Category Archives: personal

The first battle of the day

Meadowkirk Tree at Sunset

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other Voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussing and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

God says, “You are mine. I love you.”

Lord, let that be our perspective throughout our day. Amen.

[H/T to John Sowers' The Heroic Path.]

Who you are

[Adapted from Sunday's message: "The Vital Importance of Knowing Who You Are." Listen to the full sermon here.]

A couple weeks ago, I was with some new friends, and we were introducing ourselves, and the cue was

What do we need to know about you to know you?

That’s another way of asking, “Who are you?” If someone were to ask you that question, how would you respond? How would you identify yourself?

  • By your job?
  • By where you’re from?
  • By whether you’re married or single, a parent or a grandparent?
  • By how old you are?
  • By what you like to do?

How would you talk about your identity, about who you are?

Psychologist James Marcia proposes that there are four statuses (not stages) in identity development:

  1. Identity diffusion is when a person is unable or unwilling to explore or commit to any particular identity. The least complex and least mature position. Apathy.
  2. Foreclosure occurs when a person embraces clear commitments, but they’re just inherited from parents or culture, chosen without serious thought or exploration.
  3. Moratorium (sometimes referred to as “crisis”) is a time of exploring options of who a person wants to be.
  4. Achievement occurs when a person resolves their explorations, works through crisis and make clear commitments.[1]

Sticky FaithAccording to psychologists and sociologists, young people nowadays are taking more and more time to commit to who they want to become, more time to cultivate an identity. Kara Powell and Chap Clark, who work at the Fuller Youth Institute and interact with a lot of adolescents and teenagers, write:

The breadth of peer relationships that young people experience means they get a wider variety of feedback about how they are perceived. Because friends’ opinions matter so much during adolescence, the result is a delay in identity formation. Quite simply, kids receive inconsistent and too much feedback in response to what they say and how they act, so they often postpone committing to who they want to become.[2]

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had some great conversations with the guys in my small group about what it means to follow Jesus—what it means to be a guy who follows Jesus, what it means to be a 20-something or a 30-something or a 40-something here in DC who follows Jesus, what it means to be a single person or a married person who follows Jesus. All of these conversations revolve around that issue of identity—of who we are.

Because here’s what I think:

who we are determines how we live.

Who you are will determine:

  • how you respond when something bad happens—whether it’s small like losing a key or stubbing your toe, or whether it’s big like having your heart broken, losing a loved one, getting sick;
  • what you feel called to, what you are willing to do, and what you will do even if you don’t want to do it;
  • what you do with your money, what you spend it on, how much you give away, and whom you give to;
  • what you spend your time doing and who you spend it with;
  • how you engage in friendships and in dating relationships;
  • how you think about marriage and whom you choose to marry.

Who we are determines how we live.

PaintBut the thing is, many of us don’t know who we are. That “delay in identity formation” feels like it applies not just to teenagers nowadays, but also, still, to some of us: there are so many voices clamoring for our attention, so many opinions, so many perspectives, so many people telling us so many different things, and because we want people to like us, because we want people to affirm us, because we do what we think they want us to do, we end up not knowing who we are, and so we end up not knowing how to live … at least not with consistency and stability.

Pastor and author John Ortberg says,

The soul without a center finds its identity in externals.[3]

Maybe you’ve tried to find your identity in your work, in romantic relationships, in how many people you’ve slept with, in athletic ability, in your families, or in educational achievement.

Maybe you’ve crafted an identity: a work identity—the hard worker, the one who gets things done; a relationship identity—the smooth talker, the one who’s hard to get; a social media presence that doesn’t quite match reality because you only post about the good times; an online dating profile in which every picture of you is flattering or you say you love sports (which is technically true but honestly you’ve watched more sports than you’ve played sports); a LinkedIn page that makes you sound a lot more accomplished than you are or feel—especially because now people can recommend you for the skills they think you’re good at.

Maybe you’ve distracted yourself so you don’t have to figure out who you are (at least that’s what you’re telling yourself): serial dating, assuming every time it breaks down that it was the other person’s fault; sleeping around or just “hanging out” so you can get some sort of affirmation—they may not love me but at least they like having me around and that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?

If we don’t know who we are, we won’t know how to live with consistency and stability and integrity. That word “integrity” carries notions of wholeness, of not being divided. That is the kind of life Jesus lived—where his words and his deeds lined up—and that, I believe, is the kind of life Jesus invites us to live with him.

And so, in talking about our identity, I want to talk first about Jesus’ identity—who Jesus was, who Jesus is—because who Jesus is has everything to do with who we are, and in three ways in particular:

  1. we are humans, created in the image of God, created to show God to the world, and Jesus was the most human of us all, the truest image of God, the fullest embodiment of God the world has ever seen—so if you want to know how to live fully, look at Jesus;
  2. we are redeemed by Jesus in order to work with Jesus to reconcile all things to Jesus—so if you want to know your purpose in life, Jesus is pretty important to that too;
  3. for those who have made the decision to become a Christ-follower, to acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord, we are called to be like him.

