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.

How do I know my calling?

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “How Do I Know … My Calling?”]

“How do I know?” is one of the most common questions that comes up in counseling, in prayer, in conversations.

  • How do I know what God’s calling me to?
  • How do I know if I’m supposed to be with this person?
  • How do I know if I should marry this person?
  • How do I know if I should try and have kids, or adopt, or foster?
  • How do I know if I’m supposed to be in this city?
  • How do I know if I’m in the right job or if I should look for a new one?
  • How do I know how I should spend my time and with whom and doing what?

It’s probable that you’ve asked one of those questions at some point in your life.  It’s possible that you’re still wondering.

Here are three quotes that have shaped my understanding of calling. First, from C.S. Lewis, who describes the process of discovering your calling like this:

All of the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it, tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “Here at last is the thing I was made for.”

And then author and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote,

the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

And finally, civil rights leader and philosopher Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Though they could be interpreted as being in opposition, I don’t think they are; I think they’re all true, just maybe not the way we may automatically think.

I grew up in the church, where people talk about “discovering God’s will” and “discerning God’s plan” and “asking God what he desires,” and I developed the image in my head of God’s will or calling on your life being like a map or a blueprint. You had to “discover God’s will,” as if that meant figuring out where on the map you were and then navigating along God’s route to point X; or “follow God’s will,” as if there were certain instructions on how to construct a godly life and if you skipped a step, you’d end up with a wonky product.

And so, for much of my life, I was kind of anxious:

  • What if I miss what God’s will is?
  • What if I end up doing a job that God doesn’t want me to do?
  • What if I don’t answer God’s calling on my life?
  • What if I don’t marry the person God wants me to marry?
  • If I fall off the path, what happens to the rest of the journey?
  • If I skip one instruction—even accidentally—can I go back and fix it or am I screwed for the rest of my life?

I wonder how many others have that image of God and of his will; I wonder how many others feel or have felt paralyzed because of that.

Understanding God's WillAbout ten years ago, I came across the late Kyle Lake’s Understanding God’s Will: How to Hack the Equation Without Formulas. One illustration really helped me see things in a different light. He references an article by Brian McLaren, who gave this analogy:

Imagine one of my sons calls me on the phone and asks, “Dad, what’s your will for my college major?”

I would say, “Son, I have raised you to this point in your life so that you can make that decision.”

“Yes, Dad,” he replies, “but I want to do your will, not my own will. So, please tell me what major to choose.”

“Son,” I’ll say, “I’d be glad to help you think this through. For example, we can talk about how much you hate history and calculus, and how much you love writing and business. I think I can help you eliminate some options, but I really want you to decide this.”

“Dad, don’t you love me? What if I make a mistake? I just want to do your will!” he says.

“But, Son,” I’ll reply, “it is my will for you to make this decision. Again, I’m glad to talk with you and help you think it through. But my will is for you to grow up, be a man, and make a life for yourself by making decisions, hard decisions, like this one. And believe me, whatever happens, whether you major in business or art or physics, whether it goes well or not, I will be with you. You can count on that, no matter what.” The point is that he lives with my guidance, but not my domination, because he’s my son, not my lawn mower.

And all of a sudden, the anxiety-inducing image in my head of God as a blueprint maker was done away with, and I learned about an important distinction, a distinction that may make all the difference: it’s between your general calling and your specific calling. As Kyle Lake explains:

A general will [or calling] applies to everyone equally; a specific will [or calling] applies to everyone individually.

When we ask, “How do I know what I’m supposed to do?” or “How do I know my calling?”, what we’re normally referring to is the second one, the specific calling. That’s the one we get most obsessed with, most concerned with, and most worried about.

The thing is, though, while it may be tempting to think that we’re starting from scratch—you feel like you have no clue what to do or where to begin—what God has left for us in Scripture, what God shows us most commonly in the Bible, what we have in abundance in what we call the word of God, is God’s general calling.

