Kingdom Resistance

Hey, it’s been a while. Not for lack of desire to get writing done, but for lack of capacity. Maybe some day, when I have more time, I’ll tell you about it. But here I am.

I’ll start with this: Happy New Year — both, belatedly, to 2017 and, as of tomorrow, to the Year of the Rooster!

Anyway, it so happens that I’ve providentially preached both of the Sundays after Election Day in November and Inauguration Day last week. As such, those occasions have forced allowed me to pray and think and reflect on my own response to those events and the non-alternative reality they reflect. In particular, I’ve been asking God what my calling is in the midst of this — as a man, as a husband, as an American, as a Christian, and as a pastor — and what our calling as a church is.

[Some of what follows is taken from one or both of the sermons I preached — “A Church for the City” on November 13, and “inSPIREd: Relational” on January 22.]

The last few months have felt like a setback for many of us as it relates to fighting poverty, prejudice, and discrimination; for those who care for the people in our society who are vulnerable or feeling uncertain or fearful about their safety or their future. Whoever you voted for, if you’re a Christian, I’m guessing you voted as faithfully as you could based on your understanding of the gospel and your judgment of the candidates and your view of politics. The gospel impacts every area of life — or at least it should — because Jesus has something to say about every area of life, because the kingdom of God means something for every area of life — that includes how we vote and what we do in the time between our votes.

Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970s, when his country was led by an authoritarian government; he said this:

A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that?

We are called to pray for those in leadership over us and to call them to account. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, as the church, we are not to be “the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.”

That’s why, in our church, we’ve sought to address issues like racial justice and racial reconciliation and the real sin of systemic racism; that’s why, in the aftermath of some of the violence last summer, we changed up our worship services to create space to grieve and lament and pray together; that’s why we’ve tried to push into some of those difficult conversations — as faithfully as we can, with as much grace and courage and humility as we can — all the while reminding each other of Jesus and the kingdom of God that challenges every earthly system and structure, reminding each other of the reality of sin in our own lives and in our world, and reminding each other of the power of God’s Spirit to bring good out of any and every situation.

I do want to say this, especially in light of the uptick in harassment and hate crimes (I just met with a rabbi today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and he was telling me about recent bomb threats) and the strange alternative-fact-filled world we find ourselves in: if you have a disability or are a woman, a person of color, an immigrant or a refugee, part of a religious minority, a member of the LGBTQ community, or otherwise care at all about the vulnerable — if you are uncertain or fearful because of things said or things reported or things experienced in recent months — especially by those who claim to follow Jesus — let me say I’m with you and I pledge to do whatever is in my power to continue to oppose injustice and discrimination against you, because I believe that is what Christ calls me to. And if you’re reading this today, and you’re not fearful or hurting right now, and you’re saying, “But what about me? Aren’t you going to oppose injustice and discrimination against me? Doesn’t Christ call you to that, too?” Absolutely, I’d do the same for you too.

So … what’s the calling?

Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s another way of putting it:

Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

How about this, from singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn?

Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

Or this, from Oscar Romero:

I am not with the right or with the left. I am trying to be faithful to the word that the Lord bids me preach, to the message that cannot change, which tells both sides the good they do and the injustices they commit.

To be of the kingdom of God means that Christians are exiles in this world, because we’re following and loving and serving and learning to live like Jesus, the king of the kingdom. Jesus, who chose to step into a hostile world, chose to be an exile, for the sake of those he loved — that’s what Philippians 2 tells us. Jesus, who was eternal but entered time, who was all-powerful but made himself vulnerable, who was in heaven but became flesh and made his dwelling among us — that’s what John 1 tells us. That’s who we follow; that’s who we’re called to be like.

This is the Jesus who said, “Love your enemy,” because he knew that only love can every chain, every destructive cycle, that, as Martin Luther King Jr. would discover centuries later, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is the Jesus who backed his words up with his actions, giving up his life so that we his enemies might have life, choosing to die so that we his enemies might not have to, offering grace so that we his enemies might be rescued and redeemed and restored, and taking onto and into himself the violence we wish upon each other, the violence of our sinful intentions, the violence of Psalm 137, and emptying it of its power. That’s what love does.

