Sober? Or Holy?

One of the unique features of  SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) is it’s sobriety plan.   Unlike AA where the boundaries of sobriety are easily demarcated (no drinking), sex apparently has a lot of gray area.   As such, each person, along with the help of their sponsor (mentor), defines a sobriety plan unique to the individual.

I knew guys who had sobriety plans which stated they had to remain completely abstinent from pornography.   I knew others who thought pornography was OK so long as they did not sleep with prostitutes.  Others had a sobriety plan which stated they could not masturbate more than twice in one week.   Anything more than that was a “slip” which meant they were no longer sober.

Everyone had a different definition of sobriety based upon their own understanding of themselves and their struggle.  A sponsor’s task was to help the sponsee formulate and stick to a plan.  Each member of the group supported each person’s individual goals for sobriety and it was considered improper to question the adequacy of the sobriety plan of another.

Looking back, it’s remarkable to me that as a professing Christian and practicing pastor I never thought to question this.  I probably even thought it compassionate.  Or maybe I thought how wonderfully liberating it is to not have anyone telling me what is best for me!   Knowing myself, probably more of the latter.

Jesus no doubt would have been banned from an SAA meeting because he would not have tolerated such “compassion” to one’s self.   Nor would he flinch from asserting authority where needed.    He would have set the bar much higher than any one of us would set it ourselves and he would demand our pursuit of it.   Jesus would say to us today, just as he did then, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Jesus didn’t call us to be sober.   He called us to be holy.

God’s idea of holiness is not subject to change based upon our understanding of ourselves or our personal struggle.   God is not impressed with our sobriety plans and how well we uphold them, particularly when they fail to meet His plan for holiness in our lives.    Jesus said that anyone who even looks at a woman with the intent to lust has already committed adultery (Matt. 5:28).   Thus, pornography (not to mention sleeping around), is not just a “slip” that may or may not jeopardize a sobriety plan but a sin against a holy God.  It’s adultery, and God hates it.

Likewise, the man or woman who equivocates about masturbation is bargaining with God.   Limiting the occurrence to twice a week (which may be a victory for some) may earn a person a sobriety chip at their next meeting but it is not going to be a sacrifice pleasing to God.   God wants our heart- all of it – and a sobriety plan which allows for “just a little sin a few times a week” is a poor path towards God’s will for us, such as…

Be holy, for I am holy (1 Peter 1:16) or,

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thess. 4:3)

God wants more for us than sobriety.   God wants us to be holy.

The same is true for the Christian who feels they are not addicted to anything.    There is a corollary here between the addict pursuing sobriety and the Christian pursuing God.

In the same way the sex addict gets to choose their sobriety plan we are now part of a Church culture which allows the Christian to dictate their own plan of salvation.   Respect for authority is nil.  We all have our own ways of “doing church” and “worshiping God” and if anyone tells us we are wrong we will happily find another “group” that will accept us as we are and demand little if nothing of us in return.   Pastors in every circle seem to fear man more than God and have long abdicated their sacred calling to disciple people to holiness in favor of catering to congregants felt-needs.   We dare not question anyone’s “salvation path” in the same way it is uncouth to question anyone’s sobriety plan.

Pleasing our own self-interests is not a game only addicts play.   It happens among the best and the soberest among us. 

Jesus said that the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many (Matt. 7:13).   The way forward, Jesus says, is through the narrow gate.    The road may be hard, but it is worth it.   It leads to a life beyond “recovery” and one the Scriptures call “new creation.”

So what should we do?   New creation doesn’t happen unless the old one dies.  Addict or not, it’s wise to follow Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church and,

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13:5)

Does the power of God reside within you, enabling you to say no to your flesh?   Is your heart’s desire to please God and bring Him glory for the sole purpose that He is God?   Do you long for holiness in your life?   Do you allow others to have an authoritative voice into your life to help squash the tentacles of pride and the deceitfulness of your own heart?   Are you walking in the Spirit or in your flesh?