This is what God has said already, what he has said to generations past, and what he continues to say through these pages to our generation and to future generations. And when we follow these words, when we do what God asks of us in Scripture, then I believe we discover what Buechner calls “our deepest gladness,” what Howard Thurman describes as the thing that “makes you come alive.” Because this is our Creator God, speaking words of life to us, speaking words that will bring life to us if we listen and obey.

  • Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”—general calling.
  • Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself”—general calling.
  • Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—general calling.
  • Genesis 1:28: “He made human beings in the image of God,” we should treat each other as such—general calling.
  • Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O human, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—general calling.
  • In the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus says, “Follow me” (4:19) and “Make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:19) —general calling.

I could go on and on, and oftentimes when people ask me what they should do with their lives, I want to say: “Read the Bible first. You never know what God may say in there. You never know how what God has already said may impact your life. You never know who you’ll encounter there … Jesus, for instance.”

Now, I’m not saying the Bible is where you to go to solve all your problems, nor am I calling it a manual to follow literally and step-by-step in order to build the perfect life. Many of the contemporary issues we face the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. But if you want to know what God has already said, read the Bible.

Here’s one thing you’ll find in the Bible:

God offers far more instruction on whom we are called to be than on what we are supposed to do.

This is not to say that what we do doesn’t reflect or have an impact on or any relation to who we are, but the thing is, as author Os Guinness reminds us in The Call:

We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called first to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless you’re operating within God’s general calling, you’re unlikely to discover God’s specific calling. Unless you’re seeking to follow Jesus, to take up your cross, to be filled with the Spirit, to be living a holy life, to doing justice and being kind and walking humbly with your God; unless you’re treating the least of these as if they were Christ himself, putting the needs of others before yourself and putting God above all, it’s going to be really hard to discern what specific thing God may be calling you to.

Dallas Willard goes one step further; he writes in Hearing God:

people also often seem to lack desire to receive God’s word merely for what it is, just because we believe it is the best way to live. This is shown by a disregard of the plain directives in the Scriptures. Sanctification from sexual uncleanness (1 Thess 4:3) and a continuously thankful heart (1 Thess 5:18) are among the many specific things clearly set forth in God’s general instructions to all people. It is not wise to disregard those plain directives and then expect to hear a special message from God when we want it. … Anyone who rejects the general counsels of Scripture is in fact planning not to be guided by God and cannot then rely on being able to be delivered from their difficulties by obtaining God’s input on particular occasions.

The hope of God isn’t that we’d just always be asking him, “What do I do now?” and then doing it and then asking him again and then doing it and then asking him again (ad infinitum). The hope of God is that we’d grow into mature believers, we’d answer his call to follow, we’d be becoming the kind of people who are always learning from their Master and Lord, and to be children who reflect the family likeness. So please don’t let the fact that you may not yet know God’s specific calling on your life stop you from doing what he’s already asked you to do.

Nike+ RunningAnd how will you know what he’s already asked you to do? By spending time reading the Bible. Maybe you’re in a season where your Bible spends more time on the shelf than open in front of you—or maybe you have the app on your phone and it’s actually on your home screen, but it’s more to make yourself feel better because you know it’s there. Kind of like me with my Nike+ running app—just because it’s on my home screen doesn’t mean I’m getting any fitter! After a while, you get tired of feeling guilty and you’re either going to use it or you’re going to move it to a folder.

Let me encourage you to use it—the Bible (app), that is.

  • Take time in God’s word every morning: reading, reflecting, praying, studying.
  • Learn the vocabulary of God; learn the character of God.

You may not have a Damascus Road experience every morning, but one of my friends calls this “winning the first battle of the day” for a reason. I would guess that if we surveyed (1) folks in our church who read the Bible first thing in the morning and then moved to email and Facebook and Twitter and the news and (2) folks who did things the other way around, that first group would say their days are a little more centered. I want us to go to the word of God before we go to the words of others—because here’s what I think:

news + email + Facebook + Twitter – the word of God

= empty, jealous, hopeless, angry.

And I don’t think God wants an empty, jealous, hopeless, angry life for us. I think he wants much more for us than that.

