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.

What do you think you’re waiting for?

[Part 2  | Read Part 1]

What we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.

The people of Israel were ready for a Messiah; they were desperate for a Savior; they were crying out for a Liberator: one, like David, who would establish the kingdom of Israel in safety and security; one who would usher in a period of the blessing of the Lord that had been promised to Abraham. They were ready for a king, for a charismatic leader, to soundly defeat the Romans and kick them out of the Promised Land, to cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem, and to restore honor and dignity to the people of God.

But when we consider the lineage of Jesus in Matthew 1, we spot some familiar names, and behind those familiar names, some familiar stories. There are four women who are mentioned (which in its own right would have been unusual—ancient genealogies were usually only concerned with the male line): there was Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law Judah; there was Rahab, a prostitute of Jericho, who harbored the Israelite spies and then bargained for her safety; there was Ruth, a widow and a foreigner, who secured the well-being of herself and her mother-in-law through a marriage with an older wealthy man; and Bathsheba, who’s described here as simply “the wife of Uriah,” which she was even as she slept with King David.

But there’s also Isaac, who pretended his wife was his sister so he wouldn’t get killed; there’s Jacob, who deceived his own father to steal his brother’s blessing; there’s Judah, who sold his brother Joseph into slavery, and slept with his daughter-in-law because he thought she was just another prostitute. There’s Abraham, who tried to make God’s promise happen in his own time and caused a rift in his family; and there’s David, finally king, finally the one in authority, who committed adultery, tried to cover it up, and subsequently ordered the killing of one of his most loyal friends.

If you were to imagine a Savior of the world, it probably wouldn’t have come out of the mess that is Jesus’ family history, would it? I mean, every single person in his family line is human, shares in the human affliction of sin—some are notorious, their stories widely known; others are less well known but no less sinful.

If you were to write the story of the One who would make all things new, you probably wouldn’t have started with a teenage girl, pregnant out of wedlock, whose fiancé knows he’s not the father and is thinking of divorcing her.

But what is true and what is remarkable is that God brings beauty out of every situation; God redeems everyone, regardless of their history or where they came from. In every story, in everyone’s story, God brings unexpected good out of broken, sinful, human situations. And what is even more remarkable about what we prepare for at Advent and what we celebrate at Christmas is that God didn’t keep his distance, solving problems by a wave of his hand—God put himself into these broken, sinful, human situations; he entered into the muck and the mire of creation; he became poor, he became vulnerable, he became human.

For hundreds of years, Israel had been waiting for a national liberator, a military general; but what God gave instead was the Savior of the world and the Prince of Peace. Since the fall, since the dawn of time, creation had been waiting for its Redeemer, its Restorer; and what God gave was the One who would live his life in such a way and give his life in such a way that all things would be made new.

And when he came, it was messy and it was complicated and it wasn’t what was expected. It was better.

Martin Luther said, “We pray for silver, but God often gives us gold instead.” And so again: what we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.

There’s a story about a young soldier who, as a result of injuries suffered in the Civil War, lived as a cripple for the rest of his life, wrestling and struggling with God, seeking God’s purpose; and at the end of his days, he wrote this poem—some of you may be familiar with it:

I asked for strength that I might achieve;

I was made weak that I might obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things;

I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy;

I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;

I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;

I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I have received nothing I asked for, all that I hoped for.

My prayer is answered.

And so even as we wait for that job or that relationship or that child or that next step; even as we wait for that healing and that reconciliation and that forgiveness; even as we wait for peace in conflict zones and neighborhoods, for health in disease-ridden slums, for families for kids stuck in the foster-care system, for community for single parents struggling to raise their children on their own, for the end of AIDS and poverty and violence and human trafficking and sexual exploitation and all kinds of injustice; even as we wait for the kingdom of God to come and the will of God to be done here fully on earth as it is in heaven, we can rest assured that God has all things in hand, that in the words of Mumford & Sons, “there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears; and love will not break your heart but dismiss your fears.” We can rest assured that Jesus, who is the greatest gift God has ever given, came to earth at Christmastime and will come again to bring heaven down to earth.