And this Jesus, after three days in the tomb, was raised to life, proving that sin cannot stop him, that death cannot hold him down, and that however bleak things may look, Jesus is risen, his Spirit is in us, and there is still work to do. As he said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

My calling is still the same; our calling as a church is still the same:

to speak out and to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ;

to be salt and light in a world desperate for resilient hope and amazing grace and persevering love and the justice of God;

to live as citizens and ambassadors of the kingdom of God;

to defend the image of God in every person, to speak up for the voiceless, to welcome the stranger, to offer healing to the broken and wounded, to give rest to the weary and downhearted, to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized, to preach good news to the poor;

to break every chain, to challenge every injustice and every -ism as an affront to a just God;

to point forward to a day when people of every nation and every tribe will gather at the throne of God to worship.

That’s my calling; that has been my calling during the previous administration—as imperfectly as I lived into that—and it will remain my calling during the current administration—as imperfectly as I will live into that. And that’s your calling too—but you may live it out in the context of a non-profit or a business, or through activism or advocacy, or working in government or running for office, or in a family or a school or a hospital.

So Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6 is particularly germane for us today:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Our boat is going in the same direction. The winds may have changed—and that may make things easier for some of us and that may mean a lot more rowing for others of us—but neither our calling nor our commission have changed. I know it takes hard work; it may involve putting our lives on the line to protect each other; it will involve having difficult conversations with people we know where we’re sometimes not even sure if we’re making any progress. But I firmly believe that God has placed many of you in the families and the friendships and the workplaces you’re in for a reason — to live in and to live out more of God’s kingdom reality in those very places and relationships.

At the Inauguration on Friday, part of Matthew 5 was read — the Beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here’s what struck me:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are the shalom-seekers. Blessed are those who will work to see relationships restored. Blessed are those who will put their lives on the line so that others might be made whole. Blessed are those who do not grow weary in doing good. For they will be called the children of God.

So let’s come together, let’s stand together, let’s hold together, let’s love our enemies together, let’s protest injustice together, let’s be gracious together, let’s listen and speak out together, let’s lock arms and recommit ourselves to following Jesus and being ambassadors of his kingdom together.

Grace and peace to you all, friends.

Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which
He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which
He is to bless us now.

– St. Teresa of Ávila

[Photo: From a cabin trip to Lake Anna earlier this month. It pretty well encapsulates what I’m feeling.]

Eugene Peterson on the Trinity

A few weeks ago, I got to attend an event honoring Eugene Peterson, author of The Message translation of the Bible and many other books that have shaped who I’ve become. One of the questions he was asked was about the Trinity, and I loved his answer.

He told a story about how when he was a young seminary student, he and his friends used to go square dancing. Now, he wasn’t a particularly good or confident dancer, so he’d usually start on the sidelines. He’d watch folks as they danced, seeing partners swap, join hands, circle up. But as the dance got faster and faster—as it does—the individuals became almost indistinguishable, a blur of movement and motion. And, he said, at some point a hand would reach out and he’d get yanked in—all of a sudden part of the dancing. He was dancing not because he was particularly good at it, but because he was with those who knew how to dance.

Life with God is like that, he said. God is love and God loves us. Father, Son, and Spirit have existed eternally in a community of love, created the universe at the beginning of time out of that love, and invite us to live our lives in that love.

It was a welcome and needed reminder that love and relationality are what define us.

We were created for love and to love.

When we love, we align ourselves with the grain of the universe.

(Coincidentally, Richard Rohr’s new book is about just this; it’s called The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, and it comes out in October!)

Love your enemies (MLK Weekend 2015)

Luke 6:27-36:

To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.

[Adapted from Sunday’s message: “Love Your Enemies.” Listen to the full sermon here.]

TDC Love Your EnemiesThis weekend we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have turned 86 years old.

Dr. King’s dream was more than just legislation, more than just political action, though it included that. He dreamed of the Beloved Community, where we lived together in love and in reconciliation, and that came out of a desire to see more of heaven here on earth, a yearning to see God’s kingdom come and God’s will done here on earth. King’s vision was rooted in God’s vision. And God’s vision is rooted in love, including love for enemies.