So knowing who Jesus is, is an indispensable part of knowing who we are.

Let’s look at Luke 3:21-23:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.

Francesco Alban’s Baptism of Christ

Many of your Bibles probably label this passage as “Jesus’ baptism,” but the funny thing is, the baptism is not the main point here. Matthew and Mark, in their gospel accounts, spend more time narrating what actually happens at Jesus’ baptism; Luke just says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.”

John the Baptist was calling people to repent and be baptized as a symbol of cleansing and entering into a new way of living. People were coming to John to repent of their sins and be baptized, and Jesus was baptized, too. Only … he didn’t have any sin; he didn’t sin—that’s part of why, according to the Christian story, Jesus was able to be the One to save us, because he was without fault, because he never did anything wrong, because he lived life as truly and as fully as a human being was created to. So why, you might ask, did Jesus come to be baptized when he didn’t ‘need’ to be baptized? This is what Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote—and I like this a lot:

In the life of each of us there are certain definite stages, certain hinges on which our whole life turns. It was so with Jesus, and every now and again we must stop and try to see his life as a whole. … When John emerged the people flocked out to hear him and to be baptized. Throughout the whole country there was an unprecedented movement towards God. And Jesus knew that his hour had struck. It was not that he was conscious of sin and of the need of repentance. It was that he knew that he too must identify himself with this movement towards God.[4]

Jesus was saying, “This is my life-direction. This is the time to make public my identification with what John has said, with what John is doing, and, more importantly, with what God is doing at this time and in this place.” It was a hinge-point in his life, a juncture at which he sensed God’s calling to a new chapter.

Luke tells us Jesus was about thirty years old. Thirty meant something for the people of Israel: thirty was

  • how old you had to be to become a priest;
  • how old Joseph was when he entered the service of Pharaoh (in Genesis 41);
  • how old the prophet Ezekiel was when he was called to ministry;
  • how old David was when he became king.

Now, you may be thirty—or you may not be. Either way, maybe you’re at a juncture in your life where you’ve sensed God calling you to step out in faith: maybe to trust in him for the first time, maybe to commit your finances to him by giving to the church or another organization that’s seeking to see the kingdom of God here on earth—more of up there down here, maybe to commit your future to him by breaking off a dead-end relationship situation or by making a lifelong commitment to somebody.

Wherever you are, I pray that your ears and your heart will be open to what God is saying, and that, like Jesus, you’ll respond and move into that.

Throughout his gospel, Luke presents Jesus as a man of prayer, pointing out many incidents when Jesus would withdraw to commune with God. That’s all prayer is: taking time to talk with God about what we’re doing together.

I want to be a man of prayer; I want to be in constant contact with the One who knows what’s going on—because much of the time, I don’t! I want our church to be a place of prayer, a place where people commune and communicate with God. I want our community to have a culture of prayer: in the midst of the busyness and activity of DC, I want The District Church to be and be known as a haven of consistency and stability and integrity and peace—“the rest of will that results from assurance about how things will turn out,” as Dallas Willard puts it, because it knows and trusts the One who, in all things, is working for our good. That’s why prayer is important; that’s why, even though I think I’m terrible at praying, I keep working at it, I keep trying to grow in it, I keep asking God to help me be a better pray-er—and even that is praying!

So Jesus, after he’s been baptized, prays; after this definitive moment in his life, he talks with God … and “heaven was opened.” The opening of heaven was symbolic of God’s revelation, God’s showing of himself to his people; it was an indicator that God was about to do something big. After hundreds of years of silence, a voice comes calling in the wilderness; John comes as a prophet of the Lord, having received the word of the Lord, to call all people to the Lord. That’s a sign that something is stirring. And now, after the baptism of Jesus, heaven is opened. Something is happening. Winter is coming. (That’s a Game of Thrones reference, in case you didn’t get it.) The King is returning. (That’s from Lord of the Rings … and from the Bible.) God is about to do something amazing.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happens as Jesus is praying. There have been times in my life where I’ve wondered why I haven’t heard from God, and then he reminds me that I haven’t been listening, that I haven’t been spending much time with him lately. It’s hard to hear when you aren’t listening; it’s hard to have a conversation if you aren’t willing to make time for it.

Verse 22:

the Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.

Jesus is anointed by the Spirit of God. It’s a sign that he has been chosen by God for a mission, an indicator that he has been commissioned by God for a task and equipped by God for this purpose. It was the Spirit of God that would enable and empower Jesus to do everything he did—signs and wonders; words of truth and love and grace. It was the Spirit of God that would raise Jesus from the dead. And that same Spirit of God, if you put your trust in Jesus, that same Spirit of God lives in you. That same Spirit of God is part of who you are, part of your identity. That same Spirit of God continues to be at work in and through and with you and the larger body of Christ—the Church—to bring life to the world. None of what we want to do—seek the renewal of our city; live good, Christ-imitating lives; love God and those around us with integrity—none of that is possible without the Spirit of God.