This Advent season that we find ourselves in is about waiting, and so we return to that question I posed at the beginning: what is it that you’re waiting for? Or to be more accurate, what is it you think you’re waiting for? And what is God teaching you while you wait?

I know, waiting is not easy; waiting will never be the most popular thing for us to do. And as a reality check and reminder, Ben Patterson says:

triumph and failure always go together in the wait of faith. They are the head and tail of the same coin. Show me a person who has had no struggle with waiting, whose faith has known no swings between victory and defeat, and I’ll show you a person who has never really trusted God with his or her life.

To wait on God is to struggle and sometimes to fail. Sometimes the failures teach us more than the successes. For the failures teach us that to wait on God is not only to wait for his mercy, but to wait by his mercy. (Waiting, 83)

Maybe, while you wait, you need to acknowledge that there are things outside of your control, that you are ultimately helpless to change that person’s heart; maybe in this wait, God is asking you to recognize your desperate need for Jesus, the only one who can change hearts.

Maybe, while you wait, you need to acknowledge that life is not exactly as you want it to be, that there is a striving and a yearning and maybe also an apprehension for what will come next, that you desperately want to be in a relationship or you desperately want to be married or you desperately want to have a child or to be healed from addictions or to be free from your past or that you fear being alone or living an unfulfilled life; maybe in this wait, God is asking you to wrestle with these things and struggle with these things with him, and to stop feeling like it’s all on you to make it happen–it’s not.

God knows what you need, God knows what is good for you; so wait on the Lord … he will come through.

Waiting: what nobody likes but everybody does

[Part 1 | Read Part 2]

If you were to take a poll of the least popular things to do, waiting would probably be near the top, wouldn’t it? It’s probably one of the few things that nobody likes but everybody does. Because if you think about it, we’re always waiting for something, aren’t we?

Waiting is a natural human condition.

There’s always something we’re looking forward to (or not looking forward to). Life is never exactly as we would have it, and so we wait. Sometimes for things that are coming imminently: a loved one is coming into town for the holidays and you can’t wait to see them and pick them up from the airport, or you’re just excited about finally getting a break! Sometimes for things that are a little way off: a wedding that’s happening next summer that you’re both super excited and super stressed about, or finishing grad school and preparing for what comes next. And sometimes for things which we actually have no idea if they will ever come: being free from the addiction that’s tied you down for so long, reconciliation with a family member or a friend, finding a life partner, having kids, figuring out what to do with your life, getting the job you really want or maybe just a job—any job—to get you through the next month. Maybe it’s waiting on someone else, hoping beyond hope that he’ll get his life together, that she’ll start making better choices.

What is it that you’re waiting for?

The story of Jesus in the New Testament begins in Matthew 1:1, with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” It’s interesting that the two main figures Matthew names are David, the great king, the man after God’s own heart, and Abraham, the founding father, the patriarch of the faith. Two heroes of history—and yet they were no less human than you and me, and no more exempt from that natural human condition of waiting.

In 1 Samuel, we read about how David was anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel when he was only a boy; but he had to wait until he was thirty years old before he came into what God had promised. And in Genesis, we’re told how Abraham, childless in his old age, was promised by God that he would be the father of many nations, that his at-the-time-non-existent-offspring would be blessed to be a blessing to others; but he had to wait twenty-five years before his son Isaac was born. Twenty-five years!

When I was about twelve years old, my uncle, who was an orthodontist, told my parents and me that I was developing an underbite, that my lower jaw was growing faster than the rest of my facial bones, that this would eventually cause problems, and that I would eventually need surgery to fix it. I would obviously need to wait until the bones stopped growing before having the surgery, and in case you didn’t know this, facial bone growth usually doesn’t stop until a person is in their mid-twenties. So I waited, knowing that at some unknown point in the distant future, I would have surgery to … well, the way I saw it was, to fix my face.

