesterton.

“If the risen Christ suddenly appeared at this very moment and stood behind you, what would you do?”

Chesterton looked the reporter squarely in the eye and said, “He is.”

(quoted from Brennan Manning’s Abba’s Child) 

Have you ever had a day where you felt like throwing it all away?  Where efforts made in recovery felt senseless or without reward?  Recently I received some news that punched me in the gut, making me wonder if I would ever get ahead of the wreckage of my past.   Sometimes it feels like I take one step forward only to be knocked two steps back.

I called a friend who is also in recovery and we took a walk.  I shared my frustration over my circumstances and my anxiety over the future and admitted that in moments like these I wonder, why bother?  Why continue choosing recovery when nothing else seems to be going my way?

I don’t know about you, but far too often I lack Chesterton’s faith and fail to imagine Christ’s present risenness, choosing to believe that I am all alone in my circumstances.  I confess that many days, weeks and even months have gone by where I live as a practical atheist, moving through life as though it were a series of unrelated events, each of which I must endure or survive, alone.   I forget that Christ is behind me.

My friend reminded me on our walk that continuing to make good choices can and will help me face the reality of my circumstances in more healthy ways.   Seeking God in the midst of the mess is hard but necessary work that can deliver us from despair and give rise to hope.   She’s right.   Remembering that Christ is behind me – and before and above and beside  me – is the sort of discipline I need as I am being put back together.

Later that day I took time to pray and focus my gaze on the ever-present risen Christ.  The painful circumstance didn’t go away.  But the resentment I felt towards those involved began to recede.  Anger gave way to empathy.   Thoughts of retribution moved to mercy.  And the shame I so often wear like a blanket began to unravel at the seams.

Learning to meditate on the present risenness of Christ is a discipline I’m working to cultivate.   And that is exactly what it is – a discipline.   Retraining our minds to see the risen Christ always behind, before and beside us requires the same sort of discipline required for getting to the gym every day or eating right.  But the benefits will change a life for the better.   Brennan Manning describes how the life-giving Spirit shows up on our bad days:

[Spirit shows up] in our willingness to stand fast, our refusal to run away and escape into self-destructive behavior.  Resurrection power enables us to engage in the savage confrontation with untamed emotions, to accept the pain, receive it, take it on board, however acute it may be.  And in the process we discover that we are not alone, that we can stand fast in the awareness of present risenness and so become fuller, deeper, richer disciples.  We know ourselves to be more than we previously imagined. In the process we not only endure but are forced to expand the boundaries of who we think we really are (Abba’s Child, 105).

To know ourselves to be more than we previously imagined.  When I imagine myself resorting to my old ways of coping with reality the outcome is always the same – temporary relief or forgetfulness followed by guilt and shame, never resulting in hope, freedom, serenity or life.  But when I imagine myself resting in the resurrected presence of Christ, the outcomes possible are limitless, brimming with promise and vitality.

Today I am encouraged by the prospect of knowing myself to be more than I previously imagined.  I’m excited to know that whatever I face today I don’t face alone.   I’m grateful that the trials I experience today are producing in me character that will equip me for tomorrow.

What are some ways you can be mindful of Christ’s risenness, his being behind, before, and beside you when circumstances seem to be against you?

 

 

 

Into the Great Wide Open

Take the next right step…and the next…

acceptinghardships

It all started with a podcast entitled, “This Episode is Sugar Free.” Now, that title alone only communicates so much. For me, it led to more questions than answers. Are we talking about diabetes? Is this an opportunity to not be false or sugar coated at all? Is it going to be bland and boring? Is it chock full of certain artificial sweeteners which are known to make people run quickly to the nearest restroom should they eat too many as has often been the case with sugar-free gummy bears? (Side Note: If you need a good laugh, go read the customer reviews here.)

As the conversation evolved, it became rather familiar. The conversation was about things in our life that are like sugar – things we like or enjoy or use to cope – things we might be better off giving up altogether. Things like substance abuse, impulse…

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God loves you, but doesn’t like you

My last post was a review of The Shack.  I share how the movie spoke to me as a recovering addict, particularly how it addressed two things I have trouble believing about God, one of which is accepting that God loves me, just as I am, not some future, “better” version of myself.