I was almost thirty when I figured out that God was calling me to pastoral ministry. It was here at The District Church where I finally felt like all the strands of my life came together, all the threads were woven together—my passions for theology, music and justice. It was here that I finally came to know in truth and not just in theory that God doesn’t waste an experience. It was here that I was finally able to see that, while the journey had seemed for me a wild careening from one to another, it all flowed within the broad brushstroke of what God intended for me—and that God’s general calling and his specific calling, at least in my case, weren’t all that far apart.

Of course, I can point to all these things with hindsight. When I was going through these things, over the course of twelve years, I felt frustrated and uncertain, going from passion to passion—finding something I was interested in and then realizing I didn’t want to do it with all of my time—law, and then music, and then theology, and then politics and advocacy. I was trying to be faithful at every step and not sure how it would all fit together—not sure if it would all fit together; I didn’t know what I’d end up doing with my life. Anne Lamott describes her journey as a “series of staggers” and a “lurch” rather than leap of faith—and I can say that, in the moment, much of my journey of discernment has felt like that, too.

John Ortberg, author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, says that it wasn’t until almost thirty years into church ministry that he got a sense of God’s confirmation that he was doing the ‘right thing.’ He says, in “God’s Call Waiting”:

I never got marching orders. Partly, I think, it may have been because God knows that I will grow much more as a person if I have to figure things out and exercise judgment and make a decision and accept responsibility than if I just got a postcard and followed directions.

That’s how God’s worked in my life, too—not as a divine blueprint-maker but as my heavenly Father. Within the general calling of following Jesus and being a disciple who makes disciples, who studies the word of God and learns the character of God as revealed in Scripture—the character God seeks to cultivate in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit—God has more often than not allowed me to choose …

because I’m his son, not his lawn mower;

because he wants me to grow up and become a mature and responsible citizen of his kingdom;

because he wants me to learn what it means to love fully and to follow whole-heartedly.

I want to leave you with a couple of practical things you can start doing this week:

  1. Read the Bible—get in the word of God, not just at decision times, but at all times. Learn what God’s already said, read how’s he interacted with his people before, see what he’s already asked you to do, cultivate a sense of who God is and what he might be saying. Read the story of Jesus: know his character, his actions, his words—it’s awfully hard to follow someone if you don’t really know them!
  2. If you want something more specific, read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is one of the parts of Scripture where, every time I read it, I’m grounded again in God’s reality, in God’s vision for life, in God’s kingdom. So, every day this week, try reflecting on a verse or passage a day from the sheet. What might God be saying to you through it? Take time to write down your thoughts in a journal or talk through it with friends. Start with the word of God before you go to the words of others.

Every single one of us has a calling on our lives, and it’s more important than what we do and who we marry and where we live and what job we take and how many kids we have.

The calling is to follow Jesus, to find a life more true and more real than we could ever imagine.

I can tell you that much for sure.

Why Christmas is good news

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church, “Savior, Messiah, and Lord.”]

TDC Christmas

I think Luke 2:10-12 captures the message of Christmas pretty perfectly:

Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Christmas is good news, right? Jesus being born is good news, right? That’s what the angel said to the shepherds, that’s what Christians believe. But as I was praying over this passage in preparation to preach yesterday, I had to ask myself again: Why is the birth of this child, over 2,000 years ago, good news? What does that have to do with us today?”

In these verses, we see that Jesus fulfills three roles—savior, messiah, and lord—and over the years, these terms have all become staples of “Christianese,” easy for believers to throw around without actually thinking about what they mean and just jargon to people who don’t follow Jesus or who are new to this stuff. And I think it’s as we unpack these terms—unwrap them, so to speak—that we’ll find and understand the good news.

Savior. In Greek, the word is soter, which simply means “one who saves” or “one who rescues” from a desperate situation. “Savior” was also a term in the Hebrew Scriptures that was commonly, and almost exclusively, used for God. In Isaiah 43:11, God says, “I am Yahweh, and besides me there is no savior.” Most clearly for the people of Israel, God had been their savior—he had demonstrated his saving power—when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt through the leadership of Moses. And at the time of Jesus’ birth, the people were again being oppressed: this time, they were living under Roman occupation, and they were again crying out to God to rescue them, crying out for a savior.

