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How Psalm 119 Saved My Life (and can do the same for you)

To those who desire to distance themselves from a life of bondage to habitual sin, who cannot seem to muster up enough faith to make it through the day (let alone move a mountain), and/or have lost or never had an abiding love for God’s word nor the discipline of reading it much and often, I offer the following discipline which, by the grace and power of God, helped to save my life (and can do the same for you, too).

My counselor at Pure Life gave me an exercise to do which I thought very little of at first.   He told me to read a portion of Psalm 119 every night for the entire time I was there (7 months).   Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible.  It is broken down into 22 stanzas, each one a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.   My task was to read 3 stanzas a night and 4 on the 7th night.   This would mean I’d read through the entire Psalm in a week.

But I was to do more than just read.   I was to take note of the verses that didn’t describe me at present and pray that the Lord would make that true of me.    Let me give you an example…

Verse one reads (yes, at that time it didn’t take long to find something that didn’t describe me!),

Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord!

My way was anything but blameless and I knew I did not walk in the law of the Lord.   I continually gave over to my flesh, feasting on whatever my eyes desired, and as a result my life was anything but “blessed.”   I was heading towards divorce, estranged from my 5 children, jobless and homeless.   Not blessed!

So, when I read this first verse and recognized this was not me, I prayed,

Lord, my way is anything but blameless and I have walked my own path for far too long.   Help me!   I want to be blameless in your sight.  Make me know and walk in your ways!

psalm 119_1

 

Verse 7 reads,

I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous rules.

Oh how I wanted to praise God with an upright heart!   For years I would stand in church whether as a spectator or a pastor and could not praise God with integrity.   How many times I would hoist up some shallow prayer of confession just before church, promising I’d not look at porn again (knowing I would at the first opportunity on Monday), just so I could appease my guilty conscious for an hour, further deluding myself that my praise was acceptable and pleasing to God.     Dear God, I prayed, teach me your righteous rules!   I want an upright heart!

On and on this inspired Psalm goes, with verse after verse which did not describe me as I was but as I hoped to one day be.    Over the weeks and months I began to see how the Holy Spirit was using these holy words to change me from the inside out.    I began to rejoice as I read these same words which weeks before condemned me.    What a joy it was to cry out to God in praise, “Yes!  Because of You I have an upright heart!   I can praise you with integrity!  I am truly blessed!   Your law is sweet and good, it is a light for my feet!   Your word keeps my way pure!”

Psalm 119 is about falling in love with God’s word.   It testifies to the power and authority of the words of God to change a heart from being consumed with self to becoming consumed with the Word.   Do you believe that God desires to make you new?   He will use his Word to accomplish this task.   Trust it!

If you are struggling with some habitual sin in your life, or find yourself less-than-passionate about reading God’s word, I challenge you to read/pray through Psalm 119 once a week for the next 6 months.   The person who comes to this inspired text with hands open and head bowed will not be disappointed.    You will be blessed.   God promises to do it!

 

 

Overcoming Addiction; Becoming More Than A Conqueror

This post is part II of my reflections from this past Sunday’s sermon on addiction.    You can read Part I HERE, which addresses the problem of addiction.   Today we will consider the solution.

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Before going further I think it’s important to note that addictions come in all shapes and sizes.   We can become addicted to anything.   Augustine famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find their rest in Thee.”   How true this is.   When God is not on the throne of our hearts any number of suitors will take his place.

Equally important to note is that addiction is not the problem.   Addiction is merely the symptom of a deeper issue.   Jesus said that it is out of the heart that good or evil flow, so if you find yourself habitually returning to the same sin over and over again then you don’t need a new program or method or counselor to help you get your life straightened out.   You need what Jesus said you – and I – need:  A new heart.

The good news here is that God is still in the business of turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  He delights in breaking the chains of a sinner whose will is chained at the altar of addiction and idolatry, setting them free “to both will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). 

I know first-hand how difficult it is to come to this realization that our heart’s are desperately wicked and that Jesus wants to make us new, not just better.    If you grew up in the church it is especially hard.   Working against me was a history of being a pastor’s kid, an undergrad degree in bible and theology, a seminary degree, and a number of years serving as a pastor.   With so much religion in my life it was easy to fall prey to spiritual pride, which convinced me I was essentially a good person, that my service to God and others counted for something, and that I just struggled with this “one thing,” but hey, everyone has their “thorn in the flesh,” right?

All of that is a lie which serves to keep us from experiencing the power, freedom and hope that Jesus promises we can have in him.   That power is freely offered to you but will not be fully realized until you accept God’s reality of things.   You are not a good person who occasionally (or often) does bad things but a sinner with a bad heart incapable of ever pleasing, or seeing, God (see Isa. 64:6 and Heb. 12:14).

We need new hearts, and thanks be to God, he is willing and able to give us what we need!

So the first step towards freedom from sin (addiction) is letting go of the pride in us that tries to justify ourselves before a holy God and reckon ourselves as that which God’s word says we are:  A sinner in need of a new heart.

