I’ve gotten some tremendous responses from both men and women in the aftermath of Sunday’s sermon and of the accompanying blog post — responses that have humbled me and encouraged me, responses that have made me laugh and made me cry, responses that have confirmed that there are more people struggling with these issues than are talking about them.
I’m grateful to be a part of the process. I’m grateful that God was able to work through the words he gave, and that God continues to be at work in big and small ways far beyond me. And I’m grateful to all of you who’ve read, shared, listened, and had conversations about this.
[Adapted from yesterday's message at The District Church: "Lust."] Yesterday, 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.
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.
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)
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 whom and how to date? Our city has one of the highest percentages of single people in the country; and our church is about two-thirds single.
Before you read this, you may want to read part 1 because how we view and practice Christian community has a tremendous impact on our dating lives. And that’s because how we view and practice Christian community has a tremendous impact on our lives, period.
It’s easy to think of romantic relationships as their own separate category: school, faith, work, friends, dating. But that sort of compartmentalization can be dangerous because faith is supposed to be interwoven through everything else. As theologian Abraham Kuyper said:
There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’
So what does it mean for your dating relationships—or, taking a step back, the way you look at romantic relationships—to belong to Jesus? Last summer I preached a sermon on what it means to be single (July 28, 2013)—you’re welcome to go back and listen to that too, if you want. But this week, I was reading a book and a line in it jumped out at me:
Jesus was the greatest Lover who ever lived.
My first reaction was to get defensive—What do you mean? Jesus was single and celibate his whole life—and if you’ve been following the latest news, the so-called fragment that said that Jesus was married was shown to be a fake. How can you say he was the greatest Lover who ever lived?
And I realized that I’d made the mistake that’s so easy to make, the mistake that the world around us makes all the time: confusing sex with love; thinking that in order to be a lover, in order for you to know what love is (and I want to know what love is), you have to have had sex or at the very least, been in a romantic relationship.
But Jesus lived the fullest life any human being has ever lived, he lived the most loving life any human being has ever lived, and from what the Bible tells us, he was never in a romantic relationship. So maybe we need to reevaluate our understanding:
of what it means to be human,
of what it means to be in relationship, and
of what it means to experience life to the full.
You are not incomplete without a romantic relationship.
You are not any less because you are not married.
You are not barred from life to the full until you’ve had sex.
Your worth and your value are not based on your relationship status.
Your identity is not found in how many boyfriends or girlfriends you’ve had, whether you have one now, or whether you will ever have one.
We are all incomplete, flawed, and broken human beings; and none of us will find our completion in another incomplete, flawed, and broken human being. The early church theologian Augustine wrote,
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
We are made for God, and God alone will truly satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. Our problem is that we often put the expectation of a need that only God can meet on the shoulders of another person—with his or her own baggage and needs and sin—and in doing so, we fall into the trap that C.S. Lewis describes, where: “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” When we put all of our emphasis on romantic relationships, it can become all-consuming.
Now I’m not telling you to kiss dating goodbye.We are created for relationship, but not necessarily for romantic relationship, though we may get to experience that too. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13, the passage where Paul talks about love, the passage that’s so often quoted at weddings:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Two quick things I want to point out. First, Paul isn’t talking here about romantic love—yes, love in the context of romantic relationships should look like this, but all love should look like this. Loving your friends, loving your parents, loving your siblings, loving your roommate, loving the folks in your small group, loving your colleagues, loving your boss, loving your neighbor … and loving your enemies. Jesus commanded that too. This is what love looks like in every situation.
We often approach marriage knowing that it’s going to be about sacrifice and commitment and putting the other person first and love in that sense; but we approach dating thinking it’s all about me and who fits best with me and who is most compatible with me.
I realized a couple years ago that, with that approach, I was basically looking for a person exactly like me but female and much better looking—she’d fit right in to everything I was already doing: love the same TV shows, the same books, have the same political stance and the same life experience. That would require the least effort and the least change. And I realized that that would also mean the least growth. So when Carolyn came along and was different in what felt like almost every way, apart from the fact that she loved Jesus as much as I did and she loved me like I loved her, I had to decide whether I wanted to stick with it and to grow, knowing it would be hard.
Here’s the second thing I want to point out about 1 Corinthians 13: it takes maturity to practice this kind of love. It takes self-control and sacrifice. It does not come easy. You can have many years under your belt and not practice this kind of love because you’re still living like a kid; you think the world revolves around you.
One of the ways God grows us is through relationship, through community: by bringing us into contact with other people. It reminds us that God is far bigger than just our experiences of him and it challenges us to keep growing, to keep being transformed to be more like Christ. So, if you want to know how you’re supposed to know whom and how to date, think about it in this way:
What will help me to become more like Jesus?
This question is applicable not only to romantic relationships, but to life and to every single “How do I know?” question you’ll ever have.