Most of the feedback I got was positive.   A few wanted to argue the theology of the book or movie.  And one comment broke my heart and revealed what I really mean to say when I say I struggle with accepting God’s love.   He wrote,

“God loves me completely just as I am” does not mean that God likes you.

I responded by thanking him for his encouraging words and added, “God loves you, but doesn’t like you” would make a great bumper sticker.

My sarcasm was meant to shield me from being vulnerable.  It was meant to protect me from saying the truth which would sound like this:

You know, much of my life I have believed that God doesn’t like me.  It’s hard to imagine why He would.

See, it’s easier for me to accept that God loves me because it has been ingrained in me that this is God’s job.  It’s what God does.   I often imagine God loving me with the same enthusiasm with which I wake up on Mondays.   God can be expected to show up on time and put in a good day’s work because, well, He’s God.   God is supposed to love everyone.

But no one ever told me that God likes me.

Think about it with me.  How many times have you heard it said, either directly or implied, that as Christians we are called to love everyone but it doesn’t mean we have to like them?  I have heard countless messages about how I’m called to love my neighbor but it doesn’t mean I have to have them over for dinner, or go to a movie with them, or for that matter even acknowledge their existence.   Just love them in my heart (what does that even mean?).

So should it come as any surprise that I assume this is how God views me?   God loves me, but that doesn’t mean he wants to have dinner with me.  God loves me, but that doesn’t mean he wants to hang out at Starbucks and listen to my fears about the day.  God loves me, but he never laughs at my jokes.

The stranger who told me that God doesn’t like me in response to my movie review unwittingly revealed to me what is at the root of my biggest hangup.   In my heart of hearts I don’t believe that God likes me.

Why do I have a hard time accepting that God likes me?  My addiction makes it hard to believe anyone could like me.   Especially after a relapse or a slip.  In those dark moments I don’t even like myself.  In fact, I hate myself.   It’s hard to imagine that when I am at my lowest that God would want to laugh at my jokes or share a coffee with me.

But God not liking me is a lie, straight from the mouth of the enemy who loves to accuse me and keep me entombed in shame.  

When I read the gospels I am met by a God who seemed to not only love sinners but actually liked being with them!  Jesus appears to prefer hanging out with messes like me, those of us who are poor in spirit, more so than those who have no trouble believing – whether it be because of their good fortune, their perfect church attendance, their superior morality – that God likes them.   Jesus actively sought out those who believed they had good reasons to doubt God loved them, let alone liked them, and befriended them.

Matthew’s gospel tells us the Son of Man came eating and drinking and those who prided themselves as God’s favorite teammates derided him, saying “He’s a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19).   Apparently Jesus liked hanging out with sinners so much that it offended the church folk of his day who, like us today,  loved the sinners but hated the sin.

Perhaps it was in the actual liking of sinners that set Jesus apart from all the others who merely “loved them in their hearts.”   And even knowing it would get him killed, he kept liking them anyways, to the very end.

I think Jesus would pick the addicts first- sober or not – to be on his dodge ball team. I think Jesus would choose to have coffee with a codependent and hang on his or her every word.  I think Jesus would give a prostitute a rose and tell her how beautiful she is before embracing her in a hug.   I think Jesus would love taking a walk with anyone depressed and start skipping rocks over the pond.   I think Jesus would have us all over for dinner and laugh at our jokes and tell some of his own.  I bet he’d be the last to fall asleep.

It’s important for me to get to a place where I can believe that God doesn’t just love me, but likes me.  God is, has always been, and will always be, my closest, truest friend.  It’s important because when I stumble and fall, I won’t run to the person who I believe loves me because it’s their job to do so.  I’ll run to the one I believe likes me and whom I believe missed me while I was absent.

I’ll close with a question from Brennan Manning, from his wonderful book Abba’s Child, which is teaching me a lot about how much my Daddy in heaven likes me.  He writes,

How would you respond if I asked you this question: “Do you really believe God likes you, not just loves you because theologically God has to love you?” If you could answer with gut-level honesty, “Oh, yes, my Abba is very fond of me,” you would experience a serene compassion for yourself that approximates the meaning of tenderness.

I want to get to a place where I can answer that way.   By God’s grace, I believe I’m on the right path.  What about you?