Here in Luke 6, we find Jesus’ manifesto; this is Jesus laying out what the kingdom of God is all about; this is Jesus laying out a vision for life as God designed it. And, in some ways, it doesn’t make sense. Jesus singled out those who were poor, hungry, weeping, and hated because of him and said that they were blessed; and then he called out those who were rich, well fed, laughing, and well spoken-of, and he prophesied trouble for them.

That isn’t the way the world works, is it? We don’t have reality shows celebrating the poor; we don’t watch soap operas set in the slums; we don’t tend to post pictures on social media of ourselves crying; and when someone gets on our case for following Jesus, we don’t tend to use #blessed.

No, we have TV shows like, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; our tabloids reflect our fixation with those who have more than we do; being rich, well fed, laughing, and well spoken-of kind of sounds like the good life, doesn’t it? Sounds like the life many in our world strive for.

But Jesus proclaims a different kingdom, a kingdom that appears to be upside down—that’s what we’ve called this miniseries. But, if we think about it carefully, here’s the twist: the kingdom of God is actually right side up. If we really think about who Jesus is and what he says and what he does, if we really think about what the world would look like if more of the kingdom of God was here on earth—if we all did what Jesus told us to do—we’ll realize it’s actually the world that’s upside down; it’s actually the world that’s gotten it wrong; it’s actually the world whose dreams lead only to disappointment and despair and death.

Dr. King said, “Love your enemies,” because Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”

When I was in boarding school—I was about 16, I think—I knew a guy. We were in the same house—think Gryffindor and Slytherin-type houses—and so we saw each other a decent amount, but we weren’t that close because he was in the year above me; occasionally we’d play soccer together. One day I was in a friend’s room, and this guy came looking for my friend, who’d stepped out. He asked where my friend was; I said I didn’t know.

And apparently I said it in a way that didn’t go over well, because the next thing I know, he’s got me in a chokehold, shouting at me not to disrespect him. To this day, I have no idea what I did that set him off, but I knew that this guy, who was bigger and stronger than me, could do some damage if he didn’t let up. Fortunately, he does let up and he storms out of the room.

And I’m left there feeling angry, frustrated, humiliated, and a whole bunch of other emotions. I’m thinking about ways I can get back at him; I’m thinking about ways I can report him; I’m thinking about what I can do to make him feel the way he made me feel. In that moment, he was my enemy.

Who is your enemy?

  • A friend who hurt you
  • a boss who’s out to get you
  • an ex
  • a parent who left you
  • anyone in the other party, or on the other side of the aisle
  • anyone in a different socioeconomic or ethnic group—you might not be comfortable saying it out loud, but that’s where you are
  • anyone who thinks or acts or looks different from you.

Whoever it is, when you hear Jesus’ words, “Love your enemy,” your gut response is, “You can’t mean that person!”

Pastor John Ortberg describes love as:

a God-powered condition of being in which I will the good for everybody I come into contact with.

Love as Jesus understood it is a God-enabled act of the will, a choice to put the other person before yourself; it’s about seeking the good of the other in tangible action—like being generous to your enemies, praying for them, blessing them (not like “Bless your heart,” but actually blessing them), doing to them what you would want done to you if you were in their shoes (that requires empathy, a conscious decision of the will to identify and associate with the other). It’s not that feeling has no part to play with this kind of love, but it’s not the main part. So even if I don’t feel loving toward someone, I can still be loving toward them by willing and acting for their good.

Bill Pannell, a longtime professor at Fuller Seminary, said:

The real Jesus is really not nice. Packed full of love, and all of that, but whoever said love is neat and nice? … God’s fundamental interest in us is relationship. It’s for intimacy, a love affair. That’s the good news. God says, “I love you, and let’s get that settled.” But then God says: “Now I’m going to mess with you because there are things that need to get straightened out.”

That’s love. That’s the kind of love that Jesus was about. That’s the kind of love we try to be about here at The District Church. That’s the kind of love I’m trying to learn, the kind of love I want to show everyone. This kind of love envelopes every single person in an embrace of acceptance and welcome, and because of the depth of this affection, this love seeks and steers them toward their highest, God-defined good.