How we answer these questions could reveal a life that is either chasing after sobriety (as an addict or a church-consuming Christian) or one that is chasing after God’s own heart.    The former seems to be what the masses are doing and it leads to death.   The latter, Jesus said, is a path few will find, but it leads to life.

So what will you choose?   Being sober?  Or being holy?

Advertisements

When God Doesn’t Listen

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I cried out to God to change me.  To take away the desire to look at pornography, to lust, to cheat, to lie.     The number of bruised palms from slamming the steering wheel after driving away from yet another indulgence I vowed just the day before I wouldn’t do.

The tortured yearnings of an addict.

We cry to God.   No one seems to be home.

There is a reason for this.    And the reason is not because I wasn’t working the steps hard enough or making my daily phone calls to my sponsor.   It’s not because my counselor just doesn’t understand addiction.   It’s not because I suffer from some childhood father or mother wound.    It’s not because I don’t know how to pray.

No.   The reason God seemed distant despite my emotional pleas for help is a simple yet hard truth:

I loved myself, and my sin, more than God.  

There is a passage in Psalm 66 which cuts through all the excuses and charades we as addicts are encouraged to play in our culture today.    It reads,

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psalm 66:18)

God knows the heart.  He sees our innermost thoughts and motives.   God sees what and who we love and knows when our cries for deliverance stem from a selfish desire – such as restoration of a marriage or career or reputation – rather than a desire to serve and honor a holy, jealous God who demands our sole allegiance.

And so it is that God will turn a deaf ear towards us in our darkest hours until our worldly sorrow is replaced with godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10).     Worldly sorrow, the sort of sorrow that regrets the consequences of our addiction, leads us deeper and deeper into the pit.    Godly sorrow, the sort of sorrow that reckons our addiction as sin and despises it for how it offends God, leads to true repentance, and therefore, life.

Be honest with God.   Confess the love affair you have with your sin and ask God to help you see your sin the way God sees it.     This is a prayer God is sure to hear and desires to answer.

Psalm 66 is not without hope.    Hear this great promise found within it, and may it be your testimony as well:

For you, O God, have tested us;
You have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;

You laid a crushing burden on our backs;

You let men ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;

Yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

God Wants to Make You New, Not Better

My pastor’s sermon yesterday at Riverstone UMC touched on the power of the Holy Spirit to change our lives.  One of the Scriptures he read was Acts 1:5-8, which is Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit.   Jesus said,

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you

More and more professing Christians today seem to lack power.  I know this was true in my own life for many years and as I look around at the rates of addiction, divorce, depression, suicide, relational woes, church splits, gossip, fears, anxiety and so on within the church world I am left to conclude one of two things:

1)  Jesus overstated his case, or,

2)  The Holy Spirit hasn’t come upon many of us.

I have no reason to call Jesus a liar but I think I have every reason, based on what I see in my own heart, to believe many of us approach the things of God with an attitude that says,

I’ve got all I need, thanks.

And in so doing we grieve the Holy Spirit.

The greatest news on earth is that even while we are here we can be made into new creations through Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  This is tremendous news for the addict who thinks he or she must forever identify themselves with their addiction or be chasing after the idol called recovery.     God doesn’t just want to make you better.  He desires to make you new.

And He has the power to do so.

It’s my testimony that God meets us in our deepest need and becomes that need fulfilled.    Christ truly is our “all in all.”    It’s also my testimony that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).   We must come to God as empty vessels, with nothing in our hands but our brokenness and a willingness to surrender all that was and is about us.

God can’t fill us if we already think we are full.

So how do we walk in the power Jesus promised us as Christians?

What I am about to say would have greatly offended the “me” of a year ago but I have come to see it as truth and power.

First, we must humble ourselves before a holy God and reckon our addiction not as a “hang-up” or a “struggle” or a “thorn in our flesh” but as sin which offends God and makes a mockery of grace.    Jesus did not hang on a cross for us to be saddled with an addiction for the rest of our lives but he came to “destroy the works of the devil.”   No one born of God makes a practice of sinning (1 John 3:8-9).