 

 

 

 

#TheShack is Good Fruit: A Review

This weekend I saw the much talked about movie, The Shack. I have read a few reviews of the book and the film and listened to numerous critiques, some offered by people I know and respect. The consensus among them seems to be that Christians ought to enjoy the book or movie as good fiction but not rely on it to teach theology.

As a person with two academic degrees in theology I’m inclined to agree. But as a recovering addict I couldn’t disagree more.

One of the most profound struggles of my life is accepting two fundamental truths:

  1. That God is good and can be trusted with every facet of my life, and
  2. That God loves me deeply and completely, just as I am in the midst of my mess, not as some “better” version of me.

As an addict I struggle mightily with trusting that God is enough to fill the void that would be left without my compulsion. Can God be trusted with my pain, my fears, my loneliness, my secrets? Can I trust God to supply my every need when my addiction is readily available at any time I please? Can I trust that God has something infinitely better in store for me if I surrender my will and my life over to God’s care? If I jump off that cliff, will God catch me?

My unbelief that God is good causes me to question whether God could really love someone like me. Can God really love an addict who has promised so many times to clean up yet ran back to the pig sty again and again? Can God truly love someone who has caused the sort of pain I have caused in my life and the lives of countless others? Why should I believe God’s love is without conditions when most everyone else in my life has reached their limit with me when I was at my worst?

The Shack, and Christian theology, answers: because God’s love and character are unlike any person I have ever known. I forget this with the frequency of a rising sun. It’s why The Shack is a vital part of my ongoing recovery because it reminded me of the things my academic degrees and my disease far too often obscure.

I want to highlight three quotes from the movie which spoke to me at such a personal, profound level, silencing, in my mind, any and all critiques.

At one point in the movie, Mackenzie is led to the place of his greatest pain, the place where his daughter was murdered. He asks, “Why here?” Papa, or God the Father, answers, “Because this is where you got stuck.”

Pain is a universal part of life, a truth the movie strives to convey. A mentor of mine says often that pain left unattended will attend to everything in my life. The Shack did a beautiful job at reminding me that God is not interested in platitudes, or just sucking it up and forgetting about the past, but is invested in my life, desiring to join me where the pain is the greatest so that he can heal my wounds and lead me towards life.

The second quote came when Papa explained why “he” was revealing himself to Mack as a woman. “I didn’t think you could handle a father right now.” This is important because at the beginning of the movie we learn Mack had been abused by his earthly father.

The reason this spoke to me is because God is always meeting me where I am. I don’t always see it for that in the moment, but looking back I can see countless ways in which God has presented herself to me in ways that I can handle or in ways that I need. God has come to me as a friend, a sponsor, a program, a step, a kind word or a good deed, and yes, even this movie.

I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words, that he became all things to all people in order that he might win some to the good news of Christ (1 Cor. 9:22). I think Paul had a revelation of what God was like. If God is willing to become all things to all people in order that she might save some than I am more likely to improve my conscious contact with God on a daily basis (Step 11), believing in my bones that at any given moment I may be entertaining angels (Heb. 13:2). Furthermore, when I believe God is at work in all the world, seeking the lost and healing the wounded, I’m more inclined to offer grace and acceptance to those who see things differently from me today or who are being met by God in ways different from my own.

The last quote that spoke to me is the great truth I need to hear most. While Mack and the Holy Spirit are working in a garden filled with weeds and rocks, Spirit describes it as, “Wild, wonderful, and perfectly in process. This mess is you.”

Wild. Wonderful. Perfectly in process. That is me. I’m not perfect. I never will be perfect. But I am in process. And I am loved fully and completely in the midst of that mess and process. I don’t need to be some better version of myself to be accepted by God. This is the great truth that can defeat the great lie my addiction whispers to me daily.

I found myself weeping throughout The Shack because God used it to remind me that God is with me in my pain, that God will always meet me wherever I am in ways I need and can handle, and that God loves me furiously as her wild, wonderful and perfectly in process child.

The two things I struggle most to believe  – that God is good and that God loves me completely just as I am – found faith and hope in The Shack.   I need to spend more time with Papa in the shacks of my past, and I’m convinced that God used this movie to help this recovering addict to move along in my process.   I call that a gift. I call it good fruit.