For everyone around me, for my family and close friends who knew about this, it seemed a pretty straightforward concept—there’s a problem with the mechanics of your bone structure and this surgery will correct that. But for me, it went deeper: if I was getting surgery to change something (about my face, at that!), then that must mean there was something wrong with me, because if there was nothing wrong with me, then I wouldn’t need surgery, would I? And so it tapped into my sense of self-worth, the very core of my identity, the issue of who I was. I wrestled with God over this, wondered if this was why I hadn’t yet had a girlfriend. I questioned his purpose in this—my brothers didn’t have to go through this, why me? But there was really nothing I could do about it, no way to speed up the process of bone growth so that the corrective surgery could happen and all my problems would be solved. And so I waited.

First pic post-surgery

Through middle school, I waited; through high school, I waited; through my first and second degrees, I waited; through seminary, still I waited. Until finally, three months before I graduated from Fuller, after thirteen years of waiting, the surgery happened. Finally, it was done; and it was an amazing feeling. For something that has hovered over you like a dark cloud for half your life to be suddenly removed? It was an immense load off my back.

It didn’t solve all my problems though, like I thought it would when I was a kid; and actually, by that time, I had come to realize that, of course, it wouldn’t solve all my problems (and this seems obvious when you’re thinking objectively, but when you’re in the middle of something, it can seem like the biggest struggle in the world). And, in fact, thinking about it, the dark cloud hadn’t been suddenly removed; it had been dissipating over the years, during the waiting, and the surgery was simply what had removed the last vestiges of that cloud.

In that waiting period, I came back to faith in Jesus; in that waiting period, I began my first dating relationship, putting paid to the idea that somehow my looks were a barrier to that; more importantly, in that waiting period, I discovered the passions that God had planted in my soul, enabling me to look beyond myself; yet more important than that, in that waiting period, I came to know at the core of my being, in the very depths of my soul, that who I am is more than what I look like, that my identity is found and rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, who loves me as I am.

In that waiting period, my brother gave me a book called Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, by Ben Patterson—it’s a book that I come back to time and time again, and would heartily recommend. The central conviction of that book—what I realized through the process—is this: what God is doing in us while we wait is at least as important as what we think we’re waiting for.

While Abraham waited for the fulfillment of the promise, he learned what it meant to trust in God and what it looked like when he tried to take things into his own hands; he made mistakes, he had successes, he had moments where he essentially cried out to God, “Where’s this kid you promised?” But while he waited, he grew closer to God; he became more reliant on God; he realized that there was very little he could do. Romans 4:19-21 says:

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

While David waited to become king, he confronted Goliath, not in his own strength but in the strength of the Lord; he forged a deep friendship with Jonathan, who saw him for who he was and called him to greater things; he became an outlaw and an outcast, hunted by the very king he’d served faithfully. But while he waited, he grew closer to God; he became more reliant on God; he realized that his life wasn’t about being king, but about knowing God—and many of the psalms are a testament to this, including Psalm 27, which begins,

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

and ends with:

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Which leads to the second point I want to make: what we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.

(Which I’ll post tomorrow because, in a blog about waiting, of course I would! Part 2.)

More questions at The District Church

What a week! Earthquake on Wednesday (I lived through five in California and never felt a single one; I move to DC and feel the first one!). And outside my window, Hurricane Irene is making life very, very wet and windy. (But prayers definitely going up for the folks who’re getting hit much harder than we are/have been.)

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to blog about church this past week but that got squeezed out by the events and general busyness of this week. On Sunday, we finished out our “My Most Important Question” series, and got to hear from Daniel — “Why is it so hard to trust in God’s provision?”, Heather — “Is God good?”, and David — “What do you want me to do?” As with the week before, it was so good to hear from folks in our community; and once again, the honesty of their stories, the passion in their telling, and the presence of God in the midst of the struggles shone through. Heather, in particular, is a dear friend of mine; and while I’d heard her story before and talked with her about some of the things she talked about, it was so moving to see and hear her sharing it with the church community.

If you have time–actually, I’d strongly encourage you to make the time to go listen to the podcast; you can find it here.