And yet so many of us try. So many of us try to change the world/ourselves/other people through our own efforts, apart from God. But God is already working, by his Spirit, in and through people who have dedicated themselves to see God’s renewal on earth—and sometimes even through those who haven’t. What we’re asked to do is be a part of that, to partner in that, to open ourselves up, to trust in Jesus—to trust that what Jesus says is true, to trust that what God says is true.

And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

This is the foundation of Jesus’ identity: Son of God. Beloved by God. Pleasing to God. The language harks back to Psalm 2, the royal psalm, where God says to the king, “You are my son …” It harks back to the words of the prophet Isaiah in 42:1:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

This is who Jesus is: Son. King. Beloved. Servant. Chosen. Spirit-empowered. Justice-bringer. This is who Jesus is, and this is what Jesus is about. Who he is determines how he lives.

I don’t think this was the first time he had heard the voice of God. I don’t think this was the first time he realized that he had a higher calling. In Luke 2, we read about him spending time at the Temple as a boy and telling his parents, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)—he was twelve; it was another hinge-point in his story.

We don’t hear from him for another 18 years, during which time he is presumably taking up his father’s trade as a carpenter in Nazareth, being faithful in the mundane, being faithful in the small things—plugging away at work, taking care of his family, loving his neighbors—just as he would later be faithful in the big things. Next week we’ll hear about the temptations Jesus faced before he began his public ministry, and there as well he was faithful because he knew who he was. Or to put it another way, he knew whose he was. Because God had told him: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

You know, Jesus is the only person in the New Testament of whom God says, “I am pleased with you.” That’s because even at this point in his life, even before he embarked on his public ministry, even before the public acclaim and the crowds flocking to hear him speak and see him do miracles, even before all of the celebrity, he was completely faithful—he had loved God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength; and he had loved his neighbor as himself—throughout the course of his life thus far; and that’s why God said to him, “I am pleased with you.” Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, about making it his goal in life to please God.

I also want to please God; I want to be faithful; I want to do things that make God happy. But I also do things that I know don’t please God—that’s where repentance comes in; that’s where forgiveness comes in; that’s where grace comes in.

Let me be clear here: I don’t try to please God in order to earn his love; I try to please God because I already have his love. Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. For instance, I don’t do things for my wife so that she will love me; I do things for her because she loves me. It’s a very fine line, but it’s a crucial distinction.

God loves us—more than we can ever know—and nothing can change that; but that doesn’t mean God is always pleased with us—especially when we do things that run counter to what he knows is good for us, or when we turn away from him, or when we hurt ourselves or other people. That’s why it does matter how we live. That’s why it does matter whose we are.

Pastor and author Jo Saxton writes:

Contrary to the many mantras of our day, our identity is not found deep within us: it’s given.[5]

It’s given by God, our Creator, the One who made us in his image, the One who knit us together in our mother’s womb, the One who knows what’s best for us. It should not be a surprise, then, to discover that what God says about us and who we are in relation to God are the most foundational aspects of our identity. And yet … global activist Lynne Twist says:

For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. … Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack. … This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.[6]

What these voices, this culture, this world, maybe even our loved ones, have said to us about our identity is that we are not enough, that at the foundation of our identity exists a lack, a not-enough, and therefore we must strive—for affirmation, for acceptance, for all that we don’t yet have.

But because of what Jesus did on this earth, because of what Jesus did on the cross, because of what Jesus did in overcoming sin and death, the Apostle John is able to write, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). Because of Jesus, God says to those who say yes to him: “You are mine. I love you.” And then as we get to know him, we learn more and more how we can please the One who not only loves us but the One whom we love in return.

The words that God spoke to his Son:

You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.

These words grant identity; these words speak of home; these words tell you where you belong and whom you belong to. We seek those words too; we desire to hear them; we glean affirmation from them. We wish we heard them more often.

  • Maybe from your father or your mother: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
  • Maybe from your husband or your wife: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
  • Maybe from an ex or a significant other: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
  • Maybe from an older brother or sister: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”

In some form or other, from some person or other, we seek these identity-affirming words—“You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”—because we want to know who we are and whose we are. But the only person who will tell it to us in a way that will bring lasting peace and assurance to the very core of our beings is God. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of other people tell it to us; the only person whose voice carries eternal weight in this regard is God.

Graduation from UCL

When I was in college, I recommitted my life to Christ; and for the first year or so after that, when I would pray, what I sensed God saying to me most often was “I love you.” And I would be puzzled; I’d say to God,

I know that! Everybody knows that. Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so. Tell me something new! Tell me what to do!