So, if this is what love is, why would we do this for our enemies? Why should we do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us? Well, it’s pretty easy to find people who only love those who love them back; almost everyone does that. But that’s the world’s definition of love, that does the bare minimum.

That’s not good enough for Jesus. Instead, he invites us to a higher standard, a higher way of living, a love that goes far beyond the letter of the law. This is a kingdom kind of love; at first glance, this kind of love seems naïve and self-defeating. But if we juxtapose the world’s way of loving with God’s, it’s not God’s way that ends up looking upside down; it’s the world’s.

mlkDr. King gave three reasons why we should love our enemies (in his great sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” from 1957). First, he said,

hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.

Think about it: if you hurt me and then I hurt you, you hurt me, I hurt you—the cycle just carries on, inflicting wound after wound.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Love is the only thing that can heal and restore and reconcile. Love is the only thing that can break a cycle of sin and destruction.

Second,

hate distorts the personality of the hater. … Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.

When you hold a grudge, when you cling to bitterness or rage or hatred, when your being is bent on revenge or animosity or contempt, your soul shrivels because, as Aaron reminded us a couple weeks ago, your soul is made for God, made for eternity, made for relationship, made to love. These things enlarge us, make us more true, make us more real. And so when we do the opposite, our souls become smaller, less solid, thinner and stretched, “like butter scraped over too much bread,” as Tolkien might say.

Dr. King’s third reason why we should love our enemies was this:

love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.

It is only the power of the love of God working in us and through us that will bring about the Beloved Community that Dr. King dreamed of, that will heal a broken city and a hurting world, and bring reconciliation and new life.

Jesus also gives us a reason why we should love our enemies: to be like God, our Father, who is merciful and kind to all, including the ungrateful and the wicked. Since you are made in the image of this God, be like him in love and mercy; that’s what you were made for.

And, Jesus says, God will treat you in the same manner that you treat others. So “don’t judge, and you will not be judged.” This doesn’t mean don’t use your judgment—there are a lot of reminders in the Bible about being wise and making wise decisions. There are a lot of places where Jesus calls out evil and injustice; he doesn’t just say it’s okay. He calls it out, because there is a place for using your judgment. There’s a place, as Dr. King did, for standing up to injustice and oppression. What Jesus is saying here is don’t make a judgment about somebody else that they are beyond the reach of God; don’t put them down or hold them down with your bad attitude about them or your limited mindset and ignorance about what God is doing in their lives. “Don’t condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.” In the same measure, in the same manner.

Let me be clear in all of this: Jesus is not setting out an exhaustive list of new rules; it’s not another checklist. Sometimes that can trip us up—our desire to have a to-do list. Legalism loves having things to do.

But if you do these things with a wrong spirit—for instance, “I’ll turn the other cheek now but I’ll get you back later!”—you’re missing the point. If you limit your love to the activities Jesus explicitly mentions here, you’re missing the point. If you show love to your enemy but don’t love your friends and family, you’re missing the point.

Jesus is not just giving us new activities to do; these are intended to be illustrations of what a certain kind of person does. These are the kinds of “upside down” things kingdom people do. We’ve been trying to press this home: who you are and who you are becoming is far more important than what you do, because what you do will come out of who you are. Jesus says this:

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. … A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (6:43-45)

You can change the external behavior and not touch the heart, and miss the point. You can act in certain ways to present a certain front but not allow God to change who you are, and miss the point. Dallas Willard writes,

In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?” (The Divine Conspiracy, 180)

So are you becoming the kind of person who loves outrageously, as Jesus did, as we were made to? Are you becoming the kind of person who loves their enemies, as Jesus did, as we were made to?

Where the rubber hits the road is when you’re done listening to me and you leave here, and you encounter people. People are messy: at work, in play, in families, in friendships. That’s where the challenge is to love your enemies, to show other people what the love of God can do.

Jesus ends his sermon by saying:

Why do you call me,”Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete. (6:46-49)

There are only two camps: those who listen to Jesus and hear what he says and put his words into practice, and those who don’t. Those who survive the storms of life, and those who get swept away. The flood hits both houses. It’s not like, if you’re a Christian, life will be easy. God never promises that. Life will throw everything it’s got at you, whether you follow Jesus or not. Storms come for us all. The question is whether you’ll stand firm or not, whether you’ll listen to Jesus or not, whether you’ll do what Jesus says or not.

