Doubt vs. Certainty

Doubt and Certainty. I’ve been chewing on these words for a few weeks and something I read online yesterday brought them both into sharper focus for me. I have been thinking about the moments in my life where I was the most certain about certain things of God and how those moments didn’t serve me very well. Moments like when I was absolutely certain that there was no hell. Or moments when I was absolutely certain that there was. Moments when I was absolutely certain that no one would be in hell as well as moments when I was certain I knew exactly who will one day be there.  Additionally, there have been moments when I was absolutely certain that God blesses and celebrates gay men and women and moments when I was absoulely certain that God abhorred such unions.

These are just a few examples of things I have believed passionately at one time or another. They are very different from each other but the one thing they all have in common is the tenacity and certainty with which I held those beliefs. It felt good to be certain – to have a side on which I could plant my flag among a community of like minded people who were equally certain that we were right and they were wrong.

I have also had moments – even long seasons – of doubt. In recent months and years I have doubted that God loves me. I have doubted that God is for me. I have doubted that God would want anything to do with me because of choices I had made and habits in which I have gleefully wallowed. I have doubted that my life can be salvaged or that I could be forgiven. I’ve doubted that the church could be a place of healing and restoration, or that she would even welcome me were I to return.

Doubt, coupled with shame, have been my most constant companions for much of the past few years.

I share all that to say this: I think one of the things God is trying to teach me, and the thing I have been chewing on these last few weeks, is that neither one of these places – certainty and doubt – are healthy places for me.  Certainty tends to give root to pride, and doubt tends to give root to hopelessness.   These are not the best God has for me, or for you.  God hasn’t saved me so that I can be certain about certain theological concepts nor so that I might never doubt again. God knows I am human and designed me that way. God knows my weaknesses far better than I and isn’t expecting that I never doubt again or that I never get puffed up with certainty again. But just because he understands me and knows my heart is prone to wander into either of these two extremes doesn’t mean he desires for me to stay there.

I’m grateful that there have been people in my life who encourage and exhort me towards humilty when I am certain and trust when I am doubting. It is humilty and trust, rather than certainty and doubt, which are the virtues that serve me best in my Christian journey. This is what I am learning.

When people ask me today what my thoughts are about the existence of hell or the posture God has towards gay people, my answer is this: I don’t know. I leave those things to God who I am learning to trust is loving, just, good and true. My job, as I see it, is to love people and embrace them where they are, as they are, for who they are. Rather than try to make them fit my mold I pray that God would see fit to move in their lives in whatever way God sees fit today and that they, and I, be humble enough and open enough to receive it. I am learning that this way works for me far better than the other ways I have tried. I’m amazed to see how the Holy Spirit is capable of enlightening others to the way of Jesus when I just get out of the way and choose to be a friend.

And as for my doubts, I still struggle but I am learning to trust more. The more I sit in circles with recovering addicts like myself and hear people share their own struggles as well as joys around God and life, or how they too doubt God’s love for them at times or have witnessed God’s hand in something as simple as a cup of coffee or a hug, the more I realize that God is with me in ways I have not previously seen or understood. I’m learning to trust that he is with me and that he is someone I can once more turn my will and life over to one day at a time.

Humility and Trust. These are the spiritual realms in which I strive to live but don’t always succeed. When I do get side-tracked and slip into the far more human realms of Certainty and Doubt, I welcome feedback from fellow pilgrims who speak truth into my life and remind me that there is something better than both of those states. They aren’t trying to shame me for feeling that way. Rather, they are loving me by wanting more for me – for reminding me that I, too, want more for me. And so does God. In this way, these friends and reminders are, to steal a phrase from Barbara Brown Taylor, like altars in this world. I don’t always see them or heed them, but when I do, it’s a moment worthy of giving thanks, as I trust this hastily written post serves to do.

Thank you to all of you who have been, and continue to be, altars in this world.

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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?

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.

Call upon Me, and I will deliver you

This stretch of days in my devotional book seems to be addressing the need to surrender to God in order to defeat the power of sin in our lives.   Each day is just awesome. I commend this devotional book to you if you don’t already have it.   I’m sharing yesterday’s reading if not for you, than for my own edification.  Typing it out and saving it here helps me.   Blessings.

June 28

Call upon Me…I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me. (Psalm 50:15)

Christian man, by grace – that is to say, by the Holy Spirit of God – you have believed, and live.  You are a limb of Christ, who is your life.  But you are a sinner still; always, actually and potentially.  For whatever the presence of the Spirit in you has done, it has not so altered you that, if He should go, you would not instantly revert to unholiness.  Do you, if I may put it so, use your regenerate self in an unregenerate way, meeting temptation and the tendency to sin by yourself alone, with only high resolves, and moral scorn of wrong, and discipline on body or mind?

God forbid we should call these things evil.  They are good.  But they are aspects, not the essence, of the secret.  It is the Lord Himself dwelling in you who is your victory; and that victory is to be realized by a conscious and decisive appeal to Him. “Though Him you shall do valiantly; for He it is that shall tread down your enemies.” (Ps. 60:12).

And is this not proved true in your experience? When, in your regenerate state, you use the true regenerate way, is there not a better record to be given? When, realizing that the true principle is indeed a Person, you resolve and struggle less, and appeal and confide more – is not sin’s reign broken, and is not your foot, even yours, because you are in conscious union with the Conqueror, placed effectually on “all power of the Enemy”?

~ H.C.G Moule, The Epistle to the Romans

Surrendering our power

From my devotional book, Living the Christ Life, this was too good not to share.   This is what Step One is all about: Admitting we are powerless over our compulsion and that our lives have become unmanageable.

The things which are impossible with men are possible with God. (Luke 18:27)”

Your Christian life is every day to be a proof that God works impossibilities; your life is to be a series of impossibilities made possible and actual by God’s almighty power. Have you learned to deal so closely with an almighty God that you know omnipotence is working in you?

The cause of the weakness of your Christian life is that you want to work it out partly, and to let God “help” you. And that cannot be. You must come to be utterly helpless, to let God work, and God will work gloriously!

I could go through Scripture and prove to you how Moses, when he led Israel out of Egypt, how Joshua, when he brought them into the land of Canaan, how all God’s servants in the Old Testament counted upon the omnipotence of God doing impossibilities. And this God lives *today*, and this God is the God of every child of His!

Yet some of us want God to give us a little help while we do our best, instead of coming to understand what God wants and to say, ” I can do nothing; God must and will do all.” Have you said, “In worship, in work, in sanctification, in obedience to God, I can do nothing of myself, and so my place is to worship the omnipotent God, and to believe that He will work in me every moment?” May God teach us this!

~ Andrew Murray, “Absolute Surrender”