But the same thing: “I love you.” Day after day: “I love you.” Week after week: “I love you.” And one day, I realized that God was telling me he loved me so often because that was the most important thing about who I was, and that was the thing that was most easy to forget.

When something goes wrong, when something bad happens, when someone gets mad at you, when someone hurts you, when things don’t go the way you want them to go, when things are out of your control, or even when things are going really, really well—any time, any place, the thing that’s easiest to forget is also the thing that changes everything: God loves you. You belong to God.

Marguerite Shuster, a preaching professor at Fuller Seminary, wrote about a Christian kindergarten teacher she knows. In her class there was a young girl, whose parents were in the middle of a vicious divorce. “Climbing into my friend’s lap, the girl said, ‘Tell me again that Jesus loves me. I keep forgetting.’ The girl knew in her head that Jesus loved her, but she still needed to hear it from the outside.” C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

People need more to be reminded than to be instructed.

God loves you. Whatever hand 2014 has dealt you; whatever hand your life has dealt you; whatever has happened to you, in spite of your best efforts; whatever this week has thrown at you; whatever today has dumped on your doorstep—he says to you, “You are mine. I love you.” Even if your work colleague hates your guts, even if your students don’t pay attention to you, even if the patients you treat couldn’t care less about you; even if you aren’t sure if you’re in the right job or the right place or the right relationship or the right marriage—he says to you, “You are mine. I love you.” Because Jesus is who Jesus is, we can be who we were made to be. God says to you, “You are mine. I love you.”

Maybe you aren’t seeking God, or you wouldn’t call yourself a follower of Jesus, but you too know that longing for affirmation, which you’ve sought

  • in the arms of the next guy or the next girl,
  • by throwing yourself into work,
  • by crafting an identity that people think is you but you know, deep in your heart, is not even close to being true, and certainly not close to where you want to be.

Your Creator God longs to be in relationship with you; the One who loves you and cares for you, desires to call you his own. The God who knew you even before you were born yearns to establish you in the unshakeable, consistent, stable foundation of his love.

In Creation, this God made all things to be good, with a purpose; after we turned away at the Fall, he sought us; he sent Jesus to show us the way—to be our Way and our Redemption; and he desires that all would know him, that all would love him, that all would discover the life and beauty and power in the connection for which we were all made—the connection with the one true God, the God who said to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” the God who whispers to us, sometimes with tears and sometimes with great barreling laughter, “You are mine. I love you.” And he longs for us to join with him in the work of Renewal, which is that all might know him and that all might be made right, and as we do this, the Father may one day say to us too,

Well done, good and faithful child. With you I am well pleased.

[1] Powell, Sticky Faith, 56; quoting from “Development and Validation of Ego Identity Status” and “Identity in Adolescence.”

[2] Powell, Sticky Faith, 54.

[3] Ortberg, Soul Keeping, 103.

[4] Barclay, Luke, 45.

[5] Saxton, More Than Enchanting, 29.

[6] Twist, The Soul of Money, 43-45.

A long-overdue update

It’s been two months since my last ‘official’ update, and I apologize for that. Life has, as you’ll see, been pretty full.

SEATTLE (AUG 30 – SEP 5)
As a wedding gift, Carolyn bought us tickets to the Seahawks-Packers opening day game. So we got to head to the beautiful Pacific Northwest for a week, see friends, eat good food, and watch my Seahawks beat her Packers. (We’re not going to talk about our teams’ fortunes since then.)

Seahawks-Packers

H ST FESTIVAL (SEP 20)
The District Church had a booth at the H Street Festival, an annual celebration in our neighborhood, where over 100,000 people make their way through our part of town. We served ice cream and BBQ sliders (not combined) to folks passing by, and had a number of great conversations.

H St Festival

CCDA (SEP 24 – 27)
One of the organizations The District Church is connected with is the Christian Community Development Association. CCDA’s founder, Dr. John Perkins, has preached at our church a couple of times, including this past August. This year, the conference was held in Raleigh, NC, making it a great opportunity for us to take a sizable crew down — about ten of us from TDC made the trip: we learned a lot, prayed a lot, worshiped in community together, and got to stay together at my in-laws’. (Thanks, Tom and Dana, for the hospitality!)

IMG_8198

TWO SERMONS (SEP 28, OCT 5)
I got to preach back-to-back weeks on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and then Jesus’ birth. It was my first time preaching about Mary, and my first time covering Christmas in October! (You can listen to them here: “When God Chooses You,” and “The Most Dangerous Baby Ever Born.”)

Preaching

EUGENE CHO IN DC (SEP 29)
The District Church was able to host an event for my friend Eugene Cho (pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, founder of One Day’s Wages). His new book, Overrated: Are we more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world?, just came out and (as I’ve mentioned) is absolutely worth the read.