Messiah. This word comes from the Hebrew mashiach, meaning “anointed” or “anointed one,” and this referred to the practice of anointing a person with oil, a symbol of God’s presence and blessing, usually to fulfill a certain mission or task on God’s behalf. For instance, even before David killed Goliath, when he was still just a shepherd boy, he was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel. And by the time of Jesus, the term ‘messiah’ had come to hold in itself all of the expectations of the people of Israel for someone who would usher in the kingdom of God, someone who would inaugurate the reign of God: that time when everything would be set right, when injustice and oppression would be ended, when the wicked would be judged and the righteous vindicated. This is from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

                        because the LORD has anointed me;

            he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

                        to bind up the brokenhearted,

            to proclaim liberty to the captives,

                        and release to the prisoners;

            to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

                        and the day of vengeance of our God;

                        to comfort all who mourn …

The people of Israel were waiting for the one anointed to carry out God’s mission; they longed for the one who would come and set things right.

Lord. We don’t live in the Middle Ages any more, but this was a deferential title for someone in authority over you, someone of higher status than you, someone you would obey, someone who was your master. When you called someone, “Lord,” you were communicating that that person was worthy of your loyalty, your obedience, and your trust. So when we refer to God as “Lord,” what we are communicating—whether or not we back this up with our attitudes and actions—is that God is worthy of our loyalty, our obedience, and our trust. As the great missionary Hudson Taylor said:

Christ is either Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all.

But the thing is, God was not the only “Lord” around at the time of Jesus’ birth. The story begins, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus …” Caesar Augustus was the first emperor of Rome, and there was a common saying among Romans at the time, a sort of pledge of allegiance, that said, “Caesar is Lord.” There’s also a fascinating Greek inscription from the year 9BC, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, found in the city of Priene, in modern-day Turkey:

Since providence … has ordered things in sending Augustus, whom she filled with virtue for the benefit of men, sending him as a savior both for us and for those after us [this word ‘savior’ is the same one that is used in Luke’s gospel to refer to Jesus], him who would end war and order all things [Prince of peace, anyone? The Messiah who would set all things right, perhaps?], and since Caesar by his appearance surpassed the hopes of all those who received the good tidings, not only those who were benefactors before him, but even the hope among those who will be left afterward, and the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the good tidings [gospel, good news!] through him … (emphasis added)

This inscription is referring not to Jesus, but to Caesar. See, his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was deified after his death, which began the practice of recognizing all Roman rulers as gods. In fact, one of Caesar Augustus’s titles was Divi filius, which means ‘Son of God,’ or ‘son of the divine.’

Even two thousand years ago, people were desperate for help that would come from beyond themselves and they were looking for it. The inscription tells us how loyal citizens of the Roman Empire would see Caesar as a rescuer, a savior, a god, who would end war and set all things right. And you know what? A couple thousand years later, not much has changed—at our core, we’re desperate for a rescuer and a savior, for God to end war and set all things right, even if we don’t admit it.

Because we don’t often think of our need to be rescued, do we? That’s not a common cultural assumption. Once upon a time, maybe—fairy tales would tell of damsels in distress who needed to be rescued—but for the most part in Western society, we’ve left behind many of those patriarchal frameworks. Now, it’s a case of us all being self-sufficient, do-it-yourself kind of people: I don’t need to be saved from anything, and if I did, I’d do it myself! And yet, understanding the reality of our situation can be the key to determining whether we see Christmas as just another tradition or, as the angel described it, “good news of great joy.”

unapologeticThe reality is that you cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to. Because of sin: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin is something that gets in the way of our relationship with God and with each other; it’s destructive like that. English writer Francis Spufford describes sin as “the human tendency to [screw] things up.” He continues:

what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s … (Unapologetic, 27; emphasis added)

Imagine the closest relationship you’ve ever had or could ever have, and now imagine tearing that in two. That’s what sin does, because the closest, most intimate, most wonderful relationship that you were created for was the one with God, your Creator, your heavenly Father, your Sustainer, the one who knows you inside and out, the one who loves you no matter what, the one who desires your good even more than you do. And sin inserts itself between you and God, between you and other people, and it causes a rift, a chasm.