The beautiful thing about naming it for what it is – sin – is that sin, unlike “addiction,” has a cure.   The same power that rose Christ from the dead will make a home in the  one who truly repents and agrees with God that the reason we continue to stumble is because we love our sin more than we love God.

When I was in the pig sty of my addiction I was still convinced that God and I were OK.   Nothing could be further from the truth!  In the same way that God had departed from King Saul in his sin (1 Sam. 16:14; 18:12), God departs from the one who continues to walk in the flesh.

The second thing we must do is stay needy.    We must learn to stay at the foot of the cross, which we now see as our only hope.    As we fix our gaze upon Jesus we will find it natural and necessary to let go of the things of this world which used to fill our lives as well as find the energy and will to invest ourselves in the lives of others, extending the same mercy to others that we have been so graciously shown on the cross.

This is the beginning of walking in the Spirit, which is power and life, versus walking in our flesh, which is death.   I know that in my own life, the extent to which I denied these truths is the same extent to which I lived a defeated Christian existence.    I had no power.   I had no self-control.    I had no will to please God or serve others.

But all that has changed, praise be to God, and I know the same can be true for you, too.

God doesn’t desire to make you better.  He wants to make you new!

The Lie about Lying

Addicts are masters at lying.   They are better at it than people who are not addicts not because non-addicts don’t lie (they do) but because addicts get more opportunities to practice their craft.   And as the old adage goes, practice makes perfect.

 
Why do we lie?   Yesterday I read a post hosted by our friends at Castimonia, a Christian site dedicated to helping men find sexual purity, which sought to answer that question.    It’s written by a PhD, A. Michael Johnson, and he argues that addicts lie because they learned as children, like all of us, that lying protects us.   We crave love and compassion and acceptance and we learn early on that lying can meet these felt-needs.

This signal to lie to protect ourselves becomes automatic over time and is signaled by fear and bolstered by a “fabrication system” which helps us recall lies that worked while also inventing new ones.   The good news, Johnson argues, is that with some “effort and help” we can learn to detect the signal of fear and choose a more healthy alternative as well as overwrite the “fabrication system” with more mature, truthful responses.

He concludes by writing,

Understanding how you came to be a liar is important because it helps to strengthen your compassion for yourself. You did not learn to lie because you were a bad person. You learned to lie because you were a frightened child protecting himself. That understanding is not a justification for continuing to lie. The understanding helps to remove obstacles to living in the truth. And living in the truth is a central thread in the fabric of recovery.

With all due respect to the folks at Castimonia, I believe this article is a beautiful lie.    The only thing I agree with is the last sentence -that living in the truth is central to recovery – but this article obscures the truth and prevents anyone who is truly seeking freedom from finding it.

Back when I was seeking “recovery” as opposed to “freedom” (there is a difference) I longed to find some point in my past which would help explain me to myself and the world.    I wanted so desperately to find some sort of traumatic event, abuse, organic deficiency – anything! – that would explain why I was such a mess.    Surely I can’t be this bad of a person, can I?  Surely there is some reason behind it all, right?

This quest to pacify ourselves  is the project of modern, secular psychology and 12 step programs.   It’s captured beautifully in Johnson’s concluding remarks where he writes, “Understanding how you came to be a liar is important because it helps to strengthen your compassion for yourself.”

This is the beautiful lie:  First, that the goal is to understand ourselves, and second, that the reason we want to better understand ourselves is so we can be more compassionate to ourselves.

The person who follows this logic is no better than a dog chasing his own tail.   The addict is an addict because he is fixated on himself – he is selfish to the core – and deliverance will not come by understanding himself better or being more compassionate to himself.   When I was in the pit of my sexual addiction and doing exactly what I wanted when I wanted I assure you I was being very compassionate to myself!

So why do people lie?   Here is truth:

Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit.   You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right  (Psalm 52:2-3).