Eugene Cho

BFFS IN DC (SEP 29 – OCT 2)
My best friends Tim and Tiff were able to swing through DC on their way back to London. Tim was my best man in July, but this time he was able to bring his wife and 6-month old daughter, Zoe, with him. It was a tremendously life-giving time; I miss these two (now three!).

McD's, Fungs

ALSO
We attended the wedding of one of Carolyn’s co-workers and Carolyn’s 10-year high school reunion. Oh, and perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, I got sick right around the beginning of October (I think I’ve finally shaken it); and then pulled my hamstring playing flag football this past weekend.

PRAYER REQUESTS
As always, there is much to be thankful for, and much to lift up in prayer:

  • for grace for Carolyn and I as we continue to figure out life together in marriage. When we’ve had our own way with work schedules, rhythms and routines, and communication styles, for a combined 60 years, there’s a lot of room for … teachable moments. (On a positive note, somebody has learned to stop sleeping diagonally, which is definitely something to be thankful for!)
  • for a successful (and still in-process) transition into my new role as teaching pastor. I’m still figuring out what my new rhythms and routines look like.
  • for Matthew in his transition to pastor of the East Side parish. Figuring out how to love and care for dozens of neighborhood kids who show up every Sunday is just one of his challenges/opportunities!
  • for a new communications coordinator for the church. We’re looking to hire someone who’ll take on (and expand) the communications responsibilities that I’ve been taking care of for the past few years.
  • for The District Church. Pray that as we continue to grow, we also continue to steward our resources well and to make disciples who make disciples. We’ve seen tremendous things happening in the last year, but we never want to lose sight of our vision (“To exist for Christ and the renewal of our city”) and mission (“To make disciples who are living out their God-given mission in life”).

Lust and Addiction: Follow-up

I’ve gotten some tremendous responses from both men and women in the aftermath of Sunday’s sermon and of the accompanying blog post — responses that have humbled me and encouraged me, responses that have made me laugh and made me cry, responses that have confirmed that there are more people struggling with these issues than are talking about them.

I’m grateful to be a part of the process. I’m grateful that God was able to work through the words he gave, and that God continues to be at work in big and small ways far beyond me. And I’m grateful to all of you who’ve read, shared, listened, and had conversations about this.

Let’s keep the healing going.

Lust

Dealing with Lust and My Addiction

[Adapted from yesterday's message at The District Church: "Lust."] Seven Deadly SinsYesterday, as part of our Seven Deadly Sins series, I preached on lust. When we drew lots for our preaching assignments for this series—and we actually did put names in a bowl—I knew I was fated as the one getting married this summer to get Lust—I mean, to preach on Lust … you know what I mean! Because we all know that single people deal with lust and then when you get married, you now have the appropriate outlet and so are completely freed from it and have the objective perspective with which to help everyone else deal with it. Right?

Of course not.

You may be a little apprehensive because your experience of the church or of Christians is one where there’s been an overemphasis on sex and sexuality and personal holiness and so-called private matters, and a lack of conversation about systemic injustices. You might point out that Jesus talked more about money and the poor than he ever did about sex. You might argue that Jesus called out hypocrisy and pride and greed far more than he did sexual immorality. And you’d be right on both counts.

But Jesus also didn’t dismiss sex as unimportant, so while I don’t want to put too much weight on sex and lust, I also don’t want to put too little weight on them. Both extremes are tempting and both are, I believe, wrong. The Christian worldview is one that truly understands the value of sex. The Bible contains Song of Songs, a whole book extolling the joy of sexual pleasure. God created sex to be a very good thing, one of the best things, in fact—both in terms of its power as an intimate and vulnerable expression of love and in terms of its potential for people to create life.

Frederick Buechner has some helpful things to say on this in Wishful Thinking:

Sex is not a sin. … it’s not salvation either. Like nitroglycerin, it can be used to blow up bridges or heal hearts. … Our society is filled with people for whom the sexual relationship is one where body meets body but where person fails to meet person; where the immediate need for sexual gratification is satisfied but where the deeper need for companionship and understanding is left untouched. The result is that the relationship leads not to fulfillment but to a half-conscious sense of incompleteness, of inner loneliness, which is so much the sickness of our time.

This is how I understand Lust:

Lust is what happens when the good, God-given desire to love and be loved is deformed and warped into being about self-gratification.

Last summer we did a series on identity and relationships, and we called it To Love and Be Loved, because that is what we were created for as human beings: to love and to be loved. Love is at the core of our identity, for we were created in the image of the God who, the Bible tells us, is love; the God who is three-in-one, a community of love; the God who loved us so much that he gave us free will to choose to love him back or not, and when we didn’t, continued to love us so much that he came in the person of Jesus to win us back.