In the realm of dating, the odds are that you’ll meet someone who’s different from you, and you’ll have the opportunity to grow because you’re different. Sometimes the question you ask may be the one Carolyn and I asked: “Are we different in a way that complements each other or are we different in a way that drives us apart?” But if we try to look at it in light of the goal of becoming more like Jesus, the question may become more like:
Is this relationship helping both parties to do that or are your differences so great that you spend more time arguing than you do praying, more time defending your corner than you do serving each other, and more energy recovering from your reactions than moving together toward Christ?
Maybe what will help you become more like Jesus right now is to stop treating people as simply a means for fulfilling your needs—whether emotional or physical or sexual. Maybe you need to step back and step away from dating for a while because you’ve been bouncing from date to date, from person to person, hoping that you’ll meet “the One” as long as you keep churning through. Maybe God wants you to stop looking for the one you think you want to be with, and he wants you instead—and we’ve said this before—to be becoming the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for is looking for.
And that person that you’ll want to become is probably patient and kind and not boastful or envious or arrogant; that person is probably a 1 Corinthians 13-type lover; that person is probably not actually worried whether he or she will end up with anyone because that person will know that it is God alone who satisfies; that person is probably very similar to what Jesus is like—that’s the person God wants you to be because that’s who you were made to be, because that is life to the full.
I’d encourage you to start letting God do some work in you now, because unless you take action to make changes—to allow God to be at work in you—what you do before you date is probably what you’ll do when you date, which is probably what you’ll do when you’re engaged and probably what you’ll do when you’re married. And that applies to everything: checking out good looking women or men whenever they walk by, turning back to old addictions when things don’t go the way you hoped, using dating relationships to fill the void in your life and distract you from the deeper issues or from the fact you don’t feel like you have any control. God has given you control over certain things in your life, including the direction you walk in, the person you model your life on, and the God you choose to trust.
There is no formula to know whom and how to date—though there are principles you can follow: treating each other with honor and respect as image-bearers of God, for instance; or treating our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. There is no formula to know the ‘right’ friends to hang out with or how often—we are all wired differently and so are the people God has placed around us.
Formulas don’t help us to become better people; formulas don’t help us to develop character; formulas don’t help us to grow because formulas don’t force us to wait or to figure out who we are choosing to become rather than just looking for what we think we need right now. Formulas don’t help us to become more like Jesus.
Relationships and community can help us to become more like Jesus; that’s why God intended for us to be in community—and specifically in the community of faith—worshiping together and praying together and weeping together and supporting each other on the path toward God and Christlikeness—not just the path toward marriage (which is only part of the road, though we often make it the whole).
Community is not just meant to be something you pay lip service to—“Yeah, I love community”—but when you make big decisions about where to live and where to work and where to go to school and whom to pursue and whether to move away from DC, you make that decision on your own and then just “brief” everyone. It’s in community that we encourage one another and challenge one another and submit to one another and sharpen one another, like iron sharpens iron; it’s in this community—the body of Christ—that we help each other—regardless of our relationship status—become whom God intended us to be.
How do I know whom to spend time with? We all face the same conundrum: what do we do with our limited time and energy? How do we choose where and with whom to invest ourselves?
I’ve moved around a lot: I was born in Hong Kong, lived in London for eight years for school, and then the LA area for three before moving here. I’m used to starting over, to making new friends, to rebuilding community in a new place.
But DC was by far the most difficult place to transition to. Part of that was because I wasn’t entering a school community—when you’re entering a school community, you’ve got a whole host of people saying, “Make friends with me!” but when you don’t have that, you realize that people already have their friendship circles and their routines; and making friends requires more than just you putting yourself out there but also for someone else to open up their life and invite you in.
Sociologically speaking, it’s supposed to take about six months for relationships to develop to the place where you might call them good friendships, which is often what grounds a person in a place and makes that place begin to feel more welcoming. I have always hated those six months: I’ve always wanted to bypass those six months and jump straight to the part where I’m known and I’m loved and I have friendships that are deep and solid.
But that’s not how life works; that’s not how friendships are formed; that’s not how community is built. Community and relationships take time; it’s a process of growth and cultivation and intentional investment.
At this point, I think it’s important to say:
We are created for relationship.
As Christians, we believe that God is somehow Three—Father, Son, and Spirit—and yet also still one God. There is community even within the Godhead; there is relationship even among the persons of the Trinity. In fact, John Zizioulas argues that it is relationship that defines personhood, that it is because the three persons of the Trinity are in relation to one another that they even are persons—it is their relating to each other that makes them persons—and that were they not to be in relationship with one another, they would cease to be persons; they would only be individuals.
1 John 4:8 says, “God is love”—you may have heard that before. That verse used to put a strange picture in my head of God being this glowing, usually pinkish, fluffy mass of warm-fuzzies. But love is a relational word; love is communal by definition—it requires one who loves and one who is loved. Therefore, if God is love, God is relational. And if God is love and if God is relational, and if, as Genesis 1:26 tells us, God made us in his image, then that means we also are created for relationship.
Anyway, as I discovered, as time went by, that DC is full of awesome people. Unfortunately, as I also discovered, there’s no way you can get to know them all. You can try, but (1) you really wouldn’t make any deep or solid friendships, and (2) you’d burn yourself out pretty quickly. Because we’re only human, and like I said earlier, we only have a certain number of hours in a week—and a big chunk of that is taken up with work and with sleep and maybe with a significant other or a family.