Jesus said that  out of the abundance of what is in the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45) and his brother, James, says the tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison,” and contrary to Johnson’s optimism that a bit of “effort and help” can make a person more truthful, Scripture says no human being can tame the tongue (James 3:8).

The goal of understanding ourselves is to bring us to the end of ourselves.   Victory for me did not come by finding something to blame in my childhood but by recognizing that I was a sinner and that I loved lying more than I loved telling the truth.  I loved my sin and the comforts it afforded me more than I loved God and others.   Rather than being gentler and more compassionate on myself I needed to see my lying for what it really was:  a sin that offended a holy God.   I had to cry with David, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).

And in that terrifying moment I discovered an amazing truth.  I discovered amazing grace!   I discovered that whatever compassion I was seeking to show myself pales in comparison to the compassion God in Christ showed me on the cross.   The cross both indicted and liberated me, causing me to see the truth about myself and the evil of which I’m capable while simultaneously revealing an indescribable love so infinitely attractive I was willing to surrender everything and live no longer for myself (and my own protection) but for Jesus who became my all in all.

If you find yourself addicted to lying please know you don’t have to dig up the past to better understand why you do what you do.   God has already told you.  And God has already graciously provided a way out.  Freedom will come not when you learn to be more compassionate to yourself but when you learn to die to yourself.

And what God raises to new life in the process is sweeter than any comforts our lies seek to protect.

Is Marriage Meant to Make Me Happy?

I read a blog post from my friend, Joe, titled, “Is Marriage the New Divorce?” which prompted the writing of this.  In that article, Joe makes this statement:

Married is the new divorced. If you get married before twenty-five people expect you to get divorced. Of course, if you get married after twenty-five, people expect you to get divorced too. If you’ve been married for more than a few years and you tell people you’re happy being married, they look at you as though you’re crazy.

I believe he’s right.  Divorce today is so common and accepted that long-lasting marriages, like the 60 years of marriage my grandparents will celebrate this Thanksgiving, are not just rare, but odd.

This is true whether one professes faith in Christ or not.  Divorce rates among people within and without the Church are identical.  This is not all that surprising since churches today seem to pander more towards people’s happiness rather than their holiness.

In Gary Thomas’ excellent book, Sacred Marriage, he challenges the idea that marriages exist to make us happy.  Rather, he argues, marriage is God’s means to make us holy.   Holiness can lead to lasting joy, which surpasses the fleeting feeling of happiness.

But holiness does not come without a fight.   Thomas rightly observes that we live in a nation of quitters.  We have lost our eternal perspective which can and should help us to better bear our crosses.   I know that for myself, in time’s past, it was very hard for me to endure any sort of suffering when I had little interest in eternal things.   I bought into the lie that suggests that people can be so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.   The truth is that anyone who sets their gaze upon the things of Christ, as Paul directs us in Colossians 3, will be of infinite value on earth as well.

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:2-4, ESV).

It’s in the context of this passage that Paul gives guidance for loving and bearing one another, being thankful in all things, submission and sacrifice towards our spouse, forgiving each other as we have been forgiven in Christ, enduring one another with patience, compassion towards one another as well as putting to death our fleshly instincts of lusts and passions (our overwhelming desire to satisfy ourselves rather than God).

Our ever-climbing divorce rates signal a lack of persistence in living a holy life.   Instead we are chasing the ever-elusive carrot of “happiness” that we feel we deserve and wrongly assume God wants.

1 Peter 1:16 does not read, “Be Happy, for I am Happy” but “Be Holy, for I am Holy.”  The man or woman who claims to be a Christian is deceived if they think this command is optional and is not actively pursuing it with all their heart, soul, body and mind.

Image

Thomas writes,

The holiness that will be rewarded in heaven is a persistent holiness.  Read through the entire Bible, and I promise you, you won’t find one reference to a “crown in heaven” that goes to the person who had the “happiest” life on earth.   That reward just doesn’t exist.  Nor is there a heavenly ribbon for the Christian who felt the least amount of pain (pg. 110).