Now, the image of lust in our heads may be some guy who can’t help but ogle every girl that walks by; or who’s trapped at home by his pornography addiction; or whose sexual escapades end up bringing down his marriage and destroying his career. The typical understanding of lust is of an overwhelming desire, particularly a sexual one, to have another person—it’s about possession, about control of the object of one’s desire. We usually think of it—at least in this way—as something that afflicts guys more than girls. And it’s true, for instance, that men form the overwhelming majority of pornography users; it’s true that we still inhabit a patriarchal society where we need to have conversations about misogyny and harassment spurred by hashtags like #YesAllWomen.

I think this—maybe more typical—kind of lust is the desire to love that has become deformed into being about self-gratification. So instead of seeking the good of the other person, which is what love is, we seek the good of ourselves, right now. Instead of wanting to give of ourselves to the other person, we want to have the other person for ourselves. See the difference? See how easily the shift happens?

I think there’s another kind of lust, though, and this kind happens when the desire to be loved becomes warped into being about self-gratification. Instead of wanting to be loved unconditionally—to be known, flaws and all—we seek to be wanted so that we might be affirmed, we desire to be desired by another person, by any other person, because, if we’re being honest, of our insecurities. My friend Catherine wrote a blog on lust, and she posed this question: “Is it possible that the all-consuming desire to be desired is just as lustful as the all-consuming desire to have?”

In other words, some of us may not struggle with a fixation on an object of desire; it just may not be a strong temptation. Instead, though, we may struggle with wanting to be the object of desire. So you dress a certain way, you act a certain way, you say certain things, you live in such a way that someone—maybe even anyone—will want you, will want to be with you, will bestow upon you the label “desirable.” You want that person to notice you, to give you a second glance; you want people’s eyes to be drawn to you when you walk in the room.

We all desire to love and be loved, to know and be known, to see and be seen; and God put that desire in our souls. But in our fallenness and in our fallen world, these desires become warped and twisted; in our fear and our frustration, in the waiting and the wanting, these desires become deferred and delayed and, as we are distracted from the joy we have in Christ and our focus is drawn to the things we lack, our desires find their fulfillment, we think, in lust—either the kind that seeks to possess or the kind that seeks to be possessable, to coin a term. Only it’s vapor, shadow, fog; it’s not substantive, it’s not truly fulfilling, and in fact, it leaves us emptier and lonelier and less human than before.

2 Samuel 11-12 tells the story of David and Bathsheba. David was the king of Israel, shepherd-boy slayer of Goliath, musician, poet, warrior, victorious in battle, loved by his people, favored by God. When we join the story, David was at the height of his power; and yet what follows marked the beginning of the end for him.

We find David napping on his roof one afternoon. His armies are out demolishing the enemy so he isn’t particularly needed at the front lines. But he gets up from his nap and, from his vantage point, sees a beautiful woman bathing in a nearby house. Verse 3: “David sent someone to inquire about the woman.” He desired her for himself so he sent someone to find out more about her. He was interested in adding her to his royal harem. For David to add to his harem was acceptable in the culture of the day, but even in that culture and in that day, the etiquette was that she had to be unmarried in order for this to be okay.

But word comes back: “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Eliam was the son of one of David’s closest advisors, and Uriah was one of David’s best fighters, one of his friends. That should’ve been it, but instead David’s desire for her overwhelms any sense of propriety. His need to have her for himself overwhelms his responsibilities as a man, as a friend, as a leader, and as God’s anointed king. His lust leads him to do what he knows at some level is not right: he sends for her and sleeps with her. Lust does that:

  • removes our perspective,
  • causes us to focus solely on the here-and-now, on what we’re going to get out of it right now,
  • blinds us to the consequences, to the objective reality, and to the big picture.

If David was truly loving his neighbor, he wouldn’t have summoned her to his palace to sleep with her, knowing she was married, knowing he was abusing his position of authority. He might instead have said, “Her husband is one of my dearest friends and he’s risking his life on the battlefield; how can I help his family? How can I give to this family? How can I repay this family for their service?” But Lust doesn’t really like us thinking objectively; Lust doesn’t really let us think objectively. Lust is focused on self-gratification right now, whether it’s:

  • indulging yourself with pornography because you’re feeling lonely or
  • making out with some random person because you haven’t experienced intimacy in a long time or
  • sleeping with someone you shouldn’t be sleeping with or staying in a relationship that’s not right for you because you just want to be close to someone.

Those are all natural feelings because, like we’ve said, we are made to love and be loved. But God designed us first and foremost to love and be loved by him, to be in relationship with him, and when we forget that, when we lose sight of that, it’s easy for those feelings to become self-serving, to become about sating an immediate need, and our desires get warped.