And that’s what we do all the time and all over the place—screw things up—intentionally and unintentionally, with God and with other people:

  • when we’re having an argument and we refuse to give up the fact that we’re right even though it’s destroying the relationship;
  • when we choose our own comfort over the effort it takes to help someone in need;
  • when we give in to our addictions for the hundredth time even though we just said we wouldn’t;
  • when we hurt someone’s feelings completely by accident because we didn’t understand their history or their upbringing or we thought the way we see things must be the way everyone else sees things;
  • when we don’t treat our family members with honor and love and respect because we’re busy playing with our phones or our new gadgets or zoning out in front of the TV.

That’s what sin looks like. That’s what we have no hope of getting ourselves out of, because it’s just so pervasive that we aren’t even always aware of it. That’s what we need saving from; and so we need a Savior.

We need a Messiah to set all things right and to usher in the reign of God in this world by bringing the Spirit of God into our lives so that we might be more of who God created us to be, lovers of God and of our neighbors, not just the end results of trying harder. We need a Messiah so that the world might be all that it was created to be.

We need a Lord, a master, to show us a better way of living, to lead us and guide us in a world that is full of voices and obligations and pressures and anxiety and fear. Everybody’s telling you the way to do things: advertisers, your colleagues, your boss, that random person whose blog you read, your siblings, your parents, your kids, your significant other.

But there is only one who knows the path of life and can show us the path of life; there is only one who can restore all things and redeem all things; there is only one who can save us from all our sins; and that is Jesus—Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

Of course, let’s not forget Luke 2:12, which would be so easy to pass over and yet is so quintessentially God and such a key part of the gospel story: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” If you’re familiar with the Christmas story, you probably won’t bat an eyelid at that statement. But think about it for a moment: the angel has just announced that there’s great news, God is coming to save his people, a Savior is here, God’s chosen one.

If someone came up to you today and said, “Great news! So-and-so is going to bring about world peace,” you’d probably think of a political leader, someone who’s well-known and well-protected, someone with a lot of influence and clout, someone who’ll get things done. You wouldn’t think of a baby, would you? I mean, how is a baby going to save us?! He’s wrapped in swaddling clothes, which means that not only is he a baby, his arms and legs are tucked in tight! And he’s lying in a manger. Again, we’ve gotten so used to the term “manger” that we would be forgiven for thinking that that was just another name for Jesus’ bed. It was a feeding trough! For animals! Because there was no room for the family in the house!

What kind of rescue is this chosen one going to accomplish, who is in the form of a baby wrapped up in strips of cloth? What kind of leader is this who sleeps not in a palace or a high security compound, who doesn’t even have enough influence to get a spare room, has to sleep in a borrowed food container for oxen, and whose arrival is announced not on a public stage for all to see but to shepherds pulling the nightshift out in the fields?

Well, I’m glad you asked!

It will be the most complete rescue, it will be the most wonderful restoration; and he will be the greatest leader to ever walk the face of the earth, the one who will show us who God is and who we were created to be, the one whose power is the power of love and humility and sacrifice, the one who lifts up the lowly and brings good news to the poor and release to those in captivity and healing to the hurting and broken.

This is part of the surprise of Christmas. After all, the word “Christmas” is a conflation of “Christ’s Mass,” that is, the worship of the God who came as a human baby into the darkness of the night two thousand years ago, who comes also into our darkness and our fears and our longing, to bring light and hope and fulfillment. A Savior has been born to us, God’s anointed, who will be the Lord, the herald and harbinger of the kingdom of God, and the one who will set all things right. And he shall come not with a trumpet-in-your-face, unavoidable demonstration of power that will blast you into submission, but as a baby, swaddled, and lying in an animal’s feeding trough. Because that’s how love works. That’s how God works. Frederick Buechner wrote this in The Hungering Dark:

Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. … And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully. (13-14)

That’s why Christmas is good news. And I hope it’s good news for you this week.

Merry Christmas!

When Sex ≠ Knowing

Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark, 87-88:

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.