My wife, Amy, can anticipate such a reward from our Lord.   When she had every right to divorce me for my unfaithfulness she chose instead to surrender her felt needs of attaining personal happiness and pursue instead God’s radical call to holiness.   As Amy chose to focus on the things that are above she became a living signpost here below of the God who forgives and heals and restores.   Our marriage today is a testimony to the sort of joy that can come from a life submitted wholly to God’s will rather than our own.

Tragically, this sort of testimony has become the exception rather than the rule even among Christian marriages.   Amy and I talk often about how sad it is that our story of reconciliation and forgiveness is heralded among Christians as miraculous and extraordinary.   While we give glory to God for the work He has accomplished in us, both personally and as a family, we contend that our story ought to be common-place among the Church.   We pray for and long for the day when people will hear our testimony and compare it to numerous examples of the same they have experienced in their own church.

Your past, like our own, may be littered with sinful decisions and mistakes.  God is faithful to forgive and is more than willing and able to bring healing to your soul.   It will not come without a fight, nor will it come by pursuing your own happiness.   It comes through the pursuit of holiness.  And this is God’s will for you and I, beginning today.

How will you choose to be holy in your marriage today?

Jesus is King?

My devotional time the past few weeks has been spent reading through 1st and 2nd Samuel along with the Psalms.    Many of the stories found here are familiar ones:   David slaying Goliath, Saul’s downward spiral into insanity, David committing adultery with Bathsheba,  Nathan’s “You the Man!” speech, etc.

Lesser known, perhaps, are the names of people committed to King David such as Abner, Hushai, Ittai the Gittite, and others.   This morning I read about Ittai in 2 Samuel 15.   David and his people are in the midst of fleeing Jerusalem because his son, Absalom, is about to attack.   They are heading out into the wilderness and David stands at the edge of the city, watching the people file by.   Ittai is one of them and David stops him, telling him he need not come into the wilderness but can be free to go with his family wherever he wishes.   The reason?  Because Ittai, a foreigner, only just came to Jerusalem “yesterday” and is not expected to be so loyal to David.    Ittai answered the king, saying,

As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king shall be, whether for death or for life, there also will your servant be.

What loyalty!   Ittai had only just come under the king’s domain and yet he was willing to live or die with him.   So sold out was he and his household that his own life and desires took a back seat.

Perhaps there is a corollary to be found here with Ittai’s inspired devotion the day after his arrival and our own impassioned love for Jesus the moment we first meet him.   We don’t know much about Ittai’s faithfulness years down the road but we know something of our own, don’t we?    What may have at first burned bright over time becomes like some of my white t-shirts, which one friend of mine described as “manilla.”

Jesus reveals through his Apostle John that many of us who claim allegiance to the king at first will wax cold.   Many will “abandon their first love” (Rev. 2:4), we will “tolerate” the seductive spirit of this world (2:20), we will claim to be alive and well (3:1) and be satisfied in our prosperity and self-sufficiency (3:17).

Our once-white shirts have become stained with conflicting passions and allegiances.

Today is election day in America and I have seen a fitting picture making it’s way around the internet, perhaps you have seen this too:

I love the sentiment expressed here but I have to ask the question, to myself first:

Is Jesus my King?

While it might make a great bumper sticker, I worry that it stays only that.   I know in my own life there was a time where I would say such lofty things but my personal life was wrought with things that served to please only myself rather than the one I called King of kings and Lord of lords.   I was ‘exhibit A’ of what Jesus is condemning in Revelations 2 and 3 –  people who made up the Church and probably said pithy things like “No matter who is Caesar, Jesus is King.”

And so it is that today I find myself asking:  Is Jesus really my King?   What does it mean to say that He is?   How would my life have to change, what priorities would need to be altered, what desires surrendered and what allegiances severed for this to be really true?   Who am I really serving?

Ittai the Gittite is a footnote in the biblical corpus as most of us are going to be footnotes (if that) in American history.   Will people of tomorrow marvel at our allegiance to our King as I find myself marveling at Ittai’s allegiance to David?

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! (Rev. 5:12)