When Bathsheba finds out she’s pregnant, she tells David; and David, in a panic, calls Uriah back from the front in hopes that he’ll sleep with his wife and thereby cover up David’s infidelity. But Uriah demonstrates his integrity; he says, “My compatriots are sleeping in the fields, risking their lives; how can I go home and lie with my wife as if nothing is going on?” (vv.11-13). David even tries to get him drunk, but still Uriah refuses to go home and sleep with his wife. So, vv.14-15:

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab [the commander of his army] and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”

And that’s what happens: Uriah is killed. David is supposed to be one of the heroes of Scripture; at one point, early in his life, he’s described as “a man after God’s own heart,” and yet here in this moment, his lust became so great that it not only led him to commit adultery and betray one of his friends, but also then to lie and to commit murder, all to cover it up. That’s what we mean when we say the Seven Deadly Sins have a generative effect: they give birth to more and more sin.

The first time I dated (or even kissed) a girl, I was 19 and in college. The first time I saw a picture of a naked woman, though, I was 13 or 14. A couple friends and I were hanging out after school and they had pooled their money together to buy a dirty magazine. I saw something I’d never seen before and, being a kid pretty much raised in church, I knew I was seeing something I didn’t need to be seeing. But my curiosity was piqued and going through puberty only helped to exacerbate and escalate the situation.

Part of the reason—and I wouldn’t have been able to diagnose this at the time but can with hindsight—was the desire to love and be loved: I wanted to be with somebody and I wanted to be wanted, neither of which seemed to be getting any closer to being fulfilled, neither of which I seemed to have any control over. I mean, you can’t make someone interested in you; you can’t make someone date you; you can’t make someone fall in love with you. And so I turned to what I did have control over—self-gratification. For me, there were both kinds of lust: the kind that desired to possess and the kind that desired to be possessable.

By the time I was in college, even though I’d recommitted my life to Christ after a couple years of drifting, I was addicted to pornography. I don’t know that I would have called it an addiction at the time, but that’s what it was: giving in to temptation, the temporary thrill, the shame and the guilt, the confession (I had Psalm 51 pretty much memorized and not for reasons I wanted to share with anyone), the promise to God and to myself that I would never do it again, that I’d be better. And I would be for a day or two or even a week or a month; and then I’d let my guard down and slip up and go through the cycle all over again. I really didn’t think there was a way out; I really didn’t know how to get out—even though I was praying about it, even though I was genuine and sincere in my desire to be free from it. Romans 7:19 described my life:

I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

So there I was: I’d just started leading worship at church, earnestly seeking to follow Jesus with everything I had; and yet I was enslaved by an addiction that I felt like I had no control over. I would lie about what I was spending my time doing, I’d lie about why I was so tired. Every time we sang in church about surrendering to God or talked about confessing our sins to God, I knew what I needed to give up, I knew what was holding me back.

Statistically speaking, there are an average of 28,000 users watching porn online every second. 1 out of every 8 websites, 1 out of every 4 web searches, and 1 out of every 3 downloads contains adult material. This is the world we live in now, where our sexual expectations and attitudes are impacted by what we see in movies, on TV, and on the internet—or by what our loved ones and significant others are seeing or have seen. Rebecca DeYoung, who wrote a book on the Seven Deadly Sins, said,

When we misuse something habitually, we find we lose our ability to appreciate its true goodness. … Sex loses its flavor. What once was titillating quickly becomes boring.

She talks about pornography use as an example, where you start with tiny forays into that world but the more you’re exposed to it, trying to feed an appetite with something completely insubstantial, the more desensitized you get, and the more you need something more ‘exciting’—at least that’s how you think about it when your desire has become warped. I know what she’s talking about; I’ve lived through that.

For how many of those 28,000 online users do you think we can trace their behavior back to a desire to love and be loved? For how many of the millions of other people (and perhaps this might include us, if we’re not in that first category) whose symptoms we might describe as ‘milder’—just hooking up, just making out, just showing a little more skin, just being a little more flirty with … well, everyone—for how many of those people do you think we can trace their behavior back to a desire to love and be loved that has become twisted into being about self-gratification, about using any means necessary to try to find some satisfaction right now?

The turning point for me, the answer to my prayers, came in the form of the guy who’s been my best friend for the last twelve years. Some of you met Tim; he was my best man at my wedding a few weeks ago. We met at church; we were both at the same university—he was studying medicine and I was studying law. And in summer 2002, we both ended up going on a mission trip to Uganda; it was my first.

While we were there, we got to know each other, and we discovered how similar we were—in our temperaments, in our family backgrounds, in our hobbies … and in our struggles. I remember that feeling of a weight being lifted off my shoulders when I realized I wasn’t the only one dealing with this kind of stuff, when I realized I could talk about it with someone. Shame loves the darkness of isolation because that’s where it thrives; sin would prefer that you never talk about it because then you’ll never confess it and then you’ll never deal with it. That’s why confession is such a key part of the healing process, because you have to name something—to diagnose something—before you can properly deal with it.

Tim and I prayed for one another, encouraged one another, and challenged one another—we texted, we emailed, we called, we got accountability software reports, we called each other out when we saw sketchy websites listed. It took many years, many false starts, much prayer, and much support but, by the grace of God, we got clean.