Pastor Tim, in his sermon on Sunday, shared a story from Scripture that has much practical value for us here.   It is Matthew 17:14-21.  The first half of the story is about a man beseeching Jesus to heal his demon-possessed son.  He brought him to Jesus’ disciples first but they were unable to drive it out.   Before healing the boy, Jesus exclaims,

O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?

Jesus diagnoses their generation (and no doubt our own) as “unbelieving” and “perverse.”   Because of these two things, the disciples lacked the power to free this man’s son.  What does it mean to be unbelieving and perverse?

  • Unbelieving is to be not connected to God.

If you are addicted to something then you have something else on the throne of your heart other than God.  God is a jealous God and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can treat his temple (our bodies) casually (1 Cor. 6:19-20).   This is related to the second point…

  • Perverse is to be too connected to the world.

If Jesus’ generation loved the world how much more might that be of us today!   We love the comforts and thrills this world offers us and take little notice of how much of a hold it has on our spiritual lives.  Scripture teaches that friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4).    God calls us “adulterers” when we put the things of this world before our connection with Him.

And so, Jesus says, it is because we are not connected with God and are too connected with this world that we lack power in our lives to be the victorious, over-coming Christians we are called to be.

The disciples came to Jesus privately in the second half of our story above and ask Jesus why they could not drive out the demon.   Jesus tells them that they lack faith, but also tells us how we can make right the problem of being unbelieving and perverse.  If you are having a hard time driving out your demon of addiction, Jesus says,

This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting

Jesus calls prayer and fasting essential, so lets consider each.

  • Prayer connects us to God

I am ashamed to admit that I was once someone who scoffed at those who advised me I needed to pray more.  They were the sort of people I deleted from my life (mentioned in part I).   Our cynicism towards prayer and it’s efficacy is just one more symptom of our lack of faith and validation of Jesus’ claim that we live in an unbelieving and perverse generation.

However, there is some truth to the critics of “praying more.”    It’s not so much the “more” but the “how” and “why” that matters.   A person can pray 24 hours a day but if they cherish iniquity in their heart (as most addicts still do) or, for you husband’s, if you do not honor your wife and treat her as God commands, then nobody is listening on the other end of the line (see Psalm 66:18 and 1 Peter 3:7.  Also, you may be interested in a post on this blog titled “When God Doesn’t Listen”).

Most of my prayers as a habitual sinner (addict) were about God removing the painful circumstances that my sins have caused rather than submitting to a holy God whom I knew would demand radical heart surgery on me.   When our prayers are motivated by “worldly sorrow” rather than “godly sorrow” we are praying from a place of pride and the result will be further death, not life (2 Cor. 7:10).   The Puritan William Gurnall says of prayer,

Prayer is the main line that leads straight to the throne of God.  By it the Christian approaches God with a humble boldness of faith, takes hold of Him, wrestles with Him, and will not let Him go until he has His blessing.  (The Christian in Complete Armor Vol. I).

We can be assured that the blessing which God desires to bestow upon us is victory over every sin that besets us, including the most pernicious of addictions, for His will for us is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3).

  • Secondly, fasting disconnects us from the world.

One of the great benefits of my time at Pure Life was that it forced me to disconnect from the world.   In doing so I realized just how much the love of this world had a hold on me.  I also learned that I would not die without watching TV!   For 7 months I was without radio, TV, internet, magazines, etc.  I fed myself with a steady diet of Scripture, Prayer, Worship and Christian books.

I also took on a weekly habit of fasting for 24 hours from food, something I had never done before that time, nor did I understand it’s benefits.   God used that time where I denied myself food to teach me that I could, in fact, say “NO” to the desires of my flesh.   Without really realizing it at the time I was strengthening my spiritual “muscles.”   Since I knew I could say no to food when my stomach growled I became increasingly confident that I could also say no to lust when it beckoned.   The fruit of the Spirit which includes “self-control” began to take root in my life from the discipline of fasting.

I’ve been home from Pure Life now for over 7 months and have continued my practice of fasting in order to be less connected to the world.   We don’t have a TV in our home save one in the kids room for Ava’s Mickey Mouse episodes.   We listen to Christian music in our home and read Christian books.   My time on the internet is guarded, filtered, and used as needed.   As a family we always went to the beach for summer vacations but this year we opted not to go, as it was a source of temptation.

Jesus said to be radical with sin that threatens to destroy us – to go as far as cutting out the eye or the limb.   If you find yourself being constantly defeated by the same habitual patterns or sins, I can testify that cutting out the many inroads the world has in your life, while adding prayer for the right reasons from a right heart, will destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) and you will be more than a conqueror, (Rom. 8:37) just as God said you would be.

*Thanks to my good friend and pastor, Tim Paul, for supplying the bullet points above.   Your sermon really spoke to me, and I pray my reflections upon it serve as a testament to that. 

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.

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.