Let me tell you up front: following Jesus is something you have to commit to, something you have to work at, something you have to make sacrifices for—and this is true whether you’ve just started following Jesus or whether you’ve been following Jesus most of your life. Building a house on a foundation of stone in first century Palestine meant digging down seven, eight, ten feet, into soil and clay that, in summer, became as hard as bronze. It would be very tempting for a person to say, “You know what, this is too much work right now. You know what, the sun’s out; I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

And this builder, toil-averse and short-sighted, would not put in the work of building on a foundation of stone, would be caught out when the winter rains came, and would see his house swept away. Following Jesus will require intentionality and discipline and some forward-planning; it will demand that you make decisions you don’t want to make but you know are good for you; it will take you being in a community of love where others can encourage you and hold you accountable.

But above all, it will take you knowing this: God loves you. God says to you, as he said to Jesus in Luke 3, “You are mine; I love you.” That’s what formed the foundation of Jesus’ identity; that’s what allowed him to do everything that he did; that’s what allowed him to endure everything he did; that’s what allowed him to withstand all the storms of life that came his way—because he knew he was loved by God. If you know you are loved by God, you can withstand the storms of life. If you are a follower of Jesus, the storms of life can hit your house and you will not be shaken.

That’s why Paul writes, in Ephesians 3:17:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

See, I could say, “Go, love your enemies because Jesus says so,” and that would not be wrong. But it would be more right to say, “Go, love your enemies because God loves you. And God loves them too.”

“While we were still sinners,” Paul writes, “Christ died for us, and that’s how God demonstrated his love for us” (Rom. 5:8). Even though we didn’t deserve it, even before we knew we needed it, even when we were still enemies of God, God loved us and sent his Son to demonstrate this love, to reconcile and restore right relationship, and to make us new and to give us new life. And every day we receive new mercies, new opportunities. This is what the Father is like, pouring down blessing on blessing, even on the wicked and ungrateful. That’s what makes the gospel and the Christian faith so amazing and so unique, and yet so challenging and so controversial: it tells the story of an enemy-loving God who showed his love by sending his enemy-loving Son to give his life for his enemies so that his enemies might become his friends.

You know, when I was looking back over my life to think of someone I would’ve called my enemy, I recalled that moment in boarding school in an instant—it’s hard to forget! But it took me a long time to remember the guy’s name. Because I had long since worked through my own anger, given it up to God, forgiven the guy, and moved on. That incident is part of my experience; it colors who I am. But it does not have control of me because I trust that God’s love is stronger than anyone’s misdirected hatred, that God’s forgiveness is powerful enough to make me new and to overflow from me to others, and that God’s kingdom is the ultimate reality. We played soccer later that afternoon; and he came up to me. I didn’t know what he was going to do or say; I still wasn’t sure how to respond. But Jesus had already been working in my heart so that even before he apologized, he had already been forgiven. See, I follow a man named Jesus, who can take my pain and my hurt and my hate and my anger and my bitterness and my prejudice and my sin, and replace it with love, even for my enemy.

MLK arm in armMartin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, and countless others who fought nonviolently for civil rights, were able to love their enemies—and so can we—because we follow a man named Jesus who also stood up in the face of violent injustice and oppression, in the face of cursing and beating, in the face of hatred and taunting.

They were able to love their enemies—and so can we—because our Master is a man named Jesus who also knew that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” that in God’s kingdom the poor and the hungry and the weeping and the hated are blessed, that God has the final word, that God’s love overcomes.

That’s what Jesus came to show. That’s what he did show on the cross, the greatest symbol of selfless love, where he died for our sins, and even there, even then, he said, “Forgive them.” Even there, even then, to an undeserving bandit, he said, “You are welcome in my kingdom.” And three days later, he rose again, triumphant over sin and death. This is true; this is the reality we live in. And even on those days when it doesn’t look like it, and even on those days when it doesn’t feel like it, and even on those days when you’re not sure about it, remember:

Jesus has won.

Love has conquered.

The world has it upside down, not God.

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.