So … part of what made DC a hard place to transition to was the school/work piece. The other factor is that we live in DC: cities are transient by nature, but out of all the places I’ve called home, I’ve found DC to be the most transient of all. People come for three months or six months or a year or two years, or maybe even three or four, if you’re lucky; but anybody who’s been in DC for more than six months has probably seen their fair share of friends come and go.
And that’s hard for friendships; that’s hard for building genuine and close community. Constantly saying goodbye to people you love—whether they’re leaving to go to grad school on the other side of the country, or leaving to move closer to family because they’re starting to have kids, or leaving because they don’t like the pace of the city—it’s exhausting because every time, you feel like you lose a little part of yourself, and you become a little more wary of investing in a new connection because you wonder if it’s really worth it.
These things that we feel—the push and pull of relationships beginning and relationships ending—are natural. They are, along with our limits, also part of being human. So how do we go about investing in community? How do we figure out whom to spend our time with?
Well, it’s always helpful to look to Jesus, because he’s the one we are called to follow, the one whose example we are invited to emulate. Jesus didn’t live life as a lone wolf; and yet he also knew that he couldn’t be tight with everyone: he knew his time and his energy were limited, and that he couldn’t go a mile wide and an inch deep in a relational sense, and expect to have any lasting impact on anyone’s life.
Luke 6:13 says:
And when day came, [Jesus] called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles …
There were clearly more than twelve disciples—but twelve were chosen to be the inner circle. These were the ones he pulled aside and explained parables to; these were the ones he intentionally chose to do life with at a much deeper level than, for example, the 5,000 who came to hear him, or the folks that just wanted to be healed, or the people that clamored for a miracle.
It was in these relationships that the disciples really learned who Jesus was. They got to see everything: what he did and how he behaved and how he treated people—kind of like what we get to see because we have the gospel stories, but even more than that. These were the ones to whom Jesus said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends …” (John 15:15)
One of our core values as a church is community—connecting with one another; and one of the primary mediums for this is our small groups. Our hope is that no one would leave DC because they couldn’t find a place to call their spiritual home or people to call their spiritual family. Our small groups aren’t just so you can make new acquaintances; they’re supposed to be a place where you learn how to be better disciples, how to be true friends: encouraging and challenging one another to keep growing, to keep learning, to keep becoming more like Jesus. And like all relationships, these take time and investment and intentionality.
DC has a way of filling your life so full that you don’t even have time to think about what you’re doing—you’re just reacting, you’re just trying to keep your head above water—but a filled life is not the same as a fulfilled life. When Jesus said he came that we might have life to the full (John 10:10), he didn’t mean that in the quantitative way—that our calendars would be full—but in the qualitative way—that our lives would have the characteristics of wholeness, of health, of flourishing.
So you might need to start by stopping, sitting down, taking out your schedule, and having a good long look at it; take stock of where you are right now. If you’re engaged or married, you may want to do this with your significant other as well. Ask yourself questions like:
Who are you doing life with? What friendships are you investing in (and not just reacting to)?
Who are you learning from and, in turn, helping on the journey?
Who’s encouraging you and keeping you accountable in your walk with Christ, in your journey of faith, in the way you live your life?
What are the limits that are created by work and family and other constraints, and then what are boundary lines you actually may have some control over and, if you were intentional about it, you might be able to shift?
For some, I think the challenge will be to invest in Christian community: to join a small group, to stick around after the service and have a conversation that may lead to a friendship, to let go of the cynicism or the fear or the uncertainty and take the risk of putting yourself out there. When Aaron and Amy heard how difficult my transition to DC had been back in 2009, they invited me to spend Christmas with them. I didn’t know them that well at the time, and so I had to decide whether I was willing to experience what could easily have been awkward conversations and a car journey and a holiday with a family I didn’t know too well, or whether I’d avoid that awkwardness and, by extension, avoid beginning to cultivate a friendship with them. You can probably guess what, by the grace of God, I chose; and I can honestly say that if I hadn’t chosen that path, I might not be here right now.
For some, the challenge is to get out of the Christian bubble—you come to worship services and you hang out with your small group every couple days and maybe you work at a Christian organization at least 40 hours a week. You may need to make friends with people who may not yet know Jesus. Jesus says that we are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14), but if we’re just hanging out in a room with a whole bunch of other lights, then our light is really not fulfilling its purpose, no matter how brightly you may shine. Light is supposed to shine in the darkness.
If you’re getting the impression that I’m pitting these two things against each other—hanging out with Christians and hanging out with non-Christians—that’s not what I’m trying to say. Because they’re interconnected. It takes a community to truly live out the gospel: on a practical level, you’re going to need folks who can help you keep walking with Jesus because the enemy will use everything in his power to knock you off course.
We need each other to be who God is calling us to be: the family of God on the mission of God to see more of the kingdom of God here on earth.
“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.
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.
And 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:
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!
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.