Tim & Jus at the Grand Canyon, 2005.
Tim & Jus at the Grand Canyon, 2005.

Somewhere along the way, God helped me understand that while the physical manifestations of Lust need to be dealt with, Lust is far more than just a physical problem. And so also the solution is more than just a physical solution—“Don’t have sex” or “Don’t dress so scandalously” or “Stop using porn.” At the root of Lust is the desire to love and be loved—and our souls were created first and foremost, before any human relationship, to love and be loved by our God. So you can address the physical problems all you want but if the deeper desire to love and be loved by God is never met, you’ll continue to seek things that don’t satisfy. Over the years, God has taught me to pursue Chastity, which is an old-fashioned word that might bring to mind images of sexual repression and frigidity; but Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

the essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one’s life toward a goal. (Letters & Papers from Prison, 163)

And that goal is the pursuit of God. Chastity is not just about saying no to bad things but about saying yes to the really good things; it’s really about “purity of heart,” as in “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). 

Later in Matthew 5, Jesus talks about lust, and many translations of the Bible have him saying, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And I used to think, How do I control that? One book I read suggested that any time there’s a chance you might lust after a woman, you should do your best to avoid looking at her. Which would make interpersonal communication very difficult and awkward, and is really unfortunate for women because they really don’t have that much control over or have any idea what I’m thinking.

But the Greek actually reads more like this: “Everyone who looks at a woman in order to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” There’s a decision of the will there; there’s a choice about what you do. And that fits much better in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, which is Jesus talking about the kind of life you’re choosing to lead, and it fits much better into the picture of the life God desires for us, which is a life in which we choose to follow Jesus every day, every moment, every breath, and in the face of every temptation.

And let me tell you: life is so much fuller when my thoughts and appetites are subordinated to the service of Jesus, when I understand their proper place—under my control rather than in control of me. Life is so much more when I not only understand but also live in the reality that, as the wise Matthew Watson put it, Jesus is not only my Savior from my sins but also the satisfier of my deepest desires, and the deepest desire of all, I think, is to love and be loved. C.S. Lewis wrote:

We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. … If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory)

The Great Divorce, Man, Lizard, Angel
[If anyone knows who created this piece, please let me know. I'd like to give proper credit.]
In his book The Great Divorce, Lewis writes about a man with a lizard on his shoulder. The lizard represents Lust, a warped desire that has in turn warped its bearer—the man walks with a limp, the lizard constantly hissing things in his ear. An angel approaches the man and offers to quiet the lizard, but it will mean killing it. The man recoils. The lizard has been his companion for too long; he stammers excuse after excuse and rationalization after rationalization. “Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll be able to keep it in order now,” he says. “I’m not feeling too well today; perhaps another day,” he says. The angel says to the man, “I cannot kill it against your will. … Have I your permission?” The man wrestles back and forth, the lizard on his shoulder whispering warnings about what will happen if he gives it up, if he allows it to be killed; whispering empty promises: “I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams.” But finally, the man, in a great wrench of will, gives the angel permission. Lewis writes:

Next moment, the [man] gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The [angel] closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed on the turf.

Both man and lizard appear to be dead. But in the next moment, the man rises, brighter, stronger, more solid. And at the same moment, the lizard too is raised but it has been transformed into a beautiful stallion. The man’s sin-warped sexuality has been redeemed through death and into new life. This is the power of the love of God. Lewis writes:

Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it is now. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. … Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.

I truly believe that, and I have experienced that; and so the first and most important step in all of this is to give your life and your desires to God, whatever state of deformity they may be in, whether you think they’re only scuffed or slightly bent or full-on and maybe-irretrievably warped. Let him kill what is deadly to you and redeem what is true and breathe new life into dry bones. I have a lot of other suggestions I could give:

  • get connected to other Christians, don’t let yourself be isolated, join a small group where you can confess your problem and be held accountable;
  • set up accountability software or an internet filter—the physical manifestations of Lust aren’t the main thing but they aren’t nothing;
  • be intentional about the things you choose to consume, the people you choose to hang out with, the stories you choose to believe;
  • know what makes you vulnerable—how many of you know the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired)? That’s when we most often tend to give in to our temptations.

Lust is what happens when the good, God-given desire to love and be loved is deformed and warped into being about self-gratification. So I invite you:

Love God and be loved by God.

Ask God to fulfill your desire to love and be loved; ask God to redeem and transform and heal the broken parts of your life; choose to give your life and your desires to God first, and then see what God can do. I promise, I promise, I promise, it will be glorious.

Jesus, you came to save sinners and to rescue the lost and to heal the sick and raise the dead. And God, that’s us. So help us, please. Heal our souls. Restore our hearts. Mend our warped desires. Fill us with your Spirit and bring us back to life. In your name and for your sake, we pray all these things. Amen.